Thursday, March 26, 2020

Those Plymouth puritans

Less religiously zealous English commentators of the 16th century maintained that Puritans were "hot protestants." The Protestant Reformation and the emergence of a mercantile bourgeois class which formed a novel, post-feudal, power center turned the island kingdom upside down. The puritans, rigorous and cantankerous Calvinists, were undesirable troublemakers in the view of nearly everyone who didn't agree with them. Between the 1540s and the 1690s

... puritans executed a king, helped remove another one, founded a short-lived republic in England, and established quasi-republics in New England. Coming from all ranks of society, puritans reshaped England's religious culture, destroyed much of its great medieval artistic legacy, wrote creeds and catechisms with worldwide impact, and created a lasting body of religious literature.

... They were the most determined seekers of salvation and the most committed activists for the moral and spiritual reformation necessary to keep God's wrath off England for its many sins and for its failure raise itself to the pristine standards of the Bible. ...

The central institution for guidance in these great puritan struggles with outward and inward sin was, or should have been, the Church of England. ... Puritans supported the Church of England's religious tasks, as well as its religious monopoly. God had only one truth, and England should have only one monarch and one church that governed the country together in their different spheres. The Reformation had been about religious liberty only insofar as that meant the liberty of follow God's law correctly, as outlined in the Bible.

For puritans, the problem with the Church of England was that it was following God's law only erratically, which meant, in their eyes, that it did none of its tasks well. It lagged far behind the continental Reformed churches in purging itself of the government, worship, and the inadequate discipline of its Catholic past. Ever-growing hostility toward puritanism from authorities in church and state eventually pushed some puritans to take the drastic step of immigrating to New England.

... In New England, puritans could finish the business of puritans: fashioning governments and properly reformed Calvinist church establishments that would supervise a unified Christian community, and see to it that God's elect were shepherded to heaven ...

The enormous virtue of Michael P. Winship's Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America, for someone who received a mostly forgotten introduction to mythologized Massachusetts "Pilgrim fathers" in grade school, is that it places those puritans firmly in the context of English political and religious history of which they were but a small offshoot -- albeit one that fathered a worldwide evangelical style which completely overshadowed its Church of England roots. Those who took off across the ocean dodged the high drama and considerable misery of England's religious/civil war of the mid-17th century; they were simply not important in the life and death struggles that consumed the mother country. Consequently they were able to design their own inward looking communities with little hindrance. For many years, they didn't have to realize how far out of phase with England's evolving society and culture they had become. The Atlantic is a big ocean

Here's some of Winship's take on my Plymouth ancestors, the earliest of the puritan emigrants. Their little separatist congregation included apparently some of the hottest of the hot ones.

By the end of the 1610s, their hopes of fostering reformation in the Netherlands were growing dim. Making a living was hard and the Dutch did not meet their high standards of piety. They told themselves that these problems were what prevented English people from flocking to them and freeing themselves from the corruptions of the Church of England. If the separatists went to America and prospered, however, their countrymen would be keener to join them there. And so the decision was made to cross the Atlantic. ... When the time came to depart from the Netherlands in July 1620, the majority of the congregation got cold feet. ...

Their ship got lost on what became the coast of Massachusetts; they settled in an abandoned native village they found depopulated by a recent epidemic; around half of the settlers died in the ensuing winter, leaving only ten households. Moreover they had brought with them no pastor; their former leader who they hoped to import died in London in an outbreak of the plague. They made do with lay leadership from one William Bradford whose chronicle of the colony gave it its later prominence

By 1626, the future of the debt-laden, minister less plantation, its roughly 150 settlers, and the reformation it had hoped to foster appeared grim. Plymouth seemed destined to join the growing scrap heap of failed English North American colonies. "To look humanly on the state of things as they presented themselves at this time, it is a marvel it did not wholly discourage them," Bradford wrote later. That the plantation did survive was because it would shortly acquire a sympathetic, larger, and much better connected puritan neighbor to the north ...

That is, my ancestors needed a rescue and they got lucky. The Massachusetts Bay colony at what became Boston replaced Plymouth as the center of the Calvinist bridgehead in New England. Its leaders were far more sophisticated, and better funded and connected, refugees from the English monarch's effort to suppress the strong strain of Calvinism in the Church of England. Regicide and Civil War followed from Charles II's failure to manage his religiously fractious kingdom.

Meanwhile, the little Plymouth settlement became part of a "United Colonies of New England" compact in 1643, consisting of almost 50 towns. This put this faraway appendage of the embattled English state well on its way to founding its own community "propagating and preserving the truth and liberties of the gospel," and providing for its own defense and welfare. Once kings were re-established in England -- not really until after 1688 -- the Crown tried to resume control over its overseas protestant colonies. The strains of that effort prefigured the eruption of discontent less than 100 years later which led to these United States.

Professor Winship is an American historian, but his real apparent field of interest is Protestant reformation politics in early modern England. This is a fascinating book about the many ins and outs of Calvinist fortunes vis a vis various iterations of governments and the Church of England. I found it solid on the American colonial aspects of the story, but this is not the best part. Still I would recommend taking a look if the course of English speaking Calvinism interests you. The book is also fascinating on what happened when these New England puritans tried to evangelize the native American people among whom they had plopped their little godly polity. I'm planing another post on that story.

I took up Hot Protestants as part of my personal "1620 project" in which I'm trying to learn a little more about the story of my ancestors who were among those tough but otherwise unattractive settlers at Plymouth 400 years ago. A previous post in the series is here:
Those Massachusetts pilgrims


Dhivajri said...

Although it's focused on the far side of the pond, you might be interested in this academic book written by a friend of a friend. Once a library is open again...

janinsanfran said...

I dug out an academic review of David Como's study. I suspect he influenced Winship on Stuart-era puritanism by showing that you shouldn't erase all the dogmatic byways these divine-seekers wandered into. Scholarly efforts to revivify impenetrable crosscurrents are both irresistible and lead to strange rabbit holes. Fun.

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