Puritans paved the way for American way of life

Plymouth rock

The second successful English colony to be established on the coast of what later became Massachusetts was Plymouth. 

In this colony, religious motives assumed commanding importance. These “Pilgrims,” as they have come to be called, were a collection of Puritans who desired only to reform the Church of England in such a way as to be in closer harmony with Protestant teachings and Separatists who desired to sever all connections with the English church. 

The Plymouth colony was never large, but it played a significant role in pointing other dissenters the way to the New World. Chief among those to follow the Pilgrims were the founders of the Massachusetts Bay colony. 

King Charles

Credit for the successful establishment of the Puritan Commonwealth belongs as much to King Charles I of England, as to any other single individual. 

The King, who imagined himself as a divine-right monarch, and Archbishop William Laud prosecuted dissenters who wanted the purification of the Church of England. 

The quarrel was about more than religion — it was about the rise of middle-class ideals and aspiring to a place of influence in the government. 

When the Puritan middle class finally did gain control of the House of Commons, King Charles I dissolved Parliament March 2, 1629, and thus denied the Puritans a public forum from which to continue their agitation for reforming the Church of England. 

Charter granted

Then, out of the blue, he granted a royal charter to the Puritan-controlled Massachusetts Bay Company which provided the framework for establishing a colony in the New World. 

By thus harassing the Puritans in old England, even as he allowed them to procure a beachhead in New England, King Charles virtually guaranteed the success of their colonizing venture. 

The charter granted to the Massachusetts Bay Company contained, contrary to established custom, no clause stipulating that the company should hold its meetings in England. This omission enabled the Puritan stockholders to carry the charter with them to North America. 

In reality, the charter created an autonomous Commonwealth and a commercial company whose objects were fishing, fur trading, profits and dividends. No religious motives were stated either. 

The first contingent led by John Winthrop, the initial governor of the colony, sailed for Massachusetts in March 1630, carrying the charter with it. During the rest of the year, 17 ships transported 2,000 more colonists to the New England shores. 

The economic, political and religious affairs created so much dissatisfaction in England that the Puritan leaders found no difficulty in enlisting emigrants for the new world. 

The Puritan migration became so large that English authorities feared that “suffering such swarms to go out of England would overthrow trade” and too many artisans and laborers leaving would “rid the country of its gold and silver.” 

At the end of the Great Migration, the colony’s population was around 16,000. The number would have been larger except some settlers had returned because of the harsh conditions, others moved to colonies with warmer weather and many died. 

Twenty-two towns were settled from this adventure including Boston, Watertown and Charlestown. The Massachusetts Bay Colony remained safely under the control of a Puritan oligarchy during its history. 

Church and state

The established government helped to maintain the alliance of church and state by providing that only members of an approved congregation could become freeman and members of the lower house of government. 

Moreover, Puritan political theory held that although the people elected their leaders, once the magistrates were installed they had a commission from God and were responsible to him and not the electorate. 

It was no easy matter for the Puritans to make their colony a success. The percentage of death among the newcomers, especially during the early years of the migration, was alarming. 

Life on a New England landscape could be a bitter struggle against unyielding soils, cruel winters, ever-recurring diseases and constant privation. In general, the seed stock was good and the community moved forward. 

Most of the immigrants were farmers or artisans and they were willing to make the best of their new environment. 

Livestock was imported, mills to grind grain were built, sawmills to produce lumber, kilns to make bricks and ironworks to manufacture equipment soon appeared on the New England terrain. 

The Puritans quickly discovered that fish, furs, lumber and potash were items that the mother country desired and trade was possible. 

On leaving England, the Puritans viewed themselves as members of the English Church and desired only to purify the doctrines and laws of the church. But frontier circumstances forced them eventually to become almost as definitely Separatists as the Pilgrims at Plymouth. 

The Great Migration experience soon demanded that the church establish standards of conduct as well as principles of theology. They had no intention of tolerating views and practices in conflict with their own. 

As the Puritan leadership saw it, the first responsibility of government was to punish all departures from orthodoxy in theology or from propriety in behavior. Early Massachusetts was not a democracy, it was rather a hierarchical theocracy. 

The preaching and teaching of Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson and John Cotton threatened the established authority and they were soon packed off to the Rhode Island colony. 

England in 1684 annulled the Massachusetts Bay Company charter and established Massachusetts as a royal colony. This phase would last until 1774 and the American Revolution. 

The real importance of the Great Migration and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in American history lies in its political contributions to the American way of life — the first political convention, first nominating committee, first use of the ballot for political purposes and the first two-house legislature. 

The colony is also important because of the prominence of Puritan thought in shaping many aspects of American culture. That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.



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