THEOLOGICAL DISPUTES

The History

When the fiery Hugh Peters and the gentler Henry Vane arrived at Boston in 1635, the colony was somewhat excited by theological disputes. The new-comers engaged in the controversy, and it soon took the form of a bitter quarrel. Peters was a rigid Puritan preacher just from a six years exile in Holland, and he was made pastor of the church vacated by Roger Williams when he was banished, whose doctrines the new preacher denounced, and whose adherents he expelled from the congregation.

Vane was only twenty-three years of age. He was a son of one of the king's high officers of state, and a young man of purest morals. Forsaking the preferments which awaited him at court, he fled to New England to enjoy the freedom of simple worship among those whose cause he had espoused. In after years Milton praised him for his goodness, and Clarendon regarded him as equal to Hampden in statesmanship.

The colonists regarded the advent of Vane as a token of the speedy emigration to Massachusetts of leading men of the realm. They received him with open arms, and in the delirium of their joy they seemed to forget their veterans, and elected him governor of the colony. With broad and generous views, he defended the tenets of Mr. Williams and Mrs. Hutchinson in the controversy. This gave intensity to the partisan feeling, both in politics and theology, and a strong opposition to Vane was organized. After a tempestuous year Vane was defeated at the next annual election, when he returned to England.

Soon after Vane's departure Mrs. Hutchinson was banished, and she settled in Rhode Island. There she became a widow. Dreading the persecutions of bigots which menaced her, she left New England and took up her abode within the domain of New Netherland, among the sons of the forest. Her cabin was near the present village of New Rochelle, in Westchester county, and with her dwelt all her family, in peace, until the wickedness of Governor Kieft excited the wrath of the Indians. With blind fury they swept through the forest destroying every white settler and settlement. Mrs. Hutchinson did not escape. She and all her family, excepting a granddaughter, fair and curly-haired, eight years of age, were murdered. Her house and barns were burned; her cattle were butchered, and her grandchild was carried away captive. The young warrior who spared her life took her tenderly in his arms and soothed her with caresses, while an attendant bore upon a pole the scalps of some of her kinsfolk. When, four years afterward, little Anna Collins was delivered to the Dutch governor at New Amsterdam to be sent to her friends at Boston in accordance with the terms of a treaty, she had forgotten her own language and was unwilling to leave her Indian friends.

The good results of the war with the Pequods promised future security to the New England colonists against dangers from the wrath of the savages. The power of the English manifested in that war made the Indians peacefully inclined for a whole generation of time. Emigration, stimulated by persecution, began to flow into New England in a copious stream. The exodus of Puritans from British shores, and the amazing development of a republican state in America, soon excited the jealousy and the fears of the church and the government. They put forth their strength to stay the tide, as we have observed, in vain. Other causes effected what royal decrees and armed men could not do. Troubles in England which threatened the overthrow of the monarchy and the hierarchy or church establishment withdrew the attention of both from the distant colonies; and when the civil war that ensued promised better times for the lovers of freedom at home, emigration to America almost ceased.

Meanwhile the ties of interest and common sympathy united the struggling colonists in New England. They were natives of the same country, and were the social and political products of persecution alike exposed to the weapons of hostile Indians and the greed for territory and power of the French and Dutch on their eastern and western borders. They were equally menaced with punishment by the parent government for non-conformity in matters of state and religion. They were, in fact, one people, bound by interwoven interests. Therefore when the civil war in Old England broke out in 1641, and the New England colonists, numbering more than twenty thousand, with fifty villages, almost forty churches, and their commerce expanding and manufactures of cotton from Barbados making them independent of the mother country so far, the aspect of the present and future made them seriously contemplate the establishment of a new nation. No tie of gratitude exacted their allegiance to the British. On the contrary, their happiness in freedom was the result of neglect and oppression, rather than of care and protection. In 1643, the British Parliament acknowledged that "the plantations in New England had, by the blessing of the Almighty, had good and prosperous success without any public charge to the parent state."

A confederation of New England colonies for mutual defence had been proposed by Connecticut immediately after the war with the Pequods When the crown threatened to deprive Massachusetts of her charter, in 1638, the other colonies counselled resistance, and the people of the Bay threatened secession from the British realm. Now, relieved of the pressure of royal rule under royal displeasure, the inhabitants of New England resolved to unite in a political league. In May, 1643, deputies from the colonies of Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven met those of Massachusetts in Boston. They very soon agreed upon twelve articles of Confederation, and constituted a confederacy under the title of "The United Colonies of New England." That written agreement was signed on the 20th of August following. Rhode Island and the settlements in New Hampshire and Maine asked to be admitted to the Union, but were denied, chiefly, as Winthrop said, because they ran a different course from us, both in their ministry and civil administration. They would not bend to the dictates of Massachusetts in matters which concerned the conscience. Whereupon, as we have observed, Rhode Island, which refused the required allegiance to Plymouth, took immediate and successful steps to procure an independent charter.

The New England Confederacy - the harbinger of the United States of America - was simply a league of independent provinces, as were our thirteen States under the "Articles of Confederation," each jealously guarding its own privileges and rights against any encroachments of the "general government." That central body was really no government at all. It was composed of a Board of Commissioners consisting of two church members from each colony, who were to meet annually or oftener if required. Their duty was to consider circumstances and recommend measures for the general good. They had no executive nor independent legislative powers, their recommendations becoming laws only after the separate colonies had acted upon and approved them. The doctrine of State supremacy was controlling.

That famous league, of which Massachusetts assumed the control because of its greater population and its being a perfect republic, remained in existence more than forty years, during which period the government of England was hanged three times. Unlike the Virginians, the New Englanders sympathized with the English republicans, and found in Oliver Cromwell, the ruler of England next to the beheaded Charles the First, a sincere friend and protector. The colony of Massachusetts, in particular, prospered. A profitable commerce between that colony and the West India Islands was created. That trade brought bullion, or uncoined gold and silver, into the colony, which led, in 1652, to the exercise of an act of sovereignty on the part of the authorities of Massachusetts by the establishment of a mint. It was authorized by the General Assembly, in 1651, and the following year silver coins of the denominations of three-pence, six-pence, and twelvepence, or shilling, were struck. This was the first coinage within the territory of the United States.

The Puritan of Massachusetts, at this time, was the straightest of his sect - an unflinching egotist who regarded himself as eminently his "brother's keeper," whose constant business was to save his fellow-men from sin and error; sitting in judgment upon their belief and actions with the authority of a God-chosen high-priest. His laws, found on the statute-books of the colony or divulged in the records of court proceedings, exhibit the salient points in his stern and inflexible character as a self-constituted censor, and a conservator of the moral and spiritual destiny of his fellow-mortals. He imposed a fine upon every woman who should cut her hair like that of a man. He forbade all gaming for amusement or gain, and would not allow cards or dice to be introduced into the colony. He fined families whose young women did not spin as much flax or wool daily as the selectmen had required of them. He would not allow a Jesuit or Roman Catholic priest to live in the colony. He forbade all persons "to run or even walk except reverently to and from church" on Sunday; and he doomed a burglar, because he committed his crime on that sacred day, to have one of his ears cut off. He commanded John Wedgewood to "be put in the stocks for being in the company of drunkards Thomas Petit, for suspicion of slander, idleness and stubbornness, "he caused to be "severely whipped;" Captain Lovell he admonished to "take heed of light carriage;" Josias Plaistowe, for stealing four baskets of corn from the Indians, was ordered by him to return to them eight baskets, to be fined five pounds, and thereafter to be called by the name of Josias, and not Mr. Plaistowe, as formerly. He directed his grand jurors to admonish those who wore apparel too costly for their income, and if they did not heed the warning to fine them; and in 1646, he placed on the statute-book of Massachusetts a law which imposed the penalty of flogging for kissing a woman in the street, even in the way of honest salute.

Almost a hundred years after that law was passed, its penalty was inflicted upon the commander of a British man-of-war. She arrived at Boston after a long cruise. As her commander was going toward his home in that city, he met his wife in the street hastening to greet him, when he gave her an affectionate kiss. A stern old magistrate in a cocked-hat and powdered hair in a queue, who was "learned in the law," seeing the act, caused his immediate arrest. The next morning, after due trial, the captain was convicted and the punishment of flogging was administered in a very mild way, but in a public place, causing much merriment. When the victim was about to sail on another cruise, he invited that magistrate and others whom, he understood, had approved of his punishment, to a complimentary dinner on board of his vessel, as a token of his forgiveness and submission. They accepted it, and when they were all merry with good cheer, and were on deck ready to depart, he ordered his boatswain and mate to give the magistrates a sound flogging. Each officer was armed with a knotted cat-o'-nine-tails, and they drove the astonished guests pell-mell over the side of the vessel into the boat waiting to receive them. The captain sailed away, and the law was soon afterward repealed. Governor Winthrop tempered these laws with merciful mildness in their execution. On one occasion it was reported to him that a man had been stealing from his store of winter's firewood, and he was urged to punish him. "I will soon put a stop to that bad practice," said the governor sternly. He sent for the offender. "You have a large family," he said to the offending culprit, "and I have a large magazine of wood; come as often as you please, and take as much of it as you need to make your dwelling comfortable." Then turning to his accusers, he said: "Now I defy him to steal any more of my firewood."

The bigotry and austerity of the Puritans in Massachusetts were vehemently condemned at the time of their iron rule in New England, and have been ever since. But there are peculiar considerations in their case, which the eye of justice cannot overlook. Their theology and their ideas of church government were founded upon the deepest heart-convictions of a people not broadly educated. They had encountered and subdued a savage wilderness for the purpose of planting therein a church and a commonwealth fashioned in all their parts after a narrow but cherished pattern. They felt that the domain which they had conquered with so much peril and toil was their own, and that they had as good a right to regulate its internal affairs according to their own notions, and exclude all obnoxious persons, as had a householder the affairs of his family and the avoidance of an unwelcome visitor. They had boldly proclaimed the right to the exercise of private judgment in matters of conscience, and so they tacitly invited the persecuted of all lands to come to them. Therefore, unsettled persons, libertines in unrestrained opinions, came to Massachusetts from abroad to disseminate their peculiar views. In that dissemination the Puritans saw clear prophecies of a disorganization of their church. They took the alarm early, and with a mistaken policy they resisted such encroachments upon their domain and into their society with fiery penal laws implacably executed. But it was only in respect to religion that the Puritan laws were specially harsh as compared with the general jurisprudence or science of law of that day. "God forbid," said Governor Dudley in his old age, our love for the truth should be grown so cold that we should tolerate errors - I die no libertine." "Better tolerate hypocrites and tares than thorns and briers," exclaimed that "famous man of God," as Norton called Parson John Cotton. "To say that men ought to have liberty of conscience is impious ignorance," said Parson Ward of Ipswich, author of "The Simple Cobbler of Agawam." "Religion admits of no eccentric notions," said Parson Norton, the colleague of Ward, biographer of Cotton, and persecutor of the Friends or Quakers.

Friends and Quakers, among the earlier disciples of George Fox were enthusiasts whose zeal led their judgment. They were absolute fanatics, and sometimes became lunatics in their religious views and actions, and were utterly unlike the sober, mild-mannered members of that society to-day. They ran into the wildest extravagances in the exercise of the liberty of speech openly reviling magistrates and ministers with intemperate language overriding the rights of all others in maintaining their own, and scorning all respect for human laws. They made the most exalted pretensions to the exclusive possession of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the power of persuasion with which they were endowed. Some, in the pride of their egotism, went to Rome to convert the Pope; others went to the East to convince the Grand Turk and his people of their errors; and some came to America to proselyte the Puritans in New England, the Roman Catholics in Maryland, and the Cavaliers and Churchmen in Virginia. Some of them behaved so wildly and disorderly in Boston that they suffered intensely from the indignation of the magistrates and clergy there and they so disgusted the tolerant Roger Williams, that he tried to root them out of Rhode Island.

The first of the sect who appeared conspicuous in New England were Mary Fisher and Anna Austin, who arrived at Boston in the summer of 1656, when John Endicott was governor. There was then no special law against them, but under a general act against heretics, they were arrested their persons were examined to find marks of witchcraft, with which they were suspected; their trunks were searched, and their books were burned publicly by the common hangman. These innocent and well-behaved women were so treated because of the stories of the disorderly acts of some of the sect in England who had come over the sea. After keeping them in prison several weeks, the authorities of Massachusetts sent them back to England. Mary Fisher afterward visited the Sultan of Turkey, passing everywhere unharmed because his people reverenced a crazy person, for such they took her to be.

This harsh treatment of the first comers fired the zeal of the more enthusiastic of the sect in England. They sought martyrdom as an honor. They flocked to New England and fearfully vexed the souls of the Puritan magistrates and ministers. One woman came all the way from London to warn the authorities against persecutions. Others came for the purpose of reviling and denouncing - vehemently scolding - the powers in church and state. They would rail at magistrates and ministers from windows, as these functionaries passed by. They mocked the institutions of the country and some fanatical young women appeared without clothing in the churches and in the streets, as emblems of the unclothed souls of the people, while others, with loud voices, proclaimed that the wrath of the Almighty was about to fall like destructive lightning upon Boston and Salem. Horrified by their blasphemies and indecencies, the authorities of Massachusetts passed some very cruel laws. At first they forbade all persons harboring "Quakers," imposing severe penalties for each offence. Then they imposed mild punishments upon the Friends themselves. These statutes were ineffectual; and finally, driven by resentment and mistaken judgment, they passed laws which authorized the cropping of the ears, boring of the tongues with hot irons, and hanging on a gibbet, of offending Quakers. Yet these terrible laws did not keep them away. They were fined, imprisoned, whipped and hanged during the administration of the rigid Endicott, who was implacable. On a bright October day in 1659, two young men named William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson, with Mary Dyer were led fromBoston jail, with ropes around their necks, and guarded by soldiers, to be hanged on Boston Common. Mary walked between her companions hand in hand to the gallows, where, in the presence of Governor Endicott, the two young men were executed. Mary was unmoved by the spectacle. She was given into the care of her son who came from Rhode Island to plead for her life, and went away with him. But she returned the next spring, defied the laws, and was executed on Boston Common.

The severity of these laws caused a revulsion in public sentiment. The Friends stoutly maintained their course with decency, and were regarded by the more thoughtful as real martyrs for conscience sake. The people, at length, demanded a repeal of the bloody enactments, and by that repeal, in 1661, the Friends achieved a triumph. The fanaticism of both parties sub sided. A more Christian spirit prevailed and the attention of the more sober-minded Friends was turned to the task of converting the Indians. They nobly assisted the Apostle Eliot and others in propagating the gospel among the pagans of the forests for whom that Apostle had labored for years. He had established a Christian church among them at Natic, and at the time of the repeal of the cruel laws, there were no less than ten villages of converted Indians in Massachusetts.

The reign of republicanism in England, under Oliver Cromwell and his son, was short. King Charles the First, after contending with the people for the royal prerogative and the throne for several years, was beheaded on a cold winter's morning in January, 1649, in front of his own palace of Whitehall. Royalty was then abolished. Late in May, 1660, the son of Kind Charles, who had been proclaimed monarch of England under the title of Charles the Second, rode into London on horseback between his brothers the Dukes of York and Gloucester, and took up his abode in the palace of Whitehall, while flags waved, bells rang, cannon roared, trumpets brayed, shouts rent the air and fountains poured out costly libations of wine as tokens of the public joy. After a struggle for about twenty years between royalists and republicans, the monarchy was restored, and the English people again became subjects of the head of the Scottish house of Stuart.

The members of the House of Commons hail constituted a High Court of Justice for the trial of Charles the First, and many of then, signed his death-warrant. These were hunted by the royal vengeance. Some perished on the scaffold. Among these were Hugh Peters and Henry Vane, who had figured conspicuously in New England more than twenty years before. Many fled and so escaped the fatal block. Among these were Edward Whalley and William Goffe, who went to New England and gave the first news of the restoration of monarchy. The former was a cousin of Cromwell and of Hampden, and a distinguished cavalry officer. He had been intrusted with the custody of the royal prisoner, and was one of the signers of his death-warrant. Cromwell appointed him one of the major-generals who assisted in the government of the commonwealth, and was one of his most active lieutenants. Goffe, a son of a Puritan clergyman, was Whalley's son-in-law, a colonel of infantry and member of the High Court who signed the death-warrant of the king. He, also, was one of Cromwell's ten major-generals.

Orders speedily followed the fugitives to New England for their arrest, and officers came from Old England for the same purpose. The "regicides," or king-killers, as they were called, were, after awhile, closely hunted, but the authorities and people of New England effectually concealed them from their enemies for years. When danger lowered, they fled from Boston to New Haven, and for a long time occupied a cave not far from that place. Finally they made their abode in the remote town of Hadley, where they were joined by Colonel Dixwell, another "regicide," who finally settled in New Haven. In Hadley, Whalley died. Goffe survived him until after King Phillips war, which we shall notice presently; but from the time when they took up their abode there, in disguise, they disappeared from public view. During that period, so terrible to New England settlers, Hadley was surrounded by hostile Indians. The people were in the meeting-house observing a fast day. They were armed, as usual, and sallied out to drive off the savages. At that moment a tall, venerable personage, with a white, flowing beard, clad in a white robe and carrying a glittering sword, suddenly appeared among the people, took the lead of the armed men, caused them to observe strict military discipline, and led them to victory. The people believed the stranger (who as suddenly disappeared) to be an angel sent by the Lord for their deliverance. The angel was General Goffe, who was stout in body and valiant in spirit. It is related that soon after his arrival in Boston, a fencing-master erected a stage on the Common, on which he walked several days, defying any man to fight him with swords. Goffe accepted the challenge. He wrapped a huge cheese in a linen cloth as a shield, and arming himself with a mop filled with muddy water from the gutter, he appeared on the platform. The fencing-master made a thrust at him, which Goffe received in the cheese in which he held the sword until he had smeared his antagonist with mud. The enraged fencing-master caught up a broad-sword, when Goffe exclaimed: "Stop, sir; hitherto, you see, I have only played with you, and not attempted to harm you but if you come at me now with the broad-sword, know that I will certainly take your life." The alarmed fencing-master cried out, as he dropped his sword, "Who can you be? You must be either Goffe, or Whalley, or the Devil, for there were no other men in England who could beat me."

The New England colonies, and especially that of Massachusetts, expected very little favor from the new monarch, for their republicanism was decided and conspicuous. In the course of a few months after the Restoration, the General Court of Massachusetts sent addresses to the King and Parliament, chiefly because enemies of New England evidently possessed the confidence of the monarch and his ministers. In those addresses, general loyalty was expressed, and they prayed for a "continuance of civil and religious liberties" which they had long enjoyed, and promised for the crown, in return for its protection of their freedom, the blessings of a people whose trust is in God.

The king returned a gracious answer in the form of general expressions of good-will, but his smiles were not propitious. He resolved not to show these distant political enemies of his father any favors. The stringent provisions of the navigation laws and commercial restrictions from which Cromwell had exempted the New Englanders were now renewed and rigorously enforced. Expecting collisions with the Crown, the latter, in Massachusetts, issued a declaration of natural and chartered rights, in which they claimed the liberty to choose their own executive officers and representatives to admit freemen on their own prescribed terms; to appoint all officers and define their powers and duties; to exercise, by annually elected magistrates and deputies, any function of human government; to defend themselves by force of arms, if necessary, against every aggression, and to reject, as an infringement of their right, "any parliamentary or royal imposition prejudicial to the country and contrary to any just act of colonial legislation."

Massachusetts now sent agents to London to persuade the king of their loyalty, at the same time to secure their independence in local affairs, as a self-governing people. It was a difficult task, but John Newton and Simon Bradstreet successfully performed it. In the autumn of 1662, the king confirmed the Massachusetts charter, and granted a conditional amnesty of general pardon for all past offenses during the late civil war; at the same time the king asserted his right to interfere with the domestic concerns of the colony.

The people of Massachusetts did not concede this royal right, and in 1664, commissioners were sent over, in a royal fleet, destined to take possession of New Netherland, commanded by Colonel Nicolls, one of the commissioners, to "settle the peace and security of the country on a solid foundation"-in other words, to rule New England as deputies of the monarch. The people of Massachusetts were greatly irritated by this measure, and spoke out freely. False stories were carried to the ears of the king respecting the rebellion of the colonies, and for awhile there was a general belief in London that Whalley and Goffe were at the head of a New England army, and that the New England Confederacy had been formed for the express purpose of casting off all dependence on the mother country and establishing a republic in America. At the same time the colonists regarded the commissioners as royal instruments of oppression who would destroy their liberties. Massachusetts boldly protested against the exercise of their authority within its domain. So did the other New England colonies excepting Rhode Island. The acts and orders of the commissioners were generally disregarded, and after producing much ill-feeling and stimulating a democratic spirit throughout New England, they departed in 1666, leaving the colonies triumphant. Massachusetts ever afterwards held a front rank in the sturdy battle for independence which was waged for more than a hundred years. Yet she had a fierce struggle, at times, with royalty abroad, royal agents in her bosom, and pale and dusky enemies on her borders. At about the time when she triumphed over the efforts of the Crown to enslave her, she was involved in a most disastrous war with Metacomet, or King Philip, a son of the then dead Massasoit. That contest is known in our history as King Philip's War.

- - - - Benson J. Lossing, , LL.D., 1990

Theological Disputes Links

Theological Disputes Bibliography