“The Puritan Dilemma” Analysis

He which would have suer peace and joye in Christianitye, must not ayme at a condition retyred from the world and free from temptations, but to knowe that the life which is most exercised with tryalls and temptations is the sweetest, and will prove the safeste. For such tryalls as fall within compasse of our callinges, it is better to arme and withstande them than to avoide and shunne them. John Winthrop There, in Winthrop’s own words, is the Puritan dilemma of which Mr. Morgan speaks here, “the paradox that required a man to live in the world without being of it. “

Superficially Puritanism was only a belief that the Church of England should be purged of its hierarchy and of the traditions and ceremonies inherited from Rome. But those who had caught the fever knew that Puritanism demanded more of the individual than it did of the church. Once it took possession of a man, it was seldom shaken off and would shape–some people would say warp–his whole life. Puritanism was a power not to be denied.

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It did great things for England and America, but only by creating in the men and women it affected a tension which was at best painful and at worst unbearable. Puritanism required that a man devote his life to seeking salvation but told him he was helpless to do anything but evil. Puritanism required that he rest his whole hope in Christ but taught him that Christ would utterly reject him unless before he was born God had foreordained his salvation. Puritanism required that man refrain from sin but told him he would sin anyhow.

Puritanism required that he reform the world in the image of God’s holy kingdom but taught him that the evil of the world was incurable and inevitable. Puritanism required that he work to the best of his ability at whatever task was set before him and partake of the good things that God had filled the world with but told him he must enjoy his work and his pleasures only, as it were, absent-mindedly, with his attention fixed on God. Caught between the ideals of God’s Law and the practical needs of the people, John Winthrop walked a line few could tread.

John Winthrop is the main character of The Puritan Dilemma and led the English Puritans to New England in 1630. He lived from 1587 to 1649 and served as governor for most of the twenty years between 1629 and 1649 when he died. He was a greatly talented politician and colony manager and widely respected by the Puritans but also came under criticism from time to time. Winthrop had four wives, the first three of whom died before he did; his theology required that he quickly remarry. He had numerous children.

Winthrop converted to Puritanism in early adulthood and quickly became deeply zealous. Through his management of Groton Manor and his work in London as a lawyer, Winthrop quickly rose to prominence in the English Puritan community. When the apparent depravity of English society rose, he felt it was his moral duty to do something to save The Church and his country from certain doom. In the Puritan view, nations or peoples exist through a covenant with God where they agree to obey God’s law and He promises to treat them well in return, much like the Covenant God had with ancient Israel.

Governments are instituted to punish the wicked and so long as they do so, men owe them their full obedience. Otherwise, God will punish the nation. John Winthrop struggled with the dilemma, first internally, as he dealt with the question of whether traveling to the New World represented a selfish form of “separatism”, the desire to separate himself from an impure England, or whether, as he eventually determined, it offered a unique opportunity to set an example for all men by establishing a shining “Citty upon a Hill”, a purer Christian community in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In this regard, it seems to have been of vital importance to Winthrop and his fellow Puritan colonists that they had the imprimatur of the King and that though they were physically distancing themselves from the Church of England, they were not actually renouncing it. Once settled in Massachusetts, where he became the first governor, John Winthrop faced a series of related challenges flowing from different facets of the Puritan dilemma. The first question concerned how the colony was to be governed, how “democratically” as we would say now.

Here, the Puritan concept of the “covenant” with God, which bound them to His laws, led naturally into the idea that the people so bound should have a covenant among themselves about how to enforce God’s laws. The second, a classic form of separatism, arose most spectacularly in the person of Roger Williams, who thought it necessary for the members of a congregation to “make a public declaration of their repentance for having communion with the churches of England, while they lived there. ” Thus it was sufficient in his eyes to have banished that Church’s errors from Puritan congregations; it was even necessary to renounce the Church.

Winthrop understood the danger of Williams’s ideas, that they might/must lead one to keep withdrawing further and further from the world and burrowing deeper into oneself, in the ultimately mistaken belief that only one’s own vision of God’s truth is pure. Third, in the confrontation with Anne Hutchinson, Winthrop faced the sins of Arminianism, the belief that one could influence God and secure salvation by “preparing” oneself to receive it, and of Antinomianism, the belief that since God has predetermined who is to be saved one’s behavior here on Earth does not matter, that one’s sinfulness or “goodness” have no meaning.

The former encourages one group to feel itself superior to others. The latter, as Mr. Morgan says, represents a form of nihilism. Both must be poisonous to any society. Lastly, Winthrop faced the question of what position the City on the Hill should adopt towards necessarily more corrupt foreign states, from the mother country of England to Roger Williams’s new colony in Rhode Island. It may be here that his practicality shows to best effect, and that the relatively democratic nature of the society the Puritans had established shows to its worst:

Winthrop saw what few men in any age have learned, that the foreign policy of even the holiest state must support one evil in order to suppress a worse one. Because it requires uncommon wisdom to recognize this fact, and still greater wisdom to choose rightly among the manifold evils of the world, foreign affairs have always suffered when exposed to the undiscriminating zeal of legislative assemblies. Winthrop had frequent cause to regret the increased power of the deputies, for the zeal of the deputies and sometimes even of the magistrates against all outlanders was a constant handicap to him in handling foreign affairs.

Thus the tension between a splendid isolation and a more robust internationalism. What Mr. Morgan manages in this book is to show us that even 370 years ago, Winthrop was already confronting many of what would be enduring themes and challenges of the American experiment. The struggle over how democratic America should be has been at the very core of our politics. Separationism would eventually lead to revolution and the split with Great Britain and then would explode most disastrously in the Civil War.

Elitism (Arminianism) has been evident in America’s troubled history of race relations and periodic bouts of xenophobic anti-immigrant fever. Twentieth Century nihilism (Antinomianism) would prove far more virulent than the Seventeenth Century variant, because no longer at least a function of religious faith. And, Isolationism has been a constant temptation, mostly working to our advantage but also leaving us unprepared for things like Pearl Harbor and 9-11. In every aspect of our society today we see the workings of the tension between individual freedom and the demands of authority.

To an almost discouraging degree, we must say that we still face many of the same challenges that Winthrop did, and that, for all our disdain of the Puritans, we aren’t meeting the challenges as well as they did. Indeed, God’s commission to America has no terminal date and, though it remains a shining City on a Hill to the rest of the world and though as fallible men we will never perfect the community, the effort to even try and come close to the kingdom has flagged. Winthrop’s example, and Mr. Morgan’s fine book, should serve as reminders that we’ve been closer and should dedicate ourselves to coming closer again.

In my opinion, this would be a book that I would recommend to anyone interested in history as a must read. It really helped me understand how history, and religion shaped the very world that we live in today. It’s amazing how when I was reading and really understanding “The Puritan Dilemma”, I was able to look at the events and the world today and draw parallels. I enjoyed the book and it’s definitely going on my list of books to collect.

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