A City upon a Hill


*Although England was mostly Protestant by the 1600s, there were disagreements among Protestants.  The Church of Scotland was Calvinist, and the Church of England was not.  Furthermore, the Church of England was split between those who preferred traditional, conservative, seemingly-Catholic rituals, vestments, hierarchy, and traditions (and who believed in Free Will as part of Salvation)—known as Arminians—and those who wanted to purify the Church of such things and allow greater local control (and who also believed in Calvinist Predestination)—sometimes known as Puritans.  Among the ways they wanted to purify the church was by reducing or removing the church hierarchy of bishops and replacing them with local, or congregational, control.


*James I was known to favour the Arminians, but to try to bring unity to the Church, he sponsored (and as a noted scholar, assisted with) the creation of a new English translation of the Bible, begun in 1604 and published in 1611, commonly known as the King James Bible.  However, some Puritans did not approve, because some passages in the Bible translated the original texts in such a way that seemed to support a divinely sanctioned king and a hierarchical church.


*Some Protestants who disagreed with the King did not even think the Church of England could be purified, and wanted to completely separate from it.  These Separatists angered King James I who felt that religious unity in a hierarchical church was vital to political unity—he famously said ‘No bishop, no king.’  Disgusted by a sinful society and harassed by the English government, some of these Separatists fled to the Netherlands in 1608, and by making this journey for religious purposes, came to be known as Pilgrims.


*The Pilgrims went to the Protestant and tolerant Netherlands seeking religious freedom for themselves, but were not happy there.  They had not been rich in England and they did not prosper in the Netherlands.  Furthermore, the tolerance of the Dutch meant that they saw an even more permissive and sinful society around themselves than they had in England, and they worried that their children would become culturally Dutch and religiously lax.  They wanted a separate community of their very own.


*The Pilgrims reached an agreement with the Virginia Company whereby they would settle in Virginia, and in 1620 they set out from Plymouth, England in the Mayflower along with some additional farmers, hired hands, and other emigrants to Virginia.  They became with 102 passengers (and about 30 crew); on the trip one child was born and one died.  Along the way, their ship was blown off course and they ended up off the coast of Massachusetts, where they had no legal right to settle.


*Despite being outside the bounds of Virginia, the Pilgrims created a settlement named Plymouth, but before leaving the Mayflower drew up the Mayflower Compact as a framework to govern themselves since they were outside any official boundaries and in order to lay the groundwork for a Godly society in which the majority of the colonists would create rules for everyone through discussions in town meetings.  Almost all the men aboard signed it, making it the first framework of government created in English America.


*Under their own government, the people of the Plymouth Colony elected William Bradford governor thirty times in annual elections and Plymouth remained a separate colony until it was merged with Massachusetts in 1691.


*The Pilgrims believed that the hand of God preserved them, because everything else seemed to be against them.  In their first winter, only 44 of the 102 passengers from the Mayflower survived.  However, such was their faith in their new endeavour that not a single one sailed back to England when the Mayflower returned in the Spring of 1621. 


*In that year they prospered, partly with the help of a local Indian named Squanto who had earlier met John Smith and even been to England twice (as well as once to Spain).  Speaking fluent English, he (and other local, but unrelated, Indians) taught the Pilgrims how to grow native crops and hunt local game, and in the fall they celebrated with what is often called the First Thanksgiving, although the Pilgrims did not declare an official day of Thanksgiving until the summer of 1623.


*Over time, more Separatists as well as other English settlers came to Plymouth, but it never grew large or wealthy.  However, it did in some ways set an example for a much larger and more successful group of religious colonists, the Puritans.


*Although the Puritans in England believed that the Church of England needed to be purified, by the end of the 1620s, many believed England was too corrupt and immoral and the members of the Church of England who followed their beliefs were marginalised and often persecuted by the dominant Arminian church leaders and the government, particularly after Charles I dissolved Parliament (in which the Puritans had a large voice) in 1629. 


*In 1629, some Puritans managed to get a Royal Charter to form the Massachusetts Bay Company.  When they departed for the New World in 1630, they took their charter with them, and used it as a form of government outside the direct control of the King.  Under its guidance, all adult male members of the Puritan church (about 40% of the population—much more than in England) could vote, although non-Puritans also had to follow its rules and pay it taxes.

*The Puritans were more prosperous and better-organised than the Pilgrims, and sailed with eleven ships, many supplies, and nearly a thousand colonists.  This was the beginning of a Great Migration of English Puritans to the New World in the 1600s.  At least 25,000 came to New England, but many more went elsewhere in the English colonies, especially to the wealthy sugar colonies of the Caribbean.


*In Massachusetts Bay, under the leadership of the wealthy lawyer John Winthrop (who was governor or deputy governor for nineteen years), the Puritans sought to create a Godly Commonwealth.  In his 1630 sermon, ‘A Model of Christian Charity,’ Winthrop said

The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his oune people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our wayes. Soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome, power, goodness and truthe, than formerly wee haue been acquainted with. Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "the Lord make it like that of New England." For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. 


*The Puritans believed they were called to create a society that would be an example to the rest of the world, that they might be the last, best hope for the pure Christian faith, and that if they failed, Christian civilisation might collapse under the weight of sin and corruption.


*This led the Puritans to create tight-knit communities based around the family and the congregation.  Everyone, of all classes, depended on each other, and individualism was an offence against God.  This did not support ideas of equality, as everyone had his or her place, and ought to do the tasks that God had set for him or her.  In fact, anyone who did not follow Puritan standards could be ‘warned out’ or expelled from the community into the wilderness, or at least into the company of non-Puritans, of whom there were a fair number.  Rules against drunkenness, bad language, and wasting time in games or sports were strict, and church members were expected to attend church meetings almost all day on Sunday.


*Still, with 40% of the population able to vote, Massachusetts Bay was more democratic than anywhere else in the known world.  Even the church was democratic in some ways, in that local congregations hired and fired and determined the salaries of their own ministers, without having to listen to a bishop or other higher authority.  There were even disputes between different leaders of this Congregationalist system, and while the laws of men were supposed to be based on the laws of God, the Puritans, at least to some extent, tried to separate political and religious leadership because they had seen how political leaders could meddle with the church back in England.


*The Puritans created one of the most literate societies on Earth at the time, too.  Because everyone was supposed to be able to read and consider the Bible on his own, literacy rates were very high.  Towns of any size were required to provide public education both to boys and girls, and in small settlements, women often ran small schools of their own—in fact, education was encouraged among women so that they could raise children to be good citizens and good Christians.  On the other hand, part of making Children good citizens and good Christians was by discouraging evil, and corporal punishment was expected to beat the Devil out of children.  To train ministers, Harvard was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1636.


*Although their eyes were on God, the Puritans did not neglect their earthly lives, either. They followed the Protestant work ethic that remembered the advice of Saint Paul (Colossians 3:23-24):  And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.  Working hard was a service to the Lord. 


*Furthermore, as Calvinists who believed in predestination rather than in free will or in salvation through Church membership, individual Puritans could never be absolutely sure that they were among the elect who were going to heaven.  On the one hand, believing that they were among the saints gave them great confidence in their beliefs, but it also gave them a gnawing sense of self-doubt, unsure of their own personal salvation.  Many felt that worldly success could be a sign of God’s favour, and so even though they did not believe that wealth or any good works could earn salvation, they hoped that by doing good and doing well they could discern some sign of their election.


*Overall, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay built a society in the mid-1600s based on order, conformity, and stability in the name of God, and that City upon a Hill prospered.  This society was so successful that it would expand into the Connecticut River Valley and also absorb other struggling colonies around it, although it would also deal with dissenters and doubters in its midst, hostile Indians, and a suspicious royal government in England.

This page last updated 11 May, 2018.
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