Reformed Caste System: The Puritans Saw Violation of Caste as Equal to Violation of the 5th Commandment
This article is updated and revised from an article originally published on October 4, 2012
“But with this considered, the Puritans believed that the idol of upward social mobility was a specific violation of the 5th commandment. Yes, wanting to improve the lot you were born into was dishonoring one’s parents.”
There is a reason for everything. I like reasons; the “why.” I understand that “Stupid is—is stupid does,” but I want to know why people are stupid. “They’re just stupid”; that’s easy, discovering why they are stupid can enable us to save them from their stupidness and thus give them hope. See, I really am a loving, hopeful kind of guy.
Why do Protestants constantly quote and point to the Westminster Confession to make their points? And why does that irritate us so much? The second why is easy; they act like the Confession has the same authority as Scripture. An added third why changes our irritation to fear: the Westminster Confession was a standard of civil law compiled by Calvinistic Puritans at the beckoning of the Church of England. Hence, when Protestants cite the confession, they are exposing their kinship, knowingly or ignorantly, to a theocratic document (“Theocracy is a form of government in which official policy is governed by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided, or is pursuant to the doctrine of a particular religion or religious group”[and I will give you three wild guesses as to who Protestants believe are the “divinely guided” ones]).
Later, the Church of England and the Puritans had a lovers quarrel over control of European mutton, and the Puritans were labeled, “nonconformists.” Other groups of Baptist origin were labeled the same regardless of their devotion to the same totalitarian principles as the Church of England; ie., the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith which was drawn from the Westminster Confession and written by Puritans as well. After this totalitarian plague landed in America, another document was drafted from the Westminster model, this time by the “Pilgrims” (alien European Puritans): The Savoy Declaration.
These documents encompass a conviction for state and church to rule together at the supposed pleasure of God, and with all of His authority by proxy. Ooopsies and boo-boos are covered by diplomatic immunity. Be not deceived: the spirit of the Westminster Confession is the lust of every authentic Protestant. That’s the why behind their obsessive citation of it.
However, the central idea of the Westminster Confession, that totally depraved mankind must be ruled with a divine iron fist, is going to manifest itself in a number of different applicable elements. Authentic Protestants use this for cover; the “fact” that they don’t “agree with everything” in the Confession supplies cover for the fact that they are totally sold out for the central idea that is the foundation of the document. That would be the control of the totally depraved by the “Westminster divines” of whom they are kin.
The heart of the document and its sentiment is revealed in the applicable elements—one being a caste system modeled after the extreme European social caste system of that day. Misrepresenting your social class to marry into a family that was in a higher social stratum was a capital offense. Different social classes dressed differently, and entitlements were also determined by class as well.
The Puritans were really, really big on the whole idea of being content with were God had sovereignly placed you in life. In all caste systems, your social stratum is determined by what stratum you were born into; ie, determined by the social stratum of your parents. The system disallowed mobility between the social strata, or for all practical purposes: improvement. Of course, there were rare exceptions born of the milieu of life combined with intentionality for those who dared.
Notwithstanding, the Puritans saw a desire to climb the social strata as a “heart” problem: pride, discontent, thinking that your totally-depraved-self deserves more than your sovereignly appointed lot in life—which is a magnificent gift compared to what you deserve: hell. Today’s authentic Protestant Puritan wannabes would say that you have “idols of the heart.”
But with this considered, the Puritans believed that the idol of upward social mobility was a specific violation of the 5th commandment. Yes, wanting to improve the lot you were born into was dishonoring one’s parents:
The essence of the Puritan idea of status is found in the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith, that comprehensive body of theology hammered out by the Puritan scholars of Cromwell’s England in the mid-1640′s. The question of status was basic to the Puritans’ interpretation of the Fifth Commandment, “honor thy father and thy mother.”
By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth…. The general scope of the fifth commandment is, the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors, superiors, or equals (Gary North: The Freeman; June 1974 • Volume: 24 • Issue: 6).
The logical conclusion is borne out by what the Americanized Puritans (Pilgrims) instituted as civil law in their own New England old England way. Undoubtedly, due to European influence that connected dress to status, the Pilgrims included what is known as Sumptuary Laws (laws regarding what one may or may not wear) in their theocratic laws:
Colonial Laws of Massachusetts, 1651
Sumptuary Laws (Laws Regarding What One May or May Not Wear)
ALTHOUGH SEVERAL DECLARATIONS and orders have been made by this Court against excess in apparell, both of men and women, which have not taken that effect as were to be desired, but on the contrary, we cannot but to our grief take notice that intolerable excess and bravery have crept in upon us, and especially among people of mean condition, to the dishonor of God, the scandal of our profession, the consumption of estates, and altogether unsuitable to our poverty. And, although we acknowledge it to be a matter of much difficulty, in regard of the blindness of men’s minds and the stubbornness of their wills, to set down exact rules to confine all sorts of persons, yet we cannot but account it our duty to commend unto all sorts of persons the sober and moderate use of those blessings which, beyond expectation, the Lord has been pleased to afford unto us in this wilderness. And also to declare our utter detestation and dislike that men and women of mean condition should take upon them the garb gentlemen by wearing gold or silver lace, or buttons, or points at their knees, or to walk in great boots; or women of the same ran to wear silk or tiffany hoods, or scarves which, though allowable to persons of greater estates or more liberal education, we cannot but judge it intolerable. . . .
It is therefore ordered by this Court, and authority thereof, that no person within the jurisdiction, nor any of their relations depending upon them, whose visible estates, real and personal, shall not exceed the true and indifferent value of £200, shall wear any gold or silver lace, or gold and silver buttons, or any bone lace above 2s. per yard, or silk hoods, or scarves, upon the penalty of 10s. for every such offense and every such delinquent to be presented to the grand jury. And forasmuch as distinct and particular rules in this case suitable to the estate or quality of each perrson cannot easily be given: It is furtber ordered by the authority aforesaid, that the selectmen of every town, or the major part of them, are hereby enabled and required, from time to time to have regard and take notice of the apparel of the inhabitants of their several towns respectively; and whosoever they shall judge to exceed their ranks and abilities in the costliness or fashion of their apparel in any respect, especially in the wearing of ribbons or great boots (leather being so scarce a commodity in this country) lace, points, etc., silk hoods, or scarves, the select men aforesaid shall have power to assess such persons, so offending in any of the particulars above mentioned, in the country rates, at £200 estates, according to that proportion that such men use to pay to whom such apparel is suitable and allowed; provided this law shall not extend to the restraint of any magistrate or public officer of this jurisdiction, their wives and children, who are left to their discretion in wearing of apparel, or any settled militia officer or soldier in the time of military service, or any other whose education and employment have been above the ordinary degree, or whose estate have been considerable, though now decayed.
By 1674, Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather, was convinced that the continual violation of the Fifth Commandment — the status commandment — was the chief sin of his generation. (That someone named Increase could take this position only serves to emphasize the irony.) Inferiors were rising up against superiors in the commonwealth — in families, schools, churches. It was not an uprising that he feared, but this incessant rising up. “If there be any prevailing iniquity in New England, this is it…. And mark what I say, if ever New England be destroyed, this very sin of disobedience to the fifth commandment will be the ruin of the land.” Samuel Willard agreed with Mather.
The problem, as the Puritan divines saw it, was that men were not satisfied with their lot in life. Daniel Dension’s last sermon, appended by another famous preacher of his day, William Hubbard, to Hubbard’s funeral sermon for Denison, cities ambition as the curse of the land, along with envy:”… Ambition is restless, must raise commotions, that thereby it might have an opportunity of advancement, and employ envy to depress others, that they fancy may stand in their way….” Such ambitious men are unwilling “to abide in the calling, wherein they are set; they cannot stay for the blessing, nor believe when God hath need of their service, he will find them an employment, whatever stands in the way of their design, must give place…”(Ibid).
Of course, Protestants would reject this outwardly, but what they can’t deny is that they are merely rejecting a nuance of the central idea that they embrace with all passion.
Caste is king.