Puritans Gone Wild (Part 1)

ANNETTE TELLS TALES: Stories from the Past That Resonate with Now, Retold

Tense? Nervous? Suffering from Puritanophobia? Dr. Laing is Here to Help

This is a story about Puritans Gone Wrong. Puritans Gone Wild.

But first, please, don’t scroll on by, or X out this post because I used the “P” word. And don’t be frightened by this photo [Warning: The following may be disturbing to anyone who ever took US high school history. Or who recalls Bishop Brennan in the BBC sitcom Father Ted]

Photo: The Puritan by Augustus Saint-Gaudens - Springfield, Massachusetts, USA.  Public domain, Wikimedia.

It’s OK. I get it. You suffer from puritanophobia (fear of being bored by puritans). Don’t worry, this is a common complaint.

My goal today is to heal your puritanophobia.

Now. I am aware that I have readers from other nations, not just the US. So I need to divide you into two teams, Americans and Brits. That way, I can talk to you sometimes together, and sometimes separately. Because you both know puritans. You just know them differently. You are either in Team UK, or Team USA.

Folks from other lands? Dual citizens? Delighted to have you! Welcome! Pick a team. Or sit in the stands with a nice big bucket of popcorn. [Hint: If you’re from a Commonwealth nation, you may find this two-part post especially satisfying]

Team USA and Audience ONLY: Puritans! Woo . . . hoo. Yeah. Hmm. You’re thinking with a shudder of men in tall hats with buckles. Just like the guy in the photo above, in fact. You’re thinking of highly un-woke Thanksgiving pageants, and the opening bars of the months-long symphony from hell that was your US history class with Coach Grunt. It was kind of hard to get excited about people in chilly New England while you were stuck in a classroom on a hot summer’s day in, say, Sacramento. I know. I was there. We stopped listening at “Mayflower”.

So, let’s see what we can dig out of that spiderweb-covered memory of yours from your high school or college survey class:

Mayflower maybe? First Thanksgiving? Or are the puritans just the City on the Hill people who came after the Mayflower, and started Boston? They worked together, started towns, elected their own leaders, selectmen, right? Puritans falling out with Indians and each other? Ann Hutchinson, Roger Williams, can’t remember what they had to do with anything. Tough religion. Hanging witches. Kind of mean.

OK, maybe this isn’t you. Maybe this is way more than you recall. All you remember is the silly hats. In that case, Dr. Laing diagnoses you with acute Puritanophobia. I can help with that, too.

Now, Team USA, stay right here while I get the Brits started. Don’t leave.

Team UK and Audience ONLY: Puritans, eh? I already hear you singing Monty Python’s Oliver Cromwell. Basically, you left the wretched puritans behind at GCSE, or, if you're as old as me, “O” Level or CSE. You don’t think there’s much left to say about a bunch of long-dead miserable religious nutters, a few of whom (mercifully) deported themselves to America on the first convenient tide. And as for the puritans who stayed at home. . . Blimey. They were behind the Civil War [NO, Americans, not that one. Stop eavesdropping] Naseby, Marston Moor, all those other battles we memorized, for which we can blame them and Charles I, a pox on them all. After the war, England was a long boring miserable wasteland, until, thankfully, the puritans were swept away by a tide of joy starring King Charles II, and featuring Nell Gwyn and her luscious oranges. [Americans rush to Wikipedia]

The Puritans who left, you say? Well, they were America’s problem, weren’t they? Nothing to do with us.

Don’t be so sure.

Brits, the story I'm telling today isn’t one in which England’s direct involvement ends with waving goodbye at the docks. In fact, it never does. Britain isn’t just a small island. It’s huge.

Welcome to a part of British history you never knew, because, as with a lot of “British” history . . . LOL, like the southern English admit that anywhere north of Potters Bar exists! Sorry. Had to get that in, disgruntled Scot mode . . . Like a lot of British history, you outsourced the problem to somewhere else, and then agreed never to talk about it again. Or, if you did, you pretended it was nothing to do with you.

That won’t wash anymore. Not to get all wokey on you, mind, so let me rush to add that you will actually be glad to get to know about this stuff. Let’s start with something a bit less painful than discussing what happened in India. Let’s start with puritans.

TEAMS USA, UK, Everyone:

Today, we're not focusing on the puritans who stayed home in England, although we will definitely talk about them.

Nor are we focusing on the puritans who went to New England (That’s Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, did I miss anyone? Oh, and Rhode Island. Always forget Rhode Island. Brits, go get a map, ok?) Although we will definitely talk about them, too, mostly the Massachusetts Bay colony, the big settlement that starts ten years after the Mayflower arrives. Speaking of which…

We will hardly mention the people who came on the Mayflower (Team USA) or Oliver Cromwell (Team UK).

Our goal is to talk about puritans who were neither shoveling New England snow when they weren’t accusing each other of witchcraft, nor puritans who tried to stay dry under their buckle hats in a bracingly freezing English rain, while thinking of how to prevent everyone from having fun.

Our goal is to talk about puritans who frolicked in the sun, and sipped margaritas in 80 degrees on tropical beaches. Or could have.

Our goal, in short, is to find out about Puritans Gone Wild.

Um, Laing? Remind Us Who Puritans Are Again? Keep it short and simple. Please don’t make us sorry we asked.

Of course! This is what I was about to do! And short and simple is such a great description of me, the Non-Boring Historian!

I definitely WON’T try to explain the entire English Reformation to you in a Non-Boring History post. Nope. Nopeity. Nope.

Actually, okay, yes. Yes, I did try to do that. Twice. Ripped it up both times.

Look, the English Reformation is important. It isn’t just England’s history. It’s America’s. It belongs to the world. But even the fun-size version I wrote in the original and second drafts of this post, exciting though I tried to make it, was just too much. I’m saving it for a rainy day in the future, when I have run out of ideas for something to write about, and when we know each other better, so you won’t hate me for trying.

Today, I am sticking to what, as Brits say, it says on the tin: Puritans Gone Wild!

At least remind us why people were called puritans?

Puritans didn’t call themselves puritans. They called themselves the Elect, or the Godly, or Fred and Ethel.

Puritan was a term of abuse thrown at ultra-religious Protestant English people (there were other separate terms of abuse reserved for Catholics). This nasty term, puritan, was thrown about by ordinary English people who would cross the road rather than stop to chat with them, because they don't want to end up in one of those endless and awkward conversations about Christianity that most English people will run miles to avoid, no matter their beliefs.

Puritans in the mid 1500s want the Church of England to stop being, in their view, so Catholic. It’s now a generation after the Church broke from the Pope in Rome, but there’s still too much superstitious silliness for a serious church, they say. Too many silly costumes and bells, saints and stained glass. Christmas? That's not Christian, they say. The Bible doesn't even tell us Christ's birthday. Oh, and faraway bishops telling individual churches how to conduct their own affairs, and appointing their clergymen? Not cool.

So puritan becomes the shorthand in 16th and 17th century England to refer to enthusiastically religious Protestants who want to “purify” the Church of England of lingering Catholic influences. Bear in mind that, traditionally, in England, “enthusiastically” is not a compliment.

Most English people at this time think puritans a bit too enthusiastic, honestly. Religion is all right in its place, they think, but why would you want to spend Sunday praying and then staring into space, bored? No, much better to put in an appearance in church (bring your knitting or have a nap), then pop down the pub after lunch for a pint or two, and play a nice game of bowls, and generally enjoy your day off work.

Why did puritans not just start their own church, then?

Because it’s illegal to start your own church in England until 1689. That's when the Act of Toleration will give all Protestant Christians (not Catholics just yet) the right to worship as they please. Until then, if you’re English, you’re a member of the Church of England, like it or not, and must, by law, attend service at an official Anglican (Church of England) church. And they do notice if you try to sneak out early.

Why is the Church of England mandatory for everyone?

The Church of England isn’t just about religion: It’s part of the state, and the Queen or King is head of the church as well as of the state, and unlike now, he or she actually runs the country.

When Queen Elizabeth I becomes queen in 1558, she isn’t interested in persecuting people. She says she doesn’t much care what you believe. You be you. Just be you quietly. And go to Church of England services on Sundays. Or else.

In fact, puritans at first don’t have a problem with the state having a single church for everyone. They just want to redesign that church to make it more like what they have in mind: nice plain church services, no bishops, Sundays devoted to prayer and rest (not booze, games, or Target runs), just like it says in the Bible.

During Elizabeth I’s long reign (1558-1603), puritans are mostly left to their own devices. They work quietly to be the change they want to see in the Church of England. Puritan clergymen make nice to bishops, and powerful puritans pull strings to help get them appointed to run churches. Puritans are quietly changing how people in the pews think. Or trying to.

Church and State Under New Management: 1603

When Elizabeth dies, childless, in 1603, England and the Church of England come under new management: Elizabeth’s Scottish cousin, James Stuart, King James VI of Scotland, becomes King James I of England. He really doesn’t like Catholics, and he likes them even less after a group of Catholic men armed with barrels of gunpowder try to blow up Parliament with him in it on November 5, 1605.

But James isn’t keen on puritans, either. He tries reaching out to them, bringing together puritan and Anglican (ordinary Church of England) clergymen to write a new Bible (1611) in English. Yes, this is the King James version.

But when he hears puritans arguing in favor of getting rid of bishops, the king is concerned. To the joy of historians, he scribbles down his thoughts:

No bishop, no king.

In other words, he wonders, if these religious zealots plan to get rid of bishops, might they not also be gunning for the monarchy?

Can't blame King James for being paranoid, not after that nasty business with Guy Fawkes and his gunpowder. James now decides to investigate and remove puritan clergy from ministry.

James also becomes very strict about church attendance. He imprisons and even executes the most extreme puritans, people who refuse to attend the Church of England’s services. Some of these “separatists” flee the country, and settle in more tolerant Holland. Later, some of them, unhappy at being immigrants in a country where they don’t speak the language and get stuck with crummy jobs, like cleaning wool, emigrate to America. That’s a desperate decision, because they know about the horrendous death toll in the early years of England’s American colonies, like Jamestown. They go anyway. You may have heard of the ship they charter to take them across the Atlantic: The Mayflower.

What about the vast majority of English puritans who want to reform the Church, and not leave it, or leave England?

Their problem really starts with James I’s death in 1625.

That’s when James’s son Charles becomes King Charles I. And he really hates puritans because, you see, Charles’s religious tastes are very high church Arminian (NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH ARMENIAN), which, in plain English, means he is practically a Catholic. Not Roman Catholic, not like his wife. But he definitely likes all the stained glass, fancy costumes, fun on Sundays. All that sort of thing.

Plain Old Puritans

It’s this majority of English Puritans we’re talking about today.

Wait, what about the puritans who go wild? When do we get to them?

Bear with me, guys. All will be revealed.

So, as I was saying, these are puritans who aren’t ready to give up on England or its church, not until things get desperate. When things do get desperate, some of them leave for America.

Others stay in England and get increasingly annoyed about the state of things.

So which puritans leave England after the Mayflower? Where do they go?

It’s now 1630. That’s ten years after the Mayflower, five years after puritan-hating Charles I becomes king. Hundreds of puritan families are chartering eleven ships, and are packing up their stuff. They are about to put Granny and Auntie Muriel and the cat in the wagon, head for the coast, and flee England. Destination: New England, where they plan to set up the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with Boston as their capital. Soon, they will be followed by thousands more. These puritans dream of showing England how religion, how England, really, should be done properly, only at a nice safe distance from England.

Why go so far away? As I already mentioned, Charles I was NOT a fan of Puritans. The Church of England under Charles I became more Catholic in worship, not less.

To be honest though? That’s not the only reason. There’s more. Let’s rewind to last year: 1629.

It’s 1629, and King Charles I is freaking out a lot of people. In March, he shuts down Parliament, the national legislature, and he has yet to bring it back. He’s introducing heavy new taxes (payable directly to him, just write the check to Charles Stuart (King) Enterprises Ltd.) He has ramped up his campaign against all puritans. Things have gotten serious, and especially for puritans, who know that Charles considers them Public Enemy #1, after the Spanish. Or maybe ahead of the Spanish.

As if all this isn’t bad enough, in large parts of England, especially the rural places where puritans tend to live, the economy (farming mostly) isn't doing well at all, not for the workers: Farming has become so efficient that fewer and fewer people are needed to help out on farms. The pay is terrible. Not by coincidence, underemployed puritans are the most likely to emigrate to Massachusetts Bay.

And then there's that massive threat from Catholic Spain. The Spanish are awash in gold and silver from their American colonies, and they are spending the money on enormous cannons, some of which are aimed squarely at little Protestant England. That’s scary.

Plus King Charles doesn't seem as proactive in addressing this threat from Spain as maybe he should be?

By the end of 1629, the less brave puritans are scrambling for an escape hatch, a place of exile, in case Charles goes full tyrant, or in case Spain invades England.

And so, in April, 1630, hundreds of panicking puritans actually leave. They travel in eleven ships led by John Winthrop, an obscure provincial lawyer. Thousands more are making plans to follow them.

The puritans fleeing to New England claim that their reason for leaving is to establish a better England in New England, a blueprint for Old England to follow. Their leader, John Winthrop, makes a speech all about that before they even get off the boat. Something about a City on a Hill, a New Jerusalem, etc,

By the way, the Massachusetts Bay colonists “accidentally” brought their company charter with them. Oh, did I not mention? These puritans pretended to be a for-profit venture that just happened to be staffed by very religious people. They brought the company's founding documents with them so nobody in London could claim that they were in charge of the people who settled across the pond. The puritans in Massachusetts Bay now proceed to manage the new colony themselves, from Boston, having elected Winthrop as their governor. These are puritans, who like the Mayflower people, have gone wild. And this is not even close to the worst example of puritans going wild, in case you think this is a cop-out on my part.

A lot of English puritans are not impressed. They think the emigrants to America are an absolutely pathetic shower of cowards, hiding behind this grand City on a Hill nonsense, but really only concerned with saving their own skins. John Winthrop himself provides evidence for this argument when he says something to his wife (who is pregnant, so she stays behind, planning to join him later). He tells Mrs. Winthrop that Massachusetts will be “a shelter and a hiding place” for them. Eminent puritan minister John Cotton (who moved from Boston, England to Boston, Mass.) acknowledged that he and the others had been accused by other English puritans of being rats deserting the sinking ship, or as he put it, they were accused of having left England:

like mice from a crumbling house, anticipating its ruin, prudently looking to their own safety and treacherously giving up the defense of the common cause of the Reformation.

(Much the same was said of, say, Brits who left for America around the time World War II broke out in 1939. The Brits don’t like emigrants. You’re supposed to stay and be grumpy in the rain like everyone else. Shame, really, because what we… I mean the expats . . . are actually doing is expanding the reach of Britishness. Not always a good thing, mind, but still . . . )

The puritans who go to the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630 soon discover that God has a naughty sense of humor: He has given them freezing winters with massive amounts of snow, and lousy rocky soil in which all you can grow and raise is just enough to feed you and a bit extra for sale. As one Massachusetts puritan never, ever said:

It’s OK. No, really it is. God didn’t promise us an easy time, did he? We’re not like those wicked tobacco planters in Virginia, profiting from people’s smoking addictions, sipping mint juleps while poor servants and slaves do all the work. Personally, I would never choose to grow lots of tobacco, if we had the choice in Massachusetts. Which we don't. But, no, no hard feelings here. Excuse me for a second . . . Could someone PLEASE put on some snowshoes and help me look for the dog? I dropped her out the front door on Tuesday, she vanished in the snow, and I haven’t seen her since. Anyway... Snow is such a blessing, isn’t it? We are so blessed. So, so blessed. I can’t feel my toes.

Painting: George Henry Boughton, Pilgrims Going to Church (1867), original at New-York Historical Society. Image from Wikimedia, in public domain. Puritans living the dream. In fairness, this painting was basically historical fiction, painted two hundred years after the Mayflower, so it shouldn’t be taken literally. The snow was a lot deeper, for a start.

The Puritan Way in New England

Meanwhile, puritans in England are looking at the Massachusetts Bay colony puritans and thinking: Why would anyone settle in a frozen barren wasteland? And they think God put them there? They’re nuts. Gone rogue. Completely lost the plot.

England’s wealthy and powerful puritans, who we are going to call posh puritans, make a note to themselves: Later, let’s try to persuade as many of these Massachusetts Bay puritans as possible to leave that jumped-up little lawyer Winthrop, and come settle in a much more pleasant place, which we will provide. It shouldn’t be hard to convince them to leave the snow.

The posh puritans in London have somewhere in mind. They are ready to launch Providence Island, their first exciting development in the sun-kissed tropics of central America, where the year-round temperature is a balmy 80 degrees fahrenheit, and you can actually make a profit from what you grow, even after paying half of it in rent to, um, the posh puritans.

Team USA: Are you guys okay? Do you need a glass of water, or something equally puritanical to drink? Look, I realize this isn't how you learned about Massachusetts Bay colony in high school. You and Coach Grunt told yourselves it was the center of the universe, the City on a Hill that the whole world respects. But, in an analogy Coach Grunt would appreciate, that's about as crazy as holding a sports World Series and not inviting any other countries. Silly, right? Nobody does that. Why? Because you don't really understand your own team's strengths and weaknesses until you have a chance to see how it plays against others.

Team UK: Brits like to blame everything that goes wrong on America, and this Brit in America is not going to let you. In modern (not ancient) history, the first corporations were ENGLISH. The first permanent ENGLISH settlement in the New World was established by the Virginia Company of LONDON, NOT Boston or New York. Stop clapping your hands to your ears, going lalalalalala. Stop that at once, or it’s 500 lines for everyone: I will not believe everything I read about America in The Guardian or the Mirror.

Let’s start this next part of our story where it actually begins. In London.

The Providence Island Company: London, 1630

EVERYONE: Let us turn now to some very posh puritans. Even give you some of their names, if you like. These are men the Brits haven’t heard about since they left school, and Americans never have heard of, ever. John Pym. Lord Mandeville. Lord Saye and Sele (yeah, that’s his name). The appropriately named Sir Nathaniel Rich.

All wealthy, posh, and puritan Englishmen. Famous for their roles in the lead-up to the English Civil War, but NOT famous for that quite yet, because the English Civil War, with its roundheads and cavaliers, is still ten years in the future. So don't think about it. It hasn't happened yet, and in 1630, nobody even thinks it will.

As things in England deteriorate, these posh puritans are concerned that they may have to consider helping more of their lesser puritan brethren to leave the country. They don’t, of course, consider sending them to Massachusetts Bay. They have a much bigger, more sensible vision, despite what that little chap Winthrop thinks, with his embarrassingly presumptuous City on a Hill speech. Who does he think he is? As if God would send godly people to a barren frozen hellhole on purpose. Seriously? Silly man.

In 1630, the posh puritans have already formed the Providence Island Company.

The company’s grand plan is to plant puritan colonies all over the islands and mainland of Central America. Like where Nicaragua and Colombia, Honduras and Costa Rica are now. These are colonies that they will administer from London, unlike the upstarts in New England, who of course run their own show. Or try to.

The goal? The puritans who settle these eventual colonies will wait for the day when King Charles I either repents or dies, while remaining on standby in case they're needed to come home and fight Spain. Oh, and somebody send a letter to that nitwit Winthrop and let him know we expect him and his lot to do the same when called upon to defend the motherland, okay?

What the posh puritans do have in common with (what was his name again? Oh, yes) John Winthrop is that they, too, want to start godly societies, places of which God will approve: Religious. Focused on the next world, not this one.

But unlike Massachusetts Bay, and most English colonies for that matter, the ungodly ones too, the posh puritans intend that their first colony, Providence Island, off the coast of what is today Nicaragua, will prove profitable for the investors at home.

That includes themselves. They put in some of their own money to the project, £600 each (thousands and thousands today). Of course they do.

But they need others to invest. So the Company sells shares to old widows, and ambitious craftsmen, and that sort of person, good honest folk with a bit of spare cash.

Now the Providence Island Company needs to make sure that their colonists make a profit to be returned to those shareholders. Too many English colonial ventures, from Roanoke to Jamestown to Plymouth to Bermuda to Barbados, went pretty badly in the early years, or collapsed, as they struggled to survive, much less turn a profit. The posh puritans have no intention of letting that happen to Providence Island Colony. They will leave nothing to chance.

As things at home deteriorate in 1629-30, the posh puritans speed up their plans toward the eventual goal of saving England by moving every puritan thousands of miles, to central America.

This is ambitious. It's not quite as ambitious as, crazy idea I know, trying to save humanity by moving humans to Mars and modeling to Earthlings how to successfully live on a planet stripped of all natural resources, even air and water. The puritan plan actually does have some chance of success.

Not that Pym or Lord Saye and Sele, or any of the others will be going to the Americas in person themselves. Good Lord, no. No, actually, colonizing is for the little people, men like Winthrop, or their own useless younger brothers, or that ambitious, religious, but poor cousin of theirs. The Company officers’ job? They will plan, organize, and basically make colonies happen, starting with Providence Island. And then they will run it. From London.

That's pretty impressive optimism, isn't it? The Company bosses have no Zoom. No email. No overnight mail. No phones. No faxes. No motorcycle couriers, private jets, FedEx jets, helicopters, or speedboats. Only letters, brought back and forth by wind-powered sailing ships that take weeks… months even… to get across the Atlantic.

Even the on-site manager, um, governor they appoint for the colonists (no elections, thanks) will follow the Company’s strict instructions. They will be managing the whole enterprise by letters from London. Brought on slow ships. Traveling three thousand miles across the ocean.

Being posh puritans, well educated and confident, they of course have the organizational skills and resources to accomplish their goals. They are sure of that. Aristocrats and gentry usually are sure they know what they’re doing.

Until it becomes beyond question that they don’t. And even then.

So these posh English puritans are grifters, then?

Don’t assume that these posh puritans are not sincere, that they are grifters using religion as a cover to make a bundle. Set aside your 21st century cynicism, I say! Why, even John Dane of Massachusetts, an ordinary devout puritan and former butler to a rich puritan family in England, has this to say of his former employers,

That was a very religious family as ever I came in.

How about that for a ringing endorsement from one of the little people!

Truly, posh puritans in England are the kind of people who listen to sermons for fun. They prefer hanging out with clergymen, not with the party types of their own class. But they aren’t the huge bores you might think: Many of them like to go to the theater, even go dancing. They’re not extremists. They just like to make lots of money while religious. Who doesn't? Even John Winthrop isn’t doing too badly up in the frozen wastelands of Massachusetts Bay, although he pretends not to enjoy making money.

Yet…. Posh puritans also never forget to watch their own behavior, to look in their own souls for signs that they are among the Elect, God’s chosen ones, although that, they know, is never guaranteed. God has already decided who the Elect are, at the beginning of time. He’s just not telling you. And if you think you figured out you got tapped for this ultimate exclusive club? That’s a good sign you weren’t, because you are guilty of thinking you know God’s mind. That’s pride. It’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Puritans’ faith is not easy. To put it mildly. Not even for posh puritans.

Providence’s Grand Opening: 1630

So now Providence Island Company’s ships, full of puritans, set sail for sunny Central America, and land on the tropical island they call Providence, where they will be micromanaged from London, by rich puritans who know what they’re doing, naturally.

They find paradise. Palm trees. 80 degrees fahrenheit year round. Fresh water. Good soil. First reports back to London indicate that everything they plant is thriving. All systems are go.

What could possibly go wrong?

Find out in Part 2 of Puritans Gone Wild!