Massachusetts Bay

Puritanism increased mightily in England during the later years of James I and the reign of his son Charles, notwithstanding the cruel persecutions. If the Dissenters hoped for better things by the change of monarchs, they were doomed to disappointment; for if James had chastened them with whips, Charles chastised them with scorpions. But King Charles with all his bigotry was not the moving spirit during his reign in persecuting Dissenters; for this we must look to his more bigoted courtier, William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury.1 Laud was a man of remarkable energy. He was an extreme lover of law and order and a powerful supporter of the royal prerogative. In religion he clung with unyielding tenacity to the letter of the law, but had little conception of its spirit. How a man could, on principle and for conscience' sake, dissent from the Established Church was wholly beyond the comprehension of Laud, nor could he respect the one who did it. It was Laud above all men who visited bitter persecutions upon the Puritans in the reign of Charles, and it was Laud who, all unconsciously, did a great service for humanity--he caused the building of a powerful Puritan commonwealth in the New World. The great migration set in with the ascendency of Laud; "it waned as he declined and ceased forever with his fall."2

It will be remembered that Puritan and Pilgrim were not synonymous terms. The Puritans, as stated before, were those who sought to purify the English Church and to modify its forms, while remaining within it. The word "Pilgrim," while it has acquired a religious meaning, was not an eccelesiastical term. It was applied only to the Separatists or Independents who settled at Plymouth because of their migration, first to Holland and later to America. But eventually the Puritans became Independents, not only in America, but also in England, and from them have grown the great religious denominations of the English-speaking world--the Congregationalist, the Baptist, the Methodist,3 and to a great extent the Presbyterian.

During the next ten years following the coming of the Pilgrims in 1620 there were numerous conflicting land-grants made in eastern New England, and various scattered settlements sprang up in the neighborhood of Plymouth. An enumeration of these would only be confusing to the reader.

We have noticed, in our account of Virginia, that King James in 1606 chartered two companies, the London and the Plymouth companies. The former succeeded in founding Jamestown; the latter, after various sporadic attempts, had in 1620 done nothing. Meantime, John Smith of Virginia fame had explored the coast of northern Virginia, as it was then called, made a map of the coast, and named the country New England. In 1620 the old Plymouth company secured a charter and was henceforth known as the Council for New England. Sir Ferdinando Gorges was its leading member. This charter was for the vast territory between the fortieth and forth-eighth degrees of latitude, the name New England being substituted for northern Virginia. This new company, in its effort to found colonies, made many land grants, one of which, in 1628, was to six men, of whom John Endicott was the chief. This same year Endicott, who was to play a leading part in the early history of Massachusetts, came out with a following of sixty and settled at a place called Salem, joining a small settlement already there. But the great Puritan exodus was yet to begin, and as a large number of Puritans were now ready to join the colony, it was deemed far more satisfactory to have a royal charter than a mere land grant. A charter was therefore secured from Charles I in March, 1629, confirming the land grant of 1628, namely, from three miles south of the Charles River to a point three miles north of the Merrimac, extending westward to the Pacific Ocean which was believed to be much nearer than it is. This new company was styled the Governor and Company of Massachusetts Bay in New England. The government was to be placed in the hands of a governor, deputy governor, and eighteen assistants, to be elected annually by the company.4

This charter was very similar to the third charter of Virginia of 1612. But there was one remarkable point of difference; it did not provide, as did the Virginia charter, that the seat of government must remain in England. This omission led to the most important results in the building of New England. The year of the granting of the charter was the same in which the despotic king of England dismissed his Parliament and began his autocratic rule of eleven years without one. The political situation, therefore, as well as religious persecution, rendered the Puritan party extremely uncomfortable in England. Consequently, a small party of leading Puritans met at Cambridge in August of this year and adopted the "Cambridge Agreement," to migrate to Massachusetts, on condition that the charter and seat of government be transferred thither. To this the Massachusetts Bay Company agreed, and John Winthrop, a gentleman of wealth and education, one of the strongest and most admirable characters in the pioneer history of America, was chosen governor. Thomas Dudley was chosen deputy governor. A party of three hundred had been sent to join Endicott at Salem, and in April of the next year, 1630, Winthrop himself embarked, with a large company, for the New World.

The Pilgrims of 1620 were men of great zeal, but of little knowledge; many of the Puritans of 1630, however, were men of education and fortune,5 members of Parliament, or clergymen of the most liberal education. Led by such men, the movement created a profound impression in England, and thousands now prepared to cross the western ocean and take up their abode in the forests of New England. More than a thousand came in 1630, and as the policy of the king and Laud became more intolerable, the tide increased in volume. The people came, not singly, nor as families merely, but frequently as congregations, led by their pastor.

Winthrop had brought with him the charter, and this was the first step in a very important process--the process of fusing the company and the colonists into one body. The second step, which soon followed, was the admitting of the colonists, or "freemen", to membership in the company. By this the company ceased to be a private trading company conducted for commercial gain; it became a body politic, a self-governing community. The condition of freemanship was made, not property or educational test, but a religious qualification. The company was conservative and the process was slow. When there were 3000 settlers there were but 350 freemen, but the beginning of popular government was at hand. The ostensible object of the company, when it secured the charter, was to profit by trade; the real object was to establish a religious community with freedom of conscience, not for all, but for those only who were in religious accord with them. And the religious test for freemanship became the safeguard by which they secured for the future the end for which they had sacrificed so much. The matter of popular government, however, did notcome without some friction, as we shall soon notice.

Some time after landing, Winthrop found a clear spring of water on a peninsula called Shawmut, and there he took up his abode, founded a town, and called it Boston. Newtown, now Cambridge, was the first capital, but Boston was soon chosen as the seat of government. Meantime, Roxbury, Charlestown, Watertown, Dorchester, and other towns were founded.

In the matter of local government, the old parish system of England, half ecclesiastical and half political, was reproduced in the town or township. But it soon lost its religious functions and became the political unit, with absolute control of local government; while in Virginia, where the old name was retained, the opposite ensured--the parish became a religious division, while the county became the political unit.

The general government was at first conducted by the governor, deputy governor, and the assistants. This caused discontent among the freemen and when, in 1631, a tax was assessed for public works, the people of Watertown protested with the argument that it was taxation without representation. The Watertown protest was heeded and the freemen, who had delegated their right of electing the governor to the assistants, now resumed that right, and to punish Winthrop for his aristocratic tendencies, they dropped him and elected Dudley governor. Thus, in New England, as well as in the South, the democratic tendency was apparent from the beginning. But the freemen soon found it inconvenient for all to meet in General Court, and they established the representative system. Each town sent two delegates6 and these, with the governor and assistants, formed the General Court, which had legislative and judicial power. The freemen, however, continued to meet at Boston once a year to choose a governor and other officials; but as this practice became inconvenient, the proxy system was introduced, and this developed into the system of written ballots and sealed returns.7 In 1641, the General Court adopted a code of laws known as the "Body of Liberties." Prior to this they had been governed by the common law of England and the precepts of the Bible.

The settlers of the Bay colony had their hardships, --the long, harsh winters, the unfertile soil, the lurking red man, often hostile, and other obstacles common to pioneer life, --but the growth of the colony was phenomenal. The great Puritan exodus continued for ten years, and by 1640 more than twenty thousand home seekers had sailed into the harbors of Masssachusetts Bay. Such a movement of population had not been known since the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Strong houses soon took the place of the early built cabins; herds of cattle, goats, and swine covered the countryside, and ships were soon carrying loads of lumber, salt fish, and furs to the mother country.

No one was more astonished at the growing prosperity of the Puritan commonwelath than was thedespotic king who had granted the charter. From the ignoblest of motives, therefore, though ostensibly because of complaints that had reached his ears from a few malcontents, who had been sent back to England by the Puritans, King Charles determine (1635) to annul the charter. A writ of quo warranto was issued, and Sir Ferdinando Gorges, an uncompromising enemy of the Puritans, was to be made ruler of New England. But suddenly the opposition to the king became so threatening in England that he dropped the matter, and the charter was left unharmed. The people of Massachusetts had meantime shown a spirit of defiance similar to that by which their posterity, a hundred and forty years later, drew the attention of the world. They sent a messenger, in the person of Edward Winslow of Plymouth, to London to plead their cause, but at the same time they fortified their coast towns, collected arms, and trained militia. When, however, the king abandoned his designs against the charter, Massachusetts became practically an independent colony. In 1643 even the oath of allegiance to the Crown was dropped, and for a long period the colony was wholly without interference from royal authority. During the Civil War in England, and even during the period of the commonwealth under Cromwell, Massachusetts followed the same independentcourse as before.

The governorship, during the early years of the Bay colony, alternated between Wintrhop and Dudley. Butin 1636 Harry Vane, a young man who had arrived the yearbefore, the son and heir of a high official in England, was chosen to fill the office. Vane was not a bad man, but he was radical, and his selection at a time when the wisest heads were needed to guide the ship of state proved to be unwise.

It was at this early period that two notable events mark the history of Massachusetts, and they were brought about by two notable persons,--Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Williams was a young English clergyman of great strength of character and irrepressible enthusiasm. In his own land hefound no rest, on account of his religious teachings, and in 1631 made his way withhis young wife to New England. Scarcely had he landed when his troubles began anew. He seemed like an Ishmael--his hand against every man and everyman's hand against him. He stirred up opposition at Boston, at Plymouth, and at Salem. He refused to take the oath of fidelity; he denied the right of the magistrate to punish for violations of the first table of the Decalogue; he denied the right of compelling one to take an oath; he denounced the union of Church and State, and pronounced the king's patent void, as the Indians were the true owners of the land. The discontent caused by Williams's doctines became so serious that the General Court took hold of the matter and, after a second offense, ordered him to leave the colony within six weeks. He still kept up the disturbance and it was decided to send him directly to England. Williams, hearing of this decision, made his escape into the forest and wandered about for fourteen weeks, spending his nights with the Indians, or in hollow trees, until eventually he settled in one spot and became the builder of a city and the found of a state.

Roger Williams has been looked upon as an apostle of religious liberty, and so he was. His ideas were far in advance of his age, and some of them have since spread throughout the Christian world. We admire Williams for his sincerity, his adherance to principles. But he was impractical and wanting in tact. He was mainly right in the abstract, but wrong in his methods of application. He was wrong in preaching revolutionary doctrines, and urging them on a people who were not ready for them. Had the colonists followed him in declaring the royal charter valueless, their independence would soon have come to an end. The people of Massachusetts were proud of their theocratic government; they had labored and sacrified much to obtain it, and probably it was the very best for them at the time. They cannot, therefore, be blamed for dealing with Williams as they did.

Scarcely had the affair of Roger Williams been settled when the colonists found it necessary to deal with another religious enthusiast. The men were in the habit of holding meetings, to which the women were not admitted, to discuss public and religious questions. Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, a woman of talent and eloquence, resented this insult to her sex, as she called it, and began to hold meetings at her own house. Here they discussed theological questions and put forth views at variance with those of the ministers and the magistrates, asserting that the latter were under a covenant of works while she and her followers were under a covenant of grace. The whole colony became agitated with the subject. John Winthorp and most of the magistrates and ministers opposed the new doctrines, while the young Governor Vane and others favored them. At length, after Winthrop had been reelected governor and Vane had sailed for England, Mrs. Hutchingson was exiled from the colony. She made her way to a new antinimian settlement of Roger Williams, whence, after a sojourn of several years, she removed farther westward and was captured and murdered by the Indians.

About twenty years after the Hutchinson episode another and more serious affair disturbed the peace of Massachusetts. The Quakers, a religous sect newly founded in England, began coming to Massachusetts in 1656. They refused to take an oath and many thought them Jesuits in disguise. Reports of their extreme fanaticism had reached the colonists, and the first arrivals were sent back. Laws were then enacted to prohibit their coming, but they came in defiance of the laws. At length a law was passed (there was but one majority in the lower house) pronouncing the death sentence upon any Quaker who having been once banished, should return to the colony. To the astonishment of all, a few of the banished ones returned and demanded the repeal of the cruel law. Their fanaticism increased witht the persecution; they walked the streets and entered the churches in a nude condition,8 denouncing the laws and the Puritan form of worship. The authorities were perplexed. They had not expected to have occasion to enforce their harsh law; they had only meant to keep out people whom they despised. But now they must actually put these people to death or yield to their demand and repeal the law. They met in solemn conclave and again decided by one majority to enforce the law. Four of the Quakers were hanged.

But public opinion did not sustain the magistrates and the law was repealed. Thus the Quakers, by sacrificing a few lives, won a victory, and they eventually settled down and became quiet, useful citizens, devoting much of their energy to the conversion of the Indians.

Another popular delusion, still more serious in its results, was what is known as the Salem Witchcraft. This we notice here though it belongs to a later period. The witchcraft craze began on this wise. Some young girls who were in the habit of reading witch stories imagined themselves bewitched, and began to accuse an old Indian woman and others of bewitching them. The tale was believed, and the excitement it caused spread like an epidemic. Hundreds of people, accused of beings witches, were thrown into prison; nineteen were hanged, one, an aged man, was pressed to death, and two died in prison before the crazy superstition had spent its force.

It was not long until people awoke to the horror of the delusion, and then they bitterly repented their folly--as a drunkard, in his sober moments, mourns over the deeds of his delirium. It is unjust for later generations to make this delusion a ground of reproach upon the people of New England. Be it remembered that witchcraft was believed in at this time in every part of the civilized world, and thousands had been put to death in Europe for the same case.9 When it is remembered, further, that the religion of the Puritans was austere and somber, that the people were given to the morbid habit of introspection, that they ever had to battle with the dark, frowning forest and the wily Indian, and further that the age was a superstitious age--remembering all these things, we can only wonder that our forefathers were not more frequently the victims of some delusive craze than they were.

Massachusetts grew and prospered greatly, and by the time of the Restoration in England, in 1660, the colony had become a powerful commonwealth. The independence of the colony was largely due to the internal strife and frequent changes of government in England, which left little time and opportunity to deal with matters beyond the sea. But soon after Charles II became king he began to look with jealous eye upon the increasing importance of Massachusetts Bay. He accused the colonists of assuming powers not warranted in the charter and of violating the Navigation Acts, and he ceased not to harass them in various ways until the last year of his life, when he succeeded, on a writ of quo warranto, in having the charter pronounced void by the high court of chancery, and the liberties of the great Puritan commonwealth were temporarily at an end. Other matters of importance, as the New England Confederacy, King Philip's War, the career of Sir Edmund Andros, and the like, being rather to the history of New England as a whole than to that of one colony, and will be treated in a later chapter.


1Laud did not become archbishop until 1633, though he had long been an intimate advisor of the king. Return
2Eggleston, "Beginners of a Nation," p. 196. Return
3The Methodist church rose at a later date; but it had its origin in the same spirit that actuated the Puritans. Return 4Provision was also made for "one great, general and solemn assembly" to meet four times a year.Return
5Chalmers's "Introduction," Vol. I, p. 58. Return
6After 1636 the delegates were from one to three according to population.Return
7Bishop's "History of Elections," p. 123 sq.Return
8Lodge's "English Colonies," p. 354 Return
9The law in England imposing death for witchcraft was not repealed for forty years after this Salem delusion.Return

History of the United States of America, by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter IV, pp. 103-111
Transcribed by Kathy Leigh


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