Changes Over Time

The spirit of Puritanism was most alive in the earlier years of the colony: at that time the reformed faith was still a comparatively new movement, and believers could still feel the triumphant joy of escaping the errors and corruptions of the past to rediscover the true core of Christian belief and worship. Their faith (as has often happened) was not dampened but intensified by the persecution they suffered under King Charles and Archbishop Laud. The immigrants who poured into Massachusetts during the ten years between the colony’s founding and the coming of civil war in England were intensely alive with the awareness of their providential escape and a growing sense of the new possibilities before them.

Naturally enough, some of this intensity was bound to fade. Back in England, the Civil War turned the political tables as the Puritan parliament defeated the monarch and his church and assumed the mantle of power, executing first Archbishop Laud and then King Charles himself.
Old Ship Church, Hingham, built 1681
The Civil War was far away, and Massachusetts, maintaining a prudent neutrality, was growing and thriving. Larger towns could afford to build spacious meetinghouses like this one in Hingham, nowadays called the Old Ship Church. (The only 17th-century meetinghouse still standing in Massachusetts, it has been in continuous service since it was built, and has been lovingly restored to its original appearance.)

Massachusetts Bay’s “Bible commonwealth” was no longer a struggling project, but a fait accompli. All the same, the daily demands of settling, cultivating, and living in an undomesticated land with an uncompromising climate continued unchanged. It isn’t surprising that religious enthusiasm declined a bit, as the settlers, most of whom had raised good-sized families that they had to provide for, concentrated their energies on more secular problems and responsibilities.

As early as the 1650s, the churches began to encounter a new problem. To achieve full church membership, it was necessary to testify before the congregation to one’s personal experience of God’s life-transforming grace. Not to do so was to be denied the right to vote or participate in the colony’s governance, though not the towns’—and many were willing to accept this restriction. But another right denied to non-members was the baptism of their infant children, a restriction that many were far less willing to live with. The unbaptized could acquire church membership in the usual way once they became adults, but what if they should die before they grew up? Anxious though they might be about this, however, people fully immersed in the hard work of daily life seem to have been less subject to the kind of soul-stirring religious experience required for full membership that their parents or grandparents had stood up in church and reported.

This discomfort generated enough pressure and controversy to cause the General Court, at the urging of a Connecticut minister named Solomon Stoddard, to legislate a compromise called “the Half-way Covenant.” This would admit worshippers who appeared to be leading virtuous lives and who “owned the covenant” of a church—in other words, accepted and agreed to it—to a partial membership. They couldn’t participate in the ceremony of the Lord’s Supper, but, crucially, they could have their children baptized. Despite the opposition of many conservative Puritans, both clergy and laity, this policy was adopted in 1662.

Quite a few ministers interpreted the pressure and controversy, and its political result, as evidence that their congregations were losing sight of the Christian idealism that had created and informed their commonwealth and were beginning to concentrate instead on pursuing wealth and worldly success. Fiery sermons were preached from many pulpits, reminding those in the pews of the mortal danger in which they might be putting their souls. Like most Christians of that time, the Puritans had a vivid sense that “the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour,” and an equally vivid sense of the eternal misery that might follow that catastrophe.
Wigglesworth's 'Day of Doom'
It was in that year of the Half-way Covenant, 1662, that Michael Wigglesworth, the minister of Malden’s church, published “Day of Doom,” a poem of 124 stanzas describing the sudden and unexpected coming of Christ to pronounce judgment on all humankind. The poem forthrightly describes the punishments visited on the wicked, but it doesn’t dwell lovingly on this subject, which takes up 18 stanzas toward the end. Much more attention—50 stanzas— is given to the trial of the sinners, in which Christ hears and refutes every excuse and self-justification they urge in their defense. It’s fair to say that the poet was more interested in giving his readers moral instruction than terrifying them into godliness, although like most Christians in that era, he emphasized God’s justice equally with his mercy, and sternly pointed out every situation in which mercy, though hoped for, could not be expected.

The clerical campaign against backsliding may have made some headway, but it was probably impossible to recapture the early Puritan idealism in all its strength. Even so, the majority of Massachusetts Bay’s settlers still “owned the covenants” of their local churches; they had not lost their faith, even if they couldn’t always summon up the intense zeal of their forebears. The long Sunday sermons were still faithfully attended, carefully listened to, and warmly appreciated. The ministers, even those who hurled the most terrifying thunderbolts from their pulpits at the congregants trembling in the pews, were admired and loved. (Perhaps, however, the ones who treated their congregations with more gentle understanding were loved a bit more.)

Though many in Massachusetts Bay may have been distracted from some of the obligations of a religious life by the constant hard work required to feed their families and keep them warm through the winter, there were certainly some who may have deserved the ministers’ reproaches that they were lured by the attractions of wealth. Affluent colonists often busied themselves in real estate speculation, and a great deal of this went on in the colony. The larger the population and economy of Massachusetts Bay grew, the more kinds of opportunity presented themselves. Salem and Boston, the biggest seaports, developed trading and mercantile economies in which many of their citizens made tidy fortunes. There was money to be made in both import and export trading, and such ancillary industries as building and furnishing ships and warehousing the goods they carried. Massachusetts Bay certainly exploited its de facto independence by ignoring the restrictions that England imposed on its colonies—laws intended to ensure that the colonies poured wealth into the mother country, as was thought proper at the time, rather than letting the money end up in colonial pockets.
King Charles’s guineas
The picture shows gold guineas minted during the reign of Charles II—“CAROLVS II,” since kings’ names were customarily printed in Latin for official purposes. These were found in 2013, mixed with coins from the reigns of James II and William III, under the floor of a pub in Ireland, where they’d apparently been buried around 1700 when a house stood on the same spot.

Money was doubtless an object of interest to many in Massachusetts Bay, but it wasn’t an object of worship. Even so, a concerned and by no means fanatical minister might reasonably consider preoccupation with worldly wealth a threat to his flock’s spiritual well-being, and say so from the pulpit. However, the Massachusetts clergy, while they held merchants and investors to strict standards of fair dealing, never went to the extreme of declaring commerce and land speculation wicked in themselves.