The Puritan Migration
Hello, this is Robert J. Morgan talking about my book 100 Bible Verses That Made America. Trying to explain American history without its Bible is like the Statute of Liberty without its pedestal. Had there been no Bible, there would be no America as we know it. Many revisionist historians are trying to erase the Bible’s influence on American history, but no eraser on earth can truly do that. The story is too deeply embedded and too amazingly wonderful.
The British colonization of America began with the ill-fated Lost Colony on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and then the dismal Jamestown experiment in the Tidewater region of Virginia; and then here came the Pilgrims who landed on Cape Cod in 1620 and established the town of Plymouth. That paved the way – or to change the metaphor – that opened the floodgates to the great Puritan Migration.
Over the next twenty years, 1620 to 1640, some of the best educated, most godly, and greatest men and women Britain ever produced came to the New World, being driven out of their own land by religious intolerance and persecution. These were not the tired, poor, huddled masses, the wretched refuse of England’s shore. These were brilliant minds, noble hearts, gifted leaders, biblical expositors, liberty-loving congregations—the cream of the crop of British population.
It happened because England’s King James 1 had refused all the demands of the Puritans except one. He did agree with them to authorize a new translation of the Bible, later to be called the King James Version. But except for that, he had no time for the Puritans, especially the Separatists. These were the godly leaders who wanted to bring real Reformation to the corrupt state-supported Church of England. They wanted to get back to the Bible. Back to Biblical exposition in the pulpit. Back to Scriptural theology. Back to holiness among the clergy.
Many of them had been trained at Cambridge College, which was a hotbed of Puritan thinking. But King James 1, and then his son and successor, King Charles 1, bitterly persecuted them. Between 1620 and 1640, an whopping 80,000 men, women, and children left England—driven out by persecution and the monarchy. Some whet to Ireland or the West Indies or Holland. But many of them followed their brothers, the Pilgrims, to New England.
They arrived in New England by the boatloads and founded the City of Boston.
The Journey of John Winthrop
One of these Puritans was a lawyer – not a preacher, but a lawyer — named John Winthrop. He was born in England in the late 1500s and attended the aforementioned Cambridge University. He married his sweetheart, Mary, but she died. He married again, but his second wife died in childbirth. He married a third time, and his new bride, Margaret, became pregnant just as the pressures on Winthrop were forcing him to flee the country. As a lawyer, he defended the Puritans, but at the risk of his life and reputation. He and Margaret thus endured a period of separation as he left for America while she stayed to have a baby. No one can fully understand the difficulty, of that but they agreed to keep their love and passion alive by devoting an hour every Monday afternoon and Friday afternoon to thinking about each other.
Winthrop fled England with 700 other Puritans on a fleet of eleven ships that left April 8, 1630. Winthrop was on the ship Arbella. Just before, or during, or just after the voyage, Winthrop wrote a sermon—it’s been called the most famous lay sermon in American history. The title of the sermon is “A Model of Christian Charity,” but we know it today as the “City upon a Hill Sermon.”
A Spiritual Blueprint
Winthrop cast a vision for the kind of society the Puritans envisioned in the New World. It was, in effect, a spiritual blueprint for a new nation. It was filled with Scripture. Here is a portion of it:
The only way to… provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. For this end we must be knit together in this work as one man; we must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of superfluities for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in this work, as members of the same body.
So shall we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as His own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways. So that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness, and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with.
We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding [settlements], “The Lord make it like that of New England.” For me must consider that we shall be a City upon a Hill. The eyes of all people are upon us….
Beloved, there is now set before us life and good, death and evil, in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His ordinance and His laws… that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land wither we go to possess it.
Truth for Christ and the Church
In 1629, John Winthrop became the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These people were lovers of Christian education, and so they established America’s first public school, The Boston Latin School, and the first college, Harvard, which was started for the training of ministers. It wasn’t feasible for young ministerial students to return to Cambridge University in England, and so Harvard was established. It’s motto was “Truth for Christ and the Church,” and the college’s key verse was John 8:32, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
These Puritans could no longer function under the authority of the State Church of England, which they had fled. They had no bishop. They had no church structure. So each congregation was autonomous. Meeting houses were built in every town and village, and each congregation hired its own pastor. Thus these churches came to be known as Congregationalists.
The Puritans not only stressed church life and congregational worship; they emphasized the importance of a living, daily relationship with Christ, nurtured by private devotions and personal time in prayer and Scripture. They learned to meditate on God’s Word when they arose in the morning and when they retired in the evening. They emphasized family devotions and neighborhood prayer meetings. Many of them kept journals and diaries. Puritan sermons tended to be published and spread abroad, and out of that came pamphlets and books.
I’ve already mentioned John Winthrop and his sermon about a city upon a hill. Let me mention two other great American Puritans.
The Greatest of the American Preachers
One of the greatest preachers who came to America was Thomas Hooker. He was born in Leicestershire, England in 1586, studied theology at Cambridge, and became one of the most powerful and popular preachers in England. But he was driven out of his native land and fled to America as part of the great Puritan migration.
In 1633, he became the pastor of a small church near the present site of Cambridge, Massachusetts. His pulpit skills were extraordinary, and he has been called “perhaps the greatest of the seventeenth-century American preachers.”
Hooker believed in extending the right to vote to more people, and that put him at odds with some of his fellow Puritan leaders. In 1636, Hooker, his wife, his congregation of about a hundred, plus 160 cattle, left Cambridge and Boston, migrating south to establish the city of Hartford. Here on May 31, 1631, Hooker preached a midweek sermon from Deuteronomy 1:13, which has been called “among the most important sermons in colonel New England.” A manuscript of the sermon doesn’t exist, but one listener took notes in shorthand, recording thirteen short paragraphs giving Hooker’s key points, which include:
The choice of public magistrates belongs to the people by God’s own allowance…. The privilege of election belongs to the people. It must not be exercised according to their humors but according to the blessed will and law of God…. They [the People] who have power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is in their power also to set the bounds and limits…. The foundation of authority is laid firstly in the free consent of people.
Hooker’s concept of democracy was considered radical in a world dominated by monarchs and emperors. While his sermon had to do with scriptural matters, many historians believe the ideas he expressed set the stage for Connecticut to adopt a new constitution the following January, which is known as “The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut.” This is considered the first written constitution to embody a democratic tone, and it became the model for constitutions in other colonies. Ultimately, it paved the way for the Constitution of the United States. That’s why Connecticut is known to this day as the “Constitution State.”
The “Fundamental Orders of Connecticut” represents the beginnings of democracy in America. Some have called Hooker the “Father of Democracy,” and his ideas were firmly rooted in the priesthood of the believers based on the Gospel of Christ.
The Village of Rejoicing
Another great Puritan was John Eliot. He too was born in England and attended Cambridge. He actually came to Christ under the ministry of Thomas Hooker and emigrated to Boson where the church of Roxbury hired him as pastor in 1632. He kept the job 57 years.
In 1646, Eliot, 42, grew burdened for nearby Native Americans and began studying Algonquin. It was a daunting task, especially because of the length of their words. Eliot persevered till he could speak the language well enough to preach with the help of an interpreter.
In a short time, a number of Native Americans confessed Christ as Savior. The converts established their own village and named it Rejoicing. As time went by, other villages arose and Eliot traveled up and down the coast, all the time maintaining his primary ministry as a pastor in Roxbury.
In a letter dated December 29, 1649, he wrote, “I was not dry night nor day, from the third day of the week to the sixth; but so travelled; and, at night I pull off my boots, wring out my stockings, and on with them again, and so continued… yet God stept in and helped: I considered…2 Tim. 2:3, ‘Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’”
Native American churches were planted in places like Plymouth, Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard. Eliot lived to see fourteen praying villages, between 2,500 and 4,000, and 24 Native American preachers—all while serving his church in Roxbury. The school he founded, Roxbury Latin School, is today the oldest school in continuous existence in North America.
John Eliot: A Man of Prayer
Eliot’s most prodigious feat was the production of the first Bible published in America. The New Testament came out in 1661, and the Old Testament three years later. It’s hard to imagine how Eliot accomplished such a thing—reducing a near-impossible language to writing, training Native Americans to read, then translating the entire Bible for them—that is, as one scholar said, “a work which excited the wonder and admiration of both hemispheres, and has rendered his name ever memorable in the annals of literature and piety.”
While in his 80s, Eliot grew too weak to preach at his church in Roxbury, and he asked the church to seek another pastor. “I wonder why the Lord Jesus Christ lets me live,” he said. “He knows that now I can nothing for Him.” As he sought some final work to do for Christ, he heard of a youth who had fallen into a fire and been blinded. Eliot invited the child to live with him, devoting many hours to helping him memorize chapters of Scripture and learning to pray. Eliot was a man of prayer. When confronted with distressing news, he would say, “Brethren, let us turn all this into prayer.”
John Eliot passed away on May 21, 1690 in his 86th year. His last words were: “Welcome joy! Pray…pray…pray!”
This represents the beginnings of life and democracy in America. This is the wonder of how this nation started.
One historian wrote, “This is sure: no religious experiment in the New World has had a more enduring impact on our nation’s education, literature, sense of mission, church governance, ethical responsibly, or religious vision.”