Early New England Protestantism

Those who brought their form of Protestantism to New England on the Mayflower were not economic migrants, but rather individuals who believed that they were being persecuted or oppressed on account of their faith. They saw themselves as "called"—a notion heavily freighted with the most powerful Puritan theological themes—to establish "holy commonwealths" in a new world, free from the opposition and ridicule they had faced in England. They would be the salt of the American earth, the light of the new world.3

The most famous such emigration traced its origins back to 1607 or 1608, when a congregation of separatist Protestants from the Nottinghamshire town of Scrooby, weary of the hostile religious policies of James I, migrated to Amsterdam, which had by then displaced Geneva as the center of the Reformed world. In 1609 the migrants moved on to Leiden, where they developed a sense of identity as God's chosen people, as aliens in a strange land. Never regarding themselves as Dutch, and unwilling to return to the hostile ecclesiastical environment of England, they conceived a solution as desperate as it was brilliant. Those of their number who believed that they were called to do so would travel to America and establish a settlement there.

An initial attempt to sail to America in a smaller vessel, the Speedwell, failed when it began to leak, forcing it to dock in Plymouth and discharge its passengers. Most were able to secure passage on the larger Mayflower, which set sail in September 1620. Due to a navigation error, the "Pilgrim Fathers" arrived at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in November 1620, some considerable distance north of their intended destination. A month later, they finally landed at Plymouth Rock and established a community there. The Puritan settlement of New England was under way.

Between 1627 and 1640, some four thousand individuals made the hazardous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean and settled on the coastline of Massachusetts Bay. For these settlers, there was a clear alignment between the narrative of their journey and that of the Bible. England was the land in which they struggled under oppression; America would be the land in which they found freedom. Expelled from their Egypt by a cruel Pharaoh (as they saw both James I and Charles I), they had settled in a promised land flowing with milk and honey. They would build a new Jerusalem, a city upon a hill, in this strange land. The Pilgrim Fathers were an inspiration to many who followed them to the new world.4

The Pilgrim Fathers were not, it must be appreciated, typical of English Puritanism at this time. They were separatists whose beliefs were more characteristic of the Anabaptists than of Calvin: they were convinced that each congregation had the democratic right to determine its own beliefs and choose its own ministers.5 Most English Puritans of the age were Presbyterians who were committed to the notion of a single mother church with local outposts—a "universal church" with "particular congregations" bound together by shared beliefs and leaders. It was only a matter of time before the defining conflicts of the Old World would find themselves being replayed in the New. But this time, decentralization would win.

One of the most remarkable features of the early history of New England Protestantism in the 1620s and 1630s is that most Puritan communities appear to have abandoned a Presbyterian view of church government within months of their arrival and adopted a congregational polity instead. The Plymouth Colony Separatists appear to have been significant in bringing about a major shift in how congregations organized themselves and related to other congregations.6 Reacting strongly against the rigid hierarchical structures of the European state churches, the American settlers opted instead for a democratic congregationalism. Local congregations made their own decisions. Instead of centralized authority structures—such as presbyteries or dioceses—the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay area developed "a highly decentralized and well-nigh uncontrollable Congregational church order which licensed any individual congregation to revise Calvinist theology as it saw fit. And revise it they did."7

The Puritans who settled in America were far from theologically incoherent, on the one hand, or monolithic, on the other. The new situation in America, by allowing the unfettered exploration of religious possibilities that were simply unthinkable in England, led to diversification of religious beliefs and customs in response to local circumstances. The particular forms that Puritanism developed in the region are to be regarded as historical contingencies rather than theological necessities, and they generally derived from local issues of personality, power, and privilege rather than from any intrinsic "essence" of Puritan identity.8

Roger Williams (1603-84), one of the leading proponents of a pure separatist church, argued that the Church of England was apostate and that any kind of fellowship with it—whether in England or in America—was a serious sin. Christian believers were under an obligation to separate from apostate churches and from a secular state. Church and state should be separate; above all, the state should not be able to enforce the first four of the Ten Commandments. Disenchanted by the unwavering commitment to the mutual interpenetration of church and state in Massachusetts, Williams established the colony of Rhode Island in 1636. There he insisted upon complete religious freedom, extending this far beyond traditional Christian denominations to embrace Jews and other religious minorities.9

Yet further south, a somewhat different form of Protestantism had become established. Whereas Massachusetts became a hotbed of Protestant religious experimentation, with generally secondary interests in commerce, southern colonies from Delaware to Georgia were primarily concerned with trade and saw religion as peripheral to this enterprise. It was an ideal context for Anglicanism to take root and flourish, primarily as the religion of the planting class. Long used to issues of social class and distinction, Anglicanism proved an ideal provider of a veneer of religious dignity to the social structures of the plantations that continued to the dawn of the nineteenth century.10

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