Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Monday, May 14, 2012

Kick a Puritan, Hard

Were you one of those precocious tots who awed their parents and grammar-school classmates by learning to spell, “antidisestablishment- arianism?”  But what does it mean, ha ha?  It means being opposed to cutting off tax monies to a state church -- un-state-churching it, in other words, or in the proper terminology, “disestablishing” it.  An “established” church is one that has a favored status with the state and receives financial support from it.

One of the first things that the government of Boston, Massachusetts did after its founding in 1630 was to establish a church, and they did that by providing that the minister’s salary would come out of tax monies.  “Theocracy asserted itself at once,” sniffed a 20th-century editor of the town’s chronicles.

Anyone smart enough to be in his job should know better.  This was not the establishment of a “theocracy.”  Most of our 13 colonies had state churches.   They did not invent the practice, either.  The Anglican Church back home was (and still is) an established church.  The four colonies that did not have state churches (Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Rhode Island) were bucking a centuries-old tide.  As it turned out, that tide turned out to be the tide of the future, so those four came out looking pretty good.

So why didn’t the above history expert realize this?  Maybe he just goofed up . . . or maybe it was that the Puritans present such a tempting target for all things unAmerican.  When the subject is the Puritans, then providing for the minister can only mean theocracy, the rule by a narrow ministerial class over and against the wishes of the people.

The Puritans get that a lot, and I think the reason for it (in America, anyhow) is the Salem witch trials.  That was such a horrendous event that the rest of New England history is read, backwards and forwards, in its light.

Yet most of New England legal and social practices were pretty much in line with their century, Salem witch trials excepted.  It was a violent era, and an unfree one, wherever you were.  Freedom of worship was unknown in all the colonies except rogue Rhode Island; even Pennsylvania required a belief in God amongst its colonists.  And the story is never as black-and-white as we’d like to make it; for instance, even as they established tax-based churches, Massachusetts also banned ministers from holding public office, because they themselves had had a very bad experience at the hands of politically empowered church officials back home.

New England law is another example.  How likely would it be for you to get a fair trial in New England, would you say?  I bet most Americans assume that New England law was pretty much just a parade of of ear croppings, public whippings, and burnings at the stake for any and every cause.  Not so.  This is a huge and interesting topic which, unfortunately, I don’t have space for here.  But consider the conclusion of legal historian William Nelson.  Dr. Nelson compared Massachusetts law with that of neighboring Virginia and found that while in Virginia the law definitively empowered the economic elite,  “[Massachusetts legal practices] prevented those wielding political, economic, or social power from pressing their advantage and exploiting those under their control to whatever limits the market would permit.”

Maybe the Puritans get such a bad shake because we need bad guys to make sense of our national story.  Salem tarred them as the Ultimate Bad Guys.  So heck, let’s blame them for everything about ourselves as a nation that we can’t bear.  And  it won’t even matter if they’re not to blame, because they aren’t even really around anymore!  We can hate them and nobody gets hurt!

So are you grieved by our racist past?  The Puritans held African slaves.  Appalled by the abuses suffered by the Native Americans?  The Puritans  exiled the one person who said they should pay the Indians for that land.  Embarrassed by Prohibition?  The Puritans railed against drunkenness.  Angered at how human sexuality has been regarded as something dirty and shameful?  The Puritans whipped fornicators and declared adultery a capital crime, punishable by death.  Upset by environmental degradation?  The Puritans brought dandelions and garlic mustard to America and happily trashed their surroundings.  Uneasy about the direction that religious fundamentalism might take in our own generation?  Baby, look at them fundies frothing and fulminating in Massachusetts Bay!  How handy it is that we have a ready-made Source of All Evil in the American Past.

Everything in that above paragraph is true, and yet there is more to the story (as always) in each instance.  It is also a story worth exploring.

 Winthrop’s Journals:  History of New England, 1630 - 1649, edited by Franklin Jameson (1908), pg. 52. Via google books.

Nelson, William E., The Common Law in Colonial America, Vol 1.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2008, pg. 65.

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