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The Spirit of the Puritans (Part 1)


AMONG the characteristic figures of this age, none shows stronger lineaments than that of John Endicott. He was, at the time of his coming to Massachusetts, not yet forty years of age; he remained there till his death at six-and-seventy. He was repeatedly elected Governor, and died in the Governor's chair. In 1645 be was made Major General of the Colonial troops; nine years before he had headed a campaign against the Pequot Indians. His character illustrated the full measure of Puritan sternness; he was an inflexible persecutor of the Quakers, and was instrumental in causing four of them to be executed in Boston. In his career is found no feeble passage; he was always Endicott. He was a man grown before he attained, under the ministrations of Samuel Skelton of Cambridge, in England, the religious awakening which placed him in the forefront of the Puritan dissenters of his time; and it may be surmised that the force of nature which gave him his self-command would, otherwise directed, have opened still wider the gates of license and recklessness which marked the conduct of many in that period. But, having taken his course, he disciplined himself to the strictest observances, and required them of others. He was a man of perfect moral and physical courage, austere and choleric; yet there was in him a certain cheerfulness and kindliness, like sunshine touching the ruggedness of a granite bolder. An old portrait of him presents a full and ruddy countenance, without a beard, and with large eyes which gaze sternly out upon the beholder. When the Massachusetts Company was formed, it contained many men of pith and mark, such as Saltonstall, Bellingham, Eaton, and others; but, by common consent, Endicott was chosen as the first Governor of the new realm, and he sailed for Boston harbor in June, 1628. He took with him his wife and children, and a small following of fit companions, and landed in September.

Many tales are told of the doings of Endicott in Massachusetts. Like those of all strong men, his deeds were often embellished with legendary ornaments, but the exaggerations, if such there be, are colored by a true conception of his character. At the time of his advent, there was at Merrymount, or Mount Wollaston, now within the boundaries of Quincy, near Boston, a colony which was a survival of the one founded by Thomas Weston, through the agency of Thomas Morton, an English lawyer, who was more than once brought to book for unpuritanical conduct Here was collected, in 1628, a number of waifs and strays, and other persons, not in sympathy with the rigorous habits of the Puritans, whose proceedings were of a more or less licentious and unbecoming quality, calculated to disturb the order and propriety of the realm. Endicott, on being apprised of their behavior, went thither with some armed men, and put a summary end to the colony; Morton was sent back to England, and the "revelries" which be had countenanced or promoted were seen no more in Massachusetts. The era for gayeties had not yet come in the new world. Endicott would not be satisfied with crushing out evil; he would also nip in the bud all such lightsome and frivolous conduct as might lead those who indulged in it to forget the dangers and difficulties attending the planting of the reformed faith in the wilderness.

More impressive yet is the story of how he resented the project of Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the most zealous supporter of the follies and iniquities of King Charles, to force the ritual of the orthodox church upon the people of Massachusetts. When Endicott received from Governor Winthrop the letter containing this news, whose purport, if carried out, would undo all that the Puritans had most passionately labored to establish; for which they bad given up their homes and friends, and to the safeguarding of which they had pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor: he was deeply stirred, and resolved that a public demonstration should be made of the irrevocable opposition of the people to the measure. He was at that time captain of the trained band of Salem, which was used to meet for drill in the square of the little settlement. It had for a long time disquieted Endicott and other Puritan leaders that the banner of England, under which, as Englishmen, they must live and fight, should bear upon it the sign of the red cross, which was the very emblem of the popery which. their souls abhorred. It had seemed to them almost a sin to tolerate it; and yet it was treason to take any liberties with the national ensign. But Endicott was now in a mood to encounter any risk; since, if Laud's will were enforced, there would be little left in New England worth fighting for.

Accordingly, on the next training day, when the able men of Salem were drawn up in their breastplates and headpieces, with the Red Cross flag floating over them, and the rest of the townspeople, with here and there an Indian among them, looking on: Endicott, in his armor, with his sword upon his thigh, spoke in passionate terms to the assembly of the matter which weighed upon his heart. And then, as a symbol of the Puritan protest, and a pledge of his vital sincerity, he took the banner in his band, and, drawing his sword, cut the cross out of its folds. The unparalleled audacity and rashness of this act, which might have brought upon New England a revocation of her charter and destruction of the liberties which already exceeded those vouchsafed to Englishmen at home, alarmed Winthrop, and sent a thrill throughout the colony. But the deed was too public to be disavowed, and Endicott and they must abide the consequences. Information of the outrage was carried to Charles; but he was fortunately too much preoccupied at the moment with the struggle for his crown at home to be able to take proper action upon the slight put upon his authority in Salem. No punishment was inflicted upon the bold soldier, who thus anticipated by nearly a century and a half the step finally taken by the patriots of 1776.

To return, however, to Endicott's arrival in Boston (as it was afterward named, in honor of that Lincolnshire Boston from which many of the emigrants came). There were already a few settlers there, who had come in from various motives, and one or two of whom were inclined to assert squatter sovereignty. The rights of the Indians were respected, in accordance with the injunctions of the company; and Sagamore John, who asserted his rights as chief over the neck of land and the hilly promontory of the present city, was so courteously entreated that he permitted the erection of a house there, and the laying out of streets. While these preparations were going forward, the bulk of the first emigration, numbering two hundred persons, with servants, cattle, arms, and other provisions, entered the harbor. They had had a prosperous and pious voyage, being much refreshed with religious services performed daily; and it may be recorded as perhaps a unique fact in the annals of ocean navigation that the ship captain and the sailors punctuated the setting of the morning and noon watches with the singing of psalms and with prayer. This sounds apocryphal; but it is stated in the narrative of "New England's Plantation," written and circulated by Mr. Higginson soon after their arrival; and it must be remembered that the ship carried a supply of personages of the clerical profession out of proportion to the number of the rest of the passengers. But palliate the marvel bow we may, we cannot help smiling at it, and at the same time regretting that the Puritans themselves probably bad no realization of the miracle which was transacting under their noses. They doubtless regarded it as a matter of course, instead of a thing to occur but once in a precession of the equinoxes.

And now, it might be supposed, began the building of the city: the clearing of the forest, the chopping of wood, the sawing of beams, the digging of foundations, the ringing of hammers, and the uprising on every side of the dwellings of civilization. And certainly steps were taken to provide the company with shelter from the present summer heats and from the snows of ;winter to come; and they had brought with them artisans skilled to do the necessary work. But though the Puritans never could be called remiss in respect of making due provision for the necessities of this life, yet all was done with a view to the ,conditions of the life to come; and in the annals of the time we read more of the prayers and fasts, the choosing of, ministers, and the promotion and practice of godliness in general, than we do of any temporal matters. Men there were, like Endicott, who united the strictest religious zeal with all manner of practical abilities; but there were many, too, who had been no more accustomed to shift for themselves than were the gentlemen of Jamestown. They differed from the latter, however, in an enlightened conception of the work before them, in enthusiasm for the commonweal, and in determination to familiarize themselves as. soon as possible with the requirements of their situation. The town did not come up in a night, like the shanty cities of our western pioneers; nor did it contain gambling houses and liquor saloons as its chief public buildings. These men, were building a social structure meant to last for all time, and houses in which they hoped to pass the years of their natural lives; and they proceeded with what we would now consider unwarrantable deliberation and with none too much technical skill. They sought neither wealth nor the luxuries it brings; but, rather, welcomed hardship, as apt to chasten the spirit; and never felt themselves so thoroughly about their proper business as when they were assembled in the four square little log but which they had consecrated as the house of God. Boston and Salem grew: they were larger and more commodious at the end of the twelve month than they had been at its beginning; but more cannot be said. Sickness, misfortune, and scarcity handicapped the settlers; many died; the yield of their crops was wholly inadequate to their needs; servants whose work was indispensable could not be paid, and were set free to work for themselves, and the outlook was in all respects gloomy. If the enterprise was to be saved, the Lord must speedily send succor.

The Lord did not forget His people. A great relief was already preparing for them, and the way of it was thus

The record of the former chartered companies had shown that conducting the affairs of colonists on the other side of the ocean was attended with serious difficulties on both parts. The colonists could not make their needs known with precision enough, or in season, to have them adequately met; and the governing company was unable to get a close knowledge of its business, or to explain and enforce its requirements. Furthermore, there was liable to be continual vexatious interference on the part of the King and his officers, detrimental to the welfare of colonists and company alike.

The men who constituted the Massachusetts Company were not concerned respecting the pecuniary profits of the venture, inasmuch as they looked only for the treasures which moth nor rust can corrupt; their "plantation" was to the glory of God, not to the imbursement of man. Nor were they anxious to impose their will upon the emigrants, or solicitous lest the latter should act unseemly; for the men who were there were of the same character and aim as those who were in England, and there could be no differences between them beyond such as might legitimately arise as to the most expedient way of reaching a given end. But the company could easily apprehend that the King and his ministers might meddle with their projects and bring them to naught; and since those affairs, unlike mercantile ones, were not of a nature to admit of compromise, they earnestly desired to prevent this contingency.

Debating the matter among themselves, the leaders of the organization conceived the idea of establishing the headquarters of the company in the midst of the emigrants in America: of becoming, in other words, emigrants themselves, and working side by side with their brethren for the common good. This plan offered manifest attractions; it would remove them from unwelcome propinquity to the court, would be of great assistance to the work to do which the company was formed, would give them the satisfaction of feeling that they were giving their hands as well as their hearts to the service of God, and, not least, would give notice to all the Puritans in England, now a great and influential body, that America was the most suitable ground for their earthly sojourning.

These considerations determined them; and it remained only to put the plan 'into execution. Twelve men of wealth and education, eminent among whom was John Winthrop, the future Governor of the little commonwealth, met and exchanged solemn vows that, if the transference could legally be accomplished, they would personally voyage to New England and take up their permanent residence there. The question was shortly after put to the general vote, and unanimously agreed to; a commercial corporation (as ostensibly the company was) created itself the germ of an independent commonwealth; and on October 20 John Winthrop was chosen Governor for the ensuing twelvemonth; money was subscribed to defray expenses; as-speedily as possible ships were chartered or purchased; the numbers of the members of the company were increased, and their resources augmented, by the addition of many outside persons in harmony with the movement, and willing to support it with their fortunes and themselves; and by the early spring of 1630 a fleet, of no less than seventeen ships, accommodating nearly a thousand emigrants representing the very best blood and brain of England, was ready to sail.

At the moment of departing there was a quailing of the spirit on the part of some of the emigrants; but. Winthrop comforted them; he told them that they must "keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace"; that, in the wilderness, they would see more of God than they could in England; and that their plantation should be of such a quality as that the founders of future plantations should pray that "The Lord make it likely that of New England." These were good words. Nevertheless, there were not a few seceders, and it was not till the year had advanced that the full number of vessels found their way to the port of Boston. But eleven ships, including the Arbella, which bore Winthrop, sailed at once, with seven hundred men and 'women, and every appliance that experience and forethought could suggest for the convenience and furtherance of life in a new country. Their going made a deep impression throughout England.

And well it might! For these people were not unknown and rude, like the Plymouth Pilgrims; they were not fiercely intolerant fanatics, whose sincerity might be respected, but whose company must be irksome to all less extreme than themselves. They were of gentle blood and training; persons whose acquaintance was a privilege; who added to the richness and charm of social life. That people of this kind should remove themselves to the wilderness meant much more, to the average mind, than that religious outcasts like the Pilgrims should do so. For the latter, one place might be as good as another; but that the others should give up their homes and traditions for the hardships and isolation of such an existence seemed incomprehensible; and when no other motive could be found than that which they professed-"the honor of God" -grave thoughts could not but be awakened. The sensation was somewhat the same as if, in our day, a hundred thousand of the most favorably known and highly endowed persons in the country were to remove to Chinese Tartary to escape from the corruption and frivolity of business and social life, and to create an ideal community in the desert. We could smile at such a hegira if Tom, Dick and Harry were concerned in it; but if the men and women of light and leading abandoned` us, the implied indictment is worth heeding.

The personal character and nature of Winthrop are well known, and may serve as a type for the milder aspect of his companions. He was of a gentle and conciliating temper, affectionate, and prizing the affection of others. There was a certain sweetness about him, a tendency to mild joyousness, a desire to harmonize all conflicts, a disposition to think good, that good might come of it. He was indisposed to violence in opinion as much as in act; he believed that love was the fulfilling of the law, and would dissolve opposition to the law, if it-were allowed time and opportunity. His cultivated intellect recognized a certain inevitableness, or preordained growth in mortal affairs, which made him sympathetic even toward those who differed from him, for did they not use the best light they had? He conformed to the English church, and yet he absented himself from England, not being willing to condemn the orthodox ritual, yet feeling that the Gospel in its purity could be more intimately enjoyed in America. He was no believer in the theory of democratic equality; it seemed to him contrary to natural order; there were degrees and gradations in all things, men included; there were those fitted to govern, and those fitted to serve; power should be in the hands of the few, but they should be "the wisest of the best." He had no doubts as to the obligations of loyalty to the King, and yet he gave up home and ease to live where the King was a sentiment rather than a fact. But beneath all this engaging softness there was strength in Winthrop; the fiber of him was fine, but it was of resolute temper. Simple goodness is one of the mightiest of powers, and he was good in all simplicity. He could help his servants in the humblest household drudgery, and yet preserve the dignity befitting the governor of the people. He was not a man to be bullied or terrified, but his wisdom and forbearance disarmed an enemy, and thus removed all need of fighting him. He dominated those around him spontaneously and involuntarily; they, as it were, insisted upon being led by him, and commanded him to exact their obedience. His influence was purifying, encouraging, uplifting, and upon the whole conservative; had he lived a hundred years later, he would not have been found by the side of Adams, Patrick Henry, and James Otis. Sympathy and courtesy made him seem yielding; yet, like a tree that bends to the breeze, he still maintained his place, and was less changeable than many whose stubborn ness did not prevent their drifting. His insight and intelligence may have enabled him to foresee to what a goal the New England settlers were bound; but though he would have sympathized with them, he would not have been swayed to join them. As it was, he wrought only good to them, for they were in the formative stage, when moderation helps instead of hindering. He mediated between the state they were approaching and that from which they came, and he died before the need of alienating himself from them arrived. His resoluteness was shown in his resistance to Anne Hutchinson and her supporter, Sir Harry Vane, who professed the heresy that faith absolved from obedience to the moral law; they were forced to quit the colony; and so. was Roger Williams, as lovely as and in some respects a loftier character than Winthrop. In reviewing the career of this distinguished and engaging man, we are surprised that he should have found it on his conscience to leave England. Endicott was born to subdue the wilderness, and so was many another of the Puritans; but it seems as if Winthrop might have done and said in King Charles's palace all that he did and said in Massachusetts without offense. But it is probable that his moderation appears greater in the primitive environment than it would have done in the civilized one; and again, the impulse to restrain others from excess may have made him incline more than he would otherwise have done toward the other side.

But tradition has too much disposed us to think of the Puritans as of men who had thrown aside all human tenderness and sympathy, and were sternly and gloomily preoccupied with the darker, features of religion exclusively. Winthrop corrects his judgment; he was a Puritan, though he was sunny and gentle; and there were many others who more or less resembled him. The reason that the somber type is the better known is partly because of its greater picturesqueness and singularity, and partly because the early life of New England was on the whole militant and aggressive, and therefore brought the rigid and positive qualities more prominently forward.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the piety of the dominating powers in Massachusetts during the first years of the colony's existence. It was almost a mysticism. That intimate and incommunicable experience which is sometimes called "getting religion"-the Lord knocking at the door of the heart and being admitted was made the condition of admission to the responsible offices of government. This was to make God the ruler, through instruments chosen by Himself-theoretically a perfect arrangement, but in practice open to the gravest perils. It not merely paved the way to imposture, but invited it; and the most dangerous imposture is that which imposes on the impostor himself. It created an oligarchy of the most insidious and unassailable type: a communion of earthly "saints," who might be, and occasionally were, satans at heart. It is essentially at variance with democracy, which it regards as a surrender to the selfish license of the lowest range of unregenerate human nature; and yet it is incompatible with hereditary monarchy, because the latter is based on uninspired or mechanical selection. The writings of Cotton Mather exhibit the peculiarities and inconsistencies of Puritanism in the most favorable and translucent light, for Mather was himself wedded to them, and of a most inexhaustible fertility in their exposition.

Winthrop was responsible for the "Oath of Fidelity," which required its taker to suffer no attempt to change or alter the government contrary to its laws; and for the law excluding from the freedom of the body politic all who were not members of its church communion. The people, however, stipulated that the elections should be annual, and each town chose two representatives to attend the court of assistants. But having thus asserted their privileges, they forbore to interfere with the judgment of their leaders, and maintained them in office. The possible hostility of England, the strangeness and dangers of their surroundings in America, and the appalling prevalence of disease and mortality among them, possibly drove them to a more than normal fervor of piety. Since God was so manifestly their only sword and shield, and was reputed to be so terrible and implacable in His resentments, it behooved them to omit no means of conciliating His favor.

Winthrop found anything but a land flowing with milk and honey when he arrived at Salem, where the ships first touched. As when, twenty years before, Delaware came to Jamestown, the people were on the verge of starvation, and it was necessary to send a vessel back to England for supplies. There were acute suffering and scarcity all along the New England coast, and though the spirit of resignation was there, it seemed likely that there would be soon little flesh left through which to manifest it. The physical conditions were intolerable. The hovels in which the people were living were wretched structures of rough logs, roofed with straw, with wooden chimneys and narrow and darksome interiors. They were patched with bark and rags; many were glad to lodge themselves in tents devised of fragments of drapery hung on a framework of boughs. The settlement was in that transition state between crude wilderness and pioneer town, when the appearance is most repulsive and disheartening. There is no order, uniformity, or intelligent procedure. There is a clump of trees of the primeval forest here, the stumps and litter of a half-made clearing there, yonder a patch of soil newly and clumsily planted; wigwams and huts alternate with one another; men are digging, hewing, running-to head back straying cattle, toiling in with fragments of game on their shoulders; yonder a grave is being dug in the root-encumbered ground, and hard by a knot of mourners are preparing the corpse for interment. There is no rest or comfort anywhere for eye or heart. The only approximately decent dwelling in Salem at this time was that of John Endicott. Higginson was dying of a fever. Lady Arbella, who had accompanied her husband, Isaac Johnson, had been ailing on the voyage and lingered here but a little while before finding a grave. In a few months two hundred persons perished. It was no place for weaklings-or for evildoers either; among the earliest of the established institutions were the stocks and the whipping post, and they were not allowed to stand idle.

Winthrop and most of the others soon moved on down the coast toward Boston. It had been the original intention to keep the emigrants in one body, but that was found impracticable; they were forced -to divide up into small parties, who settled where they best could, over an area of fifty or a hundred miles. Nantasket, Watertown, Charlestown, Saugus, Lynn, Malden, Roxbury, all had their handfuls of inhabitants. It was exile within exile; for miles meant something in these times. More than a hundred of the emigrants, cowed by the prospect, deserted the cause and returned to England. Yet Winthrop and the other leaders did not lose heart, and their courage and tranquillity strengthened the others. It is evidence of the indomitable spirit of these people that one of their first acts was to observe a day of fasting and prayer; a few days later the members of the congregation met and chose their pastor, John Wilson, and organized the first church of Boston. They did not wait to build the house of God, but met beneath the trees or gathered round a rock which might serve the preacher as a pulpit. There was simplicity enough to satisfy the most conscientious. "We here enjoy God and Jesus Christ," wrote Winthrop. "I do not repent my coming: I never had more content of mind."

After a year there were but a thousand settlers in Massachusetts. Among them was Roger Williams, a man so pure and true as of himself to hallow the colony; but it is illustrative of the intolerance which was from the first inseparable from Puritanism, that he was driven away because he held conscience to be the only infallible guide. We cannot blame the Puritans; they had paid a high price for their faith, and they could not but guard it jealously. Their greatest peril seemed to them to be dissension or disagreements on points of belief; except they held together their whole cause was lost. Williams was no less an exile for conscience, sake than they; but as he persisted in having a conscience strictly his own, instead of pooling it with that of the church, they were constrained to let him go. They did not perceive, then or afterward, that such action argued feeble faith. They could not, after all, quite trust God to take care of His own; they dared not believe that He could reveal Himself to others as well as to them; they feared to admit that they could have less than the whole truth in their keeping. So they banished, whipped, pilloried, and finally even hanged dissenters from their dissent. We, whose religious tolerance is perhaps as excessive as theirs was deficient, are slow to excuse them for this; but they believed they were fighting for much more than their lives; and as for faith in God, it is surely no worse to fall into error regarding it than to dismiss it altogether.

In a community where the integrity of the church was the main subject of concern, it could not be long before religious conservatism would be reflected in the political field. Representative government was conceded in theory; but in practice Winthrop and others thought that it would be betterignored; the people could not easily meet for deliberations, and how could their affairs be in better hands than those of the saints, who already had charge of them? But the people declined to surrender their liberties; there should be rotation in office; voting should be by ballot instead of show of hands. Taxation was restricted; and in 1635 there was agitation for a written constitution; and the relative authority of the deputies and the assistants was in debate. Our national predisposition to "talk politics" had already been born:

Continue to Chapter 3 Part 2