The Puritans' "Christian" Agenda?

One of the opinions most persistently and widely held among American evangelicals today is that America had essentially Christian origins. They rest heavily on an appeal to the Puritan heritage as the most influential Reformation tradition shaping American culture. If it were shown that the Puritans who settled America did not establish truly Christian cultural principles that were in some important ways perpetuated, then a strong suspicion might be raised that the entire case for a now-lost Christian America rests on rather nebulous foundations. (See: The Search for Christian America, p. 28.)

The fact is, the Puritans were the forerunners of today's Kingdom/Dominion/Reconstructionist teaching. The Puritans believed that they were carrying to America true Christianity as decreed by God, especially as written in the Old Testament. They believed too that they were on a divine mission to America, a place specially appointed by God to be the "New Israel," a theocratic "city upon a hill."

John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, assumed that he could transfer the principles of nationhood found in ancient Israel to the Massachusetts Bay Company with no need for explanation. This led the Puritans to interpret Scripture in an ultimately pretentious way that gave their own state and society the exalted status of a New Israel. Old Testament law was directly, if not exclusively, incorporated into the legal systems of New England. The Massachusetts "Body of Liberties" of 1641 stated that "if any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other god, but the lord god, he shall be put to death." Death was also prescribed for witchcraft, blasphemy, murder, sodomy, homosexuality, adultery, and kidnapping. Old Testament texts were copied directly into the New England law books. The most notorious cases of major miscarriage of justice in New England were the Salem witchcraft executions. (See: The Search for Christian America, pp. 34-35.)

The Puritans viewed themselves as God's special people, replacing national Israel. Nowhere do the dangers of this assumption become more clear than in the Puritans' treatment of the native Americans. Since the Puritans considered themselves God's chosen people, they concluded that they had the right to take the land from the heathen Indians. The American Indians were the "new Canaanites" in America's "Promised Land." The fruit of Puritan theology was brutal. They saw their mission as convert these "Canaanites" to Christianity; failing that, it was acceptable to slaughter them in the name of Christ.

For example, the Puritan massacres of the Pequot Indian tribe on May 26, 1637, and again on July 14, 1637, were deemed by the Puritans to be directed by God -- Captain John Mason declared, "God laughed his Enemies and the Enemies of his People to Scorn, making them as a fiery Oven ... Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling the Place with dead Bodies" (Segal and Stinenback, Puritans, Indians, and Manifest Destiny, pp. 111-112, 134-135). Converting the pagans for God was acceptable to the Puritans, but killing the pagans for the Lord was also acceptable!

Defenders of the Puritans claim that it was the hostility of the Pequots that led to their unfortunate demise. But the Pequots were one of the most tranquil tribes in New England. History reveals that their "hostility" did not manifest itself until they were hunted like animals. For argument sake, let's say that the Pequots were the instigators of hostilities, virtual savages if you will (which they were not). Does this justify hunting them down, slaughtering the men, women, and children in their sleep, and then doing it again six weeks later to finish the job!? (Not exactly "battlefield" victories!) Moreover, the Puritans claimed it was in obedience to God that these pagans were slaughtered!

Here the reasoning of the Puritans defies logic and a sense of common decency, let alone Christian principles. Captain John Underhill also wrote of the Pequot slaughter: "Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents ... We have sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings." What an incredible testimony for one claiming to be a Christian!

There is a book titled NEW ENGLAND FRONTIER: Puritans and Indians 1620-1675 by Alden T. Vaughan. It was originally published in 1965 (Little Brown & Company, Boston/Toronto), and revised as recently as 1995. Vaughan, an admitted friend of the Puritan colony, makes a well documented case for the efforts of the Pilgrims (Separatists) and early Puritans to win the Indians to Christ. The book contains three chapters detailing the Puritans successful missionary endeavors during those early years. For example, the first Bible printed in the Western world was the Indian Algonquin Scripture. Harvard University (1636) was founded not only to train whites to become ministers of the Gospel, but there was also for a time a training program for young Indian men to minister to their people. At least six Boston area communities, thriving today, were started by Christian Indians. The famous island, Martha's Vineyard, once was the site of Indian Christian congregations through the missionary endeavors of the Mayhew family. Dartmouth University had its beginning through the efforts of a Connecticut Puritan to train Indian young men to preach the Gospel.

But Vaughan's book also reveals just how brutal the Puritans were in their dealings with the Indians -- specifically, Chapter V, "The Pequot War, 1637." What is amazing about the account in this chapter is the frankness with which the author recounts the events and the Puritans part in them. The carnage and the Puritan justification for participation therein is quite revealing -- self-defense is one thing, but outright purposeful slaughter is, to say the least, questionable Christian behavior (from 1965 edition):

(1) pp. 127-128 -- The so-called Christian response of "merciless revenge" was carried out "vigorously" by Captain John Endicott -- "Dissatisfied by the paucity of Indian casualties, the English soldiers heartlessly 'destroyed some of their dogs instead of men.'";

(2) pp. 132, 141 -- The Puritans demanded and accepted, as signs of loyalty and sincerity from allied Indian tribes, the body parts of their common enemies (see also p. 142, where the Puritans viewed these indications of loyalty as a sign from God and an answer to prayer);

(3) p. 143 -- When embarking on an expedition of Indian hunting, the Puritans entreated the Lord to direct them in their pillage and slaughter;

(4) p. 136 -- Concerning the Indians, the Puritans viewed themselves as the enforcers of "law and order" due to their view of themselves as God's "New World Zion," a reconstructionist view of history, to say the least (see also p. 138, where the Indians are viewed as "Satan's horde," thus justifying their slaughter);

(5) p. 141 -- The Puritans were not content to merely kill their perceived enemies; they saw fit to murder and savagely mutilate them -- they literally "tore him [a captured Pequot] limb from limb. Captain Underhill ended the victim's agony with a pistol shot. The body was then roasted and eaten by the Mohegans.";

(6) pp. 144-145 -- In one of the Pequot massaquers of 1637, not only was the Indian village set on fire, those men, women, and children not fortunate enough to be burned to death were gunned down as they tried to escape the flames. Captain Mason "gave full credit to God" for the slaughter, while Captain Underhill claimed the Pequots had sinned against God and man, and thus, "We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings"!

(7) p. 148 -- Not content to take prisoners, the Puritans "exterminate[d] the remnant"; those they were unable to capture themselves, they delegated the killing to civilians, requiring the heads of the targeted Indians as evidence of their deaths (see also p. 149);

(8) p. 150 -- Pequots not slaughtered were taken captive and sold into slavery to friendly Indian tribes.

Some teach that one cannot know the motives of the Puritans nor judge their hearts. But the Puritan's own words and actions are devastating to their claims of practicing Biblical Christianity. This we can judge (John 7:24). The Bible is clear that one's actions are an indication of heart condition. It is difficult to imagine what could be going on in the hearts of a professing Christian people that would drive them to murder other human beings, and then claim that God directed them to do it!

The actions of the Puritans toward the Indians are an excellent indication of how reconstructionist eschatology will lead one into ungodly behavior -- one's eschatology will always affect one's worldview. The Puritans misguided view of God's calling for them led them into a worldview alien to that of the apostle Paul's -- i.e., to be sojourners and peacemakers.

Biblical Discernment Ministries - 6/98