Thursday, November 29, 2012

Puritans and Yankees

The Puritan vision of a “Christian Commonwealth” failed to last.

First, their commitment to congregational rule inevitably led to religious diversity. Without any religious governing body, it was only a matter of time before individual congregations began to deviate from Puritan orthodoxy. Eventually, concerned ministers felt compelled to adopt some form of official statement of faith and practice to govern all the congregations. In 1648, they adopted the Cambridge Platform.

Second, increasing numbers of later generations of New Englanders could not pass existing examinations for church membership and qualify for political rights. The Congregationalists baptized their infants, but they could not become full church members until they gave an account of a “new birth” conversion experience. Without this testimony they could neither receive communion nor participate as church members. In addition, lack of church membership disqualified them from political participation as well.

Most of the first generation of settlers possessed full church membership and political rights. They had their children baptized as a symbol of the New Covenant. Many of this second generation, however, never gave a conversion narrative to become full church members. A problem arose when this generation produced their own children: should the church baptize children of the unconverted? To overcome the diminishing numbers of church members, many churches adopted what came to be known as the “Half-way Covenant.” This allowed churches to baptize the children of the unconverted in order that they, too, could enjoy the privileges of partial membership. And, of course, this also made them subject to church discipline for moral infractions.

Event outside the churches also eroded the “Christian Commonwealth.”

As quality land became more scarce, increasing numbers of people left for the frontiers or the growing port cities like Boston, effectively moving beyond the control of their families and churches.

Overtime the Massachusetts Bay economy grew more diversified. Although most people remained farmers, others found new opportunities in lumbering, fur trapping, and distilling. The most important change was the growth in shipping. Massachusetts Bay and the other Puritan colonies prospered from participation in the commerce of the North Atlantic. New England ships appeared along the North American coastline, in the West Indies, in Africa, and and in England. Commerce opened the door for employments as sailors, stevedores, inn keepers, taverns, and import merchants. Increasing numbers of persons who never shared the Puritan vision made their way to Boston either as sailors or as permanent residents. Soon the first Anglican Churches made their appearance in the large port city.

New England society grew more prosperous, alarming those concerned about the rise and seduction of “luxury.” And it grew more stratified, as the numbers of new wealthy people were exceeded by the growing numbers of the poor.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the “Jeremiad” sermon, warning listeners about the moral decline of New England, became regular staples from the pulpit. But Massachusetts continued to grow more prosperous, more economically diverse, and, in short, more modern. Its inhabitants grew less and less Puritan—people sustaining a Christian Commonwealth-- and became more and more Yankee—people possessing a shrewd ability to make money.

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