When we look at the story of the Jamestown settlement, we see a government-sanctioned colony staffed with nominal Christians struggling to replicate British culture and government in the New World. The colony almost failed multiple times because of the leaders’ large egos, the early attempt at socialism, a failure to convert the natives, and the combative relationship that ensued. That was 1607. While Jamestown was struggling to gain a foothold in the New World, another group of English Protestants, back in the Old World were chaffing under the authoritarian rule of King James and looking to the New World as well as a means of escaping the tyranny of the British Crown.
Ever ask yourself why Protestant North America is so different from Catholic South America? Columbus is the Father of both, right? His discovery of the Western hemisphere set in motion a New World which we now refer to as North and South America. But why is North America (i.e. The United States) so unique and distinct from South America? It’s not because of Jamestown or Columbus. You can thank the Puritans and Pilgrims who laid the foundation for a new nation built on the Bible.
Their story begins back in the 1500’s when Henry VIII was king and England was Roman Catholic. We all know the story of Henry VIII’s desire to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catharine of Aragon, which led to a dispute with Pope Clement VII. Since the Pope wouldn’t allow an annulment, Henry separated the Church of England from papal authority. He appointed himself as the “Supreme Head of the Church of England.” The Pope excommunicated him. The good news was that the Church of England was no longer Roman Catholic. The bad news is that Henry took his role as self-proclaimed spiritual leader and extended that power over the English Constitution, ushering in the theory of the “Divine Right of Kings.”
Imagine for a moment that Americans are demonstrably dissatisfied with the major denominations in the U.S., so Obama declares himself the titular head of the new “Church of America,” declares all other churches heretical or illegal, and demands all Americans everywhere to join the church and tithe or be taxed, punished, or jailed. Imagine for a moment that he does this for the sole purpose of divorcing Michelle. Not exactly the godly foundation for a new denomination, is it? I mean Henry, Father of the Anglican Church, wasn’t a bad guy…was he? So he had six wives and numerous concubines; he only beheaded two of them! (I hope the reader can detect the sarcasm)
As bad as Henry VIII was, many believers in England thought this better than being under the thumb of the corrupt and distant Roman Catholic Church. Some among them wanted Henry to really distinguish the Church of England from Catholicism but he did not. He kept most of the liturgy, symbolism, and empty ritual of the Catholic Church. It was (and still is) “Catholic Light” – poor taste, but less convicting.
The reason these early Puritans wanted to “purify” the Church of England was because in addition to skepticism of the Roman Catholic Church, they also saw their nation going to hell in a handbasket. Corruption, greed, and moral rot was everywhere. While England was relatively prosperous at this time, religion and morality were not in vogue. Interestingly, the Puritans did not see the seeds of the new free market economy nor wealth in general, nor increasing global trade as the root of the evil that was infecting the bloodstream of rich and poor alike. They saw the impotence and failure of the Church of England to instill the virtues needed to create a good society in accordance with Christian morals. Once it was freed from Roman Catholicism, the Puritans thought this would be the perfect opportunity to rekindle those virtues.
The Puritans’ call was largely unheeded, and made them something of a nuisance. England turned “Protestant” around 1530 under Henry VIII. When he died, his daughter Mary returned the nation to Catholicism and burned 300 rebelling Protestants at the stake during her brief reign. After her death, Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth turned England Protestant again. So within a 25 year span, the nation bounced violently between Catholicism and Protestantism (or Catholic and Catholic Light). This was a time of severe persecution for those opposed to the state-approved church. Foxes Book of Martyrs contains many episodes of torture and death for those on the “wrong side” of the religious establishment.
Despite the persecution, the movement continued to grow in the years that followed and fractured somewhat between those who denounced the Church of England and favored a Presbyterian form of church organization (elders as opposed to a singular pastoral head), those who denounced the Church of England and claimed the autonomy of the local church, and those who remained within the Church of England, but refused to fully submit to the authority of the Church of England.
Those Christian separatists who broke from the main body of their local parish church, engaged preachers of reform theology who would preach to their small groups in houses or outdoor venues. Despite persecution, the movement against the established church continued to grow.
Why would they separate from the Anglican Church? Because they were loyal to God, not to a church.
16 And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17 Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. 18 And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. (2 Corinthians 6)
One such faction was a group of separatist Puritans in the Yorkshire village of Scrooby, who, fearing for their safety, moved to Holland in 1608. We know them now as the Pilgrims.
The leader of the Pilgrims was a man by name of William Bradford. As a boy, he was influenced by these new Puritanical preachers. William’s childhood was very sad. He lost his father when he was one, and his mother when he was six. Numerous other family members passed away during his youth resulting in him being cared for by more distant relatives as a young boy.
At age 12, he got very ill and was bedridden for many months. During this time he comforted himself by reading and studying the Scriptures. Over time, he got physically (and spiritually) stronger. When he was well again, he traveled ten miles to listen to a Puritan preacher named Robert Clifton. And the verse that literally changed his life and set in motion a series of events that would change the world was a simple passage in Matthew 18 where Jesus says, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” The liberating notion that you do not need a state church, not even a local church, much less a bishop or a priest or “church authority” to have fellowship with Christ was novel but he believed it. Christ can be with you wherever you are whenever you worship Him.
By 1603, young Bradford was convinced that not only was the Church of England not necessary, it was a hindrance to a right relationship with God. He believed that in order to find the true, pure love of God, separation from the Church of England was necessary.
This was an era where failure to attend church could result in fines or imprisonment. To criticize or separate from the church was to criticize and separate from the king, and that could not be tolerated. The royalty, the hierarchy, depended on uniformity and submission to the rule of law and the word of God as they interpreted it.
What Bradford experienced was a simple revelation that would require great courage to practice.
When King James I took the throne, he had very little tolerance for divisive sects. The Puritans soon realized that to leave the Church of England would mean leaving England. But you couldn’t leave the country without permission and religious dissenters would not be granted permission. So they had to escape.
In 1608 they finally, successfully escaped from England and fled to Amsterdam eventually settling in Leiden. They did not know the Dutch language, and they had to work menial jobs from dusk till dawn to support themselves. Despite the hardships, they looked back on these years with great fondness because of the work of God that they were engaged in and the freedom they had to worship him as they saw fit.
The difficulty, and their common faith, forced them into close fellowship and total dependence on one another. They saw in their experience a mirror image of the early church, the unity, the oneness that they read about in Acts and the epistles.
Dutch society had more relaxed morals and they saw it as a corrupting influence on their children. By 1618, they were convinced that they needed to leave Holland and find another place for the religious community. But where? It is at this time that Bradford coined the term for his religious community, “pilgrims,” from Hebrews 11:13–16 about Old Testament “strangers and pilgrims” who had the opportunity to return to their old country but instead longed for a better, heavenly country.
13These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. 15 And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. 16 But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
After ten years in Holland, they decided to move on.
Jamestown had been successfully established in the New World, so they resolved to go there, too. The problem was that they had no wealth nor power to fund the voyage. They found an investor willing to subsidize the trip, and he secured a ship for them called The Mayflower. The investor funded the trip on one condition — that non-separatist, ordinary people go along with them. The Pilgrims agreed to the condition.
After three false starts due to problems with the second ship, The Speedwell, 102 of them packed into the Mayflower, and some of the others from The Speedwell were forced to return to Holland. They finally departed Plymouth England, late in the sailing season, on September 16, 1620.
This picture of them aboard the Mayflower also hangs in the rotunda of the capital building.
Bradford was a poet and a historian. Here’s how he described the years from his boyhood to his leadership at Plymouth in verse:
From my years young in days of youth,
God did make known to me his truth,
And call’d me from my native place
For to enjoy the means of grace
In wilderness he did me guide,
And in strange lands for me provide.
In fears and wants, through weal and woe,
As pilgrim passed I to and fro.
We all know what happens next. They landed on the tip of Cape Cod, far from the intended destination, and also far from British colonial rule. Before disembarking the ship, they created and signed an agreement that we call today, “The Mayflower Compact.” In some respects, the compact was unremarkable — the colony would be governed like most small English towns, but it was revolutionary in another respect — it established the idea of self-government and the consent of the governed.
Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
Being a deeply religious people coupled with “strangers” who were along for the ride, they attempted to build the new colony on the basis of sharing and common goods as described in Acts 2. However, the altruistic sharing did not materialize and their experiment with communism was a failure. Bradford quickly realized that equal pay for unequal work is unjust, and that it eliminates the incentive to work. He said this system (“taking away of property and bringing [it] into a commonwealth”) bred “confusion and discontent” and “retarded much employment that would have been to [the settlers’] benefit and comfort,” so he loosened up the restrictions and allowed private property ownership.
“This had very good success,” Bradford reported, “for it made all hands very industrious.” In fact, “much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been” and productivity increased. “Women,” for example, “went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn.”
Bradford saw the hand of God in the Pilgrims’ economic recovery. Their success, he observed, “may well evince the vanity of that conceit…that the taking away of property… would make [men] happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.” Bradford surmised, “God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.” That course was free market capitalism and private property ownership. This is 150 years prior to Adam Smith’s landmark “Wealth of Nations” book.
Puritans of Massachusetts
Meanwhile, back in England, the non-separatist Puritans attempted to reform the Anglican Church with very limited success. By 1629, many Puritans had become discouraged and they began to look for a new home in the colonies where they could practice their religious beliefs far from the influence of Catholicism and English kings. Several wealthy Puritans formed the Massachusetts Bay Company and pooled their resources to move a group of the Puritan faithful to the New World.
By March 1630, 17 ships funded by the Massachusetts Bay Company left London to establish a new colony led by a one-time lawyer named John Winthrop. It is during this voyage that Winthrop preached his aspirational “city on a hill,” sermon that their new nation would serve as an example of faithfulness to God and religious purity for the whole world and especially for the monarchs of England.
Between 1630 and 1643, nearly 9,000 Puritans migrated to the colony. The Puritan migration was much more rapid than any other group migration in the colonies at the time. Once they arrived in New England, the Puritans established towns and farms. Most Puritans settled in towns near their extended families and created churches and schools.
The Puritans believed that God had formed a unique covenant, or agreement, with them. They believed that God expected them to live according to the Scriptures, to reform the Anglican Church, and to set a good example in “New” England that would cause those who had remained in “Old” England to change their sinful ways. Most early migrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony were full-fledged members of the Puritan faith.
Some of the changes that they instituted in New England included:
- Church membership reserved for the genuinely saved. In the mother country, every Englishman was part of the national Anglican Church. In Puritan New England, church attendance was mandatory but to become a full member of the church, Puritans had to testify of their conversion experience and show evidence of a changed life.
- Religious and political life were completely intertwined. Men who were church members were given the right to vote. As the Mosaic Law had regulated Israel’s society in Old Testament days, so the church under the Scripture’s authority would regulate New England’s society. There was no place for toleration in Puritan America. Those not in accord with the lofty spiritual aims of the colony could move elsewhere.
- When they set up a town, the church was the literal and spiritual center of their community, providing purpose and direction to their lives. They followed the layout of the wilderness wanderers who had the Tabernacle in the center of the caravan as described in Exodus and Numbers.
- Establishment of the Lord’s Day, Sunday as a day of rest, meditation and worship. Usually two services on Sunday. Only two sacraments: Lord’s Supper and Baptism (infant baptism). No icons, crosses, stained glass or fancy architecture were permitted. They were considered “graven images” or idols. Strict observance of the Sabbath, but no celebration of “man-made” holidays like Christmas and Easter. “It seems too much for any mortal man to appoint, or make an anniversary memorial [for Christ]”
- Hymns and music not allowed in earliest worship services; only psalms or paraphrases of other scriptures were sung acapella. Prayer was to be extemporaneous, not read from “the Book of Common Prayer” or any other pre-written text.
- The family was the most basic institution in Puritan society and was organized like a miniature church. Established by God before all other institutions and before man’s fall, the family was considered the foundation of all civil, social, and ecclesiastical life. In the morning and evening the family assembled together for worship, and on Sunday the family joined other families in worship. Interestingly, marriage was a civil affair, not a religious one.
- Emphasis on education and literacy led to the founding of schools, including the first college, established to train ministers, Harvard (1636). “The Old Deluder, Satan Act” established those schools.
- The earliest rules for Harvard testify to the Christian commitment expected: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the main end of his life and studies is, to know God, and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3). And therefore to lay Christ in the bottom is the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”
- Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth and many others were also founded as Christian learning institutions.
- All honorable work is a means of glorifying God. All of life was God’s, and there was no distinction between secular and sacred work. God calls each person to a particular vocation or occupation, and the Christian should act as a careful steward of the talents and gifts God has given him. Working in one’s calling or vocation as a means of serving God and men. Idleness was considered a great sin; diligence in one’s calling was a virtue.
- Clergy were political writers and thinkers who influenced laws and government. They fed upon the writings of Calvin who viewed the Church as the soul and the state as the body – both are Divinely appointed, and both have separate roles to play. The church is to create a perfect Christian society and the state is to furnish the necessary external conditions for it. The Church, like the soul, is eternal; the state, like the body, is temporal.
- Church was organized democratically, meaning that Christ was the only True Head of the Church, and that the members of the church were vested with the authority to select, hire and fire ministers placed over them.
Relations with the Indians
Contrary to popular propaganda, clashes with Indians were not based on racial but rather cultural differences. The Pilgrims did not despise the Indians because they had a different skin color. The issues with the Indians resulted from treacherous dealings with them that were baked into their tribal culture.
The violence started with the Pequot war. Pequot (name means “destroyers” or “destroyers of men”) were the dominant majority tribe in New England. They had a habit of conquering smaller tribes and taking their land. These smaller tribes looked to the Pilgrims and to one another for assistance, as was their usual cultural practice — to band together with other tribes to defeat an aggressive common enemy.
The Pilgrims were reluctant to get involved, but after the Pequot killed some Pilgrims, they decided to participate despite being greatly outnumbered. After the defeat of the Pequot in 1638, the Indians and Pilgrims enjoyed a 40-year period of peace. The violence committed against the Indians in this war was no more severe than the violence common to warring factions in this day and age; the atrocities that are often cited are no more severe or unusual than the atrocities committed in European wars or wars between the native tribes.
Howard Zinn is Marxist historian who perpetuates the lie that Puritans, Westerners, and Americans are inherently violent and malicious in order to convince his readers that all the bad things of this world can be attributed to western civilization rather than the fallen nature of man. It’s an attempt to prove that our civilization is built on cruelty and that the left has another better way if we reject those western norms.
Human societies, especially tribal ones, have been the most violent throughout history. It is only because of the advancements of Western civilization that people are able to live free under a series of laws and private property rights that protect them from the tribal “justice” of “might makes right.” The “noble savage” is a myth. Gangs are always more violent and less just than civilized societies.
This all boils back to one’s perception of man — one must either believe that fallen man can never be perfected on earth because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” or that perfected man is possible because “people are good; religion is the problem.” (like the fantasy of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’)
Irony of the Puritan Demise
One of the major problems faced by the Puritans was dealing with dissent within the faith. Puritans had no tolerance for alternative doctrines. William Bradford in another of his poems lampooned Quakers, Anabaptists, and other sects within Puritanism. Here’s what he wrote about “Seekers”
What shall we of the Seekers say?
Even surely they have lost the way,
For they seek that they’ll never find,
For they have left the truth behind.
For new apostles they still expect,
But doctrines of the old reject.
The prophets’ words which are most sure,
They look at them to be obscure.
They gaze and gape still for new light;
The noon to them is as dark night.
Like owls and bats, they cannot see
The light of truth, though clear it be.
And nothing them will satisfy,
But such new notions as do fly
In their own wild and giddy brains,
Even vain found raptures and high strains.
For revelation they do seek,
But what is revealed they do not keep.
Signs and marvels they would see,
But leave those truths that confirmed be.
Within one year of the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a Puritan minister named Roger Williams began causing problems in the colony. Williams believed that the Puritan colonists would be damned in God’s eyes as long as they had any association with the Anglican Church. He preached that each individual had the right to practice their own system of belief. He also preached the separation of church and state, thus anyone charged with breaking the Ten Commandments should not be punished by civil authorities, but that these sins were to be the jurisdiction of the church only. He also called the charter of the colony into question because the Puritans had not actually purchased their lands from the Native Americans. Finally, in the winter of 1636, colonial officials banished Williams and a group of his followers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
After a dangerous winter voyage in January 1636, Williams was taken in by the local Wampanoags who offered him shelter at their winter camp. Chief Massasoit hosted Williams there for the three months until spring. He eventually ended up in present-day Providence Rhode Island where he encountered Narragansett Native Americans who welcomed him as a friend.
From the beginning, a majority vote of the heads of households governed the new settlement, but only in civil things. Newcomers could also be admitted to full citizenship by a majority vote. Thus, Williams founded the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separate, religious liberty unrestricted, and church and state were separated.
Other Puritan dissenters like Anne Hutchinson surfaced, squabbled with the Puritan leadership and were then banished. Puritans who wanted to distance themselves from the unbending Winthrop and the other Puritan leaders settled into new territories in Connecticut and New Hampshire. As the Puritans expanded physically and the original settlers grew older, they found that their children and grandchildren were reluctant to undergo the conversion process in order to be full members of the church and the community. The Puritan model began to collapse because of the same religious intolerance they had once fled.
More recently, the word “Puritan” has once again become a pejorative epithet, meaning prudish, constricted and cold–as in H. L. Mencken’s famous remark that a Puritan is one who suspects “somewhere someone is having a good time.”
What are we to say of the Puritans and the Pilgrims? These imperfect people planted the seeds of an imperfect nation, but still by far the most perfect Union ever known. It was not just their British heritage that made North America far superior to South America, or New England superior to Old England. It was the enterprising attitude of these forefathers who risked everything to forge a new society in an unknown land. Unlike the settlers in Jamestown, they laid the foundation for a self-reliant, self-governing Christian society in the New World.
The Pilgrims initiated American cultural mores, not just abstract self-government ideals that continue to resonate today. For the Pilgrims, this wasn’t a political mission, but a spiritual one. “The Puritans taught their descendants that freedom was given by God for moral and religious purposes and that those who ignored these purposes did so at their soul’s peril.”
Many of the key ingredients in the American recipe for success were placed there by the Pilgrims. More than a system of government, the Puritans planted a Christian culture that set the content of a man’s character as the bar to which he should be measured, rather than his breeding or family lineage. The Puritans created an environment where moral people could work hard, enjoy the fruits of their labor, and climb the social ladder to new heights long forbidden in jolly old England.
Our American sense of charity is unsurpassed even today by other developed nations. We give more as a percentage of our GDP than any other nation on earth. Winthrop’s “city on a hill” message was formally titled, “On Christian Charity,” and we still seek to live it out.
Our American sense of boldness, bravery, and rugged individualism all stem from the Puritan ethic. Isn’t it interesting that liberal tenured faculty members are always critical of the institutions where they work because they were “founded on racism, oppression, and injustice,” yet they never “believe” with such conviction that they will walk away from these institutions, sacrificing their bloated paychecks and mahogany walled offices to found something new and better based on their convictions? The Puritans did. The strength of their convictions led to bold, self-sacrificing action, not just whining and agitation of the masses from some perch of privilege.
Our American sense of patriotism is deeply rooted in the notion of God-given rights, and personal property to the point that we will fight and die for this country because it is ours; we own it. It is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Even the least religious founder, Thomas Paine used arguments from scripture to rally the people behind the notion of liberty and freedom from the tyranny of the British Crown in his novel Common Sense. The Bible provided the compelling arguments for liberty.
Our American sense of correcting our sins is the direct result of biblical repentance and forgiveness. It is not science that corrected the sins of slavery and witch-burning; it was Christianity which brought about their downfall. Men like Roger Williams built upon the inflexible Puritan ethic this idea of man’s accountability to God, and they preached truth to power in an effort to help America self-correct her sins.
“America is the only country based on an idea” is only partially true. The first French Republic in 1792 was also based on ideas. Why did the one succeed while the other degenerated into bloody chaos? Because American culture planted by the Puritans preceded American ideas of government. The blending of religious and political elements is what made it successful. “Puritanism, rightly understood, has led to liberty, prosperity, and a culture of self-restraint balanced by the desire for and celebration of plenty.”
Is America a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is compelled upon all citizens as the only legal and acceptable religion, but yes in the sense that no other nation is so firmly based on the doctrines of Christianity. Christianity is “baked into America’s DNA.”
Bradford’s poetic reflection on the course of events that the Pilgrims experienced:
Thy plants in England were first bred,
And kindly there were nourished
By faithful guides, who did them feed,
And them assist, in all their need;
Till enemies did them envy,
And made them and their guides to fly
Over the seas, to Belgic land,
Where for twelve years they made their stand.
So there they lived, in love and peace,
And greatly grew and did increase.
But when as those twelve years were done,
The truce expired, and wars begun.
But them a place God did provide,
In wilderness, and them did guide
Unto the American shore,
Where they made way for many more.
They broke the ice themselves alone,
And so became a stepping-stone
For all others who, in like case,
Were glad to find a resting place.
 Much of this material comes from Jarrett Stepman, The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America’s Past (Gateway Editions; 2019)