Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, XI: The New Culdees

So I'm taking it for granted that the Plantation of New Plymouth was a production unit inserted into an existing economy by a ramified East-Central European magnate family to create a "German Home Town" within their territories by granting a nascent town a privilege, mainly in the form of a town legal charter suchj as the famous "Magdeburg rights." The result, described here is just another German town in the pale of settlement, full of strange odours of cabbage and diligent guildsmasters working long hours to produce perfect things before going off to the Lutheran Church to pray in a way that is conspicuously different from the way in which the peasants outside prayed. Note that this doesn't require mass migrations. People who move into town from outside will become German (or Polish, or whatever is needed), even if that will later require family genealogists with natural acrobatic skills.)

From there, I can go on to understand the economy into which Patuxet/New Plymouth was inserted, and, before that, wave a hand at another line of evidence that supports the argument and gives a shout-out back to the Late Bronze Age.

But hold on there for a moment. Don't we already have an explanation for the Plymouth settlement? Weren't there a bunch of Calvinist Puritan Pilgrim Separatist Congregationalists being religiously oppressed in England? Didn't they settle in New England precisely because they could practice their religion in freedom? Wasn't that religion stuff important back then? Don't we therefore need to give serious due to their explanation for their own fate?

No. We don't.

I mean, I know that we suspect and in some cases know that William Bradford's account omits important details ("the friends we had in Plymouth"), probably with the intent of concealing Ferdinando Gorges' role in events, and thus, entirely incidentally, that of Squanto. Yet he wouldn't be the first religious leader to have occasionally dabbled in hypocrisy while being in the main sincere and motivated by faith, would he? Religious persecution is the key issue here. Sid Meier's Colonization says so! Why am I being so mean to the nice Puritan Pilgrims?

I'll answer that question with another question. Have you ever taken a physics class? If you have done so in the last few years, and if your professor is reasonably conscientious about issues of notational formalism and a little careless about their history, chances are that the prof has said something like "When that apple fell on young Isaac Newton's head that wonderful autumn, he suddenly realised that the Moon was exactly like the apple. Nothing was keeping it from falling. It was falling."

Then the prof wrote something like this:

From Professor Mona Berciu, who has helpfully put her notes on the Internet without making any historical errors whatsoever.
 But, of course, Newton didn't say, or write, anything like that. At best, he wrote something like this (not actually the same expression):

Lifted from Niccolo Guicciardini's Development of Newtonian Calculus in Britain
The problem with doing this is obvious enough once the many people who have spelled it out before me, spelled it out. We've turned Newton into some kind of modern. He was trying to write his equation the way that we do it today, but couldn't on account of how there was so much more progress to be made along the ineluctable path of improvement that leads from Newton's time to ours.

But, once upon a time, it was routine to teach the history of physics this way. Back in the day when Galileo was a hero of anti-Catholicism (thank Heavens we've moved beyond that!) and the Progress of Science was the biggest thing in the Nineteenth Century. (Hint: you can't be pro-science and pro-Catholic. Hence, let's never let Home Rule happen or elect Blaine President!)

It's no big deal. I mean, it used to be a big deal. There's lots of old history books that take all of this seriously, and once in a while, the kids get into them and peddle the old insights as though they were new. That being said, the kids are learning their physics and their calculus right, and can learn their history right. They don't even have to read something old and frightening (and perhaps a little homophobic in that old-fashioned way.) Neil Stephenson's got them covered.

The problem arises where there's no Neil Stephenson. What if a field that used to be enormously important and all-pervasive, and is now boring and off-putting and even offensive. What if this kind of thing is still hijacking serious discussion?


So history of religion used to be a very big deal. And it used to be taught just as naively as the history of Newtonian physics that I illustrate above. Only instead of describing Newton as being just like us except that he put dots over his derivatives instead of writing them with lots of "ds" and brackets and vector signs, the old profs described John Calvin as being a Calvinist. It's not, anymore, and that's cool. Yale is advertising for a historian of religion right now, which is kind of ironic given its place as the source of much American religious history!

And that's bad. I mean, John Calvin was obviously a Calvinist in the sense that he agreed with much of what John Calvin had to say. But if you come up with a definition of what a "Calvinist" is in 1830, it's going to take some very careful historical work. Go ahead: search this for these. Or you can just take the prof's word for it. Obviously you're not going to find a clear elucidation of the Canons of Dort in Calvin's compendious Institutions of the Christian Religion. The Synod of Dordrecht didn't take place until 1619, 55 years after Calvin's death. The whole Arminian thing didn't start until 1609.

In practice, what that means is that it is virtually impossible to talk about a "Calvinist" except in the sense of those professors writing in the 1830s, trying to define what a Calvinist is. That's why Philip Benedict chooses to title his book Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism. (Amazon link, because you should buy this book!) Benedict's point isn't that he's a social historian and that what he does is social history. It's that "Calvinist Church" isn't a very helpful label, and that only a social history of the various groups that came to be called "Calvinist" is going to clear a path through the thickets.

The same can be said of "Puritan:" here the Wikipedia article is actually pretty good, thanks to a good generation and more of scholars waging holy jihad on explanations for the complicated series of events that led the British Isles into the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (that's what we inclusively call the old "English Civil  War" these days) that just waves the word "Puritan" over them and calls it a day. We've seen some problematic history out of this. Here's a nice book on the subject with an historiographic introduction. It's not new, but it's newer than the book that I might be tempted to lean on.

And then there's "Congregationalist?" What's Congregationalist? Nowadays, it is a Christian religious denomination, mainly in the United States, that claims to perpetuate the tradition of the original New England church. Indeed, Congregationalism was the official church of Massachusetts and Connecticut in the early Nineteenth Century, and as such pops up occasionally in discussions of the Establishment Clause of the American Constitution. According to the Congregationalists, Robert Browne, a kinsman of Robert Cecil, invented Congregationalism in 1594 --much as Newton invented physics! Wikipedia is as bad on this as it is good on Puritans.

The point of Congregationalism, as we understand it, is that it rejects church government by bishops and national presbyteries. Instead, church government is based on individual congregations. Which then has a national council that's totally not a presbytery, and probably a presiding president or whatchamacallit who is totally not a bishop.

Which, fine. I'm slandering some very nice people who have much clearer ideas about how they're different from, say, Presbyterians and Anglicans than I do. But that isn't the question: the question is, were the Pilgrims who came ashore in 1621 "Congregationalists?'

What would be specifically at stake here if they were is that they would reject the religious authority of their bishop (the Bishop of London, if it matters, and it probably does), and are "recusants." That is, they would refuse to turn up at their local Anglican Church on certain required days to take communion and participate in the community of that church. That is, they would refuse to participate in certain public religious rituals at certain places on pain of law, mostly in the form of fines, although penalties up to and including being hung, drawn and quartered weren't entirely out of the question. Or they might decide not to be part of the Church of England at all, and be "Separatists." It's not about ideas: it's about participation in public rituals. "Occasional conformity." And when you start talking about private chapels and congregations, the question of what counts as "occasional conformity" starts getting a little tricky. Communion tables on which side of the church? Kneeling rails or no kneeling rails? Priest throwing a towel over his shoulder before handling the communion wafer, or no towel?*

So, at first pass, this boils down to issues over ritual, not theology. All of those Nineteenth Century historians are completely missing the point. Which isn't all that unreasonable, because they want to talk about theology, not invent the anthropological study of "ritualities."

But this raises more basic questions. Were there any places in New England where the people of Plymouth could "occasionally conform?" If not, it's not like we could even tell if they were "recusants," or even "Separatists." And, indeed, there were not. Did William Bradford ever hurl nasty defiances at the Bishop of London? He did not.  Is it even clear that the "Separatist" leaders to which we point as teachers and mentors of the Plymouth Pilgrims were, indeed, "Separatists," as opposed to people making some kind of point about ritual practice in the Church of England by abstaining from certain rituals?

We do not. We do have the Pilgrims' spiritual leader, William Brewster, condemning a Separatist, but that's no big deal. No-one liked Separatists. The question was whether anything so horrible actually existed, in the sense of anyone (anyone sane, at least) applying "Separatist" as a self-descriptioin. We do know that the moment that an actual Church of England pastor migrated to New England, Governor Bradford lured him away from his original settlement to Plymouth, where he practiced the ritual practice of the Church of England for seven years thereafter. You won't find the Reverend Ralph Smith on Wikipedia, I think because it would be a historian of religion or someone who has read a historian of religion who would put Smith into it, and such are still a little too devoted to their story of progress.

Now, things would be very different if the Bishop of London actually had a brigade of priests to send out to preside over his scattered flock. But he didn't. It was up to that flock to find the money to pay a priest, and bring him over from England after he had been educated and ordained. And that was hard. The Church of England wasn't interested in doing things like that. It was fighting a tooth-and-nail battle within itself and perhaps with outsiders (it wasn't clear who was or wasn't an outsider, because that sort of thing could get you killed) over the rule of bishops and the King. Were Charles insular polities even governable? The Archbishop of Canterbury post-1633, William Laud, would brutally punish three critics with ear-cropping the year after Groton ran Ralph Smith out of Plymouth. And then he would be beheaded in 1644 for being wrong, and also annoying. And short.

That's the kind of thing that's got to focus the attention of a Governor of a tiny little plantation. he wants to portray New Plymouth as a great place to invest in or migrate to, and absolutely not as a place to send someone to arrest the governor of. That means that he's got to be pro-Laud in 1633, and anti-Laud in 1644. And it goes on. By 1657, the men cropped in 1637 are as far out of favour as Laud himself. The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, is as anti-Presbyterian as he is anti-bishop. He's resorted to "Congregationalism," in which individual congregations are in charge of religious affairs --and his Major-Generals are in charge of making sure that the Congregationalists have the right ideas. (The Rule actually ends in January of 1657, good enough for my argument.)

It's crazy. Like Charles before him, Oliver is, in his own mind, trying to hold the rattling lid of a boiling pot down. Little does he know that the tax reforms that he has instituted will put powers of patronage in the hands of politicians who will --eventually-- be able to buy consent, through the almost-as-dangerous expedient of perpetual debt. Did he suspect that, a few years later, when he was dead, the King would return, and with him, bishops? Probably. It's part of what made him so crazy, so tough on his critics.

Did Bradford suspect it? Maybe, maybe not. What the Governor did know was that when the winds changed in London, and it suddenly turned out that you were wrong, and had always been wrong, the people who came out to investigate you weren't going to be kind. They were perfectly capable of demanding that you turn over your records, and then execute you for a "The King is a Fink" marginalia. When we look at Of Plimouth Plantation as a record of the religious and political life of Plymouth Colony, one key fact stands out. Bradford died in 1657. That's when the book is closed --literally-- on Governor Bradford's self-fashioning. Not 1629, or 1636, or 1644, or 1661.

You want to know why you're always getting Bradford confused with Cromwell? That's why. It's not some deeply considered religious programme, a profoundly developed theology that exactly matches the one developed over the course of the Nineteenth Century by Yale professors fighting with Harvard Divinity over Unitarianism. It's a lived rituality that was flexible enough to bend with the times, up to the moment of Bradford's death. Thereafter, of course, it became a historical document, and was used as such --after time enough and history had passed that it was no longer dangerous.

So that's it. I'm not denying the role of religion in the life of the early Massachusetts colonies. I'm not even denying the role of religious persecution in motivating people. All I'm saying is that we need to beware the precise argument about persecution driving people to settle on the western shore in the first place. That's rhetoric drawn from absolutely mainstream religious thinking in the British Isles at the time. Just as the ancient Culdees withdrew to remote island fastnesses to maintain the true, aboriginal British church against Romanist corruption, so the Pilgrims have gone into the wilderness. Bradford's rhetoric of course implies that they will return to restore the church, but I wouldn't worry about that. It's just the way people talked back then. The main issue was making a life for themselves in their new home.

Plymouth: Not this. This.

Technically, a "stole." Because that makes it so much better a reason for having a civil war.

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