Puritan Dilemma Term Paper

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Puritan Dilemma

Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. USA: Pearson

Education, 1999.

H]e which would have suer peace and joye in Christianitye, must not ayme at a condition retyred from the world and free from temptations, but to knowe that the life which is most exercised with tryalls and temptations is the sweetest, and will prove the safeste. For such tryalls as fall within compasse of our callinges, it is better to arme and withstande them than to avoide and shunne them.

John Winthrop)

What Mr. Morgan manages in this book is to show us that even 370 years ago, John Winthrop was already confronting many of what would be enduring themes and challenges of the American experiment. The struggle over how democratic America should be has been at the very core of our politics. Separationism would eventually lead to revolution and the split with Great Britain and then would explode most disastrously in the Civil War. Elitism (Armenianism) has been evident in America's troubled history of race relations and periodic bouts of xenophobic anti-immigrant fever. Twentieth Century nihilism (Antinomianism) would prove far more virulent than the Seventeenth Century variant, because no longer at least a function of religious faith. And,

Isolationism has been a constant temptation, mostly working to our advantage but also leaving us unprepared for things like Pearl Harbor and 9-11.


In this short biography, Mr. Morgan traces how John Winthrop (1588-1669) struggled with the dilemma, first internally, as he dealt with the question of whether traveling to the New World represented a selfish form of "separatism," the desire to separate himself from an impure England, or whether, as he eventually determined, it offered a unique opportunity to set an example for all men by establishing a shining "

City upon a Hill," a purer Christian community in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In this regard, it seems to have been of vital importance to Winthrop and his fellow Puritan colonists that they had the imprimatur of the King and that though they were physically distancing themselves from the Church of England, they were not actually renouncing it.


U.S. historian, Edmund S. Morgan was born in 1916 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1942, he taught at the University of Chicago (1945-46) and at Brown (1946-55) before becoming (1955) Professor of History at Yale University. An expert on American colonial history, Morgan writes in a way that appeals to the general reading public while maintaining high scholarly standards. His many books include The Puritan Family (1944, rev. And enl. ed. 1966), The Stamp Act Crisis, with his wife Helen M. Morgan (1953, rev. ed. 1963), The Puritan Dilemma (1958) and biographies of Ezra Stiles (1962) and Roger Williams (1967) (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2003).

As Mr. Morgan notes in his introduction to The Puritan Dilemma, the Puritans are not terribly well regarded in modern America:

We have to caricature the Puritans in order to feel comfortable in their presence.

They found answers to some human problems that we would rather forget. Their very existence is an affront, a challenge to our moral complacency; and the easiest way to meet the challenge is to distort it into absurdity, turn the challengers into fanatics.


Actually the central problem of Puritanism as it affected John Winthrop and the New England has concerned men of principle in every age, not least our own. It was the question of what responsibility a righteous man owes to society.

But if one comes to Mr. Morgan's account of Winthrop's life with an open mind, it seems hard to imagine not being impressed by how nearly he and his fellows succeeded in what they set out to do:

The purpose of New England was to show the world a community where the laws of God were followed by church and state - as nearly as fallible human beings could follow them.

It was true that this purpose had so far been achieved. Massachusetts came as close as men could come to the kingdom of God on earth. But this was not a business of shooting at the mark and, having struck it, retiring in glory. God's commission to Massachusetts carried no terminal date. To build a society so near to what God demanded and then abandon it would exhibit nothing but the usual story of human corruption. Massachusetts must go in the ways of godliness and stand as a permanent example of how much could be accomplished in this world. (The Puritan Dilemma 1999)

There, in Winthrop's own words, is the Puritan dilemma of which Mr. Morgan speaks here, "the paradox that required a man to live in the world without being of it." Or, as Mr. Morgan explains more fully:

Superficially Puritanism was only a belief that the Church of England should be purged of its hierarchy and of the traditions and ceremonies inherited from Rome. But those who had caught the fever knew that Puritanism demanded more of the individual than it did of the church. Once it took possession of a man, it was seldom shaken off and would shape - some people would say warp - his whole life. Puritanism was a power not to be denied. It did great things for England and America, but only by creating in the men and women it affected a tension, which was at best painful and at worst unbearable. Puritanism required that a man devote his life to seeking salvation but told him he was helpless to do anything but evil. Puritanism required that he rest his whole hope in Christ but taught him that Christ would utterly reject him unless before he was born God had foreordained his salvation. Puritanism required that man refrain from sin but told him he would sin anyhow. Puritanism required that he reform the world in the image of God's holy kingdom but taught him that the evil of the world was incurable and inevitable. Puritanism required that he work to the best of his ability at whatever task was set before him and partake of the good things that God had filled the world with but told him he must enjoy his work and his pleasures only, as it were, absent-mindedly, with his attention fixed on God. (The Puritan Dilemma 1999)

Once settled in Massachusetts, where he became the first governor, John Winthrop faced a series of related challenges flowing from different facets of the Puritan dilemma. The first question concerned how the colony was to be governed, how "democratically" as we would say now. Here, the Puritan concept of the "covenant" with God, which bound them to His laws, led naturally into the idea that the people so bound should have a covenant among themselves about how to enforce God's laws.

The second, a classic form of separatism, arose most spectacularly in the person of Roger Williams, who thought it necessary for the members of a congregation to "make a public declaration of their repentance for having communion with the churches of England, while they lived there." Thus it was sufficient in his eyes to have banished that Church's errors from Puritan congregations; it was even necessary to renounce the Church. Winthrop understood the danger of Williams's ideas, that they might / must lead one to keep withdrawing further and further from the world and burrowing deeper into oneself, in the ultimately mistaken belief that only one's own vision of God's truth is pure.

Third, in the confrontation with Anne Hutchinson, Winthrop faced the sins of Armenianism, the belief that one could influence God and secure salvation by "preparing" oneself to receive it, and of Antinomianism, the belief that since God has predetermined who is to be saved one's behavior here on Earth does not…

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