Puritans and Dissidents


1.  The Padgets Come to America

In one sense, the Padget history of America begins very late in the day, when John Padget, a shepherd from South Cave, Yorkshire, and his wife, Hannah Wilson, took ship for the colony of New York in 1772. But with every generation after them, the Padget history spreads out further in space and time, until it becomes something much larger.

When John Padget, Jr. married Anna Preston, when John Padgett, 3rd married Almira Scott, when Silas Edgar Padgett married Frances Ingersoll, and when Horace Greeley Padgett married Lucy Adams, new ancestors with new stories were added to the family tree. Eventually, the Padget history would take in a broad sweep of territory, from Maine to Pennsylvania, and would reach back 150 years before John and Hannah, to the landing of the Mayflower.

2.  The Pilgrims Rock Out

As the schoolbooks tell us, the history of America begins at Plymouth Rock. And at the beginning, it was all about religion.

The Protestant Reformation of the early 1500's had broken the religious monopoly of the Catholic Church in Europe and let loose a flood of exciting and unsettling new possibilities. However, when Henry VIII split with Rome to found the Church of England, his aims were personal and political rather than religious. As a result, the Anglican Church was, first and foremost, a tool of state policy. It remained very close to Catholicism in its forms and rituals and from the point of view of those who took their Protestantism seriously was often lax or even corrupt. 

As a result, many English Protestants found themselves in opposition to the Church of England. They longed for a church that would be closer to the original state of Christianity, based directly on Biblical principles, and free of corruption and extravagance. However, as the 16th century came to an end, these dissidents were not getting any closer to their goals. Some of them, known as Puritans, still hoped to purify the Church of England. But others gave up all hope of reforming the Church from within and became Separatists. 

In those days, when attendance at the official church was mandated by law, being a Separatist was not easy. After James I became king in 1603, it grew even more dangerous. Tired of being arrested and imprisoned by the authorities, one group of English separatists sought sanctuary in the Netherlands, but life in exile was not satisfactory either. In 1617, they began to seek permission to settle in Virginia, which they eventually received, along with an assurance from the king that they would not be persecuted there for their beliefs. 

However, their plans met with one frustration after another, and in the end only a few dozen Separatists managed to follow through. In order to cover the costs of the expedition, they had to make common cause with a company of London promoters, the Merchant Adventurers, who had their own plans for a commercial venture in Virginia. Of the 101 people who embarked on the Mayflower in September 1620, only 35 or 40 were Separatists.

Of the Padget ancestors on the voyage, Richard Warren was a well-to-do London merchant associated with the Merchant Adventurers. John Howland was a young man who went over as a servant to a Separatist named John Carver. Only John Howland's future wife, Elizabeth Tilley, and her parents were of the contingent from the Netherlands. 

No doubt if this ill-assorted group had actually reached Virginia, they would have quickly dispersed and been absorbed into the larger colony. But their ship wandered out of of its course and made landfall at Cape Cod, much further north than its original destination. With winter coming on the passengers were in no mood to resume their voyage, and the discovery of a harbor, with an Indian village that had been conveniently left deserted by a recent epidemic, confirmed the decision to settle where they found themselves. They named the place Plymouth, after the town in England from which they had set sail, and went ashore in late December.

After having been whirled this way and that by one accident after another, this motley, out-of-place group became the first successful European settlers in New England. Although half of them died in that initial desperate winter, the rest held on and were able to support themselves by farming, fishing, and trading for furs with the Indians. Another shipload of colonists joined them in 1621, and yet more in 1623. 

However, although they survived, they never really prospered. Plymouth always remained something of a backwater, and was eventually absorbed into the much more substantial Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north.

3.  The Great Migration

The next few years saw a handful of attempts to establish purely commercial settlements along the New England coast, none of them successful. Not many people wanted to relocate in a wilderness, and those who did generally either were hoping to make a quick profit -- which never materialized -- or were simply too undisciplined to do the necessary hard work. The only colony of the period which did take root was that of the Dutch at New Amsterdam -- with its superb location at the mouth of the Hudson River -- and even they had trouble finding settlers.

However, King James of England died in 1625, and under King Charles I religious and political tensions increased greatly. Eventually, religious motivations would succeed where the profit motive had failed. The Puritans might still consider themselves part of the Church of England, but the idea of New England as a refuge where the elect could create an ideal commonwealth gradually took hold of their imaginations. Their profound dedication, utopian dreams, and intense self-discipline would soon create not merely a settlement but a whole new society. 

A group of Puritans obtained a grant of land which included much of what is now Massachusetts, stretching from the Maine border to south of the Charles River. In 1628 the ship Abigail brought forty settlers to the tiny settlement of Naumkeag, where a few traders and fishermen left over from one of those unsuccessful commercial enterprises were barely hanging on. The new arrivals renamed the place Salem and set the reluctant fishermen to preparing it to receive further settlers.

The next year, the Higginson Fleet brought a large and well-prepared group of colonists to what would be known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. No less than four major lines of Padget ancestors spring from these Salem settlers of 1628-29 -- two lines from William Sprague, and one each from William Dodge and John Ingersoll. The colonists settled in and quickly began to establish additional settlements, such as Charlestown on the north bank of the Charles River, founded by William Sprague and his brothers. 

The immediate success of this colony attracted the interest of an even larger and more diverse group of Puritans. The Winthrop Fleet that sailed in 1630 included prosperous merchants, university-educated preachers, and wealthy landowners with aristocratic connections, in addition to the usual farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen. These 700 settlers -- including a number of Padget ancestors -- landed first at Salem, stopped briefly at Charlestown, then spread out to found such towns as Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Watertown

The decade of the 1630's brought a flood of Puritan immigrants, some 20,000 or more, most of them arriving initially at the port of Boston. All but a handful of the remaining Padget ancestors were among them. They quickly spread out across Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the southern tip of Maine, taking possession of the land and forming stable communities. 

The industry and intellectual seriousness of these immigrants were impressive. They founded Harvard College as early as 1636 and set up a printing press in 1639. By 1641, when the start of the Puritan Revolution in England cut off this Great Migration, the new society was already securely established.

4.  "Newe and Dangerous Opinions"

Although almost all of those who came over in the Great Migration were religious dissidents, they were not all alike in their dissent. Some were conventional Puritans, others were Separatists, like the original settlers at Plymouth, but some were of an even stranger and wilder turn of mind.

The Puritans in general, it should be understood, were not fanatics or cultists, but intensely rational individuals. In a century that was making the difficult transition from a worldview based on religion to one based on science, these people were extremely scientific about their religion. Being a Puritan meant stripping away the "superstitions" of Catholicism that had lingered in the Church of England -- the belief in the marvelous, the elaborate and almost magical rituals -- and grounding religion solely on the historical facts of the Bible and the inner, emotional experience of conversion.

In today's intellectual climate, Christians who base their religion on the facts of the Bible and the born-again experience are usually fundamentalists, engaged in a last-ditch battle against the modern world. But the Puritans were not reactionaries. They were early moderns, open to the latest ideas of contemporary science and philosophy, and prepared to be quite reasonable in working out modest differences in opinion within their community.

Unfortunately, there were some among them who were not nearly as reasonable and not at all prepared to compromise. For example, Roger Williams, a preacher who came to New England in 1631, was a Separatist so extreme that he refused to preach at Boston because the Puritan congregation there had not separated from the Church of England. Instead, he bounced back and forth for several years between the Separatist congregations of Salem and Plymouth. He was finally called before the Massachusetts General Court in 1635 as a result of his saying that the colony's royal charter was invalid -- because the land had been granted by the king and not purchased from the Indians -- and demanding that all of New England separate from the Church of England.

By all accounts, Roger Williams was an extraordinarily sweet-tempered, generous, and lovable man, but he was also stubborn as a mule. He believed that individual conscience was absolutely primary and should not be subordinated to the authority of the state. Although he apologized to the General Court, he was soon in trouble again for saying that the government did not have the authority to punish violators of religious norms, such as Sabbath-breakers. This made no sense to the leaders of the Massachusetts colony, who were convinced that they could legislate people into righteousness. They respected Williams' obvious devoutness, and did their best to dispute with him rationally, but they clearly found him a baffling and frustrating man. 

Eventually, they ordered Williams banished for his "newe and dangerous opinions." To avoid being deported to England, he fled from Salem in the middle of winter along with four companions, one of them being Padget ancestor John Smith "the Miller." He purchased land from the Indians in what is now Rhode Island and in 1636 founded the city of Providence, whose policy was that "no man should be molested for his conscience."

I find it extremely interesting that the fundamental American policy of separation of church and state began not as an expression of secularism, but as the vision of one man whose own faith was so direct and so intense that it could tolerate no interference by any secular institution, not even by a theocratic government like that of the Massachusetts colony.

Rhode Island soon attracted not only direct followers of Roger Williams, but also others who responded to the promise of freedom of conscience, including such generally-unwelcome folk as Anabaptists, Antinomians, and Quakers. Anabaptists and Antinomians are not much in the public eye these days, while Quakers have pretty much blended into the landscape. But in the mid-17th century, they were all considered dangerous radicals -- mystics with a subversive and anarchistic bent.

Antinomianism is a fancy word for the widespread belief of mystics that inner knowledge supersedes the ordinary norms of society. The so-called Antinomian Controversy in New England centered on one woman, Anne Hutchinson, who taught the mystical doctrine "that the person of the Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person." She is said to have stated that "laws, commands, rules and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway. He who has God's grace in his heart cannot go astray."

There have been societies in which statements like these would get you stoned in the marketplace, or worse. But the Puritan leaders were, by the standards of their time, remarkably patient and forbearing men. Their first reaction to the threat posed by Anne's teachings was to found Harvard College as a bastion of orthodox Puritan doctrine. Their second reaction was to try Anne for heresy at Cambridge in 1637 and sentence her to banishment.

Anne and her followers found sanctuary in Rhode Island, where they established the towns of Portsmouth and Newport, in which unconventional thinkers of all sorts were welcome. For example, Padget ancestor John Tripp, one of the founders of Portsmouth, was a Quaker who was forced to flee Boston because of his beliefs.

As for Anne Hutchinson, in 1642 she and a few family members and friends moved to Long Island, which was then a part of the Dutch territory of New Amsterdam. There the tolerant Dutch allowed them to preach freely.  Unfortunately the governor of New Amsterdam was an intemperate man who believed that the best solution to the occasional conflicts of his colonists with the Indians was genocide. A massacre he ordered in 1643 precipitated an uprising, in which Anne and her family were killed.

Padget ancestor Richard Maxson was a close follower, perhaps a relative, of Anne Hutchinson. He had probably come to Boston in 1634 in the same ship that she did, and he and his wife Rebecca followed Anne to Rhode Island and then to Long Island. When the Indians attacked their settlement, Richard and his family were part of a group that escaped in a small boat.  However, he and one son went back for supplies and were killed. The others in the group, including Rebecca and her two younger children, made it safely away across Long Island Sound.

5.  "A Variety of Memorable and Exemplary Circumstances"

The people who split off from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630's were not all religious dissidents. Those who settled in Connecticut were orthodox Puritans who found the power of the church leaders at Boston excessive and were also dissatisfied with the limited amount of land available to them. They petitioned for the right to leave, and in 1636 a large group of settlers marched across a relative wilderness to the Connecticut River Valley, where the land was fertile and the climate a lot milder than in Boston. There they founded the town of Hartford.

These migrants tended to be wealthier, better-educated, and socially more highly placed than the average Puritan, and the stories about them are mainly stories involving wealth and power. They were men like Padget ancestor George Wyllys, who became the third governor of the Connecticut colony. George's wife, Bridget Young (who had died before the family left England), is one of two Padget ancestors whose pedigree can be reliably traced back to the highest levels of the British aristocracy. Her forebears include various kings of England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Sweden, as well as a Byzantine emperor and a Grand Prince of Kiev. Her second cousin, Anthony Savage, settled in Virginia at about this same time, and his descendants include Presidents James Madison and Zachary Taylor.

Also among the original proprietors of Hartford was Padget ancestor William Cornwell. In 1672, William's daughter Sarah would bear an illegitimate child, fathered by a married man, John Plumb, and name him Benoni, which is said to mean "child of sorrow." Surprisingly to those of us whose impressions of the Puritans' notions of sin derive from reading The Scarlet Letter in high school, Sarah and her child do not appear to have been ostracized or suffered socially in any way. Shortly after Benoni's birth, Sarah married Daniel Hubbard, a thoroughly respectable citizen of Hartford, who apparently adopted Benoni and raised him as his own son.

The Connecticut colony also included the towns of Windsor, on the river a little above Hartford, and Wethersfield, a little to the south. Over the next few years, more towns were founded nearby, like Farmington in 1640 and Middletown in 1651. Padget ancestors lived in all these places. Benoni Plumb, for example, moved from Hartford to Middletown, where he prospered and left many descendants.

These newer settlements continued to attract settlers from some of the most affluent families in the colonies. For example, two of the daughters of Joseph Weld of Roxbury, who was known as the richest man in Massachusetts, moved to Middletown with their husbands. Both of them were Padget ancestors. Mary Weld married Daniel Harris and moved to Middletown in 1654. Marah Weld, who had a different mother and was twenty years younger than her sister, married Comfort Starr and moved to Middletown around 1675. Comfort's grandfather, also named Comfort Starr, had himself been a wealthy landowner who owned an estate at what is now Harvard Square. 

There was also a second colony in Connecticut, the New Haven colony, established in 1638 and consisting of several towns along the coast. The Puritanism of this colony was stricter and more rigid than anywhere else, and most of its settlers had come directly from England, rather than by way of Massachusetts. There were relatively few Padget ancestors among this group, but one notable name is that of Mary Bruen, who came over with her half-brother Obadiah and settled in Milford in 1639.

Mary's father, John Bruen of Bruen Stapleford, who died in 1626, had been the most celebrated Puritan layman of his time. He was celebrated after his death in a biography by the Reverend William Hinde, titled "The very Singular Life of John Bruen, Esq., of Bruen Stapleford, Cheshire, exhibiting a variety of memorable and Exemplary Circumstances, which may be of Great Utility to all Persons, but Principally Intended as a Precedent of Piety and Charity for the Inhabitants of the County of Chester." Aside from his exemplary piety, John Bruen is of interest as the other Padget ancestor whose pedigree extends into the British nobility, including pretty much the same kings and dignitaries as Bridget Young's.

6.  "The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption"

However, the best-known of all the Padget ancestors who headed out to the Connecticut Valley at this time was William Pynchon.

William Pynchon's family had been prominent in England for several generations. His great-great-grandfather, Nicholas Pynchon, was Lord Mayor of London in 1532. William himself was one of the group of merchants and country gentlemen who had obtained the charter for the Massachusetts Bay Company and planned the expedition of the Winthrop Fleet. He then became one of the leading citizens of the new colony and was the chief founder of the town of Roxbury. 

Pynchon was a man of wealth, and he saw fur-trading as his greatest opportunity for increasing that wealth. The Connecticut River was the center of the fur trade, so he planned to create a settlement in western Massachusetts, where the main trail that ran westward from Boston crossed the river. (These days, that trail is known as the Massachusetts Turnpike.) The successful petition of the migrants who founded the Connecticut Colony in 1636 gave Pynchon the opportunity he needed to establish his town of Springfield. 

Several other Padget ancestors were also among the original settlers of Springfield, most of whom either came from Roxbury with William Pynchon or arrived very shortly thereafter. They included Miles Morgan, Benjamin Cooley, and most notably Robert Ashley -- who is a Padget ancestor by three different lines of descent.

Springfield flourished, and Pynchon was able to maneuver things so that it was considered part of Massachusetts rather than Connecticut. With the colonial government at Boston lying three days away along forest paths, Springfield became essentially a self-governing little empire. So totally did Pynchon dominate the fur trade of the Connecticut Valley that the Mohawks called all New Englanders "Pynchon's men." Even Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, complained that Pynchon's monopoly of the fur trade had left nothing for the Dutch.

However, William Pynchon's interests were broader than merely making money. In 1650, he published in England a theological work, "The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption," that got him into deep trouble with the Massachusetts General Court. The subtle points of doctrine that set Pynchon off his fellow-Puritans are almost impossible to distinguish today, but the main problem seems to have been that he put more emphasis on divine forgiveness than on sin and damnation. 

This not only ran against everything most Puritans believed in, but also threatened to undermine the state of permanent spiritual insecurity that they perceived as the basis of social stability. Dissidents like the Antinomians and the Quakers ran afoul of Puritan orthodoxy mainly by their insistence on the primacy of God's love, and although Pynchon was certainly no Quaker, his book appeared to share something of their anarchic spirit. The title page alone, said the General Court, was sufficient to condemn the work as heretical, and they ordered it burned on Boston Common.

William Pynchon appeared before the General Court in 1651 and did his best to explain away some of the more blatant statements in his book, but without much success. Finally, the court sent him back to Springfield with orders to think things over. Pynchon, having no inclination to be a martyr, quickly transferred all his property to America to his son John and departed for England, where he spent a comfortable but somewhat lonely old age.

Back to ContentsNext
Contents        Next

Return to Genealogy
Return to Trogholm

Web Art from Freelance