On certain occasions God uses oppression as a tool to advance His grand plan. Following the death of King James I in 1625, his son Charles I ascended the British throne. With both his consort and the queen mother committed to Romanism, persecution of “non-believers” once again became rampant, forcing nearly 20,000 Puritans to migrate to the New World. One offshoot of this affliction was a new colony at Massachusetts Bay. Even though they were separated from Plymouth by forty miles of dense forest, enough “new ideas” were exchanged between the two communities that certain common denominators were visible. One of the most important was Winthrop’s colony embracing the same Congregationalist polity followed at Plymouth, a philosophy radically different from mainstream English Anglicanism. In contrast to the government appointment of clergymen, Congregationalism allowed the congregations to call their own ministers.
This Puritan thought served as a stepping stone to advocating other limitations, namely on legislators. For example, John Cotton, the chief theologian of early Massachusetts, warned: “Let all the world learn to give mortal men no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will…most wholesome for magistrates and officers in church and commonwealth never to affect more liberty and authority than will do them good, and the people good; for whatever transcendent power is given will certainly overrun those that receive it...it is necessary, therefore, that all power that is on earth be limited, church power or other.”
The Puritans embraced the Biblical doctrine of mankind’s depravity which served as a cornerstone for America’s Constitutional government. Samuel Adams wrote that “ambition and lust for power…are predominant passions in the breasts of most men.” James Madison added, “The truth is that all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.” Alexander Hamilton asked and answered his own question: “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.” These conclusions were predicated upon Scriptural consent such as: “It is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). Then to add insult to injury the spiritual giant Apostle Paul submitted a personal testimony with: “For I know that in me (that is in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (Romans 7:18). Acknowledging that the persistent battle between good and evil rages in all humans led Thomas Jefferson to say: “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution.” Evangelical Christianity to this day lends intellectual agreement to doctrines of depravity, but conformity in behavior and life style are wide oceans apart. Prosperity is a shadow enemy that drags a society into a false confidence in human resources. “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man” (Psalm 118:8). Co-authors Peter Marshall and David Manuel express surprise at the demise of Puritan power: “One of the greatest mysteries that we faced in our search was the question of what finally became of the Puritans. They had seemed to be prospering in every way---the hard times were behind them, there was plenty of good land and plenty to eat, spacious houses, and they were living in peace with the Indians. Spiritually, for the most part, they were deeply committed, obedient, and fullfilling the terms of the covenant. And God was blessing them beyond all measure….then, like a fire slowly dying down, the spiritual light began to dim, until, by the beginning of the 1700’s, what had been a blazing light of the Gospel of Christ had become only a faint glow from smoldering embers. What had gone wrong?”
Even as governor William Bradford lamented the eventual spiritual decline of his own settlement, bemoaning, “But it is now a part of my misery in old age, to find and feel the decay and want thereof,” the entrapment of material prosperity took a far greater toll on the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with Boorstin writing: “the firm establishment of a community in New England was marked by a growing sense of security, a decline of many fears and uncertainties which had nourished a desperate dependence on God. The second generation owed its presence in New England, not to God’s happy guidance across the perils of an ocean, but to the simple accident of birth. Puritan immigrants who came after the mid-century were met, not by the Indian arrows which had greeted the first Pilgrims, but by the embrace of their countrymen. Glowing fireplaces and full storehouses were ready for them. Their welcome now seemed less from God –or from Satan—than from their fellow Puritans.”
Perhaps the best summary was Cotton Mather’s contemporaneous indictment: “Religion begat prosperity, and the daughter devoured the mother.” One of the greatest obstacle courses in life is measured by an increasing prosperity accompanied with a growing faith. Abraham successfully ran the gauntlet, most do not! When our nation’s automobiles sport bumper stickers reading, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” we can be assured that there are plenty of rough roads ahead.