American Seventeenth Century Map

The notion that religion in Anglo-America enjoyed a golden age in the seventeenth century comes from two perspectives, both of which focus overmuch on New England. The scholarly version comprehends Puritanism as a tightly argued intellectual construction that declined in the century following the founding of Massachusetts under the pressure of internal contradictions, social change, and secularization. The popular variant focuses on the intensity of Puritan spirituality, declares America to have been founded on Christian principles, and laments the present’s alleged falling away from the faith of our fathers. Both stances are flawed. The first essentializes Puritanism and fails to track how it adapted to America. The second perspective imputes the prevailing minority’s piety to the entire population and misses how ecclesiastically unique seventeenth-century New England was. More accurately, religious authority outside New England struggled to assert itself. Churchmen did not exercise their accustomed power, the majority of colonists attended services sporadically, if at all, and unorthodox beliefs infiltrated popular practice. At the same time, the outlines of a distinctive American religious culture began to take shape. This was based on more extensive lay governance than existed in Europe, a greater variety of churches from which to choose, religious affiliation increasingly dependent on individuals’ voluntary choices rather than on custom, decree, or family habit, and, in many places, the state’s inability (even unwillingness) to enforce religious uniformity. Although their theological commitments varied, English monarchs from Henry VIII (r. 1509 1547) to Charles I (r. 1625 1649) dreamed of erecting a national church to which all subjects belonged. None of them achieved that goal, however, and the Church of England’s failure to include all the king’s men (and women) dogged efforts to realize it in the colonies.

The church that emerged adopted a Protestantized worship that nevertheless retained Catholic practices (such as allowing priests to wear ornate clerical garb); it also inscribed Reformed theology into its creeds without encouraging Calvinism’s disciplinary apparatus or its scripturalism. This middle way angered both loyal Catholics (recusants), who detested any departure from the good old religion, and the hotter sort of Protestants. The latter were derided as Puritans, although they denominated themselves the godly; they maintained that the Church of England had neither sufficiently purged itself of Romish practices nor effectively instituted a Reformed ecclesiology. In the interest of achieving uniformity, the government suppressed the Catholics, sometimes lethally, and periodically harassed the Puritans. Unlike the Catholic Church in Spanish and French dominions, the Church of England did not deeply involve itself in seventeenth-century English colonizing efforts, which were undertaken by private parties mercantile companies or aristocratic proprietors not the Crown. Nor did it work actively on its own behalf. Internal conflicts over its constitution, theology, and liturgy, culminating during the 1640s and 1650s in the attempt to institute a presbyterian form of government, distracted it from organizing its American dominions. Meanwhile, Puritans, Catholics, and Quakers, fleeing religious turmoil, set up their own churches. In places like New England, these dissenters vastly outnumbered the established church’s own adherents. Virginia, the first permanent English colony, formally established the Church of England as early as 1619. Governor William Berkeley expelled Puritan dissenters in the 1640s, but no one in England took permanent responsibility for managing the church until the Bishop of London did so in 1677. By this point, the Old Dominion’s laity had arrogated substantial power to themselves. In the absence of a presiding bishop, the House of Burgesses watched over the clergy’s behavior and created lay vestries that took care of the congregation’s property, levied ecclesiastical taxes, and chose the clergyman they wanted the governor to install, a liberty unimaginable in England. As the Crown rationalized English imperial administration late in the century, the Bishop of London in 1693 installed a commissary, his personal representative, to try clergy for malfeasance, oversee their parishes, and convene them to discuss church business.

The lay vestries, however, retained their authority, and the church never seated an American bishop. Elsewhere, the Anglican Church lay thin on the ground. One minister complained in 1676 that Maryland’s three conformable clergy could not possibly take charge of an estimated 20,000 souls. Hence, the colony had become A Sodom of uncleanness. In New England, the state church played the unaccustomed role of minority dissenter to the most powerful ecclesiastical organization in colonial Anglo-America, Puritan Congregationalism. In his pamphlet The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), the influential Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather offered an account and defense of the Salem witch trials. Mather’s teachings epitomized the strict Puritan orthodoxy of seventeenth-century New England. (Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-75554) Puritanism is best understood not as a theological system but as a religious temperament centered around the experience of conversion (the New Birth in which the Holy Spirit regenerates the soul by grace). As such, it is fashioned within Reformed Protestant theology and dedicated to morally reforming society through the collaboration of ministers, magistrates, and laity. Puritanism took root in, as one historian has remarked, a mood of sour discontent with the Church of England’s incomplete reformation. For some six decades thereafter, the Puritans remained (with the exception of a few hundred Separatists) within the church, while setting themselves apart from their less godly neighbors in closely knit groups committed to prayer, study, and moral improvement. The ascendancy during the 1620s of an Arminian clerical clique, who subscribed to a nonorthodox theology of grace and a sumptuous liturgical style hugely at odds with the Puritans’ preferences for plainness, helped precipitate the Great Migration to New England. The Puritans emigrated to this New World to form what Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop christened the City upon a Hill, a society that, like ancient Israel, had collectively entered into a national covenant with God. Its members would perform all of God’s commandments and, for their obedience, he would bless their enterprise. In what might be called the First Puritan Reformation, the founding generation of settlers constructed what they considered a biblically sanctioned church order.

Far from implementing a theocracy (a state governed by religious authority), it delegated responsibilities for its maintenance to its three sociological constituents: The clergy would define doctrine, rulers would enforce religious uniformity, and families would patrol their neighborhoods to enforce moral standards. Under this system, encoded in the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the male laity, not an ecclesiastical hierarchy, held the power to create new churches. They did this by voluntarily gathering regenerate Saints (those who had experienced conversion), calling for the minister, and, with their pastor, judging who should be admitted or expelled. The survival of the City upon a Hill was predicated, Puritans believed, on the continued existence of a godly majority, committed to suppressing dissent and upholding moral norms. From a historical perspective, we can determine that it also depended on a population characterized by relatively little occupational differentiation or inequalities of wealth, a group bound together both by strong social networks and by high levels of ideological commitment. By the later seventeenth century, changing conditions were undermining these prerequisites. Families seeking land broke away from town centers, religious dissenters (Quakers, Baptists, and Anglicans) claimed the right to form churches, piety among the second and third generations flagged, economic change precipitated the appearance of a counterculture of festivity contemptuous of the Saints’ highhanded righteousness, and imperial authorities increasingly intruded into colonial affairs. In the face of these challenges, ministers launched the Second Puritan Reformation, an effort to recover the presumed godliness of the first generation in circumstances (such as the loss of the Massachusetts charter in 1684) that made the old moral alliance of ministers, magistrates, and laity increasingly difficult to sustain. The ministers’ program took various forms. They applied a rhetorical style, called the Jeremiad, urging magistrates to continue supporting the church and the laity to tighten family government. They proposed innovations to the sacramental system that allowed a greater number of people to undergo baptism or take the Lord’s Supper. A concerted effort was made to suppress, or at least rein in, the counterculture. They also experimented with various devices covenant renewal ceremonies, a more emotional homiletic style to revivify piety and excite large numbers of people to experience the New Birth concurrently. The Saints never recaptured their majority status, and the British government ultimately forced them to tolerate other churches, but the Congregationalists continued to dominate New England’s cultural and religious life throughout the eighteenth century.

While Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut strove (with varying degrees of success) to impose religious uniformity, three colonies took the step radical for the seventeenth century of promoting religious liberty. The Calvert family founded Maryland in 1632 as both a refuge for English Catholics and a proprietary domain from which they hoped to profit. Since Protestants comprised the vast bulk of English people, the Calverts encouraged them to settle, promising that they might worship as they pleased. In 1649, the Maryland assembly codified such an arrangement in an Act Concerning Religion, which assured that authorities would trouble no one professing any form of Trinitarian Christianity. Roger Williams developed a more liberal policy for Rhode Island, which he founded in 1636 after Massachusetts had banished him. Williams believed that papal corruption had broken the apostolic succession and so made constituting any pure church impossible until Christ’s return. Consequently, the state had no business either supporting any church (since none warranted its aid) or punishing dissent (since none could claim to hold the truth). Rhode Island soon attracted dissenters unwelcome in either Old or New England. Similarly disposed to Williams, Pennsylvania’s proprietor, William Penn, based his apology for religious liberty on Whig theories of personal liberty and Quaker doctrines of the inner Light, that is, the divine spark that all human beings possess and that no government has the right to coerce. Forced worship both stinks in God’s nostrils, Penn declared, and works contrary to its political intentions by alienating subjects from rather than bonding them to their prince. These attitudes grounded Pennsylvania’s policy of permitting all theists to worship as they wished, although laws forbade Catholics from holding office. Few colonists heeded the experiments in Rhode Island or Maryland. Rhode Island’s reputation as a sectarian sinkhole and, during the Revolution, a political pariah isolated it; while in Maryland, Protestants stripped Catholics of their political rights in the eighteenth century. Pennsylvania’s growing wealth, however it quickly earned the sobriquet the best poor man’s country provided a widely noted counterexample to the ancient notion that only religious uniformity could underwrite prosperity.

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