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Image Religious Origins of the Great Migration

For these English Puritans, the new colony of Massachusetts had a meaning that is not easily translated into the secular terms of our materialist world. “A letter from New England,” wrote Joshua Scottow, “ … was venerated as a Sacred Script, or as the writing of some Holy Prophet. ‘Twas carried many miles, where divers came to hear it.”1

The great migration developed in this spirit—above all as a religious movement of English Christians who meant to build a new Zion in America. When most of these emigrants explained their motives for coming to the New World, religion was mentioned not merely as their leading purpose. It was their only purpose.2

This religious impulse took many different forms—evangelical, communal, familial and personal. The Massachusetts Bay Company officially proclaimed the purpose of converting the natives. Its great seal featured an Indian with arms beckoning, and five English words flowing from his mouth: “Come over and help us.” However bizarre this image may seem to us, it had genuine meaning for the builders of the Bay Colony.3

A very different religious motive was expressed by many leaders of the Colony, who often declared their collective intention to build a “Bible Commonwealth” which might serve as a model for mankind. The classical example was John Winthrop’s exhortation which many generations of New England schoolchildren have been made to memorize: “We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the


Ninety Puritan ministers came to New England in the Great Migration. They were a close-knit cultural elite, strong in their spiritual purposes, and highly respected for intellect and character. John Cotton (front center) was a leading theologian of the Congregational middle way and minister in Boston, a leader much loved for his piety and wisdom. Richard Mather (front left) became minister in Dorchester, and architect of the Cambridge Platform (New England’s system of church discipline). John Eliot (left rear) served as minister in Roxbury and Indian missionary who founded the “praying town” of Natick and translated the Bible into Algonkian. Peter Bulkeley (right rear) was minister in Concord, and a gentleman of old family and large fortune which he devoted to God’s work in America. John Davenport (front right) was a Londoner who founded New Haven, the most conservative and purse-proud colony in New England. Their portraits are owned by the American Antiquarian Society, Peter Bulkeley Brainerd, the Connecticut Historical Society, Harvard University and the Huntington Library.

eyes of all people are upon us. … we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”4

But most emigrants did not think in these terms. They were not much interested in converting heathen America, and had little hope of reforming Christian Europe. Mainly they were concerned about the spiritual condition of their own families and especially their children. Lucy Downing, the Puritan wife of a London lawyer, wrote to her brother in New England on the eve of her own sailing:

If we see God withdrawing His ordinances from us here, and enlarging His presence to you there, I should then hope for comfort in the hazards of the sea with our little ones shrieking about us … in such a case I should [more] willingly venture my children’s bodies and my own for them, than their souls.5

Many others embarked upon entirely personal errands. A tailor named John Dane explained that he “bent myself to come to New England, thinking that I should be more free here than there from temptations.” His parents did not approve, but agreed to settle the question by consulting the Bible. Dane wrote afterwards:

To return to the way and manner of my coming: … My father and mother showed themselves unwilling. I sat close by a table where there lay a Bible. I hastily took up the Bible, and told my father if, where I opened the Bible, there I met with anything either to encourage or discourage, that should settle me. I, opening of it, not knowing no more than the child in the womb, the first I cast my eyes on was: “Come out from among them, touch no unclean thing, and I will be your God and you shall be my people.” My father and mother never more opposed me, but furthered me in the thing, and hastened after me as soon as they could.

John Dane and his family did not emigrate to escape persecution. Even that motive, which we call “religious” in our secular age, was more worldly than his own thinking. He never wrote in grand phrases about a “city on a hill,” and showed no interest in saving any soul except his own. John Dane’s purpose in coming to New England was to find a place where he could serve God’s will and be free of temptation. The New World promised to be a place where he would “touch no unclean thing.” In that respect, he was typical of the Puritan migration.6

Most immigrants to Massachusetts shared this highly personal sense of spiritual striving. Their Puritanism was not primarily a formal creed or reasoned doctrine. In Alan Simpson’s phrase it was the “stretched passion” of a people who “suffered and yearned and strived with an unbelievable intensity.”7

That “stretched passion” was shared by the great majority of immigrant families to Massachusetts. This truth has been challenged by materialist historians in the twentieth century, but strong evidence appears in the fact that most adult settlers, in most Massachusetts towns, joined a Congregational church during the first generation. This was not easy to do. After 1635, a candidate had to stand before a highly skeptical group of elders, and satisfy them in three respects: adherence to Calvinist doctrines, achievement of a godly life, and demonstrable experience of spiritual conversion.8

These requirements were very rigorous—more so than in the Calvinist churches of Europe. Even so, a majority of adults in most Massachusetts towns were willing and able to meet them. In the town of Dedham, for example, 48 people joined the church by 1640–25 women and 23 men, out of 35 families in the town. Most families included at least one church member; many had two. By 1648, Dedham’s church members included about 70 percent of male taxpayers and an even larger proportion of women.9 That pattern was typical of country towns in Massachusetts. In Sudbury, 80 were admitted out of 50 or 60 families. In Watertown, 250 were in “church fellowship” out of 160 families. In Rowley, we are told that “a high percentage of men” joined the church—and probably a higher percentage of women—despite local requirements that were even more stringent than in the Colony as whole.10

Church membership was not as widespread in seaport towns such as Salem or Marblehead. But even in Salem more than 50 percent of taxable men joined the church in the mid-seventeenth century. Those who did not belong were mostly young men without property.11

This pattern of church membership reveals a vital truth about New England’s great migration. It tells us that the religious purposes of the colony were not confined to a small “Puritan oligarchy,” as some historians still believe, and that the builders of the Bay Colony did not come over to “catch fish,” as materialists continue to insist. The spiritual purposes of the colony were fully shared by most men and women in Massachusetts. Here was a fact of high importance for the history of their region.12

The religious beliefs of these Puritans were highly developed before they came to America. Revisionist historians notwithstanding, these people were staunch Calvinists. Their spiritual leader John Cotton declared, “I have read the fathers and the schoolmen, and Calvin too; but I find that he that has Calvin, has them all.” Many other ministers agreed.13

Without attempting to describe their complex Calvinist beliefs in a rounded way, a few major doctrines might be mentioned briefly, for they became vitally important to the culture of New

England. These Puritan ideas might be summarized in five words: depravity, covenant, election, grace, and love.14

First was the idea of depravity which to Calvinists meant the total corruption of “natural man” as a consequence of Adam’s original sin. The Puritans believed that evil was a palpable presence in the world, and that the universe was a scene of cosmic struggle between darkness and light. They lived in an age of atrocities without equal until the twentieth century. But no evil ever surprised them or threatened to undermine their faith. One historian remarks that “it is impossible to conceive of a disillusioned Puritan.” They believed as an article of faith that there was no horror which mortal man was incapable of committing. The dark thread of this doctrine ran through the fabric of New England’s culture for many generations.15

The second idea was that of the covenant. The Puritans founded this belief on the book of Genesis, where God made an agreement with Abraham, offering salvation with no preconditions but many obligations. This idea of a covenant had been not prominent in the thinking of Luther or Calvin, but it became a principle of high importance to English Puritans. They thought of their relationship with God (and one another) as a web of contracts. As we shall see, the covenant became a metaphor of profound importance in their thought.16

A third idea was the Calvinist doctrine of election—which held that only a chosen few were admitted to the covenant. One of Calvinism’s Five Points was the doctrine of limited atonement, which taught that Christ died only for the elect—not for all humanity. The iron of this Calvinistic creed entered deep into the soul of New England.

A fourth idea was grace, a “motion of the heart” which was God’s gift to the elect, and the instrument of their salvation. Much Puritan theology, and most of the Five Points of Calvinism, were an attempt to define the properties of grace, which was held to be unconditional, irresistible and inexorable. They thought that it came to each of them directly, and once given would never be taken away. Grace was not merely an idea but an emotion, which has been defined as a feeling of “ecstatic intimacy with the divine.” It gave the Puritans a soaring sense of spiritual freedom which they called “soul liberty.”17

A fifth idea, often lost in our image of Puritanism, was love. Their theology made no sense without divine love, for they believed that natural man was so unworthy that salvation came only from God’s infinite love and mercy. Further, the Puritans believed that they were bound to love one another in a Godly way. One leader told them that they should “look upon themselves, as being bound up in one Bundle of Love; and count themselves obliged, in very close and Strong Bonds, to be serviceable to one another.” This Puritan love was a version of the Christian caritas in which people were asked to “lovingly give, as well as lovingly take, admonitions.” It was a vital principle in their thought.18

These ideas created many tensions in Puritan minds. The idea of the covenant bound Puritans to their worldly obligations; the gift of grace released them from every bond but one. The doctrine of depravity filled their world with darkness; the principle of election brought a gleam of light. Puritan theology became a set of insoluble logic problems about how to reconcile human responsibility with God’s omnipotence, how to find enlightenment in a universe of darkness, how to live virtuously in a world of evil, and how to reconcile the liberty of a believing Christian with the absolute authority of the word.

For many generations these problems were compressed like coiled springs into the culture of New England. Long after Puritans had become Yankees, and Yankee Trinitarians had become New England Unitarians (whom Whitehead defined as believers in one God at most) the long shadow of Puritan belief still lingered over the folkways of an American region.

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