A nation unchurched: The Apocalyptic community in Massachusetts Bay, 1620--1713
6 Table of Contents
Chapter One: Suffering, Purity, and Community Formation in John’s Apocalypse 22
Chapter Two: “as the Lord’s free people joined themselves into a church estate”: Communal Integrity in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation 66
Chapter Three: “Those that are persecuted Because of Righteousness, Are Blessed ones”: Michael Wigglesworth and Individual Salvation within a Forsaken Massachusetts Bay 109
Chapter Four: “These Pronouns, Meum and Tuum, in a business of this nature, I cannot away with”: Universal Community in Sewall’s Phaenomena quaedam Apocalyptica and “Proposals Touching the Accomplishment of Prophesies Humbly Offered” 154
Works Cited 212
A Nation Unchurched: The Apocalyptic Community in Massachusetts Bay, 1620- 1713 studies the development of the Puritan sense of their own community during the colony’s first 100 years. The Introduction offers a close reading of Thomas Hooker’s sermon entitled “The Danger of Desertion,” in which he argues how God can and will forsake a once covenanted people for their unfaithfulness. The Introduction continues to explain some basic tenets of Puritan theology. From there, the dissertation investigates John’s Book of Revelation, arguing that that book offers a prescriptive blueprint for Apocalyptic communities to follow in preparation for Judgment Day. The criteria found in Revelation is then utilized as a framework to explore the writings of three representative New England colonists: William Bradford, Michael Wigglesworth, and Samuel Sewall. In the chapter on Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, I argue that his intent on sustaining a righteous and clannish congregation fails under the very pressures that were supposed to ensure its success. John’s criteria for community prove untenable in practice, as Bradford’s book traces the dissolution of his colony’s zeal and, as a result, the collapse of their mission to re-establish the pure and primitive Christian church. The next chapter claims that Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom and Meat Out of the Eater offer a highly negative assessment of Massachusetts Bay’s faithfulness during the mid- to late 17 th century. His work obliterates any sense of community as he dismisses the possibility of a colony’s salvation en masse and focuses on the possibility of individual salvation alone. Chapter Four considers two Apocalyptic tracts from Samuel Sewall. Phaenomena Quaedam Apocalyptica and “Proposals Touching the Accomplishment of Prophesies
8 Humbly Offered” propose a universalism rarely seen in previous Puritan writing. His vision of the Apocalypse is comprehensive and outward looking, resulting in the elimination of any sense of distinctiveness that was once a defining characteristic of Puritan identity.
9 A Short Introduction to Puritan Theology
In 1631, Puritan clergyman Thomas Hooker 1 delivered a sermon entitled “The Danger of Desertion: or a Farewell Sermon of Mr. Thomas Hooker.” This was two years before he immigrates to New England to avoid Laudian 2 persecution. The “farewell” of the title does not refer to Hooker’s departure but to God’s departure from England. The biblical text for the sermon is Jeremiah 14.9, 3 which quotes the Israelites’ plea for God to not forsake them: “‘Why shouldst thou be like a man confused, like a mighty man who cannot save? Yet thou, O Lord, art in the midst of us, and we are called by thy name; leave us not’” (Jer. 14.9). God punishes and abandons them because “‘[t]hey have loved to wander thus, they have not restrained their feet; therefore the Lord does not accept them, now will [I] remember their iniquity and punish their sins’” (Jer. 14.10). Hooker’s intent is to justify God’s abandonment, explaining “[t]hat God may justly leave off a people, and unchurch a nation. Israel suspected it, and feared it: It is that that they prayed against, that God would not leave them. I doe not say that God will cast off his elect eternally; but those that are onely in outward covenant, with him he may” (3). He then likens the Israelites to the English, warning his congregation that Jeremiah 14 should “teach us to cast off all security, for miseries are nigh by all probabilities. . . . Englands sinnes have been great, yea and their mercies great. England hath been a mirror of mercy, yet God may leave us, and make us a mirror of his justice” (5). Hooker then catalogs in bloody detail the chaos, horror, and murder that will follow in the wake of God’s departure.
10 Hooker urges his listeners to be more devout, to keep God’s ordinances, and to beg God to stay. If they do not, he tells them that England “which wast lifted up to heaven with meanes shalt be abased and brought down to hell . . . for we stand at a high rate, we were highly exalted ; therefore shall our torments be the more to beare” (20). The anxiety that pervades “The Danger of Desertion” also pervades much Puritan writing, particularly in Massachusetts Bay. New England Puritans sensed that they were a specially covenanted people of God; they were the latest and, hopefully, the last covenanted people. They had been chosen to restore true Christianity to the world by purifying the church of all its blasphemous trappings and heretical rituals. The consequences for failure would be devastating, and they were never very far from many Puritans’ thoughts. To write that American Puritans lived in a constant state of anxiety would be an overstatement, but the threat of God’s forsaking them was a subject that they addressed often and exhaustively. Focusing their attention on this issue, Puritan writers would struggle to define the characteristics of a true Christian and of a faithful, covenanted congregation. In England or in Massachusetts Bay, Puritans’ focus should have been directed towards their spiritual state. Ministers, such as Hooker, would exhort their congregation to tend to their soul, to search their souls, so to speak, for evidence of their faithfulness. “The Danger of Desertion” effectively warns listeners to strive to become better Christians by explaining that God can and will forsake a nation, a people, and even an individual. If they are not faithful, if they sin, if they succumb to temptation, disobey God’s command in any way, they will be eternally damned to hell. These kinds of exhortations, however, are complicated by Puritan belief in predestination.
11 The doctrine of predestination holds that all people’s fate had been decided by God “before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13.8). Deriving the doctrine partially from Biblical passages such as Daniel 12.1-4 4 or Revelation 13.8 5 and 20.12-15, 6 Puritan congregants would struggle to determine if they were among the elect, or among those chosen by God to be saved. Simultaneously, they were well aware that it is impossible to make such a determination definitively: the divine plan, in its scope and grandeur, is beyond human understanding. A believer may have evidence of salvation, but to decide conclusively on one’s election would be limiting God’s authority, presumptuously usurping his will, and debasing his being by implying that God can be understood within human terms. Human intellect is corrupt, as are all things on earth, ineluctably ruined by original sin. As The New England Primer 7 pointed out to colonial children who were learning to read, “In Adam’s Fall / We Sinned all.” For most Puritans, people’s fallen, corrupt nature was an indisputable tenet of their faith. Original sin, Adam’s disobedience, revealed that the human “heart is deceitful . . . and desperately corrupt” (Jer.17.9). In 1619, the Synod of Dort 8 endorsed the tenet that all humans are “totally depraved,” predisposed to disobedience by following their selfish interests rather than God’s will. The premise is that all people deserved to be damned; humans are not worthy of salvation because we are, by our nature, resistant to God’s grace. Through God’s sovereign and merciful will, however, Puritans would argue that some would be saved while most would not. Known as Limited Atonement, the belief does not allege that God’s grace is limited by any means. It purports that God, again, had chosen to save only some before the world’s creation. In Revelation, the number of the elect is ambiguous. The number given is 144,000 (Rev. 7.4; 14.1), but that
12 figure is comprised of 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The number can be and was read figuratively. For the New World Puritans generally, though, the number of the elect remained more or less the same as the number of the church members. Nonetheless, that optimistic and definitive head-count is constantly challenged by their experiences in the Massachusetts Bay, and particularly in William Bradford and Michael Wigglesworth, the number steadily diminishes to none. Samuel Sewall has a different perspective from those two. Under his apocalyptic framework, the New England Puritan community becomes just one of many elect communities and so loses their identity as God’s Chosen People; they lose their specificity. Most Puritans, however, believed that the vast majority of people would be damned. They also believed that there was nothing an individual could do to change his or her fate. The decision for salvation, obviously, was not theirs to make. Moreover, individuals could not earn salvation through good works, professions of faith, or any religious ritual. Rather than a covenant of works, Puritans adhered to a covenant of grace, but it was a covenant determined by another Synod of Dort tenet, Unconditional Election, that stipulated that human will has no influence on God’s will. Supported by Biblical passages such as 2 Timothy 1.9 9 and especially Romans 9.15-16, 10 Puritans knew that their salvation was entirely in God’s hands. They could not gain entry into New Jerusalem through their own efforts, but they could not lose election, either. Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints are corollaries of Unconditional Election and God’s omnipotence. Fundamentally, the doctrine of Irresistible Grace claims that those whom God chooses to save will be saved, regardless of anything that attempts to prevent their salvation while Perseverance of the Saints maintains that those elect will
13 remain faithful for eternity. Those who lose faith and become obvious apostates or heretics never really were among the elect; they were never chosen. From this perspective, Hooker’s argument that God could unchurch England, or unchurch any nation, becomes irrelevant because the nation was never churched in the first place. The citizens of the nation are the preterite, or the reprobate, and Puritan clergy would generally not use these terms interchangeably. God will damn the non-elect by either preterition or reprobation. Preterition is a Calvinistic belief that come Judgment Day, those not saved will be overlooked by God. In effect, the preterite are left out of the divine plan. Their names are not found in the book of life, and consequently, they end up in hell because they are not in New Jerusalem. It is a kind of passive damnation, one that is caused by God’s neglect. Reprobation is a more active damnation, and it is a more commonly held belief. The reprobate are judged, barred from New Jerusalem, and condemned to eternal punishment in hell. God is involved in the fate of the reprobate; John’s Revelation makes it clear that they receive the justice they deserve. The tension this dissertation explores, however, is not between the differing methods of damnation. Rather, it is the American Puritan colony’s struggle to determine if Massachusetts Bay, in fact, was churched. I have chosen these authors because they have at least two characteristics in common that are necessary to this study. The first shared characteristic is that the authors are concerned with community formation in terms of defining their own cultural group against alien groups who would be, in effect, the damned. The second is that they are absorbed with the apocalyptic mission, which is developing a purified, faithful community devoted to worshipping God. The apocalyptic mission begins with cultural
14 contact, with distinguishing one community from another by drawing strict and non- negotiable boundaries between the saved, or the renate, 11 and all others. These boundaries determine who is among the elect and who is not, who is orthodox and who is heretical. The focus of this dissertation is on the authors’ identification of and reaction to the unorthodox within their respective communities. It details their differing responses to intra-communal tensions and factions, to apostates and backsliders, and to attitudinal shifts of the communal members. John, Bradford, and Wigglesworth perceive any deviation from their notion of orthodoxy as a threat and corruption of their communities. The struggle for them is to eliminate those corrupting agents and purify their communities. Until that goal is reached, however, the path leading to it is a series of differentiations, of distinctions being drawn between differing communities and between one righteous member and another heretical member. Once the supposed elected community has been refined to its pure elements on earth, then, theoretically, the apocalyptic conflict will begin. It is the constant refinement and re-enforcement of the elected community within and against prescribed criteria that will help precipitate the end of the world, while it is the apocalyptic mission that creates and drives that community in the first place. Chapter One, “Suffering, Purity, and Community Formation in John’s Apocalypse,” explores the depiction of apocalyptic communities in the Book of Revelation. I use apocalyptic communities here rather than eschatological communities because John’s focus is not solely on Judgment Day. His goal, as depicted in Revelation, is also on developing and purifying the churches he addresses in the beginning of the
15 book. In Chapter One, I argue that Revelation sets specific criteria for fostering apocalyptic communities; these criteria are found within the letters to the seven churches (Rev. 2.1-3.22). The letters to the seven churches describe congregations that are besieged by the surrounding communities; their members threatened by temptation to convert to heretical religions or to become negligent in the prohibitions against participating in blasphemous rituals. In short, the danger John sees is the continuous pressure to acculturate, which he then sees will lead to a vanishing coherency in communal identity. His solution is to resist, but it is a particularly violent resistance that leads to martyrdom for some and suffering for all who follow his direction. The suffering ends, however, in a cataclysmic depiction of Judgment Day, during which everyone who was not a faithful member of John’s congregation is sent to damnation: “and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (20.15). At the end of Revelation, John reveals the purified community, namely the elect who live eternally in God’s presence in New Jerusalem. The order in which the American Puritan texts appear in this dissertation are chronological and topical in that they represent the eventual dissolution of the ideal New England Puritan community. Chapter Two considers William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, which covers the years from 1606 to 1646. In this chapter, I argue that Bradford’s journal ultimately reveals his belief that his congregation fails to retain the righteousness that it had while it was located in Leiden, Holland. I also argue that Bradford’s depiction of their time in Leiden reveals that the congregation was not very righteous there, either. Yet, their time in Holland most closely resembled the seven churches in Revelation. They were economically weak and under the constant threat of
16 acculturating the dominant, surrounding Dutch culture. Military, economic, even theologic resistance seemed impossible. The Leiden community, then, immigrates to Plymouth. The chapter traces developments of Plymouth’s experiences in the New World, and pays close attention to how the apocalyptic mission and communal identity develops and dissolves into incomprehensibility or into resignation. As his journal progresses, as Plymouth Plantation becomes more prosperous and stable, Bradford finds a community that is increasingly concerned with the material world and less involved with spiritual matters. Bradford, himself, is guilty of that sin. Much of Of Plymouth Plantation details the complicated and unfortunate business history that the colony had with its partners in England. I argue that the great deal of attention that Bradford pays to these concerns represents the larger issue of the colony’s loss of righteousness. Bradford concludes that the “heavenly zeal for His truth” (9) that he feels his congregation once had vanishes by the time he dates the last page “Anno 1646” and stops writing. From here, I move to more pessimistic and unequivocal documents about the Puritan’s role in the apocalyptic scenario and the possibility of a righteous, faithful community on earth. As opposed to Bradford, Wigglesworth unhesitatingly damns most New England Puritans. His most well known work, The Day of Doom (1662), depicts a Judgment Day on which very few will be saved. The Day of Doom re-writes John’s apocalypse with an American background, as Wigglesworth describes the kinds of sinners who will be heading to hell and why their damnation is justified. Far more often than not, however, those sinners are members of the Massachusetts Bay Puritan churches rather than the more easily recognized heretical persecutors who make up much of John’s damned. Responding to a perceived widespread religious declension and the resultant growing
17 anxiety over the possibility that God has rejected the entire colony, Wigglesworth writes a theologically conservative and orthodox admonition to his fellow community members to heed their individual souls rather than anything else. How to heed their souls is explained in Meat Out of the Eater (1670), which acts as a guide to individual Christians of how the truly faithful act, think, and feel. Similar to John’s depiction of the righteous, Wigglesworth’s Christianity is one of pain, suffering, and martyrdom. Much of the suffering develops from his excessive anti-corporeal stance, from the conflict between the spiritual and the material found within each Puritan undergoing the salvific process. His anti-materialism has Biblical precedence and is particularly prevalent in Revelation. Wigglesworth re-affirms throughout all of his work that Christians struggle against the world and themselves, living in a continuous state of anxiety and tension and hoping that they are of the elect. His work, though, offers no image of a faithful community on earth; it targets individuals solely. Believing that Massachusetts Bay is forsaken, or that it never had been covenanted, Wigglesworth rejects any claim of communal righteousness. More than any other contemporary Puritan, Wigglesworth’s work explicitly demonstrates God’s rejecting or neglecting Massachusetts Bay as a whole. Almost all of Wigglesworth’s work was warning his fellow Puritans to acknowledge that they are no longer, and never really have been, God’s chosen people. In the two treatises considered in the final chapter, Samuel Sewall is not warning; he’s defending America’s position in the apocalypse. In Phaenomena Quaedam Apocalyptica (1697) and “Proposals Touching the Accomplishment of Prophesies Humbly Offered” (1713), Sewall argues that America will be the origin of the upcoming apocalypse. Responding to claims that the Americas are preterite, Sewall offers the claim that the
18 Americas remain in God’s favor while the rest of the world very well may be forsaken. Sewall spends much time trying to prove that the Americas are anagogically 12 found in Biblical text. He uses Christ’s Parable of the Sower, for example, in Matthew 13 13 to support his argument that Christianity has failed in Asia, Africa, and Europe, but it will succeed in the Americas. Sewall optimistically, and somewhat archaically, argues that America, and particularly New England, are fulfilling apocalyptic prophecy and are succeeding in bringing Judgment Day to earth, but the number of the elect expands dramatically beyond Massachusetts Bay’s borders. Like Wigglesworth, Sewall rewrites Revelation with an American background. Unlike the other writers considered in this work, however, Sewall eliminates exclusivity, as he seems to favor a universal approach to salvation. The notion of a distinct, small, and purified Puritan elect community is entirely absent from these two treatises. In this sense, Sewall’s apocalypse violates the criteria proposed by John and, by doing so, obliterates the traditional, orthodox definition of an apocalyptic community and of a Massachusetts Bay congregation of saints. These New England authors’ impulse to be a member within a purified and coherent community leads them to reject the idea of community altogether. The desire for many Puritans immigrating to Massachusetts Bay was to join “themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church estate, in the fellowship of the gospel” (Bradford 9) and to re-establish the Christian primitive church on earth. Developing a congregation that was worthy of such a church, that would reveal God’s favor for them as a people, commanded members to continuously scrutinize themselves and their fellow members. The ideal elected Puritan community collapses under the relentless and necessary weight of that scrutiny. Rather than re-enforce communal identity, the persistent paring of its
19 membership to ensure a purified chosen group ultimately yields no group at all, no specifically designated New England elect. John’s demand that a righteous community must incessantly expose and exile apostates but also suffer immensely until Judgment Day proved unsustainable in practice. The community could not maintain, or even meet, that demand. Bradford responds with resignation; Wigglesworth, with pessimism. Sewall responds with an optimism that dispels any notion of a specially covenanted people, and that response marks an end to the Puritan mission in the New World.
1 Thomas Hooker, ca. 1586-1647, immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1633. In 1636, he and his followers left the colony to help establish Hartford, Connecticut. 2 William Laud (1573-1645) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 until 1645. He is remembered for his enthusiastic persecution of English Puritans and was eventually beheaded for treason by the Parliamentary government. 3 Jeremiah 14.7-10: “Though our iniquities testify against us, act, O LORD, for thy name’s sake; for our backslidings are many, we have sinned against thee. O thou hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why shouldst thou be like a stranger in the land, like a wayfarer who turns aside to tarry for a night? Why shouldst thou be like a man confused, like a mighty man who cannot save? Yet thou, O LORD, art in the midst of us, and we are called by thy name; leave us not.” Thus says the LORD concerning this people: “They have loved to wander thus, they have not restrained their feet; therefore the LORD does not accept them, now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.” 4 Daniel 12.1-4: “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time; but at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.” 5 Revelation 13.5-8: And the beast [of the sea] was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months; it opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain. 6 Revelation 20.12-15: And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. 7 The New England Primer was published in 1683. It was exceedingly popular because it taught colonial children the alphabet and the rudiments of their Puritan faith simultaneously. 8 The Synod of Dort intended to resolve conflicts within the Dutch Reformed Church caused by followers of Jacob Arminius. Arminianism is discussed in some detail in chapter three. The synod resulted in the five canons of Dort, which would re-affirm Puritanism’s foundation. The mnemonic for these five doctrines is TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. 9 2 Tim. 1.8-10: Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago, and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 10 Romans 9.15-16: “For [God] says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So [election] depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy.” 11 Meaning reborn or reincarnate, renate is a term often used by Puritans to denote the elect.
12 An anagogical Biblical reading is a medieval exegetical approach that reads Biblical passages as prophetic, particularly towards the end time. 13 Matthew 13.3-9: And [Christ] told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”
22 Chapter One: Suffering, Purity, and Community Formation in John’s Apocalypse
Revelation, the last canonical book in the Christian Bible, written around 80 AD, consists of seven letters to the dispersed Jewish, nascent Christian communities of the Mediterranean. 1 It also offers a detailed, bizarre, baffling description of the end of the world. The letters to the seven churches, voiced through God’s intermediary, “one like a son of man” (1.13), 2 offer praise or censure to each individual church’s faithfulness. These letters are very much concerned with community formation by creating significant distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, or, more accurately, between orthodox Jews and their enemies, which is everyone else. In these letters, the community is defined and develops in opposition to internal and external threats. Within Revelation’s community formation pattern, communal groups may be determined only by first defining others, and then self-definition is possible in opposition to other groups. Inter- and intra-communal conflict is prevalent in the letters, in which Christ commends or criticizes based on opposition to other sects or to heretics within their own sect. The “son of man” tells John to write to Ephesus, “‘Yet this you have, your hate the works of the Nicolaitans, 3 which I also hate’” (2.6); to Pergamum, “‘But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality” (2.14) ; and to Thyatira, “‘But I have this against you: that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who . . . is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols’” (2.20). John sustains the conflict between the orthodox and