Some fifty years ago I took two graduate courses at Stanford on the New England Puritans. I disliked their doctrinal hairsplitting, their emphasis on predestination, and, closely related to that, their perpetual anxiety about whether they were sanctified. Ironically, thanks to ancestry.com, I have discovered recently that nearly all the branches on my father’s family tree stem from Puritans. And not just Puritans, but Puritan ministers. Faced with this version of cognitive dissonance, I’ve done a lot of research in early American history. After much reading, I still don’t agree with their doctrines, but I have come to see these Puritan ministers in a different light.
The program ancestry.com is a great resource for discovering familial relationships extending back in time. Not surprisingly, it is best at identifying names and supplying relationships: parental, marital, siblings, and so on. Previous users have scanned in additional material on what some of these people did, but not all of it is relevant, any more than all the familial relationships are factual. I perhaps should admit here that tracing generations back into New England is relatively easy. There are baptismal records, marriage records, wills, and probate records—all of which are in English and many of which can be accessed through ancestry.com. Research in New England is thus considerably simpler than trying to find information about forebears who may have been living in this country but who continued to use the language of their country of origin. It is exciting to trace back members of a family, discovering relations between generations, but what I found even more exciting was trying to discover who these people were, fleshing out their names, so to speak, and trying to understand why they were in a given place at a given time.
As I began to get back eight or nine generations, I began to notice that many of them were living in Connecticut. I wondered why so many of them were there. Then, going back another generation, I noticed that many of these same families had been in Massachusetts, or, more accurately, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Only at this point did I realize that these ancestors of mine had to be Puritans, and therefore the same as the ones I had so disliked studying when I was getting my PhD at Stanford. These weren’t the equivalents of English Cavaliers, “Wrong but Wromantic,” to quote 1066 and All That; these forebears were Puritans, the equivalent of English Roundheads, “Right but Repulsive.”
Nevertheless, I was related to them, and I felt I owed it to them as my forebears to learn more about them. I had read David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America some years ago, never dreaming that the chapter on “East Anglia to Massachusetts: The Exodus of the English Puritans, 1629-41” had anything to do with my family. I reread that chapter, impressed all over again by the disparate elements Fischer is able to pull together into a coherent whole, and then began to ask historians I knew at Cornell what I should read. Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years, a study of the “Peopling of British North America” from 1600-1775, was recommended by everyone. It is a breathtakingly good overview, and its extensive documentation provided me with a useful guide to further research.
As I read Fischer and Bailyn and then the primary and secondary sources they cited, I began to notice some names that were similar to the ones I’d traced through ancestry.com. Could they be the same people? I checked their dates of birth and death, and to my surprise, they were the same. Not only were many of my forebears Puritans, some of those Puritans were ministers, key figures in settling first Massachusetts Bay and, very soon after, Connecticut (which at first was an extension of the Bay Colony).
But why, I wondered, were ministers key figures in the Puritan migration to New England? From what I was reading, a given minister would decide to emigrate, and many in his congregation then would emigrate with him. I could imagine that a minister might well inspire his flock to follow him, but what factors in England made the ministers want to leave? Trying to answer that question gave me even more information about these forebears.
For the sake of convenience, I have divided a longish essay into three parts, the first dealing with the conditions in England that motivated ministers to emigrate; the second with those in my father's family who emigrated to Massachusetts Bay; and the third with those ministers who settled along the Connecticut River.
It’s alway useful to define terms, so let me begin with the term, “Puritan.” A Puritan is someone who believed that the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century had stopped too soon: the Church of England still needed to be “purified” further. Their ideal church was one similar to that of the early Christians. Puritans wanted to substitute a congregational structure for the hierarchal one of archbishop, bishops, and priests; they wanted to reduce the number of sacraments from seven to two, baptism and communion. The Puritans viewed The Book of Common Prayer as merely a collection of empty forms that a parrot could pronounce. What the Puritans believed important for salvation was neither participating in the liturgy nor partaking of grace through the sacraments. What was critical was reading the written Word in the Bible and hearing the Word explicated in sermons. Puritans wholeheartedly agreed with Paul in Romans 10:17, “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
Under Queen Elizabeth, who ruled from 1558-1603, the Church of England more or less successfully kept to what has been termed the via media, a middle way between the traditions and practices of Roman Catholicism and those of Continental Calvinism. Unlike the recrusants, the English Roman Catholics who were persecuted as traitors both to the Church of England and to Queen Elizabeth, the Puritans who kept their heads down were left pretty much alone.
After James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in 1603, however, the Puritan challenge to the hierarchical nature of ecclesiastical authority became an issue. The reform-minded faction urged the abolition of bishops because they were not sanctioned in the Bible or the early church. King James correctly saw this issue of ecclesiastical hierarchy as part and parcel of the notion of order that would later became known as the divine right of kings. At the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, James agreed to three of the four requests by the Puritans: he was willing to countenance abolishing baptism by women, let a “preaching ministry” continue, and reduce the number of livings a cleric could have. But when one of the Puritan representatives suggested that “prophesyings”—meetings of the clergy to expound doctrine—should be revived and any disagreements resulting from them should be referred not to the bishop but to a group of presbyters, King James blew up. He smote the table with his fist and declared, “No Bishop, no King!”
Matters became even more strained when King Charles I succeeded his father James in 1625. King James had appointed William Laud as Royal Chaplain, Not only did Laud continue in that position, but under Charles he gained more and more influence. Laud became first the Bishop of London and then in 1633 the Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud controlled the Church’s Court of High Commission and the Privy Council’s criminal Court of Star Chamber. To ensure uniformity of worship, Laud began the practice of “visitations” all over the country to verify that worship followed the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer. If he saw his efforts as curing the Church of a malignancy, Puritans saw them as persecution of the godly.
And thus we have come to compelling reasons for ministers of the Puritan persuasion to migrate. As visitation after visitation occurred, as minister after minister was stripped of his living, excommunicated, or imprisoned, Puritan ministers began to believe that a new age of martyrs was almost at hand, one that would soon replicate the imprisonments, the tortures, and the burnings at the stake in the reign of Queen Mary.