A Bewitching of Christmas Past (IV)

Puritans at Sabbath meeting.

If there was one Bible verse that summarized how New Jerusalem sought to organize itself it was Hebrews 13:17: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”

[Previous parts of this story begin in Part I and continue in Part II and Part III.]

Submission is what held the society together, as they saw it. Children were to submit to their parents; wives to their husbands; slaves to their masters; hirelings to their employers. Freemen, those males who had passed through the probationary period, had no debts and were seen fit to participate on an equal basis in society, could become members of the church, own land and participate in town meetings. But even freemen had to submit to the magistrates who, with the assistance of pastors who helped shape public morality and views, were responsible for enforcing the rules of public intercourse, just as employers controlled their hirelings, husbands their wives and parents their children.

Minor crimes brought minor punishments like the brank for gossiping. Public humiliation was always the key to Puritan social regulation.

And the magistrates, who watched over the souls of their people, were not reluctant to use whatever means to compel obedience they could, for many seemed indifferent to whether they carried out their duty with joy or not. The means for enforcing submission combined physical pain with public humiliation. Men and women, stripped from he waist up, were whipped with sadistic glee. When a particularly heinous act was discovered, such as preaching without a license or vagrancy, magistrates would have the condemned tied to a cart and paraded half-naked, regardless of time of year, from town to town so that the constables of more than one town could enjoy giving a whipping. Minor crimes (Sabbath-breaking, rumor-mongering, lying, cursing, gambling) could be punished with the more humane pillory (for wealthy freemen) and stocks (for the rest of the rabble). Social cohesion was strengthened at these public event by permitting observers to throw refuse at these stationary scofflaws. Women had a special torture device for being disrespectful of husbands—the ducking-stool. Branding, mutilation, cutting off ears were all employed by God’s agents to instill a sense of terror throughout the Elect. Hanging was the punishment for the same crimes as in England, and the Saints added such sins as being a Quaker to the list of reasons they could assign for taking a life. And even for murder, it was not enough to simply hang the wretch; in Boston he had to paraded around to three different churches to hear sermons directed at others with him as object. (See, e.g., Increase Mather, A sermon, occasioned by the execution of a man found guilty of murder, preached at Boston in N.E., March 11th, 1685/6 (2d ed: Boston: R.P. 1687).)

Puritan social organization mirrored their view of cosmic relations. Magistrates (or anyone else in authority) could be cruel, arbitrary, unfeeling, spiteful, but it was all for the good of society. And the same with God. It often pleased him to strike his children with unfathomable afflictions, but the ways of an all-powerful God, the source of all things good or ill, were mysterious. Nevertheless, it had to be believed, that all was for the best, at least for those he chose as his Elect. To Puritans theology and polity were the same thing. You could not be orthodox and reject the prescribed social rules, nor could you live an ordinary Puritan life with cheerful submission to the existing temporal Puritan powers and be a heretic. When Hugh Peters (before returning to England to become first a regicide and then a victim of the Restoration’s wrath) questioned Anne Hutchinson in the church trial that would lead to her excommunication, he made this point about her heresy:

“I would commend this to yo’ Consideration that yow have stept owt of yo’ place, yow have rather bine a Husband than a Wife, & a preacher than a Hearer; & a Magistrate than a Subject, & soe yow have thought to carry all Thinges in Church & Commonwealth, as yow would, & have not bine humbled for this.” (A Report of the Trial of Mrs. Ann Hutchinson before the Church in Boston, March 1638 (MSS), printed in Charles Francis Adams (ed.), Antinomianism in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1636-1638 (Boston: Prince Soc’y: 1894), 284 at 329.)

Her heresy was as absurd as believing the social order should be disturbed. Neither one (if they were separate things, that is) could be conceived by a New England Puritan.

Like with the visitations of God, there was no appeal from the order of the magistrate. It was not a system designed to protect the rights of the accused or fairly find facts. But neither was needed. A trial was not necessary to find facts, because God would guide the magistrate to the correct result. And rights are not something that had any bearing in a society devoted to submission. The proper feeling that God’s subject and the polity’s subject should have with respect to authority was awe and perhaps terror.

The key to Puritan society, of course, was the minister. Clergy did not submit to higher ecclesiastical power. Instead, they harmonized with civic authority, providing the mythology that justified the political organization, providing the religious terror that corresponded with the terror the magistrate wielded. It was the function of the clergy, as a Puritan poet once put it, to justify the ways of God to man. With a complaisant clergy, this system worked well enough; well enough, that is, for the powers that be and those willing to cheerfully submit to them. This system proved unfortunate for Quakers or Baptists or freethinkers or those subscribing to a less exacting moral code or even sometimes to those whose property was envied by the powerful.

Gravestone at Ellingham of Alice Lisle, one of the first victims of the Bloody Assizes.

The arrangement could only last so long as New Jerusalem was left alone. During the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, the English government paid scant attention to the New England colonies. With the return of the monarchy, the “freedom” of Massachusetts Bay (i.e., the right of the General Court to make laws as repressive as it chose) was in jeopardy. When the Attorney-General wrote demanding that the laws punishing Quakers and others be repealed, the Puritan fathers feared their government would be taken from them. Some counseled submission in the hope that what the Crown would leave the colony would be that much greater for their good grace. Others argued that the colony should stand on its charter rights. Increase Mather sided with the latter. His opinion carried great weight among the pastors, who in turn spread the word to the faithful. In the end, however, it didn’t work out; the English court invalidated the Massachusetts Bay charter. When the royal authorities came to Massachusetts to set up a new government, Increase found himself in a new and uncomfortable situation—he had opposed those who would now have power over him. This was not an academic matter. As the colonial waited for the what kind of rulers the Crown would impose, news arrived of the rebellion against Catholic James II and the brutal punishments meted out in the Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffries. Boston was electrified by the news that Dame Alice Lisle, mother of Bridget Cotton (remarried widow of a president of Harvard), was found guilty of harboring rebels and was sentenced to burning. She was, in the event, beheaded, as an act of clemency by the Crown.

In January 1686 a ship arrived from England, and the passengers informed that Edward Randolph, formerly Charles’s  colonial agent and now James’s commissioner, was returning to Massachusetts to form a new temporary government. Word was that Joseph Dudley, one of the colonists most fervent for capitulation, was to be one of the royal councilors. The bay was frozen in, so no ship came immediately. Nor did it come soon. The waiting extended into spring and by election day, May 12, there was still no sign of Randolph. So they proceeded with an election under the old rules. Reverend Wigglesworth at that morning lecture preached from Revelation 2:4-5a: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works …” In his prayer he exhorted God “That [we] may know the things of our peace in this our day, and it may be the last of our days.” (Sewall diary, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 5th series, vol 5 (1878), p 136.) They went forth to vote. The resistance party doubled the vote of the Tories. Dudley got only 500 votes; leader of those urging resistance and retaining the original government, Samuel Nowell, received 1269 (id. at 137).

The first works, if the magistrates even tried to return to it, lasted only two days, because it was in fact the last of their days, for Randolph arrived on May 14. That first day he huddled with Dudley and the Tories in town. The Puritan fathers feared that they were about to receive rather than administer humiliation, and Randolph, the agent of the Catholic king whose father was killed by Puritans, was more than happy to humble them. That Sabbath, the Lord’s Supper being celebrated at Third Church, Randolph attended. He “sate in Mr. Luscombe’s Pue. Mr. Willard prayed not for the Governour or Government, as formerly; but spake so as implied it to be changed or changing.” (Id. at 138.) It would change the very next day. (Incidentally, when Reverend Willard ministered at Groton, he witnessed the possession of a girl by the devil, and he published his observations.) On Monday, at a packed meeting of the General Court, Dudley showed the just-elected court the documents that would end their rule—the certified copy of the court order dissolving the charter, and the commissions. He said he couldn’t deal with them as a government any longer. After Dudley’s people left (they had irritated the old magistrates by calling themselves “the King’s Council” more than one), some of the old guard discussed the possibility of a protest. Sewall argued against it: “the foundations being destroyed what can the Righteous do?”

The time of soul-searching would begin. On Friday, May 21, when the Court had its last meeting Magistrate Samuel Nowell led the Court in prayer: “Mr. Nowell prayed that God would pardon each Magistrate and Deputies Sin. Thanked God for our hithertos of Mercy 56 years, in which time sad Calamities elsewhere, as Massacre Piedmont; thanked God for what we might expect from sundry of those now set over us.” Sewall suggested they sing Habakkuk 3:17-18: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” The breaking was painful (“Many Tears Shed in Prayer and at parting.”) because all knew that their experiment of a community of Saints in the wilderness was over. (Id. at 140.)

It was disorienting. God had deserted the Saints at home in England, and many had paid the ultimate price. A substantial number were put to the choice of office (including pastor and teacher) or faith. More than 2000 clergymen were dismissed from the Church for refusing to take the oath. Dissenters were excluded from the public life of the nation. It couldn’t be the same here; there were simply too many Saints. But the Crown’s representative would make the laws with his choice councilors, and the inevitable degradation of society would result. Plus Randolph had already proved himself to be vindictive and was likely to harass those he saw as enemies. And chief among those would be Increase Mather who had already been the subject of a plot by Randolph.

Mather was not designed for the role of hero, especially back in 1683 when he was first screwing up his courage to take a position on the resistance-or-submission controversy. Mather was perfectly suited to a society built on submission. He had no political skills and was completely unprepared for the tactics Randolph was to use against him. It turned out that a ship on its way to Amsterdam had been intercepted and letters Mather had written to a relative and dissenting minister there were sent back to the British ministry. But much more worrisome was the fact that it had been published in a Tory paper in London and there was talk that it constituted treason. Mather was so afraid that in his prayers he promised God that if he and his estate were delivered out of the hands of his enemies “Then the Lord shall be my God, and I will (Christ Helping of me) endeavor to doe more for his glory than every yet I have done.” God evidently accepted the bargain, because the letter turned out to be a forgery, and the ministry was not much interested in prosecuting a New-England divine anyway. (Michael G. Hall, The Last American Puritan (Wesleyan U. Press: c1988), p 193.)

Sir Edmund Andros

Mather this time was better prepared to deal with Satan’s darts. By the time the new royal governor, Sir Edmund Andros, arrived bearing news that all the New England colonies would be rolled up into one Dominion, Mather came up with a plan: He would travel to England to discuss the state of affairs directly with James II. The King was a Catholic—even more of a non-conformist than Puritans. James might find it in his interest to have English allies outside the Church of England. His leave was agreed to by his congregation, and it became known he was on his way back to England. To stop him Randolph had him arrested the day before Christmas 1687. The charge was defamation. Randolph claimed that Mather falsely charged him with having forged the letter that was intercepted by the British frigate. The trial came on January 31. Mather was acquitted.

He again planned a voyage in March. Mather thought he was cleared to go because Andros did not try to stop him after Mather told him of his plans. But Randolph again swore out a complaint. This time Mather avoided the warrant. At night he slipped out of his house in disguise and was ferried across from North End to Charlestown. Cotton brought his brother Samuel who would accompany his father. Eventually on April 7 they were notified that the President was to set sail. They were taken by a small ketch to the ship. Cotton watched as a boat sent by Randolph attempted to stop them. It failed to reach them on time, and Increase and Samuel boarded the President which set sail for England. (Hall, above, at 210-11.)

Increase Mather would be in England for four years. He would not return until after the witching and prosecution began in Salem. Mather was left behind in his father’s pulpit with the prestige of the Mather name. But Cotton was not cautious like his father. He was ambitious, preening and self-assured. Mather had always had a predilection for the supernatural; he believed spirits and other beings demonstrated the immanence of God’s world and because he would be the one most expert in the nether regions they also brought acclaim on Cotton. Cotton chafed under the prestige and political influence his father enjoyed, and he would never, during the rest of his life, equal him. But with his father gone, young Cotton (he was 25 when he father sailed) would extend his wings in an attempt to gather as much respect and esteem as he could. And it was that summer that the Goodwin children began exhibiting their strange behavior (see Part I). The expertise he gained in observing the bewitched and his conversations with the witch Goodwife Glover gave him the background and confidence he needed to take center-stage when the demonic outbreak took place in Salem four years later. His father had not yet returned,  and so the entire show would be the commencement of Cotton’s political career on a grand scale. Mather made the most of it, as we’ll see in the next.


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