Thursday, May 25, 2017

Contrasting Approaches to Faith: Roger Williams and John Winthop

Gaustad, Edwin S. Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America.
Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop.
Understanding the comparative roles of Church and State in the development of England’s American colonies is crucial to understanding the modern United States and the cultural and political setting of the 21st century.  Religious differences and the proper role of religion in government create fissures in modern American society, just as those issues caused divisions in England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  In their biographies of Roger Williams and John Winthrop, Edwin Gaustad and Edmund Morgan take up the difficult task of navigating the mists of time to not only discuss two key figures instrumental in Early America, but to examine the larger issue of the proper place of religion in society.
Although both Roger Williams and John Winthrop were Puritans, it would be difficult to find two men whose views on religion and government were more disparate.  On the one hand, Roger Williams held the view that civil governments should have no role in enforcing “the rules of the first table”, or the first four of the Ten Commandments, which relate to worshiping only the God of Moses, not creating images of the deity, and keeping the Sabbath holy (Gaustad, 81).  On the other, John Winthrop and the majority of Puritans believed that it was the responsibility of rational governments to absolutely enforce the requirements of the first table Morgan, 125).  The protagonists chosen by Gaustad and Morgan also held very different views on whether individuals and congregations should be allowed to hold divergent religious beliefs within the same society.  Williams believed that people should be allowed to worship according to his own conscience, whether they were Anglicans, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, or chose to believe in no deity at all (Gaustad, 89).  In contrast, Winthrop held that to avoid internal strife, societies must agree to homogenous religious beliefs (Morgan, 132)
Both texts cover much of the same material, albeit from radically different perspectives.  Using biography as the vehicle for this discussion has some unique pitfalls: judging the subject by the ethical standards of the modern era, identifying with the subject to the extent that the narrative is no longer objective, selecting anecdotes merely for shock value, or expanding available facts to fill in the gaps.  Unfortunately, it seems that both Gaustad and Winthrop fall into at least some of these traps.  However, by choosing biography as the medium for approaching this important stage of American development, Gaustad and Morgan are able to lend an air of immediacy to their subjects, which is frequently not the case is traditional histories.  The reason for this is simple: by choosing a protagonist for the story, they allow readers to become absorbed into the material.
It is easier to find areas for criticism in Morgan’s The Puritan Dilemma than in Gaustad’s Liberty of Conscience, if only because John Winthrop’s views on the proper relation between Church and State offend modern American sensibilities.  Winthrop’s early life reads like every Americans expectation of Puritan migrants to the New World, and in this respect he is a likable figure.  Focusing on the Puritanism’s difficult path, which dictated that the adherent “devote his life to seeking salvation but told him that he was helpless to do anything but evil,” (Morgan, 7), Morgan shows how the young Winthrop struggled with the requirements of his new faith.  In addition to the quest for salvation, which was a predetermined fate, Puritanism required that Winthrop live in the world, but not be part of it.  This meant that he could not withdraw to a strictly religious life focused on God, but had to live to the best of his ability as part of his devotions.  This meant walking the fine line between enjoying the pleasures God provided and not becoming so absorbed in them that he lost sight of God (Morgan, 8).  Attaining this balance was as difficult for John Winthrop as it would be for modern Americans and Britons, and Morgan’s depiction of him staggering between the pleasures of the good life and complete abstinence from fine living paints a picture of a real man that counters the modern caricature of Puritans as strict, unbending, humorless folk (Morgan, 10).  This picture of Puritan humanity allows Morgan to create sympathy for Winthrop as he leaves for New England.
The Puritan Dilemma shines when it shows the depth and sources of Puritan belief, as well as their connection to how Puritans conducted their affairs.  This is particularly true when it comes to Puritan flight from England to America in the 1620s.  Rather than simply reiterating the tired textbook answer that “religious persecution” cause Puritan migration to the New World, Morgan casts it as an attempt to save England from the punitive hand of God.  Winthrop and his associates believed that “every nation or people…existed by virtue of a covenant with God, and agreement whereby they promised to abide by His laws, and He in turn agreed to treat them well,” (Morgan, 19).  This led them to the conclusion that governments were instituted to enforce God’s laws in order to hold His wrath at bay, and that as long as the government fulfilled this task it was the responsibility of the people to assist it.  However, when a government failed to enforce God’s law, they believed it was the duty of the people to replace the corrupt government with one that was up to the task of leading the nation away from sin (Morgan, 19).  Late 16th and early 17th century England presented the Puritans with a government that frequently seemed to lead the nation to damnation on Earth.
The oscillations of England’s rulers between Catholicism and Protestantism under Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I presented Winthrop with a dilemma: when was a government corrupt enough to warrant its overthrow?  Simply fleeing the scene to more agreeable shores seemed to fly in the face of his belief that God required him to live in the world while doing His work.  During the reigns of Elizabeth and James, Parliament and Puritans had some measure of influence to move England toward their vision of a righteous society, but when Charles I ascended the throne everything changed (Morgan, 27).  Charles dissolved Parliament and moved the Anglican Church in a theological direction that Winthrop considered heresy.  Charles and his followers advocated the belief that people could achieve faith and salvation on their own, without the predestination which Puritans believed in.  When they tried to fight this doctrine in Parliament, he dissolved it (Morgan, 27).
In this setting, along with Catholic victories in France and Central Europe, Winthrop faced a decision: accept Charles’s Arminianism, withdraw from the Church of England to become a separatist, or flee England.  Because becoming a separatist would mean turning his back on England and the Church, which he believed could be saved, he chose to migrate to New England with the King’s approval (Morgan, 31).  This would allow him to create the Kingdom of God on Earth, and hopefully save England from God’s wrath.
Winthrop’s life in New England is both what most concerns American audiences and the area in which Morgan seems to become too close to his subject.  A first example of this comes in his discussion of Winthrop’s acts as Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in establishing a government for the colony.  Acknowledging that Winthrop and the other members of the Massachusetts Bay Company were not required to extend participation in governing the colony (Morgan, 93), Morgan seems to praise Winthrop for not keeping an oligarchic control, along with his deputy and seven assistants over all aspects of life (Morgan, 89).  Winthrop decided to extend the franchise to all of the “freemen” in the colony, which would allow them to vote in annual elections for the Governor and assistants.  The problem was that Winthrop restricted membership in this group to male members of the colony’s churches, which only admitted those people that they deemed were “saved” (Morgan, 95).  Morgan writes that this extended opportunities to participate in government to more people than in England, as way of justification, but the fact of the matter is that Winthrop believed that democracy was dangerous and biblically unwarranted (Morgan, 94).  He did this to protect the colony’s “special commission” from God, which he saw as creating a righteous society.
Morgan seems to want to justify the autocratic nature of both religious and civil rule under Winthrop and other early colonial governors.  In addition to their role in combating heresy within Massachusetts churches, which was used against separatists and those deemed merely in error, (Morgan 100) the General Court levied taxes for public works and otherwise performed the functions of civil government.  When some colonists protested against taxation on the basis that they had no representation, Winthrop replied that because they could elect new autocrats every year, they were indeed represented (Morgan, 109).  This is used as a sop by Winthrop (to the colonists) and Morgan (to the readers) to justify the efficiency of the despotism created in Massachusetts Bay, which Morgan writes was due to the simplicity and lack of pre-existing rules in the structure (Morgan, 101). He does admit that the kind of despotism found in Massachusetts was incredibly susceptible to the whims and abilities of the Governor.
The largest issue with The Puritan Dilemma is the way it deals with the issue of religious separatism.  While it is possible that he is simply attempting to make the issue more immediate for the reader, Morgan appears to side with Winthrop in his attempts to suppress dissension or drive it out.  The one exception being the case of Anne Hutchinson, which Morgan calls “an unsavory triumph of arbitrary power,” (Morgan 153) which he excuses by saying that “it represented more than the mere crushing of a helpless woman,” (Morgan, 153).  Both Morgan and Winthrop seem to feel that the abuse of power was justified because it restored the unity of the Boston church (Morgan, 153)
A key case Morgan uses to illustrate is that of Roger Williams, the subject of Gaustad’s work.  Morgan portrays Williams just as Winthrop did, with no clear separation between his opinion and Winthrop’s, writing that not only was he an avowed separatist, but that he “expressed the dangerous opinion that civil magistrates had no authority in any religious matter, that they could not even require people to keep the Sabbath,” (Morgan, 118).  Morgan makes absolutely no mention that this doctrine would eventually rule England, but the United States as well, instead he continues to show Williams and his beliefs (which were admittedly peculiar for the time) as so strange as to be beyond the pale, including “that a regenerate man ought not to pray in company with an unregenerate one, not even with his wife and children, and that he ought not give thanks after the sacrament or after meals,” (Morgan, 125).  Williams also proclaimed that the practicing of forcing witnesses to swear oaths to God could put a regenerate magistrate in communion with an unregenerate person, thus corrupting them.  Morgan portrays these beliefs as not only abominable to Winthrop, but possibly to himself (Morgan, 124).
Gaustad’s treatment of Roger Williams seems more balanced, although it seems to include a fair tinge a hero worship.  The first two paragraphs of Liberty of Conscience tell us why Gaustad believes Roger Williams is worthy of study: he was the founder of Rhode Island, and he was the originator of the modern ideal of religious freedom one hundred fifty years before Jefferson (Gaustad, ix).  Because little information regarding Roger Williams’s early life exists, Gaustad supplements it with an overview of the development of the Anglican Church, the reign’s of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I, and the development of the Puritan and Baptist movements in England and Holland.  Although he generally is able to successfully maintain his distance from the object of his biography he does make at least one stretch for which he provides no evidence when he writes that “Certainly by the time he was in college, if not well before, Williams came to see Christianity as more than a commitment of faith, though it had to be that above all else.  It was also, however, a religion of wondrous complexity and some contradiction,” (Gaustad, 8).  This train of thought appears to be based on Williams’s 1673 comments that he became religious at an early age (Morgan, 6)
Gaustad’s stylistic differences from Morgan are clear almost immediately.  Where Morgan wrote in a fashion that makes it appear that he agrees with the assertions of John Winthrop, Gaustad endeavors to make it crystal that Roger Williams’s opinions belong to Williams.  A single sentence is evidence enough: “Their idealism was high, their motivation clear, their method – for Williams – suspect,” (Gaustad, 25).  In this it seems that Gaustad avoids overly identifying with his subject.
Gaustad also treats Williams’s charge that the patent of the King of England was not enough justification for the colonists to seize land in New England.  Williams based his argument regarding the King’s right to give away the land of others on his observation of Indian behavior regarding land boundaries and their methods of bargaining for rights to even small plots (Gaustad, 29).  Morgan includes this episode in his litany of Williams’s offenses against the Massachusetts Bay Colony, writing that the alternatives that Williams suggested “were ridiculous”, (Morgan, 123) without ever mentioning why Williams claimed that the King’s land grants were invalid.
What Gaustad and Morgan really set out to do with their biographies of Roger Williams and John Winthrop is to shed some light on how the United States developed its religious and governmental structures.  Both illustrate the depth of religious belief of many early colonists, as well as their attitudes toward the proper relations between Church and State.  Edmund Morgan’s The Puritan Dilemma clearly shows how intertwined church and state were in both Old and New England during the early 17th century, while Liberty of Conscience shows the long road toward religious tolerance among Christian denominations and other religious groups.  Both texts show how difficult it was for people to accept the idea that a polity could be the home of a variety of religious beliefs without constant discord, even if those people had migrated primarily so they could worship according to their own beliefs.
It is interesting to note that some of the issues examined in both texts are still with us today.  The proper role of religion, particularly Christianity, in government continues to be a major issue in American politics.  The current Supreme Court docket contains multiple cases regarding the public display of the Ten Commandments, with the First Table continuing to represent the key argument.  At the same time Constitutional Amendments have appeared in Congress that attempt to further identify civil marriages according to religious dictates found in the Old Testament book Leviticus.  Congress is also involved in a national debate over whether the courts should be allowed to rule on the phrase “under God” being included in the Pledge of Allegiance – passing legislation that would prevent the United States Supreme Court from even hearing cases on this issue.  Even at the start of the 21st century religious issues remain at the forefront of American public discourse.

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