Their opponents ridiculed them as “Puritans,” but these radical reformers, the English followers of John Calvin, came to embrace that name as an emblem of honor. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, England faced a gathering storm in religious life – the Puritan movement. Before the storm abated, the Puritans had founded the first permanent European settlements in a region that came to be known as New England.
The Puritans believed that God had commanded the reform of both church and society. They condemned drunkenness, gambling, theatergoing, and Sabbath-breaking and denounced popular practices rooted in pagan custom, like the celebration of Christmas. They deplored the “corruptions” of Roman Catholicism that still pervaded the Church of England – churches and ceremonies they thought too elaborate, clergymen who were poorly educated.
The refusal of English monarchs to attack these “besetting evils” turned the Puritans into outspoken critics of the government. This King James I would not endure: he decided to rid England of these malcontents. With some of the Puritans, known as the Separatists, he seemed to have succeeded.
The Separatists, a tiny minority within the Puritan movement, were pious people from humble backgrounds who concluded that the Church of England was too corrupt to be reformed from within. In 1608 one Separatist congregation at Scrooby decided to flee to Holland. That move afforded them religious freedom, but they found only low-paying jobs and were distressed by desertions from within their ranks to other religions.
Some decided to move again, this time to North America. In December of 1620, eighty-eight Separatist “Pilgrims” disembarked from the Mayflower at a place they called Plymouth on the coast of present-day southeastern Massachusetts. But misfortune followed the Separatists to the New World. The hardships of the crossing and inadequate provisions left many vulnerable to a “starving time” during the winter. The Plymouth colony would have failed entirelyif the Pilgrims had not received assistance from local Indian tribes.
The Pilgrims had received permission from England to settle farther south in the New World, but they had sailed off course and lacked any legal sanction for their land claims or their government in Plymouth. English authorities, however, distracted by more pressing problems, left the tiny colony alone. Among these distractions were other Puritans who were still striving to reform church and society in England. By the 1620s, Charles I, James’s son and successor, had undertaken even more stringent measures for suppressing dissent. Compounding the religious crisis were mounting political tensions between the king and Parliament and continuing economic problems of recession and unemployment.
Many Puritans concluded that England was slipping toward the Apocalypse. Some, from the ranks of the Congregationalists, became interested in colonization, and in 1629, a group of merchants, landed gentlemen, and lawyers organized the Massachusetts Bay Company. Unlike the Separatists, these Puritans were imbued with a strong sense of mission; they claimed that they were neither separating from the church nor abandoning the cause of reform but, rather, regrouping for another assault on corruption on the other side of the Atlantic.
The Massachusetts Bay Company procured a royal charter confirming its title to most of present-day Massachusetts and New Hampshire and securing its rights to govern the region. Then the stockholders voted to transfer the company itself to Massachusetts Bay and elected as their first governor John Winthrop, a pious, tough-minded Puritan lawyer and landed gentleman. Winthrop sailed from England in 1630, declaring to his fellow passengers that “we shall be as a city on a hill.” Once settled, Winthrop and the other stockholders transformed their royal charter for a trading company into the framework of government for a colony, which enabled them to shape state, society, and church to their liking.
The character of the initial migration itself gave New England settlers a unique opportunity to fashion an orderly society. Most of the immigrants, some twenty-one thousand, came in a cluster between 1630 and 1642, a movement of families from the middling ranks of
English society known as the “Great Migration.” The settlement of New England within the short span of twelve years meant that the colonies there escaped the strain of having to absorb a steady stream of newcomers throughout the seventeenth century. Rapid settlement also made for solidarity, because immigrants were unified by their persecution and their sense of religious mission. After the English Civil War and until the American Revolution, immigrants from throughout the British Isles trickled into New England at the rate of only a few hundred each year. The region was peopled largely by the descendants of members of the Great Migration.
Not only their like-mindedness but also their long lives fostered a sense of continuity for New England immigrants and their progeny. Probably because of their healthful climate, seventeenth-century New Englanders lived on average nearly twice as long as Virginians and about ten years longer than men and women in England itself. That longevity, combined with relatively low rates of infant mortality and roughly equal numbers of men and women, resulted in rapid population growth. While the people of Europe and the Chesapeake colonies barely reproduced themselves, the number of New Englanders doubled about every twenty-seven years; a typical family raised seven or eight children to maturity.
As the immigrants arrived in the colony after 1630, they quickly planted a ring of small villages around Massachusetts Bay. Others settled in Connecticut and Rhode Island, which received separate charters from Charles II in the 1660s. In the 1640s, Massachusetts successfully asserted its claim to New Hampshire, which did not become a separate colony until 1679. In 1658 the handful of families who had settled along the coast of present-day Maine also accepted rule by the Massachusetts Bay colony.
The settlement of New England towns proceeded in a pattern that laid the groundwork for a coherent organization of local life. Townspeople gradually parceled out among themselves the land granted by the colony. The distribution of land was remarkably even, allotting an average family about 150 acres. The first farmers left much of their acreage uncultivated, and it became a legacy for future generations. But as succeeding generations subdivided family lands, the legacies became smaller, and a growing number of young families moved on to found new communities on the frontiers of western Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire.
Early New Englanders established other institutions that contributed to the coherence of social life. First and foremost was the family, headed by fathers who exacted strict obedience from their children, even after they had reached maturity. Wives were also subordinated to their husbands’ authority: by law, married women surrendered to their husbands any property they possessed before marriage, and divorce was almost impossible to obtain until the late eighteenth century. Only widows and the few single women had the same legal rights as men, and even they could not vote in colony elections.
To ensure the hierarchy that was regarded as essential to a stable society, each town also developed a group of village leaders. The heads of certain families – usually men with university degrees or craftsmen with some practical skill – received a little more than the average land allotment. These “town fathers” took the lead in directing local affairs, and their sons and grandsons often inherited their power and influence. But though only a handful of families monopolized local offices, the decisions of the town meeting, the basis of local self-government, required the unanimous agreement of the entire body of townsmen.
Equally important in maintaining order was the church. Ministers accompanied the immigrants to the colonies, and they formed churches as quickly as they founded towns. Although ministers exerted much informal influence over public and private life, they did not serve as officers in the civil government, and in the churches, the laity claimed ultimate power. Each village church conducted its own affairs, answerable to no higher authority.
Church membership was voluntary, but in every colony except Rhode Island inhabitants were bound by law to attend Sabbath worship and to contribute to the support of the Congregationalist clergy. Membership was not available to anyone merely for the asking. Candidates had to give evidence that they had experienced “conversion” – a turning of the heart and soul toward God that was betokened by a disciplined life. After the middle of the seventeenth century, however, full church membership declined, especially among men.
Although many aspects of life in early New England enhanced order, perfect harmony proved elusive. A few fishing villages and fur-trading centers on the periphery of settlement during the seventeenth century departed dramatically from Puritan norms. These “company towns” were financed and developed by merchants who recruited crews of free and indentured laborers from the ports of England, Ireland, and the Channel Islands. Extreme inequality among classes deprived such settlements of any stability until the beginning of the eighteenth century.
But such inequality was not a source of strain in most early New England communities, because the region offered few opportunities to amass great wealth. Farmers could coax enough from the land to feed their families, but outside of the fertile Connecticut River valley, the climate and soil did not yield a large surplus. Since their farms could not sustain a profitable commercial agriculture, most farmers had no incentive to import large numbers of servants and slaves. Trade, fishing, and shipbuilding brought greater returns for the minority of New Englanders – about one in ten – who lived in seaports like Boston, Salem, Newport, and Gloucester, and over time, as these commercial centers expanded, class divisions became more clearly etched.
Most conflicts, however, were occasioned by other tensions. When immigrants from several English villages settled in the same New England community, variations in English local customs produced disagreement among townspeople about the proper way to distribute land, regulate livestock, or plant crops. As the first generation passed from the scene, disagreements of this sort died with them, but other quarrels arose to take their place. As local populations expanded and the centers of towns became overcrowded, many families moved to outlying districts and then petitioned the town meeting to create schools and churches of their own or to split off as a separate town. Reluctant to lose taxpayers, the town meeting often resisted, and a running battle between the two factions would ensue.
While such local controversies were little more than petty quarrels among people who agreed on fundamentals, religion triggered far more serious conflicts. Most of the men and women who settled in New England called themselves Puritans, but the name did not imply a uniform code of belief and practice. For example, the Pilgrims of Plymouth believed that religious purity required renouncing the Church of England, whereas most other New England Puritans clung to the hope of reform while remaining within the Anglican communion. During the earliest years, religious diversity led to the spread of settlements beyond Massachusetts Bay. In 1636, Thomas Hooker’s more liberal standards for church membership prompted him to establish the first English outpost in Connecticut. Rhode Island served as a haven for the most radical religious outcasts from Massachusetts Bay, among them its founder, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson and some of her antinomian followers, and many members of the Society of Friends, called Quakers.
Even the inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay differed among themselves about religion. Congregationalism fostered a growing diversity of opinion and practice, because each local church was free to go its own way. By the end of the seventeenth century, many churches had adopted more liberal standards for admission to membership or to the sacraments of baptism and communion. Divisions among New England’s Congregationalists became even more pronounced after the 1730s because of the first Great Awakening, a major religious revival. Some welcomed it, but others disliked the emotionalism and disorder that attended the new religious enthusiasm. Competing denominations gained from the Congregationalists’ disputes: disgruntled conservatives deserted to the Anglicans and Quakers, and the most radical advocates of revivalism formed “Separate” churches or joined the Baptists.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, New England had become a more mobile, commercialized, stratified, and diverse society. But for most of the region’s inhabitants, earlier patterns of life persisted. The majority remained an insular, rural folk, their lives defined by the seasonal rhythms of agriculture, the bonds of family, church, and local community, and a fundamentally religious outlook.