New England's first colonists had little trouble building a "city set on a hill." Virtually every New Englander, whether Separatist or Non-separatist, bound themselves to others with a covenant. These covenants expressed the covenant Puritans enjoyed with God. Puritans saw themselves as a "new Israel," so they organized themselves as a theocracy and awaited God's blessings.
The Massachusetts colony succeeded largely because of a continuing stream of immigrants. New immigrants purchased supplies from earlier immigrants and then established their homes, businesses, or farms. Massachusetts became substantially prosperous, a sure sign of God's pleasure.
John Winthrop, one of the colony's most outstanding governors, recognized an inherent problem in the colony's structure. He knew Puritans built God's society on imperfect men. Although he tried diligently to walk a tightrope of strict demands, Winthrop knew problems lay just over the horizon. He was right.
I. Trouble in New England
The Plymouth colony and the Massachusetts Bay colony kept each other at arm's length. The "Pilgrims" would not recognize their bay area brethren simply because they refused to separate from the Church of England. Bostonians, and others, refused to recognize Plymouth because of their strict separation. Both groups exercised strict control over their respective communities. Religious freedom might exist in America, but not in Plymouth or on Massachusetts Bay. If you refused to conform, you moved inland or elsewhere. In time rebels, or the rejected founded Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.
The founders of Rhode Island proved the most conspicuous. Let me introduce you to one of American history's most celebrated individuals: Roger Williams.
Williams, supposedly non-separatist but really far more separatist in his attitudes than his credentials revealed, arrived with his wife in February 1631. The Salem church, now mildly non-separatist, received him warmly because he had a reputation as a godly minister. Williams objected to the church's attitudes because it was not separated enough. His continual objections led to his dismissal from the church and the community.
Williams made his way to Plymouth because he felt he would be more comfortable there. While there, however, he alienated the Pilgrims by charging them with defrauding Indians. He believed those few Indians in the area were not properly compensated for the lands taken by Pilgrims. Thus, Plymouth asked Williams to leave.
Salem called him back to their pulpit but after a brief period he withdrew because of their lack of separation. Williams then questioned the colony's relationship between church and state. He soon drew the attention of the colony's power structure. Williams argued that the government had no right to enforce uniformity of belief and practice or to collect taxes for ministerial support. Some accepted his rambling as somewhat radical, but ultimately his position led directly to his banishment in January 1636.
The Indians knew Williams as a friend, so they invited him to Narragansett Bay where they provided him with shelter, food, and clothing. In the spring, his Indian friends gave him a piece of land. Williams used this land as a "plantation" and as a "shelter for persons distressed of conscience." Williams' plantation on Narragansett Bay provided the basis for Rhode Island.
Rhode Island existed for a time without royal sanction. Williams returned to England in an effort to gain legal recognition from the crown. The Massachusetts' colonists did not think he would get a charter, but Williams, who sailed in 1643, later returned with a charter in hand. Influential people in England paved the way for Williams.
Williams established Rhode Island as a colony where individuals could practice complete religious freedom. He believed the state should exercise temporal control while religion remained supreme in the spiritual realm. Williams advocated complete separation of church and state. He believed the state should protect the church, a visible congregation, as it would any other company. In later life Williams became disillusioned with the church and became a Seeker. He despaired of ever finding true Christians in this life.
While Roger Williams gave the Massachusetts "fathers" a headache, Anne Hutchinson gave them a migraine. Hutchinson arrived in New England with her family in 1634. John Cotton's preaching enthralled her as did that of other Puritan preachers. By 1634, she started gathering neighbor women to "replay" Sunday's sermon. Soon she began adding her own comments and criticisms.
In time Hutchinson distinguished Puritan ministers by whether they preached a covenant of "works" or a covenant of "grace." Boston's John Wilson drew her sharpest criticisms. On one occasion, she left the church house when he arose to preach. She then claimed God's direct leadership. Once "spiritually endowed" she poured out all sorts of venom on the Massachusetts' clergy.
As you might expect, people chose sides. Those accusing her based their charges on her claims to divine guidance, claims which bordered on the charismatic. Puritan leaders suspected she disavowed the necessity of any "works" and so they saw her as antinomian. A Massachusetts' synod convened and after hearing the charges banished her and her family. She then followed Roger Williams to Rhode Island.
A number of those involved in the Massachusetts' controversy moved to Connecticut in 1635. Massachusetts and the new colony agreed theologically but expressed differences in their views on the relationship of church and state. In Massachusetts you could not vote on colony business unless you belonged to the church. Connecticut removed that restriction opting for a more democratic approach.
II. Second Generation Problems
Massachusetts could not enforce complete conformity to the Puritan church in the colony, but it demanded that all attend the established church. Most did! Puritans noticed that God apparently blessed those not yet members of the church, too. These materially successful individuals puzzled the more orthodox Puritan community. Pressure mounted on the colony's leaders to allow the vote to the successful without regard to church membership. How big was the problem? Well, in 1643 the church claimed only 1,708 members in a colony of much larger proportions.
Puritans then found themselves wrestling with the problem of how to maintain a "regenerate membership." Puritans practiced infant baptism and they considered the children of regenerate members as part of the covenant because of their parents. The Cambridge Platform defined this by saying that the church was made up of proved saints "who walk in blameless obedience to the word" and "the children of such, who are also holy." The Puritans accepted children as participants in the covenant. What if these children never claimed a religious experience? Should they be recognized as converted?
With the third generation the problem became more perplexing. Should the children of church members who were baptized because they were children of proved saints, but who had no personal religious experience be baptized and confirmed as members?
Puritan thinkers offered three solutions: (1) Admit the children of church members who were of blameless life regardless of their conversion experience. (2) Deny them all church privileges. (3) Adopt some half-way or compromise measure.
The Puritans adopted the third solution agreeing to The Halfway- Covenant. The Puritans arrived at this compromise in 1657 and confirmed it at Synod in 1662. The covenant allowed unregenerate church members to transmit church membership and baptism to their children. These children, however, could not partake of the Lord's Supper or vote in church elections until they became "proved saints." When these children reached the age of accountability, they had to profess a willingness to be guided by Christian principles and to bring up their children (fourth generation) in the fear of God.
New England reaction to all this resembled a "domino effect." Some churches went further, lowering the bars and extending church membership to anyone who promised to live a good life. Some churches baptized anyone who practiced godly living. They also baptized members' children without requiring any promises at all. Church membership became so easily obtained that it lost any meaning. Soon Puritans asked, "If one can receive baptism, why not the Lord's Supper?"
By 1660, the colony's religious affairs were in a sorry state. Church growth and discipline stagnated. Church membership declined and most indicated a satisfaction with "half-way" membership.
In the midst of the colony's spiritual decay came a host of spiritual disasters. King Philip's War, an Indian war, broke out in 1673 and continued until 1676. In that same year fire destroyed Boston's North Church. In 1679, a devastating fire ruined about half the colony. Then smallpox hit the colony. Then in 1689, the worst possible event occurred. The English government passed the Act of Toleration. Now the colony could no longer maintain religious uniformity and it had to allow diverse religious opinions to filter into their "orthodox social order." Even worse, to the older colonists it meant they could never "go home."
Puritans came to the only conclusion they could: God was displeased! Puritan preachers began preaching Jeremiads, sermons which bemoaned God's abandonment of their enterprise. These preachers knew that if God's people would simply turn from their wicked ways God would heal their land and restore them to plenty. Things never returned to "normalcy" again!
During the years that followed some Puritans became increasingly Presbyterian, some headed towards Socinianism (Unitarian) and some clung to orthodox Congregationalism. But the dream had ended. The "city on a hill" had gone dark!
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