Guardians in the gap: Religious heterodoxy and the Puritan officer corps in seventeenth-century Massachusetts

Date of Completion

January 1993


Religion, History of|American Studies|History, United States




This dissertation uses the lens afforded by the Puritan officer corps to understand how orthodox religion and heterodoxy interacted in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. During the first decade of settlement the colony's preeminent magistrates and ministers devised a system of church and civil government known as the "New England Way," designed to encourage the formation of cohesive communal bonds through the enforcement of religious uniformity. Leaders were especially eager to prevent the spread of radical religion, which accounted personal "light" above church ordinances, because its emphasis on individual experience threatened social fragmentation.^ It has generally been believed that Puritan radicalism was extirpated from the colony in 1637-38, after the antinomian controversy. But the dissertation finds that many accused or suspected antinomians, having offered up patently insincere recantations to orthodox authorities, were allowed to remain in the colony, and in some cases to exert authority there. Ironically, Bay leaders allowed a small cadre of ex-antinomians to participate in founding the Boston Artillery Company, a private organization for military officers and other gentlemen interested in military affairs. In later years the Company became a magnet for many sorts of dissenters to the established doctrine, and church polity, of Massachusetts.^ By analyzing the reasons why authorities allowed certain religious dissidents to occupy high positions, and why particular persons were attracted to various forms of religious heterodoxy, the dissertation illuminates both the ideological and social meaning of religious dissidence in the Bay Colony. While scholarship has generally supported the notion that the centrifugal force of radical doctrine indeed posed a serious threat, the dissertation argues that radical doctrine was to a significant extent beneficial.^ Certain people were valuable to the Puritan polity in Massachusetts precisely because they stretched the bounds of orthodoxy. The inner light, ungoverned by artificial human boundaries and certain doctrinal divisions, appealed naturally to the sort of person who in his secular life regularly crossed boundaries and occasionally served polities or interests outside the colony. Puritan Massachusetts comprehended not one easily-defined orthodoxy, but a set of different Puritan styles and voices, some more controversial than others, which came to the fore under various sorts of social pressure. Only by broadening or supplementing our ideas of orthodoxy can we finally understand the profound commitment to Puritanism felt not only by orthodox magistrates and ministers, but also by a wide variety of secular elites. ^