Paul's Passing Thoughts

Three Myths of Colonial Puritanism

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Young, PPT contributing editor on January 16, 2017
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

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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:

  1. The Bible, not the Church hierarchy, was the ultimate authority.
  2. Membership by choice, and therefore, limited by some degree because of religious motivation.
  3. 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.)

massbayIn 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.

winthrop_large

John Winthrop

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.”

cotton-mather

Cotton Mather

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.

puritans-indiansJohn 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

Thomas Hooker

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.

massbay-preachingOne 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.

  1. Culture
  2. Education
  3. Religious Beliefs
  4. Emotions
  5. 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


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TANC 2014 Susan Dohse, Session 2: Three Myths of Puritanism: Freedom, Destiny, and Worldview

Posted in Uncategorized by pptmoderator on August 19, 2015

Okay, George Santayana is credited with saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” How many of you have heard that? It’s very popular catchy phrase has taken on several variations. Now many moons ago when I taught high school history and social studies, I would sometimes introduce the classes by saying my teacher variation of that quote. First day of U.S. History, “Welcome to U.S. History. It is important for you to do well in this class for remember, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” One particular year, this one poor guy in the back of the room put his head down on his desk and went, “I’m doomed! I’m doomed!” And his friend is faking compassion patted him on the back, “It’s okay, man. She always gives extra credit.” “But you don’t get it. I hate History and Mrs. [UNINTELLIGIBLE 0:01:12] is the only history teacher in the school. I’m double doomed!” Not only having to repeat history but having to have me for two years, but he did pass the class, and I do believe he still dislikes history.

But that phrase though, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is impressive, is common and is difficult to disagree with. If it is true and if history is so ugly and objectionable, then this proverbial quote ought to be a guide to public and private policy. For example, couples who do not learn from their fights, break up. People who don’t learn from their mistakes, they don’t mature. Revolutions that give an individual absolute power inevitably end up as brutal dictatorships. After repeated wars between Germany and France, France made harsh demands on Germany and their terms of surrender after World War I, then the Second World War happened. After Stalin’s brutal regime of secret police and leader worship, Cuban revolutionary has allowed their charismatic revolutionary leader to seize absolute power, and Castro still hold the seat of dictatorial power in Cuba today. History shows that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

What about this idea? And what about those who do learn from history? Are they still doomed to repeat it? If the converse is true, then the saying has no power and adds nothing at all to the discussion. What adds power to that quote is the word “learn” because with learning, with knowledge, there’s a hope of change. But will it, can it happen? Will knowledge lead to change? Will learning what history taught us provoke us to make the changes necessary to keep it from being repeated? Can it be that all the good and bad things about people and the way we organize ourselves simply creates patterns as we make history? Could it be that we are given to a certain irrationality which leads us down paths, some disastrous, again and again?

Now consider this different approach. When you look back through history and you see man taking the exact same steps, coming to the exact same conclusions generation after generation, millennia after millennia, what were their root assumptions? “It does not matter how inconsistent the ideas. It doesn’t matter how insane the rationale. They will act until the logic is fulfilled. Therefore, when you see masses of people taking the same destructive actions, find the assumptions and you will find the cause.” That’s the gospel according to John Immel, chapter 3 verses 1 through 3. I did learn something from our first conference.

Knowing the cause should provoke us to take some kind of action, hopefully, preventative action, proactive action, and proactive changes. WXY and Z now I know my ABCs. Tell me what you think of me… Well, I think you know your ABCs. Now tell me what are you going to do with that knowledge? Will you take action and make meaning of the letters, connect them with sounds and letter combinations and create words and words that build sentences and ideas? Will you take your ABCs to that ultimate conclusion and learn to read and write? Will we learn the lessons of the history past and use that knowledge to take action to stay off those irrational and destructive past? Maybe yes maybe no. I do know some children who know their ABCs. Blaine [SOUNDS LIKE 0:06:05] knows his ABCs, but he has not yet learned to read. There are those who know history and are dooming themselves and us by repeating it or causing it to repeat.

So, are we like the Calvinists who believe and hold on so tenaciously to the doctrine that we are predestined to live in this time and space with no choice, no say in the direction we are to take and no say in how we stand, no chance for change. Are we to take up that clarion call, become like the Puritans of old and all things will be set to right? Now why not consider the assumptions and logic and end results of the Puritans? Remember what George said, “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it” because their patterns of irrationality, their faulty root assumptions are leading the institutional church down the same disastrous paths again.

What I’ve been reading from Christian homeschool blogs and from leaders in the homeschool movement, this is what I’ve been reading. Let’s return to the Puritan way and put our children on the road to better education. I’ve read that more than once. A Southern Baptist seminary professor wrote, “We can learn from the old, namely the Puritans, for the doing of theology, for the life and health of the church today,” Stephen J. Wellum, Editorial: “Learning from the Puritans,” Theology Professor at Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. And without some understanding of Puritanism, there’s no solid understanding of dominionism, the patriarchy movement and the downward spiral of our Christian institutions. And without understanding Puritanism, you really have a partial knowledge of New Calvinism. And without understanding Puritanism, there is no solid understanding of America either.

Remember what you learned in U.S. history? The New England colonies were started under austere circumstances. Other colonies with more financial support from their mother country, more material resources, suffered collapse. The Puritans faced severe climate, a howling wilderness, yet they made themselves physically secure and began immediately to lay the foundations of government, education, thought and literature that outdid the achievements of all the other colonies. The Puritans made New England the intellectual leader of the nation at that time. Their belief in God’s sovereignty and of divine predestination provided a measure of comfort and stimulus to these early settlers. Did this consciousness that they were not ultimately responsible but that they were being led by God, have anything to do with their success? It is a shining example of human discipline and energy that in the face of circumstances would have discouraged and ruined most other adventurers. Could it be that holding fast to a doctrine that man is not free, he is a not free agent provided, them with a more powerful stimulus to exert extreme effort and a more moral force than any doctrine of human freedom?

Perhaps this is one of the ironies of history. If you compare Americans of the 18th and 19th century to the Puritans, one would have to say that the Puritans were theology-minded. Now I would say they were Calvin-minded. The doctrines of the fall of man, of sin, of salvation, predestination, election, conversion were their meat and drink. But what distinguished them is they were less interested in theology than in the application of Calvin’s theology to everyday life and especially to society. They became consumed with making the society in America embody the truth that they thought they already knew and less concerned with perfecting how they form truth. So Puritan New England was a grand and noble experiment in applied Calvinism.

A sidebar, the Puritans did not learn from history past. John Calvin tried this noble experiment in Geneva, enforced a theocracy, a holy commonwealth. If you read any part of Calvin’s Geneva experience, they did take Calvin’s faulty assumption. They applied a faulty logic and they tried to enforce their theology of theocracy, a holy commonwealth, and the end result was the same.

New England offered a rare opportunity for the Puritans in the New World. The Calvinistic theology was their point of departure when they left England, and they did not waver from it. Life in this New World was life in the wilderness, away from the great university libraries and the higher institutions of learning of their motherland. Daily threatened by hardships and the perils of a savage America, elaborating a theology and disputing its finer points was not practical. It was not the writing of books that was impossible for New England. New England flowed with an abundance of sermons, textual commentaries, collections of providences, statutes and works of history which were of themselves quite remarkable. Cotton Mather wrote 400 books.

With the exception of Roger Williams, who is not in the stream of New England orthodoxy anyway, Massachusetts Bay did not produce, I’m going to repeat, did not produce a major figure in theology until Jonathan Edwards. And when he arrived on the scene, by then the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritanism was waning. Now during the great days of the New England Puritanism, there was not a single important dispute which was primarily theological. There were arguments over who should rule New England, whether John Winthrop or Thomas Dudley or Harry Vane should be governor, whether the power representation of different classes in the community should be changed, whether the Child Petition Act should be accepted, penalties for crimes by fixed statutes, whether outlying towns should have more representation in the general court. If they were theology-minded, what they argued about was institutions.

Let me do a comparison. At this time in history, the Puritans in England, the mother country, were discussing the fine points of their theory. What was the true nature of liberty? When should a true Puritan resist a corrupt civil government? When should diversity be tolerated? Now the debates of these topics expand the social classes in England for not only the John Miltons but the officers in Cromwell’s Puritan army reveal how different the intellectual atmosphere in England was from that of New England. Soldiers, men of action stopped to debate the theory of revolution and the philosophy of sovereignty. But let’s remember this crucial difference. Puritanism in England was more complex than Puritanism in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans in good old England had representatives from a wide range of doctrines–Presbyterians, Independents, Separatists, Levellers, Millenarians. So, naturally, Puritanism in England was a matter of dispute. But consider this. In England, any community they built would have to find some space for the dozens of sects, from Quakers to Papists, because England was their home, too. Now Massachusetts Bay Colony did not possess this vigor. They possessed orthodoxy. It was organized and ran as a community of self-selected conformists.

In 1637, the general court of Massachusetts passed an order forbidding anyone from settling within the colony without first having his orthodoxy approved by the magistrates. These immigrants were required to be free from contamination. John Winthrop was bold and clear in defending this ruling. This community was formed by free consent of its members. Why should they not exclude dangerous men or men with dangerous thoughts? Now take for example Reverend Wheelwright. His brother-in-law’s wife was Anne Hutchinson. We all read about Anne Hutchinson in our history books. He and Anne accused the majority of the colony’s ministers and their magistrates of preaching a covenant of works. So, both he and Anne were banished from the colony. The Governor John Winthrop said, “If we conceive and find by sad experience that Wheelwright’s opinions are such and by his own profession cannot stand with external peace, may we not provide for our peace by keeping of such as would strengthen him and infect others with such dangerous tenets?” This was a peculiar opportunity for the Puritans of New England. Why not see what true orthodoxy could accomplish? In one unspoiled corner of the world, declare a truce on doubts and on theological debate. Here at last, man could devote their full energy to applying Christianity, not to clarifying doctrine, not to build Zion.” Puritan Nathaniel Ward wrote, “I dare take upon me to be the herald of New England so fair as to proclaim to the world in the name of our colony that all Familists, Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other enthusiasts shall have free liberty to keep away from us and such as will come be gone as fast as they can, the sooner the better,” taken from his pamphlet, Simple Cobbler, 1647.

A dissension in England would have created a new sect of Puritanism. In America, dissension simply produced another colony. In England, the Puritans had to find a way to live with dissenters. In New England, the Puritans found ways to live without them. What truly distinguished Massachusetts Bay was its refusal to develop a practice of toleration. Unlike England of the 17th century, the leaders of Massachusetts enjoyed their pure and simple orthodoxy. And that orthodoxy was conformity with established and accepted Calvinistic standards. Now let’s consider another side of the coin. Intolerance was a source of strength for the New England Puritans. This was not a philosophical enterprise they were engaging in. They were community builders. They were building the New Jerusalem. They were building Zion, a city upon a hill. All the energy their counterparts in England were using to debate and war over compulsive and restrictive powers in religion between matters essential and matters indifferent, these are still being debated today by political science students. The American Puritans put all that energy to mark off boundaries of their new towns, enforce criminal laws and to fight the Indian menace. Theology and metaphysics were not going to distract them because they had no doubt and they had no dissent. Had they spent as much energy debating with each other as their English counterparts, would they have still had the single-mindedness to overcome the perils of the wilderness and build a nation? I hold three things that held Massachusetts Bay Colony together initially made them successful–notice I said initially–no toleration, democracy was of the devil, community and unity over individual freedom.

In England the various sects of Puritanism were daring each other to extend and clarify their doctrines, but there was little of this in America. In New England, the critics, the doubters and dissenters were expelled from the community. Roger Williams, I read a wonderful book about Roger Williams. He was expelled for confronting the leaders about separation of Church and State, not doctrinal issues. He agreed in doctrine point by point by point with Calvinistic doctrine. They did not have a problem with his doctrine, but he was relentless in preaching from the pulpit and talking to the magistrates and the civil leaders in public and in private that the Church had no business in civil government, that there had to be a separation. He was expelled for confronting the leaders about this issue. Later, he established the colony of Rhode Island.

Whereas in England, the Puritans had to find ways to live together, which in turn helped to develop a theory of toleration. In New England, they transcended theological preoccupation because what was it? There were no doubts. They allowed no dissent. They just could not be distracted from these practical tasks of theology and metaphysics. In 1637, the General Court passed an order forbidding anyone from settling within the colony, and I’ve said this without having this orthodoxy approved, okay?

Number two, the goal of creating a democracy in Massachusetts had never stirred the leadership except the opposition. The idea that authority and sovereignty came from below, from the government as opposed to from above, from God was completely foreign. Winthrop believed that the magistrates even though being called freemen, we have our authority from God. And by the way, I was kind of misled in my reading when it said the freemen could vote, the freemen elected their magistrates, and then the next paragraph defined what freeman was, a member of the Puritan church. If you were not a member, you were not a freeman. Therefore, you could not vote. So, the freemen were an elite few, who made the decisions for the entire colony. “Freeman, even though being called by you freeman, we have our authority from God; therefore, they must be obeyed,” Governor John Winthrop. “So, shall your liberties be preserved in upholding the honor and power of authority among you.” And he declared, “Democracy amongst civil nations accounted the meanest and worst form of government.” He called it a breach of the Fifth Commandment and noted that history records it has always been of least continuance and fullest of troubles. Now Cotton, John Cotton wrote, “Democracy, I do not conceive that God ever did ordain as a fit government, either for a church or commonwealth. If people be governors, who shall be the governed? As for monarchy and aristocracy, both of them clearly approved and directed by Scripture.”

An example of this lack of tolerance practice is witnessed in the life of Roger Williams. He claimed the people were sovereign. I infer that the sovereign original and foundation of civil power lies in the people. Now these were hardy and rebellious ideas that ended Williams being expelled from the community in the dead of winter during the blizzard, and if it had not been for the Native Americans who rescued him, he would have perished. And he does pay them tribute for aiding him in his time, and he spent the entire winter with them, nursed back to health and taken care of.

Now consider these ideas. The Puritans were concerned with the organization of their New Jerusalem society with making their communities effective. Now three problems which worried them in New England: 1) how to select their leaders and representatives. They had to decide who were the fit rulers and how should they be selected. 2) The proper limit of power: John Cotton said it is therefore more wholesome for magistrates and officers in the church and commonwealth never to afflict more liberty and authority that will do them good and the people good. It is necessary therefore that all power that is on earth be limited. 3) And how power should be distributed between local and central [organs 0:26:21]. Now are not these three problems you hear addressed in the constitution? How to select the leaders and representatives, okay? How much power that they have and how to separate federal and state government?

Though denying democracy is a valid way to address the community’s organizational needs, they unknowingly used democratic ideas to solve these worrisome problems. To the Puritans, the American destiny was inseparable from the mission of community building. It always sounds good to say we need to build a community, you know. What’s her face said a village raises your child, you know. The community is – yeah, it takes a village. It takes a community to raise your child. So to the Puritans, this mission of community building was inseparable from the ongoing relationship among man. Individualism threatened the delicate strings that held the community together. A main component of the emerging American ideology from the Puritan through the Enlightenment was focused on keeping the community united while trying to find some place for individualism.

There was the need for community involvement in the church. They had to show unswerving devotion to the church, perform good works, have unquestioned obedience to the church leaders. Good works and charitable acts would not lead a person to salvation, but was necessary to show their natural grace to prove that they might be considered one of the elect. The concept of unity as a community was communicated, and it was sermonized aboard the Arabella on their way over crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Winthrop: “We must knit together in this work as one man, mourn together, labor, suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.” John Winthrop: “If one part of the community was ill, then the entire community would suffer. Each individual was responsible for their actions because it would affect the entire community. A person could not do simple things without harming the community.” Well, we know we have examples of this from the Bible. Achan, in the camp of Israelites, when he took spoil from Jericho in disobedience, read the results in Joshua. That action had a devastating community result in the Book of Joshua. They lost the next battle, death, judgment from God in a sense, and then of course they had to put the family on trial, and earthquake and execution and all of that. So individuals do affect the community, but it’s not the sole reason for having a community.

Family, community, and nationalism are principles that we can find in God’s word. No person has ever been commanded to isolate themselves. No person in God’s word has been commanded to pursue total individualism, deny and forsake the community. The entire Book of Genesis shows historically how mankind as individuals they formed families, they formed communities, cities, nations. Danger comes to a community when control becomes punitive, leadership turns into tyranny, and unity, unity becomes total conformity. There’s difference in the meaning of those two words. Unity is not total conformity. The Puritans felt that conformity was essential to keeping the community together. The leaders not only felt, it demanded conformity. The leaders not only felt, it demanded conformity and enforced it. Dissention and divisiveness were silenced. The community could not thrive if too many independent thinkers attempted to change the power structure of the community. Individual beliefs and liberties would have to be sacrificed in order to promote a strongly linked community. Individual beliefs and liberties would have to be sacrificed in order to promote a strongly linked community, according to the Puritans.

Eventually out of necessity, the role of the individual evolved and was seen as an asset and not a threat, not until the Enlightenment and revolutionary eras, that’s the 1700s, was individualism recognized. The emphasis focused on individuals using their unique abilities to better the community. One of the Founding Fathers, James Madison, warned of absolute individualism in his federalist paper. In essence, he wrote that there was a delicate balance between expressing individuality and hurting another member of the community. Now during the Puritan era, individualism was suppressed in order to keep that delicate community balance, and individualism was suppressed to assert the power of the church. As the colonies grew and prospered, new ideas began to arise and some individualistic thoughts and ideas were seen as important and necessary for the growth of the community. The puzzle though, the Puritans had to put together, was how to balance individualistic expression and the welfare of the community. Intolerance grew the nation. Distaste of democracy organized their communities and community building necessitated individualism…

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