Politics of Tolerance in Puritan Massachusetts

The materials we are looking at this week all revolve around questions of religious tolerance, and the more extreme consequences of stepping “outside the envelope” of what could be tolerated in Puritan Massachusetts. The Simple Cobbler of Agawam (1647) is the classic statement in defense of intolerance. Roger Williams’ writings are generally taken as the model for a more tolerant approach. (See The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution; Williams timeline) The Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations – July 15, 1663, which grew out of the Rhode Island settler’s conflicts with Massachusetts, incorporates the principle of religious tolerance:

noe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion, and doe not actually disturb the civill peace of our sayd colony; but that all and everye person and persons may, from tyme to tyme, and at all tymes hereafter, freelye and fullye have and enjoye his and theire owne judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of lance hereafter mentioned. . .

That document has personal significance for me, since one of the signers was Samuell Wildbore, the first Wilbur of my line in the colonies. Samuel was disarmed and expelled from Massachusetts with Ann Hutchinson, the Dyers, etc.

It’s a long way, ideologically, from the Trial of Anne Hutchinson, in 1637, to the Rhode Island Charter in 1663. Traditionally, we have talked about what happened in that span in terms of a sort of failed revolution in Massachusetts, with the revolutionaries expelled and the reign of orthodoxy in Massachusetts unbroken until two more “moral panics”—the Quaker persecutions and the witch trials— brought everyone to their senses. There’s some truth to that account, but there seems to be a fascinating counter-narrative developing which suggest that the revolutionary faction may have been the ones that did the casting out. John Cotton and Anne Hutchinson were certainly radicals from the point of view of orthodox forces in the English church. Cotton was a target of Archbishop William Laud, who became infamous for his persecution of Presbyterians and others outside the mainstream of Anglicanism. But there question arises whether those who became labelled “antinomian” were really as un-orthodox as we generally suppose. There seems to be a growing consensus that Hutchinson’s party represented one orthodoxy, and a fairly traditional one within puritan circles, and that the tension in the community came from their clash with another, emerging orthodoxy. Shepherd and Winthrop split with Hutchinson over very fine theological points. Look at my discussion of justification and sanctification to review some of them. What’s important for us is that Hutchinson embraced a very pure and uncompromising view of the way in which one is saved. Her judges embraced a kind of limited preparationism, which means they thought that certain kinds of acts could prepare an individual to receive salvation through God’s grace. There are practical consequences to your choice of positions. For example, the missionary work among the Indians undertaken by Shepherd and John Eliot would have made considerably less sense if they took Hutchinson’s position. What the revisionist view of the antinomian crisis suggests is that the expulsion of Hutchinson’s party marked a radical break from religious belief proper as the guiding principle of the colony, and an accomodation of beliefs with political forces. On this view, Winthrop and Shepherd were the liberals, although they were obviously still authoritarian in their application of their new orthodoxy. The Half-Way Covenant of 1662 provides an interesting contrast to the Rhode Island Charter, if we view both as in some sense liberalizing moves.

Look at the Hawthorne account below for an overview of the Quaker persecutions. Mary Dyer, one of those killed in Massachusetts for being a Quaker, is of special interest to us because she was exiled with Hutchinson. She is in many ways the symbol of this phase of Massachusetts history, and there is a statue of her just off the Boston Common, in front of the State House.

Quaker persecution and general Quaker resources:

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2309 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.