Social and Religious Tension



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Social and Religious Tension
Geographical mobility and shifting economic conditions created flux in society. In transplanting its civilization to America, England opened the colonists to social instability for the first time in their lives. Englishmen traditionally viewed society as a collection of closely-knit parts together making up an organism. With that understanding came several core beliefs that America would seriously, if unintentionally, challenge.

Among these beliefs, English society was made up of several parts that had fit together without change for centuries. There was a distinct hierarchy in the social structure with clear levels of superiority and inferiority. Those who made up the top class of society were thought of, even by the lowest classes, as superior in every way. They were rich, and it was assumed that they should be rich. They owned all the land and were politically powerful, and that arrangement was just. Only they were consistently well educated and truly dignified. Only they could actually be beautiful. The concept that might make your American impulses cringe the most, however, is that these rich, powerful, elite, beautiful people were assumed by all to be the “natural” leaders of the country. When these preconceptions were transplanted to colonial America, they took root. The organism did not thrive in America, though. The parts existed only in tension.

One needs only point to someone like John Smith to reveal the American version of leadership. Those who did lead in colonial America most often did so because they were capable. The tension came because a society used to respecting its leaders because of their social status suddenly had leaders from many walks of life. The result has been with us ever since—criticism. Leaders get no automatic respect in America. Respect is only earned, and it can be lost.

Leaders of the Puritan movement in America further complicated the changing concept of leadership. Piety counted among Puritans since societal purity was their whole goal. All white males could vote if they were church members in good standing, which actually enlarged the franchise (right to vote) over political conditions in England. With the secular government an extension of church government, however, individuals’ lives were under close scrutiny.

Government issues were clouded by the tension among the social classes. Masters and servants at first worked together with little material difference in their ways of life and dress. Newly-freed servants even began to conduct themselves like members of the higher classes in dress, speech, and participation in politics. Artisans could charge high prices for their work because their skills were in short supply. The conservative leaders responded with laws to tax those colonists pushing from below saying, “If they dress like it, we’ll tax them like it.”

The General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony passed laws in 1651 to express their:

utter detestation and dislike, that men or women of mean condition should take upon them the garb of gentlemen by wearing gold or silver lace, or buttons, or points at their knees, or to walk in great boots, or women of the same rank to wear silk or tiffany hoods or scarves which, though allowable to persons of greater estates or more liberal education, yet we cannot but judge it intolerable in persons of such like condition.
The General Court believed the times to be disordered and declared and ordered:
that no person within this jurisdiction. . ..whose visible estates shall not exceed the true and indifferent value of 200 [pounds] shall wear any gold or silver lace, or gold and silver buttons, or any bone lace above 2 shillings per yard, or silk hoods or scarves, upon the penalty of 10 shillings for every such offense.
Meanwhile, it’s clear that social instability was claiming some victims from the top who were moving down, since the General Court exempted anyone “whose education and employment have been above the ordinary degree, or whose estates have been considerable, though now decayed.”

The colonial government of Massachusetts Bay also passed laws to urge families to discipline their children more severely. To oversee this operation, church leaders were placed in charge of ten families. The biblical law for juvenile delinquency was invoked in making these laws. According to the Old Testament Law, children who disobeyed, cursed, or struck their parents were to be stoned to death by the community. While I’ve seen no record of such punishment being carried out for delinquency, there was the boy caught having sexual relations with several types of animals. There is also a law against that in the Law, and he was put to death “in order to purge the evil from your midst.”

Even the traditional English family was subject to change. Family members and servants, together known legally as a household, remained longer all under one roof back in England. Life in the colonies gave easier opportunities to branch away to form new families and to do so sooner. Land to make a start was available; it only needed clearing. Having a large family was not a liability but an asset when there was a shortage of laborers. Widowers were hurting. Widows remarried quickly, creating huge step-families. Orphans were common.

Laws changed to reflect changing conditions. Primogeniture was more and more ignored and land was merely divided among the survivors, although the wife and eldest sons did get double portions. The right to inherit land as a widow was the first step toward women gaining the right to own their own land. Another boost to women’s rights was a law that said men could not strike their wives except in self-defense. But women were not considered capable of benefiting from formal education. Laws were passed to make indentured servitude less severe to keep servants from running away. Indentured servants on the run could always find work elsewhere. These changes, amounting to new freedoms, were producing a new society.

Colonial America possessed a basically Christian culture. In most colonies the village church was the main cultural institution. Most 17th-century Europeans assumed there was one true religion and that differences in belief were bad. Kings and all the rest of society were bound to preserve the truth, and therefore society view supervision of religious practice and belief a duty of government. Nearly everyone assumed these views would transfer to America. A look at three types of Christianity will reveal why these views were eroded.

To begin in the first colony, the Anglican Church of Virginia made the strongest attempt to maintain tradition yet still changed. The Anglican Church, or Church of England, was the established church. This arrangement meant that ministers and churches were supported by gifts of land from the government. The money made by working the land was the church’s income. In Virginia, churches were given 100 acres of land (later 200) in each of the major divisions of the colony. One way to make money was for the church to rent out the land, but a major principle of American life was that few wanted to rent land when they could own their own. Ministers could farm the land themselves, but then ministerial service was diminished. These conditions led to taxation.

The system of taxation undermined the position of the churches it tried to support. Small parishes could not bring in enough income from the taxes; parishes large enough to provide a decent income were too much for one minister to manage. Then the tax was accepted in tobacco at 80 pounds (currency) per year, but many people gave their worst grade (quality) tobacco to the church. The result was that few quality men came to America to be Anglican priests leading to a shortage of ministers. Lay people (as opposed to clergy) performed services and administered the sacraments. This was the beginning of the slip from high church to low church, and ministers became objects of criticism and ridicule. One might see why considering laws had to be passed to keep ministers from public drunkenness and brawling. All in all, the Anglican church lost its central role in determining community morals. The secular (non-religious) government became more important and has remained so ever since.

Roman Catholicism in Maryland fared little better. Finding themselves is dramatic minorities because of the influx of Protestants from Virginia, Catholics were ordered to practice Catholicism in secret in the colony that was supposed to be their refuge. Protestants rebelled in the 1640s until Lord Baltimore passed the Act Concerning Religion permitting Protestant equality in the Catholic colony. Only later was an Act of Toleration passed that allowed all trinitarian Christians (believers in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one God) to worship freely and openly. Non-trinitarians faced the death penalty.



New England society would maintain the prominence of the Congregationalist Church the longest. Puritans clung to the influence of their churches across New England as the one source of security in a turbulent New World. Doctrinal purity degraded even among the staunch Calvinists, however, because of the half-way covenant. Membership in a church, which was so important to one’s place in society, had to be based on a public confession of faith in Christ as one’s Savior. Elders in the churches had to judge whether a person’s confession was true or false to confirm the person’s “election” by God to salvation. The leadership of New England colonies held to this position strictly until fewer and fewer of their descendants claimed an actual personal experience with Christ leading to conversion. To accommodate social norms, the half-way covenant allowed these hesitant people to still attain membership in the church, a process that gradually undermined the whole fabric of the church and society in that unconverted people were voting and even leading in the churches. A deep historical irony is apparent in that this situation was reminiscent of the medieval Roman Catholic church that Protestants broke away from. Utopia did not materialize.


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