In a speech commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, the great orator Daniel Webster lauded these refugees as the authors of American “civil and religious liberty.” A few decades later, French diplomat and writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “Puritanism was not only a religious doctrine, but also at several points it was mingled with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.” He contended that understanding this “point of departure” is “the key to the whole book”—his magisterial Democracy in America.
Alas, on the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ departure from England, many Americans believe that these settlers were dour Christians who, according to Nathaniel Hawthorne, wore “sad-colored garments” or, in the words of the 19th century English professor Moses Coit Tyler, “cultivated the grim and the ugly.” More recently, the journalist H.L. Mencken described them as harboring a “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” and the playwright Arthur Miller explained that they were “theocrats” who desired to prevent “any kind of disunity.” Contemporary authors such as Steven Waldman, who often writes well on the subject of religion in America, characterizes them as “sadistic” authoritarians.
The Pilgrims, and the Puritans who followed them, were not 21st century liberal democrats, but they created political institutions and practices that profoundly influenced the course of American politics and facilitated later experiments in republican self-government and liberty under law. They valued natural rights, government by the consent of the governed, and limited government; and they were convinced that citizens have a right, and perhaps even a duty, to resist tyrannical governments. On the 400th anniversary of their pilgrimage, we should honor their contributions to the creation of the American republic.
To understand the Puritans, we must briefly consider the Protestant Reformation. The start of this movement may be conveniently dated to 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door. The Puritans came out of the Calvinist, or Reformed, wing of the Reformation. Like other Reformers, John Calvin (1509–1564) emphasized doctrines such as sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, and the priesthood of all believers. But with respect to politics, he and later Calvinists developed ideas and practices that were innovative, empowering, and conducive to human flourishing.
Reformers rejected the idea that the church and its priests were necessary intermediaries between ordinary people and God, and that the church as an institution possessed the authority to speak for Him. Individuals were told that they were responsible for their relationship with God, and that His will for them is most clearly revealed in the Holy Scriptures. These last two beliefs led to an emphasis on literacy and a commitment to translating and printing the Bible in the vernacular.
The significance of the explosion of literacy in Protestant countries cannot be overestimated. In the mid-17th century, the literacy rates of Italy and France were 23 percent and 29 percent, respectively. By way of contrast, scholars estimate that up to 95 percent of males in New England at that time could read. Widespread literacy helped undermine existing hierarchies and paved the way for the growth of republican self-government.
The Reformation had several false starts in England, most notably those led by John Wycliffe and William Tyndale; both famous for translating the Bible into English (a “crime” for which Tyndale was burned at the stake). King Henry VIII was not particularly interested in Protestantism, but he did want to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Because the Pope refused to annul his marriage, he cut ties with Rome in 1534 and created the Church of England. Henry made himself, rather than the Pope, the head of this new church, but otherwise he was largely content to leave it alone.
When Henry’s daughter, Mary, became Queen in 1553, she persecuted and killed Protestant leaders, actions that earned her the pejorative nickname “Bloody Mary.” Many Protestants fled England for Calvin’s Geneva, Switzerland. After Mary died in 1558, these “Marian exiles” returned to their homeland with a renewed desire to “purify” the Church of England. In 1564, they were first called “Puritans” by their opponents.
Most English Puritans were content merely to purify the Church of England, but a subset of them saw no biblical precedent for a national church. They thought that each Christian congregation constituted a church and should govern itself. Because of their desire to separate from any sort of national church, they became known as “Separatists.” In order to freely practice their faith, a group of them fled to Holland in 1608, and then to America aboard the Mayflower on Sept. 16, 1620.
Before these English separatists, more commonly known as Pilgrims, disembarked from the Mayflower, they made an agreement that represents an important political innovation. This covenant, known today as the Mayflower Compact, committed the people and their rulers to pursuing “the Glory of God, and the Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honor of our King and Country.” Its legitimacy stemmed from the consent of the 41 men, most but not all of whom were Separatists, heading households on the ship.
Some scholars have attempted to downplay the importance of the Mayflower Compact by arguing that it was not well-known until the 19th century and was not called the “Mayflower Compact” until 1793. These facts are true, but irrelevant. The Compact is significant because it represents the commitment many Reformed leaders had to the idea that people must consent to civic and ecclesiastical institutions if they are to be legitimate. The Pilgrims, and the Puritans who followed them, created civil governments that are among the most republican the world has ever seen.
Prior to the Protestant Reformation, most Christian thinkers contended that either a monarchy, or a monarchy checked by a legislative body, was the ideal form of government. The Protestant emphasis on literacy, the priesthood of all believers, and, in some cases, congregational ecclesiastical polities, helped to undercut hierarchical forms of government. In the 17th century, Reformed authors began to argue for the first time that the Bible sanctioned only republican governments. They adopted this idea from an unlikely source: commentaries on the Old Testament written by Jewish rabbis.
Reformers believed that ministers and scholars should read the Holy Scriptures in their original languages, which led many of them to learn Hebrew. “To understand the Hebrew Bible, they insisted, one should consult the full array of rabbinic sources that were now available to the Christian West,” Eric Nelson wrote in The Hebrew Republic (2010). “One should turn to the Talmud and midrash, to the targums and medieval law codes.” In these texts, Protestant Reformers discovered a set of ideas that scholars now refer to as “political Hebraism.”
The most important political idea that Reformed thinkers drew from rabbinical commentaries was that republics were the only form of government approved by the Bible. From these works, they learned to interpret passages such as 1 Samuel 8 as condemning the Jewish people’s desire for a king, not their desire for a ruler other than God. By the mid-17th century, many Reformed leaders had come to embrace these views in theory, and civic leaders in New England put these ideas into action as early as 1620.
The Mayflower Compact reflects aspects of Hebraic republicanism, but it is far from unique. In the 1630s, waves of non-Separatist Puritans came to New England where they created literally hundreds of ecclesiastical and civil covenants whereby people joined together for various purposes, all of which were ultimately aimed at glorifying God. Each of these covenants reinforced the idea that governments are legitimate and binding because they were established by the consent of the governed. Not only did the people consent to the formation of governments, most men could also participate in town meetings and be elected to public office.
Of particular significance for America’s later break from Great Britain, Calvinist political thinkers developed a strong commitment to the idea that tyrants must be actively resisted. Traditionally, many Christians understood Romans 13 and related texts to prohibit rebellion or active resistance to tyrannical rulers. Reformers initially embraced this approach, but almost immediately changed their minds. Calvin, one of the most politically conservative of the Reformers, contended that in some cases inferior magistrates may resist a tyrant. However, contemporary and later Calvinists including John Knox (1514–1572), George Buchanan (1506–1582), Theodore Beza (1519–1605), Christopher Goodman (1520–1603), John Ponet (1516–1556), Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661), and the unknown Huguenot author of Vindiciae contra tyrannos (“Defenses against tyrants”) argued that inferior magistrates must resist unjust rulers; some even permitted private citizens to do so.
Long before the War for Independence, Reformed Americans had experience resisting tyranny. New England Puritans supported Parliament during the English Civil War and John Cotton even preached a sermon defending the execution of Charles I. After the Restoration, England attempted to “improve” the governance of the Colonies by combining New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Plymouth into a single administrative unit known as the Dominion of New England (1686–89). The second governor of the new entity, Sir Edmund Andros, immediately made himself unpopular by demanding that a Congregational meeting house in Boston be made available for Anglican services and by restricting town meetings. On April 18, 1689, shortly after news of the Glorious Revolution reached Boston, Puritan civic leaders arrested Andros and returned him to England for trial. The new monarchs wisely abandoned the Dominion and issued a new charter for Massachusetts, one that incorporated Plymouth Colony into its borders.
In my book Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (2012), I present a great deal of evidence that Reformed resistance theory profoundly influenced American patriots in the 1760s and 1770s. This fact was acknowledged by John Adams, who wrote in 1787 that John Ponet’s A Shorte Treatise on Politike Power (1556) contains “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterwards dilated on by Sidney and Locke.” He also noted the significance of Vindiciae contra tyrannos. The connection between Calvinism and the patriot cause was recognized by the other side as well. For instance, the loyalist Peter Oliver railed against “Mr. Otis’s black Regiment, the dissenting Clergy, who took so active a part in the Rebellion” and King George himself reportedly referred to the War for Independence as “a Presbyterian Rebellion.”
Long before John Locke wrote his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689), Reformed civil and ecclesiastical leaders were convinced that the Bible taught that governments should be based on the consent of the governed and that unjust or ungodly rulers must be resisted. They created political institutions that were profoundly republican, and their descendants had roughly 150 years of experience governing themselves before the king embarked on a “long train of abuses” aimed at “reducing them” to despotism. England would have done well to heed Edmund Burke’s 1775 warning to Parliament that Americans “are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it.”
Early Puritan Colonies are often described as theocracies, but this cannot be the case if by theocracy we mean either rule directly by God or rule by priests. Non-Separatists were permitted to consent to the Mayflower Compact and were included in Plymouth Colony’s civic life. Clergy in Massachusetts Bay were initially banned from holding civic offices, and early Puritan legal codes specifically prohibited European institutions such as ecclesiastical courts. As well, these statutes stipulated that ecclesiastical sanctions such as excommunication had no impact on civic office holders.
Puritans were committed to creating social and political institutions that they believed were mandated by the Bible. This aspiration is illustrated well by the 1672 declaration by the Connecticut General Court that: “We have endeavored not only to ground our capital laws upon the Word of God, but also all other laws upon the justice and equity held forth in that Word, which is a most perfect rule.” But the implications of this approach are far from theocratic, at least as the term is usually used.
The influence of Scripture upon New England’s laws is most obvious in each colony’s capital laws. Crimes such as adultery and incest were not punished by death in England, but the Puritans, looking to the Old Testament for guidance, made them capital offenses. Lest there be any mistake about the biblical warrant for this punishment, each capital law cited scriptural authority. For instance:
If any child, or children, above sixteen years old, and of sufficient understanding, shall CURSE, or SMITE their natural FATHER, or MOTHER; he or they shall be put to death: unless it can be sufficiently testified that the Parents have been very unchristianly negligent in the education of such children; or so provoked them by extreme, and cruel correction: that they have been forced thereunto to preserve themselves from death or maiming. Exodus 21:17. Leviticus 20:9. Exodus 21:15.
Such laws are harsh, but in practice the death penalty was rarely enforced. For instance, only three people were hanged for adultery in Puritan New England and no one was ever put to death for being disrespectful to their parents.
On balance, the Puritans’ use of Scripture as a guide for criminal law had a liberalizing effect. In 17th century England, a person could be put to death based on circumstantial evidence, but the Puritans required two eyewitnesses in capital cases, based on Deuteronomy 19:15: “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses…”
Similarly, a third of all English criminals were sentenced to death; a person could be executed for stealing property worth little more than a shilling. But American Puritans interpreted biblical texts such as Exodus 22:4 (“If the theft is certainly found alive in his hand, whether it is an ox or donkey or sheep, he shall restore double”) to require restitution as the penalty for theft rather than death.
The Puritan legal revisions were extensive. David D. Hall of Harvard Divinity School observes in his magisterial The Puritans (2019) that they included “[adding] a cluster of rights and privileges for plaintiffs and defendants… Out went torture, high fees, and long delays… Overnight, the cruelties of the English law and the abuses of power and money it sanctioned gave way to the value of peace, ‘mutual love,’ and equity.” American law owes much to these biblically inspired Puritans.
The Puritans considered magistrates to be “nursing fathers” (a phrase taken from Isaiah 49:23) to the church, and so like most countries and colonies they established churches. The only European colony or country that declined to have an established church in this era, Rhode Island (also known as “Rogues Island”), was viewed by almost everyone as an experiment gone horribly wrong. It was commonplace to require church attendance, support favored churches with tax revenue, give special privileges to its ministers, and place restrictions on dissenters.
In the late 17th century, Pennsylvania and a few other Colonies declined to create official established churches, and unlike Rhode Island they were viewed as being reasonably successful. Yet even these Colonies had religious tests for civic offices, and their governments actively punished vice and promoted Christianity. For instance, Article 37 of Pennsylvania’s first laws in 1682 held that magistrates should punish:
such offences against God, as swearing, cursing, lying, profane talking, drunkenness, drinking of healths, obscene words, incest, sodomy, rapes, whoredom, fornication, and other uncleanness (not to be repeated)…all prizes, stage-plays, cards, dice, May-games, gamesters, masques, revels, bull-battings, cock-fighting, bear-battings, and the like, which excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and irreligion…
My point, of course, is not that religious tests and bans on “vices” such as stage plays, cards, and dice are prudential, it is simply that Puritans were not unusual in enacting such restrictions.
Puritans were more tolerant than is often assumed. Most non-Congregationalists were tolerated if they remained quiet and did not disturb the public order. Massachusetts law recognized that civic authorities should not attempt to “constrain [citizens] to believe or profess against their consciences.” In other words, Puritan rulers did not attempt to compel belief. But they also did not permit men and women to disturb the public order. So, for instance, Anabaptists were banned from the colony not because they held erroneous views, but because “they have been the incendiaries of commonwealths” and are “troublers of churches.” Likewise, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were exiled from the colony in the mid-1630s for being too vocal about their theological views, which were considered too dissenting and dangerous to Puritan ears.
At best, the Puritans accepted a weak form of religious toleration. But they were not unusual in doing so. Fortunately, in the late-17th century and throughout the 18th century, civic and ecclesiastical leaders were embracing a far more robust understanding of religious liberty. And, as I argue in Did America Have a Christian Founding? (2019), many of them did so for biblical and theological reasons.
The Puritan conviction that rulers should promote true religion and virtue suggests a powerful state, but this possibility was tempered by their view that civil power must be strictly limited. Puritans believed that all humans are sinful, and that even Christians continue to struggle with sin (Romans 7:13-25). Like Lord Acton, they understood that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Accordingly, they placed a variety of checks on rulers, including regular elections and legal restraints on civic officials. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties legal code established in 1641 contains many protections later found in the American Bill of Rights, including prohibitions against double jeopardy, torture, and “in-humane Barbarous or cruel” bodily punishments.
Seven years later these laws were revised and published as The Book of the General Lawes and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of Massachusetts. This was the first printed code of laws in the Western world, an innovation that made it possible to distribute the statutes more widely than if they were copied by hand. As Michael Winship observes in his excellent book Hot Protestants (2019), in “New England, the colonists created [legal] systems that were simple, equitable, inexpensive, speedy, transparent, and grounded in law codes crafted to protect colonists’ rights against overbearing local rulers.”
Puritans believed the power of the state should be constrained by what the minister John Davenport called in 1670 the “Law of Nature” which is “God’s law.” A striking expression of this idea is found in a 1678 sermon by Samuel Nowell, in which he observed that the “law of nature…teaches men self-preservation.” He proceeded to point out that there “is such a thing as Liberty and Property given to us, both by the Laws of God & Men, when these are invaded, we may defend ourselves.”
Nowell’s observation that God “has set rulers their bounds and by his law hath determined people’s liberties and property” suggests that citizens may justly resist rulers who violate a people’s rights. When Reformed Americans in the late 18th century made natural rights arguments against abuses of the Crown, they were drawing in large part from their own tradition, one that may be traced back to the early days of the Reformation.
Those who characterize the Puritans as intolerant theocrats often highlight two events: the hanging of the Quaker Mary Dyer on Boston Commons and the Salem witch trials. These acts were unjust and must be condemned, but they should not define the Puritans. A little historical background may help us understand them better.
The Society of Friends was founded in England around 1652. Its members are referred to as “Friends” or “Quakers”; the latter nickname perhaps coming from their proclivity to become so excited in worship services that they would literally quake. There is no question that the early Friends could be very disruptive. In England, more than 10,000 Quakers were imprisoned and 242 died because of abuse, mistreatment, or neglect. Massachusetts Bay and several other Colonies, including Anglican Virginia, banned them altogether.
In 1657, the Quakers William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson, and Mary Dyer arrived in Boston. Viewed as disruptive heretics, they were imprisoned and then banished upon pain of death. Robinson and Stevenson refused to leave and were imprisoned again, whereas Dyer left but later returned. In 1659, the three Quakers were banished a second time, and again the men refused to leave. Dyer departed and, once again, returned. At that point, all three were sentenced to death. The two men were hanged, but Dyer was granted a last-minute reprieve and was banished once more. She left Boston and, probably to no one’s surprise, later returned. This time she was hanged. A fourth Quaker was executed in 1661.
Four Quakers hanged on Boston Common is four too many, but it should be noted that they were banished not for their beliefs per se, but because they were viewed as being disruptive and dangerous to the social order. They were executed for violating the terms of their banishment.
In 1692, another threat arose in John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” this time in Salem, Massachusetts. When all was said and done, 14 women and six men were convicted of witchcraft and executed (19 were hanged and one was pressed to death when being interrogated). These were not the only executions for witchcraft in New England, but prior to Salem they had become quite rare. In the 29 years before the Salem trials, only one person in British North America was put to death for this crime. In part, this was because ministers and civic officials had developed stringent procedures to protect men and women accused of witchcraft, protections that were ignored at the Salem trials.
Belief in witchcraft was common in the 17th century, and witchcraft trials were not limited to Massachusetts Bay. Even Rhode Island, which did not require the death penalty for any offense against the First Table of the Law (those commandments prohibiting offenses against God such as idolatry and blasphemy), considered witchcraft to be a violent crime against others and so made it a capital offense.
Between 1400 and 1775, 100,000 men and women in the European world were prosecuted as witches. Of these, 50,000 were sentenced to death. By way of contrast, 272 Americans were formally charged with witchcraft and 32 were executed. State-sanctioned executions for witchcraft in Europe continued well into the 18th century, the last ones occurring in 1718 in France, 1722 in Scotland, and 1782 in Switzerland. The last execution for witchcraft in England was in 1683; America’s last occurred in 1692 as a result of the trials in Salem. After these trials, Massachusetts never tried another person for witchcraft.
By placing the hanging of Quakers and the Salem witch trials in their historical contexts, I am in no way condoning them. My point is simply that the Puritans were not that different from others of their era, and they were more humane than many. As such, it is inappropriate to focus on these events to the exclusion of the Puritans’ many accomplishments—accomplishments that paved the way for American independence and the creation of a constitutional order that has served this country well.
The Puritans were not 21st-century liberal democrats, but neither were they intolerant theocrats. They created political institutions that were among the most republican that the world had ever seen, and they strictly limited civic leaders by law. They valued liberty and had, as David D. Hall puts it in A Reforming People, an “animus against ‘tyranny’ and ‘arbitrary’ power that pervaded virtually every sermon and political statement.”
We do not need to join Webster and Tocqueville in overstating their contributions to recognize that the Puritans played an important role in the formation of American religious and civic liberty. As John Adams observed late in life, without the “great exertions & severe sufferings” of the Reformers, “the USA [might never have] existed.”
above: Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in December 1620, engraving, American, c. 1858 (Alamy Stock Photo)