The Godly in Transit: English Popular Protestantism and the Creation of a Puritan Establishment in America
THE literature dealing with the Puritans has become so extensive and so articulated that new studies generally seem obliged to open with a formulaic abjuration of all previous historiography. Those who came before are generally held to have done what they did very well after their fashion but to have done it for far longer than it needed doing. The work in hand can then be justified as at last breaking fresh ground after so much entirely forgivable but as yet unredressed overemphasis on this or that aspect of a topic complex by definition. Since in the present essay the subject is the religion of the more ordinary sort of English laymen who migrated to New England, the appropriate act of renunciation might appear to be the avoiding of any and all clerical perspectives on the assumption that these have for too long been taken as the only possible concerns of the whole Puritan movement. And there is much to be said for such a tack, provided it is not pursued too aggressively: it is certainly valuable to bear in mind that the fascination that some historians find in what one minister said to, or in refutation of, another minister is no evidence in itself that the contemporary laity also found the matter nearly so compelling. Acts of naive anticlericalism, however, now as then, can be self-defeating. The current debate over the vitality and relevance of Puritanism in America, for example, pays a curious tribute to the continuing clerical hegemony even as it denigrates the influence of the ministry. The method of attack on the problem (what, if anything, did Puritanism mean to to the mass of the New England population) seems to have been to examine the laity primarily with a view to gauging the extent to which they heeded clerical shalt-nots. When one has identified a sufficient incidence of quarrelsomeness, fornication, acquisitiveness, or whatever to be considered a critical mass, modernity is declared to have begun and Puritanism and the study are over. The impulses that made the godly choose godliness, the things they hoped to get out of Puritanism, and their degree of fulfillment or frustration are not matters much looked into in this discussion precisely because the rather imperial perspective of the pulpit is still the one that has been unhesitatingly assumed in defining Puritanism, if only to locate the precise moment of its demise. In place of that familiar picture, beloved of bookjackets, of the laity as a mass of eagerly upturned heads grouped around a massive pulpit from which the larger head of the preacher peers down, we now have one where at one point or another the little heads are all turned away, not listening. The outsized pulpit remains squarely at the center, and the laity are still not in focus.
If scholarship does need to shed the constraints of Geneva black, it will not accomplish this difficult feat by ignoring the clergy but only by seeing them for what they were, dynamic, interacting components with the laity in a single protean movement. Properly forewarned, there is actually considerable value in beginning our inquiry with what the clergy had in mind for the laity. Popular religion in England and America was not passively dependent on clerical discourse, but neither was it wholly autonomous, and the clerical programs at least have the advantage of specificity when compared with the more diffuse nature of lay initiates. The proverbial vicarage window is a better place than most to make a start in understanding so intricate and varied an entity as Puritanism, providing always that one remembers to look through it from both sides.382
The vicarage selected is Dedham, Essex, in the 1580’s, a prime center for the classical organization at the height of Elizabethan Presbyterianism. At full cry, unrestrained by temperamental or tactical moderation, the Elizabethan Puritans eerily anticipate their equally uncompromising Puritan successors on both sides of the Atlantic in the next hundred years. In particular, a classic Presbyterian text, the Dedham “orders” of 1585, sets down in one place a scheme that might have served as a blueprint for a large fraction of the edifice gradually erected in New England over the course of the latter part of the seventeenth century. Drawn up on 9 August 1585 as a proposed agreement between the two ministers of Dedham and the “Auncients of the congregation,” very evidently at the instance of the former, the orders were accepted on the 20th of October in “a profession freely made by the voyces and handes” of the town’s nine leading inhabitants. The signatories undertook to “joyne together” to enforce a comprehensive set of fifteen articles requiring the cooperation of church and town governors at every stage for “the observation and mayntenance of all christian order,” and for “the banishing of the contrary disorder.” Several of the articles merely make an attempt—not a very successful one in the end—to bring a semblance of decorum to the chaos of Elizabethan parochial worship. (One can gain some slight sense of the problem from the work of a Puritan minister belonging to the Bury classis, the northern neighbor of the Dedham meeting, who composed an authoritative treatise on the sabbath in which he was obliged to devote pages to persuading the worshippers not to bring their hunting hawks in to the church during the service.) To give direction to the newly methodized religious life of the community other orders appointed that the sacrament be administered monthly and that this new communion Sunday should become the focus for disciplining the townspeople in systematic Christianity. On the Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday before communion “maryed persons or householders” would repair to church at six in the morning to be examined in their Christian knowledge, while the Dedham youth came in for the same treatment on Saturday afternoon. (These educational arrangements were fleshed out in further articles dealing with compulsory catechising of the youth and with the householders’ obligation to attend the two weekly lecture sermons with as many of their servants as could be spared from their work.) On Sunday, at the communion itself, the churchwardens were to take a collection for the poor, “after the cuppe be delyvered,” while making sure that the communicants “sytte orderly and comly in their places,” presumably to prevent them from walking out on their charitable duties. And on the Tuesday following the two ministers and the “auncients” would meet “to conferre of matters concerninge the good government of the towne.”
No less than seven of the fifteen articles explain the meaning of good government in the Puritan sense. Two dealing exclusively with the poor are as concerned with reformation as with relief. In proportion to their abilities the townspeople were to invite to their houses “such of their poore neighbors as have submitted themselves to the good orders of the Churche, and walke christianly and honestlie in their calling.” Additionally, the two ministers and a few of the ancients, “alwaies accompanied with one of the constables,” will make quarterly inspections of the poor, “and chiefly the suspected places, that understandinge the miserable estate of those that wante and the haughtie disposition of disordered persons, they may provide for them accordinglie.” Another two articles envision a fully literate Dedham: all the young will be taught to read (the poor at public expense), and any new illiterates will be kept from settling in town by an agreement among the ministers and the “governors” of families to employ only apprentices already able to read. Still other forms of disorder were to be remedied by providing a special ceremony of public humiliation to be added on to the wedding and baptismal services of couples known to have been guilty of prenuptial fornication and by an agreement to force out of town unattached individuals who were neither responsible for themselves by virtue of possessing a household or honest calling nor “retayned of any” who might undertake their edification and discipline.
The one remaining article, the eighth in order, will look especially familiar to students of the New England town. On top of knowledge and virtue, admission to communion was going to require a pledge of love and harmony:
8. Item, that so many as shalbe admitted to the Communion promise and professe to live charitablie with all their neighbors, and if any occasion of displeasure arise, that they refraigninge from all discord or revenging by wordes, actions or suites will firste make the mynister and two other godlie and indifferent neighbors acquaynted with the state of their causes before they proceed further by lawe or compleint out of the towne.383
With only a slight change in wording and none whatever in substance, item eight might be the third term of the town covenant of Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1639. However, the context reveals the significance of the item (and of similar proposed arrangements elsewhere in the same period): so far from representing peasant communalism in Protestant guise, compulsory mediation was very much the opposite. English villagers playing their favorite and time honored game of deadly malice against their neighbors were not fit members of the body of Christ by anyone’s standards, Puritan or otherwise, and should be kept from communion until reconciled, though, in any case, they often refused themselves to share the sacrament with their enemies while the recurring cycle of feuding was going on.384 Compulsory mediation was only an abortive attempt to short circuit these quarrels at an early stage before they had hardened into a way of life through tedious prosecution in the church and common law courts. Like the other fourteen articles, item eight was a ministerially inspired device to be imposed from above in order to cure old, and by Puritan lights, bad habits.
Far more interesting than any one article is the concept of order affirmed by all of them jointly. For Dedham to achieve godliness by Elizabethan Puritan standards every available form of institution, civil and ecclesiastical, would have to be employed, and in a coordinated manner. At the root of this enduring Puritan obsession was a severely guarded optimism about human nature. “Great and dillegent teaching” would be necessary “because men are made of dull metal and hard to conteine spirituall and heavenly things.” Nevertheless, the perverse heart of man could be reached, bringing salvation for the elect and at least a degree of external decency for the rest, but only by a systematic and continuous assault on all fronts. Most of the elements of the projected Puritan machine are already in place in the Dedham orders: literacy, charity, voluntary regimentation, drill and discipline, as well as the exclusion of the uncontrollable and an extra dose of the universal supervision for the suspect class, the poor. Later generations of Puritans would have found that the Dedham orders, and the various schema of the Elizabethan Puritans in general, struck a relatively one-sided balance between order and love and between participation and regimentation. As the size, autonomy, and reputation of the godly grew, a more equal emphasis would fall on these competing motifs. All of the townspeople would sign the Dedham, Massachusetts, covenant and they would do their godly walking in the name of love as well as of obedience. But in broad outline the Dedham Orders do represent the continuing hopes of the Puritan clergy for the complete reformation of England and the cause supported by their patrons and allies among the landed classes and the urban and parish oligarchies.385
It is a vision that might aptly be termed (after Harriet Beecher Stowe) a culture trap—a “plenitude of means” so extensive, subtle, and overlapping that its intended quarry could hardly avoid becoming entangled in some of them and probably, sooner or later, in all of them. Admitting, therefore, that this official style of Puritanism envisioned an austere and comprehensive regimen that even its proponents candidly conceded to be opposed to the natural inclinations of the individuals for whom it was designed, we confront at once our major poser: how did the Puritan movement ever obtain any substantial number of adherents? One possible response—and a good one—is that “adherents” is hardly the appropriate term for the victims, of what was, in effect, a simple exercise of power by their betters. Anyone who has ever dealt with the realities of the seventeenth century will be well aware that England was no more a free marketplace for ideas than the New England that whipped Baptists and hanged Quakers. Quite apart from brutal instances of the application of public and private coercion to decide the matter of religious “preference,” in England, at least, and perhaps more than we realize in America, a fragile society inevitably depended on a regular basis on more insidious and persuasive forms of compulsion in matters of faith. No doubt, for example, the tenants of Groton manor found John Winthrop’s profession to suit their constitutions very well while he held possession of the lordship and patronage of the living. Like just about everything else at the time in the English speaking world, grace often flowed along the lines of blood and clientage. But when due allowance is made for the force of convenience, there were still enough individual mavericks in both England and America and enough wholesale disruptions in both places to demonstrate that there was some degree of freedom left when every agent of necessity had done its work. As a matter of fact, any number of first generation New Englanders could testify that it had not been convenient, that it had cost them a little something to be a Puritan. “Hence I came to New England,” a Suffolk mason named Nicholas Wyeth recalled, “being persecuted and courted for going from the place where we lived” in order to “hear them that were most suitable to my condition to stir up my heart.”386 Michael Wigglesworth had a nearly identical story to tell of his godly parents in the North Country, reviled by their ignorant neighbors when they attended worship outside their parish and ultimately forced to give up “a new built house” and “a flourishing trade” to undergo the “distressing difficulties of a howling wilderness, that they might enjoy Liberty of Conscience & Christ in his ordinances.”387 Most of what we know of Edward Wigglesworth and his wife (her name is a bit uncertain) comes from Michael, and he probably had a weakness for edification even in recalling his parents. But they seem to have hailed from Batley parish in Yorkshire, which was the location in the 1630’s of perhaps the most fully autonomous lay Puritan gatherings in the West Riding, and they migrated as part of the company of Ezekiel Rogers of Rowley, who described the families who had come with him as having withdrawn from communion in the Church of England “of a long time” on account of its corruptions. Their Puritanism does not sound particularly passive under the circumstances.388
The godly in England had perfectly good grounds from their own experience for thinking themselves something more than fish caught in the ministry’s net. In their own estimation they were at once the saving remnant preserving the spark of the gospel in an unregenerate society and, simultaneously, participants in a gigantic national experiment employing the combined resources of a godly state and a Protestant religious establishment to raise the state of civility and Christianity of the English nation beyond the merely nominal. Such allegiance as the clergy was able to drum up came from their understanding of the ambivalence of lay piety and their ability to use their own uncomfortable vision to mediate between the conflicting imperatives. When the distinctive, Janus-like culture of the Puritan colonies came to take on a recognizable shape towards the end of the seventeenth century, the triumph was in one sense very much the clergy’s, their Dedham orders writ large. Yet the matured New England Way was also very much the expression of the forces that originally gave the Puritan movement its popular following: an integral combination of separation from and engagement with the England of their day. For us, looking back from the other side of a great historical divide, the laity’s motivations may seem a union of irreconcilables and their partnership with the clergy a misalliance. But if the double thrust of lay piety is examined in a little more detail, its apparent paradoxality resolves itself into a perfectly natural response to a particular set of historical circumstances, and the essential Englishness of the subsequent Puritan establishment in the colonies emerges quite clearly.
Part of the popular attraction of Puritanism (the more obvious part) lay in its minority position. The poor and persecuted people of God, as Nicholas Wyeth and Edward Wiggleworth held themselves to be, enjoyed all of the emotional power of a Christianity that harked back to the struggling apostolic church before the conversion of Constantine. Admittedly, for the church under the cross the Puritan movement boasted too many beneficed ministers in its ranks, not to mention MPs, J.P.’s, and armigerous gentlemen generally. But in the age of the Reformation Protestantism carried a price, actual and potential. For the first Puritans especially, the Marian persecutions were a recent experience that some of them had endured personally, while the memory of the exiles and the victims of those five years was kept alive long after in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. A return of Catholicism seemed a real enough possibility throughout the reign of Elizabeth, and the menace loomed up once again in the 1630’s and early 1640’s in the fear of the “moderate popery” of the Laudian bishops and of a Spanish or Irish invasion. Even in more confident times, Puritanism often attracted a following in the areas, particularly in the north of England, where the Catholics continued to hold their own, open recusancy encouraging the most forward form of Protestantism in response. For example, the Lancashire of Richard Mather, founder of the American clerical dynasty, was the Northern Ireland of the early seventeenth century: in sections of the county where both groups were strong they jockeyed for control of the pulpits and the schools, alternating lawsuits with other forms of harassment and occasionally resorting to outright violence. Mather himself recalled that the Protestant schoolmaster of his native Winwick Parish successfully intervened to prevent his parents from apprenticing him to Catholic merchants on the grounds “that he should be undone by Popish Education.” After Mather left the parish to minister to “the Holy Land” of Toxteth Park, a Protestant citadel in the recusant haven of west Lancashire, the nomination of a leading Puritan to the Winwick rectory in 1624 set off a riot between the nominee’s supporters and partisans of the candidate of the local Catholic gentry. Winwick, however, turns out to have been a prize worth fighting over: the schools of the parish were a center for preparing would-be ministers like Mather for entering the universities and for training teachers for the whole of Lancashire.389 In neighboring Yorkshire, the educational foundations similarly divided into warring establishments that owed their existence to the Catholic-Puritan rivalry, and the religious schism fit like a glove over longstanding regional animosities.390 Further south, the domestic “old church” was mostly a paper tiger, at least by the accession of James in 1603, but anywhere in England at any time to wear one’s Protestantism on one’s sleeve, Puritan fashion, was to run certain risks in the event of a Catholic revival and in the meanwhile to enroll in the same cause as the Lollards and the Smithfield martyrs.
More often, however, the Christian warfare was a diffuse sort of guerrilla skirmishing between the godly and the “vulgar” or the “multitude.” These very terms for their non-Puritan neighbors reveal well enough how the chosen few felt themselves alone in a hostile sea of indifferent formalists and practical atheists who lacked the conviction even to be papists but who could “persecute” the godly with enthusiasm all the same. Visible religious differences always provided a marvelous means in England, just as they one day would in America, for organizing and perpetuating local quarrels. The causes of the disputes were as varied as the locales in which they took place, but the forms of conflict were monotonously similar. Puritan preachers routinely encouraged their hearers to turn from the wicked, and the saints, in their turn, were often drawn to one another anyway for mutual comfort and edification. Puritan “singularity,” therefore, meaning an affected clubbing together of pious hypocrites too proud to fraternize with any but their own kind, became a favorite theme in the manifold forms of harassment and defamation by which feuds at close proximity were generally carried on. One Sussex man had to bring suit in the Star Chamber of 1632 because in a rhymed ballad (to the tune of “Tom O’Bedlam”) circulating in the Rye alehouses he was described as a member of “the holie Brotherhood” who used the pretext of private religious conferences for sexual affairs, while “soe holie he is, that he will speak to noe bodie he meets.” Another of the brethren, a Surrey man this time, who migrated to Massachusetts in 1638, reported that at home in England upon his being “much affected” with a sermon against drunkenness and forsaking his tippling companions for “private societies of saints,” he “found communion with God and His people so sweet that I resolved against ill company and hence was hated.”391
Such bitter relations were only to be expected. Explaining “this great fray in the world betwixt God’s children and world[ly] ones,” Paul Baynes in his popular commentary on Ephesians attributed the root cause to guilty consciences:
they nickname these [saints], persecute them so far as they dare. Why? Because that the lives of the godly do control [reprove] them, this it is that breadeth the hatred, great estrangement.392
And providing the conflict stayed at the level of an occasional nuisance, there was comfort to be found in persecution. An ordinary individual was given importance by his neighbors’ hostility, and a weak Christian had his faith affirmed by opposition. Edward Shephard, a Yorkshire sailor come to New England, described himself as happiest at sea, isolated among his reprobate shipmates, because “the Lord kept me with a heart desiring to follow him in the use of means. But when I came here [to New England] and not seeing the need and necessity of the Lord I thought myself miserable.”393
Before expending too much sympathy on these suffering brethren, one should always recur to the example of another North Country man, the nonconformist minister Adam Martindale, who took a special pride late in life in recounting his youthful skill with the quarter-staff. As individuals the saints probably gave as good as they got. But they were also in need of powerful official protection to shore up their legal vulnerabilities. In an age when most prosecutions originated with informers the vulgar were perfectly capable of carrying the infighting into the church courts or occasionally before ordinary criminal tribunals. In his best selling allegory The Isle of Man, Richard Bernard described this sort of harassment through the character of “Mr. Outside,” a formalist who attended sermons without listening:
This fellow cannot abide any after [sermon]-meditation, or Christian conference with others of that which he hath heard; and if he espie any meeting together for this purpose, then he maketh information against them, and is ready to send the Hue and Cry, as against privie Schismatically conventicling, and unlawfully meeting.394
A collection of twenty-four “Common Grevances Groaninge for Reformation” that originated in Jacobean Suffolk put the matter more tersely: grievance number four is entitled simply, in block capitals, many unjustly traduced for conventicles. From as early as 1585 onwards, the characteristic Puritan meetings for “repetition” of sermons, scriptural conferences, or fasting and prayer all potentially fell within the definition of a “conventicle.” Oliver Hey wood’s evocation of the “warm spirit of prayer” at conventicles in Lancashire in the 1630’s “in the heat and height of the Bishop’s tyranny over godly ministers,” like the similar recollections of Nehemiah Wallington of the “praying year” (1640) in London, and of Joseph Lister of the harassment of the godly in Bradford, Yorkshire, about the same time, all bear testimony to the pleasures of suffering in moderate amounts, and especially to the thrill that came with being able to identify with the earliest Christians as besieged knots of the faithful scattered across a heathen landscape.395
When the Civil War finally took the lid off, longstanding enmities, brought to a head in the decade of the 1630’s, could finally be paid off with interest. The bishops took their share of knocks from the London mobs, but elsewhere it was just as likely to be the saints, a self-confessed remnant, who were at the mercy of those of the multitude with old scores to settle.396 Under other circumstances, the withdrawal of the godly might have become complete long before either the later stages of the Interregnum or the creation of Dissent by act of parliament in 1662. Before the mid-1640’s only a few English Puritans, more consistent than most, or just more beaten about, did take the insistence on separation to its logical, sectarian conclusion and repudiated both the Church of England and any hope of a comprehensive godly society. William Bradford of the Mayflower and New Plymouth colony attributed his Yorkshire company’s initial turn to outright separatism to their having been “both scoffed and scorned by the prophane multitude” and hauled through the church courts.397 Yet theirs was never the typical nor even a particularly common path, except perhaps during seasons of unusual frustration for the Puritan movement as a whole, such as the period of disappointment after the Hampton Court conference or the high tide of the Laudian repression. Most of the time, without ever becoming so alienated from their society as the expatriate Separatists of the Netherlands, the bulk of the godly managed to weave together a coherent sense of membership in a common cause and still fit snugly within the interstices of the official institutions of church and state. Theirs was not the accommodation of a subject people to a dominant culture—forced, pragmatic, superficial. Nor were they, like the occasional conformists at a later date, merely making the bare minimum of concessions necessary to ward off the penalties of repressive legislation. Rather, for most of the godly, their Puritan allegiance was actually the basis for larger kinds of loyalties rarely available to ordinary people in the culture of their day on any other terms. As important as the sense of exaltation of the chosen was to the Puritan movement, the sense of access to a world beyond the narrow confines of the neighborhood was no less central.
Take the case of John Trumbull, a mariner who eventually found his way to Massachusetts. Living originally in some unnamed English place without a preaching minister or a local group of saints, he was, in his own words, a man who regarded “nothing but back and belly and fulfilling my own lusts.” His initial breakthrough came only after he put to sea, when having accepted a copy of Arthur Dent’s Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven, solely to practice his reading upon it, he was accidentally taken with its substance and pressed on with Dent’s A Sermon on Repentance. Like Adam and Eve, Trumbull all at once understood his own nakedness—“so saw my misery,” as he laconically put it. Accordingly, he moved “to a place where the means were twice,” that is, where he could hear a Sunday sermon and a weekday lecture, and the usual internal struggle ensued. He was frustrated by his own weaknesses and tempted by former friends and other carnal men who ridiculed the saints, but eventually he did manage to fall into godly company and profit by the experience. It was another voyage, however, that sealed his conversion: putting into London, he was brought over by hearing Obadiah Sedgwick, the lecturer at St. Mildred’s Bread Street, explain the difference between hypocrites and true believers, and while further doubts and difficulties inevitably ensued, his fate was effectively secured. Welcomed into the ranks of God’s people, he travelled with them to New England to a respectable position in Cambridge and Charlestown society and a place at the head of an American family tree.398
Trumbull may seem a little unusual in having been saved by going to sea, but it was seaborne commerce and the contacts it brought that represented for him a peculiarly literal link with a universe beyond the nameless place without means of his early life. What he glimpsed in the Puritan message conveyed by tract and preacher was a vision that made his previous experience seem ignorant and aimless, a vision that represented his only real contact with any form of high culture. If he was alienated from old comrades and old haunts, he was inducted into a brotherhood national in scope and little short of cosmic in orientation. Less dramatically, perhaps, but for much the same reasons, thousands of others made the same choice: by so choosing they simultaneously set themselves apart from ordinary Englishmen, still intensely local and bounded in their loyalties, and made themselves part of the great struggles of the English nation and Protestant Christianity. Inward looking and self-concerned as they may have been, the little societies of the godly flourished best in these locations most closely tied to the national culture.
The perfect Puritan location is easy to envision, and it would be anything but an isolated Arcadia: the “plenitude of means” by which men were saved cost money and required extensive outside contacts. In the Utopia of the godly, a painful learned minister on an adequate stipend would reside on the site, a grammar school would be nearby, the closest member of the gentry would be a well-affected justice who suppressed enormities and patronized promising young candidates for the ministry. Not far away could be found a flourishing market town, located, preferably, on some major trade route and supplied with an endowed weekly lecture, a stationer, and, in general, some kind of continuous sampling of what was going on out there, however much filtered through Puritan lenses.399 The real ligaments of the Puritan movement before the Civil War are to be found here, in the half accidental, always loosely connected network by which the godly associated themselves with each other and with the great events of their time. By way of his enemies, for example, we learn that Calvin Bruen, the Puritan sheriff of the city of Chester, owned a copy of Alexander Leighton’s inflammatory Sions Plea against the Prelacy only a short time after it came off the presses at Amsterdam in 1630. The tract was apparently obtained through the city’s only stationer, who made sure that “no Puritanical books [appear] but our citizens get them as soon as any.” In the case of the radical Canterbury politician, Thomas Scott, his own memoranda indicate how he kept himself informed by a steady diet of newsletters and tracts, distilling the information throughout the 1620’s in circular letters to his constituents. For Colchester in Essex we have the word of yet another episcopal informant that Thomas Cotton, who kept a “privat church” in the town, also maintained a “peevish intelligencer” at London, whose dispatches he proceeded to read publicly at the town market, while about him “the zealants thronge as people use where Ballads are sunge.”400 In the course of the Great Migration to America in the 1630’s, we can very occasionally observe groups of the faithful serving as recruiting agents or just cheering off their New England bound brethren and publicizing the good news from the Puritan colonies as it filtered back across the Atlantic.401
Some indication of the way these activities fused theological and political concerns can be gleaned from the instance of the man who eventually led the migration to Connecticut, Thomas Hooker, while he served as a lecturer at Chelmsford in Essex in the late 1620’s. By the admission of his admirers, Hooker was “a great inquirer after News,” although not, we are assured, “out of Athenian curiousity, but christian conscientiousness, to sympathise with the church of God.”402 In 1626, when the Puritans were increasingly concerned about England’s failure to play its part in the international struggle with the power of Rome, Hooker in two sermons calling for personal and national moral regeneration could assume that his audience would catch his allusions to the details of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and also to the latest fighting on the Continent, the two poles of the current battle with the Romish Antichrist, as well as to the sale in 1621 of one hundred ordinance in the Tower to the Spanish for use against the Protestants in the war in Germany. On another occasion at about the same period he improved upon the poor harvests of the 1620’s by attributing them to Charles I’s marriage to a Catholic queen.403 Hooker had ample opportunity to broadcast his opinions beyond Chelmsford by way of “divers young ministers” who “spent thire time in private meetings and conferences with him or with such as are of his society and returned home in the end of the week and broch on sundaies what he hath brewed, and trade upon his stocke.” At least one of those ministers, Thomas Weld of Terling, encouraged private meetings of the godly of his parish, as did Hooker himself at Chelmsford, where he gathered an exclusive, covenanted “company of Christians” to complement his work as a preacher to the multitude.404 Outside of such connections, Englishmen too ordinary to possess extensive family ties or university affiliation had no real alternative foci for involvement in the public concerns of their culture. Without the anomalous element of a Puritan commitment one had little choice but to be content to lie down in the old provincial darkness, unaffected by the thirst for “news” that increasingly spurred the educated public to burst the limitations of primitive communications and repressive government policy. The nearest rival to the loose networks of the godly as a source of mutuality and information alike was the ever more ubiquitous alehouse, which, significantly, those in authority regarded as the source of the same kind of rumormongering and unrest as the sedition-spouting preacher and the schismatic conventicle.405 Effectively, long before the two became temporarily identified by the laws of Massachusetts and New Haven, sainthood had already become citizenship. Indeed, it was the essential combination of the two—the inescapable fusion of the individual psychomachia with public purpose—that moved men and women to take on the formidable burden of being Puritan. For them the whole clerically sponsored rigamarole was a way, a unique one, towards volition, autonomy, engagement.
In the Elizabethan period the intimate link between participation and separation was palpable enough. An Englishman who took up the cause of the international Reformation was by definition a member of a distinct and often testifying minority in his own country. After the collapse of the Presbyterian movement, as overt militancy subsided and a broad Protestant consensus apparently took hold among all parties, the crucial duality is less immediately apparent. Later generations of Puritan ministers seem on the face of it intent mainly on rapproachment with their church and society. Unable to obtain the single Discipline of the Elizabethans, they substituted the multitude of lesser disciplines that came to be known as practical divinity. Through the use of devotional literature, conference, household religion, the neo-Hebraic sabbath, and the private fast they elaborated an interlocking set of routines designed to turn the believer’s simple intellectual assent to doctrine into “operative knowledge” (active, self-generating profession).406 If the clergy, however, seemed to have abandoned their attempt to replace the government of the church wholesale with a mostly respectable campaign to fashion a pervasive Christian society for the many, the results of their efforts in the golden age of Puritanism were, in fact, merely to heighten the tensions that had emerged in the Elizabethan era. Ironically, such successes as were gained among the laity by the more peaceable methods of the Jacobean era were as likely as not to increase the sense of alienation of the godly from their society and to undermine the clerical control over the Puritan movement that the Elizabethans could take for granted.
In the nature of things the spiritual pilgrimages the clergy hoped to guide often ended up as self-directed adventures. In the long maturation period from weak to strong Christian a believer still unable to apply the promises of scripture personally often ended up acting a bit like a classic valetudinarian whose chronic disease has become an absorbing passion quite independent of the physicians consulted. In the conversion narratives this or that wounded soul drags around from sermon to sermon, listing the key texts but generally leaving the various ministers who preached on them anonymous. So, Alice Stedman, from somewhere in the London area, found herself convicted when very young “by a godly minister,” subsequently had fears about her estate and “went to London to a minister” who convinced her she rested on mere duties, underwent a further course of sermon hearing “in the country,” and on and on … hers is one of the more interminable of the relations endured by Thomas Shepard in gathering his Cambridge church.407 The narratives are, in fact, very like the boring account of some professional invalid visiting “the doctor,” then seeing “another doctor,” and after that “a specialist,” with the physicians identified by name only when a particularly famous or particularly effective practitioner is consulted. In Alice Stedman’s case the successful healer was John Cotton and the crucial text was, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” One may be forgiven for suspecting some small degree of self-dramatization when so lengthy and incidented an odyssey culminates in the narrator stumbling across the single most obvious text in the New Testament. She was perhaps a trifle self-indulgent, but hardly unique. What Alice Stedman or anyone else who actively pursued the means achieved was a plot, that is, a coherent structure for one’s life, complete with tension, struggle and climax, that made one’s previous existence seem so much living “at random.” Therein lay the lure of Puritanism, but for all the significance of various preachers in the salvation of any given member of the godly, the narrative as a whole belonged to the individual recounting it: he became the hero of an episodic story whose prescribed happy ending was a strong, self-confident Christian but whose unlooked-for consequence was a substantial degree of both autonomy and cohesion among the godly.
For those caught up in its regime, practical divinity, like so many other aspects of Puritanism, had become both an invitation and an estrangement. The prescribed experiences virtually required abandoning earlier acquaintances for the continued company of saints, with whom significance and meaning had generally first been glimpsed and among whom the precious gift was subsequently nurtured. Just as the preachers liked to say, the fire was warmer than the warmth of all the individual firebrands taken together. Thus, Anne Errington, another one of Thomas Shepard’s redeemed Northerners, was conquered (as she was meant to be) by her abrupt injection, as a servant, into the routine of a Puritan household. “She living in ignorance till she came to New castle to a godly family and it was harsh to her spirit being bound seven years. And I resolved if ever loose I would be vile.” But she was never loose again. A godly husband (“who thought me so, but I was not”) succeeded the godly family, and then, seeking a more enveloping web of godliness, she left Newcastle for New England: “and feeling not the means work hence I desired hither to come thinking one sermon might do me more good than a hundred there.”408 She had learned the first two lessons of practical divinity, that divinity was best “practiced” in a matrix of means and that there was danger in wandering too far from it. The discovery eventually led her, and others like her, to New England in search of an environment where the impact of grace was multiplied by the overwhelming preponderance of the gracious in the population. At home in England this same impulse, derived from an attempt to broaden the Puritan mission, went a long way in the opposite direction, towards creating a separated people well before an immigrant ship crossed the Atlantic. For the first quarter of the seventeenth century the dominant movement was merely a growth in the sense of solidarity among the godly and a lengthening of the agenda that they were required to address. The mechanisms for a more complete schism, however, one that would be realized after 1630, were already there in the very techniques that made practical divinity so appealingly practical.
The clergy pioneered the way, as ever with decided ambivalence. The ministers who warned against private men meddling in affairs reserved to the governors of church and state also exhorted the godly to use their conferences to weigh seriously the works of God as manifested in his latest providences—to undertake “the consideration of his creatures” in Nicholas Bownd’s phrase. Bownd meant the weather, neither an inconsequential nor an apolitical topic in Elizabethan or Jacobean times. Drought and flood, good and bad harvests, were God’s doing, and disasters especially could be understood as judgments for the failings of an unworthy people. Bownd himself attributed the poor harvests of the 1590’s to the magistrates’ failure to enforce a strict sabbath, just as in the next run of dearth years, the 1620’s, it was possible to locate the cause in a vacillating foreign policy, appeasement of papists, and Charles I’s marriage to the Catholic Henrietta Maria.409
Fasts, above all, invited topical exposition because by definition they were called in response to some public calamity and because they were often held in defiance of authority. If the authorities failed to require a public repentance, then the prayers and tears of the godly in secret were all the more likely to appease an angry god for the benefit of the whole nation; at the least, such clandestine activities would preserve the participants themselves in the midst of the deserved general punishment.410 “These tymes,” pronounced one of the greatest of the practical divines, Arthur Hildersham, “may also be justly called tymes of persecution” when Christians could lawfully practice their religious duties secretly in defiance of the magistrate, because “this christian duty of public fasting (which god hath also streigthly commanded to be taught and practiced when such occasions is given) is not only not allowed but oppressed and persecuted.” (Hildersham and his supporters at Ashby de la Zouch practiced what he preached to the point where they all ended up in front of the High Commission in 1616.)411
Private fasts can be found taking on an unashamedly partisan form by the mid-to-late 1620’s, but the origins of what was by this late date a visible fissure in the Church of England can be found decades earlier in apparently uncontroversial and wholesome activity. The believer in company with proven saints was to work out the meaning of scripture, and, through the complete sense of the word understood in terms of his own personal experience and his observation of the world around him, his salvation. When that world and the believer’s experience of it came to seem peculiarly menacing, the same individuals who attributed bad harvests to bad royal marriages were liable to possess hearts first melted by misgovernment. A good instance is Richard Condor, a Cambridge yeoman of modest acres who founded a nonconformist dynasty and who frequented a conventicle held regularly in the 1630’s on market day at Royston. Meeting in a private room, the participants discussed “how they had hard [heard] on the Sabbath-day, and how they had gone in the week past.” When the talk turned to “by what means God first visited their souls and began a work of grace upon them,” Condor’s saving instrument turned out to be the reissued Declaration of Sports:
When our minister was reading it, I was seized with a chill and horror not to be described. Now, thought I, iniquity is established by a law, and sinners are hardened in their sinful ways! What sore judgements are to be expected upon so wicked and guilty a nation! … And God set in so with it, that I thought it was high time to be earnest about salvation … so that I date my conversion from that time; and I adore the grace of God in making that to be an ordinance to my salvation, which the devil and wicked governors laid as a trap for my destruction.412
That so many Puritans should find the revised book of sports their breaking point indicates dramatically the way in which the Puritan movement in its later phases had become identified with a distinctive and largely lay form of behavior. Opposition to the ceremonies—an issue that struck the clergy hardest—was always negotiable, but no ground could be given on the sabbath because it had become the great integrating moment in the Puritan calendar, “the market day of the soul,” when, for one day in seven, all of the means came together. Sabbatarianism had not even been an original Puritan tenet, but in the 1630’s the defense of this central institution finished off otherwise discrete clergymen who would have been willing to do a bit of business on the ceremonies, ranged layman against authority (Condor’s “iniquity is established by a law” would find echoes elsewhere), and pointed migrants in the direction of New England. As John Fessington, a Kentish glover who came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, confessed, “when the book of liberty came forth and being afraid I should not stand in trials, hence I looked this way.” Fessington’s pastor Thomas Shepard, having looked and then come the same way, made a similar point with less economy of style when he asked a Harvard audience, “how hath that little flock of slaughter, which hath wept for it [the sabbath] and preacht and praied, and done and sufferend for it, been hated and persecuted?” A more palpable “document” (to use a contemporary phrase) of the way in which the new Israel stood heir to the old could not have been imagined than to have stood once a week, every week, as one of the band of Hebrews among the scoffing Canaanites of England.413
Renewed official attack on Sabbatarianism in the Laudian years made the weekly rupture in parish religious life acute, turning the inadvertent into the self-conscious, but, it is worth emphasizing, here and in general, the Laudian hegemony only worsened a crisis in Puritanism already extant and growing. Some kind of fusion between the world-as-church of Barchester Towers and the sectarian exclusiveness of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was the defining irony of the Puritan movement at every stage of its existence, and periodic readjustments between these constituent elements made up much of the history of Puritanism in England. Well before Laud, for example, the more dexterous of the Puritan ministry can be found trying to head off full-blown separatism by indulging the godly in one or another form of distinctive fellowship of their own as a supplement to the comprehensive membership of the parish.414 But these same longstanding tensions, logically anomalous, historically quite natural, were transferred to America at a moment, the 1630’s, when they were peculiarly intense because of the manner in which the Laudian ascendancy compromised the establishmentarian commitment of the Puritan movement. For the first time since the Marian persecution the godly seemed far less the vanguard than the remnant, not leaders but survivors charged with preserving the spark of the gospel with uncompromising purity in a world where moderation and compromise had been decisively proven so many shrewd snares of Antichrist. In the decade when New England was founded the tensions that gave the Puritan movement its longstanding vitality were coming to seem insoluble contradictions.415
As one of the chief executors in America of the tangled English legacy, John Winthrop betrayed the acute stage the Puritan crisis had reached in the early 1630’s in his reply to some sort of Separatist manifesto demanding that the new churches of the colonies unqualifiedly repudiate their English mother and, by implication, the longstanding engagement to reform the many as well as to nourish the few. In one and the same document Winthrop, who very evidently knew how to live with contradiction, found himself arguing both sides of the case simultaneously. On the one hand, he defended the Church of England by the extraordinary claim, possible only in the heyday of practical divinity, that most of the members were really weak Christians crying out for the succor of the already converted. Winthrop even attributed this sad neglect of the bulk of the English nation, implicitly worth saving, all of them, to “that spiritual pride, that satan rooted into the hearts of their brethren who when they are converted, doe not, nor will not strenthen them, but doe censure them, to be none of Gods people, nor any visible Christians.” But, evidently uncomfortable with this argument from generosity, he also fell back on the traditional defense, wholly sectarian in origin, that separation from the churches of England (in the plural) would be schism because at least some parishes down deep had at their core a nucleus of gathered saints, whatever the carnal dross subsequently added by force of law.416 The argument was a tortured one, but little else could be expected in the 1630’s, when the spiritual pride so loathed by Winthrop was in many ways merely the elation of the newly successful masters of an esoteric wisdom paradoxically available for just 1s.6d. a copy (the rough cost of two of the most popular awakeners of dead hearts, Dent’s Plain Mans Pathway and Lewis Bayly’s Practice of Piety).
Awkward as their situation was, Winthrop and his associates managed to ride their tiger. The solutions adopted turned out to be among the most unstable in the history of the Puritan movement, but at least they provided a kind of ecclesiastical framework, however improvisatory, for the supercharged commitment of the generation of the Migration, who were far more susceptible to the Separatist argument than their forebears. In the 1630’s and early 1640’s successive adaptations in the initially fluid religious life of the New England colonies satisfied, and by institutionalization stabilized and limited, the lay militance that a little later would wreck any hope of a comprehensive Puritan establishment in England. By 1640 or so a New England saint had become a saint indeed: his grace was certified by a narration of his spiritual life approved for accuracy by fellow saints, he was accorded the unique privileges of the right to form a church and to turn one of its members into a minister, he alone enjoyed the prerogatives of church membership, and especially access to the sacraments, and in New Haven and the Bay Colony he alone had the right to vote.417 Inevitably, for the first two decades or so after 1630 most of the life of the imagination in New England went into the founding and shaping of the early churches, replacing the plenitude of means with a single all-encompassing drama carried out over and over again in various separate locations by a sophisticated and rather inbred set of actors. The most vivid single ordinance in the worship of the early settlers was probably neither sacraments, sermons, sabbaths, nor fasts, but the conversion narratives. As Oliver Hey wood in his memoirs turned first to the fervency and excitement of the conventicles of his youth, so Captain Roger Clap of Dorchester recalled with similar nostalgia the didactic and communal value of the rapid-fire succession of admissions that marked the early years of the New England churches. Weak Christians, new converts, and ancient professors alike could all center their religious life on version after version of the shared heroic adventure:
Many were Converted, and others established in Believing: many joined unto the several Churches where they lived, confessing their Faith publickly, and shewing before all the Assembly their Experiences of the Workings of God’s Spirit in their Hearts, to bring them to christ: which many Hearers found very much Good by, to help them to try their own Hearts or no? Oh the many Tears that have been shed in Dorchester Meeting-House at such times, both by those that have declared God’s Work on their Souls, and also by those that heard them.418
It is not really surprising that the same period also witnessed quite a number of bitter church schisms. As they suffered through the problems of working out the meaning of Congregationalism in practice, the New Englanders invested their emotional energies heavily in their new church foundations, and they would hardly have had much satisfaction without the excitement of conflict and reconciliation. For a few churches the thrill became addictive, but most managed very nicely on just a row or two, and the process was probably healthy enough in the long run. The English alternative to this petty squabbling was the Interregnum.
We are used to seeing the early years of the New England Way in a special and rather misleading light. If the arrangements of the 1630’s and 1640’s are taken as normal, that is, if we ignore the long past of the Puritan movement before the settlement of New England, then the history of the godly after 1650 is in one way or another, and for one reason or another, the story of their progressive worldliness, though the blame for this development is attributed to everything from human nature to the passing of one or another village convenience. But if we stop taking our cues from the ministry in the very act of trying to describe the laity, if we recall the Puritan movement in its entirety, then the developments of the later seventeenth century become no more than another stage in the ongoing exchange between ministry and laity. The equilibrium point reached by the end of the century did come down a little closer to the side of Anthony Trollope than of the Prophet Jeremiah, but that was as perfectly acceptable a form of reconciliation of the competing elements within Puritanism as any other.
Compelling as they were for the time, and necessary as they had been to the integrity of the Puritan movement in America, the formulations of the first two decades simply could not persist. In the second half of the seventeenth century the congregations of New England did not succumb to a resurgence of the world, the flesh, and the devil (under whatever name we choose to denominate these social forces); they did, however, for more mundane reasons lose their near monopoly position as the fulcrum for their members’ imaginative lives. Most obviously, the number of new admissions, and consequently, the frequency with which the ceremony of the spiritual narration was offered, declined sharply. There were not that many adults left to convert after immigration stopped in 1642, and individuals coming to adulthood after migration or born in New England took their time before announcing that they had the requisite conversion experience. In itself there is no necessary Buffonesque New World degeneracy in this spiritual hesitancy—the elder John Winthrop back in England was thirty before he felt confident to lay hold on the promises.419 When it is remembered that by about 1670 the majority of those over sixteen (roughly the earliest age at which conversion could be expected) were probably under thirty (roughly the median age in many churches of those first entering into full communion), the ministry’s alarm over the need to provide for the rising generation becomes comprehensible.420 A growing portion of their auditory were still weak Christians needing all the various means that had nourished their parents and grandparents before the migration, the means that had originally laid the basis for the self-sustaining chain reaction celebrated by Roger Clap.421
Ecclesiastical responses to the new realities included extension of the limits of church membership, reinterpretation of the sacrament to revive its importance as a “means,” and an attendant expansion in the clergy’s conception of itself as a distinct and privileged order. All these developments are well known, much written about, and in no great need of another rehearsal. What does need a little emphasis is the way in which changes within the churches were accompanied by their incorporation as a whole into a much larger, if loosely structured edifice. Increases in population size and density, economic development, and a growth in contacts between the towns all provided mechanisms for transmitting the official culture, for thickening it, in effect, until it became the exclusive medium for noetic activity in New England. Individual spiritual pilgrimages continued at a brisk pace, but increasingly under a greater degree of central definition and direction.422 The reintegration of Puritan religious life in America is tellingly revealed in three deceptively familiar New England institutions: public days, the printed word, and the law courts. Each was put to a new and distinctively American use in the last half of the century, but the guiding genius in the overall arrangement was recognizably English in origin, and this was so for the simple reason that the challenge addressed was no more and no less than the fundamental, animating Puritan goal of orienting the individual believer within a collective mission.
While the New England colonists are best remembered popularly through the annual repetition of one of their thanksgivings, the other form of public day, the fast, probably strikes most people as the more quintessentially Puritan. The stereotype is, for once, not too far off the mark: far more time was spent discussing the necessity and nature of fasting, and fasts substantially outnumbered feasts in frequency. Thanksgivings merely showed gratitude for mercies already vouchsafed; fasting was the way to get things done in the first place, the most supreme, because most solemn and collective, form of wrestling with God on public occasions. The popularity of private, unauthorized fasts among the English godly at the time of the Migration has already been commented upon, but, significantly, in New England, where the saints ruled rather than prayed behind closed doors, the public fasts initially were not especially frequent. Despite plentiful occasions for calling special days on account of the events of the Civil War at home in England and of all the incidents marking the hammering out of polity in church and state in the colonies, Massachusetts enjoined only fourteen public fasts and three thanksgivings in the entire decade of the 1640’s, Connecticut four fasts and one thanksgiving. By way of contrast, in the ten years 1665–1674 the rate at which these extraordinary days were called had almost doubled in the Bay and the disproportion was greater still in Connecticut. The difference cannot be attributed to the occasions for fasts and thanksgivings, because a relatively less eventful ten years was chosen for the later period in order to make the point. (The frequency with which public days were set does not rise dramatically for the next ten year period, the terrible years 1675–1684.)423 The comparatively modest use of public days in the early years of New England settlement suggests the sharply changed situation the migrants found themselves in after they left their fasting, praying brethren. The English godly of the 1630’s envied the Americans their authorized fasts, but this was precisely the circumstance that deprived the ordinance of the double-edged quality from which Puritanism derived its strength. The English in their clandestine fasts were both testifying to their own righteousness and preserving the whole of the nation, not to mention enjoying a positively apostolic sense of persecution. They had, as the Americans did not, a continuing context for these Puritan rites that set the worshipers apart but still dealt directly with the great crisis of their day, and they could see their own efforts at personal reformation as, à la Richard Condor, a political act. In New England, the fast at first was merely a way of dealing with a discrete problem, as the thanksgiving was an acknowledgment of its resolution. Unending conflict of a public nature, to which the struggle within could have been linked, would have required a far more potent and persevering enemy, far better established within New England’s borders than anyone actually available. (Louis XIV, who might perhaps have filled the bill to an extent, came on the scene much too late to be of help.) But if New Englanders could find no organizing extended metaphor for themselves in the New Testament, the Old, as it turned out, contained much to help them.
The Jeremiad tradition, celebrated in a revitalized and more frequent round of public days, signaled the recovery in general of the public dimensions of Puritanism under the very special conditions, unique in the history of the movement, of the burden of establishment. In the wayward Israel of the prophetic period the New England ministry found a biblical analogy as perfect for their purposes as the church before Constantine remained for the Dissenters of England. Like Israel, New England was a theocracy—true religion was established by authority. Like latter-day Israel, with security and prosperity New Englanders had grown too comfortable with their special charge, and so the Lord had obligingly reintroduced an element of risk: multiple afflictions for the present, the threat of being cast off in the future if this chastisement was not taken to heart. And like Israel chastened, the cure was found in a general and open recognition of sin in a series of public fasts called as occasions warranted, accompanied by repentance, individual and collective, and concluded with an earnest pledge of reformation. There would be further episodes of laxity, of course, because there had to be if later calamities were to be woven into the same pattern and a new generation of prophet clergy and their American Israelites were to be given ways to locate their individual destinies within it. By joining the ritual of fasting with the pessimistic strain of prophecy that begins with Amos and culminates in Jeremiah the New Englanders found a tradition that could contain Puritanism’s central tension under the extraordinary circumstances of a degree of success.424
It is worth recalling—the point has been made before—that this marvelously helpful discovery had remained ready to hand for many years before extensive use was made of it. John Cotton for one was already in 1630 expounding on the special relevance of Jeremiah 2:21 for later generations of colonists, even as he launched the founding fathers on their mission. A year later, Thomas Hooker took as his text for The Danger of Desertion Jeremiah 14:19, applying it to the England he was leaving, and in 1645 Thomas Shepard once again fell back on the prophet, applying his message to England with a glance at America, on a day of public fasting “in reference to the good estate of the Lords people in England.” (Three years later his youngest son would appropriately be christened Jeremiah Shepard.) The elements of the Jeremiad—the ordinance of fasting, the special relationship with the Lord, the Hebraic analogy in general—were all English and were imported to America with the first English settlers. Their subsequent development in the colonies in the next thirty years or so can only be a matter of conjecture (and has been much conjectured about) because so few fast and election days sermons survive for the period prior to 1660. What can be said, nonetheless, is that however obvious and necessary, the eventual working of these various items of intellectual baggage into a single integrating theme for New England could occur only when a later generation of New Englanders returned to traditional Puritan concerns so cruelly compromised first by the Laudian hegemony and then by the too complete triumph of the refugee saints in America.425 Through these repeated rites of mass self-denigration the plight of the believer could again be merged with the survival of the polity and the progress of the church, and the energies of the laity could once again be disciplined into a common quest. The hallmark of the age of declension was the boldest sign that in New England the Puritan movement had entered an era of revival.426
Public observance provided the foci for the official culture, the high points at which it was most solemnly and explicitly enunciated. Day-to-day repetition was another matter, no less important, and depending as much on the printed as the spoken word. Reading had always had an important place in the Puritan movement as a significant part of the framework of means constructed around scripture and sermon. No soul was ever saved exclusively by a book, except perhaps in very rare instances the Bible unaided, but reading added informed reflection to the lively teaching of the pulpit and the pious life, as they in their turn breathed full meaning into the otherwise lifeless abstractions of print. In England the Puritan clergy had made full and effective use of the press, giving thanks that “God hath given a marveilous blessing of printing to further his Gospelle.” Quite apart from the widespread circulation of Bibles, the printing presses after 1590 or so brought forth a flood of religious material that dwarfed in volume and availability alike every other form of “popular” literature except the ubiquitous almanacs. When they rejoiced that there was “never such a plentie of so good and plaine books printed, never so good cheape,” John Dod and Robert Cleaver, themselves much published, knew whereof they spoke.427
America was not quite so fortunate. The early date of a printing establishment at Cambridge has always been a source of pride for collectors of American firsts, but the contribution of that press to the vital piety the Puritans assumed ran on printer’s ink was initially very small. After eliminating almanacs, material in Latin or the Indian language, statutes lately made, spelling books, and similar items, the output of the New England presses begins to appear very feeble until after about 1665. In any five year period before 1660 the largest number of English language works that could pretend to any imaginative or intellectual content was never more than eight. That number more than doubled for the five year period 1660–1664, doubled again to thirty-six each for 1665–1669 and 1670–1674, then doubled yet again to sixty for 1675–1679, and seventy-one in 1680–1684, remaining in this general range for the rest of the century.428 Marmaduke Johnson, the first printer with a commercial aptitude, can take some of the credit, and the rest probably belongs to the transfer of the main printing business of New England to Boston after 1675.429 The true engine of change, however, was the growth of a market for commercially oriented printers and booksellers to exploit by way of Boston’s increasing contacts with the coastal towns and the hinterland. (Johnson complained in 1668 that Cambridge was “a town where no trade, or very little is managed,” and repeated the observation in his successful petition for removal to Boston in 1674.)430
The increase in English language titles with something resembling a mental content has been taken to indicate a secularizing of New England culture, but most of the new material falls into one or another traditional genre. The sharp rise in the absolute numbers of titles (whatever the slight fluctuation in the “secular” proportion of the total output) really means that in the last third or quarter of the seventeenth century the domestic press was finally fulfilling the essential function that the Puritans had routinely assigned it. For the first three or four or even five decades of settlement the New England colonies must have suffered from a most un-Puritan print drought. Books the immigrants brought over with them undoubtedly played a part in their religious life in the very earliest years, but as these copies wore out and the population increased, the significance of reading must have declined until the expansion in the work of the American presses. The only alternative source of books, English imports, simply was never important if extant booksellers’ inventories and manifests are any guide: dating mostly from the last twenty years of the seventeenth century, these lists never include much more than thirty copies of any English book (most came over in much smaller batches), and even when all the multiple orders of a single title are added up, the largest number of copies (excluding school books) is still only eighty-four for a single piece.431 The domestic press, like its London counterparts, had the capacity for a thousand or fifteen hundred copies of a work in a single edition, and on occasion could turn out more still: one has only to recall the seventeen hundred copies of the Bay Psalm Book that launched religious printing in New England or the nearly insatiable demand for Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom.432 In importing English titles the Boston booksellers rendered a valuable service to New England by enormously increasing the variety of material available to the relatively small group of genuinely intellectual readers, but they could never have reached anything like a large public. It was in the nature of the trade for the bookseller to thrive on offering small samples of a multiplicity of titles, while the printer lived by volume production. If any Boston book merchant had decided for some reason to act in a downright unnatural manner the disabilities of his colonial situation (really just an extreme version of the predicament of his counterpart in the English provinces) would have quickly frustrated the effort.433 To begin with, payment for the English imports had to be made in hard coin or high quality bills of exchange on leading London merchants. Neither was especially easy for American merchants to acquire, and bad relations between the Boston men and their London suppliers inevitably ensued: John Usher, for example, the leading New England bookseller, complained about the refusal of his stationer, Richard Chiswell, to accept the bills he had purchased for payment, and Chiswell protested in his turn the delay Usher took in making his returns. In the end, simply to have an acceptable and available means of exchange New Englanders found themselves obliged to spend an ever larger portion of their time and capital on other lines of the transatlantic trade in order to build up the English credits needed to pay for their books, so that, in effect, the entire commerce in imported literature was inherently self-limiting.434 In addition to this constraint on the overall size of the trade, a New England bookseller simply could not choose to import a large quantity of a few titles. The London stationers on whom the New Englanders necessarily depended maintained something very close to an oligopoly in which they adopted business practices that precluded volume supply in the wholesale market. The Londoners functioned at the same time as retailers for the city’s trade, distributors to the provinces and colonies, and, as copyright holders, the publishers (in the modern sense) of most of what came from the English presses. Since in this last case they were financially interested in a select portion of the books they sold at wholesale, they were generally in no hurry to supply the retailers outside London with large batches of competing titles in which they did not have a finger.435 At the same time in order to obtain titles on which they did not hold the copyright for the benefit of their own retail trade, as well as to limit their risk on the copies they did publish, they engaged in a variety of practices that virtually insured that they would never have a large number of any one book on hand for their wholesale business. Of these devices, the newest but increasingly the most important was the “conger” or sharebook system, a syndicate of wholesalers who pooled their money in order to obtain collective control over the copies—later the copyrights—of selected lucrative titles. (Robert Boulter and Richard Chiswell, the main London suppliers to New England were, in fact, by 1670 members of a very early conger, and Chiswell, the son-in-law of the man usually credited with inventing the form, was the prime mover in gaining a commanding position for the system in the organization of the London book trade.)436 Stationers formed a conger to protect their copyrights against piracy and to prevent price cutting in the wholesale trade, but an incidental effect of their operation was to distribute the available copies of a title equally in small lots among all the members, with a substantial segment being “stocked” (left undistributed) in a warehouse to avoid flooding the market. As a result, a New England bookseller could not have ordered a hundred copies of a popular title under conger control (Bayly’s Practice of Piety, for example) without applying to as many as ten different London stationers at one time or waiting for a very long period as lot after lot was unstocked, ten books or so at a go. What the New Englander could do—and what he did do—was to obtain from his English sources a broad sampling from that wide range of titles (available in small batches) that trade practices, from the oldest, simple barter between stationers, to the newest, the conger, imposed upon the London wholesalers.437
In the eighteenth century the contrasting forms of circulation between imported and native imprints probably contributed to a segmentation in the reading public, with fateful consequences for the history of American culture. For example, the opening wedge of the Enlightenment in America, the sermons of Archbishop John Tillotson, was a classic instance of a conger publication. Undertaken by Chiswell and printed in large numbers, Tillotson’s works were nonetheless financed as a sharebook venture and therefore distributed to every one of the twenty or so members of the conger in dribbles and drabbles of fewer than thirty copies at a time. The fraction of these fractions that regularly crossed the Atlantic managed to turn the work into the sine qua non for every colonial of intellectual pretension sufficient to maintain a library of any size—but without making a dent in the tastes of the general reading public. While New England audiences continued to consume American reprints of standard titles by the archbishop’s Dissenting contemporaries, his work did not arouse sufficient interest to merit a single colonial edition until George Whitefield’s denunciation of his alleged heterodoxy conferred upon Tillotson’s corpus a retroactive succés de scandale.438
After 1700, a very different mental universe began to reach New England cognoscenti from the one still reiterated regularly by the domestic press, and for the first time the unity of the Puritan enterprise came into danger of dissolution. For the seventeenth century, however, when the colonies were hardly large enough to sustain multiple publics, the most dramatic effect of the book trade to America was quite simply its inability to contribute more than a small supplement to the sum total of available reading material. It is scarcely surprising that over fifty English titles were reprinted in America between 1664 and 1700, even though in a large number of instances they were in the course of frequent reprint in England itself, and that the most frequently imported English titles all sooner or later required American editions to satisfy the demonstrated interest the imports had merely aroused.439
If the domestic press is recognized as the preponderant source of New England reading, then we must confront a remarkable situation. Most seventeenth-century New Englanders never read a line by the leading ministers of the first generation unless they happened to have acquired copies of their works in England before leaving or obtained them in America from other immigrants who had brought them over in their personal libraries. There was no American edition of any Thomas Hooker title until 1743, and John Cotton, except for his catechism, would have been known only from a 1686 American edition of God's Promise to his Plantations. John Davenport and Thomas Shepard did have a few American titles in circulation, but they enjoyed this very limited literary success because the former lived to see the beginning of expanded domestic printing and the latter had enjoyed a Cambridge ministry where his successors were well located to arrange for posthumous publication of his works (though he really came into vogue only in the eighteenth century). Richard Mather alone of the founding clergy seems to have discovered, or rather remembered, the value of reading and to have made some use of the domestic press along familiar Puritan lines: he had six hundred copies of his Farewell Exhortation run off and “on a certain Lords Day, he did, by the Hands of his Deacons, put these little books into the Hands of his Congregation, that so whenever he should by Death take his Farewel of them, they might still remember how they had been exhorted.”440
We are now in a position to appreciate in full some of the more extraordinary aspects of New England authorship after 1660. The immediate and (even for its author) surprising popularity of The Day of Doom can be attributed in part to a situation where at its appearance in 1662 New England readers were quite simply starved for anything like an imaginative rendering of doctrine: small wonder that eighteen hundred copies of a ballad version of the day of judgment could be sold over three years and that still another edition was called for later in the 1660’s.441 (The Pilgrim's Progress would also do well in its American career, and it seems odd that some enterprising Boston printer did not bring out Bernard’s The Isle of Man before James Franklin published an American edition in 1716.)442 The same desperate yearning for printed materials, only partly slaked even in the last decade of the century, suggests one reason, a particularly prosaic one, for the influence enjoyed by Increase and Cotton Mather in the religious life of their time: they wrote a gigantic proportion of the devotional works that the American wing of the Puritan movement had previously lacked so dramatically. In the 1690’s, at high tide, the two men together accounted for thirty percent of total titles of all sorts printed in New England and of a much higher share of purely religious material. The sheer number, as much as the content of their works, went a long way towards restoring the function of the printed word as a main instrument of excitement and suspense.443
We do not today, to be sure, generally consider reading a Puritan work exciting. The element of discovery in their literature is easy to overlook because of a failure to distinguish among the leading titles and especially between the two broad categories of English devotional works. The more immediately familiar comprised the very long-lived and regularly reprinted compendia, such as the Practice of Piety, the various exercises in the ars moriendi literature, and comprehensive descriptions of the morphology of conversion. They all served as vade mecums spiritually and literally—their squat shape made them perfect pocket books, and their low survival rate, for all the reprinting, suggests that they were routinely worn out being used in just this way. Popular as they were, they were reference books with all the dramatic structure of a cookbook or an abridged dictionary, and there are relatively few New England instances of this genre, reprint or native, until well after 1700. Given the nature of the colonial audience, the other main type of devotional work was really most needed, and at this form the Mathers, amongst others, excelled. They especially, in their absorption with an American style of practical divinity, turned to the printed word as a source of variety and novelty of experience.
Veteran sermon goers, after all, if they sometimes owned the standard manuals, probably found them old hat. Their excitement came from the rapid succession of new titles appearing regularly to weave some well-known lesson, devotional or casuistical, into a previously unsuspected pattern. Something like practiced theatregoers witnessing their tenth performance of Othello, they would lack the naive enthusiasm of a virgin audience but could still be surprised and moved by a fresh and powerful interpretation, provided it did not commit a palpable outrage on the received text. The curious publication history in England of most of the titles by prolific and avowedly popular preachers is almost certainly attributable to the habits of this seasoned readership. In a large number of instances the works of ministers of great repute went through one edition only or achieved a respectable number of editions in a short period and then, unlike the manuals, sank from sight. Many of these titles probably fell from favor because they were overtaken by the next entry from the same pen, but read at first blush a sermon such as The Saint's Daily Exercise of John Preston (nine editions between 1629 and 1634), or the Richard Sibbes collection published as The Bruised Reed (five editions, 1630–1637), or Jeremy Dyke’s The Mischiefe and Miserie of Scandall (eight editions between 1630 and 1635), all gave a knowing, godly readership a source of stimulation that really does challenge comparison with the experience of a similarly initiated theater audience.444 The bibliography of the Mathers follows the same pattern exactly, except that their titles rarely got beyond even a second edition because one or two thousand copies went a lot further in New England than in the much larger reading population of England.
The Mathers were never alone in their work. At fifty-two titles, Samuel Willard ran Increase Mather, at least, a pretty good race, and there were large numbers of other clerical entrants in the competition after 1670 with more modest contributions. Taking all their volume of print together, their revival of practical divinity in America parallels closely the history of fasting in replicating an English situation, by calling upon the long experience the English Puritans had gained in making popular Protestantism popular. There was, however, here too an adaptation to a specifically New England circumstance in the relative neglect of standard devotional materials for titles geared to a spiritually sophisticated audience. Bayly’s Practice of Piety appeared in seventeenth-century New England only as an abridgment by John Eliot in the language of the Indians. English speaking believers had graduated to more advanced material a generation or two earlier.445 Worship and doctrine by themselves never completed the more fullblown Puritan schemes, and would have been judged insufficient in the various formulations of the New England Way without the longstanding commitment to “discipline.” Robert Cawdrey, a militant of the Elizabethan period, put the matter concisely (as was appropriate for a man then at work on the first English dictionary) when he wrote that “in the church where Discipline wanteth, although there be never sound & good preaching with catechising, against sin and wickednes, yet the edge therof is dulled, that is fruit-lesse and of little force.”446 Cawdrey’s words are worth dwelling on briefly for what they reveal about the original Puritan promise and the peculiar nature of its New England realization. By “discipline” he did not mean a pattern of behavior imposed by the drill sergeant at the officers’ behest. Rather, discipline was the “edge” of doctrine, its “application” (as in the “application” or “use” section of a sermon) in a way that made unadorned doctrine operative knowledge. The Elizabethans had based much of their argument for reassigning church censures to the individual congregational consistory, with partial or full participation by the whole congregation, on the value of the exercise for those who joined in the censure: discipline, that is, was more a means of teaching the participants than of punishing sinners and deterring sin.447 No English enthusiast for “the Discipline” really thought that a reformed polity would eradicate sin, any more than a totally godly magistracy would have been capable of so gargantuan a task. The more important job of the law, civil and ecclesiastical, was to complete the work of religious education by collective and symbolic affirmation.
The English Presbyterians never attained their hopes, and the American Congregationalists rapidly backed away from what they did achieve in their churches. The office of ruling elder (the discipline specialist) quickly atrophied, church censures in New England were on the whole administered sparingly, even hesitantly, and, it has been suggested, as society became more complex the county courts in developed localities took over the functions of resolving conflicts where once the churches had enjoyed original jurisdiction.448 But in a Puritan culture, whose whole genius lay in making the adjective in that phrase inseparable from the noun, it would be a mistake of serious proportions to equate civil with secular. The county courts contained an institution at once very English and very Puritan: the grand jury.449 Twice a year in some New England counties, once a year in the others, grand juries were impaneled for the purpose, in effect, of applying doctrine by presenting and indicting those who had notoriously crossed it: sabbath breakers, blasphemers, disturbers of the public peace, prenuptial fornicators and other moral offenders, scoffers at the ministry. Whether the county courts ever really suppressed vice and irreligion is hardly relevant. The Puritan commitment was most effectively spread in the law courts by the voluntary cooperation of a substantial and significant section of the population in enforcing the rules of the game, thereby coming to understand them with an operative faith rather than a mere intellectual assent.
In a sense, the New England courts inherited this role from their English originals, but in the different social and cultural circumstances of America the experience of grand jury service was necessarily also of a somewhat different order. The men on a New England grand jury were not simply so many local notables called on to assist his majesty’s justices in the county of H. The English grand jurors may have had more autonomy of action in actual fact, but when it came to self-conception the New England bodies were called on to look upon themselves as doing far more than to “diligently enquire, and a true presentment make of all such matters and things as shall be given you in charge.” Instead, the New Englanders were (in the words of the Bay colony oath) to “swear by the Living God, that you will diligently inquire & faithfully present to this court, whatsoever you know to be a breach of any law established in this Jurisdiction according the minde of God.”450 The element of joining in a common cause, rather than taking on an assignment, is much more obvious in the American oath, just as the portion of society recruited into running the experiment (and thereby indoctrinated in its terms) was very much larger than in England.
The reason, once more, was English practice in a New England setting. The New England grand jury was English in size (sixteen or seventeen men, for example, served on the Suffolk County panels in the 1670’s, fourteen or fifteen on those of Essex County in the same period) and, up to a point, followed the English habit of making frequent use of repeaters. A man who served once was likely to serve several times, and in any given decade a good half or more of the jurors on a panel would have had previous experience at their work. Even so, the reach of the institution was much broader in America because of the smaller population of the individual counties: in an adult male population numbering only in the thousands, hundreds at any time would have had recent and sustained experience presenting offenders against the Puritan virtues. Whether the ratio was one man in five or one in fifteen, the segment of the population involved was substantial in itself and also significant beyond its considerable numbers. In social standing New England grand jurors mostly ranked among what might be termed the upper middle ordinary, the kind of person likely to end up as tithingman, town constable, selectman, and, in the country towns, perhaps as deputy now and again to the colony’s general court. It would be absurd to label these town some-bodys after their English counterparts as an “elite,” the “county governors,” or “minor gentry”; not all of them would have ranked as so much as “substantial yeomen.” The New England grand jurors were simply the individuals of modest local influence who might have been expected to have become bastions of particularist sentiment. Instead, they were incorporated almost whole into field grade positions in the Christian warfare.451
Cotton Mather in a popular tract of 1705 had asked rhetorically, “will not a Form of Godliness, often by the Grace of God prove a vehicle for the Power of Godliness?” By “form” he meant a combination of household religious duties carried on so regularly that they became “as it were Entailed upon Posterity.”452 The resulting power, as Mather undoubtedly knew, may have come by the grace of God, but it came through the ability of a pervasive routine to clothe the mundane in scripture. Seduced or coerced, the believer sooner or later would enter imaginatively into the truths of the Gospel because he met them at every turn and because he did not have an alternative way of making sense of his world that was anywhere near so coherent.
Here at last is the culture trap again, this time domesticized. No end in itself, household religion was simply another of the many threads in the loosely textured fabric of means by which the Puritan ministry had always hoped to blanket its converts. The household was supposed to be the “lowest place in the church,” in the words of the Elizabethan radical Josias Nichols—he did not term it a refuge and a hiding place, though it could end up as such under unpropitious circumstances.453 This comprehensive Puritan ideal was unrealized in England before 1640, unattainable there in the upheaval of the Interregnum, and unthinkable after 1660, when the levers of power in church and state clearly belonged, then and for the future, to somebody else. The achievement of the English ideal devolved exclusively on the second and third generations of New Englanders, lay and clerical, who found the obligation burdensome enough but hardly insupportable. Their common creation in America was never watertight and always underfinanced, and it was far more asymmetrical than any neat English plan would have allowed of, but it did credit of a sort to the modus vivendi eventually worked out between an aroused laity and a resurgent clergy.
For all the tensions that necessarily characterized Puritanism, at the last, in New England, popular and clerical turn out to be false antinomies. If the history of the Interregnum suggests an apparently irrepressible opposition between layman and minister, individual believer and prescriptive church, the experience of New England after 1660 establishes exactly the contrary judgment. This most lasting settlement in the history of a volatile movement was the one in which personal piety was nourished through a collective public commitment presided over by a standing clerical order. The laity did not in any meaningful sense lose ground in New England in the later seventeenth century, even though the clergy rather clearly gained some, and the spates of anticlericalism that erupted after 1660 meant little more than that the relationship between the component elements of the Puritan movement was as dynamic and as passionate as ever. To vary a favorite Puritan metaphor, the noise of the quarreling was no sure guide to the solidity of the marriage. It was quieter, more sullen griefs that would one day, well into the eighteenth century, lead to disillusion and then dissolution.
In the course of the transformation of popular Protestantism into a genuinely Puritan establishment the clergy gained power neither over bodies nor even over minds, but only and especially over words. What we sometimes see as the decline in the stature and immediate influence of the ministry after the passing of the first colonial generation was really the metamorphosis of the clergy into a clerisy: they gave the ceremonial addresses on public days, wrote the tracts the presses turned off, came to be identified as the source of all schooling above the most rudimentary. Whatever the emotional temperature of this emerging relationship between “a minister and his people,” the clergy’s involvement with the mental energies of the laity was as intense as ever after 1660 and, it could be argued, growing.454 Perhaps there was more corporatism and less individual charisma in the progressive stranglehold on the most basic categories of thought and imagination, but it would be a serious mistake to underrate its enduring influence. By a clever enlargement of their field of action the clergy of the later seventeenth century managed to enhance their influence without having to challenge the recently certified prerogatives of the godly. Then they covered up their achievement (in order to fool themselves and posterity as much as the laity) by finding in the sources of mastery the essence of corruption. The commerce that carried their message was the font of worldliness, the fasts that rammed the point home with all the power of mass ceremony were losing battles against the invisible (and therefore irrefutable) inner decay, the court sessions that turned town Dogberrys into grave elders were so many witnesses to the sins of the land. It would all be very amusing if only we did not believe it still.
Alas, the measure of just how well the clergy did their work is provided by their unwilling heirs, the scholarly community. Contemplating their New England, we cannot quite seem to rid ourselves of the labels they chose for describing it. Even when we drop their sermons and diaries from the story entirely to study births, deaths, town meetings, and lawsuits in the vain hope of exorcising their presence, the narrative always seems to have a suspiciously clerical moral at its end. The position of the argument of this essay in the historical literature is itself an ironic testimony to just how durable the ministerial vision was and is. Surely, in any other historiographic context the claim that material progress strengthened the ability of a society to transmit and reiterate its official messages would not be an exercise in revisionism. The idea is so obvious, so very whiggish, that it must seem remarkable that it did not come first in the literature, to be challenged in turn by later and more subtle interpretations. Yet, curiously, the telling of New England history always seems to begin at the second stage, and one cannot forbear the suspicion that all the ranking interpretations of this century in one way or another betray the stamp of Puritan New England’s very first authorized interpreters. To write of “declension,” or “individualism,” or “modernization,” when we mean simply growth and adaptation, to assume without hesitation that the process of commercial expansion must be secularization and that institutionalization is antithetical to the spirit of religious life, is really to provide a new gloss on a very old text. It is to say once again, as we have been all too well taught to say, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Stephen Foster is Professor of History at Northern Illinois University.
The author would like to thank David Grayson Allen, T. H. Breen, and David D. Hall for their comments on earlier versions of this essay and to acknowledge with gratitude the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Northern Illinois University in providing the academic leave under which much of the research presented here was undertaken. He would also like to extend his appreciation to the staff of the Newberry Library for providing him with essential assistance at a time when that institution was undergoing massive physical alterations and only the readers found the process painless.