Puritans Gone Wild (Part 2)
ANNETTE TELLS TALES: Stories from the Past That Resonate with Now, Retold
Photo: Brian Dell, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons. Playa Manzanillo (Manzanillo Beach), Isla de Providencia (Providence Island). Puritans in bikinis playing beach volleyball and sipping frosty drinks? Could have happened here. Not saying it did.
The Story So Far:
Although, TBH, you should really read Part 1 here.
It’s no fun being a puritan in early 17th century England, especially not in 1630. Bad enough that the Church of England is moving in a more Catholic direction, the opposite of what you want it to do. Now the King is moving toward tyranny, shutting down Parliament, imposing new taxes without representation, cracking down on puritan clergy and worship, and ignoring the massive threat of Spanish invasion. Some puritans panic, and, led by unknown lawyer John Winthrop, they leave the country to start a colony that they govern themselves, in freezing, barren Massachusetts Bay.
Other English puritans think these people are cowards and losers. Among the critics are rich, powerful puritans, or, as I call them, posh puritans, who have their own plans, with the ultimate goal of planting colonies throughout Central America where puritans can model England 2.0.
First, they will settle an experimental colony on Providence Island, a tropical paradise off the coast of modern-day Nicaragua, one where they hope the Spanish won’t notice them. They will control it from London. Providence Island will be defended by Providence Island Company soldiers, and, while it will be a refuge for godly English puritans, it will also make a nice healthy profit for Company officers and shareholders in London. The first ship lands in 1630.
To make this easier for my readers to understand, since “puritan” means different things in Britain than it does in the States, I have divided you into Team UK, and Team USA. Not British or American? Welcome! Pick a team, or grab some popcorn and take a comfy seat in the audience. We will all start together.
Team USA, Team UK, and Folks in the Audience:
Excellent Reports from Paradise, December, 1631
More than a year after Providence Island was established as a puritan colony, let's look in on the posh puritans who own it, the London-based officers of the Providence Island Company, or as we shall call it for short, PICorp. PICorp is NOT its real name. Do NOT write this on an exam or in a History Day Project. Indeed, if you are a student, here looking for a shortcut, GO AWAY. This is a fun intro for busy adults, not proper history. Stop being lazy.
Where was I? Oh, yes. The posh puritans of PICorp, as we shall call it, in London. They are very pleased with how things are going under their strict supervision from afar.
Based on reports they have just received, their little starter colony in paradise is thriving.
Unlike in every other English colony, disease has hardly touched Providence Island. Experimental crops, especially tobacco, are coming along nicely, and the long lush growing season has allowed planters to stockpile food, more than enough for another wave of colonists. A brickworks is now churning out materials for major public buildings, like the Governor’s house and the church. If the puritans of Providence now have the leisure time to spend most of their days sipping margaritas on the beach, we wouldn’t be surprised.
Indeed, PICorp soldier Captain Samuel Axe writes that he eats like a lord, and no wonder. He reports breathlessly on what’s growing all around him:
. . oranges, lemons… figs, pomegranates, rhubarb, we have planted and they prosper . . . cloves, pepper, mace, nutmegs, raisins, currants, and I doubt not the land will bear as well as any land under heaven.
And yet, the people are mostly behaving themselves in this new place as the posh puritans of PICorp would expect of sober, godly puritans. There is, of course, an on-site manager (who takes his instructions from London): Governor Philip Bell is an experienced man, whose last job was as governor of Bermuda. He can deal with the occasional troublemaker. But mostly, he can expect to rule godly men who are searching in their souls for God’s truth. These people will one day return and lead England to become a puritan paradise on earth. Except, possibly, without the sunshine. But perhaps God will be kind to their soggy little country and send a few rays their way.
There are a few grumbles from Providence Island, of course. Some planters object to having to pay half their crop proceeds in rent to PICorp. But you have to expect a few moaners, don’t you?
Rev. Lewis Morgan, aged 22, the clergyman PICorp appointed to serve the colony, praises Governor Bell’s integrity in a gushing letter to London, calling him a
man whose countenance proclaims him grave, his words eloquent, his deeds religious. He’s all a Christian.
Unknown to PICorp officers, Morgan has also written to a friend, John Reeve, a pharmacist in England who is not an investor in the colony. This letter shows that young Rev. Morgan’s enthusiasm is genuine. He writes excitedly that he wishes John would come to Providence to see for himself
that peace, unity, and religion, and sweet contention that our hearts enjoy, etc. I doubt not that you would most willingly spend an age in this same Eden.
I’ll bet that, as John Reeve looks out his window at overcast skies, he wishes he could take up his friend’s invitation. Providence indeed sounds like a paradise on earth.
Troublemaker in Paradise: March, 1632
Now, in March, 1632, the posh puritans at PICorp in London await the overdue return of the Seaflower, the private company ship. It should be on its way back across the Atlantic, having dropped off colonists and supplies in Providence Island, and will be bringing eagerly-anticipated reports from the colony. The posh puritans are so excited to hear the latest good news, they are already planning to rent a second, bigger ship to send another 150 colonists and supplies, the handling of which they have already taken over from the third-party provider.
The Seaflower docks in London, and a ship’s officer rushes the letters from Providence Island to PICorp House. This is the 1632 version of email.
PICorp officers are happy to see him and his messages, but puzzled when the very first thing the sailor hands them is a petition, a joint letter from the colonists. He urges them to look at it first. He tells them that John Essex, a colonist and retired soldier, who was a passenger on the Seaflower, had intended to deliver this letter in person because it was so important, and that he had traveled without the Governor’s permission. Essex was unable to deliver the letter himself because he was dead, killed when a Spanish ship fired on the Seaflower.
What the posh puritan officers of PICorp read in the letter shocks them to the core. Providence Island Colony is teetering on the edge of rebellion. And the head troublemaker? Their handpicked young minister, Lewis Morgan.
Dealing with Lewis Morgan
The posh puritans of PICorp have worried about young Rev. Lewis Morgan from the start. They had wanted someone older and experienced, but it was hard to persuade older men to take the job, which doesn't pay well, and would involve them leaving their wives and children behind until the colony is sufficiently established to be suitable for families.
They were assured that the lad was sensible and studious. But Lewis Morgan is very young. He has only just graduated from Oxford. PICorp officers decided that he would live in the Governor’s house, and that Governor Bell could keep an eye on him. He would live a quiet and scholarly life with his books, closely supervised, until he was mature enough to be allowed to work independently.
Now Lewis Morgan, of all people, has organized a petition among the colonists, blasting PICorp’s mismanagement of the Colony. The posh puritans will deal with him shortly.
Old John Essex, they suspect, had planned to publish the critical letters he carried. At least that wouldn’t be happening now. That would have been very embarrassing.
Embarrassing? Oh, yes. Because in those letters, Lewis Morgan and several other colonists accused the honorable posh puritans of PICorp of being hypocritical grifters, pretending to be godly when they were only interested in making fortunes for themselves.
Posh puritans aren’t used to being spoken to like this. Jaws drop, eyes grow wide, and there are puritanical expressions of fury. And anyway, it isn’t fair. While leading investors in other colonies might put £25, or £100 at most, into their ventures, these men have each ponied up the vast sum of £600 (I’m going to guess wildly we’re talking about $500,000 to a million bucks each, but don’t quote me). They had a point.
As everyone knows, however, there is nothing wrong with colonists sending a petition. This is how things are normally done in England. When the little people get upset or angry about something, they send petitions. If their petition is ignored, and they still feel strongly, then they might protest or riot. Usually, the authorities will then respond, in not one, but two ways: 1. Severely punish the ringleaders, and only the ringleaders, and 2. Start figuring out how to make the masses happy.
So, first things first. Lewis Morgan will be sent a polite invitation recalling him to London. When the boy gets here, probably expecting a thank-you for bringing the colony’s problems to PICorp’s attention, he will instead be hauled before a terrifying committee of glowering old puritans, fired, and escorted from the building, with a swift kick up the backside into the street. That’ll teach him.
The Colonists Complain. The Providence Island Company Responds.
The posh puritans at PICorp in London now review the colonists’ complaints, and prepare a Company response.
They are upset about giving half their profits to PICorp. Well, that’s absurd: They can make a fantastic living on 50% in a warm fertile place like Providence Island. They should have taken their agricultural experiments seriously, just like PICorp told them to do. Heavens, we have even sent these people expensive seed. If their tobacco isn’t very good, and they haven’t found other profitable crops, maybe they need to work harder to be better planters?
They complain the Island is poorly defended, and they blame Captain Daniel Elfrith, who is in charge of building the fortifications. Elfrith, admittedly, does worrying things, like inviting a Spanish pirate, El Mulato, to dinner at his house. Elfrith has even engaged in a bit of “privateering” (licensed piracy) himself: he captured a Spanish ship, and abandoned his little English ship in order to drive home the bigger Spanish vessel. This means that (a) He has just let the Spanish know that the English have a colony in the area and (b) He has given the Spanish a great reason to attack that colony, and recover their ship. Look, Elfrith isn’t someone you just get rid of: he knows more than anyone about the lay of the land in central America. PICorp’s posh puritan officers write Elfrith a stern letter telling him off for his irresponsible behavior, and appoint another soldier, Captain Samuel Axe, to take charge of building the defenses. But Elfrith is kept on the payroll. He is encouraged to do more exploring of the mainland, just more discreetly, and keep PICorp posted on what he finds.
The colonists don’t want their indentured servant farmworkers spending valuable time building public buildings, not when they have enough work to do with the crops, especially tobacco, and especially when that work is essential to the colony’s (and PICorp’s) success. PICorp should send its own indentured servants to build the church and the governor’s house and whatnot. PICorp agrees to do just that. But the posh puritans cleverly point out that this means fewer of the newly-arriving indentured servants will be available to help farm. A point to PICorp, we think.
The colonists complain that the supplies they receive from London are shoddy, overpriced, and subject to a 25% PICorp mark-up. Worse, privileged people on the Island get first dibs on whatever is sent. PICorp has already bought out their third-party supplier, and improved the quality and reduced the price of what will be sent to Providence Island from now on. They insist on their 25%, because they do need some profit, and that’s a pretty standard fee in colonial arrangements. However, they order that whenever a supply ship arrives at Providence Island, a table will now be set up showcasing the goods on offer, with clearly-marked prices, and the Governor will be on hand, in case of disputes, to decide which colonist most needs a particular item.
Colonists complain that they’re required to sell all their tobacco to PICorp on the Company’s terms. PICorp’s officers are happy to go along with a new arrangement in which the colonists can sell their half of the tobacco crop to the English buyers of their choice. Whatever.
The colonists are most upset that they are renting their land from PICorp without any guarantee of permanent tenure. They are working their butts off to clear tropical land for agriculture, with no guarantee the Company won’t kick them off the land they have worked so hard to improve. PICorp will be happy to revisit this issue, at some future time to be determined, once things have stabilized. In other words, they punt the problem to infinity and beyond.
There are other issues.
The men on Providence Island long for a normal, English life. They want to know and trust those they are dealing with, above them and alongside them, and below them, and to do it all in a godly way. PICorp can help: They will send a shipload of good puritan women, and a midwife. That should do much to keep these men happy, and bring the godly influence of wives.
PICorp also encourages the Governor to expel troublemakers . . . Unless, of course, those troublemakers are the posh puritans’ own relatives and friends. That’s tricky. The same hesitancy applies to soldiers like Capt. Daniel Elfrith on whom the colony’s defense against Spanish forces depends: Even if soldiers act appallingly, and they often do without direct civilian control, they must be tolerated, no matter how rude, or how much they spoil the puritan paradise.
The Company has its own complaints about the colonists.
The posh puritans learn from the ship’s officer who brought their mail from Providence Island that some colonists have ordered casino supplies (playing cards, dice, even card tables) to be brought back on the Seaflower. The bosses send an urgent letter with the ship, ordering the Governor to burn the gaming equipment the moment it arrives.
This is not so straightforward as you might think. Bored puritan colonists will be denied the chance to decide for themselves whether playing a few card games hurts their relationship with God, and/or each other.
What’s more, there’s a teeny bit of hypocrisy going on here. PiCorp’s posh puritan leaders in England often, themselves, like a little gamble at cards at home. They just don’t want the colonists, who are of “the lesser sort”, doing the same.
Likewise, while hard liquor is allowed on the Island, only the “better sort” (like the posh puritans’ relatives) are allowed to keep their own liquor cabinet: Everyone else has to apply to the Governor for a drink, and he decides if they are responsible enough to enjoy one. There’s a great word for this sort of thing, for treating adults differently for doing the exact same thing as each other: Discrimination.
There are some issues for which the posh puritans in London have no advice. They don’t know how to deal with storing food in hot weather, keeping the harvest safe from either rotting in the humidity, or being eaten by all the tropical insects. They don’t know which crops will work best on a tropical island. These are the sorts of details the colonists will have to figure out for themselves. The rest is decided in London.
Lewis Morgan Redeemed, 1632
Rev. Lewis Morgan was tipped off in advance that big trouble awaits him in London. His father-in-law accompanies him to the meeting to provide moral support, and pleads for mercy on the young man’s behalf. But Morgan must explain himself to a committee of furious and very powerful men against whose rule he has led an insurrection, and whom he has called “hypocrites.”
He brings a written apology, and now makes a groveling spoken apology to the committee. Astonishingly, they are mollified by his obvious distress. They not only forgive him, but reimburse him for the books he has left on the Island, and also for the incidental expenses he has spent on fellow passengers’ welfare on the voyage home. They applaud his kindness. He is still fired, of course, but they aren’t monsters.
One factor that may have softened the posh puritans’ hearts: Lewis Morgan has shown them that their colonists are now divided between “godly” and “ungodly” factions. Rev. Morgan had angered Captain William Rudyerd, a member of the “ungodly” faction, allegedly over some borrowed books. But there was more to it than that. Morgan has angered Capt. Rudyerd by allowing the congregation, men and women together, to sing psalms in church, a popular practice among puritans, who love a sing-song, but who aren’t allowed the often bawdy ballads that other English people enjoy. Some puritans, however, consider even psalm-singing controversial.
It just so happens that Captain Rudyerd is one of them. He is not keen on psalm singing in church, especially when men and women are singing together, and all sorts of naughty behavior can start with that sort of thing. He is even more angry that the minister invited the congregation to vote for this change and their own choice of psalms, instead of leaving such decisions to their social betters, i.e. Captain William Rudyerd, whose brother is an actual “Sir,” and also happens to be one of the major investors in PICorp.
Capt. Rudyerd is likely very satisfied to learn that the young upstart Morgan has been sacked. But the three ministers who succeed Lewis Morgan are reported to have been heard singing naughty songs together on the voyage over. Arthur Rous, posh puritan John Pym’s stepbrother, is one of them, and there are rumors that he suggested sex to a (male) indentured servant belonging to another colonist. Rous is also seen as rude, and aggressive. He had ordered that same colonist shackled, on a flimsy pretext, a shocking way to treat an English gentleman.
But now, with three ministers, no colonist has the excuse that it’s too far to go to church. Sermons ring out across Providence Island, just as the officers of PICorp had hoped. Arthur Rous soon dies, however. It’s hard not to think that both he and Rudyerd were difficult men who were dumped on the colony by their posh puritan relatives at PICorp in London.
The Respectable Mr. Roote is Not Impressed, 1633
With Arthur Rous dead and another clergyman having left, there is only Hope Sherrard left to minister to Providence Island. Desperate for a minister who will deliver lots of good sermons, and increase the godliness of their colony, the posh puritans in London more than double the salary for prospective ministers, to a very attractive £100 a year, plus a generous recruitment bonus.
They hire Henry Roote, a highly reputable and experienced clergyman, and they are thrilled with him. He, however, is not thrilled with Providence Island. Quickly, he connects with local leaders who are on the same page. They develop a plan to get rid of “undesirables” and reform the colony. He then takes their letters back to London. If the plan is not completely accepted, he will resign. Hope Sherrard sends a supportive letter, saying that he, too, will quit unless the plan is accepted. Providence Island would be a puritan colony without a minister.
Roote makes an impressive presentation in London. The committee are embarrassed by what he tells them of the behavior of another of John Pym’s relatives, William Rous, and Sir Benjamin Rudyerd’s brother, William. The posh puritans agree not to meddle on behalf of their relatives in future.
Most radically, Roote proposes, on behalf of everyone, a total overhaul of the Colony’s government. Instead of the posh puritans directing their affairs from London, the godly planters on Providence Island want to rule themselves . . . Just like the puritans in Massachusetts Bay.
Uh oh. Some of the “ungodly” settlers are essential to the posh puritans’ plans for more colonies on the mainland, and to the defense of the Island. If the godly settlers have their way, they could end up expelling people whose skills are needed for the colony’s survival. And anyway, who knew better what’s best for the colony than the posh puritans in London?
The posh puritans cannot agree on how to respond. They end up sending a pretty vague letter in which they don’t answer the demand for a legislature. Henry Roote doesn’t take their letter: As threatened, He quits, and never returns to Providence Island.
Hope Sherrard? He stays, but he desperately fights his enemies by excommunicating more and more of them. Finally, he is imprisoned (the charges are not recorded). The posh puritans in London stand by him, even when the wonderfully named Captain Hooke, one of those he has excommunicated, comes to London to complain about the minister. PICorp officers refuse to meet with him.
Sirens Going Off: 1635
By 1635, while thousands of devout English puritans are flocking to freezing, desolate Massachusetts Bay Colony, the posh puritans who run the Providence Island Company are practically begging godly people to come enjoy their tropical island paradise.
When the Spanish attack Providence Island in 1635, it is almost a blessing in disguise. Unprepared though the Islanders are, they successfully defend themselves. This is surely a sign of God’s favor. It also gives the posh puritans in London grounds to request the English government issue the colony some privateering licenses. Government-sponsored piracy is called privateering. It’s still piracy. Piracy promises to give the colonists a way to pay off investors, and allow the Island to settle down at last. Captain William Rudyerd becomes a licensed pirate (privateer), as does Lt. William Rous. Because of course they do.
The PICorp officers appoint a new godly governor, Robert Hunt, to replace the disappointing Governor Bell. They order Rev. Hope Sherrard to be freed from prison, although they urge him to please stop excommunicating people left and right. But their efforts to recruit better ministers fall flat, when at least one of the chosen candidates takes a job in frozen Massachusetts Bay instead. Which should tell them something.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts Bay is also changing. By 1635, full church membership is only available to “visible saints”, people who can convince a congregation that they are likely headed for heaven. Only visible saints are now allowed to vote or hold office. This seems like a very bad idea to the posh puritans: It is almost like the power of bishops in England under Charles I to decide who is considered religiously and politically correct. This is not proper puritanism, they say. Massachusetts Bay has gone wild. Lord Saye and Sele (remember him?) and Lord Brooke had considered going to Massachusetts Bay themselves. But this puts them off.
They aren’t alone in being upset: Massachusetts clergyman Thomas Hooker leaves the colony with his congregation, and settles what becomes Connecticut. Rev. Roger Williams, even more staunchly opposed to mixing church and state, is kicked out of Massachusetts Bay, and founds Rhode Island. The men in charge of Massachusetts Bay now begin a ruthless purge of church members whose views they don’t like, and when they are challenged by Anne Hutchinson (a woman!), she is expelled and goes to join Roger Williams. The newly-awoken Massachusetts Bay leaders now draw up a list of unacceptable opinions. It sounds awful, and it is awful for a lot of people, but Massachusetts Bay had found a way to replace all those social relationships they couldn’t bring from England by redefining church membership to create a new elite. And basically this limit on who can be a full member is an organized version of Hope Sherrard’s excommunication of colonists he considered insufficiently godly. By the late 1630s, Sherrard is refusing all the sacraments to everyone, rather than allow the ungodly to take them.
English puritans, like the posh men who ran Providence Island colony, are aghast. Eventually, Lords Saye and Sele (one person, remember!) and Brook will one day start a colony in Connecticut called Saybrook, under the leadership of John Winthrop, Jr. You really can’t make this stuff up.
That Didn’t Take Long: Providence’s Grand Closing, 1641
Team UK, Team USA, Audience . . . EVERYONE:
It’s 1641, and things are falling apart in the puritan colony on Providence Island. Eleven years after the first colonists’ arrival from England, the puritans of Providence have gone wild. They are growing shiploads of tobacco to feed the drug-addicted masses in England. They are exploiting massive numbers of people, now mostly enslaved Indians and Africans, to grow the stuff. This puritan colony has also become an HQ for legal piracy, with privateers stealing whatever they fancy from passing Spanish ships. Imagine puritans with eyepatches and buckle hats! These really are puritans gone wild. Every time they attack, they annoy the Spanish more, and so more puritan soldiers, not known for their tact or charm, have to be shipped to the Island.
What went wrong?
The trouble is, if you ask the posh puritans in 1641, their answer is probably “Because God ordains it.” Unfortunately, they were so obsessed with holding God responsible, they didn’t notice their own failures, starting with micromanaging things all the way from London. The new governor they sent, Robert Hunt, is a godly man, but he becomes too closely allied with Rev. Hope Sherrard, and he persecutes Philip Bell, his predecessor, who tends to support the complainers. The PICorp officers order him to knock it off, but by 1637, colonists are writing to London threatening to abandon the colony. It’s a mess. The posh puritans send a new governor, soldier/experienced governor/godly puritan Nathaniel Butler. He is a no-nonsense guy with loads of experience. He’s perfect. He transformed the troubled colony of Bermuda. But Providence Island is too much for him. He ends up describing himself to PICorp officers as “your martyr”, having fallen victim to the divisions among the colonists, which are worse than ever. He goes home. Look, things just kept getting worse. Want to know more? Read Karen Kupperman’s book.
Contrast what happened in Providence Island with Massachusetts Bay: John Winthrop, Governor, and his colleagues in charge, weren't part of the Old Boy Network in London. They run their own affairs. As you saw, this doesn’t always go well, but at least, unlike the governors of Providence Island, Winthrop doesn’t have to refer every decision across thousands of miles of ocean, and then wait for a reply.
Every reply to Providence Island revealed that the company’s bosses had no clue of the circumstances on a remote tropical island, or the people involved. London made the decisions and kept a tight rein, while puritans went wild on the ground.
Could the Colony have been saved?
Probably not. According to historian Dr. Karen Kupperman, three things needed to happen as soon as possible if the Providence Island Colony were to get off the ground and stay there, all three of which come down to local control, not rule from London.
The Providence Island Company didn’t allow that. It was trying so hard to make sure that things were done in a proper, Godly, English way, it didn’t cut the apron strings that joined Providence Island to London. So PICorp and its colony were doomed, no matter what, no matter how many godly settlers they sent, or how well-intentioned were the leaders in London.
The posh puritans back in London keep trying, all the way to the bitter end. They keep on sending money and nice, suitable colonists from England. They try so hard to fix the place, making polite enquiries as to how everything is going, God-wise. And profit-wise. What they don’t do? Let the colonists take charge.
So, things fall apart.
The Bitter End
The last puritans, indeed, the last Englishmen, to arrive in Providence Island colony are from Massachusetts Bay, recruited by the posh puritans in London. John Winthrop is outraged, but by 1641, thanks to events in England, migration to Massachusetts Bay has collapsed, and the colony’s economy has, too. People are considering their options.
So a hundred puritans from Massachusetts Bay agree to come to the rescue of Providence Island. They take one look, and go straight back to Massachusetts.
The Providence Island colony is over. The Spanish have finally managed to invade and conquer, and although they kindly decide not to kill the English colonists, they do boot them out,
Americans, skip this next paragraph.
TEAM UK: In other words, Providence Island colony was the usual cock-up by interfering poshos. [Oh, for heavens sake . . . SOMEBODY PASS THE AMERICANS THE SMELLING SALTS. Americans? Wake up. I told you to skip this bit. Cock-up is a perfectly polite British expression, and it doesn’t mean what you think it means. Look it up if you don’t believe me. Don’t be so puritanical.]
TEAM USA: What can I say? We learned that puritans weren’t always the same. Nothing about what happened in New England, about what puritans became there, was inevitable. We sometimes think we can guess what the puritans would have been like if they had got lost and ended up in Virginia. It’s fun to imagine. Curiously, the Mayflower did get lost. It was supposed to land in Virginia. It’s intriguing to imagine those folks joining in the rush for riches in land, tobacco, and forced labor.
But we simply cannot know what could have happened. We can only know what did happen, and sometimes not even that. That’s the bottom line with history.
Puritans Gone Wrong from WHAT?
I learned to think a little differently about puritans from Dr. Karen Ordahl Kupperman, the American scholar on whose book I drew extensively for this post. If I have botched it, I expect that a drone carrying a letter pasted on a boulder is already on its way to Madison, programmed with precise instructions about where to drop the rock. I bet the posh puritans would have liked one of those.
I learned from Kupperman that there isn’t one official way to be puritan, against which other puritans are defined. Massachusetts Bay didn’t define the term. Neither did the puritans in England.
That’s why the small “p”. We should call them puritan, not Puritan.
The rich puritan Englishmen in London who directed the Providence colony, and the puritans who settled there, were no less or more puritan than the lawyers, the farmers and the craftsmen who settled in Massachusetts and the rest of New England.
Puritans in the tropics weren’t wild or wrong. Neither were puritans in Massachusetts Bay. Or Connecticut. Or Rhode Island.
They were just different. Despite what John Winthrop said in his City on a Hill speech, there really was no template puritans were supposed to follow, other than being godly, however you define that. Being puritan simply meant wanting to reform the Church of England in a more protestant direction. That’s what they had in common. And there's a lot of latitude in it. In fact, the leaders of the Providence Island Company, to give it its proper name, embraced that flexibility: The arrival of God’s kingdom, they believed, would come out of godly men’s search for truth within puritan lines, but not according to strict catechism, which stifled innovation. Think about the irony.
There was no one way to be a puritan in New England, either. Just because New England later became abolitionist, and liberal, doesn’t mean that the die was cast when the ships arrived in Massachusetts. Puritans in Massachusetts weren’t anti-slavery. They just couldn’t afford many slaves, and they put the best face on a bad situation, by pretending that there was virtue in not having major plantation slavery like the South did, and not having good enough weather to grow profitable staple crops.
And like everyone and everything, puritans and puritanism changed over time.
Eventually, puritans became known as Congregationalists. And after all, wasn’t being different the point of being congregationalist? Each congregation defining itself and its membership, defining what it means to be one of them? I was baptized a Congregationalist in mid-20th century Scotland, and that was different again. Here’s me with my lovely godmother May, and the Congregationalist minister, in the traditional black robe with white preaching bands.
So I’m a puritan by birth and heritage. How about that. I’m not a Scottish Congregationalist, but I have obsessions with work and critical self-reflection, so maybe my inner puritan is still lurking in my subconscious.
In the end, puritans didn’t succeed in “purifying” the Church of England. They threw in the towel at the Restoration, when the Stuart monarchs returned. In New England, Congregationalists became the leading—but not only— Christian denomination. With outposts across America, including in 18th century Georgia, y’all. But that’s a story for another day.
So what happened to the posh puritans in England?
The men who organized the Providence Island Colony led the side of Parliament and puritanism into Civil War.
TEAM USA: No, still not the Blues and the Grays. Go to YouTube for a crash course in the English Civil War, presented by Monty Python.
EVERYONE: The posh puritans learned a lot from the whole sorry experience in paradise. Ironically, they organized opposition to the King’s micromanagement and refusal to let locals run things, including religion.
But by the time the King was executed in 1649, the Providence Company men had all walked away from politics. Killing the King? That was just too radical for them. They had wanted to reform a system that benefited wealthy families like theirs. They never meant to destroy it.
The posh puritans, you see, were not like the crazies on the Mayflower, as they saw them. They didn’t want to separate from the Church of England. They had wanted to save the Church of England, and England itself. That was all. When King Charles I was executed on a cold day in January, 1649, a huge groan went up from the crowd as English people saw their King’s head fall onto the scaffold. Regrets? A few. But it wasn’t like they could sew his head back on, was it? They just had to get on with things.
What followed wasn’t pretty: A puritan republic, mostly under puritan soldier Oliver Cromwell, named Lord Protector.
Puritanism in England had freedom to go wild, and the process started in the Civil War, with soldiers smashing statues and stained glass and all the other colorful bits of churches that appealed to people in a time when there was no TV. Theatres were closed. Playing games outside the pub on Sunday afternoon was banned. Much boredom ensued. Most English people weren’t at all happy about it. The Posh Puritans meanwhile were appalled by what they saw as religious anarchy. They would have been surprised in 1630 to find themselves, twenty years later, opposed to toleration: By the 1650s, Lord Saye and Sele was persecuting Quakers, just like the government of Massachusetts Bay.
After Cromwell died, and his dutiful but hapless son Richard proved a bit useless as a successor, and nobody else wanted the job, posh English people did the only thing they could do. They sent a letter to France, and invited Charles I’s son, Prince Charles, to return to England, with lots of conditions attached that basically said “be nicer than your Dad”, “don’t expect to raise any taxes without Parliament’s consent”, and just be a good King, with all the pomp and pageantry. Was he interested? Of course he was interested. Before you could snap your fingers, Prince Charles had packed up his fancy French wigs and spaniels, and was on his way home.
So, Team UK, that’s it for you, I guess. The puritans are a sideshow in a national story that now had much bigger fish to fry, empires to be won, lost, and won and lost again. This is where you wish us all a good evening, and head out into the rain.
Or maybe stay awhile. If you travel to New England, watch the freeway signs. Suddenly, you are in the east of England: Braintree, Boston, Hartford (sic), Worcester, Billerica (sic), Norwich, Sudbury, Cambridge. These lands once belonged to Indian nations, and it is jarring and fascinating to see what a veneer of Englishness the puritans pasted over them. Maybe veneer isn’t the right word. But that’s a story for another day.
And just a few of those names, a little battered, and their original meaning largely forgotten, were carried in covered wagons to the Midwest: Wooster (sic) Ohio. Springfield, Illinois, Harlow, North Dakota. I’m here in Dane County, Wisconsin, named for one of the descendants of former butler turned emigrant John Dane, the man who praised the religiousness of his English puritan employers.
And a tiny number of familiar place names even make it all the way to California, where they squat, out of place and mostly unnoticed, in a sea of towns and cities named by the Spanish. In the suburbs of San Francisco, you will find Brentwood. In the deserts of Southern California, in San Bernardino county, you can find an almost abandoned ghost town named Essex.
Sometimes, early American history feels like watching British history play out in an alternate universe, because, for Brits, that’s pretty much what it is. Even the language remains, fundamentally, the same. But it’s all different. Very, very different. And yet strangely familiar.
Team USA: For so very long, the puritans, and especially (weirdly) the exceptional puritans we came to call separatists, who came on a ship they called the Mayflower (sorry, Paul Simon) were a major part of the way Americans think about American history. No surprise, when the first professional historians were writing in the late 19th century from the universities of New England, places like Harvard and Yale. These scholars preferred not to think about places like Virginia, with its tobacco and slavery, much less South Carolina or Georgia. They were doing ancestor worship, basically. Which is no longer what academic history strives for. We’re a much more diverse bunch, in every way you care to define diversity, bringing lots of perspectives.
And honestly? It’s much better this way. It doesn’t mean we ignore the puritans. But by making them share the stage with everyone else, we understand them better than ever. I hope this two-parter has intrigued you. And I hope I have helped with your Puritanophobia. If I made it worse, tell me. I can take it.
Team USA and Team UK: You see, when we talk about the “special relationship” between our two countries, it’s not just a politician’s ploy, or a Eurocentric thing. We’re like cousins who don’t understand each other, grew up separately, and often fall out. But we’re linked. And it’s not by blood, nothing so racist as that: No matter where your ancestors came from, what you look like, or where you live now, the puritans are part of your story. Every American is a bit Brit. And every Brit is a bit American. Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just calling it like I see it. That’s the best I can do.
If I got this story wrong, I expect Dr. Kupperman is already drafting a stern letter to be delivered by boulder-carrying drone. If you are an academic historian who thinks that I seriously blew it, or if you just want to draw my attention to your own work, then I would be most glad to hear from you here at Non-Boring House in Madison, WI. If I have blown it, this will be very embarrassing, because I am an early Americanist who is known for her work on Anglicanism. But I can deal with that, too. Remember, this is journalism, not history, designed to ignite interest, not satisfy it. But I still want to get things right. Maybe that’s my inner puritan speaking, too.
Everyone: Thanks for reading. This is about as long as my posts get, because there's nothing short about the puritans, so if you made it this far, well done! Please subscribe for a variety of posts (long and short, funny and serious) from Non-Boring History with me, Dr. Annette Laing, the Non-Boring Historian. Most posts, are free but please, if you can, consider a paid subscription, which keeps me writing, and costs just $5 a month, or less if you go with the annual plan. You get the full experience, including exclusive posts and additional opportunities to engage with the mysterious and amazing worlds of academic and public history. And if you are MacKenzie Scott (formerly Bezos ) or Melinda French (soon to be formerly) Gates? Please look among the sofa cushions, and mail me what you find, if you wouldn’t mind. It should be enough to keep Non-Boring House in business for a few years.
Want to Know More?
I will not claim that Dr. Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s Providence Island, 1630-1641: The Other Puritan Colony (1993) is an easy read for the public. Don’t get me wrong, she’s an elegant writer. But her argument is complex. I am still not sure I did it any sort of justice. The book is available for cheap on Thriftbooks, or for free via your local library. Your reference librarian will be delighted to obtain it for you.
An article in economic history, which I used for background info, is a good example of why I do what I do in Non-Boring History, which is why I am putting it here. Very helpful for me, but maybe not something you want to read. Unless you do, in which case, go for it. Patrick Wallis, Justin Colson, and David Chilosi, Structural change and economic growth in the British economy before the Industrial Revolution, 1500-1800
Going to Massachusetts? Visit:
Meet the Mayflower people in Plymouth, Massachusetts! Costumed interpreters will talk to you in 17th century English! Don’t worry: You don’t have to answer in kind, and other interpreters are standing by to help you understand what’s going on. Do not do as I did, and get trapped by politeness into listening for far too long to the village chatterbox, blethering on in 17th century English. I still hate that interpreter. He knew what he was doing.
And to get some insight into how New England changed by the early 19th century, do also drive the 90 minutes to visit (NOT on the same day, if you can help it or you won’t enjoy yourself) . . .
And don’t forget to . . .
And . . .