America Founded by Puritans? Well…It’s Messy

by Vicki Garlock on August 13, 2014

Boston Church

Park Street Church, Boston, MA Photo: Vicki Garlock

It seems that I spend several hours each week undoing my elementary school education. Please don’t tell all the grade school teachers that I’m friends with on Facebook. This year, for our family vacation, we went to Boston and Cape Cod. Although there are a few civil war sites in Boston, most of the tourist attractions are related to the Revolutionary War – Bunker Hill monument, Faneuil Hall, the Old State House, and Paul Revere’s home to name a few. It got me wondering about the theological leanings of our founding fathers. As it turns out, stating that America was founded by Puritans is only partly true – at best.

History is not my strong suit, so I had a lot to learn. My teen-aged daughter, who loves history, had quite an array of fast-facts at the ready during our walk-abouts. She knew that Paul Revere signed neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution, that the Boston massacre resulted in the deaths of only five colonists, and that there was another midnight rider – several, actually – on the night the lanterns were strategically placed in the steeple of the Old North Church. I was struggling to figure out why I was staring at a statue of Benjamin Franklin. I thought he was from Pennsylvania. Apparently, he was born and raised in Boston. Who knew. Well, probably a lot of people.

I’m always amazed by the “family favorites” when we go on vacation. This year, one of the favorites was the Granary Burying Ground, Boston’s third oldest cemetery. It contains the remains of all five Boston massacre victims, some of Benjamin Franklin’s family, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere. It sits next to Park Street Church, which merged with Samuel Adams’ church in the early 1800’s, and that got me wondering about the religious practices of these three Boston revolutionaries.

The founding fathers lived during a time when shifts in theological thinking were happening almost as rapidly as the growing resentment of the British crown. This was not at all the religious landscape of a century earlier. The Puritan separatists who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early- to mid-1600’s were Protestant reformists escaping the beliefs and practices of the Church of England. Various separatist groups had their own particular concerns, but basically, they didn’t think Henry the VIII’s move away from the Catholic Church had gone nearly far enough. They didn’t like the fancy cathedrals, the elaborate rituals, or the priestly vestments, which led to the mostly-correct assessment that the Puritans were both austere and severe. They also didn’t like the royal government telling them how to practice their religion. They wanted to do their own thing. They wanted religious freedom. Unless, of course, one wanted to be a Quaker or a pagan. Then, religious freedom was no longer an option.

In the early 1700’s, Boston residents basically had two choices: they could belong to a parish affiliated with the Church of England or with the Congregationalists. In general, Church of England services were more like those of the Catholic Church. Rituals were more elaborate, priestly vestments were worn, and England still exerted some centralized control over the practice. Nowadays, those Church of England congregations are Episcopalian. In general, Congregationalist services were more Protestant in nature. Congregations met in homes or unadorned churches, and sacraments were less elaborate. Each congregation also had a great deal of leeway in terms of belief and practice (within the bounds of Protestant Christian norms, of course).

However, brief biographical sketches of the three most famous men in the Granary Burying Ground – John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere – reveal a slightly more complex picture of religious life just prior to the American Revolution. Boston was becoming Unitarian. During the second half of the 18th century, Congregationalist ministers took full advantage of their autonomy, regularly preaching on the unity of God where Jesus is viewed as a model of compassion and a son of God, but not the only Son of God. Such ideas directly contradict the traditional and central Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Many of these ministers also espoused universal salvation – that all humans will ultimately be reconciled with the divine either through one’s benevolent actions or through divine love, but not because of specific religious beliefs. It was a far cry from the beliefs and practices of those original puritanical separatists.

John Hancock (1737-1793) has the most typical Bostonian story. After the death of his father, John was adopted by his uncle, a very wealthy businessman. John graduated from Boston Latin School (the first public school in America, established by the pilgrims in 1635) and then Harvard (the first college in America, established by the pilgrims in 1636). When John’s uncle died, he took over the family business and became one of the wealthiest men in the colonies. Most people know him as the person who signed his name quite prominently on the Declaration of Independence. His father and grandfather were both Congregational ministers, and he was a member of the Brattle Street Congregationalist Church in Boston. By 1805, like the majority of Congregationalist churches in Boston, it was Unitarian.

Samuel Adams (1722-1803) was also a member of a Congregationalist Church, the Old South Church. It was known for its traditionalist leanings, some of which showed up in Adams’ politics. He was proud of his pilgrim heritage and was a firm believer that frugality and virtue should remain core characteristics of the new republic. As an egalitarian, he fought hard for free public schools in Boston, even for girls. As the descendant of Puritan/separatist parents, he also fought hard to keep theaters out of Boston. Like his on-again off-again friend, John Hancock, he graduated from both Boston Latin School and Harvard. However, he found Hancock’s ways to be vain, showy, and not nearly traditional enough. In 1816, the Old South Congregationalist Church joined with the Park Street church (which is next to the Granary Burial Ground). They never became Unitarian. Instead, they maintained a firmly Trinitarian stance, which still exists today.

Like the other two men, Paul Revere (1734-1818) was raised by Puritan/separatist parents but he wasn’t interested in their traditionalist teachings. At the age of 15, Revere’s father beat him for attending the West Church in Boston, where he heard the fiery and famous sermons of Jonathan Mayhew. Politically, Mayhew was an early revolutionary. Theologically, he was an early Unitarian who argued against the concept of the Trinity. At that time (around 1750), Unitarianism was not even an official denomination in England, and it had yet to arrive in the New World. As a result, Mayhew was never labelled a Unitarian preacher, and his church remained Congregationalist throughout his tenure.

It might make sense to say this country was initially settled by Protestant separatists, but in many ways, our country was founded on the principles of other religions. In Boston, Congregationalism that moved toward Unitarianism prevailed, but the more southern colonies were home to Presbyterians, Quakers, and even a few Catholics. In fact, over half the signers of the Declaration of Independence and over half the delegates to the Constitutional convention were aligned with the Church of England/Episcopalian tradition. The well-known adage that “this country was founded by Puritans” really isn’t true. Moreover, many historians have concluded that it’s extremely difficult to even define the term “Puritan” since the separatists are not easily pigeon-holed into a single set of beliefs.

What is true is that, from a distance, religious beliefs always seem simpler and more straight-forward than they really are. That distance might be chronological, theological, or geographical, but in all cases, it results in a blurring of the intricacies of “the other.” It’s hard enough to determine the beliefs of a denomination, let alone a particular congregation whose ministers and membership morph over time. When it comes to the beliefs of individuals sitting in the pews, it’s nearly impossible. I read blog posts all the time with titles like “What Hindus Believe about Jesus” or “What Jews Believe about the Afterlife” or “What Muslims Believe about Marriage.” I truly doubt that anyone knows what all members of a religious tradition believe about anything! We can require people to make certain statements to be official members of a religious community and we can insert formulaic creeds and prayers into our services, but what people actually believe is up to them.

This lack of theological certainty should not deter us from offering opportunities for our kids to journey along their own faith path. Just the opposite it true. Being unable to predict our children’s religious leanings should spur us on to provide them with all the tools they need to figure out what they believe and what they want their religious practice to look like. As Americans, they should be Biblically literate. As global citizens, they should know there are a variety of ways to connect with the divine. And as individuals, they should be encouraged, as often as possible, to find their faith.

The separatist pilgrims believed in autonomy. They probably didn’t expect that autonomy to lead to Unitarianism, and their 17th century view of autonomy is surely different than my modern-day one, but I do believe they made a good point.

*For you hardcore theological history buffs, check out A History of the Second Church, or Old North, in Boston. It chronicles the history of the church building and the congregation during the 1700’s and early 1800’s, and the entire text is freely available on line.

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