Analysis: We see the warts of the Puritan legacy but the Pilgrims had a positive side, too

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Image credit: JeanMarie Shelton, Flickr

By Professor Francis Bremer

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower off Cape Cod and the settlement of the Plymouth colony by a group of Puritans who are often referred to as the Pilgrims.

I have been researching and writing about Puritanism in the Atlantic world for more than 50 years. Recently, I have found it useful to begin sharing my thoughts with a reference to the instructions that Oliver Cromwell gave the artist Peter Lely, who had been commissioned to paint his portrait. Cromwell told Lely to paint him “warts and all”. He recognised that just as there were blemishes in his personal appearance, so too were their offences in his life.

We need to avoid Manichean-style judgments of people as all good or all evil, something that has become a tendency in the midst of disputes over historical statues and memorials. We need to be aware of the warts but avoid the danger of making the warts all that is worth noting.

This is particularly apt when we talk about the Puritans who settled Plymouth, men and women who hoped to start in America an exemplary society based on their Christian values. I refer to the Plymouth settlers as “Puritans” because, as I have argued in my new book, One Small Candle: The Plymouth Puritans and the Beginning of English New England, the Congregationalists who settled the colony in 1620 were a segment of the broad Puritan movement.

In 1629 and 1630 Plymouth’s deacon, Samuel Fuller, was instrumental in advising the Massachusetts colonists in Salem, Boston, Watertown, and other communities on how to organise their religious life into what many refer to as the New England Way.

There is no question but that the Puritan settlers of Plymouth and all New England had their warts. Recognising and understanding them is an important part of advancing our understanding of the past. But equally important is that we correct misrepresentations and recognise positive contributions made by the Puritans.

One of the positive developments in the commemorations of 1620 is the new attention to the people of the Dawnland, the native Americans who first inhabited the region and whose story has been neglected or distorted for much too long. While the epidemic diseases that devastated the indigenous people of eastern New England had been introduced by European explorers and traders in the decades before 1620, the settlement of the region by English colonists did have a negative impact on those people.

Yet it is a complex story, and we should not uncritically lump the Puritans with all colonisers. The Plymouth colonists accepted that Native Americans had a natural right to the lands they occupied, despite not being Christians. They instituted a policy of buying from them the land they occupied, and that was a precedent that would be followed in the other New England colonies. One can question the equity of the actual transactions, but the fact that they recognized native rights stands in sharp contrast to the policies of most colonising powers of the time. Ultimately, the interaction between the two cultures led to indirect undermining of the native way of life, and open conflict between colonists and specific tribes, most notably the Pequot War and King Philip’s War.

Nevertheless, while the Puritans looked down upon native culture, they were not racist in the way that many Europeans were. They believed that natives were God’s children, potentially among the elect who were saved, and thus eligible to be church members. Thousands of Native Americans were converted to Christianity, the Bible translated into the native language to aid them in finding God, and granted land for their own “praying towns” with native teachers and preachers. Similarly, when African slavery, which can never be excused, became more prevalent in the region, black people were nevertheless admitted to churches and able to form their own prayer groups.

While attention to these tensions in New England history have been emphasised more recently, the tropes of Puritans being steeple-hatted killjoys who persecuted non-believers and executed witches have long been part of popular culture. These are stereotypes based on making extreme and atypical people and events appear typical of the group.

The reality was complex. The Puritan moral code emphasised the importance of moderation and the appropriate use of God’s gifts. Drinking was fine; drunkenness was a sin. Marital sex was extolled as cementing a union of love; sex outside marriage was condemned as a perversion of God’s gift.

Like any society, Puritans in Plymouth and elsewhere in New England set a cultural perimeter fence distinguishing ideas and practices that were acceptable from those that were beyond the pale. While some believed that they had achieved a true understanding of matters of faith and would not listen to anything that challenged them to expand the fence, others — such as the Pilgrims’ pastor, John Robinson, and Massachusetts governor John Winthrop — recognised that they were looking through a glass darkly and were open to further light.

New insights were given a hearing, and if consensus was not possible, ideally the issue was put aside until more light might be received. But when, after an airing of their views, dissenters were unwilling to concede the possibility of being wrong — like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson — they were banished.

Our modern perspective makes us keenly aware of the warts. But there were accomplishments and ideas that deserve equal attention. Because it was imperative to confront directly the word of God in the scripture all children — male and female, free and unfree — were taught to read, and the educational system written into the fabric of New England culture had no parallel in any other colony, or any European country of that time.

Because the insights of those readers had value, the churches were organised and governed by believing lay men and women. The participatory democracy of congregational religion provided models for governance in the Mayflower Compact and the system of town meetings that became ubiquitous.

There are some elements of the Puritan outlook that can be linked to modern, conservative evangelicalism, but that is only part of the story. It is not a coincidence that many of the major reform movements in American history first arose in New England — including anti-slavery, female suffrage, demands for universal education, respect for the disabled, and prison reform. I would not claim that Puritanism was the only inspiration for any of these movements, but I would contend that they were in part at least derived from what I have often called the Puritan social gospel.

Epitomised in Winthrop’s 1630 biblically rooted lay sermon on Christian charity, where he called for those with him to “delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together labour and suffer together,” it is equally found in a sermon preached in Plymouth in 1621 by the Pilgrim layman Robert Cushman.

Taking his text from 1 Corinthians 10:24, Cushman told the settlers: “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.” Referring to the rise of an individualist ethos in England, he criticised the “bird of self-love which was hatched at home”, and asked the congregation to “let this self-seeking be left off, and turn the stream another way”, towards their neighbours — “please them, honour them, reverence them, for otherwise it will never go well amongst you”.

The communities they addressed were much more restricted than that in which we live, but the ideals are expandable. It is a message that is especially appropriate in this time of extreme and rapacious individualism.

Frank Bremer is Professor Emeritus of History at Millersville University, Pennsylvania. He will be joining us to talk about his book and life’s research in a RMC zoom briefing on Thursday 3 September at 1500b. [email protected]


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