An Errand Into the Wilderness

Jerry Newcombe:
Imagine leaving your home, in some cases, your family, your home church, your livelihood in order to create a new life in a completely uncultivated land. Such was the case for thousands, upon thousands of Puritans from England in the 1600s who came to America. The Puritans were dedicated Christians who chose to remain within the church of England to work for its purity, hence their name. But after a while, persecution against them in England was so strong, many of them took the opportunity to create a new life in the new world, which was just beginning to open up for them in New England.

Speaker 2:
Reverend John Winthrop’s settlement of Boston in 1630 was the first major wave of Puritans to come to America. The Puritans held the first secret ballots in America to elect their minister. Even the term, election, was used by the Puritans because they believed in the Calvinist doctrine of election that some were chosen by God be saved. When an election was held, the question was, which of these candidates seems to exhibit the characteristics of someone who is elect. Furthermore, the Puritans implemented the practice of having election day sermons.

Speaker 3:
An election day sermon is that on the day of the election, they would have the minister. They would choose a minister in a local community or in a colony to actually give a sermon about the morality and character of the men that should be elected that day, or women, elected to all office. And they did this in America, throughout the colonial era, and really caused the electorate to think morally and spiritually that their vote counted that they were making a decision that would determine their freedom.

Speaker 2:
The devout men and women who settled New England, the pilgrims and then the Puritans, saw themselves as being on an errand into the wilderness, according to Reverend Cotton Mather, who lived from 1663 until 1728. Cotton Mather was a prolific Puritan divine from whom we learned so much about their settlements. Mather, who graduated from Harvard in 1678 when he was 15, wrote hundreds of books including a large two volume set, Magnalia Christi Americana, or the great works of Christ in America. It was first published in 1702 and it provides an early account of so much from that era, including his Pius ancestors.

Speaker 4:
Wherever they sat down, they were so mindful of their errand into the wilderness. That still one of their first works was to gather a church into the covenant and order of the gospel. Cotton Mather.

Speaker 2:
This was not an easy errand. The shores were inhospitable as were the winters, which proved so fatal at first. The Indians were hostile. Many things were going against the Puritans. Nonetheless, they viewed their efforts as being blessed by God. Speaking of New England at large, Cotton Mather would declare…

Speaker 4:
Never was any plantation brought onto such a considerable mess in a space of time so inconsiderable. And howling wilderness in a few years became a pleasant land accommodated with the necessaries, yea, and the conveniences of humane life. The gospel has carried with it a fullness of all other blessings. Cotton Mather.

Speaker 2:
Although initially the Puritans were technically members of the Church of England, which has a rule by Bishop’s model. In America, they chose to adopt the congregational model. The one practiced by the pilgrims. This model stressed self-government for each congregation. They would vote in their own pastors.

Speaker 5:
In a sense, the clergy were the first elected officials of the new American society. A society, which to that extent, had a democratic element from the start. Paul Johnson.

Speaker 2:
Boston flourished as a town the Puritans built from scratch.

Speaker 4:
The dispensations of the gospel were never enjoyed by any town with more liberty and purity for so long a while together. Cotton Mather.

Speaker 2:
Mather pointed out that Boston had been threatened many times. So the city officials called for days of fasting and prayer. They called on God to spare them from multiple fires, from a potential French invasion, and from outbreaks of smallpox. They repeatedly saw answers to their prayers. And what was the practical impact of personal piety on Boston in that era? A 17th century traveler from London said, “I have lived in a country where in seven years I never saw a beggar, nor heard an oath, a cuss word, nor looked upon a drunkard.” He was talking about Boston.

Speaker 4:
It may be there never was any region under heaven happier than poor New England have been in magistrates whose true piety was worthy to be made the example of after ages. Cotton Mather.

Speaker 2:
The Puritans were dedicated to the rule of law. So they commissioned a minister who had legal training to assemble together principles of the Bible that would spell out civil liberties that the colonists would implement. Reverend Nathaniel Ward thus created, in 1641, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties.

Jenna Ellis:
The Puritans cared very much about civil liberties and, of course, were very righteous in their understanding of God’s design of the world.

Speaker 2:
Civil liberties spelled out in the Massachusetts Body of Liberties included due process and avoiding double jeopardy. John Winthrop, the key Puritan leader in Boston, was a strong leader. And in some cases he was accused of being too strong. But some historians, like Paul Johnson, author of A History of the American People, note that Winthrop had to be strong to build up everything from scratch. In only a few decades, Reverend John Winthrop had overall succeeded in creating a settlement based on the Bible. The city on a hill was becoming established.

Jerry Newcombe:
Virtually every day in America, we enjoy a lot of civil liberties because of the work of the Puritans in the 17th century who founded New England. Their emphasis on education at all levels so that people could read the Bible for themselves, created schools for the masses, the forerunner of public education. They emphasize the biblical concept of covenant and ultimately this gave rise to our key founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. As Americans, we are greatly in debt to our rich Judeo-Christian heritage. For Providence forum, I’m Jerry Newcomb.

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