Pilgrims, Puritans, and the Hebrew Republic of Massachusetts

This week, we pause to remember the English Puritans, known as Mayflower Pilgrims, who settled Plymouth in 1620 and celebrated their first Thanksgiving the following year. Who were they? English Puritans were the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation. They shared with other Protestants in Europe the belief that the Hebrew Bible (which they called “The Old Testament”) is the source of Jesus’ faith. From 1500 to 1650, Protestants turned to the Hebrew Bible to find the roots of Christianity. They created a new movement, Christian Hebraism, which established the principle that to be a learned Christian, one must know Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament in the original.

Christian Hebraists enlisted Jewish teachers and Jewish converts to Christianity to teach them the Hebrew Bible, Jewish Bible commentaries, and to supply other Hebrew texts that could help deepen their understanding of Scripture. By 1560, Hebrew was established within the curriculum at European universities. By one count, there were 672 Christian Hebrew professorships in Europe, 677 Christian Hebraist publishing houses, and 2,000 published Christian Hebrew books. Christian Hebraist fascination with Hebrew and Judaism soon had a deep impact upon the Puritans who settled Massachusetts.

English Puritans wanted to remove every element of Catholicism from Protestantism. They disparaged the Church of England which, in their view, was too Catholic in its structure, vestments, and forms of prayer and communion. They believed that the Church should have no temporal or civil powers, no bishops, no hierarchy, and no authority to punish. They held that each church should be independent, formed by covenants entered into freely by their members, led by elected officials, and supported by voluntary contributions.

English Puritans argued that monarchy is an illegitimate form of government and that a republic, in which ultimate power is vested in the people, is consistent with God’s plan. But they also thought that the foundation of their republic should be theocracy, that is, government based on divine law. Their failure to reform the Church of England, their oppression at the hands of the Anglican hierarchy, and the looming English Civil War, led some Puritans to view England as corrupt beyond repair. Some departed for more liberal Holland and, ultimately, for Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. Religious migration, for the Puritans, was a sacred duty and New England, “an errand into the wilderness,” became their sacred destination.

The Puritans believed that the Hebrew Bible provided the framework for creating a new society based on the ancient Hebrew Republic, “the most holy and most exemplary in the world.” This Hebrew Republic was prescribed by God, conveyed by Moses, and implemented when Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land. The Hebrew Republic is a theocracy, “a state whose chief and ruler is God alone,” the sole sovereign who ordained one true source of laws. But it is also a republic governed by an assembly of the people with one law for all- the rich and the poor alike. In the Hebrew Republic, the law was implemented and enforced by civil magistrates and judges, not priests. Economic justice was assured by the equitable distribution of land apportioned by lot (not sold), by the prohibition against a person being forced to transfer full ownership of his property permanently under financial duress, and by a common standard of weights, measures, and currency. Each tribe had its own administrative independence within a federal system. The Hebrew Republic was also “the royal road to toleration” because government could not compel an individual in matters of conscience (“matters of the heart”), although it may regulate external behavior.

The Hebrew Republic became the original model for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In their political Hebraism, the early New England Puritans saw themselves as “Christian Israel,” King Charles I as Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean as the Red Sea, America as the Promised Land, and Boston as the new Jerusalem, or as John Winthrop described it, “the city on the hill.” As John Cotton, the most distinguished Puritan minister of his time and Cotton Mather’s grandfather, said, “God, who was then bound up with the (Hebrews) to be their God, has put us in their stead and is become our God.”

The blueprint for the Hebrew Republic of Massachusetts was laid out in 1641 by John Cotton in “Moses, His Judicials.” He proposed a set of laws for the new Commonwealth based entirely on the Hebrew Bible. He described a General Court, a Council of Assistants, a civil judiciary, magistrates, a treasury, and a system of taxation, citing biblical chapter and verse as precedent. He recommended that independent self-governing towns were to be established within the Commonwealth with the right to allocate, not sell, land to their own inhabitants (and their heirs) on an equitable basis. He advocated that land could not be sold (“alienated”) to another town or party from another town without permission. He sought to have each town establish and enforce wage and price controls, along with standard weights and measures. If a debtor pledged collateral, he should not be denied its use if it is necessary for his daily labor. He sought to create a judicial system with the authority to order restitution and damages in civil matters. John Cotton ends his treatise: “The Lord is our Judge; the Lord is our Law-giver; the Lord is our King, He will save us.” While “Moses, His Judicials” never became law, many of its provisions did. Massachusetts was, in fact, a theocracy until 1684 when Charles II revoked the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The leading Massachusetts Puritans were often also accomplished Christian Hebraists. Governor William Bradford, a Mayflower Pilgrim, began his history of Plymouth Plantation with pages of Hebrew exercises. Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard and and an accomplished Hebrew biblical translator, made Hebrew central to the college’s curriculum. His Bay Psalm Book was a direct translation from the Hebrew. Cotton Mather was the leading American Hebraist of his day and quoted widely from the entire canon of Hebrew literature including the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Rashi, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Zohar. He was even reported to have started wearing a skullcap at home and calling himself “rabbi” in 1696. At Harvard, once called a “school for the prophets,” Hebrew was a required subject from its founding in 1636 until 1787. A Hebrew commencement address was delivered there annually until 1817.

The Puritans who settled Massachusetts, many of whom were Christian Hebraists, were fascinated by the Hebrew Bible. But they were not hospitable to Jews or to the Judaism of their own day. They hoped to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a Hebrew Republic based on the social and economic ideals established in the Hebrew Bible. Their aspirations were great but their hopes were dashed in 1660 when the Puritan Revolution in England failed and the monarchy under Charles II was restored. The attempt to create the Hebrew Republic of Massachusetts ended when the king cancelled their royal charter and brought Massachusetts under direct royal rule.