The Essence of Puritan Thinking and the Exodus to the Americas

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

There is one sense in which those who argue for the non-existence or irrelevance of the American mind are right. America is not the creation of someone’s ideas. Its discovery by Europeans at the end of 1400’s emerged from no particular plan or blueprint. It was the offspring of a handful of relentlessly practical entrepreneurs who were looking for shorter and more direct paths for trade with the Orient than the tedious way Eastward around Africa. The fact that they discovered not a direct rout to China but two enormous land masses on the Americas was not an occasion for joy. Once it became apparent that these land masses could not be easily gotten around, most Europeans lost interest in America. Those who remained interested turned their attention to extracting by the readiest means available whatever articles of commercial wealth the American continents possessed.

After most of the treasures have been lifted by murderous European hands from the poorly armed and poorly defended native American owners, the curiosity of most of those Europeans, mainly the Spanish, focused on the preservation of a few colonial posts and the exploitation of some commodities, like fur, timber and fish.

The result was that a century after Columbus realized that there was not quick sea rout Westward to Asia, Europe’s total investment in America was limited to a thinly spread collection of soldiers, missionaries and freebooters. That sums up, in not too flattering terms, what the original European settlement of the American continent was all about. All of which provides absolutely no precedent for the appearance in 1630 on the coast of New England of what looked for all the world like a fleet of university professors and their students. They were called Puritans. And a very great deal of what we call American intellectual history flows downstream from them.

The Beginning of Calvinism and Puritan Theology

In 1517, the German monk Martin Luther raised the banner of theological rebellion against the authority of the Catholic Church in what has become universally known as the Protestant Reformation. The specific issue which triggered the reformation was theological, but that issue implicated a host of others, and in short order, Luther’s followers had begun to remodel other features of traditional Catholic belief.

In Switzerland, a French protestant named John Calvin reconstituted the organization of the Church. The Church had always been a hierarchy, with the bishop of dioceses at the top and the Pope in Rome as the bishop of the bishops; the priests below and the lay people underneath. Calvin refashioned this hierarchy, with priests now renamed as elders or presbyters ruling the churches jointly with lay leaders. Calvin also refined and expanded Luther’s theological protests, so that a uniquely Calvinist protestant theology eventually emerged based on five fundamental points.

The first of these points was total depravity. In other words, all human beings are born sinners and the of God’s grace if they expect to live their lives here and enjoy eternal life in the hereafter. Secondly, unconditional election; since human beings are born sinful, they don’t have any prospect of pulling themselves up by their own ethical efforts, they have to hope for God’s grace and his initiative. The third point was limited atonement. The thing which justifies God in bestowing grace on sinners is the redemption made by the self-offering and death of Jesus Christ. However, this atonement is not free for all, it would apply and it is limited to only those whom God elects to receive grace. Next point is irresistible grace: when God does choose someone to receive this grace, there is no resistance in it; given the fact that is God who is doing the choosing, it is hard to think how they could. The last point in Calvin’s thinking is known as perseverance of the saints: God never lets any of his elects fall away.

These five points were not actually formulated as a system until a century later after Calvin’s death, and they had to compete with several others forms of protestant theology. But Calvinism was certainly the most logical, and in England, the most dangerous of Protestant theologies. Dangerous, but not because England was more pious than the rest of Europe.

The Church of England

King Henry VIII of England brought his kingdom into the Protestant column in the 1530’s guided strictly by a political desire to get the Pope’s meddling fingers out of his realm. Henry lived and died with the notion that he could deny the sovereignty of the Pope in England while retaining traditional Catholic theology and the structure of bishops, priests and people; only with himself rather than the Pope at the top of the hierarchy.

England was so conservative in his religious ways that Henry was much more successful pulling this off than it seems possible. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, who became Queen of England in 1558, settled matters down in pretty much the shape her father had expected. Under Elizabeth, the English Church would be independent of Rome, and probably a good deal more protestant in its theology than Henry may have wanted. But its structure would be national. Every English subject would automatically belong to the Church of England, be baptized into it at birth and would support it with compulsory taxes. Its hierarchy would be traditional. There would continue to be bishops, priests and people. And its worship would be liturgical, out of a national manual known as the Book of Common Prayer.

Elizabeth made life exceptionally nasty for anyone who clung to the old Catholic ways. Any kind of affection for Catholicism was treated by Elizabeth in England as treason. But life could be as nasty for those English protestants who felt that Elizabeth had left entirely too many of the old Catholic ways in place. They considered Calvin as the model and solution for English Christianity. Elizabeth regarded them as been fully as much apart as the Catholics. These were the people who became known first as Precicians, because they wanted to be too precise about Church reformation. Then eventually as Puritans.

Puritans in Different Shapes and Colors

For the first two decades of her reign, Elizabeth had more to deal with from the Catholics at home and abroad than from the Puritans. Puritans of various shapes won lodgements at many levels in the English Church, the English Universities and even in the Queen’s government. A number of Elizabeth’s bishops, like Edmund Grindal, who served as the senior archbishop of the Church of England; and entire colleges within the universities had sympathy with Calvinist ideas.

This could happen because many of these Puritans were interested in little more than some mild tweaking. These represented the mildest challenge to the Queen’s dictate. Other Puritans, shifting a bit more towards the radical end of the spectrum, wanted more than just a tweaking of the Church of England. These Puritans wanted the Crown to mandate the adoption of the Calvinist system of presbyterian organization.

There were other Puritans yet for whom Calvin was only a starting point on the road to reform, not the goal. People who were impatient with the bishops ruling over the churches were often not better pleased with Calvin’s committee of ministers doing the same thing. These Puritans, known as Independents and later as Congregationalists, demanded that each congregation be given sole right to rule its own affairs.

Still other Puritans, more radical still, were the Separatists. They wanted membership to Church limited only to those who give testimony and evidence of having received God’s grace, even if that meant separating such congregations of the elect from the rest of England’s presumably impure society.

After 1588, the year when Spain’s “Armada Invencible” failed in its effort of reconquering England for Catholicism, Elizabeth’s attention turned increasingly and uncomfortably to the Puritan dissidents of her realm. Efforts to whip the Puritans into line with Elizabeth’s Church settlement began in earnest. When Elizabeth died in 1603, the Puritans hoped for sympathy from her successor, James of Scotland, who had been raised as a Calvinist.

James came to England to become King precisely because he was sick of Calvinism and he persecuted the Puritans with even greater vigor. When James died in 1625, his son Charles I proved to be even more severe. English Puritans began to look for a way out.

A New Exodus

Handfuls of the separatists left first, abandoning England for the Calvinist Netherlands; and then in 1620 as pilgrims to the English grand land in America known as New England. Nine years later a major exodus of some 400 Puritans followed them to New England and set up the colony they called Massachusetts Bay. Not for gold, not for glory; but for the first time in America, in pursuit of an idea.

Leaving 17th century England was a little like trying to leave the old Soviet Union. Unless you had a very plausible reason, the attempt was interpreted as an expression of dissatisfaction. The Puritans who came to Massachusetts Bay produced what they thought were very plausible reasons. They organized themselves as a commercial enterprise, the Massachusetts Bay Company, and they were all going to make their fortunes in America. That the leaders of the Company were all Puritans was purely accidental, and the Puritan clergymen who happened to be emigrating with them promised that any experiments in reformation that they might be inclined to were only the better part of Church reformation, whatever that meant. It turned out to mean almost anything.

Within ten years, the Massachusetts Bay Company welcomed several thousand Puritan refugees and set up a string of thriving towns stretching Westward from the principal settlement Boston. These towns looked like nothing anyone could have found in old England. In the first place, there was no bishop. Each town established its own church and each church called whomever it wished as the town minister. There was also no prayer book, instead there was plenty of highly Calvinistic preaching. In a number of these churches, merely being born of English parents on English soil was no adequate qualification for church membership. Instead, ministers and elders began asking for testimonies of grace before meeting people to membership.

If this looks like Puritanism sliding to Congregationalism and ready to slide some more into outright Separatism, still, the Puritans of Massachusetts also struggled with some of the older notions of English established national church order. Every town was required to establish a church. Everyone in the town was required to attend. Ministers no longer functioned as officers of the realm, as they did in England. Even marriages had to be performed by a magistrate, just to keep church apart. Still the opinion of ministers in civic affairs were eagerly sought after and they were part of almost every civil event in Massachusetts.

One place where this mix of separatist inclination and traditional establishment was dramatically highlighted was a across the Charles river from Boston, in the town of Cambridge, where the first University in the American continent was founded: Harvard.