Analyzing The Puritan Dilemma

Edmund S. Morgan’s book, “The Puritan Dilemma”, is an account of the events encountered by John Winthrop’s mission of creating a city on a hill. In the book John Winthrop leads and commands his followers while trying to find a solution to the puritan dilemma.

John Winthrop’s mission of creating a city on a hill entails reforming and purifying the Church of England of all its flaws, instead of completely separating and starting a new church from scratch as the separatists prefer, so as to set an example for others to follow. “They should be purified of their unregenerate members, their heretical clergymen, their unwarranted ceremonies, their bishops, and archbishops, but they were nevertheless churches and must be embraced as churches”(Morgan, page 31). Winthrop’s purified church will set an example of how the Church of England should be and prove to the separatists that the Church of England can be reformed and purified (Dr. Feske, Aug. 30 2005), which makes Winthrop and his followers puritans, so they travel to the New World to embark on their mission of a city on a hill.

“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 attention fixed on God.”(Edmund S. Morgan, page 8)

“These Paradoxical, not to say contradictory, requirements affected different people in different ways. Some lived in agony of uncertainty, wondering each day whether God had singled them out for eternal glory or eternal torment.”(Morgan, page 11) How is a man supposed to be in the world but not of the world (Dr. Feske, Aug. 30 2005); that is the question Winthrop must ask himself in order to cope with and solve the puritan dilemma. That is the question that the puritans must base their everyday lives around.

With Winthrop leading the colony, survival was no longer a problem by the fall of 1631(Morgan, page 68). Before leaving Massachusetts Winthrop was voted to be governor; although, once in the colony and after a few crimes had been committed Thomas Dudley said that Winthrop was not giving harsh enough punishments (Morgan, page 105). “When men were banished from the colony by order of the court, he had allowed them to linger on for weeks at a time before finally expelling them.” (Morgan, page 105). Many politically involved actions by Winthrop were interpreted as “a bid for popularity” (Morgan, page 105). Thomas Dudley’s accusation resulted in Winthrop not being reelected for governor, though he later regained his position.

“Though Winthrop’s moderation had brought the colony successfully through the crucial first years, separatism still posed a threat to its mission if not to its survival (Morgan, page 116).” Separatism is a large cause of the trouble and conflict that goes on in the Massachusetts bay colony, especially from men like Roger Williams. Morgan defines Williams as, “charming, sweet-tempered, winning man, courageous, selfless, God-intoxicated-and stubborn – the very soul of separatism (Morgan, page 116).” After Williams returned from his departure in February of 1631, he wanted nothing to do with the Church of England. “… since the churches of England were contaminated by the admission or unregenerate persons to communion, he could not regard them as churches at all. (Morgan, page 117).”

Williams tried to convert Boston churches to separatists; Winthrop argued with him why they should not convert. Williams felt that the Boston church was not pure enough for him so he left for Salem where, “once again his charm and earnestness found an immediate response. (Morgan, page 119)”. After the church of Salem made the same offer as the church of Boston where they did not want to be separatists, but wanted Williams as a minister, so Williams departed to Plymouth, where separatists were more welcome (Morgan, page 119). “Williams’s answers were like the man, humble and loving and respectful, but at the same time defiant, with a holy instransigeance. (Morgan, page 130)” Williams continued to cause trouble in the Plymouth colony and was summoned to trial several times, where in the final trial he was sentenced to banishment from the Salem colony (Morgan, page 128-129).

Winthrop was constantly faced with semblances of the puritan dilemma. For example Winthrop loved to hunt, but he knew he could not love it too much because it would take his attention away from god, and he knew his main focus in life should be god (Dr. Feske, Aug 30 2005). He must find a healthy balance between life and god. This is basically the central puritan dilemma, “the problem of doing right in a world that does wrong (Morgan, page 203).” Winthrop devoted a large part of his life to finding a solution to the puritan dilemma (Morgan, entire), and many puritans after him have done the same (Morgan, page 203). “Being in the world but not of it (Dr. Feske, Aug 30 2005)”, “…doing right in a world that does wrong (Morgan, page 203) both make up the dilemma that challenged all puritans throughout their life. Winthrop successfully made a city on a hill; although, he failed in finding a solution to the puritan dilemma (Morgan, entire).

No puritan has solved the puritan dilemma in its entirety, they have only learned to cope with it the best they can while rigorously attempting to reform the Church of England.

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