Monday, November 25, 2013

Pure "Hypocrites"

Freedom Trail guides, Duck Boat drivers and drivers of the various trolley tours in Boston pretty much all take apparent pleasure in pointing out the "hypocrisy" of the New England Puritans. "They came to America seeking religious freedom," these guides announce in voices tinged with disdain, "yet they persecuted Baptists, Quakers and members of other churches." (When John tells them that he and I subscribe to many of the doctrines the Puritans held, they fall all over themselves assuring us that they appreciate the Puritans' contribution to America's beginnings.)

To better understand the Puritans' intolerance of other Christian denominations, we must go back to Elizabethan England. The Church of  England  had rejected the Papal authority of Roman Catholicism, but did so primarily in order for Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon. The Anglican Church retained many vestiges of Catholicism, much to the dismay of the Separatist Puritans who adhered to the reformed teachings of John Calvin.

These Puritans sought to "purify" the Anglican Church. Of course, their attempts at reform resulted in persecution so severe that they fled to Holland, settling in Leyden for twelve years.

Life in Leyden challenged the Separatists, who struggled to learn the Dutch language. They were mostly farmers in England, so Leyden's textile mill based economy proved difficult for them in terms of securing employment. Additionally, political tensions between Holland and Spain engendered concerns about another Spanish Inquisition targeting non-Catholics.

Yet the freedom of religion in Holland posed the greatest threat to the Puritans. Dutch culture, as a result of its religious tolerance, produced a morally lax atmosphere,  causing the Puritans deep concern that their children would stray from the faith. Consequently, the eventual migration to America promised an opportunity to establish a community centered on their understanding of the Bible, as well as opportunities to evangelize American Natives.

So, although the Separatists originally left England to seek religious freedom in Holland, twelve  years in Leyden taught them that too much religious freedom threatened the purity of their faith. Certainly, their tactics in dealing with other expressions of Christianity upon settling in  New England failed to exemplify God's compassion, the charge of hypocrisy that Boston tour guides so enjoy making  betray an ignorance of history. Let the record show that, far from being hypocrites, the Puritans sought to maintain the purity of their faith.

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