Coercing Morality in Puritan Massachusetts

[Conceived in Liberty (1975)]

Perhaps the bluntest expression of the Puritan ideal of theocracy was the Rev. Nathaniel Ward’s The Simple Cobbler of Aggawam in America (1647). Returning to England to take part in the Puritan ferment there, this Massachusetts divine was horrified to find the English Puritans too soft and tolerant, too willing to allow a diversity of opinion in society. The objective of both church and state, Ward declaimed, was to coerce virtue, to “preserve unity of spirit, faith and ordinances, to be all like-minded, of one accord; every man to take his brother into his Christian care … and by no means to permit heresies or erroneous opinions.” Ward continued:

God does nowhere in His word tolerate Christian States to give toleration to such adversaries of His truth, if they have power in their hands to suppress them … He that willingly assents to toleration of varieties of religion … his conscience will tell him he is either an atheist or a heretic or a hypocrite, or at best captive to some lust. Poly-piety is the greatest impiety in the world.… To authorize an untruth by a toleration of State is to build a sconce against the walls of heaven, to batter God out of His chair.

And so the Puritan ministry stood at the apex of rule in Massachusetts, ever ready to use the secular arm to enforce its beliefs against critics and false prophets, or even against simple lapses from conformity.

To enforce purity of doctrine upon society, the Puritans needed a network of schools throughout the colony to indoctrinate the younger generation. The Southern colonies’ individualistic attitude toward education was not to be tolerated. Also, the clusters of town settlements made schools far more feasible than it did among the widely scattered rural population of the Southern colonies. The first task was a college, to graduate suitably rigorous ministers, and to train schoolmasters for lower schools. And so the Massachusetts General Court established a college in Cambridge in 1636 (named Harvard College the following year), appropriating 400 pounds for its support. In a

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