The Cast of Characters Surrounding Our Ancestors
There are at least three 10x great grandfathers in my wife’s Whittington family tree who came to America as preachers in the 1630’s. They were eager to save their lives and continue their work as God’s messenger. While some preachers faced torture and death as heretics in England, these men and their families were able to escape with their lives when it became clear that the Archbishop of Canterbury (William Laud) and King Charles were bent on eradicating the Protestant Clergy that sought to reform the Anglican Church. If the Anglican Church were to be reformed at all, Laud would see to it that the Anglican Church would resemble the Roman Catholic institution that it had been prior to the reign of Henry VIII. No longer content to simply defrock a Puritan preacher, the King consented to cropping their ears, branding their forehead or simply beheading them or burning them at the stake, or all of the above. Charges of heresy were easy to create and enforce. Puritan preachers found Laud to be predatory and dangerous.
Out of options and pursued by Laud’s forces, the families of Deacon Richard Lawrence (1625-1691), Rev. Abraham Pierson (1590-1636), Rev. Robert Peck (1580-1658) would come to Massachusetts Bay Colony. These men and their wives are identified as great grandparents in the Whittington/Sullivan line. Their DNA courses through the family tree. Each of the men was at a different stage in his development as a preacher. Each was passionate in his spiritual belief. These men, joined by members of their congregations, friends and neighbors became essential players in the one of the most significant decades shaping the America we know today. Keep in mind, the Carnival Cruise Line had not yet developed and the passage from Britain to the shores of America was life threatening and slow. Being tossed about on the rough seas of the Atlantic Ocean was gut wrenching. Dramamine had not yet been created to soothe a seasick stomach.
A majority of the Puritan pioneers came from East Anglia, England. It is a region to the north and east of London. Fronting on the North Sea the region is as close to Amsterdam, Netherlands as it is to London. Their religious belief system reflected the heavy influence of the Reformation in Netherlands and Germany. Our Puritan ancestors: the Bruehns, Sheaffes, Balls, Kitchells, Allings, Blatchleys, Thompsons, Harrisons and Baldwins came from the heartland of England, the central shires of Wiltshire, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Cheshire and others. Over 20,000 Brits came to the Bay Colony in the decade of the 1630’s. Many of them were direct ancestors, or shirt tail cousins of those ancestors.
These families did not arrive en masse on a Saturday afternoon. They weren’t all necessarily on the same ship or traveling in the same year. But, a Puritan family typically arrived in tact, and most of the passengers on a ship were with their nuclear family. Singletons were unusual. This fact is unparalleled in American history. In the Virginia colony, for example, families some times traveled separately across the ocean just to insure that they didn’t all go down together if a ship sank. Even if a family could arrive as one in Virginia, it was common for an advance man to arrive ahead of the family or group and establish a home, farm or plantation. The passenger manifest (list) for ships unloading in Virginia reveal many more singletons or pairs coming into the New World.
Perhaps the most interesting differences between the Virginia migration and the Bay Colony population is found in the following sociometrics: 1) The Bay Colony immigrant was typically upper middle class or upper class. 2) Few servants, farmers, and unskilled laborers were on board the ships to Boston Harbor. 3) The vast majority of the migrants to the Bay Colony were devout, passionate Puritans with respected credentials. Virginia, not so much. Puritans were driven out of Britain by a Catholic leaning monarchy in the years 1625-1640. Virginians were fleeing Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan take over in England (1640-1660). Wealthy aristocrats of England who had been loyal to their King Charles I fled the country to save their lives and fortunes after Oliver Cromwell lopped off the head of their King. If it had been a Worldwide Wrestling Federation event it would have been billed as “The Puritan’s Revenge” in England. More folks had to die in the name of God.
The Cavaliers (wealthy Virginia aristocrats) brought with them their many household servants. Virginians also relied heavily on a Head Count system that created a class of indentured servants creating a heavy influx of immigrants. Seventy five percent of these individuals were indentured to a master who paid for their voyage. Indentured servants were far less prevalent in New England. The British also sent a large number of convicts to Virginia creating a number of problems that required attention. The Bay Colony actually required letters of recommendation, resumes and a vote of the town/church council before they would admit someone into their community or colony in general. Not just anybody could get on the boat in England and sail for Boston Harbor.
The principles driving the two colonies were vastly different as were the political and economic conditions of England driving their migration. The Bay Colony evolved as a Puritan effort to establish a Bible Commonwealth, an attempt to establish a Christian country rooted in the Bible, where church and state were one. Virginia, from its inception at Roanoke and Jamestown, was founded for economic purposes. Perhaps it is too simplistic to say this, but religion drove the establishment of the Bay Coloney and capitalism powered the decision making in Virginia. This is not to downplay the importance of religion in Virginia or the economy in New England. In fact, failure to deal with economic conditions nearly destroyed attempts to settle in New Haven, Connecticut and Jamestown, Virginia. Each required a learning curve, a community response and the development of a strategic plan that could turn things around. It took time. Many died in poverty and starvation before they turned a corner. Many also returned to England in despair. The Virginia pioneers were devoted to the Church of England and it was vital to their culture. In fact, they chased other denominations out of their colony and into Maryland and Pennsylvania. There were rare exceptions to that rule. For some reasons they let me Huguenot great grandparents (de la Fontaines) settle into Manakin. The reason I have discovered is that the British settlers along the coast wanted to get another nationality out there in the Virginia wilderness to take the brunt of attacks from unhappy Native Americans.
Passage was not affordable for many who aspired to settle in America. If I didn’t have the cash for the voyage, I could sign my life away to someone willing to pay my passage. I would be their indentured servant for as many as seven years. Many of our ancestral families who arrived in the period between 1630 and 1660 came from wealthy and prominent positions in English society. The Sheaffe family, as an example, was a wealthy player in the textile industry in Kent, England. Their profits from fine cloth garments were impressive. They could have bought the ship. The Bruehns also owned several factories in the Liverpool area and large estates where they lived a life of leisure.
While all of these pioneers may have escaped the turmoil of the Reformation in England, they did not step into any sense of serenity in New England (or Virginia). Boston was a caldron of political and religious forces seeking control in a new and some times uncivil civilization. When our ancestors stepped off the boat in Boston they stepped into new events with an old cast of characters from England.
John Cotton’s beliefs as well as John Davenport’s are important to understand if we wish to understand the mindset of our Puritan ancestors of that time period. I use Cotton and Davenport as models because so much has been written about their lives and convictions and so little about our own preachers. Our relatives did interact with these leaders and shared opinions, beliefs and perhaps a pint now and then. John Cotton is a distant cousin and Davenport is a great uncle. His son, John Davenport Jr, married Abigail Pierson, daughter of Abraham Pierson. We will bring our folks into this Reality TV show as we go. Our preachers and their congregations came from rural congregations in England. William Laud persecuted and closed these churches and John Davenport risked his life to resurrect them.
John Cotton (1585 – 1652), a shirt tail Whittington relative, stepped out of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England in 1612 with a passionate desire to preach. At the age of 27 he was already a highly respected Puritan minister and theologian. He thought Henry VIII was on the right track when Henry broke away from the Catholic Church and established the Anglican Church (1534). But seventy five years after the start up, John Cotton felt the Anglican Church needed a reformation of its’ own. Cotton couldn’t really detect a difference between the Catholic and Anglican church service and belief system. He wanted to change the Anglican Church from within, not abandon it. Well versed in the work of John Calvin, Cotton was also influenced by his spiritual counselor, Richard Sibbes, from whom Cotton stole an incredible ability to fly under the radar and avoid the storm troopers who were making life miserable for “non-conformist” Puritan preachers in England. Cotton had learned to listen, share, confer, converse, and project a sense of caring and respect even unto those he might find disagreeable. A skill that has escaped our Christian politicians in America.
While many ministers were removed from their pulpits for their puritan practices, Cotton thrived at St. Botolph’s in Lincolnshire, England, for nearly two decades. His very conciliatory and gentle demeanor charmed his adversaries and placated the parishioners. Some families would travel twenty miles to attend Cotton’s church. Ann Marbury Hutchinson, her husband William and fifteen children would travel twenty miles from Alford to participate in Cotton’s services. Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), was the daughter of the Reverend Francis Marbury. She was a woman with strong Puritan leanings. She did not trust the Church of England ministers whose actions betrayed their principles. The voice of God interrupted her journey toward atheism and she claimed that voice as her own. This was a critical juncture in her life.
There were, as Cotton observed, a number of issues the Anglican Church must address. They were issues that had been generated in previous centuries by Hus, Wycliffe, Luther and Cotton’s favorite: John Calvin. Puritans had four primary agendas: 1) moral transformation; 2) practice piety; 3) return to the Christianity of the Bible as opposed to the prayer books, ceremonies and vestments created by man; and 4) strict recognition of the Sabbath. Cotton embraced all four of these practices. Within the context of this agenda Cotton preached a theology of absolute grace. He emphasized the need to study and interpret God’s word (The Bible). In order to better understand the Bible Cotton ignored the English translations and studied the original texts. He became fluent in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Cotton noted that the Anglican priest focused worship services on the altar area and the priest’s garments, ornamentation and sacraments became all important. In Cotton’s mind it was all done for show. It was glitz without substance and required very little in terms of thought. Cotton wanted to shift the parishioner’s attention to the left of the altar and into the pulpit. He wanted the preacher to dig into scripture, teach from it and implore the listener to do the same. He wanted the preacher to teach God’s holy word and to teach the parishioner to read and share the Bible in the home, on the street and at the local diner.
Cotton’s sermons emphasized that salvation could not be earned by merely acting in a moral manner. Per Cotton’s doctrine the Holy Ghost dwells within a “justified person.” Cotton was drawn to the mystery of the Holy Spirit and truly felt the presence of the Holy Ghost in his life. He didn’t believe there was a “Dummy’s Guide to God’s Salvation.” He wasn’t interested in a 12 step program that might be subtitled: “How to Prepare for Salvation.” Cotton was hooked on that feeling of being connected to God via the Holy Spirit. He felt the transformation of his own character at the moment of his own religious conversion. It was a moment “in which mortal man was infused with a divine grace.” This kind of thinking didn’t go over so well with Archbishop Laud in his digs at Canterbury.
In 1629 King Charles and Laud were four years into their strategic plan for bringing Rome back into the Anglican Church. It wasn’t announced as such when Charles first took his perch on the throne in 1625. But there were some preachers living within earshot of the King’s castle who evacuated London shortly after Charles had the crown fitted to his head. Twenty five years later, the English Civil War and the Model Army of Oliver Cromwell would remove the crown and the King’s head. The first Puritans to leave London, upon Charles’ arrival, migrated to Puritan neighborhoods in the Netherlands, Massachusetts, Barbados and Nicaragua (seriously). Cities like Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Boston had growing enclaves of British Puritans. These migrations were well thought out. In an atmosphere of fear and growing hysteria the Puritan leadership elected to remain a bit calm, totally committed to their beliefs and resolute in their determination to proceed in a logical and strategic manner. It wasn’t in the Puritan nature to panic, but to remain poised in the belief that a steadfast believer would live or die by the grace of God.
By 1629 Cotton had signed up for a robust seminar on a hot topic that was trending all across Great Britain: “How to Keep Your Head as you Flee For Your Life.” Actually, I made that title up but it wasn’t far off that point. It was a planning conference for emigration (leaving one’s country). The conference was held at the beautiful Sempringham Castle in Lincolnshire. Cotton was joined by several big names in American history: Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams, John Winthrop. The writing was on the walls for these three guys. They had seen enough to know that they needed a Plan B. They did not have Cotton’s ability to fly under the radar. They were zealous and could be very imposing and dogmatic in their approach. They had captured Laud’s attention. They would escape from England within the year.
As these groups left England they did so in accordance with their belief system. One of the chief principles guiding a Puritan was the covenant as mentioned in the Book of Genesis. God made a covenant with Abraham: I will do this for you Abe and you will do this for me. These Puritans believed in a Covenant with God and with each other. They would actually come together as a large family, a congregation bound together and committed to moving forward together. In this case, they would sign their names in a covenant, a contract binding them together in a plan to move across the sea to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
After John Cotton’s first wife passed away and he survived malaria, Cotton traveled a bit in England. He awakened to the reality that his superiors had sheltered him from the cruelty inflicted by Laud. His friend Nathaniel Ward was summoned before the Court and summarily defrocked. Ward’s letters to Cotton revealed his miserable experience. Ward, relieved to be alive after a torturous captivity, fled the country for New England. In doing so he planted a seed in Cotton’s mind.
Within the year it was John Cotton’s turn to ‘face the inquisition.’ By 1633, Cotton’s name had risen to the top of Laud’s hit list. It was clear to the Archbishop that the good preacher was not going to conform to the tenets of the established Anglican Church. Cotton received an invitation (summons) to appear before William Laud and explain his behavior and beliefs. Cotton called in a few chips that were owed him and asked the Earl of Dorset to intercede on his behalf and save his tail end. The Earl, covering his own hinder, sent a text message back to Cotton with the company line: “non-conformity and puritanism are unpardonable offenses. You must fly for your safety.”
“Hashtag: Run for your life!” would be the present day spin on the Earl’s response. No longer naive and a bit wiser with insight provided by Nathaniel Ward, Cotton elected to go underground. He went on the lamb and moved from site to site, staying one step ahead of the posse. The well respected preacher, John Davenport, located his friend Cotton and encouraged him to turn himself in, accept the King’s terms and recant. To recant meant to simply admit that one had been guilty of foolish,fuzzy thinking and ask for Laud’s forgiveness. Cotton could off on a statement pledging his love for the King, the Anglican Church and Laud. He would promise to promote the Church and blah, blah, blah.
It didn’t sound like a good choice for John Cotton. He didn’t trust Laud and he didn’t want to turn his back on the Christ he knew. In fact, Cotton turned the tables on Davenport. Their discussions during that visit convinced Davenport that Cotton was making all the right moves. Davenport came out of his encounter with Cotton as a more pure Puritan than he had been before the discussions were initiated. Davenport elected to leave England. Cotton’s tie to Davenport would grow in the New World and impact the lives of a boat load of our ancestors swailing over the ocean to Massachusetts Bay.
That’s correct. I just invented the word “swailing.” It means the ship was sailing through the swails of the Atlantic Ocean. Please use the word profusely online so it begins to trend to the top. I have this desire to replace Kim Kardasian for a brief moment with something less posterior than her grandiose efforts.
Cotton was removed from his ministry and threatened with imprisonment. He made a hasty departure for New England. He was accompanied by his second wife and an infant son borne on the ocean voyage aboard the ship Griffin. The child’s name, Seaborne, sort of summed up the state of affairs for the Cotton family. They were headed to the New World at the invitation of and old friend, the colony’s Governor Winthrop.
Anne Hutchinson was on board the Griffin as well, along with her husband Will and ten of her eleven children. Anne was an aspiring theologian. She was handicapped by the fact that she was a woman. The glass ceiling was in place and she wasn’t going to be recognized in any church, Protestant or Catholic, as one who could make a scholarly contribution or assume a position of responsibility in the organization of a church. That did not hold her back from expressing an opinion or motivating others to take action. An old adversary of Hutchinson, the Reverend Zechariah Symmes preached regularly to the passengers aboard the Griffin as they swailed across the Atlantic. After each of his sermons, Hutchinson would ask Symmes pointed questions about free grace. It was not the first time Anne had pursued the topic or antagonized a preacher.
Hutchinson had already earned a reputation in England. She had previously criticized clergymen who were held in high regard by Symmes. Her questioning technique, so confrontational in nature, offended even her closest friends. Symmes, a man of some authority within the Puritan community, doubted her commitment to orthodoxy. If she wasn’t orthodox then she was unorthodox. If she wasn’t conforming to the church, she was unconforming. Unconforming, unorthodox Christians were often labeled heretics in the England from which she was fleeing. How would a Puritan, New England congregation view this unorthodox, non-conforming Puritan?
On his arrival in September 1633 Cotton was welcomed as one of the two ministers of the church in Boston. Once Cotton settled into his new digs he turned the community on to a fast track to salvation. His enthusiastic evangelism created a buzz that filled the pews and souls were converted at a record pace. History notes that there were more conversions during his first six months in the pastorate than there had been the previous year.
After the Hutchinsons settled in Boston, Anne’s husband was readily accepted into Cotton’s congregation, but Anne’s membership was delayed a week because of Symmes concerns about her religious beliefs. Symmes would exact his revenge on behalf of all men who had been rattled by this woman and what they viewed as her demeaning tactics.
John Davenport was an Oxford educated preacher in the Anglican Church. He was influenced by the work of John Cotton and Thomas Hooker (founder of New Haven Colony and associated with our ancestors). While in Britain in the early 1630’s, Davenport found himself at odds with Archbishop Laud over several issues that were important to Davenport’s mission in life. His efforts to restructure the finances of the local churches offended William Laud. Laud was deliberately ignoring the needs of the rural churches, especially where those churches were not conforming to the Anglican model.
Laud was closing the rural churches, selling off the properties and pocketing the revenue or redirecting it to serve the King’s purpose. Money wasn’t made available to pay adequate stipends to the rural preachers. The supply of preachers was depleted and increasingly untrained. It was all by design. Davenport was born into modest wealth and was in a circle of wealthy men, including Theophilis Eaton, who shared a Puritan mindset and a great amount of wealth. Puritan investors pooled their resources, and began purchasing the properties Laud was unloading. A meager revenue stream developed, churches opened, preachers received a meager salary and Laud’s plans faced a momentary setback. Being the King’s henchman, he had a lot of power and an easy solution. He declared Davenport a criminal and confiscated the properties.
Davenport was a lifelong advocate of the rigorous Puritan standards for church membership and for the strict qualifications for infant baptism, which he believed should be administered only to the children of full church members.
Frustrated by Laud and condemned by the Court of Exchequer, Davenport resigned under pressure (1633) from his established church (St. Stephens on Coleman Street) in London and escaped to Netherlands. While there he blended right in by placing a bumper sticker on his horse that read: “You aren’t much if you ain’t Dutch.”
Davenport’s personality was such that he also fell into a dispute over the issue of baptism and church membership with his supervising Dutch pastor, John Paget, and he withdrew from the Puritan church in Amsterdam. It was while listening to a Dave Loggins vinyl album (1974) that Davenport was inspired to head for Massachusetts. While writing one of his fiery sermons, Davenport found himself singing along to the Loggins lyrics: “Please come to Boston in the springtime. I’m stayin’ here with some friends and they’ve got lotsa room.” Davenport put down his quill and realized he needed to respond to his calling as so many of his colleagues had already done. He would not mention this moment to his friends nor would he capitalize on the fact that he had experienced the power of a vinyl album and a good lyric.
The year was 1637 and Davenport acquired a patent to establish a colony in Massachusetts. It was one way for Laud to dispatch pesty Puritans: send them off to the New World. Davenport set sails for Boston with his best bud, Theophilis Eaton, and much of his congregation. Fresh off the boat in the Bay Colony, Davenport moved in with the Reverend John Cotton family. Of course, no one felt fresh when they landed on the dock after an eight week cruise on the ocean and events were about to turn uglier for the New World theologians. Having escaped the tyrannical grasp of Laud and the Anglican Church, these Puritans were about to become as rigid and unforgiving and oppressive as Laud had been in England. All in the name of God, of course.
In March 1638, John Davenport sat rigidly in his pew, a spectator during the church trial of Anne Hutchinson. A recent arrival, Davenport was dazed by what he witnessed. Hutchinson’s old friend and favorite preacher, John Cotton, sat at a table as one of a jury of Bay Colony preachers charging her with heresy. Her conduct and her message in the two years since her arrival in Boston caused a great schism in the local church and inflamed emotions. While she was not a bonafide preacher in the pulpit on Sunday, her Bible Study groups were considered raucous events. The community was ripped by a fever pitch on all sides. Anyone who has witnessed Bostonians celebrating a Red Sox World Series win or Bruins Stanley Cup victory knows how passionate a New England fan can be. It is part of the New England DNA. The Hutchinson crisis is remembered in history as the Antinomian Controversy.
For interesting insight, see also: David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed, 1989
NEXT: MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY