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Pilgrims and Puritans

Part II 

While it was the Pilgrims who by their example led the way for the English colonization of New England, it was the Puritans who were to have the most enduring effect upon not only the religious, but also the political, social and economic aspects of life in New England, and to a large extent, of all Americans.

The "Great Migration" of English people was caused, as was discussed in the first issue of The Brownell Chronicle, by a number of factors, with religious and economic issues being the primary motivation for emigration to the New World. As we have seen, most of these emigrants went to the southern colonies and the West Indies, while about 21,000 chose to go to New England.

For a majority of these people, religious issues were dominant. The religious climate in England had steadily deteriorated. James I died in 1625 and was succeeded by his son, Charles I, who was married to a Catholic, Henrietta. Persecution of non-conformists had increased under Charles I and William Laud who was first appointed Bishop of London and later Archbishop of Canterbury. The Puritans, who were seeking to reform the Church of England from within, despaired of ever making the desired changes. As pressure on the Puritans increased, the prospect of establishing a colony in the New World which would be governed by their religious beliefs began to seem more appealing.

In 1628 a small group of about sixty people under the leadership of John Endicott settled Salem, Massachusetts, under a grant from the Council for New England. The following year the Puritan merchants who financed this small expedition obtained a royal charter and formed themselves into the Massachusetts Bay Company. Another group of about 350 colonists was sent to join those at Salem.

This new company quickly attracted the attention of other Puritans of the "middling sort" who were becoming increasingly convinced that they would no longer be able to practice their religion freely in England. These "Congregationalists" who now looked to the Massachusetts Bay Company for a solution to their problems remained committed to the goal of reforming the Church of England. But they realized that it might be better to pursue that goal in America rather than at home.

In October of 1629 the members, or stockholders, of the Company elected John Winthrop as their governor. It was Winthrop who began to organize the initial phase of the great Puritan migration to America. During the spring and summer of 1630 a total of seventeen ships left England for Massachusetts Bay, carrying about one thousand settlers. Thanks to Winthrop and other Puritan leaders, the expedition was well-planned and well-financed. After a first attempt to settle in the area that is now Charlestown failed because of the lack of running water and poor sanitary conditions, the settlers moved to Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony was born.

In the decade following 1630, the colony's growth was extraordinarily rapid. By 1641 it is estimated that three hundred vessels carrying twenty thousand passengers had crossed the Atlantic. These colonists dispersed rapidly, establishing by 1640 twenty-two settlements in addition to Boston. While each of these communities chose and supported their own ministers, the General Court in Boston ruled the colony and set the standards for the religious and civil governments.

These Puritans had a definite mission-to establish a community where they could put their ideals into practice. New England was, to them, a new "promised land" which God had set apart for an experiment in Christian living. As Winthrop said on the way to America, they were like "a city upon a hill, with the eyes of all people" upon them. It was their intent to establish a model community, a Bible Commonwealth, based upon what the Scriptures revealed of God's intent, a society centered on a community of Saints-God's Elect, His chosen people. They saw themselves as being engaged upon a noble experiment for the benefit of the rest of mankind.

In these Puritan communities, the individual's needs were subordinate to those of the group's and secular authority joined with religious authority to impose total, unbending orthodoxy of belief and behavior upon every member. This orthodoxy was not confined to the church and religious matters, but was also expected to be followed in a man's family relations (authoritarian, unbending), business dealings (hard-working, thrifty), and even recreations (limited, tending to be more useful than pleasurable). Deviation was quickly and harshly punished--expulsion was among the milder forms.

The Puritans were not fighting for religious freedom when they opposed the established Church of England. They were fighting for the right to replace that authority with one of their own. Democracy, religious toleration and separation of church and state were equally distasteful to the ruling elders. From the start, the Bay Colony confined voting to members of the approved Puritan churches, denied freedom of speech to its opponents and insisted that all persons subject themselves to the authority of its magistrates.

The life of the colony and of its people, the clothes they should wear, the length of their hair, their labors and pastimes, were all supervised and regulated in accordance with the clergy's interpretation of the scriptures. Cards and dice were banned. Cooking, making beds, sweeping, shaving, running were forbidden on the Lord's Day, and that woeful day began at three o'clock in the afternoon on Saturday.

Because Christmas, New Years and other holidays were holy days in the Catholic Church, their observance was prohibited. Even the familiar names of months were discarded, because they had been bestowed by pagan emperors and by popes, and numbers were substituted. Since the ministers said that they could find no authority in the Bible for church weddings or church funerals, marriages were performed by civil magistrates, and the dead were buried with a sermon, a song or a prayer.

In creating a government, Winthrop and the small group of church leaders began with the charter's stipulation that the freemen (stockholders) of the company should make all laws for governing the colony and elect a governor, deputy governor, and eighteen assistants (a chairman and board of directors) to execute the laws and preside between the quarterly meetings of the shareholders. This was a fairly standard procedure for business corporations, then as now. But this company was attempting to adapt the structure of an economic institution to purposes for which it was not intended-the actual government of the colony.

In an unprecedented move designed to further their purposes, the Congregationalist merchants had decided before leaving England to transfer the charter and the headquarters of the Massachusetts Bay Company to New England-what the Crown had given, the Crown could take away. Thus the settlers would be answerable to no one in the mother country, and would be able to handle their affairs, secular and religious, as they pleased.

The Puritans gradually transformed the General Court, officially merely the company's governing body or board of directors, into a colonial legislature and opened the status of "freeman," or voting member of the company, to all adult male church members. Still, four-fifths of the men of voting age were not allowed to vote, because a large proportion of the colonists were not members of the Congregational Church. Even the Puritans were not all permitted to join the church. The law compelled every one to attend services. But the ministers had the power to say who should be admitted to membership, and they kept the churches small and select.

At the same time, Winthrop and his followers pushed through the proposition that the freemen would confine themselves at their annual meeting to electing assistants. These assistants, in turn, would choose the governor and deputy governor and assume the lawmaking power. They had expanded the charter on the one hand by increasing the number of freemen who could vote and contracted it on the other by transferring the lawmaking power from the freemen to the assistants, who together with the governor, now in fact held all of the legislative, executive and judicial authority in the new government.

This was, however, short lived. In 1632 the General Court voted that each town would thereafter elect two deputies to serve, along with the Governor and assistants, as the legislative body. In 1641 the General Court drew up a code of laws for the colony. Three years later, the General Court was divided into a bicameral body, with an upper house composed of the assistants and a lower house composed of the two elected deputies from each town. This Puritan experiment in self-government served as an example for future New England colonies, and, to a large extent, for most later state governments as well as our federal government.

By the end of the 1630's, emigration from England had greatly decreased. With the political situation there moving closer and closer to civil war, Puritans were less likely to leave­they remained at home where they took up arms against the king, beheaded him, and made England herself a Puritan commonwealth.

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Copyright 1999 Bill Brownell