MORAL LIBERTY

Puritanism, however, was not simply a set of ideas but a state of mind, a zealousness in pursuing the true faith that alienated many who held differing religious views. A minority of Puritans (such as those who settled in Plymouth Colony) became separatists, abandoning the Church of England entirely to form their own independent churches. Most, however, hoped to purify the Church from within. But in the 1620s and 1630s, as Charles I seemed to be moving toward a restoration of Catholic ceremonies and the Church of England dismissed Puritan ministers and censored their writings, many Puritans decided to emigrate. They departed England not so much due to persecution, but because they feared that “Popish” practices had grown to such “an intolerable height,” as one minister complained, that “the consciences of God’s saints... could no longer bear them.” By the same token, Puritans blamed many of England’s social problems on the wandering poor, whom they considered indolent and ungodly. When Puritans emigrated to New England, they hoped to escape what they believed to be the religious and worldly corruptions of English society. They would establish a “city set upon a hill,” a Bible Commonwealth whose influence would flow back across the Atlantic and rescue England from godlessness and social decay.

Like so many other emigrants to America, Puritans came in search of liberty, especially the right to worship and govern themselves in what they deemed a truly Christian manner. Freedom for Puritans was primarily a spiritual affair. It implied the opportunity and the responsibility to obey God’s will through self-government and self-denial. It certainly did not mean unrestrained action, improper religious practices, or sinful behavior, of which, Puritans thought, there were far too many examples in England. In а 1645 speech to the Massachusetts legislature explaining the Puritan conception of freedom, John Winthrop, the colony’s governor, distinguished sharply between two kinds of liberty. “Natural” liberty, or acting without restraint, suggested “a liberty to do evil.” This was the false idea of freedom supposedly adopted by the Irish, Indians, and bad Christians generally. Genuine “moral” liberty—the Christian liberty described in Chapter r— meant “a liberty to that only which is good.” It was quite compatible with severe restraints on speech, religion, and personal behavior. True freedom, Winthrop insisted, depended on “subjection to authority,” both religious and secular; otherwise, anarchy was sure to follow. To Puritans, liberty meant that the elect had a right to establish churches and govern society, not that others could challenge their beliefs or authority.

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