They were a noble people who had thus begun to strike their roots in the great forests of New England. Their peculiarities may indeed amuse us. The Old Testament was their statute-book, and they deemed that the institutions of Moses were the best model for those of New England. They made attendance on public worship compulsory. They christened their children by Old Testament names. They regulated female attire by law. They considered long hair unscriptural, and preached against veils and wigs.
The least wise among us can smile at the mistakes into which the Puritan Fathers of New England fell. But the most wise of all ages will most profoundly reverence the purity, the earnestness, the marvellous enlightenment of these men. From their incessant study of the Bible they drew a love of human liberty unsurpassed in depth and fervour. Coming from under despotic rule, they established at once a government absolutely free. They felt – what Europe has not even yet fully apprehended – that the citizens of a State should be able to guide the affairs of that State without helpless dependence upon a few great families; that the members of a Church ought to guide the affairs of that Church, waiting for the sanction of no patron, however noble and good. It was one of their fundamental laws that all strangers professing the Christian religion and driven from their homes by persecutors, should be succoured at the public charge. The education of children was almost their earliest care. The Pilgrims bore with them across the sea a deep persuasion that their infant State could not thrive without education. Three years after the landing, it was reported of them among the friends they had left in London, that “their children were not catechised, nor taught to read.” The colonists felt keenly this reproach. They utterly denied its justice. They owned, indeed, that they had not yet attained to a school, much as they desired it. But all parents did their best, each in the education of his own children. In a very few years schools began to appear. Such endowment as could be afforded was freely given. Some tolerably qualified brother was fixed upon, and “entreated to become schoolmaster.” And thus gradually the foundations were laid of the noble school system of New England. Soon a law was passed that every town containing fifty householders must have a common school; every town of a hundred householders must have a grammar school. Harvard College was established within fifteen years of the landing.
The founders of New England were men who had known at home the value of letters. Brewster carried with him a library of two hundred and seventy-five volumes, and his was not the largest collection in the colony. The love of knowledge was deep and universal. New England has never swerved from her early loyalty to the cause of education.
Every colonist was necessarily a soldier. The State provided him with arms, if poor; required him to provide himself, if rich.
Twenty-three years after the landing of the Pilgrims the population of New England had grown to twenty-four thousand. Forty-nine little wooden towns, with their wooden churches, wooden forts, and wooden ramparts, were dotted here and there over the land. There were four separate colonies, which hitherto had maintained separate governments. They were Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven. There appeared at first a disposition in the Pilgrim mind to scatter widely, and remain apart in small self-governing communities. For some years every little band which pushed deeper into the wilderness settled itself into an independent State, having no political relations with its neighbours. But this isolation could not continue. The wilderness had other inhabitants, whose presence was a standing menace. Within “striking distance” there were Indians enough to trample out the solitary little English communities. On their frontiers were Frenchmen and Dutchmen – natural enemies, as all men in that time were to each other. 1643 A.D. For mutual defence and encouragement, the four colonies joined themselves into the United Colonies of New England. This was the first confederation in a land where confederations of unprecedented magnitude were hereafter to be established.
The Puritans left their native England and came to the “outside of the world,” as they called it, that they might enjoy liberty to worship God according to the way which they deemed right. They had discovered that they themselves were entitled to toleration. They felt that the restraints laid upon themselves were very unjust and very grievous. But their light as yet led them no further. They had not discovered that people who differed from them were as well entitled to be tolerated as they themselves were. We have no right to blame them for their backwardness. Simple as it seems, men have not all found out, even yet, that every one of them is fully entitled to think for himself.
1631 A.D. And thus it happened that, before the Pilgrims had enjoyed for many years the cheerful liberty of their new home, doctrines raised their heads among them which they felt themselves bound to suppress. One February day there stepped ashore at Boston a young man upon whose coming great issues depended. His name was Roger Williams. He was a clergyman – “godly and zealous” – a man of rare virtue and power. Cromwell admitted him, in later years, to a considerable measure of intimacy. He was the friend of John Milton – in the bright days of the poet’s youth, ere yet “the ever-during dark” surrounded him. From him Milton acquired his knowledge of the Dutch language. He carried with him to the New World certain strange opinions. Long thought had satisfied him that in regard to religious belief and worship man is responsible to God alone. No man, said Williams, is entitled to lay compulsion upon another man in regard to religion. The civil power has to do only with the “bodies and goods and outward estates” of men; in the domain of conscience God is the only ruler. New England was not able to receive these sentiments. Williams became minister at Salem, where he was held in high account. In time his opinions drew down upon him the unfavourable notice of the authorities. The General Court of Massachusetts brought him to trial for the errors of his belief. His townsmen and congregation deserted him. His wife reproached him bitterly with the evil he was bringing upon his family. Mr. Williams could do no otherwise. He must testify with his latest breath, if need be, against the “soul oppression” which he saw around him. The court heard him, discovered error in his opinions, declared him guilty, and pronounced upon him sentence of banishment.
All honour to this good and brave, if somewhat eccentric man. He of all the men of his time saw most clearly the beauty of absolute freedom in matters of conscience. He went forth from Salem. He obtained a grant of land from the Indians, and he founded the State of Rhode Island. Landing one day from a boat in which he explored his new possessions, he climbed a gentle slope, and rested with his companions beside a spring. It seemed to him that the capital of his infant State ought to be here. He laid the foundations of his city, which he named Providence, in grateful recognition of the Power which had guided his uncertain steps. His settlement was to be “a shelter for persons distressed for conscience.” Most notably has it been so. Alone of all the States of Christendom, Rhode Island has no taint of persecution in her statute-book or in her history. Massachusetts continued to drive out her heretics; Rhode Island took them in. They might err in their interpretation of Scripture. Pity for themselves if they did so. But while they obeyed the laws, they might interpret Scripture according to the light they had. Many years after, Mr. Williams became President of the colony which he had founded. The neighbouring States were at that time sharply chastising the Quakers with lash and branding-iron and gibbet. Rhode Island was invited to join in the persecution. Mr. Williams replied that he had no law whereby to punish any for their belief “as to salvation and an eternal condition.” He abhorred the doctrines of the Quakers. In his seventy-third year he rowed thirty miles in an open boat to wage a public debate with some of the advocates of the system. Thus and thus only could he resist the progress of opinions which he deemed pernicious. In beautiful consistency and completeness stands out to the latest hour of his long life this good man’s loyalty to the absolute liberty of the human conscience.
1651 A.D. And thus, too, it happened that when seven or eight men began to deny that infants should be baptized, New England never doubted that she did right in forcibly trampling out their heresy. The heretics had started a meeting of their own, where they might worship God apart from those who baptized their infants. One Sabbath morning the constable invaded their worship and forcibly bore them away to church. Their deportment there was not unsuitable to the manner of their inbringing. They audaciously clapped on their hats while the minister prayed, and made no secret that they deemed it sin to join in the services of those who practised infant baptism. For this “separation of themselves from God’s people” they were put on trial. They were fined, and some of the more obdurate among them were ordered to be “well whipped.” We have no reason to doubt that this order was executed in spirit as well as in letter. And then a law went forth that every man who openly condemned the baptizing of infants should suffer banishment. Thus resolute were the good men of New England that the right which they had come so far to enjoy should not be enjoyed by any one who saw a different meaning from theirs in any portion of the Divine Word.
1656 A.D. Thus, too, when Massachusetts had reason to apprehend the coming of certain followers of the Quaker persuasion, she was smitten with a great fear. A fast-day was proclaimed, that the alarmed people might “seek the face of God in reference to the abounding of errors, especially those of the Ranters and Quakers.” As they fasted, a ship was nearing their shores with certain Quaker women on board. These unwelcome visitors were promptly seized and lodged in prison; their books were burned by the hangman; they themselves were sent away home by the ships which brought them. All ship-masters were strictly forbidden to bring Quakers to the colony. A poor woman, the wife of a London tailor, left her husband and her children, to bring, as she said, a message from the Lord to New England. Her trouble was but poorly bestowed; for they to whom her message came requited her with twenty stripes and instant banishment. The banished Quakers took the earliest opportunity of finding their way back. Laws were passed dooming to death all who ventured to return. A poor fanatic was following his plough in distant Yorkshire, when the word of the Lord came to him saying, “Go to Boston.” He went, and the ungrateful men of Boston hanged him. Four persons in all suffered death. Many were whipped; some had their ears cut off. 1661 A.D. But public opinion, which has always been singularly humane in America, began to condemn these foolish cruelties. And the Quakers had friends at home – friends who had access at Court. There came a letter in the King’s name directing that the authorities of New England should “forbear to proceed further against the Quakers.” That letter came by the hands of a Quaker who was under sentence of death if he dared to return. The authorities could not but receive it – could not but give effect to it. The persecution ceased; and with it may be said to close, in America, all forcible interference with the right of men to think for themselves.
The Quakers, as they are known to us, are of all sects the least offensive. A persecution of this serene, thoughtful, self-restrained people, may well surprise us. But, in justice to New England, it must be told that the first generation of Quakers differed extremely from succeeding generations. They were a fanatical people – extravagant, disorderly, rejecters of lawful authority. A people more intractable, more unendurable by any government, never lived. They were guided by an “inner light,” which habitually placed them at variance with the laws of the country in which they lived, as well as with the most harmless social usages. George Fox declared that “the Lord forbade him to put off his hat to any man.” His followers were inconveniently and provokingly aggressive. They invaded public worship. They openly expressed their contempt for the religion of their neighbours. They perpetually came with “messages from the Lord,” which it was not pleasant to listen to. They appeared in public places very imperfectly attired, thus symbolically to express and to rebuke the spiritual nakedness of the time. After a little, when their zeal allied itself with discretion, they became a most valuable element in American society. But we can scarcely wonder that they created alarm at first. The men of New England took a very simple view of the subject. They had bought and paid for every acre of soil which they occupied. Their country was a homestead from which they might exclude whom they chose. They would not receive men whose object was to overthrow all their institutions, civil and religious. It was a mistake, but a most natural mistake. Long afterwards, when New England saw her error, she nobly made what amends she could, by giving compensation to the representatives of those Quakers who had suffered in the evil times.
When the Pilgrims left their native land, the belief in witchcraft was universal. England, in much fear, busied herself with the slaughter of friendless old women who were suspected of an alliance with Satan. King James had published his book on Demonology a few years before, in which he maintained that to forbear from putting witches to death was an “odious treason against God.” England was no wiser than her King. All during James’s life, and long after he had ceased from invading the kingdom of Satan, the yearly average of executions for witchcraft was somewhere about five hundred.
The Pilgrims carried with them across the Atlantic the universal delusion, which their way of life was fitted to strengthen. They lived on the verge of vast and gloomy forests. The howl of the wolf and the scream of the panther sounded nightly around their cabins. Treacherous savages lurked in the woods watching the time to plunder and to slay. Every circumstance was fitted to increase the susceptibility of the mind to gloomy and superstitious impressions. But for the first quarter of a century, while every ship brought news of witch-killing at home, no Satanic outbreak disturbed the settlers. The sense of brotherhood was yet too strong among them. Men who have braved great dangers and endured great hardships together, do not readily come to look upon each other as the allies and agents of the Evil One.
In 1645 four persons were put to death for witchcraft. During the next half century there occur at intervals solitary cases, when some unhappy wretch falls a victim to the lurking superstition. It was in 1692 that witch-slaying burst forth in its epidemic form, and with a fury which has seldom been witnessed elsewhere.
In the State of Massachusetts there is a little town, then called Salem, sitting pleasantly in a plain between two rivers; and in the town of Salem there dwelt at that time a minister whose name was Paris. In the month of February the daughter and niece of Mr. Paris became ill. It was a dark time for Massachusetts; for the colony was at war with the French and Indians, and was suffering cruelly from their ravages. The doctors sat in solemn conclave on the afflicted girls, and pronounced them bewitched. Mr. Paris, not doubting that it was even so, bestirred himself to find the offenders. Suspicion fell upon three old women, who were at once seized. And then, with marvellous rapidity, the mania spread. The rage and fear of the distracted community swelled high. Every one suspected his neighbour. Children accused their parents; parents accused their children. The prisons could scarcely contain the suspected. The town of Falmouth hanged its minister, a man of intelligence and worth. Some near relations of the Governor were denounced. Even the beasts were not safe. A dog was solemnly put to death for the part he had taken in some satanic festivity.
For more than twelve months this mad panic raged in the New England States. It is just to say that the hideous cruelties which were practised in Europe were not resorted to in the prosecution of American witches. Torture was not inflicted to wring confession from the victim. The American test was more humane, and not more foolish, than the European. Those suspected persons who denied their guilt, were judged guilty and hanged; those who confessed were, for the most part, set free. Many hundreds of innocent persons, who scorned to purchase life by falsehood, perished miserably under the fury of an excited people.
The fire had been kindled in a moment; it was extinguished as suddenly. The Governor of Massachusetts only gave effect to the reaction which had occurred in the public mind, when he abruptly stopped all prosecutions against witches, dismissed all the suspected, pardoned all the condemned. The House of Assembly proclaimed a fast – entreating that God would pardon the errors of his people “in a late tragedy raised by Satan and his instruments.” One of the judges stood up in church in Boston, with bowed down head and sorrowful countenance, while a paper was read, in which he begged the prayers of the congregation, that the innocent blood which he had erringly shed might not be visited on the country or on him. The Salem jury asked forgiveness of God and the community for what they had done under the power of “a strong and general delusion.” Poor Mr. Paris was now at a sad discount. He made public acknowledgment of his error. But at his door lay the origin of all this slaughter of the unoffending. His part in the tragedy could not be forgiven. The people would no longer endure his ministry, and demanded his removal. Mr. Paris resigned his charge, and went forth from Salem a broken man.
If the error of New England was great and most lamentable, her repentance was prompt and deep. Five-and-twenty years after she had clothed herself in sackcloth, old women were still burned to death for witchcraft in Great Britain. The year of blood was never repeated in America.
The great continent on which the Pilgrims had landed was the home of innumerable tribes of Indians. They had no settled abode. The entire nation wandered hither and thither as their fancy or their chances of successful hunting directed. When the wood was burned down in their neighbourhood, or the game became scarce, they abandoned their villages and moved off to a more inviting region. They had their great warriors, their great battles, their brilliant victories, their crushing defeats – all as uninteresting to mankind as the wars of the kites and crows. They were a race of tall, powerful men – copper-coloured, with hazel eye, high cheek-bone, and coarse black hair. In manner they were grave, and not without a measure of dignity. They had courage, but it was of that kind which is greater in suffering than in doing. They were a cunning, treacherous, cruel race, among whom the slaughter of women and children took rank as a great feat of arms. They had almost no laws, and for religious beliefs a few of the most grovelling superstitions. They worshipped the Devil because he was wicked, and might do them an injury. Civilization could lay no hold upon them. They quickly learned to use the white man’s musket; they never learned to use the tools of the white man’s industry. They developed a love for intoxicating drink passionate and irresistible beyond all example. The settlers behaved to them as Christian men should. They took no land from them; what land they required they bought and paid for. Every acre of New England soil was come by with scrupulous honesty. The friendship of the Indians was anxiously cultivated – sometimes from fear, oftener from pity. But nothing could stay their progress towards extinction. Inordinate drunkenness and the gradual limitation of their hunting-grounds told fatally on their numbers. And occasionally the English were forced to march against some tribe which refused to be at peace, and to inflict a defeat which left few survivors.