The Liberal Christian Revolution & Death of New England Puritanism

On November 9, 1620, the leader of the Browinst pilgrims, William Bradford, spotted land. It would be the first time since the Mayflower pioneers, harbored in Southampton more than 3,000 miles away, would lay eye upon any. The terra firma Bradford spotted would eventually grow home to the very heart and soul of Yankeedom. In the years following the oft brutal and unforgiving formation of the Plymouth colony, new Puritan communities would begin to settle along the Massachusetts Bay. Unlike their Brownist neighbors, the more numerous Puritans that began to settle along the Bay maintained a nominal relationship with the Church of England. Although almost negligible in day-to-day life, the association proved essential politically in achieving legitimacy from the British Crown.

The ruling class in New England quickly became the more moderate Puritans over that of the Brownist separatists in Plymouth. This dynamic lasted for decades, universities, such as Harvard, were even founded by this elite.[1] Yet, in time, these elite Puritans grew disillusioned with the Church of England as much, if not more than their Plymouth brethren. Congregations sprouted and were sustainable on their own, for the orthodoxies of biblical literalism and Calvinist confessionalism became authority unto themselves. This great period of Puritanical New England is known within the consciousness for the witch hunting Salem trials – popularly caricaturized by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in 1953. Yet a more honest overview of the period can be explored in the work of John Winthrop, the perennial Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in his works A Model of Christian Charity and The History of New England, where the true virtuous democratic nature of early Yankeedom illuminates. Winthrop beautifully articulates the communalism, charity, and exceptional nature of the Old Cambridge stock in these works.

“We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.”’[2]

This “City Upon a Hill” mentality not only harkens back to the Biblical nation of Israel, as Winthrop’s Brownist contemporary William Bradford displayed regularly in his memoir Of Plymouth Plantation, but also to the City of God conception formulated by Augustine of Hippo.

“Of the universal peace which the law of nature preserves through all disturbances, and by which every one reaches his desert in a way regulated by the just judge.”[3]

These words from Augustine encapsulated the introspective view of Puritan society. Like Winthrop, the Puritans truly believed they embodied this “City of God” on earth the best possible – as they saw themselves exceptional in both equality and virtue. In the same way Augustine shows the wrath of God being poured upon the City of Man in Book XXI;

“Now they who would refer both the fire and the worm to the spirit, and not to the body, affirm that the wicked, who are separated from the kindgdom of God, shall be burned, as it were, by the anguish of a spirit repenting too late and fruitlessly; and they contend that fire is therefore not inappropriately used to express this burning torment, as when the apostle exclaims “Who is offended, and I burn not?” 2 Corinthians 11:29 The worm, too, they think, is to be similarly understood. For it is written they say, “As the moth consumes the garment, and the worm the wood, so does grief consume the heart of a man.” Isaiah 51:8 But they who make no doubt that in that future punishment both body and soul shall suffer, affirm that the body shall be burned with fire, while the soul shall be, as it were, gnawed by a worm of anguish.”

So too the Puritans feared the unfavorability of God in their societies. Even with modern day Anabaptist Mennonites such as the Amish in Pennsylvania, we can see a high focus upon being in favor with an idea of ordained righteousness. Just as the Amish were born of a spirit of Biblical primitivism and lost tradition, the Puritans of New England bore a similar motivation.

Precisely what rooted the Puritan community, allowing them to be so interdependent, was their deep Church primitivism. Doctrine not only came from catechisms and councils, but the Apostles themselves. A spirit of conservative Restorationism, meaning a high focus on the primacy of Apostolic doctrine over all else, dominated the socio-political. This doctrinal proximity to the Apostles produced a sense of direct, elect covenant with God.[4] Drawn from Calvin’s understanding of predeterminism and bolstered by the numerous analogies to the ancient Jews, the theological axioms of the Puritans produced a unique drive. And it must be emphasized how interconnected the social and political truly were. Max Weber, in his thesis on the Protestant ethic, recalls the teachings of John Wesley who derived many of his ideas from the early Puritans when he preached, “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can”.[5] Such an inscrutable loyalty to the Gospels provided a traditional and stoic lifestyle for these Nonconformists. Even by the time Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the mid-1800s, the deep roots of socio-political Puritanism were visible in the bottom-up, institutional societies of the North.

“The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the natives of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.”[6]

Although prevalent in the North’s democratic legacy, the once universally binding focus upon the Word of God began to dwindle. The attempted conservative Restorationist movement by Socinian-minded Unitarians, that being a return to the Nature of God as outlined in the Racovian Catechism, quickly devolved into a liberal Christian revolution. Enlightenment thought permeated congregations throughout New England. Even former Calvinists, like Jonathan Mayhew at the behest of Charles Chauncy, would eventually embrace liberal theology. Such a theology was barely based upon Biblical arguments, rather the liberation of man. One can see such a high focus on civil society in Mayhew’s A Discourse… made to King Charles I, when he says: “I now add, farther, that the apostle’s argument is so far from proving it to be the duty of people to obey, and submit to, such rulers as act in contradiction to the public good, and so to the design of their office, that it proves the direct contrary.”

The congregational polity was ineffective in preventing heresy, as it was inherently tied to the democratic nature of the state. Excommunication, although common, was unsustainable in weaker congregations. This divide proved favorable of the British continental elite. To tolerate the Massachusetts colony to allow for more immigrants, and to consolidate a perceived loss of power in the region to localism, the British actively elevated liberal Christians to the colonial aristocracy.

“The government that these Puritan pioneers formed was by no means liberal. The British Crown eventually (in 1692) had to force the Massachusetts Bay Colony to tolerate members of other sects. The colony did not welcome Quakers, and dissenters had to pay a fee to support the Puritan church.”[7]

This caused an unsurprising backlash. Historically, the Puritan colony always viewed itself as separate from the mother country of England, even divinely, as aforementioned.[8] Yet the aggressiveness of the British colonial regime to consolidate control, thus ridding them of their orthodox identity, motivated the colonists to a last-ditch confrontation. When pressured to pay a required 20% of all gold and silver found in the Bay, the colonists responded that they were “not obligated to the king but by civility”.[9]

In response, the colony found its charter revoked. In such a state of disarray, they awaited order – which would be provided in 1686 after the ascension of King James II. The Dominion of New England was formed, with the spirit of Puritanism taking a substantial backseat to continental interests. Those less supportive of the Puritan regime, the liberal Christians, became even more elevated in New England society. This eventually manifested in the early 1800s to the liberal takeover of traditionally Puritan institutions like Harvard & state government. In 1805 liberal Christian Henry Ware was elected to the Hollis chair at Harvard, and in 1807 Samuel Webber became president of the University. In 1669, Baptists had coalesced at the border to form a new state – Rhode Island, in direct opposition to Puritanism; and shortly after the consolidation of New England, Baptists began becoming governor. The revival project had fallen at the seams of liberalism and colonial politics.

But where does the blame lie for this devolution? The problems were baked into the cake by the libertine, virtue-intensive requirements that Tocquevillian localism and congregational churching required. Yet, one could see a world without the geopolitical pressures by the continent upon the Puritans, where they were able to weather the storm of liberal theology and return to orthodoxy, even allowing for wider pluralism of primitivist, conservative Restorationist traditions. Yet such a reality failed to materialize. The rise of liberal Christianity led to the death of the great moral founding stock of Plymouth heritage. One can only look back, both religiously and politically, and hope for a resurgence in the Restorationism of their faith, and simpleness of their societies.

[1] (’s-first-impressions/).

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[3] Augustine’s City of God: Book Nineteen, Chapter 13.

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[6] Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville: Chapter VIII, pg. 418 (Frohnen translation).

[7] 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project by Peter W. Wood: Chapter One, pg. 32.

[8] The Dominion of New England: A Study in British Colonial Policy by Viola Florence Barnes: pg. 6

[9] The Dominion of New England: A Study in British Colonial Policy by Viola Florence Barnes: pg. 7