The Puritans and the Founding of America

On November 29, 1623, two years after the first Thanksgiving, Governor William Bradford made an official proclamation for a second day of Thanksgiving. In it Governor Bradford thanked God for their abundant harvest, bountiful game, protection from “the ravages of savages… and disease,” and for the “freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.”  Well over a hundred Natives attended, bringing plenty of turkey and venison along with them.

The Pilgrims had the proper perspective. As Bradford would note, “As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light [of Jesus] kindled here has shown unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation…We have noted these things so that you might see their worth and not negligently lose what your fathers have obtained with so much hardship.”

A handful of years later, another group of devout believers would set out for America’s shores in search of a new home. Unlike the Separatists (Pilgrims), the Puritans did not want to break away from the Church of England. (The Puritans were very critical of the Separatists for such action.) The Puritans sought reform, however, for the most part, the Church saw no need for reform.

In general, the Puritans were more affluent than the Pilgrims. To head out for a new home, they had much more to leave behind. The decision was not as easy for them as for the Pilgrims. Furthermore, for a period of time, the Church tolerated the Puritans much more than it tolerated the Pilgrims. In order for the Puritans to get to the place they needed to be (America) -- and as hindsight reveals, exactly the place where God wanted them to be -- their level of suffering needed to increase.

While James I was king (1603-1625), the persecution of the Puritans was tolerable. Moreover, the Archbishop of Canterbury was sympathetic to the Puritan cause. This all changed when Charles I (1625-1649) ascended to the throne. The Puritans then began to be singled out for harassment. The king and the bishops were now making any real Church reform impossible.

Thus, for any real reform to take place -- for, in spite of everything, the Puritans still desired reform -- a significant distance (literally) between the Puritans and England was necessary. Therefore, America became the destination for the Puritans as well.

On June 11, 1630, aboard the Arbella, John Winthrop, one of the leaders of America’s first Puritans, wrote and delivered A Model of Christian Charity. This was a 6,000-plus-word thesis which, for much of American history, was required reading among those in the United States who considered themselves educated. What’s more, it became a model for future constitutional covenants of the colonies. It read:

We are a Company, professing ourselves fellow members of Christ, (and thus) we ought to account ourselves knit together by this bond of love…For the work we have in mind, it is by a mutual consent through a special overruling providence, and a more than an ordinary approbation of the Churches of Christ to seek out a place of Cohabitation and Consortship under a due form of Government both civil and ecclesiastical…

Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing…

We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when He shall make us a praise and glory, that men of succeeding plantations shall say, “The Lord make it like that of New England.”

Winthrop’s powerful and wise words would resonate throughout America for centuries. It was this message which first gave rise to the notion of American Exceptionalism, and the idea of America’s Manifest Destiny.

The Puritans were not the sin-obsessed, witch-hunting, killjoys in tall black hats that many modern pseudo-historians (especially those in Hollywood) have made them out to be. They were determined to build a free society around a Christianity that worked.

In June 1630, 10 years after the Pilgrims founded the Plymouth Colony, Winthrop and 700 other Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay, marking the beginning of the Great Migration, which over a 16-year period saw more than 20,000 Puritans leave Europe for New England. Under the leadership of their ministers, the Puritans established a representative government with annual elections. By 1641, they had a “Body of Liberties” (essentially a Bill of Rights), which was penned by the Rev. Nathaniel Ward. This document was the first legal code established by the colonists. It, too, contained over 6,000 words. It consisted of 98 declarations that governed everything from private property to capital crimes.

In 1636 the Rev. Thomas Hooker, along with other Puritan ministers, founded Connecticut. They also established an elective form of government. In 1638, after hearing a sermon by Hooker, Roger Ludlow wrote the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. This was the first constitution written in America. It served as a model of government for other colonies and, eventually, a union of colonies. It also served as a model for the U.S. Constitution.

The opening reads,

FORASMUCH as it has pleased the Almighty God by the wise disposition of his divine providence so to order and dispose of things… and well knowing where a people are gathered together the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent government established according to God, to order and dispose of the affairs of the people at all seasons as occasion shall require; do therefore associate and conjoin ourselves to be as one public state or commonwealth; and do, for ourselves and our successors and such as shall be adjoined to us at any time hereafter, enter into combination and confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the churches, which according to the truth of the said gospel is now practiced among us; as also in our civil affairs to be guided and governed according to such laws, rules, orders and decrees as shall be made, ordered and decreed, as follows…

However, as historian David Barton notes,

While Connecticut produced America's first written constitution, it definitely had not produced America’s first written document of governance, for such written documents had been the norm for every colony founded by Bible-minded Christians… This practice of providing written documents had been the practice of American ministers before the Rev. Hooker's constitution of 1638 and continued long after.

As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, Puritanism was as much a political theory as it was a religious doctrine. The general principles of Puritanism, which, as Tocqueville points out, correspond “in many points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories,” laid the groundwork for future American constitutions.

The New England area of America became steeped in Puritanism, and with a lengthy period of healthy immigration from the British middle classes (as Tocqueville notes, “it was from the heart of the middle classes that the majority of the emigrants came”), prosperity soon followed. Tocqueville concluded that one of the “main causes of their prosperity” was that the government of the Puritans allowed for “greater personal and political independence than the colonies of other nations.”

Establishing a political framework that would lead to the “Miracle of America,” the governments established by the Puritans did not derive their powers from the British, or any other secular source. Instead, “We see them at all times exercising the rights of sovereignty, appointing magistrates, declaring peace or war, establishing law and order, enacting laws as if they owed allegiance to God alone.” This devoted allegiance to God was the foundation for the liberty and prosperity that would set America apart from the rest of the world.

Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
www.trevorgrantthomas.com
Trevor is the author of the The Miracle and Magnificence of America
tthomas@trevorgrantthomas.com

On November 29, 1623, two years after the first Thanksgiving, Governor William Bradford made an official proclamation for a second day of Thanksgiving. In it Governor Bradford thanked God for their abundant harvest, bountiful game, protection from “the ravages of savages… and disease,” and for the “freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.”  Well over a hundred Natives attended, bringing plenty of turkey and venison along with them.

The Pilgrims had the proper perspective. As Bradford would note, “As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light [of Jesus] kindled here has shown unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation…We have noted these things so that you might see their worth and not negligently lose what your fathers have obtained with so much hardship.”

A handful of years later, another group of devout believers would set out for America’s shores in search of a new home. Unlike the Separatists (Pilgrims), the Puritans did not want to break away from the Church of England. (The Puritans were very critical of the Separatists for such action.) The Puritans sought reform, however, for the most part, the Church saw no need for reform.

In general, the Puritans were more affluent than the Pilgrims. To head out for a new home, they had much more to leave behind. The decision was not as easy for them as for the Pilgrims. Furthermore, for a period of time, the Church tolerated the Puritans much more than it tolerated the Pilgrims. In order for the Puritans to get to the place they needed to be (America) -- and as hindsight reveals, exactly the place where God wanted them to be -- their level of suffering needed to increase.

While James I was king (1603-1625), the persecution of the Puritans was tolerable. Moreover, the Archbishop of Canterbury was sympathetic to the Puritan cause. This all changed when Charles I (1625-1649) ascended to the throne. The Puritans then began to be singled out for harassment. The king and the bishops were now making any real Church reform impossible.

Thus, for any real reform to take place -- for, in spite of everything, the Puritans still desired reform -- a significant distance (literally) between the Puritans and England was necessary. Therefore, America became the destination for the Puritans as well.

On June 11, 1630, aboard the Arbella, John Winthrop, one of the leaders of America’s first Puritans, wrote and delivered A Model of Christian Charity. This was a 6,000-plus-word thesis which, for much of American history, was required reading among those in the United States who considered themselves educated. What’s more, it became a model for future constitutional covenants of the colonies. It read:

We are a Company, professing ourselves fellow members of Christ, (and thus) we ought to account ourselves knit together by this bond of love…For the work we have in mind, it is by a mutual consent through a special overruling providence, and a more than an ordinary approbation of the Churches of Christ to seek out a place of Cohabitation and Consortship under a due form of Government both civil and ecclesiastical…

Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing…

We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when He shall make us a praise and glory, that men of succeeding plantations shall say, “The Lord make it like that of New England.”

Winthrop’s powerful and wise words would resonate throughout America for centuries. It was this message which first gave rise to the notion of American Exceptionalism, and the idea of America’s Manifest Destiny.

The Puritans were not the sin-obsessed, witch-hunting, killjoys in tall black hats that many modern pseudo-historians (especially those in Hollywood) have made them out to be. They were determined to build a free society around a Christianity that worked.

In June 1630, 10 years after the Pilgrims founded the Plymouth Colony, Winthrop and 700 other Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay, marking the beginning of the Great Migration, which over a 16-year period saw more than 20,000 Puritans leave Europe for New England. Under the leadership of their ministers, the Puritans established a representative government with annual elections. By 1641, they had a “Body of Liberties” (essentially a Bill of Rights), which was penned by the Rev. Nathaniel Ward. This document was the first legal code established by the colonists. It, too, contained over 6,000 words. It consisted of 98 declarations that governed everything from private property to capital crimes.

In 1636 the Rev. Thomas Hooker, along with other Puritan ministers, founded Connecticut. They also established an elective form of government. In 1638, after hearing a sermon by Hooker, Roger Ludlow wrote the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. This was the first constitution written in America. It served as a model of government for other colonies and, eventually, a union of colonies. It also served as a model for the U.S. Constitution.

The opening reads,

FORASMUCH as it has pleased the Almighty God by the wise disposition of his divine providence so to order and dispose of things… and well knowing where a people are gathered together the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent government established according to God, to order and dispose of the affairs of the people at all seasons as occasion shall require; do therefore associate and conjoin ourselves to be as one public state or commonwealth; and do, for ourselves and our successors and such as shall be adjoined to us at any time hereafter, enter into combination and confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the churches, which according to the truth of the said gospel is now practiced among us; as also in our civil affairs to be guided and governed according to such laws, rules, orders and decrees as shall be made, ordered and decreed, as follows…

However, as historian David Barton notes,

While Connecticut produced America's first written constitution, it definitely had not produced America’s first written document of governance, for such written documents had been the norm for every colony founded by Bible-minded Christians… This practice of providing written documents had been the practice of American ministers before the Rev. Hooker's constitution of 1638 and continued long after.

As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, Puritanism was as much a political theory as it was a religious doctrine. The general principles of Puritanism, which, as Tocqueville points out, correspond “in many points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories,” laid the groundwork for future American constitutions.

The New England area of America became steeped in Puritanism, and with a lengthy period of healthy immigration from the British middle classes (as Tocqueville notes, “it was from the heart of the middle classes that the majority of the emigrants came”), prosperity soon followed. Tocqueville concluded that one of the “main causes of their prosperity” was that the government of the Puritans allowed for “greater personal and political independence than the colonies of other nations.”

Establishing a political framework that would lead to the “Miracle of America,” the governments established by the Puritans did not derive their powers from the British, or any other secular source. Instead, “We see them at all times exercising the rights of sovereignty, appointing magistrates, declaring peace or war, establishing law and order, enacting laws as if they owed allegiance to God alone.” This devoted allegiance to God was the foundation for the liberty and prosperity that would set America apart from the rest of the world.

Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
www.trevorgrantthomas.com
Trevor is the author of the The Miracle and Magnificence of America
tthomas@trevorgrantthomas.com