Three Myths of Colonial Puritanism
The following is a transcript of Susan Dohse’s first session from the 2014 Conference on Gospel Discernement and Spiritual Tyranny, originally presented on June 20, 2014.
~ Edited by Andy Young
The television show, Myth Busters, a popular show at our house, was about a team of men whose goal was to disprove popular myths by using a scientific, investigative approach. Often they would take legend, superstition, or even a stunt that had been done on television to see if it could really happen without the effects of Hollywood. And they would break it up into a scientific investigative approach and determine if the myth was definitely a myth, could probably happen, or that it would occur all the time.
I would like to provoke you to take on the role of a myth buster rather than accept what’s in our textbooks or what you read on your online blog spots or what you hear from the pulpit; rather than accept those things as factual, biblical, or true. This is why we call TANC a discernment ministry. It is a ministry that encourages believers to become Bereans, searching the Scripture daily to verify what is taught from the authority of God’s word.
Using a historical research approach, I have selected three myths that I would like to try to bust. I want to plant a seed and hopefully provoke you to germinate that seed. Take my point of view, look at my references, and then you go and research for yourself and see if you come up with the same or similar conclusions that I have.
There is a plethora of myth surrounding the early history of America. Some is from secular humanist research, and much is from the Christian historians, so you have to be careful. You have to be careful when you elevate historical figures to the rank of hero and you begin hero-worshiping historical figures without knowledge. There is a risk when we hold a group of people in such high regard that we are encouraged to teach our children to emulate them. Therefore, it was important for me to frame any research that I did with dependable historical records, direct quotes from personal writings, sermons, and speeches.
Now when I say “dependable”, I glean that from James Deetz, a colonial historian who wrote the book The Times of Their Lives: The Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony. Deetz said that if three or more historical documentations from firsthand accounts – court and church records, personal diaries, pamphlets and books – agree fully or mostly, then the assumption can be made that that source is probably reliable, or at least more reliable than not. So I try to do the same as Mr. Deetz in preparation for this talk. I looked at historical documents, church and court records, personal diaries, pamphlets, and books.
Today there is a resurgence of interest and emphasis on the Puritans – their beliefs and their practices. In our Christian schools, in our churches, and especially heavy in the homeschool movement there is a push to pattern how we study the Bible, theology, and how to contend for the truth after the Puritans in order to make significant changes that will reap eternal results. I quote from a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary:
“No greater tribute to them [the Puritans] could be made than to follow their example in this regard.”
Well, that emphasis is causing me to have some grave concerns, because there is a lack of foundation based on fact and true historical perspective. Myths are being presented as facts. The same criticism that is heaped upon secular humanists who want to shape America’s history by eliminating and covering its Christian roots need also to apply to those who try to shape America’s history by eliminating and covering its Calvinist roots.
Myth Number One:
“The Puritans came to the New World because of religious persecution and a desire for religious freedom.”
The Puritans immigrated to establish God’s commonwealth on earth, a community of visible saints following the Bible, and to found churches on a congregational model. The king gave permission for the migration in order for England to acquire new materials (particularly gold and silver), to check the power of Spain, to find a new route to the Orient, and to convert the Indians. It is very important to remember what was in the Massachusetts charter that was given to those colonial-minded people.
English history reports that the Puritans back in England wanted to “purify” the Church of England, which is how they got the nickname “Puritans.” The pilgrims, who were called separatists, chose to break away from the Church of England, and many even left England for Holland. The pilgrims of Plymouth are not the same as the Puritans of Massachusetts. Both were Calvinists, but they were not the same. The pilgrims of Plymouth were Puritans, seeking to reform their church, and the Puritans of Massachusetts were innocent pilgrims who moved to this land because of religious conviction, not persecution. The name “Puritan” was initially an insulting moniker, very much like when the believers in the New Testament were first called “Christians.” It was really not a praiseworthy title. It was to make fun of them.
The Puritans believed the reforms being made in the Church of England did not go far enough. The liturgy was still too Catholic, bishops lived like princes, ecclesiastical courts were corrupt, and the king was the head over both church and state. When the Puritans set out for America, they did not break with the Church of England. They sought to reform it and that reformation would happen in America. They couldn’t do it in England. They would come over to New England and reform the Church of England there. They would be a city upon a hill.
“The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so calls him to withdraw his presence from us, we shall be made a story in a byword through the world,”
~ John Winthrop sermon on board Arabella as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
They saw a simpler form of worship, a return to the virtues of primitive Christianity. These included the following:
- The Bible, not the Church hierarchy, was the ultimate authority.
- Membership by choice, and therefore, limited by some degree because of religious motivation.
- An active clergy who carried out teaching, as well as liturgical functions.
The 1620s were a time of political and religious turmoil in England. And during this time, official pressure was applied on religious dissenters, notably the separatists, affectionately called “The Pilgrims,” and pressure was applied on the Puritans. The protracted struggle for supremacy between the monarchy and parliament reached new heights in 1629 when Charles I disbanded parliament and ruled alone for eleven years under the auspices of the Divine Right of Kings.
Official pressure was now applied on these religious dissenters, and some of the Puritan ministers were imprisoned for their non-conformist views. We hear of John Bunyan writing in his book while in prison, and others lost lucrative official positions. There were Puritans in Parliament, and because of their Puritan theology they were dismissed from their official positions, and a financial pinch was made in their pocket book. The separatists who wanted to break away from the Church of England, moved to the Netherlands in search for freedom of worship.
(Having taught for fifteen years in a Christian school, and teaching everything from fifth grade to high school social studies, I had never heard any of this information- never read it, never studied it from secular texts or Christian textbooks. I thought the Pilgrims and the Puritans were the same group of people. I did not know that they were Calvinists. This was all an eye-opener for me.)
In 1628, a group of distinguished Puritan businessmen formed a venture called “The Governor in company of Massachusetts Bay,” which was initially conceived as a profit-making endeavor in the New World. A land grant was received from the Council of New England, providing rights to the area between the Charles and Merrimack Rivers and westward to the Pacific Ocean. (Did you know that the Massachusetts Bay colony were given the land rights all the way to the Pacific Ocean? From sea to shining sea…) The preliminary voyages were made in 1628 and 1629, and it resulted in the establishment of a small colony on Cape Anne and another smaller colony called Salem. (That name does sound familiar, doesn’t it?)
Here’s a quote from the charter.
“All that part of America, lying and beneath in breadth from 40 degrees north latitude to 48 degrees of the said north latitude, inclusive and in-link of and within all breadth aforesaid, throughout the Main Lands from sea to shining sea.”
In other words, Oregon, along with Massachusetts. The charter also expressed an optimistic view of the prospects of finding gold and silver.
“Yielding and paying unto us our heirs and successors the one-fifth part of the ore, gold and silver, which shall, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, happen to be found, gotten and had and obtained in any of those said lands.”
While still in England, the company members signed an agreement called the “Cambridge Agreement” in which they said,
“We will undertake the rigors of the Atlantic voyage if full authority over the charter and colony will be vested in the members themselves only.”
So the stockholders who did not want to migrate to the New World sold their shares to the immigrants. The members who held the charter held the authority. The careful wealthy Puritan businessmen sought additional protection for their scheme by requesting and receiving a charter from the king, a king who had been misinformed about their religious views. The result was a charter that allowed them to go to the New World and establish a colony with whatever form of government they wanted.
From this action, the new Massachusetts Bay venture was transformed from a trading company into an organization dominated by staunch Calvinist Puritans and their religious agenda. Political power in the new colony was limited to fellow believers and effectively created a theocracy, a government run by religious officials who would enforce religious principles. Later, they refer to it as a “holy commonwealth.” Beginning in 1630, Governor John Winthrop, with the company charter tightly in hand, guided the arrival of a thousand colonists to the new world. The initial settlers stopped first at Salem but soon established a permanent settlement in the Shawmut Peninsula in Massachusetts Bay, which was later called Boston.
Initially, circumstances were extremely difficult. Many died in that horrible first winter from starvation, cold, and disease. Over time, gradual improvements in living conditions led to an influx of new colonists, mainly English Puritans that totaled more than 20,000 over the next decade. The Puritans arrived in this land of promise. They would be eager to live godly lives. Within a decade of their arrival, they had accomplished a great deal. They controlled more land, they had defeated the nearby native neighbors, troublesome believers had been banished, and radical thinkers have been tamed.
But there was a price for this success. The “godly” saw their neighbor as savages, and evangelism virtually stopped. Radical thinkers were called “heretics” and excommunicated not only from the church but also from the colony itself. In the new land, the Puritan government was becoming more and more established, while a few believers changed its laws and actions. It would appear that becoming rigid and domineering was the only way for the Puritans to survive and prosper. The charter granted to John Winthrop and company through careful planning and engineering was seen as the King’s permission to establish a colony and organize it in any fashion desired by the shareholders listed on the charter, as long as the spirit of the charter was followed. In the background was the future threat of persecution by the king and the archbishop. In the forefront was an agenda to create a theocracy, a holy commonwealth according to the interpretation of Old Testament scripture.
Myth number two:
“God could make any people his chosen.”
That is a quote from Cotton Mather, one of the famous Puritan ministers. It is what Puritan ministers preached as a motivational speech to encourage the immigrants to never give up, never give in, and keep going on. This idea was based on their hermeneutic, their method of interpreting Scripture. The Puritans’ hermeneutic was a redemptive-historical one. Like Augustine, they used allegory and symbolism to sanction their existence, their decisions, and their doctrine. That is key. The ministers and leaders of Puritan Calvinism traveled the Atlantic Ocean to establish colonies under charters given to them by the English parliament. They taught the Bible as one story, a meta-narrative about the redemptive plan of God in which every part is organically related and finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This hermeneutic does not look at the context, the grammar, or the history of Scripture.
The Puritans took the intended meaning of God’s word and used allegory, symbolism, and typology to justify and gain approval of their cause. If God’s word was a narrative, just put yourself in the narrative. We have heard this from Neo-Calvinist preachers all the time. It is nothing new. It is the same old Calvinism that came over on the Arabella. This is what the Puritans believed and taught. Quoting from Cotton Mather:
“Become the actor in a divine drama. Play a determined role. Ultimately, all deeds are acts of God. A man is but an actor playing the part which has been assigned to him. He cannot miraculously escape the structure of the drama to which he belongs and act on his own freewill.”
Cotton Mather described the leaders of New England as actors in a divine drama. God had elected them from all eternity to play just this role, and none but a supernatural explanation could explain it. These Puritans experienced exuberance and wholehearted devotion in the beginning. If you read accounts of what they went through to establish that colony, you would find it grievous – the hard work, the labor, the sacrifice, children dying, starvation, problems with their neighbors, the Native Americans. Yet they just got into the play and played their part well. When tragedy reared its ugly head, they showed heroic intensity and pride. For you see, the Puritans believe they were God’s chosen people, the Israelites who had been led from Egypt to the Promise Land to build the new Jerusalem, Zion, a city upon a hill. They were the elect of God, selected to build the theocracy, a holy commonwealth.
One of the highly regarded preachers in England was John Cotton. Cotton came to South Compton when the Arabella was getting ready to cast sail across the Atlantic Ocean. He came to give them a “rah-rah” speech and to address the fears, that it’s going to be all right; it’s going to be okay. He charged them with this mission: if they were true to His path, God would aid and protect them. America was a Land of Promise, and Cotton found the proof. The Bible recounts the story of the Jews fleeing slavery in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, and then finding their destined home in Israel. Cotton told them that under the tyranny of King Charles and Archbishop Laud, they were re-living the Jews’ oppression and bondage, which meant that in leaving the mother country, England (Egypt), they were surely following God’s plan. They were not cowards in leaving England; they were a chosen people on a divine mission.
John Winthrop raised an interesting question. What of the people already living in America? He really struggled with taking away land that rightfully belonged to original inhabitants. Cotton’s answer and argument to that was:
“The Jews had been right in driving out the Canaanites, so the Puritans were free to do the same with the Indians. The godly deserve the land as long as they lived up to the promises of God.”
Winthrop’s image of this loving community required each person in a colony as a whole to strive endlessly toward perfection. A Puritan’s most basic belief is that no human could ever escape his or her sinful nature. They had to balance these two concepts: labor ceaselessly to live by God’s laws with the constant threat of his justified anger if they failed. Each second of every day as weak human beings, they were sure to fail and fail and fail again. They were told this. Presented with this painful and difficult challenge, it motivated these colonists to overcome every obstacle they faced.
For the New England clergy, the meaning of the continent was an issue of prophetic history. America’s name, they declared, America’s destiny, they declared, is seen to be fairly recorded in Scriptures. And they found that proof text in Isaiah, Zechariah, Daniel and, of course, the Book of Revelation. They believed in Scripture and they believed in history. And history was the fulfillment of Scripture.
For decades, English Protestants in general and Puritans in particular had no doubt that God had chosen England as his own land and themselves as God’s new chosen people. John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs had portrayed England as replacing ancient Israel as God’s chosen and had said that the English had a special covenant with God. The bishop of London said, “God is English.” God had proven his love for England by delivering her.
Thomas Hooker, a leading Puritan minister who established the colony of Connecticut after he was asked to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony, explained:
“Above all other deliverances, in ’88 the Spanish armada was a great deliverance because God worked through covenants. God expected England to abjure sin.”
Hooker preached from Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26. If we, English, keep the law, he will bless us abundantly in all things. When the plague struck, the Puritans believed it was an explicit warning from God. Yet England did not come back to God. England escaped war, but the English hearts did not bow and did not break. The Crown and Parliament grew more corrupt, and attacks were now being made on the Puritan ministers. So Hooker warned them, when the sin of a nation comes to a full rightness and perfection, then the truth is the Lord will save and deliver them no more.
Side bar: We hear similar sermons like this, sometimes around the Fourth of July, sometimes around the time of the National Day of Prayer. God’s going to pull his favor from the nation of America as a judgment for the nation’s sinfulness. And we hear clarion calls for repentance, national repentance here in America. It is an issue to discuss and debate at a later time. But God does bless those who obey and He does judge those who disobey, be it an individual or a nation.
God had made Israel His chosen people, yet the Jews had broken their covenant. This it their logic. The Abrahamic covenant belonged to the Jews, the Jews broke their covenant with God, so God is going to give that Abrahamic covenant to someone more deserving. And they believed that was England.
Now when England went into corruption and sin and did not repent, the Puritans said God is going to judge England and give the Abrahamic covenant to another more deserving group. Hooker begged his audience to repent and rally around the covenant.
“…lest God go into Turkey and say unto them, ‘thou art my people and I will be your God’”
Hooker echoed another Puritan minister,
“God is packing up His gospel because none of you will buy his wares nor come to His price. O therefore, my brethren, lay hold on God. Let Him not go out of your coasts. Let not thy God depart, O England, Lay siege about Him by humble and hearty closing with Him. Suffer Him not to go far. Suffer Him not to say ‘farewell,’ or rather ‘fare ill,’ England.”
In Nehemiah’s time, Jerusalem was to the west of Babylon. New Jerusalem must be to the west of Rome. And what would be westward at this stage of redemptive history, but America? Or when the psalmist spoke of a new nation to be placed at the head of all others in Psalm 18, surely he was offering above all the hope of the Americas. So to the Puritans, the entire story of the New World from beginning to end was Christ’s “magnalia”: the glorious works of Christ.
In a sermon to the passengers aboard the Arabella who were preparing to leave in 1630, John Cotton proclaimed:
“America is the new promised land, reserved by God for His elect people on the actual site for a new heaven and a new earth.”
So as Israel traveled from bondage in Egypt, so these early Puritans followed the same paradigm on their trek to the promised land of North America. Millenniumarianism was a central motivating factor for moving from the old world to the new. England replaced Israel as the people of God. Now New England was replacing England as the people of God. They abandoned England and its acquiescence to the antichrist (Rome) and set off to build the millennial kingdom in North America, literally their “promised land.” It is significant that the imagination of many Puritans were captured by this hope of the new millennium.
Now upon this redemptive-historical hermeneutic of scripture, the Puritans placed themselves in this divine drama which they believed gave divine approval upon all that they did in the new world. From the private to the public church state and economy because why? They were the elect people of God. They were God’s new Israelites. His chosen people. Well I contend that Israel is still God’s chosen people, and the Abrahamic covenant is their covenant today, given to them in the past, fulfilled in the future, and the Gentiles will be blessed through that covenant. God did not take that covenant and give it to England or New England. It is still the covenant of Israel.
Care must be taken when we elevate these groups of people and individuals and then follow their doctrine and ways of life. The early church had the same problem. That was in the book of Acts- I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas. What should we rather say? I am of Christ.
Myth number three:
“The Puritans had a Biblical worldview.”
A worldview is a framework from which one views reality and makes sense of life and makes sense of the world. A “Biblical” worldview is diligently learning and applying and trusting God’s truth in every area of our lives, because in the end, it is the decisions and actions that will reveal what one truly believes. However the Puritans had a worldview that was in fact NOT “Biblical”. They created a worldview using the Bible to “purify” it.
One cannot deny that the Puritans did indeed hold God’s word in high regard. Most families were middle and upper class in Massachusetts Bay, and they owned a Geneva Bible, they read daily, and sometimes the Bible was the only book in the home. They wished to be guided by one rule: the word of God most high. That is honorable. However, the Puritans had a habit of calling their convictions “Biblical”, and often this became nothing more than a divine “rubber stamp.” If we can find a proof text, a typology, we can make it law in our commonwealth.
The Ten Commandments were easy. “Thou shalt not kill” was accepted without discussion, but what interested them more was the “how” and “why” an episode in the Bible was like one in their own lives. The great and terrible earthquake in June 1, 1638, and the one in January 14, 1639 reminded Captain Edward Johnson of how “the Lord, Himself roared from Zion as in the days of Amos.” They searched the scripture for texts relevant to their own particular needs, and because of their redemptive-historical interpretation of scripture, they liked finding a portion of scripture that showed similarities between themselves and the ancient Israelites. The Lord had “obviously” chosen them, just as He had chosen the Israelites, to carry out His plan for the redemption of the world.
If you recall the account in Exodus where the Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, that generation was denied entrance into the Promised Land. The Puritans believed that the chief difference between them and the ancient Hebrews was that God had called them to make a promised land out of the wilderness. The belief in their divine election to accomplish a great work in ushering in God’s kingdom ceased to be faith and came to be regarded as fact. Nothing seemed more evident to the minds of the Puritans than that God was taking a hand in establishing His kingdom on earth.
“The God of heaven had carried a nation into a wilderness upon the designs of a glorious reformation.” ~ Cotton Mather
Another example of using scripture to justify Puritan behavior is when John Cotton found a passage of scripture indicating that it was not the will of God that the Indians should be converted. Certain things had to take place first, and he used Revelation 15:8 as his proof text. What the Puritans had developed in New England was a practical, common-law orthodoxy. Their heavy reliance on the Bible was used to justify their preoccupation with platforms, programs, and schemes of confederation rather than using God’s word to shape a Biblical view of life and living.
There are five elements that could be said of developing a true Biblical worldview.
- Religious Beliefs
- The Bible
Culture: the society with its traditions, traits, and ideas. Education: what you have been taught as truth. Religious beliefs: what one has been taught as matters of faith. Emotions: how you feel about others. The Bible: how one believes and adheres to its teachings.
The Puritans had:
- their English traditions
- their Calvinistic ideas
- they had been educated and taught through typology and allegory
- they believed that they had replaced Israel as God’s chosen people
- the covenant God had made with His people had been taken away and given to them
What did this create: an elitist mentality which tolerated no doubt and no dissention. They foisted their own philosophy into scripture. I contend that they developed a “Puritan” worldview rather than a “Biblical” worldview.
When I taught in high school, I encouraged my students to think and not to necessarily accept what the book said and not necessarily accept what I said. They needed to investigate for themselves and judge whether or not that textbook or that teacher was presenting the right view of life and history and God’s word. That is what I want to provoke you to do. After all of my own study, the Puritans are now off of my hero list.
~ Susan Dohse