Study Guide

New England Puritans & Pilgrims Analysis

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  • Gender

    Mary Rowlandson's Three Months with the Wampanoags

    In 1682, seven years after the Wampanoag Indians had taken her from the then-frontier town of Lancaster, Massachusetts to live with them for three months, Mary Rowlandson published her captivity narrative. Her story, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, was only 50 pages long. Its publication was sponsored by ministers, and was supposed to shape the meaning of Metacom's War according to Puritan standards. 

    Instead, it exposed the internal rift between the Boston ministerial elite and the frontier settlers. Rowlandson's husband Joseph, Lancaster's town minister, was in fact in Boston at the time of the attack, pleading with the Massachusetts General Assembly to send troops in order to defend the town. Both the English and the Native Americans had mounted violent attacks against each another during the war. 12 people in the village of Lancaster were killed on the day that Mary was taken captive, along with 24 other captives, three of whom were her children and one of which—five-year-old Sarah, who'd been wounded in the struggle—died a week after the attack. Mary traveled some 150 miles during her captivity, mostly on foot, across the Connecticut River for a meeting with Wampanoag chief Metacom—known to the colonists as King Philip—himself, and then north to New Hampshire.

    Rowlandson's successful survival in the wilderness undermined orthodox tenets about communal settings as necessary prerequisites for salvation. Ministers like Increase Mather warned their flocks not to roam beyond the "Hedge" a.k.a. the frontier of New England, but Mary had, if unwillingly, and proved that survival was possible. Cotton Mather, Increase's son, even praised her heroism. Mary paved the way for future settlement in Lancaster and beyond by emboldening a new generation of frontier settlers who, in turn, demanded the services and protection of the colonial leaders.

    Her narrative contained the potential for what proved to be a future tendency: the reversal of Puritan leaders' condemnations of the wilderness as a savage wasteland, and the emergence of a new conception of the wilderness as a lush land of opportunity and abundance. In describing her captivity along the trajectory of a quick descent, a prolonged wandering, and a final ascent into salvation, she paralleled her story with the classic experience of Puritan conversion.

    Rowlandson also suggested that salvation was possible through individual agency, which bordered on sacrilege according to a Puritan orthodoxy that said one could not be saved outside of the community of saints. That is, you had to receive a sign from God that you were saved—you couldn't earn this or work toward it. 

    Her story was part sermon, part spiritual autobiography, and part historical narrative. It proved so popular that it was republished 13 times in its first decade and went through over 30 editions since, all the way into the 20th century.

    Native Americans and Native American Women in the Rowlandson Narrative

    Rowlandson also inadvertently exposed some of the complications underlying Puritan stereotypes of the Native Americans. Though she initially described her captors as "black creatures in the night" who sang and danced and roared, her sustained interaction with the Wampanoag Indians revealed a much richer diversity of descriptions. 

    Her narrative recalls the matron Weetamoo, who was "a severe and proud Dame [...] bestowing every day in dressing herself neat as such time as any Gentry of the land: powdering her hair, and painting her face, going with Neck-laces, with Jewels in her ears, and Bracelets upon her hands." Weetamoo, as recent research has uncovered, was by birthright the squaw-sachem—or warrior-leader—of the Pocassets. She exercised substantial power in the Wampanoag and Narragansett communities, and she was Metacom's sister-in-law. 

    In his History of the war, Puritan minister Increase Mather—who also wrote a preface to Rowlandson's narrative—described Weetamoo as an enemy of similar or equal stature and power as Metacom himself. After she died of an accidental drowning, the Puritans beheaded her body and displayed her decapitated head on a pole as a lesson to others. Increase declared it an act of divine intervention. Weetamoo had "furnished Philip with Canooes for his men" during the war, and she drowned—according to Increase—because she "could not meet with a Canoo."

    "Deputy Husbands"

    Puritan farm women performed a number of daily tasks that would later be defined as "unladylike" to the middle-class Victorians of the 19th century. In such a rugged environment, the sheer demands of survival dictated that 17th-century New England women could perform the butchering, dairying, gardening, and daily operations of an entire farm when their husbands were unavailable or away. 

    Only later would industrialization and technological development free women from the need to toil in the fields, allowing them to assume what we now assume to be a "traditional" role indoors as the passive, domesticated mistresses of their households. The household was the center of production in New England, and since women played such integral roles in that sphere, they were bound up with a substantial economic role and responsibility, though they probably wouldn't have understood or enjoyed the significance or potential power in such a role.

    The Female Role

    Puritan women were saddled with heavy responsibilities, and their ministers recognized them for carrying out this role while still asserting the authority of their husbands. 

    Some Puritan ministers acknowledged that "tho the Husband be the head of the wife, yet she is an head of the family," and stated that "of all the orders which are unequals, these [between husbands and wives] do come the nearest to an Equality, and in several respects they stand upon an even ground." Others, like John Winthrop, argued that the definition of liberty for a woman involved embracing her role as wife and mother and her "subjection to her husband's authority." 

    New England's women spent most of their lives bearing and caring for children, spending an average of more than 20 years of their lives either pregnant or nursing. Though women were deemed the spiritual equals of men and could gain full church membership, some "correction" was deemed appropriate if wives violated their husbands' sense of suitable conduct.

    How Dare She: Anne Hutchinson

    Anne Hutchinson, a midwife and the daughter of a Puritan minister, had come to Massachusetts from England in 1634 with her husband. She soon began holding meetings in her home where men and women could discuss religious issues. Like most Puritans, she believed that salvation couldn't be earned by one's acts, but could only be bestowed by God. 

    But Anne quickly developed a name for herself with her outspoken behavior. She also began to charge most ministers in the area with flawed or faulty preaching because they used human activities like church attendance and moral behavior to distinguish the saved "saints" from the condemned. Because she challenged the authority of a closely aligned church and state, Hutchinson was branded an Antinomian: one who puts his or her own judgment above that of church doctrine and the law. 

    She was charged with sedition—expressing thoughts and opinions hostile or dangerous to authority—and went to trial before a civil court in 1637. The transcripts of her trials are the only extant records of her words. In them, she proves herself capable of sustaining an engaged and sophisticated debate on equal terms with the presiding magistrates and the ministers who testified against her.

    Despite her display of intellectual vigor and religious knowledge at the trial, Hutchinson condemned herself by testifying that God spoke to her directly, without the usual intermediaries like the Bible or ministers. Her testimony violated Puritan doctrine, and the elders banished her and several followers from the colony. The exiles journeyed to Rhode Island and then to Long Island, where Hutchinson died during a Native American war.

    In the 1960s and '70s, and as early as the 1940s, many scholars celebrated Hutchinson as a feminist figure in history who dared to challenge the male power structure and speak her mind. Yet interpreting the past through the lens—and the politics—of the present is always tricky business. More recent historical interpretations have taken Hutchinson at her word, that she saw herself merely as a vessel for articulating the "correct" version of God's message. If anything, she sought to strengthen the power and the credibility of the church by speaking out for what she believed was a more accurate and faithful representation of God's message. 

    But as a woman, she was easily targeted and exiled. Church elders could dispense with the threat to their authority that she represented. In the process, they could also condemn the public role that she assumed as inappropriate for a woman. As Governor John Winthrop stated, her popular house meetings—which were attended by several prominent merchants and public officials—were neither "comely in the sight of God nor fitting to your sex."

  • Economy

    Thrift and Godliness

    Puritans expected that economic prosperity would result from piety and good works. But they were pretty on-the-fence about the prospect of success. John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay, feared that his people would derive more satisfaction from wealth itself than from the piety that was supposed to bring about such financial rewards.

    For most New Englanders, farming was the principal means of earning a living, and it was a hard one. They frequently had to work for two months just to clear the soil of all the rocks. There was a short growing season and mainly English crops were cultivated, like barley, wheat, and oats. Surpluses didn't really develop until the end of the 17th century.

    But fisheries did provide a surplus product that could be sold in Europe. Mackerel, halibut, cod, and whales were all hunted in New England waters, in ships built from the lumber of the nearby forests. Lower quality fish were sold to Caribbean planters, who fed them to their slaves, and New England dominated the ship-building industry throughout the colonial period. 

    Sawmills quickly arose in the region to take advantage of the abundant forests, for lumber provided an export commodity as well as the raw material for building-a-colony stuff, from ships to furniture to fences. Shipyards had developed at Portsmouth, Dorchester, Gloucester, Boston, and Salem by the mid-17th century. But all of this trading activity tied New England to a much wider Atlantic culture and economy that Puritan elders found threatening for its potential to foster materialism in place of simplicity and cosmopolitanism instead of pious introspection.


    The Europeans also revolutionized Native American society through their conceptions of practices such as trade. Previously, Native Americans had exchanged items like corn, venison (that's deer meat for you city kids), fish, and skins among one another, in a practice related to gift giving and oftentimes, as an exchange to balance disparate supplies of resources. 

    Such forms of ritualized exchange also cemented alliances and served as forms of tribute. But after prolonged contact with the Europeans, trade came to signify an exclusively economic interaction, rather than a form of reciprocity. The shift in the meaning of trade was a significant development, as European commodities introduced Native Americans to a new culture of materialism and superficial adornment. 

    Native Americans were also drawn into the Atlantic economy by—among other things—the demand for furs that necessitated the unlimited hunting of animals year-round, where before, they'd only hunted according to seasonal need and no more.

  • Society

    Turns Out, the Wilderness Isn't So Empty After All

    The Puritans initially thought of their journey into the New World as an "errand into the wilderness" and it continued to be described as such by many prominent historians for centuries thereafter. 

    But for all the novelty of the Puritans as the second group of Europeans to attempt a very precarious settlement on the North American continent, and despite the fact that it probably seemed practically empty to people coming from the densely populated Western Europe, it wasn't empty at all. 

    The notion of Colonial America as a "wilderness" tends to obscure the very real presence of some 100,000 Native Americans in multiple tribes within the New England area alone.

    Mutual Suffering in the Beginning

    When the Pilgrims arrived on the Massachusetts coast in 1620, it's true that they found a land of very sparse Native American population. But what the Pilgrims assumed had always been unsettled territory was, in fact, a country that had only just been depopulated, as the local Native Americans had been decimated by a smallpox epidemic introduced by European traders or fishermen. 

    The few Native American survivors of this disease-induced genocide may have been more willing to cooperate with the newcomers than they would have been if their own societies had remained intact. Without the assistance of Native Americans like Squanto, the Pilgrims' initial settlement would've died out completely, for the settlers lacked basic agricultural know-how. 

    Besides, even with Squanto's invaluable advice on how to fish and plant corn, the colonists couldn't get it together and half of them kicked the bucket during the first winter.

    Well, Hello There

    The surviving Native Americans began to trade animal furs to the English in exchange for European commodities like shell beads or disks that were threaded into strings to make the highly prized wampum. Wampum was an Algonquian term meaning "white string of beads"—these strings or belts could be used like currency and were considered sacred. They often contained pictograph designs that told a story or symbolized the unity of tribal confederations. The wampum belts were ceremoniously exchanged during serious occasions, like the signing of a peace treaty.

    Anglo-Native American encounters increased as missionaries attempted to infiltrate the tribal structures and convert their members to Christianity. The French had been embarking on these conversion missions long before the English, and the English never enjoyed the success of their French or Spanish counterparts. The missionaries, like Daniel Gookin, established "praying towns" throughout the region, about 14 of which housed some 1,100 Native Americans by 1674. 

    These towns sought to instill the Christian Native Americans with all the values and customs of the English Puritans, with mixed success. In many cases, the converted Native Americans cultivated the traditional staples of English agriculture erected fences, and raised livestock. But many of the residents of the Praying Towns clung to traditional ways, opting for the warmer and more portable wigwams rather than drafty English-style houses. 

    In some cases, they planted apple orchards but drank the cider instead of trading it for profit. Hey can't blame 'em. That stuff's addicting. 

    Often these supposedly converted Christians actually displayed evidence of a hybridized or syncretic faith, composed of elements both Christian and traditional.

    Conversion and Warfare

    The English immigrants sought to convert the Native Americans to their own religion, but despite their efforts, they actually met with little success in relation to the total Native American population. 

    In places like the inland Wachusett region during the 1640s (which encompasses modern-day Worcester County and the northwestern corner of Middlesex County), both the English and the Native Americans sought a peaceful coexistence. Protestant missionaries sought to "civilize" the local Nipmuc people, with the well-meaning intention of bringing them into full membership in town society. 

    But European colonization led to conflicts that led to war by the close of the century, and in some places, long before that.

    Pequot War

    The Native Americans of New England had little concept of cross-tribal solidarity—prior to the arrival of the whites, uniting on the basis of a broad indigenous identity was neither necessary nor obvious to these diverse tribes, each of which had developed their own traditions, cultures, and ways of life. Even after the colonists began encroaching on their land and hunting grounds, the Native Americans couldn't have known that the whites would keep multiplying and steadily occupying more and more land.

    So, Native American groups were as likely to join with whites to fight other Native Americans as they were to form some kind of pan-Indian, anticolonial resistance. For example, in 1637, Narragansett allies assisted a group of soldiers from Connecticut and Massachusetts. The settlers sought revenge for the murder of several of their Connecticut brethren at the hands of the powerful Pequot tribe, which controlled the fur trade in southern New England and exacted tribute from the smaller tribes of the area. The soldiers and their Native American allies surrounded the main Pequot village in Mystic, Connecticut, and burned it to the ground. They killed anyone who tried to escape, taking the lives of over 500 men, women, and children in all. 

    The war that ensued lasted only a few months—it was a genocidal effort that saw the few remaining Pequots sold into slavery in the Caribbean. The ensuing peace treaty at Hartford (1638) stipulated that the Pequot name be stricken from the historical record, demonstrating the long-standing appreciation for the power of history. The Pequot War opened the Connecticut River Valley up to white settlement, but also provided other local Native Americans with a potent warning of the perils of the colonists' expanding power, their ferocious tactics, and their rapidly multiplying numbers.


    But the colonists failed in their effort to erase the Pequots from history. (Can't get out of this one, guys.) 

    The story of the massacre has been preserved by historians and eyewitness accounts, as well as illustrations of the event. And in a highly unusual postscript, descendents of the Pequots now run Foxwoods, a very profitable casino in Connecticut that opened in 1992. The casino is the largest in the world, covering the space of some 30 football fields, and it attracts over 40,000 visitors a day; the tribe was granted a monopoly on casino gambling in Connecticut in return for sharing a portion of their proceeds with the state. 

    The resulting windfall—$125,000 dollars an hour, $3 million a day, $1.5 billion a year—made a handful of surviving Pequots enormously wealthy, and they used a portion of the proceeds to erect a museum that tells the tale of their tribal history, culture, and persecution.

    Metacom's War

    In 1675, a pan-Indian alliance destroyed inland settlements in order to reassert their autonomy and to reclaim lost territory. The conflict, known as Metacom's or King Philip's War, would delay English colonization for a decade. It was the most violent conflict of the century in New England.

    The immediate cause of the conflict began with the murder of John Sassamon, a praying Native American who could read and write and who occupied a precarious grey area between the cultural worlds of Native Americans and whites. Many on both sides suspected him of being a spy for the other group. And he certainly switched sides often enough—Sassamon had attended Harvard, left Christianity during a period when he was serving Metacom, and then returned to his religion again. He'd tried to warn the Plymouth governor of an impending Native American attack when he was killed, but no one's certain about exactly how he died.

    In retribution for Sassamon's murder, the officials of Plymouth colony executed three Wampanoags whom they held responsible. The case against the accused murderers was actually quite flimsy, but this didn't prevent their conviction and subsequent death sentence. At their hanging, the hanging rope of one of the Wampanoags actually snapped and saved him. Instead of viewing this as divine intervention, however, the Puritans simply killed him anyway. 

    In response to its ultimate verdict, King Philip (or Metacom, as he was known to his own people), chief of the Wampanoag tribe, built an alliance among the remaining tribes of central and southern New England, including his own Wampanoags and the Narragansetts, Nipmucks, and Mohegans. One surviving Pequot Indian remembered that Metacom warned them, "Brothers, these people from the unknown world will cut down our groves, spoil our hunting and planting grounds, and drive us and our children from the graves of our fathers, and our council fires, and enslave our women and children." The image of Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages became affixed in the European mind.

    Views of the Land

    From the European perspective, a clear demarcation existed between settled land and wilderness, between civilization and nature, and the former was deemed superior and more righteous. 

    In European culture, man earned title to land by transforming it from wilderness and making it work. Most Europeans didn't recognize the ways Native Americans had transformed the land—or the nature of their relationship with the land—and so, believed they had no legitimate claim to it. 

    There were only a handful of exceptions to this general outlook, and Roger Williams was among them. The rest of the Puritans often conceived of the wilderness as a physical form of hell. Puritan leaders like John Winthrop didn't believe that Native Americans held any entitlement or claim to the land. To the white settlers, any part of the globe was fair game, so long as it hadn't been legitimately possessed by another man before they arrived—and even then, it might be gained through warfare. 

    Native Americans were deemed undeserving of any claims to the land because they didn't have cattle or other means of subduing the terrain for cultivation. Because the Europeans considered their system of hierarchical social organization and technology superior to that of the Native Americans, they claimed precedence for themselves.

    Native American Perspectives

    No such divide between civilization and nature existed for Native Americans like the Algonquians of the Northeast, who saw spiritual properties in the animals and objects that the Europeans deemed inanimate. 

    Algonquians believed that a figure named GlusKap—or GlusKabe—had given the world its present form and was responsible for the evolution of animals into the Native Americans over time. He battled the forces of social disorder and chaos that existed beyond the indigenous community. These forces—they have multiple potential interpretations, from white settlers to environmental disasters to the forces of evil spirits—sought to engulf the Native American community and its traditions and to monopolize precious resources. 

    For these communities, nature and the spirit world commingled and converged in myriad ways that made the sounds, raindrops, animals, and the landscape come alive. Humans weren't superior to nature in this belief system—they were simply another part of it. 

    Tribes like the Nashaways of the Wachusett region of inland Massachusetts passed down such legends and oral storytelling traditions so that future generations could understand and appreciate their traditional beliefs and values. Many tribes also transformed the land to make it more productive, but they did it in different ways than the Europeans. They cut down trees and burned areas of forest to create space for hunting and open fields. They also set fires to eliminate the underbrush—this made it easier to track game and gather nuts and berries—and to replenish the soil. They cultivated crops like beans, pumpkins, and corn, and utilized a technique of planting seeds in regularly spaced mounds. This allowed the plant roots to intertwine below ground, making it harder for birds and wind to uproot younger tendrils.

    Commonalities and Exceptions

    There's no question that Native American and English societies approached one another from a considerable social, religious, and cultural divide. For the most part, scholars have attempted to trace the many differences between these two groups by citing characteristics common to each of them. You know, kind of like we've done here.

    But these distinctions really shouldn't be carried too far. For all of their differences, and for all of the seemingly obvious similarities among Native Americans and the white settlers, respectively, throughout the colonial period, some tribes allied with the whites in battle against other tribes. This didn't necessarily mean that certain Native American groups thought they had more in common with the settlers than with other Native Americans, but these alliances indicate that both whites and some Native American groups were at least willing to overlook or put aside their differences to form mutually advantageous relationships. 

    And of course, occasionally, whites would disagree among themselves on Native American relations matters. Roger Williams, himself a maverick in the conformist atmosphere of 17th-century New England, learned several Native American languages and argued that the king couldn't grant land which already belonged to the Native Americans. He argued that towns must purchase the land of their future site. Others, like John Winthrop, recognized the advantages of purchasing rather than seizing land, but Winthrop also demanded that such purchases include a provision for Native American submission to English authority and a provision for payment of tribute to the colonists.

  • Politics

    The New England Town

    The sociopolitical structure of the New England town is one of the Puritans' major contributions to American society. Puritans sought to build a society rooted in community and family, one that mirrored their ecclesiastical identity. As members of the Congregationalist sect, they favored autonomous congregations of churchgoers over a national, centralized church (which is what separated them from the Presbyterians). 

    Thanks to a balanced sex ratio that led to rapid population increases over time, towns mushroomed across the landscape in the 17th and 18th centuries, all based on an English village model that New England settlers understood and replicated, and all supervised by the colonial authorities. 

    Most importantly, this model of settlement distinguished New Englanders from other American colonists because it meant slavery had little or no future in a region of primarily small-scale family farming and maritime trade, even as planters in the southern colonies became increasingly reliant upon slave labor to maintain the plantation model of settlement.

    Towns were the means of community organization, of regional colonization, and the venue in which Puritan culture could be disseminated and transformed. Settlers, who were already organized into a church, petitioned the General Court for a town and then divided up the land according to specific criteria, such as who had the largest family or higher status, or who invested more in the endeavor. 

    Towns assumed heightened importance after 1640, when the English Revolution constricted available credit, prices fell, and demand increased for commodities to support the population. New towns could help meet the increased demand for goods and secure a livelihood—not to mention land ownership—for many young families. When one town became too populous, or riven by internal discord, another one would spring up, usually as a result of the efforts of citizen-founders who played key roles in the process. Families migrated as units, and the heads of household left the older and more developed towns, despite the hard labor involved in establishing a new settlement, for the sake of gaining land and new opportunities for social advancement.

    Historical Significance and Dual Tendencies

    Though serial town settlement was ultimately a laboratory for the democratic system that would flourish after the American Revolution, it also possessed conservative tendencies. 

    Wherever a new town emerged, it tended to—was in fact designed to—reproduce the same agrarian system governed by strict rules and adhering to common Puritan values and customs. Through this process, the Puritans intended to bring order and stability to the chaos and "uncultivated" disarray of the wilderness; town settlement was both a spiritual and a physical transformation of the landscape. 

    This ordering of society, of souls and of the environment, was viewed at the time as a fulfillment of the Puritans' holy mission. Orderly and civilized expansion was the Puritans' righteous justification for having left England to establish a "city upon a hill" as an upright and pious society that could serve as a model to the rest of the world. Yet this process, as implemented in the New World, produced unexpected consequences.

    Church and State

    Ministers in colonial Massachusetts were forbidden by law from holding office, so that there could be no interference of politics with their spiritual duties. But that didn't mean church and state weren't closely aligned—the law mandated that states enforce religious devotion, and all towns were required to establish a—Congregationalist—church and support a minister by levying taxes. 

    According to the Body of Liberties issued by the General Court in 1641, "Every man whether Inhabitant or fforreiner [sic], free or not free" was guaranteed freedom of speech before the colonial Council, Court, or its town meetings, provided that any comments be "done in convenient time, due order, and respective manner."

    Getting phone privileges taken away doesn't sound so bad anymore, huh?

    The Puritan electorate was quite broad in contrast to its European counterpart. Male property owners usually chose the local officials, but any full church members could vote in colony-wide elections. But with the passage of time, the government became controlled by an ever-diminishing percentage of the population, and church members became increasingly privileged participants in Puritan democracy.

  • Religion

    Getting Puritan

    Faith was central to the Puritan experience, for it was the source from which all other aspects of their society and values emerged. 

    The word "Puritan" was actually a term of ridicule devised by opponents of the late-16th-century movement that arose in England. The Puritans remained unsatisfied with the progress and extent of the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517. They resented the persistence of Catholic influence on Anglican doctrine and rituals, but beyond that, the movement split into a number of factions that disagreed over doctrine and strategy. 

    The Pilgrims who settled Plymouth Colony were part of a faction known as Separatists—they'd left the Church of England to create their own denominations. Separatists were a minority, and most Puritans, including the ones who later settled Massachusetts Bay Colony, sought to reform the Church from within.

    How Pure Are You?

    Puritans subscribed to their religion with varying degrees of fervor. The towns of New England weren't as homogenous as we often imagine them to have been. Certain individuals attended church regularly and became full church members; others attended meetings but never underwent conversion. 

    However, everyone had to attend meetings, regardless of their status. 

    Many towns functioned well because there was a great degree of consensus between members and nonmembers. Nonetheless, tensions abounded between the ministerial elite and the more secular centers along the coast, where inhabitants were primarily focused on their fishing or trading livelihoods than the question of their immortal souls. Even in the more pious towns, many inhabitants questioned their status as God's elect and wondered whether the latest Native American raid or witchcraft case wasn't an indication of divine disfavor.

    Passing the Test: The Doctrine

    Most Puritans thought of themselves as members of the Church of England who wanted to purge the church of its sins—they thought it was too political, permissive, and reminiscent of Catholicism in its liturgy and episcopal hierarchy. But Anglicans perceived Puritans as a heretical threat and persecuted them; the Puritans sought refuge first in the Netherlands and then in America. They still believed that they could purge the sins of the Church, although the New England separatists at Plymouth were so-called because they thought Anglicanism was broken beyond repair and they separated from it entirely.

    Puritans believed in the concept of predestination: that God chose each human being from birth for salvation or for condemnation. Only God knew the fate of each person—unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Puritans rejected the concept of free will. But during their lifetime, a Puritan could search for clues as to the fate of their soul by performing good works, praying, and attending church services (even though none of this could change the person's predetermined fate). 

    Why do all of this stuff if God has already written your ticket? Because leading a good life ("good" meaning all the stuff mentioned above, like praying, working hard, etc.) might be an indication of God's grace. 

    Clearly, there's a delicate balance here. It would be heretical to suggest that you could alter the outcome of your soul's destiny, but you might provide an indication of which way you're going to go if you take on the appearance of a good soul who's bound to be saved. On the other hand, if you're lazy and immoral, most Puritans would take these characteristics as signs that you're going to Dante's Inferno, so to speak. This ominous question of whether one was destined for heaven or hell on Judgment Day obviously produced a powerful mixture of hope and fear among Puritan believers, reflected in the sermons of their ministers.

    And not to completely confuse you, but some of the greatest Puritan ministers actually rejected this whole notion of "visible signs" of God's grace. John Cotton, one of the early New England Puritans and an immensely influential minister, thought that other ministers erred in emphasizing these superficial indicators. He was more concerned with the internal process of preparing for salvation (by cultivating and embodying humility, love, and contrition). 

    In 1633, Cotton sermonized that there were two types of "carnal men." He said, "some belong unto the Election of Grace, though they be not yet called; others are not written in the Lambs Book of Life, but will in the end finally perish." 

    Translation? Some of these worldly guys are saved and they just don't know it yet (they haven't received a sign of grace from God); others are just the way they are and they won't receive eternal life with Jesus ("the Lamb" = Jesus). Either way, Cotton argued that "the Law of God" is of use to both. Why? Well, in the case of the saved men, once they receive the sign that they're predestined for salvation, God's law will "set home the burden of their sins unto their souls, thereby to drive them to feel their great need of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom otherwise they should for ever have despised." That is, they'll appreciate the gravity of their sins and benevolence of Christ. 

    On the other hand, the law of God simply gives the damned man no excuse: "Now they have no Cloak for their sin." He'll have to grin and bear it and face God's wrath.

    Whereas Catholicism would admit anyone who repented and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior (after baptism and confirmation), the Puritans had a higher standard for full members and few believers reached the status of full membership in the church. Anyone could worship at church, and the Puritans promised all congregants equal access to visible sainthood (embodying the traits of someone who appeared to be saved). But to become a member, a congregant had to be able to demonstrate that they'd personally experienced divine grace, usually by testifying about a conversion experience. 

    Only a Puritan who'd personally experienced God's power through a conversion experience could be considered one of the "visible saints," and therefore a fully fledged member, in the Puritan faith.

    Dissent and Discontent

    In the spirit of the Protestant Reformation that had proposed an alternative to Catholicism a century before, the Puritans encouraged their members to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. But this emphasis on individual interpretation of God's word inevitably led to tensions, and even rebellions, within the Puritans' strict hierarchical societies. 

    Additionally, the Puritans were bound to suffer the repercussions inherent in their decision to persecute dissenters and adherents of other faiths, despite the fact that they'd come to America partly in order to escape such persecution themselves. When Quakers emerged in Massachusetts during the 1640s, they were fined, whipped, and banished by colonial officials. Because Quakers believed that there was no distinction between the "elect" and the rest of the population, that the Divine spirit dwelled within everyone, they were deemed heretical to Puritan doctrine. The Quakers' suggestion that their members' "inner light" offered a surer spiritual guidance than the Bible or ministers deeply offended Puritan sensibilities. 

    As a result, four Quakers who returned to Massachusetts from exile were hung between 1659 and 1660. Baptists were also attacked, as they didn't prioritize a learned ministry and were therefore deemed threatening to the Puritans, who maintained that an intellectual elite of ministers were the rightful interpreters of the Bible, and therefore of God's will.

    Colony of Misfit Religions: Roger Williams

    After his arrival in Massachusetts in 1631, a young minister by the name of Roger Williams began to preach in support of religious toleration and the separation of church and state. Williams thought he was helping to strengthen the Puritan faith by trying to rid it of the inherently corrosive influence of government. He also rejected the notion of Puritan exceptionalism, that the Puritans were a specially chosen people on a divine mission to disseminate the true faith.

    Within five years of his arrival, Williams was banished from Massachusetts for his unorthodox teachings, and he took his followers south to Rhode Island, where they established their own colony, which eventually received a crown charter. 

    Williams' settlement became an exceptional bastion of religious freedom for the colonial period. Rhode Island had no established church; its inhabitants didn't have to attend church and could vote regardless of their religion—well, until the 18th century. Because the governor was elected annually and the assembly twice annually, the government was also more democratic, and the colony's town meetings were held more frequently than elsewhere in the region. Jews, Catholics, and Protestant dissenters quickly flocked there, after having been persecuted elsewhere.

  • Sexuality

    Sexual Offenses in Colonial New England

    Despite their modern-day reputation as religiously zealous prudes, the Puritans acknowledged—perhaps more openly than many religious figures and organizations today—the extent and variety of the carnal temptations around them. 

    The First General Assembly of Providence Colony (Rhode Island) in 1647 stated that sodomy—a.k.a. anal sex—was forbidden throughout the entire colony, as well as in England. They described it as "a vile affection, whereby men given up thereto leave the natural use of woman and burn in their lusts one toward another, and so men with men work that which is unseemly." 

    These characterizations rested upon the colonists' understanding of the Bible, and the penalty for sodomy was "death without remedy." The laws made no mention of sexual activity between men and women or women and women.

    The capital laws of Plymouth Colony from 1636 onward outlawed homosexual intercourse, as did a Connecticut statute of 1650, calling it an "abomination." Yet historian Robert F. Oakes has found that Puritan leaders refused to apply these harsh penalties, "especially for homosexual activity." Over the course of the 17th century, Oakes finds that "the reluctance to punish illicit sexual activity of all types grew stronger," not weaker. This may have been because the colonists sought a more enlightened approach to sin, or because they were experiencing a labor shortage, or even a reluctance to enforce capital punishment on a fairly common "crime"—or one that people feared might be quite common. 

    Because incidences of homosexuality began almost as soon as settlement did: the first recorded case was in Massachusetts in 1629, and Plymouth's first trial for homosexuality was in 1636.


    Rape was also described as an offense. (Hallelujah.)

    Though the law described it as when a man forced a woman to have intercourse against her will, the Rhode Island government also indicated that a man who had sex with a woman under the age of ten, "though it be with her consent," was also guilty of rape. (We appreciate the age limit, but can we raise that a bit?)

    Those found guilty would be put to death, as would a married woman who committed adultery. Plymouth Colony passed a law with the same provisions in 1671.

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