Matters of Faith

Although their vision of Christianity originated in the teachings of John Calvin, English Puritans were far from considering him the only source of religious insight. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison (in Builders of the Bay Colony, 1930) went so far as to call it a delusion to think that Puritanism and Calvinism were synonyms. Morison says, “Broadly speaking, the English Puritan theologians were Calvinist in their theology rather than Lutheran or Arminian [a Protestant movement that tended to merge some Calvinist and Lutheran ideas on salvation, and rejected predestination], but being learned in the ancient tongues they derived their ideas mainly from the Bible and the Fathers. Calvin’s Institutes [of the Christian Religion] was never to them a sacred book, and I have found Calvin less frequently quoted in their writings than English theologians….”

Puritan clerics, according to Morison, didn’t even steer clear of Catholic sources. Cambridge minister Thomas Shepard quoted Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino (a great Jesuit theologian and one of the pillars of the Catholic Counterreformation) more often than he quoted Calvin, and the personal library of John Harvard, which he left to the future university, had more of Thomas Aquinas’ books in it than Calvin’s. (Nevertheless, a modern study of the library’s first century found Calvin holding the lead on its shelves of theology.)
Anne Hutchinson on trial, 1637
The Puritans accepted such fundamental Calvinist teachings as the doctrine of predestination, but rejected the idea (held by some but not all Calvinists) that a person’s chance of being saved was unrelated to the goodness or badness of that person’s behavior—when Anne Hutchinson persisted in upholding that opinion, they banished her from the colony as a heretic. (Her claim to have received personal and direct revelations from Heaven didn’t help her case.)

Another common opinion that Morison condemns as a delusion is the idea that Puritans “were mainly preoccupied with hell and damnation.” Texts like Michael Wigglesworth’s poem “Day of Doom” (published in 1662) were produced in a later generation when many New England clergy felt that the true spirit of Puritanism was weakening, and attempted to scare their backsliding congregations straight. The terrifying sermon that many Americans encounter in English classes, Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” wasn’t delivered until 1741, as part of a much later revival movement that strongly affected western Massachusetts—Edwards preached in Northampton—but had greater influence moving down the Appalachian chain than it did in the more populous parts of this commonwealth.

We can see what kind of society John Winthrop (the first governor of Massachusetts Bay) and his companions wanted to build in the words of the famous “city on a hill” sermon that he composed on board the ship Arbella while crossing the Atlantic:
John Winthrop, 1588–1649
Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. […] If we shall neglect the observation of these articles […] the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
Winthrop’s vision is one of close and loving unity. But unity as people understood it in the 17th century imposed limits on personal freedom that most modern Americans find seriously objectionable. Every member of the community lived under the scrutiny of all the others, and none would object when civil authority was invoked to enforce the community’s standards of righteousness. Morison says, “People who read the Bible and sincerely believed in it, adopted or attempted a very exacting code of morals; and as they believed that this code was Gospel ordinance, they endeavored to enforce it on others.”

We have little use for that kind of governance now, though sometimes we suspect that it may still exist, at least unofficially, in small rural places. But it was common enough all over Europe in those days. One government might be more lax or even corrupt than others when it came to controlling private behavior, but few if any would deny having the right to do that.

In Massachusetts Bay, the most obvious limit on freedom in the realm of public behavior was the colony’s prohibition of any form of worship or preaching that didn’t conform to Christian orthodoxy exactly as the Puritans’ church defined it. This policy made sense to the colony’s founders, who believed that they had (as Winthrop’s sermon declares) a commission from God to bring the ideal Christian community into existence. Thus, as Morison writes, “we should not look to them to be tolerant of other points of view, to suffer the foxes to spoil the vines which they have tenderly planted. The rights of the individual they will hold as nothing in the scales against the public interest, as they conceive it.” Elsewhere he says, “Intolerance was stamped on the very face of the Bay Colony by the conscious purpose of its founders to walk by the ordinances of God, as interpreted by themselves.”
Whipping of a Baptist preacher
Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were expelled from the colony lest their heretical ideas displace any of the truth in the minds of believers. When Baptists and Quakers came along somewhat later, the authorities tried to keep them out, and to suppress them if they got in, applying the full range of legal punishments to enforce their silence. This 19th-century picture commemorates the whipping, in 1651, of Obadiah Holmes, a Baptist preacher who had committed the offense of holding an unauthorized religious meeting in Lynn.

Persistence in heretical preaching led to banishment under pain of death, and between 1659 and 1661 four Quakers who persisted in returning were tried and hanged. Mary Dyer, whose statue is in front of the State House in Boston, was the only woman among them. Winthrop, who generally tried to govern the colony as leniently as possible, might have found a way to compromise, but he had died in 1649, and John Endecott, who now held that office, was made of sterner stuff.

It’s clear that, although we owe a great deal to our Puritan predecessors in New England, we can’t admire them as champions of religious liberty. That is what they came here to find, but only for themselves and for others who believed exactly as they did.