H is for Heresy



The use of governmental powers to protect their faith was perhaps one of the most import concerns for the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The men and women who founded this colony believed that theirs was the one true faith, the one true way to worship and that it was possible to determine the path of truth.

With honorable and holy intentions, the Puritans held that it was the church’s duty to persuade those who held erroneous views and warn them of the spiritual and physical dangers the heretic would suffer if they publicly persisted. As a last resort, the heretic would be expelled from the spiritual society by excommunication.

The government, however, was an institution of the world and was empowered to use secular weapons: corporal punishment, banishment, and even execution. The Puritans had the responsibility to uphold their true religion so the heretic would not threaten the stability or purity of the commonwealth.

The Puritans and the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Colony had made tremendous sacrifices to settle in the New World. They were not alone in this desire to assert and protect their specific religious beliefs as all European governments of that time believed it was their responsibility to do likewise. In fact, the Puritans were far less rigorous than their counterparts as they were content to take action only against public displays of heresies, while others attempted to seek out the secret thoughts of others.

Early Puritan ministers, often graduates of England’s best universities, founded Harvard in 1636. They were quite intellectual and authoritarian and believed access to God went through them. It was inevitable that the Quakers, who held contrary views, were held in disdain, arrested, and then banished under pain of death is they returned.

Even within their own spiritual community, the Puritans discovered free thinkers who attacked the state religion and its ministers. Elizabeth Legg had an ongoing dispute with her minister for twenty years. Finally, Reverend Walton sued her in court and to avoid the stocks, Elizabeth confessed her sin:

“I, Elizabeth Legg, do acknowledge that I did evil and sinful in speaking slightly and scornful of Mr. Walton, and in particular in saying I could have a boy from the (Harvard) college that would preach better than Mr. Walton for half the wages.”

William Pynchon, my 10th great grandfather, achieved the distinction as the author of the first book to be banned and burned in the New England colonies. A noted theologian, he wrote and published his most famous work while visiting in London in 1650. It was entitled “The Meritorious Price of our Redemption.” The book showed that Pynchon held views in opposition to the Calvinist doctrines of atonement. Upon his return to Boston, the general court condemned the book as erroneous and heretical. Pynchon received a storm of indignation from his Puritan peers and returned to England permanently in 1652 because of the perceived misinterpretation of his theological views.

The Meritorious Price, of course, reads today harmlessly enough. Truth be told, a modern reader need only fear boredom from Pynchon’s exegesis on the origins of grace. The book was judged it to be an insidious text, an exercise in heresy—one the Puritan clergy believed capable of hurling their young colony into irreversible chaos.

Pynchon’s book had the lifespan of a Boston mayfly, and only four copies of the book remain in existence.