Monday, December 16, 2013

The Pilgrims - Founding Fathers of Heresy

Writers of American history often try to impress on the reader the idea of the Pilgrims/Puritans of New England as pious, right-believing Christians whose beliefs became and remain the moral, political, and cultural norm of the American Republic.  As with so many other areas of history, however, the official story is not quite right.  But to arrive at the truth, we must first look back briefly to the time before the Puritans left England and came to North America.

The areas of England which were inhabited most heavily by the Puritans (the eastern coastal counties, mainly) were for centuries beforehand embroiled continually in political rebellions (David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed, 1989, pgs. 44, 46).  Religiously, they were of the same disposition.  East Anglia, one of the Puritan strongholds, was described by Archbishop William Laud as ‘the throbbing heart of heresy in England’ (p. 47).

The Puritans of course saw things differently.  ‘The Puritan leader John Hampden said of Essex that it was “the place of the most life of religion in the land”’ (p. 47).  Thus one catches a glimpse of Yankee pridefulness in its crib in the mother country.

De Tocqueville’s observation of colonists held true:  The Puritans’ distinctive traits were by no means diminished by their journey from Old England to New England, but rather strengthened.  Religious and political disagreements in the original Pilgrim settlement in Massachusetts led to the formation of other colonies (Rhode Island, Connecticut, etc.):

And from the Puritan spirit would later flow all manner of heretical ideas:  Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, atomistic individualism, industrialism, and eugenics.

Dr Clyde Wilson goes into detail about some of this in his essay ‘The Yankee Problem in America’:

The highflying Yankee rhetoric of Emerson and Hillary Rodham Clinton has a nether side, which has its historical origins in the "Burnt Over District." The "Burnt Over District" was well known to antebellum Americans. Emersonian notions bore strange fruit in the central regions of New York State settled by the overflow of poorer Yankees from New England. It was "Burnt Over" because it (along with a similar area in northern Ohio) was swept over time and again by post-millennial revivalism. Here preachers like Charles G. Finney began to confuse Emerson's future state of perfection with Christianity, and God's plan for humanity with American chosenness.

If this were true, then anything that stood in the way of American perfection must be eradicated. The threatening evil at various times was liquor, tobacco, the Catholic Church, the Masonic order, meat-eating, marriage. Within the small area of the Burnt Over District and within the space of a few decades was generated what historians have misnamed the "Jacksonian reform movement:" Joseph Smith received the Book of Mormon from the Angel Moroni; William Miller began the Seventh Day Adventists by predicting, inaccurately, the end of the world; the free love colony of John Humphrey Noyes flourished at Oneida; the first feminist convention was held at Seneca Falls; and John Brown, who was born in Connecticut, collected accomplices and financial backers for his mass murder expeditions.

It was in this milieu that abolitionism, as opposed to the antislavery sentiment shared by many Americans, including Southerners, had its origins. Abolitionism, despite what has been said later, was not based on sympathy for the black people nor on an ideal of natural rights. It was based on the hysterical conviction that Southern slaveholders were evil sinners who stood in the way of fulfillment of America's divine mission to establish Heaven on Earth. It was not the Union that our Southern forefathers seceded from, but the deadly combination of Yankee greed and righteousness.

Most abolitionists had little knowledge of or interest in black people or knowledge of life in the South. Slavery promoted sin and thus must end. No thought was given to what would happen to the African-Americans. In fact, many abolitionists expected that evil Southern whites and blacks would disappear and the land be repopulated by virtuous Yankees.

Source:, accessed 16 Dec. 2013

The Pilgrims, whatever they and their ancestors have claimed for themselves, were not a lamp of pure Christian light.  This is not to say that all of them were evil men; there were no doubt many good-hearted men and women among them.  But the Puritan-Yankee obsession with outward righteousness - law and works and so forth, an over-inflated view of their importance in the world, and their conception of a wrathful God led them perforce away from the True Faith.  (One wonders how the admixture of pagan Scandinavian Viking culture within the Puritan homeland influenced their religious beliefs (Fischer, p. 44)).

That New England does now have the political and cultural primacy among the regions of the American Union should not be taken to mean that it is superior to the cultures of the other regions of this Union, nor that it alone is the ‘true American culture’. 

Rather, the troubles it has manifested throughout American history (Salem witch trials, War Between the States, Indian massacres, etc.) should make the other regions all the more eager to throw it off.

Works Cited

Fischer, David Hackett.  Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York, Ny.: Oxford UP, 1989.

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