Religion as Background for My Spunky Grandmothers

Among my earliest English ancestors in America, the Buffums, Southwicks, Birdsalls, Allens, Calvins, Popes, Buxtons, Osborns, and others were Puritans who became Quakers, members of “The Religious Society of Friends.” The earliest Gisweins were Lutherans in Germany, probably Reformed Lutherans in Russia, and later became Seventh Day Adventists in Kansas. The early Murphys were Scots-Irish Protestants in Northern Ireland who later became evangelical, or “primitive,” Baptists in Virginia, then Tennessee and Missouri. In each case, their religious beliefs subjected them to persecution and were at least partly responsible for uprooting families and seeking new homes. To understand their motivations, it’s helpful to know something of the history of religion in the Western World and the part religion played in their lives.

In the 16th century, when most nations had official religions and tolerated no others, the Roman Catholic Church dominated all of western and northern Europe and most of the Christian world. It was a tight but increasingly corrupt and vulnerable world, centered in Rome under the leadership of the Pope, filled with conflict and seething with social, economic, and national unrest, a festering condition that was bound to erupt into open conflict at some point.

In 1517, a German monk, Martin Luther, became the first to openly voice opposition to the Pope and the Catholic Church when he nailed to the church door at the University of Wittenberg a list of 95 questions or challenges to the Church, which he intended only as subjects for debate. But so ripe were the times and so widespread the discontent that within months all of Europe was inflamed and in arms, the beginning of more than a century of bloody wars between the Catholic Church and its numerous opponents. Central to Luther’s challenges—and to the entire Protestant Reformation—was the idea that every man was his own priest, a belief that, if followed to its logical conclusion, would render unnecessary priests, bishops, the papacy, and the entire church hierarchy. Key also for Luther was the idea that men should be justified before God by an inner faith, not by good works or any outward show of virtue.

At about the same time, in Zurich, Switzerland, a reformer named Zwingli preached much the same reforms, and for the same reasons, until he was killed in one of the earliest bloody battles fought between Protestants and Catholics. In Geneva, a third reformer, John Calvin, preached another form of Protestantism, which then swept through Germany, France, and the Lowlands, and across the channel into England.

In England, the Reformation, fused with all these elements, took a very peculiar turn. The then English king, Henry VIII, formally broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 over the matter of divorce—he wanted to be able to get rid of his wives when he tired of them, and the Catholic Church forbade divorce—and formed the Church of England (or Anglican Church) with himself as head. The Anglican Church, however, continued to adhere closely to many Catholic rituals, and Henry’s break with Rome was more a break from the Pope than from religious belief. It did nothing to free his people from religious domination and tyranny.

Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving behind three children by three different wives. His third child and only son was Edward VI, who briefly became king. He was but a boy and ruled by way of a Regency Council. Sickly and weak, Edward died in 1553 at the age of 15, and upon his death, his oldest sister, Mary, daughter of Henry and his first wife, Katharine of Aragon, who was Spanish and very Catholic, assumed the throne. She hated Protestants and committed unspeakable crimes against them, earning for herself the historic title of “Bloody Mary.” She especially hated her half-sister, Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter by his second wife, Ann Boleyn, and for years Mary kept Elizabeth locked away in the Tower of London. Upon Mary’s death at age 42, however, Elizabeth, then 25, became queen. She was an avid Protestant, primarily because under Catholic law—the Catholic Church, of course, recognized only Henry’s first marriage—she was an illegitimate child, born out of wedlock, and therefore could not sit on the throne.

During the long reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), England enjoyed a half century of prosperity. There were no major wars. The first footholds were established in North America, the English Navy gained world dominance, world trade grew, and there was great advancement in the arts. She, of course, favored a Protestant nobility, many of them from East Anglica. This part of England was heavily Anglo-Saxon as opposed to Celtic. It became a hotbed of Protestantism and was culturally more like parts of Holland than England. Both Yorkshire and Norfolkshire, birthplaces of a number of my ancestors, are part of East Anglica, and although some of them favored the Anglican Church while others sought greater religious reform, life must have been pretty good for all under Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I died childless in 1603, and the next in line to the throne was her cousin, James Stuart, King of Scotland. Because James was Catholic, all of England feared turmoil when he took the throne. However, James was a realist and established Protestantism as the official state religion. He also commissioned the King James version of the Bible, which became the most widely owned, read, and studied book in England, now with a population of several million. His oldest son was Charles, and when James I died in 1625, Charles assumed the throne.

Charles I, although graceful and handsome, was headstrong, foolish, and totally influenced by Catholics in England and on the Continent, taking the position that he as king could do no wrong. He instituted religious wars in France and Spain, nearly bankrupting his country in the process, and finally dissolved Parliament. He taxed his people unmercifully, abolished courts, and was a real tyrant. The Protestants of East Anglica began to fear their king.

Meanwhile, there was great division within the Protestant religion itself. The Anglican (Church of England) Protestants continued to adhere to many Catholic rituals, and this upset those who wanted greater reform. During Elizabeth’s reign, various new strains of Protestantism or “reformed” churches had emerged: reformed Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and others. The followers of these “reformed” churches were inevitably also classified as “dissidents,” rebels against the established churches, their unorthodox beliefs subjecting them to vigorous persecution. There were “turf wars” of the most bitter and bloody sort.

Out of this mix came the Puritans, one of a number of groups preaching reformation and opposing certain practices and beliefs of the Anglican Church, mainly that priests should be the official presenters and only interpreters of scripture. The Puritans, following Martin Luther, felt that individuals could have a relationship with God based upon their own faith, independent of clergy. The English government forcibly attempted to smother the newly formed and strangely dressed sect. The Puritans, striving to be “pure” and pristine in their daily lives, became true social oddities. But even the Puritans were not united. One branch became known as Separatists because they wanted to sever all ties to the established Anglican Church. Another branch of Puritans was comprised of non-Separatists who wanted to reform the Anglican Church, not form a new sect. Members of these two branches of Puritans and other dissident religious groups who rebelled against the official state religion were treated as outlaws in England, were often imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. To practice a religion other than Anglicanism was to defy the king of England, the official head of the church. Puritans were not allowed to congregate freely; their ministers were often prohibited from preaching and were imprisoned for disobedience; and members were sometimes subject to arrest if they were found even to be reading scripture.

In 1620, the English monarchy, as eager to be rid of the Puritans as the Puritans were to be rid of the king, granted a group of Puritan Separatists a charter to make a settlement in the English colonies in the area that is now New York. There were economic incentives for the Puritan move to the New World, including economic upheaval in Europe and the prospect of making a profit in America, but their chief incentive was religious: they would be able to practice their religion without impediment. In the late fall of 1620, some 103 colonists, making a clean break with the Church of England, sailed on the Mayflower, missed their mark in New York by several hundred miles, and arrived in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. The group was somewhat underfunded by their sponsoring corporation back home in England, and although the colony at Plymouth did survive, by the end of the first year, the harsh conditions had taken the lives of more than half of their people.

Another group of East Anglican Puritans, largely non-Separatist, founded the Massachusetts Bay Company and took a different tack. They were dissatisfied, if not disgusted, with Charles I, and they had a notion of founding a new Puritan Commonwealth in America, so relocated the entire corporation from London to Massachusetts, giving it greater independence from the English crown. By 1630, a thousand English settlers, largely Puritan and non-Separatist, had immigrated to the Boston area north of Plymouth, and many of those moved further north to Salem.  By 1643, there were some 20,000 immigrants in the general area of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, making Boston the largest and most prosperous town in America.

For close to 80 years, these Puritans held absolute power in New England. On the plus side, they contributed positively to the eventual breaking away completely from English control, the development of education, and the development of sea trade, urban business, farming and, eventually, manufacturing. America’s modern political system derives from the legislative model they set up, with fixed dates for regular elections by the voting populace, completely disregarding inherited titles. On the negative side, the Puritan government was hardly democratic. Only males who owned land and were members of the established church could vote. In addition, religious doctrine became civil law, and the rule of the leaders was absolute. They were cruel and intolerant, and disobedience brought punishment ranging from fines to imprisonment to banishment, on pain of death, from the colony. In a few cases, dissidents were put to death. Failure to attend the regular worship services of the established church, or failure to tithe a sizeable portion of one’s income for its support, were deemed disobedience, as were many other seemingly innocuous behaviors. In short, conditions under the Puritans were little improved over what they had been under Charles I back in England.

During and after the English Civil War (1642-1651), the Religious Society of Friends, known more commonly as Quakers, emerged in England as an offshoot of Puritanism and spread rapidly to the New World. In England, George Fox, the most prominent Quaker leader, taught that every person had the seed of Christ or a true “light” within, and that if one listened to and respected this “inward light,” he or she would go to heaven, contradicting the Puritan idea that only a few select people, chosen before the creation of the world, could achieve eternal salvation. Fox believed scripture was not the only or even the principal way of knowing God, that inner revelation could be truer than the Bible. Further, Quakers opposed war, believed in the equality of all people—including women and people of color, a unique characteristic within Christianity at the time—tolerance, and fairness toward all others, and were encouraged to live a simple, spartan, disciplined existence. Clearly, there was the potential for a clash between Puritans and Quakers in the New World. In fact, given the strong beliefs of both, it was inevitable.

The Quakers were hardly unobtrusive. John Higginson (1616-1708), Salem’s minister, had put into the covenant of the Puritan Church that the “Quaker Light” was “a stinking vapour from hell.” Quakers believed that “one did not need the preachings of a learned, salaried ministry to cultivate the Light and be saved.” But in “cultivating the Light,” they employed methods that horrified the Puritans. The Salem Quaker group was never large. It met in secret in the woods on the west side of town, where visiting missionaries were brought in to preach. Avowed Quakers were repeatedly fined for not attending the established church meetings, and some were banished. Four Quaker visitors from England were hanged in Boston. Finally, when Charles II ascended the English throne in 1689, he was so offended by the reports of persecution of Quakers in New England, the Act of Toleration was issued and an order given forbidding the killing of Quakers. Yet the sect continued to outrage many colonists, and crippling fines, beatings, and imprisonment of its most outspoken proponents resulted.

This was the world in which my early ancestors lived. The Buffums, Southwicks, Birdsalls, Murphys, Gisweins (and probably others) nearly always found themselves in opposition to the establishment, and this opposition prompted them to leave their homes and seek opportunity and freedom from persecution elsewhere. Perhaps the only exceptions were my Crawford/Peers ancestors, who did not suffer religious persecution, remained loyal to the English Crown, but, after the American Revolution, were forced to flee to Nova Scotia as the penalty for being on the losing side.