Cambridge, The Focal Point Of Puritan Life (Part Four)

Catch up on part one of this post here!

By Henry Hallam Saunderson, 1947

Dealing With Dissenters

While the Puritan leaders were carrying forward their highly significant enterprises, they had to deal with forces which endangered the very existence of their Colony, in which increasing thousands of people were investing themselves, their lives, and all that they possessed in the world. Sometimes modern critics of the Puritan leaders say that they fled from England to obtain religious freedom and then denied to others what they sought for themselves. This is a serious misinterpretation of their adventure in colonization. I repeat: their attitude was not that of fugitives from oppression but that of the creators of a new manner of life.

They had the outline of a new political state, and they wanted to see if it would work. They wagered everything on that project. They wanted to create an enlightened community, under the leadership of an educated ministry, and governed by godly men. They wanted a community which aimed at promoting the welfare of the entire population; a community in which there should be no poverty and no illiteracy.

Every Puritan church in the colony was a community church. It had the power to write its own creed and covenant. Let us bear in mind that these Puritans never created a central creed-making power, nor any autocracy which could dictate to the churches in any phase of their life. In order that the town governments and the colonial government might be in the hands of godly men, they bestowed the rights of Freemen only on the worthy members of their churches. This was fair and right in an administration which carried the responsibilities of so great an investment. They had a right to carry through their experiment; to see if a community so conceived, so organized and so administered “could long endure.”

Probably the severest criticisms of early Puritanism here are based on the erroneous idea that there could have been toleration of various individuals and groups whose religious opinions differed sharply from the SAUNDERSON: THE FOCAL POINT OF PURITAN LIFE 71 faith of the Puritan leaders. But those who make these severe criticisms fail to realize that individuals and groups of people came into the territory of the colony and endeavored to overturn the government by the political application of erratic religious ideas. The Puritan authorities were not suppressing religious opinions as such, but were defending the stability of their government against those who would destroy it.

An example of this is found in the case of Roger Williams. He asserted far-sighted principles of religious liberty. But he began, very soon after his arrival here, to proclaim the idea that the Charter of the Colony was entirely illegal; that King Charles had no rightful power to grant the Charter; that the Colony had no legal claim to the territory which it occupied. And this idea he projected into every corner of the Colony.

It is said by modern critics of the Puritans that for his ideas of religious liberty Roger Williams was driven forth alone into the wilderness infested with savages. Not at all. The Colonial authorities saw that he was endangering the existence of the Colony, and they provided him with passage on a ship which was about to sail for England. He chose to flee in the night, for he had no desire to be deported. He went southward and founded what is now the State of Rhode Island. He had as yet no charter. That was obtained only in later years.

The Case Of Anne Hutchinson

In the midst of the turmoil over the troublesome views of Roger Williams, King Charles proceeded to take action aiming to destroy the Colony. The alarming news reached Boston, and the government had to face the situation. Imagine the meeting of the General Court of Magistrates and Deputies, when they sat at a long table on which was lying a copy of a document by which the King had given to eleven of his courtiers the power to ruin them and all the other people of the Colony. The decisions of that day are poignant. Fortifications were built on Castle Island in Boston Harbor and at Dorchester and Charlestown. The little army of the Colony was recruited and actively trained. A council was formed to manage “any war that might befall.”

Facing the danger of war with the Mother country, was it a time for broad toleration of a trouble-maker within the Colony? If they must fill their powder barrels, should they let one person play with fire in the powder magazine? By a strange coincidence the same ship which brought the copy of the ominous document from England, threatening the very life of the Colony, also brought a woman of great ability, Mrs. Anne Hutchinson. She came in 1634 and had here a picturesque career of four years. At no time was the Colony in graver danger of destruction than when she was at the height of her power. Even while Boston Harbor was being fortified against the royal warships, there was a threat of an invasion by the Indians with the possibility of a general massacre. When the situation was most acute, there was division, even in the military forces of the Colony, over the religious ideas of Anne Hutchinson; and though she was well aware of the danger, she pushed her campaign for the political application of her religious views.

The whole movement, of which she was the leader, is sometimes called the “antinomian controversy.” The word “antinomian” means “against the (moral) law.” Anne Hutchinson’s views can be stated briefly, and they are a vital part of our story. At the time of Christ, the Pharisees had a very elaborate system of ritual which aimed at the complete regulation of men’s lives. Christ denounced the Pharisees saying, “They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne and lay them on men’s shoulders.” This whole system of regulation and repression was called “The Law.”

After the death of Christ there was sharp disagreement among his apostles as to the place of “The Law” in the Christian life. Some of them said that if men would become Christian they must first conform to the Jewish “Law.” Paul had been brought up strictly as a Pharisee, but had cast aside this burdensome “Law.” He wrote, “Now the righteousness of God, without the law, is manifested”; and “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,” and “The righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit,” and “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.”

Biblical scholars of the Puritan times had great skill in translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English — that is, in translating it word for word. But they halted over the interpretation of it. Anne Hutchinson held that these passages which spoke of the law referred to the moral law. She did not know that Paul was setting aside the ritual law of the Pharisees. And there were many scholars who made the same serious blunder.

Anne Hutchinson, in England, had been greatly influenced by the preaching of John Cotton. When he migrated to Massachusetts, she decided to follow with her family. She joined the Church in Boston of which John Winthrop was the chief member, John Wilson the pastor, and John Cotton newly installed as teacher. But she soon gathered a considerable congregation, on days other than Sunday, for the teaching of her views. The Puritan leaders saw that, whatever the Apostle Paul might have written, the moral law was not set aside. Throughout the whole Colony there was discussion of the views of Anne Hutchinson.

Soon she criticized the Puritan ministers as “under a covenant of works.” She declared that John Cotton was “under a covenant of grace” and that so were her followers and herself. She launched a vigorous movement to displace John Wilson as pastor of the Boston Church. She sought to rouse the members of other churches against their ministers. She denounced the government of the Colony.

Such a state of affairs would be distressing at any time; but when it developed while an Indian massacre was dreaded, it was ominous in the extreme. The majority of the Boston soldiers declared themselves to be under a “covenant of grace” and refused to march against the savages under a leader who, they declared, was under a “covenant of works.” There was the spectacle of a divided army with the enemy almost at the gates.

The majority of the authorities of the government wanted to check Anne Hutchinson. But they took quick action to transport the guns, powder, and other munitions away from Boston lest the faction dominated by Mrs. Hutchinson seize them. They themselves went from Boston lest they be seized and held helpless. The General Court held its sessions in Newtowne.

Meantime a brilliant young man, Sir Harry Vane, had come from England. In a wave of enthusiasm the Freemen of the Colony had elected him Governor. He lived in Boston and was won over to Mrs. Hutchinson’s religious views . His accession to her ranks gave this woman confidence that she could gain political mastery of the Colony.

The General Court sought to check her influence by pointing out the grave danger in which the Colony was placed and commanding that Mrs. Hutchinson and her followers cease their subversive works. But they replied by drawing up a document condemning the General Court. The time of year was at hand for the annual assembly of the body of Freemen of the Colony and the election of the Governor, Deputy-Governor and Assistants. The meeting was here in Newtowne. I have spoken of a great oak on Cambridge Common which was a geographical center for such meetings. The Boston faction hoped to get quick action adopting their document condemning the General Court and also to re-elect Sir Harry Vane as Governor.

A great crowd assembled, and Sir Harry Vane himself sought to set aside the regular order of business and get action favoring the Boston faction. Other men demanded that the meeting follow the usual order of business. A great tumult broke out, and men came to blows. The venerable pastor of the Boston Church, John Wilson, climbed that great oak tree, to be seen and heard by all, and made a vigorous speech appealing to men to proceed in legal fashion and to unite in defense of the Commonwealth. His counsel prevailed; the young Governor was swept from office, and the same, sober, dependable statesman, John Winthrop, was triumphantly returned to office as Governor. The Colony showed a united front against the savages and the situation was saved. Sir Harry Vane soon returned to England. In the course of time he became Minister for Naval Affairs under Oliver Cromwell. After the Restoration of the Stuart Kings he was beheaded.

But to return to Anne Hutchinson: the General Court saw clearly that the Colony must defend its existence. Mrs. Hutchinson was urged to moderate her propaganda. She refused, even when she was endangering the very life of the Colony. She was tried and sentenced to banishment.

It is said by modern critics of the Puritans that “The saintly woman, Anne Hutchinson, was driven out to be destroyed by the savages,” that “Though her only offense was her religious faith, the bigoted Puritans sent her to her death.”

But let us look at the facts. In the address to her by the General Court is this clear statement: “Your conscience you may keep to yourself; but if in this cause you shall countenance and encourage those that transgress the law, you must be called in question for it; and that is not for your conscience but for your practice.” Here is not a violation of freedom of conscience but a restriction on political action endangering the existence of the Commonwealth.

Whither was Anne Hutchinson banished? First to a very comfortable home in Roxbury, that of Joseph Welde, brother of the minister of the Roxbury Church, and a member of the General Court. Here she lived for months in quiet and comfort. She was allowed to receive visits from her friends. But she continued her dangerous propaganda. Many statements, however, made at this time contradicted some of her earlier statements. When these falsehoods were pointed out to her she claimed that she had had new revelations from the Holy Spirit.

The scandal of all this was so serious that she was excommunicated by the Boston Church. And the authorities decreed that she must go farther than Roxbury. Where did she go next? To her own farm in Braintree. There she could pause and consider her future course. She was free to go northward to the present site of the City of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and to share the fortunes of her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright. Or she was free to go southward and to associate herself with the followers of Roger Williams. She freely chose the latter course. After some years marked by further strife, she voluntarily left that colony and built a home on the western end of Long Island. There she perished in an Indian uprising. The Puritans of Massachusetts had not the slightest responsibility for her tragic end.

What About The Baptists?

Critics of the Puritans ask why the Baptists were not tolerated in this Colony. They ask, What difference does it make what amount of water is used in baptism? The custom which grew out of the Protestant Reformation was for parents to bring their infants for baptism because it was believed that regeneration took place in the rite. This was the custom among the Puritans. The Baptists, however, held strenuously that baptism was Christian only if the persons baptized were of sufficiently mature years to choose for themselves, and in baptism declared their personal faith.

As a religious teaching, the Puritans could tolerate this. But the Baptists drove hard for the political application of their definition of the name Christian. They asserted that the Puritans had not been baptized; that consequently they were not Christians; and that, further, as only Christians had a legal right to vote in the affairs of Massachusetts, the Puritans were outlawed. The Baptists claimed that only they, the Baptists, could exercise political power.

Thus we see that these militant Baptists were not asking to be tolerated in the Puritan community; they were seeking to dispossess the people who had come here in the Great Migration and had created the Commonwealth. Since any Puritan’s ownership of his land and his house upon it rested on the legality of the Puritan government, the militant Baptist propaganda would have made them vagrants and intruders. Of course this absurd propaganda had to be checked. Again we have a situation when this government had to defend itself in order to live at all.

One other phase of Baptist practice was to go into Puritan churches and to interrupt the service of instruction and worship, especially when the service included the baptism of infants.

I have spoken of the scholarly man who was the first President of Harvard College, Henry Dunster, whose term of office was from 1640 to 1654. His departure was a strange event. In his biblical studies he came slowly and reluctantly to the conviction that the Baptist doctrine was the truth. He not only announced openly his newly acquired faith but interrupted a service in the Cambridge Church when infants were brought for baptism. There was great consternation among the clergy of the Colony. Could Harvard College train Puritan ministers under such a man? Dunster was examined. He apologized for disturbing a service, but he asserted vigorously his Baptist convictions. His days of usefulness at Harvard were ended. The authorities removed him.

The Witchcraft Craze

Many people speak and write about the episode of the execution of witches in Salem as if Puritans had invented the whole idea. The matter can be disposed of briefly. A tidal wave of hysteria over witchcraft swept over Europe and barely touched these shores. It is estimated that three thousand persons were put to death in Scotland and tens of thousands in other countries. Here the Puritans took one look at this action and revolted against it. Fewer than a score of “witches” were put to death. The Puritan emphasis on the dignity of human personality was incompatible with it. The hysteria checked itself quickly. Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the witchcraft trials, stood in the broad aisle of his church and, before God and man, asked pardon for condemning anyone as a witch.

It is often said that the Puritans showed themselves harsh and bigoted in their treatment of those peace-loving, gentle people, the Quakers. But anyone who says this shows that he does not know that in those days the Quakers were militant in their determination to shatter other forms of faith and were fanatical in their methods. In the Puritan churches in Massachusetts Quaker women would do shameless things, including yelling and running up and down the aisles and making worship impossible. They called this “testifying before the Lord.” Their attitude toward the government differed little from anarchy. The Puritans used restraints against the Quakers not on the ground of religion but on that of preserving the life of the Colony.

Incidentally, let us recall the traditional phrase “The Puritan Blue Laws” long enough to say that such laws never existed here. They were invented by an English visitor who had a distorted sense of humor.

I began this paper with the statement that Puritanism was a progressive movement. This review of the history of the movement is offered in justification of that statement. In conclusion, I want to sum up briefly five important achievements of Puritan life here, all of them related to the life of our own community, Cambridge.

These five achievements are:

1st. Political democracy as expressed in their town meetings and their central colonial government.

2nd. Spiritual self-reliance as expressed in their self-governing churches and in their religious life, which emphasized to the utmost the right of private judgment.

3rd. Popular education as expressed in their great invention of the public school, and the principle that the education of the children should be at the cost of the community, because it was for the welfare of all.

4th. An educated ministry as expressed in their creation of a college for the training of their own young men to fill their pulpits, and the application of the principle that their preachers should appeal to the intelligence of their congregations. Their college was also to train men for a variety of forms of public service.

5th. Their publishing enterprise which aimed at using, for the intellectual and spiritual welfare of the entire population, the great invention of the printing-press.

These five movements were expressions of one central faith, a faith in the powers of human personality; a faith that, in human personality, there are intellectual and spiritual capacities which are best developed by being used. “We learn to do by doing” is a principle of modern education which was anticipated by our Puritan forefathers centuries ago.

The Puritan emphasis on education has been accepted so fully that we can scarcely imagine the time when it was a novelty. But Governor Berkeley of Virginia was contrasting his State with Massachusetts when, in 1670, he wrote this concerning Virginia:

“I thank God there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.”

The vitality of Puritan principles continues. They are the principles of a life which perpetuates itself while generations of men come and go. That life has a creative power which does not cease. In all my life this idea of a continuing life in successive centuries has never been more deeply impressed upon my mind than at the time of the Harvard Tercentenary, when we closed the meeting of the Alumni Association with the singing of “Fair Harvard.” That immortal song recalls our Puritan founders and speaks of Harvard College as the

“First flower of their wilderness, star of their night,

Calm rising through change and through storm.”

That first star represents one faculty of scholarly men. Harvard has become a great constellation, many faculties being grouped in it. We have seen its rising. No man can foresee for it any setting or any waning. It represents a light which is eternal, the light of truth. The Harvard shield bears with proud devotion the word VERITAS. Puritan beginnings here were indeed simple, but their consequences are large. And our community, bearing the great name of Cambridge, has an undimmed glory, for eyes that can see.

This article can be found in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 32, from the years 1946-1948.