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Society and religion in the New England colonies

Video transcript

- [Instructor] Depending on where you grow up in the United States, you might hear a different story about the founding of this country. Now, I grew up in Pennsylvania and the story that I heard was about the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. They were a group of deeply religious people, who had been persecuted in England and were looking for a new world, where they could practice their religion freely, but many of my friends grew up in Virginia and the story they heard was about the founding of Jamestown, where a group of men from England, who were adventurers looking for gold and glory, landed in the New World, hoping to make a profit. And I think both of these stories tells us a little bit about the founding mythology of the United States. Were the original settlers here looking for religious freedom or were they here looking to make a quick buck? Well, in this video I'd like to take some time to explore the New England colonies, the story of the people who landed at Plymouth Rock and then later, at Boston, to begin the colony of Massachusetts Bay and we'll see as we go along, just how different the settlers in Massachusetts Bay were from those at Jamestown and also some of the ways in which they were quite similar. Now, there's no question about who got here first. As you can see, Jamestown was founded in 1607, but it wasn't too much later that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and then they were followed by a much larger group of Puritans, who landed at Boston and founded Massachusetts Bay in 1630. So let's talk about Puritans. So who or what was a Puritan? This is an image of Cotton Mather, he was a prominent Puritan minister, fact the Mather family will go on to be one of the great theological families of Massachusetts. Puritans started in England and their main concern was that they believed the Church of England, the Anglican Church, was too much like the Catholic Church and this is a fairly legitimate criticism, because in many ways, the Anglican Church was very similar to the Catholic Church, except that instead of being headed by the Pope, the Church of England was led by the king. So Puritans hoped that they could purify the Church of England from its many Catholic influences. So that's where Puritan comes from, purify, and by this, they meant that there were too many rituals, too much pomp and circumstance, and not enough focus on the Bible itself. So they kind of wanted to strip away a lot of the fanciness of the Church of England. In the 1620s, the Puritans began to face more persecution in England. Now, why did the English government care about a group of religious folks who were not big fans of the Church of England? Well the answer is, that there was no separation of church and state and so as the king was the head of the church, if you're casting doubt on the church, you are then casting doubt on the king and so the Puritans did not make themselves very popular in England and sensing that they might be in trouble, many Puritans began to emigrate to the new world. They'd seen lots of tracts about Virginia and how one could make a new life there and they thought that perhaps, if they went to Virginia and they were originally aiming to go to Virginia, they ended up landing a bit north of there, that they could set an example of what a righteous church and a righteous society would look like, because they believed that the church and the society of England were becoming much too corrupt, much too divorced from the principles of the Bible. So in 1620, one group of Puritans set out for the new world and landed at Plymouth Rock and we call them the Pilgrims, and then in 1630, a second group set out and they were just Puritans more broadly. And over the course of the 1630s, about 14,000 Puritans emigrated from England to New England, Massachusetts Bay, in what's called the great migration. So what was the difference between these two groups, The Pilgrims and the Puritans? Well, the Pilgrims who arrived in 1620, they were separatists and what that means is that they thought that the Church of England was so corrupt that there was just no chance that they were going to be able to save it. So they wanted to separate from that church altogether and live a completely separate life at Plymouth. They had a pretty small settlement, about a hundred people crossed over on the Mayflower, the ship that brought them to the New World, but the group that came over in 1630, the Puritans, they did not want to separate from the Church of England altogether. They wanted to purify it and they hoped that by setting an example of a righteous society, they would actually convince people back in England to adopt their ways, invite them back, and that all of England could become like New England. This man here is John Winthrop and he was a lawyer who became a leader of the Puritans, he was elected governor pretty much for his entire life and he wrote that he wanted Massachusetts Bay to be like a city upon a hill and be a kind of a beacon of light, showing the world what a good society could be like. Now, obviously the New England Puritans did not get their way, they were not invited back to England to become the model of English society, but they did become the model of society in Massachusetts Bay and New England, more generally, and I think a strong influence on American culture, writ large. So how did life in New England compare to life in Virginia? Well, a lot depended on the different environment of the colony and the reasons that migrants came to New England. Because the environment of New England was colder, the land was rockier, it was both a healthier place to live, because tropical diseases couldn't flourish there the way that they could in the marshy areas of Virginia and it was also the unsuitable place for large-scale plantation agriculture. So they couldn't grow the kinds of crops that Virginia grew, like tobacco or even sugar in the West Indies. So that meant that in New England, most of the industry was either family farming and fishing and also some trading, since they were on the coast. And because most Puritans came over to help build this city upon a hill, they came in family units, not as single men, like in Virginia, so there was a much more even ratio of men to women. The families that came over tended to be well-off enough to pay their own passage across the Atlantic, tended to be kind of middle-class, artisan types and so New England didn't have the kind of influx of indentured servants that Virginia had, nor did it have an influx of enslaved Africans as laborers, because most New Englanders were farmers and they were small farmers, so they relied on their own family as labor. So a major consequence of these motivations for emigrating and this environment, was that New England society was relatively egalitarian. There were very few very wealthy landowners, like there were in Virginia, and very few people who were completely at the bottom, like servants and enslaved people. People who lived in Virginia had a life expectancy of up to 70 years, which was one of the highest life expectancies in the world at this time and because reading the Bible so important to the Puritans, New England also had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world at this time, but for all of these positives, there were plenty of reasons why living in New England wasn't so much fun. Most of them related to the strictness of the Congregational Church. Puritans canceled Christmas, that they thought was too much of a pagan ritual and though you would think that their own experience of religious intolerance in England would have led them to be more tolerant to dissidents, that was not the case. Anyone who disagreed with a Puritan theology or leadership, was given the option to go somewhere else or be executed. For example, Roger Williams, who questioned the Puritans' actions toward Native Americans was expelled from Massachusetts Bay in 1636 and he went on to found the colony of Rhode Island, where religious dissenters could find a place of refuge from Massachusetts Bay, just as the people of Massachusetts Bay had found refuge from England. One of these was a woman named Anne Hutchinson, who in 1637, was expelled from Massachusetts Bay for daring to be a woman who preached the Bible. So in this video, I've explored some of the background to Puritans and Pilgrims and aspects of New England society and religion. In the next video, we'll continue our exploration of New England's life through its politics and policies toward Native Americans.