In the final analysis, while the Puritans were not 21st-century liberal democrats, neither were they intolerant theocrats. They created some of the most republican political institutions the world had ever seen and strictly limited civic leaders by law. They valued liberty and had, as David D. Hall puts it in “A Reforming People,” an “animus against ‘tyranny’ and ‘arbitrary’ power that pervaded virtually every sermon and political statement.”
Last year marked the culmination of The New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project. The project rightly brought attention to the importance of the African American story of enslavement and the 400-year struggle for freedom. Yet its original claim that the United States was founded in 1619 rather than 1776 went too far.
In a speech commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, the great orator Daniel Webster lauded these refugees as the authors of American “civil and religious liberty.” A few decades later, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “Puritanism was not only a religious doctrine, but also at several points it was mingled with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.” He contended that understanding this “point of departure” is “the key to the whole book” of his magisterial “Democracy in America.”
Alas, on the 400th anniversary of the fateful landing, many Americans believe these settlers were dour Christians who, according to Nathaniel Hawthorne, wore “sad-colored garments” or, in the words of the 19th-century English professor Moses Coit Tyler, “cultivated the grim and the ugly.” More recently, H.L. Mencken described them as harboring a “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” and the playwright Arthur Miller said they were “theocrats” who desired to prevent “any kind of disunity.”
In truth, the Pilgrims, and the Puritans who followed them, were not 21st-century liberal democrats, but they created political institutions and practices that profoundly influenced the course of American politics and facilitated later experiments in republican self-government and liberty under law. They valued natural rights, rule by the consent of the governed, and limited government; and they were convinced that citizens have a right, and perhaps even a duty, to resist tyrannical governments. Four hundred years since the signing of the Mayflower Compact, we should honor their contributions to the creation of the American republic.
The Reformation: A Very Brief History
Reformers rejected the idea that the church and its priests were necessary intermediaries between ordinary people and God, and that the church as an institution possessed the authority to speak for Him. Individuals were told that they were responsible for their relationship with God and that His will for them is most clearly revealed in the Holy Scriptures. These last two beliefs led to an emphasis on literacy and a commitment to translating and printing the Bible in the vernacular.
The significance of the explosion of literacy in Protestant countries cannot be overestimated. In the mid-seventeenth century, literacy rates of Italy and France were 23 percent and 29 percent, respectively. In contrast, scholars estimate that up to 95 percent of males in New England at that time could read. Widespread literacy helped undermine existing hierarchies and paved the way for the growth of republican self-government.
The Reformation had several false starts in England — most notably those led by John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, both famous for translating the Bible into English (a “crime” for which Tyndale was burned at the stake). King Henry VIII was not particularly interested in Protestantism, but he did want to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Because the Pope refused to annul his marriage, he cut ties with Rome in 1534 and created the Church of England. Henry made himself rather than the Pope the head of this new church, but otherwise was largely content to leave it alone.
Most English Puritans were content merely to purify the Church of England, but a subset of them saw no biblical precedent for a national church, believing each Christian congregation constituted a church and should govern itself. Because of their desire to separate from any sort of national church, they became known as “Separatists.” To freely practice their faith, a group of them fled to Holland in 1608, and then to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620.
Puritan Political Thought
Before these English Separatists, more commonly known as Pilgrims, disembarked from the Mayflower, they made an agreement that represents an important political innovation. This covenant, known today as the Mayflower Compact, committed the people and their rulers to pursue “the Glory of God, and the Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honor of our King and Country.” Its legitimacy stemmed from the consent of the 41 men — most of whom were Separatists — heading households on the ship.
Some scholars have attempted to downplay the importance of the Mayflower Compact by arguing that it was not well known until the 19th century and was not called the “Mayflower Compact” until 1793 — a fact that, while true, remains irrelevant. Verily, the Compact is significant because it represents the commitment many Reformed leaders had to the idea that people must consent to civic and ecclesiastical institutions if they are to be legitimate. The Pilgrims, and the Puritans who followed them, created civil governments that are among the most republican the world had ever seen.
Reformers believed that ministers and scholars should read the Holy Scriptures in their original languages, which led many of them to learn Hebrew. Moreover, as Eric Nelson explains in his wonderful book “The Hebrew Republic”:
… to understand the Hebrew Bible, they insisted, one should consult the full array of rabbinic sources that were now available to the Christian West. One should turn to the Talmud and midrash, to the targums and medieval law codes.
In these texts, Protestant Reformers discovered a set of ideas that scholars now refer to as “political Hebraism.”