Thursday, August 20, 2009

How the Puritans Got That Way, or, Why the Separation of Church and State is a Good Idea

To understand why William Bradford and his boatload of fervent Calvinists preferred the hostile wilderness to merry olde England, we need a quick review of European religious history. Here goes.

Everyone remembers that Henry VIII needed a divorce from Katherine of Aragon, whom he had married rather hastily in 1509. By the time he divorced her in 1533, she had been pregnant six times, but only one child, a girl (Mary) survived. He needed to marry somebody who would have a son. He appealed to the Pope, who said "No." King Henry said, "Fine, we'll stop being Catholic, and therefore we won't be under your authority."

The fact that an English king could even say this owes a lot to Martin Luther, who nailed his critique of the Church to the door of Wittenburg cathedral in 1517. We are so used to Protestantism in America, that we don't realize what a huge deal this was. The Catholic church literally held the keys to Heaven and Hell -- excommunication was the ultimate threat, because it meant eternal damnation. Any time you've got that much power concentrated in one place, corruption will occur, and it did. Luther and others were chafing at the Church's greed and moral laxity.

Henry VIII was able to grab the Church's English holdings, nationalize the buildings and farms themselves, and force everyone into a new state religion because the Pope had lost influence in Europe. Henry didn't care about the threat of excommunication, because Luther had asserted that the church really couldn't damn anyone to hell. Once that threat was removed, the Pope discovered, to his horror, that he couldn't get anybody to go to England with an army and kick Henry's butt. Spain would like to have tried, but everyone knew Spain didn't have the strength. Thus the Catholic church in England became the Anglican Church, with virtually the same structure, minus the nuns. Significantly, though, the Anglican Church answered to the monarch.

This created several problems that persist into the 21st Century. Again, we need to understand how religion worked in the 16th Century, and how different it is from our own perception of it. People did not generally have the personal relationship with God that Christians today see almost as a birthright. Instead, the church, now Anglican, stood between people and God in a formal relationship. God oversaw births and marriages and deaths, and the church acted as an arm of the government, mostly keeping family records and providing appropriate ceremonies. Men went into the Anglican priesthood not because they felt called to be spiritual leaders, but because they were the younger sons of noble families and thanks to entailments, they needed money. Often these prelates would pay curates a small salary to read sermons, perform baptisms, etc, while they enjoyed the company of the nobilty and eventually married younger daughters of the upwardly mobile. (Think everything Jane Austen ever wrote. She was a HUGE critic of this whole system.)

By the end of the 16th Century, a small but vocal group wanted major change in the church. These people called themselves Puritans (because they wanted to purify the practices of the Anglicans, who had kept a lot of the Catholic liturgy, saints, and religious practice, merely translating it from Latin to English). The Puritans wanted a Biblically based government, a personal relationship with God, and social accountability. The ultimate Puritan attempt at creating a new world order in England was Oliver Cromwell's civil war in 1642. He managed to fracture English society into a million pieces, with himself at the top of the pile, but it was a short-lived victory, and the kingdom -- and the church -- reverted to monarchial control in 1660.

{Note the lovely black armor Cromwell is wearing in this painting. The Puritans disapproved of frivolous color and/or ornament, and apparently this also applied to dressing for war.}

So what's the problem with a state church? Why couldn't the Puritans do their own thing and let the church quietly continue to deteriorate? Because it's a state church, that's why. Because the tithe -- the ten percent of one's income that belongs to God -- became a tax that belonged to the state. Payment of the tithe was in addition to other taxes, and it supported immense cathedrals, parish churches, and, of course, those sons of nobles who were otherwise unemployable and a menace to society. Puritans objected strenuously to paying money to support a system that was anything but religious. The government objected to people deciding not to pay the tithe, feeling this was a bad precedent. Instant conflict.

Many Puritans went to Holland, where religious freedoms were encouraged. It says something about them, though, that they soon made themselves obnoxious to even the tolerant Dutch, and out they went -- again. America seemed like a great idea, because the natives there could be discounted as minions of Satan, and the Puritans could establish the kind of society they thought the world should have.

Obviously the whole issue is far more complicated than this, but here's enough basic history to help you understand where William Bradford is coming from as he writes about the Puritans in America. It will also help you appreciate the irony of his position -- leaving everything comfortable and familiar for a new land in which he and his could practice freedom of religion, he immediately set up a society in which freedom of religion was denied to everyone who wasn't a Puritan. The phrase "learning by doing" does not, alas, always apply.


  1. That was so interesting! I'm loving your blog!!

  2. I'm really glad that I'm taking American histroy at the same time; literarure makes SO much more sense when you know the history behind it! Thanks for always giving the background info.