A Summer 2003 NEH Institute.
Directed by David Cressy
and Lori Anne Ferrell.


 Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677).
Chori Ecclesiae Cathodralis S. Pauli, 1658

• The Reformation and the Colonies

    The Reformation and the Colonies

Perhaps the most famous children of the Reformation are the first settlers of the New England colonies, Puritans whose split with the Church of England was both ideological and geographical. The "Great Migration," a Puritan exodus from Stuart England occurring roughly between 1630 and 1642, ties the colonies to the English Reformation in compelling ways. The Puritans were of course trying to "purify" the church, to rid it of rituals and politics that they believed interfered with their faith. Seen as a religious exodus of the "true" believers, the migration was a source of both anxiety and hope in England.

The fear was that England itself was being corrupted by Catholic influence in the Church of England. The colonies then became a symbol of religious fervor and a cleansing of spiritual power. The fact that some English citizens chose to brave an ocean and an unknown, harsh land in order to seek out a community in which their faith might be practiced outside the corruption in England proved to many that England was in a period of moral decline. For example, John Milton expressed the anxiety in his Of Reformation Touching Church-Discipline in England (1641):

"[W]hat numbers of faithfull, and freeborn Englishmen, and good Christians have bin constrain'd to forsake their dear dearest home, their friends, and kindred, whom nothing but the wide Ocean, and the savage deserts of America could hide and shelter from the fury of the Bishops. O Sir, if we could but see the shape of our deare Mother England, as Poets are wont to give a personal form to what they please, how would she appeare, think ye, but in a mourning weed, with ashes upon her head, and tears abundantly flowing from her eyes, to behold so many of her children expos'd at once, and thrust from things of dearest necessity, because their conscience could not assent to things which the Bishops thought indifferent. Let the Astrologer be dismay'd at the portentous blaze of comets, and impressions in the aire as foretelling troubles and changes to states: I shall beleeve there cannot be a more ill-boding signe to a Nation (God turne the Omen from us) then when the Inhabitants, to avoid insufferable grievances at home, are inforc'd by heaps to forsake their native Country." (56-57)

Milton contends in this short passage that a personified Mother England would be found in mourning over her concern over her exiled children. This powerful image of the nation from one of its greatest writers reveals that, to Reformation England, the colonies were proof of great cultural stress, as these "orphans" sought a new parent land. Yet, as if this single separation were not enough, these children of the Reformation soon discovered not a "new" land but an old problem, of factions within the faction. Staunchly determined to set up a truly reformed church in America, the British colonists sought, some say in vain, for what they collectively imagined as a "city on a hill." This was to be a model community for all to copy and admire, with a single vision of the church and of the moral behavior expected from its members.

One little-known explorer, Sir William Alexander, noted in his travelogue that this dream of forming the perfect theocracy was being realized in the colonies. Alexander's comments are particularly interesting to look at in contrast to Milton's, for Alexander was no famous bard, and spoke from the position not of a literary giant but of a common explorer. In his work The Mapp
Click Here for a Larger View
and Description of New-England (1630), Alexander characterized America in much more inviting terms than Milton's cry for his orphaned brethren. A fairly obscure figure in the history of exploring and settling America, Alexander's is a typical voice of the colonial Reformation that promises a land friendly to the true Christian:

"I have never remembered anything with more admiration then America, considering how it hath pleased the Lord to locke it up so long amidst the depths, concealing it from the curiositie of the Ancients, that it might be discovered in a fit time for their prosperitie, they were so farre of old from apprehending it by any reach of reason, that the most learned men (as they thought) by infallible grounds, in regard of the degrees of the Heaven, did hold that these zones could not be inhabited, which now are knowne to include the most pleasant parts in the world.

"But leaving these worldy respects, the greatest incouragement of all for any true Christian is this, that here is a large way for advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to whom Churches may bee builded in places where his Name was never knowne; and if the Saints of Heaven rejoice at the conversion of a Sinner, what exceeding joy would it bee to them to see many thousands of Savage people (who doe now live like brute beasts) converted unto God, and I wish (leaving these dreames of Honour and Profit, which doe intoxicate the braines, and impoyson the mind with transitory pleasures) that this might bee our chiefe end to begin a new life, serving God more sincerely then before, to whom we may draw more neere, by retyring our selves further from hence." (44)

For Alexander, selling America's strong points and its ability to fuse prosperity with Christianity justifies his possible desire to explore further land prospects and to expand the colonial boundaries. The idea that America has been a pristine Edenic land preserved throughout the history of the world for the English explorers to claim also justifies their colonization of Indian land. He also manages to read a Christian destiny into the American landscape, a common theological position among the colonists.

Both Milton and Alexander find themselves "in a fit time," a historical moment when church reform became one of the central motivators for cultural change. Both writers remind us, too, that the colonies were essentially an attempt to perfect a theocracy, an understanding often eclipsed by America's later revolution in the name of democratic liberty. Alexander's notion that America was "[locked] up," waiting for the colonists and their efforts to purify the church, refigures the landscape not as a tabula rasa awaiting Christian doctrine, but a land of natives in desperate "need" of conversion and a place where material concerns no longer govern the human heart. The colonial side of the Reformation, then, might be understood not simply as an exodus from persecution and corruption, but one toward a landscape in which divinity might truly reside in the faithful. As politically misguided as we might believe this mission to be, the promise that one might please God all the more by advancing the Christian faith in native American cultures is an important element in the history of the Reformation, in part because it reveals how the cultural anxiety over "impurity" led thousands of English Protestants to impose that anxiety on a set of entirely foreign cultures in America. The newness of the landscape thus becomes valued as the last place where reform is possible, and the persecution of American Indians might be productively read through this lens as a Reformation ideology.

Elizabeth Dill Kingsborough Community College, CUNY

Suggestions for further reading:

Alexander, William. [Encouragement to colonies] The mapp and description of New-England. London: Printed [by W. Stansby] for Nathaniel Butter, 1630.

Breslaw, Elaine. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Cressy, David. Coming Over: Migration and Communication between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Hall, David D., editor. The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History. Second edition. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.

Milton, John. Of reformation touching church-discipline in England: and the causes that hitherto have hindred it. Two bookes, written to a freind. [London]: [Richard Oulton and/or Gregory Dexter?] for Thomas Underhill, 1641.

© 2004 Folger Institute