The Puritans’ Conflict Between Divine Approval and Prosperity
You probably are not sensible of this; you find you are kept out of hell, but do not see the hand of God in it; but look at other things, as the good state of your bodily constitution, your care of your own life, the means you use for your own preservation. But indeed these things nothing; if god should withdraw His hand, they would avail no more to keep you from falling, than the thin air to hold up a person that is suspended in it.
-Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
Winthrop and Bradford among many other devoted Puritans endure a challenging voyage to New England for the sake of having religious freedom from English law. Their goal is to maintain the new Puritan community members with ties of charity, love and the commitment of living according to God’s word. Due to a conflict in Puritan beliefs and the desire for wealth among Puritans, religious and moral virtues in puritans decayed. The conflict that I am referring to deals with the Puritan belief that God provides prosperity to those who accept his grace and earns his approval. Puritans also believe that sinners would be damned by God’s wrath. These sanctions are thought to be signs from God. If God approves of the actions of the individual, he/she would be blessed with desirable things. On the other hand, sinners are thought to be associated with poverty and damnation. God is believed to cause all occurrences to serve as a sign. The signs purposes are to guide Puritans as well as to reward and punish. The conflicting issue is the fact that many Puritans prosper disgracefully. Furthermore these sinful Puritans are not damned by God’s wrath. The prospering sinners become free from strict puritan laws and remain wealthy.
Puritans begin their risky pursuit for religious freedom (purity) in 1620. Their decision to leave England is an act of treason. Leaving is a violation that is punishable by death. The puritans’ second threat is the voyage to New England. The conditions during the voyage kill many of the passengers. Upon arrival, the Puritans find themselves in a hostile environment with no shelter or developed land to survive with. They put themselves through these great discomforts in order to better serve their God.
The Puritans are certain that their voyage pleases God by the fact that many arrive to New England alive. The successful arrival of some of the travelers is considered a divine favor. The casualties are written off as sinners who are chosen not to arrive to the community. For example, in response to the cussing man who falls over-board and drowns; Bradford states “Just the hand of God upon him”. Basically, God caused the man to fall over-board because of his rejection of grace. Puritans perceive the event as a sign from God. Another example of the perception of an event representing a sign from God is when Puritans first encountered Native Americans. Both sides used their weapons against each other in an attempt to kill. The fact that no Puritan was harmed in the encounter is believed to be a sign of divine favor. It is believed to be a sign of God’s pleasure in their lifestyle and his will to preserve them for that reason. “Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies and give them deliverance; and His special providence so to dispose that not any one of them were either hurt or hit, though their arrows came close by them and on every side [of] them;” (Page 95).
As Bradford does, Winthrop also declares that God reveals signs of His intolerance of sinners. The Puritans were having trouble surviving during their first winter. Cows and goats were dying, hunting is difficult and the winter weather is brutal. By January 1, 200 of them die. Many more are ill. Winthrop declares that this is due to God’s displeasure with them. Winthrop comments on the situation- “Satan bends his forces against us, and stirs his instruments to all kinds of mischief, so that I think here are some persons who never showed so much wickedness in England as they have done here.”
It is likely that the Native Americans who shot arrows at the Puritans simply missed their targets. To Puritans, it is surely a sign of divine favor. As for half of the Puritan population dying during their first unprepared winter in New England; lets review their circumstances. Most of the deaths occur during the coldest time of the winter. Many Puritans arrived already infected with scurvy and other diseases due to the strenuous health conditions of their voyage. There is a lack of houses because of the lack of carpenters. Food was nearly impossible to obtain at that time due to the severe weather. Simple explanations to the Puritans’ survival crisis are apparent. Winthrop’s statement regarding the crisis demonstrates how the devoted Puritans view misfortunes as well as prosperity. Just like every other occurrence, it is strictly believed to be God’s will and a sign of either approval or disapproval of their behavior.
During the time when many puritans are ill, six or seven people devote themselves to maintaining the sick from dying. These helping Puritans set a classic example of the way good Puritans should live. These examples include but are not limited to “spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them.” This classic example of Puritan love and commitment to fellow Puritans is related to divine signs. While caring for the ill and exposing themselves to possible contamination, the caretakers remain healthy. Bradford states that God maintained their health. To Puritans, this occurrence is a sign of God’s approval of their nature. “And yet the Lord so upheld these persons as in this general calamity they were not at all infected either with sickness or lameness.” (Page 98).
The Puritans take great risks and make many sacrifices in God’s name. Their function as they believe, is to serve God. In return Puritans hope to be blessed in all ways as Winthrop promised. Their commitment to a pure life is considered the way to possibly gain God’s approval and thus being blessed with prosperity.
As Puritans develop their new lands, changes take place, which affect their strict religious standards. The demand for houses exceeds the supply of houses. This leads to a bidding war over the available houses. The bidding is an example of the selfishness that starts in the community. The right way to handle this difficult situation as a Puritan would be to share the houses that are available. This situation is perceived as a sign that the Puritans without a house are sinners. The ‘sinner’ label being placed on the devoted Puritans who lack the resources to obtain a house is offensive. The perceived sign with the association of having sinned is frustrating and a definite interference with certain Puritans’ level of faith.
Winthrop as governor sets up price controls on necessities as the costs soar. At a time when there is more demand for necessities than there is of supplies of necessities that are available, the proper action to take would be to ration the supplies. The capitalist merchants take advantage of the less wealthy Puritans. Basically some merchants prosper by sinning. This situation is completely contrary to puritan belief. Puritans expect God to set his wrath on the selfish merchants for their sins. The acknowledgment of this matter damages the Puritans’ belief of prospering through God’s approval of a pure and sacred lifestyle.
There are many opportunities to prosper in Massachusetts. The combination of opportunities and the desire for wealth among certain Puritans outweighs their desire to please God. The devotion to hard work, strict religious laws, commandments, ordinances and maintaining discipline as to allow God to manage their wealth and social status, proves to be too many regulations for many Puritans to honor. The factor, which makes the problem of prosperity worse for puritans, is the confusion over whether it is a sign of God’s blessing or simply prevalent because of sins against God. It is understandable how this conflict causes Puritans to question their beliefs and consider abandoning them. Abandoning the colony is a decision that some Puritans make; as described by Bradford- “as they conceived themselves straitened (financially hampered) or to want accommodation, broke away under one pretense or other, thinking their own conceived necessity and the example of others a warrant sufficient for them.” (Page 106). The acknowledgement of other “Puritans” prospering with their large lots of land and large crop yields in Duxbury as Bradford states; changes Puritan thinking to want more for themselves and break away from the “City on a Hill”.