During last week, I read the bulletin for the upcoming holiday weekend, and decided to skip church. It reeked of patriotic religion, starting out with “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”. Don’t get me wrong; I am a patriotic veteran, but Christian Nationalism has overtaken America– and the church is no exception.
If St. Paul could boast, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees”, then I am an American of Americans. My direct ancestors escaped religious persecution in England during the Puritan Great Migration. Within their Puritan circles, they lived the “City On A Hill”. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded as a Christ-optia, essentially a theocracy. The Puritans pursued policies of rigidly policed morality to enforce a spiritually-correct society, guarding the purity of the ordinances of God against “tolerations of divers religions, or of one religion in segregant shapes”. Religious intolerance made the Puritans the original Christian Taliban.
The Puritans tried, but soon failed, to be a monolithic religious body. Their Guiding Lights held a monopoly on spiritual and political power. The Puritans had a unitary vision: “one godly ruler, one godly church, and one godly path to heaven, with puritan ministers writing the guidebooks.” But they were a fissiparous crowd who disputed who had the correct Biblical world view. It wasn’t long before theocrats saw flaws in the theocracy of others. “It turns out that even puritans were not always sure who was puritan. They were much better at figuring out who was not, but even that could be difficult”.
Doctrinal disagreement soon broke up the godly elect into factions who deemed the others less godly. Amidst the ideological purgings, a great exodus ensued. Rev. John Davenport removed his church to New Haven Colony. Rev. Roger Williams was banished for “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions”, and took his congregation to Rhode Island. Rev. Thomas Hooker led his parish (including my 7th great grandfather) away to Hartford, Connecticut. Longstanding arguments over the “evidences” of conversion eventually split the Massachusetts Puritans in 1662, by way of the Half-Way Covenant. “All sides saw themselves as besieged by satanically inspired enemies, and Massachusetts nearly fell apart.”
“Intolerance was the way in which Puritan magistrates and ministers governed the colony.” My forebears sat at the heresy trial of Anne Hutchinson. Believing that God spoke to her by “an immediate voice”, Hutchinson is possibly the first recorded Charismatic in America. My ancestors presided over the death sentences at the Salem Witch trials. (Including my 2nd cousin 8 times removed, minister of Salem from 1680 to 1683 – the only clergyman executed for witchcraft.) Coerced virtue led to punishments greater and lesser, including criticizing a minister, Sabbath-breaking, or talking during a dry hour-and-a-half sermon. Repeat pew-sleepers were sentenced to be severely whipped. Worse were in store for “cursed sects of Christian heretics” like Quakers or Baptists who threatened to contaminate the purity of the colony. Intolerance of religious outsiders led them to be arrested, fined, imprisoned, branded, whipped, sold into slavery, or hanged. And from 1633 on, the Puritans bought, sold, and held enslaved Africans. They engaged in a terror campaign against the indigenous Pequot tribe. In one assault they killed 500 Pequot men, women, and children. A remorseless Puritan John Underhill quoted Old Testament verses to justify the slaughter, declaring that “sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents”.
The Puritans left England, persecuted by a state church intertwined with the government – and proceeded to repeat systematic religious intolerance in America. State-established religion and religious persecution go hand-in-hand. Theirs was a “Sweet Land of Liberty” – perhaps for them, but no others. The steady drumbeat of Puritan hyper-Calvinism left many in continuing doubt about their salvation, questioning whether their “works” were of God or the devil. What began as ascetic piety evolved into hypocrisy and appearance of righteousness.
The Puritan theocratic experience offers many forewarnings of what an America would resemble if Christian Rightists were to succeed in enforcing society’s conformance to divine rule. Whether a top-down capture of the 7 Mountains à la Dominionists, or over-stuffing institutions with Christian chiefs via Rushdoony/North Reconstructionism, the likelihood is that Trump or one of his fervent acolytes will take office in 2024. Intolerant Christian Rightists are on a victory roll. The survival of democracy in the near future makes the question urgently problematic. The next post will discuss this modern day Christian Taliban.