Recently, I got to share a bit about American religious history with a local United Church of Christ congregation. The group was celebrating its 137th anniversary as a congregation. Since the UCC derives, in part, from the Congregational Churches that themselves are remnants of American Puritanism. In honor of Thanksgiving, I share an excerpt from the sermon here.
There is a risk in telling the story of American religion through those who came from England. The Pilgrims came first, in 1620, in small numbers, on the Mayflower and the Speedwell. The Puritans came ten years later, on the Arabella. Both groups were Protestants who with complaints about the Church of England. The Puritans wanted to work within the church to, as their names suggested, purify it of what they saw as Catholic influences and traditions. The Pilgrims were more radical. They sought to separate from the Church of England. They shared similar theologies, and the fact is, over time, more and more of those arriving and those being born adopted the Pilgrim perspective that they needed to separate from the Church of England. So, from the very start, 150 years before the Revolution, American Christianity was already distinguishing itself from British Christianity.
But this is not the only way to tell American religious history. We could begin with the many and diverse first nation people who were here, practicing an array of religions. We could begin with the Spanish, who brought Catholicism to the New World more than 100 years before the British arrived. We could tell the story starting in the west, with the mixing of religions in Hawai’i or the Orthodox Christianity that Russian fur traders brought to Alaska.
But because we are focusing on the foundations of the UCC faith, we’ll stick with the Pilgrims and Puritans. They landed in present-day Massachusetts, in part by accident. The Pilgrims had meant to land in the Hudson Bay Area, but they had a very tough voyage. First, one of their ships sprang a leak, so they had to return to England to fix it. They left a month late, which meant they were sailing through the North Atlantic during storm season. They were consistently blown off course. When they finally saw land, they knew that they weren’t where their charter from the English monarch had told them to go, but the sight of land was pretty appealing. What they came to call Plymouth Harbor had already been cleared by native people, whose numbers had been decimated already by European diseases. So: clear land and few people. Then there was this other factor, Puritans William Bradford and Edward Winslow later recalled:
“We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it being now the 19th of December.”
Yes, this portion of American religious history takes the shape it does because our religious forebears were lost and low on beer.
Despite their love of booze, we tend to remember the Pilgrims and Puritans mostly as not a lot of fun. They are dour, scolding, and judgmental. We get this impression through Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible or novels like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a Newberry Honor book that I loved as a child, or I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, a fictive account of the true story of the arrest of a black woman slave who confessed to witchcraft. One of the most read (or at least most assigned) books in US high schools is The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne, who himself had an ancestor who participated in the Salem Witch Trials.
And these impressions are not entirely wrong. But I want to think about them today not as the result of a bunch of contrarian people on a desperate beer run but as people who were trying to make sense of their world as they understood it.
The Puritans who came, whether they were Pilgrims saw God as always present and all powerful. They saw God everywhere. Indeed, this led to what today we might call occultic practices, according to Charles Lippy in Being Religious American Style. The Puritans read the stars and natural disasters such as the 1638 earthquake in Boston in order to hear God speaking to them. Not surprisingly, when you see all of nature as supernatural, you also tend to see a lot of evil. And so we get the Salem Witch Trials, which resulted in the execution of 20 people, 14 of them women, 19 of them by hanging and one by “pressing”—that is, a kind of stoning. Five more, including 2 babies, died in prison, as they awaited trial. The Salem Witch Trials are part of a long history of Christian persecution of people who were different—or who were political enemies—as witches. Indeed, the Salem Witch Trials were really toward the end of such actions. In 1487, Malleus Maleficareum, or Hammer of Witches, was published. For almost TWO HUNDRED YEARS, this guidebook to recognizing, testing, and punishing witches was the second best-selling book, after the Bible. So the Puritans were part of a religious tradition themselves.
In an engraving from 1880s, the slave Tituba enchants little Puritan girls with her magic.
Underneath their faith, including their belief that God is sovereign and that the natural world reflects the supernatural one, was a tremendous fear. If covenanted members of the church could be witches, it meant witches could be everywhere. If anyone could fall into Satan’s snare, that meant you could, too.
But Puritans weren’t afraid only of Satan. They were also very, very afraid of God. Puritans were Calvinists. A key feature of their faith was that people are inherently sinful—even children. Because we are sinful, God has every right to hate us. We are, in the words of the last great Puritan preacher, Jonathan Edwards, “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” God dangles us, like a spider over a fire, and has every right to toss us in. But God chose, at the start of time, for some of us to be saved. We can’t know which ones, though. And so the Puritans were always on the lookout for signs of their own salvation. Even the most righteous Puritan could not know whether he was bound for heaven or hell, and this caused tremendous mental suffering, as we see in diaries and letters and, unfortunately, suicide notes. But Puritans could look in their own lives and see evidence of God’s blessings. In this way, Puritan theology enforced the idea that material blessings were evidence of your own salvation—and created what we now call the “Protestant work ethic.”
Above, Cotton Mather is here to remind you that you’re going to die. Probably sooner than later. And you’re probably going to hell. Because you are detestable. #Sorrynotsorry.
But the fact is that life was pretty much terrible for Puritans. Children at school learned the letter “T” by being reminded that it stands for “Time,” which “cuts down all/Both great and small.” The great preacher Cotton Mather told them “‘Go into Burying-Place, CHILDREN; you will there see Graves as short as your selves. Yea, you may be at Play one Hour; Dead, Dead the next.” And he was right: 40% of children would not live to adulthood. One in ten children died in the first year in the healthiest regions; in Boston, it was three in ten. Mather himself had 14 children; seven died in infancy, and just one lived to age 30. Half of those who came off the Mayflower died that first winter. In a smallpox outbreak in Boston in 1677-1678, one-fifth of the city died. The region saw the bloodiest war in American history: King Philip’s, or Metacom’s, War, which was a war with local Indians over a number of issues related to land and agriculture, primarily around the destructiveness of colonists’ pigs, which were an invasive species—and what those pigs symbolized. The death toll was, per capita, the highest in any American war, including the Civil War.
Above, an image from a Puritan primer for children. A, G, J, R, T, U. X, and Y all remind developing readers of their coming death.
As strange as it might sound to us, seeing God as the author of bad things was a kind of comfort to the Puritans. Imagine if you didn’t understand tectonic plates or germ theory. If God was not in control of when the earth moved or when your wife, your children, or your livestock would die, then there was no order at all in the universe. Better a God who used the natural world to punish you than no explanation at all. At least this God loved some of us, which is better than nature treats us.
And still, you see under all this belief a cycle of perfection and fear. You were afraid of God, so you sought perfection—purification—but that only highlights how much you have to be afraid of. For God to bring you comfort, God had to be sovereign, but that also makes God the author of all things. Because God cannot do evil, that which is done to us must be good. Which makes the bad things in life somehow good things, too. Though it is a hopeless endeavor—because we are all innately evil, in this theology—you must keep trying to be good. This is why Puritan John Winthrop, in his speech aboard the Arabella, gave the Puritans their mission: to be a city on a hill. They would be building a New Jerusalem. And, through Barack Obama, every US president has used this phrase to refer to the United States.
If we can see the Puritans with compassion, we might see in them a people who allowed their fear to drive them. Though they held the Bible in high esteem and stressed obedience, they consistently disobeyed the most repeated order in Scripture: Be not afraid. In their dangerous world, fear made sense.
We live in a dangerous world, too. And we demonstrate some of their same impulses in response to that fear.
To separate rather than forbear
To purify rather than to welcome
To coerce those who are different into conformity
To build a theocracy that disguises our political prejudices as God’s kingdom
To shift responsibility for humanity’s failures to supernatural forces
To allow our fear of God, rather than our love for God, to drive our faith.