More than one commentator has noted the irony of Puritan New England: that a society founded so idealistically as a haven of religious liberty would in turn persecute religious dissenters.
This observation reflects significant misunderstandings about Puritan beliefs, ideology, and identity. The existence of a royal conspiracy to suppress the Puritan movement in England was a key element in New England’s founding mythology.
However, the Puritans fled to New England not to permit unfettered religious liberty but to acquire the “gospel liberty” to erect a godly society—a “New Israel”—in accordance with their specific beliefs.
The Puritans saw themselves as a righteous remnant surrounded by enemies, and, admonished by the knowledge that God’s blessing on their society was predicated on its order and obedience, their religious and political psychology was reflexively defensive.
Tracing the New England Puritans’ obsession with conspiracy theories helps clarify the motivations for fleeing England and the rationale for some of the acts of intolerance that still give them a bad reputation.
The Puritans who began to arrive in America in the 1630s were but a small portion of the participants in a fifty-year-old reform movement that originated in the Elizabethan Church of England. Best understood as a loose, incomplete alliance of progressive Protestants composed of both clergy and laypeople of middling and gentry status, the Puritans worked to extend the Protestant Reformation in England.
Forsaking the “papist” rituals of the established Church of England, Puritans gathered in autonomous congregations or “conventicles,” in which membership was only extended to demonstrably pure individuals, called “saints” or the “elect.” Moral legislation was also a key strategy to remedying England’s “halfly reformed” society.
Distressed by what they saw as Anglicanism’s turn back to Roman Catholic practices, they agitated vociferously in their parishes and in Parliament for religious purity in ways that earned them their name, a derogatory epithet hurled by their many detractors.
Opposition to Puritan reforms from the monarchy and the moderate elements in the Church of England was unending, but increased particularly under the Stuarts, James I and Charles I, and through the efforts of the bishop of London, William Laud, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1633.
James I, who believed that abolishing the national church would represent a threat to royal prerogative, famously declared of the Puritans that “I will harry them out of the land.” Laud, meanwhile, harassed Puritan clergy by manipulating the Church of England bureaucracy. A climactic development occurred in 1629, when Charles I suspended the Puritan-dominated Parliament.
This effectively ended Puritan efforts by putting out of reach the only possible avenue for legislating religious reform within the Church of England, and hinted at a more menacing and repressive royal posture toward nonconformity.
The City on a Hill
Frustrated by these defeats, and fearful of more persecution, a sizeable cohort of Puritans made the difficult decision to leave an England they now found intractably corrupt. A small vanguard left in the late 1620s, founding Salem, Massachusetts, in 1629. What became known as the “Great Migration” began in 1630, when a flotilla of ships carrying the colony’s first governor, John Winthrop, left England for the New World.
In a defining sermon that set out the ideological and religious foundations for the new colony, Winthrop declared that the emigrants were a covenant people of God, a “New Israel” whose purpose was to create a godly “City on a Hill” that would be a Christian beacon for a lost and corrupt England.
The Puritan attempt to create a model society in New England depended on a unique and durable synthesis of church and state that came to be known as the “Congregational Way.” Godly life was ordered collectively, and the pillars of social purity were the clergyman and the “godly magistrate.” Church and state were separate, unlike the state-supported Anglican Church, but their roles were complementary.
At the center of each town was the church, or meeting house, which often doubled as the local court or town hall. Membership to the congregation was carefully limited to those who could demonstrate evidence of their conversion or sanctification. Electoral franchise in local politics, meanwhile, was only offered to church members.
Further, although they were not allowed to hold public office, clergymen performed valuable civic functions by preaching election sermons, or presiding over days of fasting in times of trouble. Moral codes, such as New Haven’s famous “blue laws,” were legislated and enforced to maintain order and purity.
While Puritan society was notable for the cohesiveness of its governing institutions, its divine mandate and its precarious place on the American frontier made it deeply susceptible to rumors and conspiracy theories. Particularly troubling was the problem of religious sectarianism.
As a last enclave of true Christianity, it was easy for Puritans to see conspiracies of heretics arrayed against them, plots that ultimately were of satanic derivation. Samuel Sewall, a prominent Boston merchant, like many of his compatriots, was deeply fearful of “the plots of papists, Atheists, &c.” (Sewall, 10).
That New Englanders dealt with heterodoxy in ways that often were immoderate reflected their belief that conspiracies to gospel liberty—real and imagined—lay behind religious dissent and diversity.
The first challenges to New England’s religious orthodoxy emerged in the first decade of settlement, and were led by two brilliant and charismatic individuals, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson.
Beginning in 1634 Williams rocked the still evolving orthodox Puritan establishment in New England by arguing that the colony’s church-state matrix was contrary to scriptural law. He objected to the idea that civil authorities should suppress religious dissent, enforce church attendance, or protect the practice of religion.
His views advocating “soul liberty” and the strict separation of church and state seem to anticipate the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but his intention was quite different: he believed that any church-state alliance invariably corrupted the church.
Since gospel liberty depended on submission to proper civil and religious authority, his ideas and popularity attacked the nexus of Puritan social order and raised fears of a wider sectarian conspiracy. He was banished from Massachusetts in 1636 and settled in Rhode Island.
Anne Hutchinson’s challenge to New England’s religious order, meanwhile, incited what came to be known as the Antinomian Crisis (1636–1638). A brilliant woman, she expressed dissatisfaction with the theology and preaching of many of the colony’s ministers.
She held meetings in her Boston home that attracted crowds of men and women, in which she discussed and criticized the weekly sermons she had heard. While the Puritan movement encouraged lay participation in theological debate, her dissent, gender, and large following made her ministry particularly controversial.
As a threat to the clerical establishment, she was, like Williams, banished from the colony—but not without a significant political struggle, because many of her male supporters included a number of powerful merchants.
Having quelled dissent from within, New England Puritans next faced a sectarian invasion from without. Beginning in the 1650s, members of the Quaker sect—an offshoot of radical Protestantism in England—began to arrive in Massachusetts, settling mainly in Salem and Boston.
Beyond significant theological differences, the Quakers were a threat to Puritan society because they recognized the authority of no civil government, refused to pay taxes and serve in the militia, and acknowledged no hierarchy of political leadership.
They publicly denounced the Puritan ministers as a bunch of hacks or “hirelings.” Aggressive in their proselytizing, the most radical form of Quaker witness was called “going naked for a sign,” when Quaker women would run naked through Puritan churches and civic courts.
In the words of a Puritan broadside, Quakerism was “destructive to fundamental trueths [sic] of religion” (Pestana, 33). But New England’s leaders, who were not amused by the accusations of ungodliness, ultimately failed to quell the threat to their godly commonwealth.
Faced with Puritan repression—beatings, imprisonment, and even executions—the Quakers would not desist. The most famous Quaker “martyr,” Mary Dyer, was a former follower of Anne Hutchinson who converted to Quakerism in the 1650s.
In 1659 she and two comrades were convicted for apostasy in Boston and sentenced to death. Because the Puritan magistrates feared a public outcry or possibly even an attack on the town by other Quakers, her sentence was commuted and she was banished from Boston with the threat of death should she return.
She did, and she was hanged on 1 June 1 1660 along with three other Quakers. News of these executions spread to England and attracted the negative attention of King Charles II, and the Puritans were gradually forced to amend their repressive tactics.
Unable to enforce religious uniformity, Puritan clergy and magistrates resorted to persuasion to maintain the godliness of New England society. While Quakers were the most visible challenge to Puritan society, a more insidious threat came from vice and disorder within New England.
Puritan fear of “declension,” or the perception that New England was falling away from its divinely ordained mission, was the impetus for the pastorled “Reformation of Manners,” a moral-reform campaign that began in 1679.
In sermons and laws, authorities targeted a whole host of practices and behaviors as immoral: folk magic and witchcraft, harvest revels, tavern culture, and sexual vice. Resisting immorality required vigilance, since pastors and magistrates believed that disorder was not simply the random expression of human nature, but was part of a satanic plot to undermine the last enclave of true Christianity.
From Colony to Province
If fears of heterodox conspiracies and moral laxity preoccupied the Puritan ruling class, New England’s vulnerable position as an isolated colonial outpost was also a source of conspiracy theories.
The Puritans fancied that they had founded their “City on a Hill” in a “howling wilderness,” surrounded by real and imagined enemies. Their Native American neighbors were objects of suspicion and fear, and New England fought two vicious wars against them, the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip’s War (1675–1676).
Rumors of imminent Indian attack were constant throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The “Eastern Indians” allied with the French in Quebec and began attacking New England in the 1680s, initiating a cycle of warfare that would not cease until the 1760s.
This combined French and Indian threat had special connotations in the Puritan religious and political imagination. As a powerful Catholic nation, France and its imperial ambitions represented nothing less than the temporal instrument of the papal Antichrist.
Thus Puritans refracted geopolitical developments and imperial adversaries through the lens of their collective identity as a people with a divine mission. More complicated, however, were New England’s increasingly contentious relations with England.
While the Puritans had fled persecution, they had never disavowed the mother country, nor had they formally rejected the Church of England. The founding charter signed by Charles I gave the first Puritan colonists unprecedented powers of self-rule, allowing them to select their own governor and erect the institutions that supported their godly identity.
Events in England—the Civil War, the execution of Charles I, the rule of Oliver Cromwell, and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660—meant that New England was effectively independent for the first thirty years of its existence.
Displeased with New England’s commercial and religious independence, Charles II began to reassert English control over the colonies. Historians debate when Puritan New England can be said to have “ended,” but certainly a pivotal transition occurred when Charles II revoked Massachusetts’s charter in 1684.
Authority was wrested from the Puritan-elected governor and handed to a new royal appointee, Governor Edmund Andros. This inaugurated a decade of the politics of conspiracy as the established Puritan leadership and the newly arrived royal representatives struggled for power.
Andros arrived in Boston in 1686 and immediately alienated the Puritan leadership. A devout Anglican, he deliberately flouted Puritan religious sensibilities and refused to defer to the deposed Puritan elite in colonial decision-making.
Fearing their religious liberties were at risk, the Puritans retaliated in two ways: they spread rumors about Andros’s corruption and incompetence, and they sent Increase Mather, the colony’s most important clergyman, to London in 1688 to renegotiate the charter with the new king, James II.
However, in another outbreak in the conflict between monarch and Commons, James II—a Catholic advocate of absolute monarchy—was overthrown in 1688 and replaced by William III, a Protestant who was much more conciliatory to parliamentary powers.
This “Glorious Revolution” had significant effects in the American colonies. Hearing this news, the New England Puritans acted preemptively. Declaring that Andros, as the appointee of James II, was no longer the legitimate ruler, on 18 April 1689 the leadership of Puritan Boston rose up and overthrew Andros.
In documents justifying this coup, they argued that Puritan New England had been oppressed by Andros’s tyranny; he had led the colony to disaster since the revocation of the old charter in 1684. “[A]ll our concerns both Civil and Sacred, have suffered by the Arbitrary Oppressions of UnreasonableMen,” they wrote, and produced an often hyperbolic litany of grievances and conspiracy theories.
They accused Andros of bungling a military campaign against the Eastern Indians, which resulted in great loss of life to New Englanders, and of willfully suppressing news of the Glorious Revolution in England—which they characterized as “the rescue [of] the English nation from imminent POPERY and SLAVERY”—in order to stay in power.
Implausibly, they also believed Andros to be complicit in an imminent attack on New England by Catholic France, and claimed that the French planned to kidnap the last Puritan governor of the colony, Simon Bradstreet (A. B., 48–53).
In short, the Puritan leaders constructed from a potent stew of rumor and conspiracy theories an ideological justification for overthrowing Andros, by which they hoped to reconstitute the authority and political institutions they had enjoyed under the old charter.
Significantly, however, the political rhetoric they employed did not invoke so much the religious idioms of godly liberty but reflected a new, more secular vocabulary and claimed—in a premonition of the American Revolution—that they acted in defense of their “English liberties.”
This was a fleeting victory, however, since William III was unwilling to restore the old charter. In 1691 Mather returned to New England with a new charter that irrevocably reshaped Puritan political life.
Electoral franchise based on church membership and a government elected entirely within the colony was replaced by a franchise based on property and a government supervised from London.
Mather was convinced that this new charter was the best he could have obtained, but from then on New England was governed through the language of English constitutionalism, not the spiritual vision of the Puritan founders.