Transactions of The Colonial Society of Massachusetts

    May 7, 1933

    AT the dedication of the Ware Memorial in the First Church in Boston, in commemoration of the transfer of the colony charter from England to Massachusetts,1 the Reverend Charles Edwards Park delivered the following


    IN the year 1916 Mr. Horace Everett Ware made a gift of money to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, to which he later, by will, made a very substantial addition. His instructions were that “the sum, together with any interest thereon, and additions, if any, from other sources, be applied at some future time, perhaps in the year 1930, to or towards constructing and placing a memorial to the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, or to such of its officers and freemen as took part in the transfer of its Charter Government to its territory here in New England.” It is evident from these words that Mr. Ware was impressed by two facts in our early history—first, that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not founded by a company who remained in England and delegated the task of settlement to emissaries who were to do the actual physical work of colonization: it was founded by the personal labors of the foremost members of the company, who came themselves to this New England wilderness, who in some cases brought their wives and children with them, and who devoted to the enterprise their personal presence and service, their personal self-sacrifice. And second, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not governed at arm’s length by a company resident in England: it was governed by the actual settlers or planters, who brought with them their royal charter, and who, by a skilful interpretation of its provisions, found in that charter their vindication for setting up, as they at once proceeded to do, this machinery of self-government.

    They came themselves. They brought their charter with them, and, in their charter, their right of self-government. These were the two facts that impressed Mr. Ware as being notable, not to say unique, and as being worthy of especial commemoration. It had always seemed to him regrettable that there was nowhere in the Commonwealth a memorial that called attention to these two salient and significant points. And it was to repair this lack that he made his gift and bequest, and left his instructions. The Colonial Society of Massachusetts has endeavored to meet Mr. Ware’s wishes, not only to the letter but in spirit. The memorial which we unveil this day is placed in the meeting-house of one of the original churches gathered by those settlers. Eight of the twelve names recorded upon the memorial may be found in the list of those admitted to the membership of this church. The inscription carved upon the memorial states that it exists to do peculiar honor to those members of the company who agreed “to passe the seas . . . to inhabite and continue in New England,” and who brought with them this charter, thus giving the colony the responsibility of a self-governing dominion. The fact that they came in person, and the fact that they brought the charter with them, are the two facts which the memorial strives especially to emphasize.

    At once the question arises, Why? Why should those two facts be considered especially notable, worthy of peculiar commemoration? Why should they not be accepted as more or less adventitious, due to the exigencies of the case or to the accidental play of circumstance? Why should we treat those two facts as though they were mysteriously significant or due to some deliberate design?

    In attempting an answer to such questions we shall find ourselves brought face to face with some of the deeper currents of causation that were at work during those years, and shall have to make acquaintance with some of the deeper cravings and ambitions that prompted men’s actions. It was no accident that Massachusetts Bay was unique among the colonies of North America. Her uniqueness lay in her possession of the right of self-government, or at least in her claim to that privilege, a claim which she managed practically to maintain even in default of technically solid grounds. Where other colonies were under the control of their companies of financial backers in England, and were in effect little more than pioneer bands of indentured servants obeying the orders that came to them from across the sea, powerless to make their own laws or manage their own affairs in their own way, Massachusetts Bay was colonized by a kind of men who proposed to be nobody’s indentured servants, and who might be depended on to obey no laws except those of their own making.

    That is the first truth to get well fixed in our minds: the quality of the men who crossed the seas in person to inhabit and continue in New England. They were men of substance and position, men of high spirit and solid character. Most of them were university men. Some of them were possessed of ample fortunes. As a very competent historian has expressed it, they were picked men. It was a foregone conclusion that such men would never consent to be governed by a company resident in England. Not only had they too much independence of spirit to occupy so false a position, they also had the wisdom to see that no colony could long survive if it were to be regulated by the possibly well-meant, but inevitably clumsy and blundering, legislation of officials who stayed in England, having no adequate conception of the conditions which the colonists must actually face, and of the difficulties, physical, social, and economic, which they must somehow surmount. They were wise enough to see that only a government on the ground, that is to say only a self-government, could ever recognize the novel conditions of life in the New World, and could ever surmount those difficulties. And it is in no way surprising that we find them, in their Cambridge agreement, promising to make the journey to New England on the explicit condition that the charter and government should be transferred thither with them.

    But at once we are faced by another question—Why did they come at all? That they should exercise the right of self-government was only the condition under which they agreed to come; but what was the motive? It must have been a very powerful motive, for such a step on their part meant a radical, an exceedingly problematical, and a very expensive hazard of new fortunes. It meant not only the discomforts but the considerable dangers of a transatlantic voyage in vessels not much larger than Gloucester fishing schooners, and not nearly so seaworthy. It meant coping with the unknown perils of the American wilderness, with its savages, its loneliness, its privations, and the rigors of its climate, which, by the way, proved far more rigorous than they had expected. It meant almost certain loss of worldly estate. It meant, perhaps most of all, the grief of pulling up their roots from a soil which has always been proverbially dear to its inhabitants and was just as dear to them as it ever has been to any Englishmen, and transplanting those roots to an alien soil.

    There is nothing here which they themselves did not foresee. In the event, some of their anticipations of hardship were found to have fallen short of the mark. And perhaps in a few particulars they found that their anticipations had been too ominous, and that things were not really so bad as they had feared. But taking the matter by and large, they entered upon their undertaking with their eyes open, with a minimum of false hopes, and with a rather surprising appreciation of what they would have to suffer and endure. All this indicates that they had carefully noted the experiences of other colonists and had armed themselves with the best and fullest knowledge available of conditions of life in the New World.

    It will hardly do then to say that they came over here in the ardor of foolish expectation, or in ignorance of what the step would cost them. They understood how heavy the cost would be, a cost which it is not easy for us to overestimate, and one which we can appreciate only by putting ourselves in their place. There must have been a very powerful motive to induce them to face those heavy costs. History is by no means innocent of episodes to which it is customary to attribute certain superficial causes, but the real causes of which are to be found only by reading between the lines. Here is one of those episodes. The real motive which prompted their action is one concerning which they were strangely reticent. It has to be detected by a sort of historical sympathy or historical intuition. These men were English Puritans, at a time when Puritanism was comparatively young and vigorous and just at the dawn of its day of political power. Even upon its native German soil the Protestant Reformation had awakened no more ardent hopes and had aroused no deeper or purer determination than in England. In this new Protestantism, based frankly upon the Holy Bible as God’s sufficient and infallible revelation to man of the Divine Will and the Divine Method, they saw their chance to rectify certain evils of long standing—religious, moral, social, and political evils. England was overcrowded with her population. The humbler classes were finding it harder and harder to secure their livelihood. They were resorting in desperation to violence and crime; and an evil spirit of lawlessness and moral laxity was abroad, the inevitable result of the social and economic injustice of the day. King and parliament were at fatal cross-purposes, and the political life of the country was at a standstill until their quarrel should be settled. Meanwhile the Established Church of England was a mass of mummeries, falsehoods, and hypocrisies that were an offence to both God and man. And it imposed no great strain upon the rationality of the Puritan mind to conclude that God had sent these manifold evils upon the country as a punishment for the corruption of the nation’s religion. If ever conditions indicated the need of a thorough housecleaning, a thoroughgoing purification of the forms of worship, of religious thought and practice, of private faith and motive and prayer, now was the time.

    It was a very dear and convincing picture that the English Puritan saw when he cast his eye about him. Only a few years before, one or two companies of Puritans had seen the same picture, and in their desperation had undertaken a “reformation without tarrying for any.” This had necessitated their separating themselves from the Establishment, and their self-expatriation, first to Holland and then to Cape Cod. But the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay could not bring themselves to take the extreme measure of separation. We may honor them none the less that they felt themselves to be exceedingly responsible members of society. As such they were utterly loyal to the institutions and destinies of their beloved mother country. They felt that separated reformation would in large measure defeat its own ends because it would deprive the country as a whole and the Established Church as a whole of its benefits. Their ideal was a church still established but reformed, purified from within. And their hope was to start into operation in the blood-stream of the Established Church a cogent little fermentation of reform that should spread its life-giving properties throughout the entire body, and make it over as a whole into something approximating what it ought to be. They insisted upon reformation—yes—but it must be a reformation from within and spreading through the whole body. They were not schismatics.

    This was all very well to think and say, but there were practical difficulties in their path. They might strive in every way to inaugurate their process of reformation from within, but somehow the process moved on with heartbreaking deliberation. It seemed to arouse as much opposition as sympathy, until at last this opposition took definite form in one sinister personality, to whose misguided zeal the colony of Massachusetts Bay owes her existence as much perhaps as to any single cause. In 1628, Bishop Laud became Bishop of London. His rigidity of belief and determination, coming into conflict with their rigidity of belief and determination, speedily brought matters to a head. Had it not been for Bishop Laud, they might never have crossed the seas to New England. For that matter, could they have foreseen the events of 1641, when the Puritans as a political party came into power, one may venture the assertion that not a single one of them would have come over to New England in 1630. But here were the facts. Laud did become Bishop of London. Their difficulties did increase. Their persecutions did take on a fresh intensity. Their attempts at reformation from within did appear to be frustrated on every side. Matters did seem to go from bad to worse. And the future did look very dark. What were they to do?

    Here was a New World off in the west; a goodly portion of it was claimed as an English possession by their own sovereign. To be sure, it was three thousand miles away, but in that New World they would still be Englishmen; a company of their own fellow-countrymen had already gone there and were successfully established. It was a land quite unspoiled—no factions had as yet preempted it; no traditions or institutions, corrupt or otherwise, had as yet taken root there. It was a clean white page, and, on the whole, the three thousand miles of stormy Atlantic that separated it from Old England might very well prove to be a blessing in disguise. Here was their opportunity. Not many months were required for the development of their plan. That plan was to establish in the New World a branch of the Church of England which should be a purified branch, a true church, unsullied by any of the corruptions and false practices they lamented so deeply in Old England, fashioned as closely as might be after the pattern set forth in the Bible. About this church they would assemble a social and political structure designed to support and maintain the church in its purity, and one that would be instantly sensitive to the regulating influences, to the promptings and motives, to the moral precepts and restraints that might emanate from the church.

    In other words, their plan called for a result that was just the opposite of that which they saw about them in Old England. For whereas in Old England they saw a church rendered impotent by its corruptions, existing in a secular society over which it could exert no control, and growing constantly more corrupt through contamination with the evils in that society; in New England they would see to it that a church, made powerful by its purity, would exist in a secular society over which it would exert unceasing moral and spiritual supervision, and would grow constantly more powerful just because it was the heart and soul of a social structure devoted to its purity. The church in Old England was caught in a vicious circle. Remnants of the old error still clung to it and rendered it powerless to influence society. Yielding impotently to the evils in a society it could not regenerate, it grew steadily more corrupt and steadily weaker. They would launch their church in New England upon a benign circle. Purified and therefore powerful, it would be surrounded by a society over which it exercised its own cleansing control; and constantly recruited in numbers and in spirit from that surrounding secular life whose one supreme objective was the maintenance of that true church, it would ever increase in size and blessedness until it would count within its numbers the entire community.

    Travellers tell us that in many an ancient European town the most conspicuous feature on the landscape is the old gray castle or citadel upon the summit of its hill. The very geography of the town betrays its feudal origin. The castle on its commanding site was the central feet, the citadel of ultimate safety, the heart and soul of the life of the town. Around that citadel clustered the town, protecting the citadel and being protected by it, deriving all support and all incentive from that citadel. To visualize the Puritan ideal in New England is to see a life in which the church was the conspicuous commanding feature, the central and constitutive fact. Around this church there is clustered a secular life, a social and political fabric which exists to support and protect the church, and to be protected and regenerated by it. Those two features of Puritan life were to be bound together in the closest kind of reciprocal relationship until they should ultimately merge into one, and every soul in the community should be enrolled in the membership of the church. And it is those two features in their plan which justify us in saying that it was their purpose to establish here in Massachusetts a Bible Commonwealth, or, as we more frequently call it, a theocracy.

    Here then was their plan and their opportunity: to remove to the unspoiled wilderness of Massachusetts and there set up a purified branch of the Church of England which would function as the Church in England ought to function but could not—that is to say, as a Bible Commonwealth. It was their hope that this Bible Commonwealth in Massachusetts would prove a nucleus to which congenial spirits would be attracted. They did not give up hope of a reformation in England, but it was manifestly the part of wisdom to make the most of this opportunity for reformation in New England. Here was the one great motive that in the last analysis must be assigned to them, and which was common to them all, so much so in fact that it was taken for granted. There was no need to mention it: their overshadowing, underlying, major motive. Minor motives there might be, and doubtless were. But it was not the minor motives that brought them to America. None but the major motive could do that, a sense of duty to the Most High—a desire to found His true church somewhere upon earth where its purity could be maintained and its regenerating power could operate upon the lives of men.

    Only by fixing that fact firmly in mind can we ever hope to understand them and to judge them aright. To read their story is to come across a long list of puzzling questions. Hardly a single one of these questions can be answered correctly unless we understand at the very outset what their motive was, and what it was they were trying to do. Why did they come over here in person? Because they knew that their ideal of a Bible Commonwealth simply could not be entrusted to other hands. It was a task which in the very nature of the case could not be delegated. It must be performed by themselves, or not at all. Why did they insist on bringing charter and government with them? And why did they claim from that charter a far greater right of self-government than it actually gave them? Because they realized that only by keeping the power in their own hands could they ever hope to establish a purified church and maintain its purity. Why were they so frankly disdainful of democratic government, and why did they insist that none but church-members should have the right to vote? Because they knew perfectly well that to put the affairs of their Bible Commonwealth into the hands of those who were not church-members would very speedily wreck the whole enterprise. Here was a holy purpose to which they had committed themselves. How could they be so foolish as to put that purpose into the hands of those who had not as yet proved their fitness for the purpose? It was a purpose to be entrusted only to fit persons. How often we come across that phrase in their literature! And the only way they could judge of a person’s fitness was by submitting him to the rigid test and exactions of church-membership. In this connection it is only fair to say that they did not hate democracy in theory. They only feared it in actual practice under the conditions then existent. In so far as their ideal of a Bible Commonwealth looked to a time when all members of the community should be gathered into the membership of the church, and as such should be rated as fit persons to have the right of voting, their ideal contemplated a thoroughgoing democracy of the future. And most of all, why were they so heartless, so austere in their treatment of all Papists and Ranters and Familists and Anabaptists and Quakers—Roger Williams, Mary Dyer, Anne Hutchinson? It is hardly necessary to answer that question. Here they were on their own land, land which had been granted them by their king, engaged in a holy enterprise to which they had consecrated themselves, body, soul, and estates. And here were persons not of their way of thinking, not in sympathy with their purpose, not willing to coöperate; but inclined rather both by their presence and by their speech and action to increase the number of obstacles and difficulties with which they were beset, and to make their ideal even more difficult of fulfilment than it need have been. What choice had they but to say: “See here, you have a right to be an Anabaptist or a Quaker or an Antinomian if you wish. But you have no right to be one here. This is our land, and we are engaged upon a very holy enterprise, and you have no right to interfere, and you must go away.”

    The worst crime the historian can commit is to judge one generation by the standards of another, and to appraise the actions of a group of people without understanding what those people were, what they believed, and what they were trying to do. That crime has been committed more often at the expense of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay than of any other group of people. Here was a very distinct, a very homogeneous company. They had a very definite objective. They were working upon a very clear-cut method of procedure. Let the would-be historian beware. Either understand them, their spirit, their purpose, their Calvinism, their hope, their ideal; or leave them severely alone.

    There is no need to rehearse the tangled story of their technical difficulties. There is no occasion here to trace the actual working out of their ideal of a Bible Commonwealth, how long it lasted, what practical difficulties it encountered, why and when it failed. Our present concern is to understand if possible why a memorial should be erected in their honor. If we can understand that, we shall agree that few men in all history are more worthy of such commemoration. They were actuated by the purest and holiest motive the human heart can know—to aid and advance the Divine Purpose. If that purpose came to them in highly specialized terms, in a form which subsequent developments have proved to be a mistaken form, and one which could not be realized, the fault was not theirs. The fact remains that they gave themselves to that task. And if only we could make our self-consecration as generously as they, and could fail as nobly as they, this world of ours would be a better place.