American Legal History

Why Does Religious Conviction Endure Exposure?

A thought occurs to me regarding the arbitrary, yet pious and prudential, nature and function of early Massachusetts Colony legal systems -- zoomed-in on the orbit of Winthrop -- as described by G.L. Haskins. The seed of this notion comes from Chapter 8 of Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts, pages 114-8. Winthrop's bellwether leadership of the early colonial society afforded him and his Puritan followers the opportunity to re-create legal regimes from whole cloth, so it is with a very curious eye that I read Haskins's report that procedural rules of appeal were threadbare. It seems odd that a newborn society would accept strict conduct laws and arbitrary legal mores. Moreover, I understand that the arms of Winthrop's legal principles were not designed to blindly hold the guilt or innocence of an accused party in equal weight, but rather the system stared into the sun and held religious piety and social purity in one heavy hand. It is an old revelation that our kindergarten stories about the Massachusetts pilgrims are apocryphal, but I still do not understand how the Puritan experience interacted with their manifested legal system. Likewise, I don't understand why these Puritans retained these strict social laws over generations when exposed to less judgmental legal systems that, to my atheist mind, seemed to allow more fun and were proved to be somewhat economically and socially successful.

A censorious society founded on strict religious laws is not a particularly fun or engaging one; why, then, did it follow Massachusettsian settlers as they moved elsewhere in New England? Could it be that I'm overstating the quotidien weight or effect of Puritan laws in Massachusetts society? Or am I understating the potency and shelf life of their mandatory religious convictions?

The questions you are asking could be approached at several levels, only some of which I can hope to offer. But it seems to me that you want most to understand what it felt like to hold these ideas so "experience near" that they aren't objects of study, but fundamental emotional commitments conditioning all cognitive experience, the way atheism conditions yours, or mine. John Winthrop is such a valuable literary companion because he conveys in his writing precisely this experience, as---to give one example---Roger Williams, for all his force and brilliance, cannot. I would suggest Ed Morgan's brilliant brief evocation of Winthrop in this context, in The Puritan Dilemma. From there, the next stop would be Perry Miller's New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, which is far less terse, as befits a much more comprehensive view of the subject.

-- JohnOMeara - 16 Sep 2016

-- JohnOMeara - 22 Sep 2016

I enjoyed a part of The Puritan Dilemma this week. I agree with you that we ought to approach Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay colonials with a lens of theological presentism, but I turn my next thought toward a 4D-type interpretation of political economy and social evolution. I sense Winthrop's tensions among pleasing God, pleasing the colonists and taming the nature and the other peoples that didn't give piss to men on fire. (I recognize the overstatement.) It appears that Winthrop's religiously-dyed administrative charter stuck with folks for many years after -- and many miles from -- its initial seeding, though its effectiveness in governance required much re-interpretation and improvisation.

What, if not tradition, amusement, grandiose promises or real-life miracles kept the flock penned? Were Winthrop's communities not balkanized and rapidly adapted to their particular American conditions? (I'll try to answer this myself.)

-- JohnOMeara - 22 Sep 2016



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r5 - 23 Sep 2016 - 12:34:30 - JohnOMeara
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