Modern Christians looking back into history may find it hard to comprehend the various atrocities that have been committed in the name of Christianity. While religion has consistently been an excuse for one group to claim superiority over another, nowhere was this more apparent than when the Puritans came to America. While the lens of time reveals the Puritan actions against the native population to be both arrogant and cruel, it is important to remember that the Puritans did not view their actions in the same manner. In contrast, their actions were motivated by their deeply held religious belief that it was their divine mission to come to America and begin a colony where they would be free to practice their religion.
Like many modern-day advocates of religious freedom, the Puritans had a narrow view of the term. They did not seek religious freedom for all, but merely the freedom to practice their own religion, which was actually pretty rigid. The Puritans believed that God had created a covenant with them, and that they were the new Israelites of God's master plan.
These beliefs had cause a rift between the Puritans and King James of England. The Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England, while King James vowed to force the Puritans to conform to the Church. After determining that they were unable to reform the Church, a group of Puritan separatists went to Amsterdam in search of more religious freedom. Amsterdam did offer more religious freedom than England, but the Puritans still feared that outside pressure would disrupt their group. At this point, the Puritans realized that freedom from persecution was not synonymous with religious freedom, and decided to go to America.
A group of Puritans, led by William Bradford and now referred to as the Pilgrims, fled Amsterdam for the perceived freedom of the New World. While it is familiar knowledge that the Pilgrim ship, the Mayflower, landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, many are less familiar with the fact that the Plymouth Rock was not the first place in America visited by the Pilgrims. In fact, the Pilgrims stopped in Cape Cod. It was during this layover that the native population would receive its first hint about the Puritan views of entitlement and superiority. The Pilgrims discovered large hordes of grain, which had been stored by the Native Americans for the winter. The Pilgrims took all of the food, claiming that God's providence was shining upon them.
In this way, the Pilgrims began abusing the Native Americans even before they actually met.
The Pilgrim belief that God's providence was shining upon them did not continue; after landing at Plymouth Rock the Pilgrims experienced a harsh winter, which killed nearly half of them. The number of Pilgrim deaths was limited due to the assistance that the Pilgrims received from the Pokanokets. Although the Pilgrims had been the recipients of charity from the Pokanokets, the Pilgrims still believed that they were superior. In fact, when the Pokanokets signed a treaty with the Pilgrims, the Pilgrims believed that signaled the Pokanokets' willingness to acknowledge the superiority of the English and their culture.
One of the most interesting things about the Pilgrim claims of English superiority is that those claims were largely based on misunderstandings about the Native American way of life. The Pilgrims believed that farming was a more appropriate way of life than hunting or fishing. Furthermore, the Pilgrims considered themselves farmers. However, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that the Native Americans of New England were also farmers, the Pilgrims continued to dismiss them as hunters and fishermen. As a result, the Pilgrims alleged that the Native Americans were "sinfully squandering America's resources."
Claiming that they could make better use of the land, the Pilgrims claimed that they were entitled to the Native American's land and took it by whatever means necessary.
The issue of whether the Native Americans were farmers or hunters was far from the only dispute that the Pilgrims had with the Native American lifestyle. In fact, the Pilgrims were incredibly intolerant of the differences between the Native Americans and themselves. The Pilgrims characterized the Native Americans as savages because the Native Americans lacked, "Christianity, cities, letters, clothing, and swords."
In fact, the lack of swords, or, more accurately, the lack of modern weaponry, did place the Native Americans in a vulnerable position. With the use of modern weaponry, the Puritans had the ability to impose their will upon Native Americans, and the fact that they felt entitled by the divine made them very willing to do so.
Of course, the Mayflower Pilgrims were only the beginning of the Puritan influx into America. In 1630, another famous Puritan settler, John Winthrop, came to America. Winthrop differed from the group led by Bradford in that he came with England's blessing. In fact, Winthrop had a royal charter to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony (MBC). Winthrop was not a separatist; instead, he wanted to preserve the autonomy of local churches, while keeping them under the auspices of the Church of England. Like Bradford's group of Pilgrims, Winthrop believed he was on a divine mission. He believed that by coming to America, he could establish a Christian community that would reveal to the world how great a God-fearing community could become. In fact, Winthrop believed he would create a "city on a hill' that would serve as a model for all other communities.
In order to create this exalted community, Winthrop acknowledged that he had to fulfill his duty to God. The Puritans believed that they had a covenant to God. Under this covenant, the Puritans had four duties: to have a conversion, acknowledging the true God; to establish a community of believers; to strictly adhere to the covenant of civil order; and to commit, as a community, to the binding covenant with God.
This covenant was not merely a religious agreement; it had the power of law. The Puritans considered those chosen by the Lord to be wise about the scripture to be saints. The saints had the power to rule in both secular and ecclesiastical matters; using the scripture as their guide. Therefore, although the Puritans had come to America in search of religious freedom, it is clear that they did not believe in any separation between church and state.
Once Winthrop had established the MBC, Puritan presence in America grew dramatically. For example, in 1630 there were approximately 1,200 settlers in Boston, but by 1636 that number had grown to over 11,000. As a result, the settlers desired even more land. Their desire for land was solved, in part, by an outbreak of small box in 1634, which decimated much of the Native American population. While modern people are aware that the Puritans brought the small pox to America with them, and that the Native Americans were vulnerable because they had no resistance to small pox, the Puritan's viewed the epidemic as God's way of providing more land for them. In fact, William Bradford wrote, "It pleased God to visit these Indians with a great sickness."
Bradford was not alone in his lack of sympathy for the dead Native Americans; John Winthrop also believed that, "God was just making room for the colonists."
The Puritan attitude towards the deaths of those Native Americans foretold an increase in the inhumanity shown by the Puritans towards Native Americans. The facts were simple: the Puritans needed land and the Native Americans had it. In fact, although the Puritans believed that they made better use of the land than the Native Americans, they actually needed much more land to sustain each person. As a result, Native Americans were pushed out of their own lands, and forced to encroach upon lands belonging to other Native groups. The result was displaced Native Americans and conflicts between the Native American nations.
Furthermore, it was not the nations that the Puritans considered hostile that suffered the most from the settlers' invasion of Native American lands. In contrast, those groups that aligned themselves with the Puritans appeared to suffer the most damage. One example of this phenomenon was the elimination of the Pequot nation.
In the face of increasing Puritan encroachment upon their lands, the Pequot determined that they needed to sign a treaty with the MBC and did so in 1634. However, the Pequot soon realized that a treaty with the English "resulted in complete subjugation and humiliation."
By 1636, the Pequot had determined that the situation was intolerable, and initiated hostile action against the Puritans. The Pequot were so desperate that they attempted to form an alliance with the Narragansett, their traditional enemies. However, the Narragansett sided with the English because of the Puritan's greater economic and political force.
The hostilities escalated into war when the Pequot supported Native Americans that killed Puritans that took their land in opposition to the 1634 treaty.
While the war was devastating to the Pequot, it revitalized the…