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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 of refuge.

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.

[Picture of Pilgrims departing]

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.

[Picture of John Winthrop]

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 "brotherly affection."

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.

[Picture of typical Puritan town]

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

[Picture of a public trial]

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.

[Statue of Anne Hutchinson]

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 defense attorney.

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 salvation.

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.

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