A New Wave of Colonists
Now, there was plenty of upward mobility in the first tobacco boom. But as the
well-heeled planters grabbed up the best land along the coastal plain, and as
tobacco prices began to drop in the 1670s because of over-production,
opportunities for former servants became absolutely dismal. As more of them
became free each year, their numbers began to pose problems. Here was a large
and growing class of men; young, unruly, deeply discontented, and armed.
By the 1670s, Virginia was a powder keg about to explode. John Smith never had
a chance to return to Virginia, but in his history of the colony he pointed out
its main problem: not enough able men, too few women. Unable to persuade the
London Company to change its policies, he pinned his hopes for a more stable
American colony on a group of religious dissenters who were looking for a place
The Puritans were radical Protestants who wanted to purify the Church of
England, or Anglican Church, of its remaining Catholic practices, including the
Latin Mass and the governing hierarchy of bishops and archbishops. They favored
a plain service and a church government of autonomous congregations. The
Puritans who came to America were of two types. Some remained within the Church
of England, and others, called Separatists, formed their own churches, so as
not to be corrupted by the established church.
But both groups were harassed by the government to the point where they felt
they had to leave England. The Separatists, or Pilgrims as they came to be
called, left for the New World first, in 1620, on the Mayflower, after having
settled briefly in Holland. These simple, plain-living people were less
prosperous and less committed to big designs than were the Puritans who built
Massachusetts Bay, a far larger colony to the north of Plymouth Plantation.
John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony
The founder of Massachusetts Bay was John Winthrop, a Cambridge-educated lawyer
and landholder. He and a group of Puritan friends took over a company that had
been formed to promote American settlement, the Massachusetts Bay Company, and
turned it into the nucleus of a civil government. Winthrop was elected
Governor and sailed for New England in 1630. He took the company charter with
him -- that's important -- insuring that the colony would be self-governing.
In the next thirteen years, 20,000 more Englishmen migrated to the Bay Colony.
No colonizing group would come to America in greater numbers or better
prepared. Before leaving, Winthrop had talked with John Smith, who had mapped
New England and given it its name.
Winthrop agreed with Smith that Virginia was an example to be avoided. Not
enough discipline, along with a lust for immediate profits, had corrupted it.
Winthrop was determined to go a different way.
He launched the Puritan adventure with a stirring secular sermon, "A Model of
Christian Charity," which he delivered at sea, on board the ship, Arbella. In
it, he set down a vision of human fellowship totally lacking in the Virginia
experiment. "We must be knit together as one man," he declared, and in
A Puritan Society
Beginning at Boston, Puritans settled in tightly-knit town-building groups. And
the towns became the focal units of government. To understand New England, you
must start with the towns. And to know the towns, you must know something about
Puritanism, for faith was the glue that held the towns together. When the glue
started to loosen, the Puritan commonwealth began to fly apart.
The Puritans were the disciples of the sixteenth-century French theologian,
John Calvin. In Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin established an unforgiving
theocracy in which women were drowned and men beheaded for the sins of heresy
and adultery. Calvin's core belief was the absolute depravity of man after the
fall of Adam and the impossibility of salvation except for those few, the
Elect, predestined to enter Heaven.
Good works could not bring on God's saving grace. But once a person received
grace, he felt an inner peace, and became a crusader against sin. Puritans
admitted only the elect, or Saints, to church membership, and applicants had to
prove they were saved by passing an oral test administered by church members.
The test was doubly important in Massachusetts, where only church members could
vote and hold political office.
Puritan towns were the most completely and equitably planned of any American
settlements. Land that had belonged to Indians was handed out free of charge to
town-building groups, rather than individuals. To keep title to it, the group
had to build a town around a congregational church and agree, in a signed
covenant, to live in harmony and Christian brotherhood.
Since Puritans believed in equity, not equality, men of means and stature were
given larger allocations of land for their families. Even so, a rough equality
prevailed, and every family received land to build homes and farms. Ministers
were not permitted to hold political office, but church and state acted
together to enforce moral orthodoxy. And all families had to pay taxes to
support the church, whether they were members or not.
Other institutions enforced order and orthodoxy. The educational system
instilled inflexible discipline and created a literate public, able to read and
interpret the Bible. And in God-fearing families, mothers taught their children
to spot sin in themselves and others, and watched over their husbands'
spiritual state, acting as their moral censors. Today, we hate moral
surveillance; Puritans welcomed it.
Dissension and Decline of Puritanism
Some historians like to point out that Puritans enjoyed beer and good
fellowship. But Puritans were not a tolerant people. Couples who had babies
less than 9 months after their marriage were publicly punished; several men who
had consenting sex were hanged; and people were tried in court for
card-playing, drunkenness, and idleness.
When dangerous dissent was spotted, it was crushed with alacrity. The first
community-wide crisis involved Winthrop's friend, Roger Williams. From his
Salem pulpit, Williams thundered against ministers who refused to separate from
the Church of England, and he insisted that the king couldn't give away lands
belonging to the Indians.
This infuriated Winthrop, who knew land was essential to the colony's success.
When Williams refused to back down, Winthrop banished him, and he fled to Rhode
Island. There he founded a colony devoted to freedom of worship and the
separation of church and state.
A greater challenge to the Puritan orthodoxy came from Anne Hutchinson, a
popular mid-wife who began to hold controversial prayer meetings for women, and
some men, in her home. Hutchinson, an unbending Puritan, denounced the
ministers for leading people to believe that they could earn God's grace by
good works. She also argued that when a person was saved, the Holy Spirit
dwelled in him and guided his life.
To Winthrop, this was revolution. By making religion a deeply personal
experience, Hutchinson gave power to lay people, women as well as men, at the
expense of ministers. For this, she was hauled into court, charged with
sedition, and banished after a dramatic trial in which she acted as her own
Winthrop was her chief judge and prosecutor, and she tied him in knots with
her brilliance and sharp wit. To break her down--she was eight months
pregnant--she wasn't allowed to sit, eat, drink, or leave the courtroom for
natural relief. Even so, she might have been acquitted had she not claimed,
like Joan of Arc, that God had spoken directly to her.
To a Puritan, that was heresy, for God revealed himself only through the Bible.
Years later, Hutchinson was killed in Long Island in an Indian massacre. When
word reached Winthrop, he remarked: "God's hand is in this."
But it wasn't dissent that killed Winthrop's holy experiment. It was
prosperity. A prosperity that was due, in part, to Puritanism's own ethic of
hard work and self-denial, and the belief that worldly success was a sign of
As one minister said: "Religion begot prosperity, and the daughter devoured the
mother." Winthrop believed that piety and profit could go hand-in-hand. There
would be trade, but it would be regulated by the state to prevent the outbreak
of avaricious practices, such as price gouging. When the great Puritan
patriarch died in 1649, after fathering his 16th child, his successors were
unable to maintain his morally regulated economy.