The Puritans and Their Promised Land
We shall be as a city upon a hill.
Hayle holy-land wherin our holy lord Hath planted his most true and holy word Hayle happye people who have dispossest ourselves of friend, an meanes, to find some rest For your poore wearied soules, opprest of late For Jesus-sake, with Envye, spight, and hate To yow that blessed promise truly’s given Of sure reward, which you’l receve in heaven.
Thomas Tillam, “Upon the first sight”
What went you out to the wilderness to find?
Samuel Danforth, “A Brief Recognition”
Whereas the history of the Pilgrims was primarily represented by William Bradford, there were many chroniclers, orators, and commentators among the Puritans. In fact, the New England Puritans “were highly self-conscious about their achievements and began interpreting themselves for posterity as soon as they arrived in the New World” (Morgan, Founding 3). In promotional tracts, sermons, histories, and autobiographical conversion narratives, the Puritans fashioned themselves as the founders of a model colony that realized God’s will. Whereas the Pilgrims had arrived in North America ten years earlier than the Puritans, “with the formation of the Massachusetts Bay company and with the arrival on the scene of Governor John Winthrop in 1630, Massachusetts became the spearhead of Puritan emigration to the New World” (ibid. vii) - although not all of the Massachusetts settlers were Puritans in the strict sense of the term, and by far not all of them were members of the rather exclusive Puritan congregation. Aside from the aforementioned John Winthrop, John Cotton, Thomas Shepard, Thomas Hooker, Samuel Danforth, Increase Mather, and Cotton Mather would also become influential Puritan theologians. New England Puritanism was not homogeneous though and cannot be interpreted monolithically; in fact, the experience of ‘America’ crucially transformed the Puritan religious dogma and increasingly led to conflicts among the Puritans about what their Promised Land should look like.
Illustration 2: Portrait of John Winthrop
Unknown Artist, John Winthrop (ca. 1800).
Though they were less radical dissenters than the Pilgrims, the Puritans too accepted neither the Pope nor the English King as religious authorities beside or above the Scriptures. Like the Pilgrims, the Puritans were strongly influenced by Calvinism’s doctrine of predestination, which contends that salvation can occur only through the grace of God and that the individual is responsible to God only. As a powerful reformist grassroots movement, Puritanism had been forced underground by the end of the 16th century, as it was considered an affront to England’s clergy and king; King James I (after whom Jamestown, Virginia, and the English translation of the Bible commonly referred to as the King James Bible have been named) supposedly threatened: “I will harry them out of the land” (qtd. in Schmidt, William Bradford 12), and his successor Charles I (crowned in 1625) was even less tolerant toward the Puritans. Unlike the Pilgrims, however, the Puritans did not consider themselves separatists but reformists; they believed that their New Jerusalem in North America was going to set an example that would be emulated on the other side of the Atlantic, allowing them eventually to return to a fundamentally changed and reformed England. Yet, even if the Puritans may have considered their sojourn in North America to be only temporary (as has been argued most famously by Perry Miller), ultimate?ly only 10 percent of the first settlers of the Great Migration ever went back to England.
John Winthrop, who led the first group of Puritans to North America in 1630 (700 passengers on 11 ships), was a key figure in the founding of Massachusetts with a pronounced sense of self-importance, of which he has left ample evidence himself: “From the time he set foot on the Arbella until his death in 1649, he kept a journal, the historical purpose of which is suggested by the fact that after the first few days he refrained from using the first person singular and wrote of himself as ‘the governor’” (Morgan, Founding 174). Most famously, John Winthrop declared that the Puritans in the ‘new world’ would be “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630). His famous lay sermon (Winthrop was never ordained officially as a minister) laid out the terms of religious and social coexistence in the colony, a blueprint for the founding of a new community:
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us. (216)
Winthrop’s use of the biblical topos of the heavenly city evokes the exceptionality of the Puritans as a model for others, if not mankind. He references Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells his followers “you are the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth.” Whereas Bradford likened himself to Moses leading his people out of bondage to the Promised Land, Winthrop refers to both Jesus and Moses in the closing passage of his sermon. While exhorting the Puritans with words from the Sermon on the Mount, he admonishes them with references to Moses’s farewell to the people of Israel “to love the Lord our God and love one another” (Winthrop Papers 295), so
that the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whether wee goe to possesse it: But if our heartes shall turne away soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other Gods [...] we shall surely perishe out of the good Land whether wee passe over this vast Sea to possesse it. (ibid.)
Included in Winthrop’s vision of the holy community is also a kind of social contract. He likens the Puritans’ future civil society to an organism by describing it as “knit together in this worke as one man,” and states that its aim is to “par?take of each other’s strength and infirmity, joy and sorrow, weal and woe.” “The care of the public,” Winthrop preached, “must oversway all private respects” (ibid.). Winthrop’s vision of communal life in the Promised Land of North America is characterized by hope, harmony, and religious freedom as well as by discipline and social control. Similar to Bradford’s text, Winthrop’s sermon was published rather late:
For two centuries, the sermon circulated in various manuscript versions; upon its first publication, by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1848, it became known as the classic statement of the Puritans’ understanding of their place in history, their mission, and their ideals. (Delbanco, “John Winthrop” 3)
The Exodus and Promised Land rhetoric runs through much of Puritan writing as a kind of “Colonial Puritan hermeneutics” (Bercovitch, Puritan Origins 186) throughout the 17th century and well into the 18th century, from Winthrop’s sermon to the rather unorthodox and somewhat ironic “New England Canaan” by Thomas Morton of Merrimount. However, on closer inspection, we can detect shifts in the authors’ attitude toward the realization of the Promised Land in the colony. At first, many texts equate the Promised Land with America, i.e. New England. John Winthrop initially describes his new home with the following words: “here is sweet air, fair rivers, and plenty of springs, and the water better than in England” (History 375). As Puritan scholar Alan Heimert has noted: “America was to be ‘the good Land,’ [...] a veritable Canaan. The Atlantic, if not the Red, was their ‘vast Sea,’ and the successful conclusion of their voyage, the end of their tribulations, their emergence from the ‘wilderness’” (“Puritanism” 361-62).
This initially positive impression also resonates in Thomas Tillam’s eulogy on New England titled “Upon the First Sight,” which in the beginning connects the Scriptures to the experiences of the Puritans in New England but soon gives way to less enthusiastic sentiments and at times very different observations. Immediately after their arrival in North America, the Puritans began to experience difficulties which played themselves out internally in communal strife and externally in conflicts with the indigenous population. In fact, “the first decades of settlement were characterised by an ongoing dialogue over the shape that the colony’s institutions should take” (Bremer, Puritan Experiment 128). As early as the 1630s, theological disputes about the exercise of power over the members of the congregation as well as heavy skirmishes with the Native tribes ensued. Only six years after their arrival in Massachusetts, those conflicts come to a head. In 1636, Thomas Hooker leaves the colony and founds Hartford (in today’s
Connecticut); he is followed by Roger Williams, a dissident banned from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for suggesting a more liberal handling of church membership and for approaching the indigenous population with curiosity rather than disdain. Williams authors the first dictionary of Native languages (titled A Key to the Languages of America; cf. Complete Writings) and founds Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636, where he is joined by Anne Hutchinson, an antinomian who rejected all political and theological authorities in favor of her own version of ‘true’ Puritanism, which is condemned as heresy by Winthrop, who suppresses Hutchinson and her followers “because she set her private revelation above the public errand” (Bercovitch, Puritan Origins 174). In 1638, John Davenport settles the colony of New Haven (later to become part of Connecticut), further diversifying the socio-religious scene of New England.
John Winthrop, who plays a crucial role in policing the Puritans and comes down hard on what he perceives as unauthorized dissent, is commemorated by Puritan historian William Hubbard with the words that he was “a worthy gentleman, who had done good in Israel” (qtd. in Morgan, Founding 134). Trying to ban ‘difference’ outside and inside the community, Winthrop sought to preserve the ‘Holy Commonwealth’ that had come at such a high cost. As Stephen Foster suggests, the New England clergy were “required to reconcile their movement’s conflicting demands” (Long Argument 152) at a time when “boatload after boatload brought ashore the refugees” from England’s Church, and that they managed to do so is considered by Foster to have been a “masterpiece of ecclesiastical statesmanship” (ibid. 151). As we take a closer look at the early history of the colony, it becomes more and more apparent that the rhetoric of the Promised Land and divine providence on the one hand aims to uphold an ideological construction of the ‘new world’ which quite obviously was at odds with the actual experiences of the “saints” (as the Puritans called each other), and on the other serves as a legitimization of colonial rule, an instrument of control, and a means to homogenize the colony by defining norms of conduct and marginalizing or excluding those who do not adhere to those norms.
As the population of the colony grew rapidly with the Great Migration, the local tribes, among them the Pequots, fought against the increasing incursions the English settlers made into their land. The Pequot War culminated in the Mystic Massacre in 1637, in which hundreds of women and children were killed. Ultimately the entire tribe was exterminated; survivors were dispersed or sold into slavery. Although victorious, the Puritans themselves experienced this conflict as a major crisis that threatened the existence and future of the colony. The Pequot War shows that the interaction of the Puritans with the indigenous population was far less peaceful than that of the Pilgrims in the first decades, and the rathlessness with which it was fought reveals the brutality of English colonialism even (or especially) when it is cloaked as religious destiny, as in the case of the Puritans’ quest for the Promised Land. Although the war could well have been taken as an indication of God’s anger, the victory of the English over the Pequots was readily interpreted as a merciful act of God instead, yet again demonstrating the arbitrariness of ideology.
In sum, the Puritan experience as American experience is characterized by a number of transitions that engendered some paradoxes. The first transition, of course, is their physical movement from England to North America, which entailed events that could not be integrated into the biblical script which they attempted to follow. These discrepancies were initially suppressed, of course, but surfaced time and again over the years. The second transition concerns the Puritans’ transformation from an oppressed minority of non-conformist believers into an oppressive ruling elite; yet their efforts to uphold religious orthodoxy in the colony from the beginning were met with heavy resistance. Third and most importantly perhaps, even the firmest of believers became increasingly doubtful whether North America in fact was the Promised Land they had been looking for. How were they to interpret the obstacles and difficulties with which they had to wrestle daily? And why did this Promised Land look like a wilderness? The Puritans’ anxieties grew in tandem with internal and external conflicts and led to increased pressure of the Puritan elite on any form of dissent; to them, the violence against the Native tribes seemed both necessary and providential, and thus fully legitimate. Yet, the “Puritan struggle of self-knowledge, relentless introspection, [and] tortured uncertainty” mirrored the tenuousness of their faith and time and again threw into doubt the endeavor of Puritanism, and “[t]he burden of such doubt has never quite lifted from what we once would have called the American soul” (Delbanco and Heimert, “Introduction” xv).
In many texts of the 1630s and 1640s, America figures as an ambiguous force to be reckoned with rather than as a safe haven: “They were [...] uncertain whether New England was to be their Israel or their Wilderness of Sinai - that is, a permanent dwelling place for the elect of God, or a temporary refuge in which their religious affections and institutions would be tried, purged, and perfected” (Slotkin, “Introduction” 11). Patricia Caldwell has identified this ambiguity in many of the early conversion narratives:
For most, it was an America neither of joyous fulfillment nor, on the other hand, of fearsome, howling hideousness, but a strange, foggy limbo of broken promises. [...] [T]he
America encountered by these yearning souls was no visible saint but an invisible, ever- receding, unloving god. (Puritan Conversion Narrative 134)
Caldwell’s analysis of the ambiguities of North American Puritan conversion narratives evidences that the “specific shift to America,” the “motion to New England,” reverberates with emotional turmoil and trauma: “[T]he new world is not just a disappointment; it is a positive setback, and one from which many people scarcely recover” (ibid.). Alan Heimert has argued that the colonizing experience so crucially altered Puritan attitudes toward the meaning of their physical surroundings that it was imaginatively transformed from a Promised Land (back) into a wilderness (cf. “Puritanism” 361).
The experience of America shocked the Puritans out of their belief in the Promised Land, so to speak, and left them bewildered in the ‘wilderness’ of America: “The conditions of life in the colonies did not make for the sort of education that the Puritans had originally conceived. [...] American conditions posed threats to the Puritan system that they could not have anticipated” (Slotkin, “Introduction” 14). And it is from this discrepancy between doctrinaire belief on the one hand and the physical experience of North America on the other that a specifically American Puritan culture with its own particular conversion rituals, religious practices, and rhetoric developed, which put the sacred journey as well as the experience of America at the center of both their narrative of the past (genealogy) and their narrative of the future (mission).
After the hardships of the early years (1620-1640), the colony seemed no longer threatened by extinction after the mid-1650s; quite to the contrary: the “Puritan adult of 1670 emerge[d] to a condition of relative ease and prosperity” (ibid. 9). With this prosperity came a decline in church membership, as American-born Puritans no longer wanted to submit to the strict regime of congregational life, and focused more on worldly rather than on religious concerns. In order to keep church membership numbers up, the Puritan elite finally allowed for a half-way covenant (i.e., partial church membership with limited rights) by softening the original membership requirements. This liberalization was the subject of controversial discussions among the Puritan clergy and was also accompanied, once again, by conflicts with other groups living in and on the edges of the colony.
Having reviewed the initial enthusiasm and certainty of the first and second generation of Puritan settlers that was soon followed by anxiety, disappointment, and disorientation, we witness in the rhetoric of the Puritan clergy of the later decades of the 17th century repeated attempts to re-invigorate the early Puritan faith and dogma against the backdrop of a changing American Puritan culture. In this light, we may read sermons such as Samuel Danforth’s famous “Errand into the Wilderness,” which later gave the title to two seminal works of Puritan scholarship (cf. Miller’s book of the same title and Bercovitch, “Rhetoric”). Addressing the assembled delegates on the election day of the Massachusetts General Court, the sermon poses the question of Puritan uniqueness and exceptionality. Danforth quotes Jesus - “What went ye out into the wilderness to see?” (Matthew 11:7) - in order to confront his congregation with the question of why they had come to America. Danforth criticizes those who have of late been more concerned with worldly rather than religious matters. As a direct consequence of the colonists’ sins, Danforth identifies God’s punitive measures against them. Yet, he also renews the “promise of divine Protection and Preservation,” and offers his listeners the opportunity to “choose this for our Portion, To sit at Christ’s feet and hear his word; and whosoever complain against us, the Lord Jesus will plead for us [...] and say. They have chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from them” (“Errand”). By quoting from the Bible, Danforth takes his audience back to their ‘new world’ beginning, and prophesies in the rhetorical mode of the American jeremiad that by turning away from materialism and worldly pleasures, the Puritans could still transform their environment into the Promised Land. He thus both consolidates and transforms the myth of the Promised Land: Whereas he displaces it into the future and admits that the colony so far has not become the Promised Land, he also affirms the possibility that it may still happen. What we witness in Danforth’s text is the transfer of the Promised Land topos from space into time: if the colony falls short of being the realization of God’s Promised Land now, it will have to strive harder to attain this status in the future. The discrepancy between what is and what should be propels Dan- forth’s prophecy. Sacvan Bercovitch uses Danforth’s sermon to demonstrate the specific structure and formula of the American jeremiad:
Danforth’s strategy is characteristic of the American jeremiad throughout the seventeenth century: first, a precedent from Scripture that sets out the communal norms; then, a series of condemnations that detail the actual state of the community (at the same time insinuating the covenantal promises that ensure success); and finally, a prophetic vision that unveils the promises, and explains away the gap between fact and ideal. (American Jeremiad 16)
Closing the gap between the wilderness of North America and the Promised Land of the Chosen People, then, Danforth suggests, is the unfinished task of the Puritans that will be achieved in the future.
Whereas Danforth’s theological discourse rekindles the idea of turning the American wilderness into God’s Promised Land, the events in the colony provide a different kind of closure for the Puritan experiment. In the mid to late 1670s, King Philip’s War raged in the American colonies and threatened the survival of the white settlements in an unprecedented manner. This violent confrontation between a coalition of Native tribes led by Metacomet (a.k.a. ‘King Philip’) and the English settlers spread over the entire territory of the early American frontier, and became one of the most devastating in American history:
For all their suffering, the English fared well compared to New England’s Native American peoples. [...] One account estimated that three thousand Native Americans were killed in battle. In a total population of about twenty thousand, this number is staggering. (Schultz and Tougias, King Philip’s War 15)
At that time, the English settlers face major problems not only in the confrontation with the indigenous population but also within the colony, and with colonial rule. Increasingly, the English monarchy tightened the reigns on the ‘new world’ dominion of the Pilgrims and the Puritans, paving the way for a final eruption of the inner contradictions and conflicts of interest which culminated in the Salem witch trials and the executions of 19 people in the course of a year. The witchcraft hysteria, which has elicited a whole range of interpretations from social and economic to feminist and psychoanalytic, marks another climax of the inner turmoil of a colony placed under ever tighter control of the English Crown. Soon, the colony was forced to practice religious toleration. In 1692, self-governance was curtailed, and the colony had to accept a royal governor sent from England to North America, whereas before the Massachusetts Bay colonists had appointed this official from their own ranks. “By the end of the seventeenth century,” as Ursula Brumm puts it succinctly, “the beginnings of the new world were already history” (“What Went” 1). Faith in the Promised Land was severely shaken, if not quite lost.
Yet, the Puritan elite were neither ready nor willing to concede the shortcomings of their project. In 1702, theologian Cotton Mather (son of Increase Mather, grandson of Richard Mather and John Cotton) published his magnum opus, Magnalia Christi Americana, in which he insisted on an affirmative perspective:
I write the Wonders of the Christian Religion, flying from the Depravations of Europe to the American Strand: And, assisted by the Holy Author of the Religion, I do with ah the conscience of Truth, required therein by Him, who is the Truth itself, Report the Wonder?ful Display of his Infinite Power, Wisdom, Goodness and Faithfulness, wherewith his Divine Providence hath irradiated an Indian Wilderness. (Day 163)
By that time, the original charter of the colony had been revoked. “These changes meant the end of the society that Winthrop and Cotton had originally envisaged” (Hall, “Introduction” 5). Mather tries to defend the values of the colony’s founders against both royal rule and against widening the eligibility for church membership to include those who would not have been considered pious enough by the first and second generation Puritans. Yet, Mather’s own exuberant language, “its baroque style” (Brumm, “What Went” 1) and hyperbole reveal that he has come a long way from the sober, understated, and reflective writings of the early Puritans. Mather makes an almost desperate plea for the preservation of the ‘New England Way,’ reiterating once more the role of the colony in a global scheme of redemption and salvation. He is the first Puritan to call himself ‘American’ in writing - “I that am an American” - the term having been used until then exclusively to refer to the Native American population (cf. Herget, “Anders” 44). Even if the realization of the Promised Land remained doubtful, the making of Americans in the process of negotiating the terms of (co)existence in a heavenly utopia are explicated in Mather’s epic. And, as Alan Heimert has noted, the realization that the New England wilderness was not the Promised Land may have contributed to the continuation of a search in time and space: As Danforth’s exhortations admonished the Puritans to lead better lives, the “heaven on earth” that the Puritans were looking for could still be imagined by following generations further west in the less populated and ‘purer’ regions of North America (cf. “Puritanism” 375).
Even though the historical record of the Pilgrims and the Puritans unambiguously shows that the realization of a utopian community on American soil utterly failed, their rhetoric has survived their social experiments in remarkable ways. It is a rhetoric that thrives on the vision of a Promised Land in this world, not the next: The Promised Land could be realized - in the near future, and in America. It is this rhetoric of providence that turned those early settlers into forefathers of mythical proportions, even though subsequent conceptualizations of the Promised Land may have diverged greatly. As Christopher Bigsby so succinctly put it:
America has so successfully colonized the future that it has mastered the art of prospective nostalgia. Its natural tense is the future perfect. It looks forward to a time when something will have happened. It is a place, too, where fact and fiction, myth and reality dance a curious gavotte. It is a society born out of its own imaginings. (“Introduction” 1)
The Puritan myth of the Promised Land both generates and displays this dynamism.