There’s a kind of sucker punch in many presentations of American history, wherein we are told that the Puritans left England for America because they had suffered religious persecution—and then the Puritans persecuted other religions here! We’re given the impression that they were looking for freedom of religion and then denied it to others.
In the 1650’s several of our ancestors became Quakers and enduried escalating fines, prison, banishment, whipping and ear cutting. Some of these ancestors were closely involved when four Quakers were condemned to death and executed by public hanging for their religious beliefs in Boston in 1659, 1660 and 1661. Richard SCOTT’s daughter Patience, in June, 1659, a girl of about eleven years, having gone to Boston as a witness against ‘the persecution of the Quakers, was sent to prison; others older being banished. Today we ask, “What kind of people put an 11 year old girl in jail? ”
In our 2011 imagination, the Quakers are the conscientious objector good guys while the Puritans are the hypocritical tyrants. Almost any book you read about the Massachusetts Bay Colony gives you the feeling that the moment those people set foot on shore in America they started betraying their own values. Objectivity is hard to come by when you’re reading about the Puritans. Is our modern perspective accurate?
The Puritan’s secular life went hand in hand with their spiritual life. You had to be a church member in order to become a “freeman.” It seems that every other immigrant to New England in the 17th C. held public office. I’ve tagged over 150 of our ancestors with the category “Public Office” With annual terms for selectman, constable, fence viewer, grand jury, general court, etc. everyone who wanted to had a chance to participate. I think this participation is one of the most important sources of the American identity. Here are definitions of a few of the terms: Early New England Public Offices
The Puritans were members of the official state church of England, the Anglican Church, but they felt it needed to be reformed and restructured (purified) to be more Protestant.
When Charles I took the throne and in 1630 and made William Laud, a pro-Catholic, anti-Puritan church leader the Archbishop of Canterbury much of England’s Puritan population fled England. Laud harried them out, putting a price on the heads of more outspoken and powerful Puritan ministers, making it a criminal offense to attend Puritan worship services, and generally doing his best to squash all opposition to the Anglican Church.
In 1630 the Great Migration of Puritans under John Winthrop headed to what is now Boston, and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans were forced out because they wanted to reform human civilization through religion, to wipe out poverty, and to make a heaven on Earth in which everyone was free to discover God’s will for themselves.
But these were not generalized goals; that is, the Puritans did not believe that any or every religion, diligently applied, could result in such a paradise. They believed that only their reformed version of Anglican Christianity could put such goals within reach. They were not completely crazy for thinking so. In the world they knew, the world of European and especially English Christianity, the Puritans were the only group calling for an end to poverty, the only group demanding that all people, even women, be taught how to read (so they could read the Bible, God’s word), and the only group that required its members to work hard to improve the world on a person-by-person basis.
Puritans were supposed to live exemplary lives in every respect so that anyone they dealt with—their customers, friends, even strangers they met—would see God through them, and be inspired to seek God themselves. Thus the Puritans might be excused for thinking their religion was the only one that could save the world. In their limited experience of the world, theirs was the most actively reformist faith. They left England to preserve that faith, so that Puritanism would not be diluted or destroyed.
The Puritans did not encourage religious diversity or practice religious tolerance in New England, not because they were terrible, hateful people, but because they were on a mission, and they feared God’s wrath upon themselves if they failed in that mission to create a holy nation on Earth. They left England to establish a Puritan state where Puritan Anglicanism—Congregationalism—could be practiced. They did not leave England to establish a state where people were free to practice whatever religion they wanted. It is incorrect to say the Puritans wanted freedom of religion; they did not. They wanted to be able to practice their own religion freely. Those are two very different things.
In the brave new Christian colony of Massachusetts Bay government and church were as one. The state existed only to further God’s purpose. New England’s very existence was a covenant with God. Thus heresy was a civil offence, as was profanity, blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, sodomy, Sabbath-breaking – and of course, witchcraft. A misjudged curse – “willful blaspheming the holy name of God” – would merit a painful sojourn in the stocks.
The small townships established across the New England landscape clustered about their church/meeting halls, snuggled up to Jesus. With a profane, carnal, wilderness all about them, theirs was a citadel of God-fearing self-control and restraint. Authority came directly from God, not a king or a bishop, and was entrusted to the Elders who interpreted His Holy Book and guided self-governing communities of the pure. A minority of Puritans supported a limited form of centralised leadership, Presbyterianism, but most favoured “each congregation an entire and independent body-politic under Christ” –Congregationalism. Wary of outsiders, the Congregational churches accepted a member only if he could demonstrate that he was indeed among God’s elect.
As believers in “predestination” the Puritans suffered the psychotic torment of never being really sure that they had received the “gift of God’s grace” and were forever striving for more diligent standards of biblical behaviour. A sumptuary law of 1634 forbade “rich apparel” – woollen or linen clothes trimmed with silver, gold, silk, or lace. Another in 1651 expressed “utter detestation” that men and women “of mean condition” should be wearing the garb of gentlemen (those with “visible estates of £200” or more).
The first Puritans of New England certainly disapproved of Christmas celebrations, as did some other Protestant churches of the time. Celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659. The ban was revoked in 1681 by the English-appointed governor Sir Edmund Andros, who also revoked a Puritan ban on festivities on Saturday nights. Nevertheless, it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region. Likewise the colonies banned many secular entertainments, such as games of chance, maypoles, and drama, on moral grounds.
They were not, however, opposed to drinking alcohol in moderation. Early New England laws banning the sale of alcohol to Native Americans were criticized because it was “not fit to deprive Indians of any lawfull comfort aloweth to all men by the use of wine.” Laws banned the practice of individuals toasting each other: it led to wasting God’s gift of beer and wine, as well as being carnal. Bounds were not set on enjoying sexuality within the bounds of marriage, as a gift from G In fact, spouses (albeit, in practice, mainly females) were disciplined if they did not perform their sexual marital duties, in accordance with 1 Corinthians 7 and other biblical passages. Puritans publicly punished drunkenness and sexual relations outside of marriage.
New England differed from its mother country, where nothing in English statute required schoolmasters or the literacy of children. With the possible exception of Scotland, the Puritan model of education in New England was unique. John Winthrop in 1630 had claimed that the society they would form in New England would be “as a city upon a hill;” and the colony leaders would educate all. These were men of letters, had attended Oxford or Cambridge, and communicated with intellectuals all over Europe; and in 1636 they founded the school that shortly became Harvard College.
Besides the Bible, children needed to read in order to “understand…the capital laws of this country,” as the Massachusetts code declared, order being of the utmost importance, and children not taught to read would grow “barbarous” (the 1648 amendment to the Massachusetts law and the 1650 Connecticut code, both used the word “barbarisme”). By the 1670s, all New England colonies (excepting Rhode Island) had passed legislation that mandated literacy for children. In 1647, Massachusetts passed a law that required towns to hire a schoolmaster to teach writing.
Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America that Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for American democracy. As Sheldon Wolin puts it, “Tocqueville was aware of the harshness and bigotry of the early colonists”; but on the other hand he saw them as “archaic survivals, not only in their piety and discipline but in their democratic practices”. The theme of a religious basis of economic discipline is echoed in sociologist Max Weber‘s work, but both de Tocqueville and Weber argued that this discipline was not a force of economic determinism, but one factor among many that should be considered when evaluating the relative economic success of the Puritans.
Rev. John Lathrop
In 1623 Rev. John LATHROP renounced his orders and joined the cause of the Independents. Lothropp gained prominence in 1624, when he was called to replace Reverend Henry Jacob as the pastor of the First Independent Church in London, a congregation of sixty members which met at Southwark. Church historians sometimes call this church the Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey Church, named for its first three pastors, Henry Jacob, John Lothropp and Henry Jessey.
They were forced to meet in private to avoid the scrutiny of Bishop of London William Laud. Following the group’s discovery on April 22, 1632 by officers of the king, forty two of Lothropp’s Independents were arrested. Only eighteen escaped capture. They were prosecuted for failure to take the oath of loyalty to the established church. They were jailed in The Clink prison. All were released on bail by the spring of 1634 except Lothropp, who was deemed too dangerous to be set at liberty. While he was in prison, his wife Hannah House became ill and died. His six surviving children were according to tradition left to fend for themselves begging for bread on the streets of London. Friends being unable to care for his children brought them to the Bishop who had charge of Lothropp. The Bishop of London ultimately released him on bond in May of 1634 with the understanding that he would immediately remove to the New World. With his group, John sailed on the Griffin and arrived in Boston on 18 Sep 1634.
Gov. Thomas Prence
Thomas PRENCE was not part of those religious dissenters who sought religious freedom in America, but he apparently sympathized with them. Perhaps not knowingly, he took two steps that led to his leadership role. He married Patience BREWSTER, daughter of the community’s religious leader, Elder William BREWSTER , and in 1627 he became one of eight colony members who assumed the pilgrims’ debt to the London merchants who had backed establishment of the colony.
He became governor of Plymouth, for the first time, in 1634; he was elected again in 1638 and served from 1657 to 1673. After the death of Governor Bradford in 1653, he became the leader of the Plymouth Colony serving in that capacity until his death.
He was distinguished for his religious zeal, and opposed those that he believed to be heretics, particularly the Quakers. He became infamous for the banishment of those who would not conform to his specific church law, including Samuel Gorton, the first governor of Rhode Island. He restructured the local government to secure his position and led the persecution of numerous people for offenses such as smiling in church, harboring non-church members, and tending garden during the Sabbath.
He also procured revenue for the colony’s grammar schools so future generations would be better educated.
George Willison in Saints and Strangers noted that in 1646, Thomas Prence was opposed to religious tolerance and, in 1657, was a leader in Quaker and Baptist persecutions. In Duxbury, the policy of Gov. Prence “met stiff opposition led by Henry and Arthur HOWLAND [our ancestors] and others. Henry Howland was up on the malicious charge of ‘improperlie entertaining’ a neighbor’s wife, and his young son, Zoeth, was put in the stocks for saying that he ‘would not goe to meeting to hear lyes, and that the Divill could preach as good a sermon as the ministers,’ with which many townspeople seemed to agree, choosing to pay a fine rather than attend public worship.”
Imagine Gov. Prence’s feelings when he discovered that “one of his chief enemy’s sons, young Arthur Howland [also our ancestor], was surreptitiously courting his daughter Elizabeth. As the law forbade ‘making motion of marriage’ to a girl without her parents’ consent, the irascible old governor promptly hauled the ‘impudent’ youth into court and fined him five pounds for ‘inveigeling’ his daughter. The young lovers were not discouraged and remained constant, for seven years later Arthur was again in court, was fined and put under bond of 50 pounds ‘to refrain and desist.’ The couple continued to behave ‘disorderlie and unrighteously,’ finally breaking the iron will of the old governor.” They were married and, “in good time the names of their children, Thomas Howland and Prence (Prince) Howland, were inscribed on the baptismal roll of the church.”
1657 – Arthur Howland Jr., an ardent Quaker and son of Arthur HOWLAND Sr., was brought before the court. Elizabeth Prence, daughter of Gov. Thomas PRENCE (also our ancestor) and Arthur Howland Jr., fell in love. The relationship blossomed and matrimony seemed inevitable. However, it was illegal and punishable by court sanction for couples to marry without parental consent. Thomas Prence urged Elizabeth to break off the relationship, but to no avail. He then used powers available to him as Governor. Arthur Howland, Jr., was brought before the General Court and fined five pounds for
“inveigling of Mistris Elizabeth Prence and making motion of marriage to her, and prosecuting the same contrary to her parents likeing, and without theire mind and will…[and] in speciall that hee desist from the use of any meanes to obtaine or retaine her affections as aforesaid.”
2 Jul 1667 – Arthur Howland, Jr., was brought before the General Court again where he “did sollemly and seriously engage before the Court, that he will wholly desist and never apply himself for the future as formerly he hath done, to Mistris Elizabeth Prence in reference unto marriage.” Guess what happened! They were married on December 9, 1667 and in time had a daughter and four sons. Thus a reluctant Thomas Prence acquired a Quaker son-in-law, Quaker grandchildren and innumerable Quaker in-laws of Henry Howland.
22 Dec 1657 – Arthur, his brother Henry and Henry’s son Zoeth were called before the Plymouth court to answer for entertaining a Quaker, and suffering and inviting sundry to hear said Quaker. They were fined for using thier homes for Quaker meetings.’ The families of Arthur Howland and his brother Henry, were two Plymouth families most identified as practicing Quakers. The families ceased attending Plymouth religious services and allowed their homes for the conduct of Quaker meetings. Throughout his life, Arthur’s brother John HOWLAND (also our ancestor) remained faithful to Separatist belief and practice, but his compassion for Quakers is not known.
Major Richard Waldron
1662 – Richard SCAMMON’s son-in-law, Major Richard Waldron was the local magistrate whose stern Puritan action toward three persistent Quaker women proselytizers became the stuff of condemnatory poetry by Whittier. He ordered them to be marched behind a cart through eleven townships and stripped to the waist and whipped in each. When released in the third township they were marched into, the women left for Maine