The Puritan Dilemma portrays a group of people from England who wish to purify the Anglican Church. This group, commonly referred to as Puritans, settles in New England in the year 1630. This settlement, governed by John Winthrop, becomes a community based on God. Those of the Puritan religion are expected to live in the spirit and not in the flesh. In other words, individuals are expected to live in this world without being of it. The Puritans of New England had to establish a government, maintain families, work hard, and allot time to “being human” all while developing a healthy spiritual life to counteract their worldly actions.
This paradox ultimately creates a dilemma for the Puritans. The “Puritan dilemma” is the problem of trying to live a religious or spiritual life in a secular world. For John Winthrop it meant “the problem of living in this world without taking his mind off God” (Morgan 6). Thus Winthrop encounters struggles throughout the establishment of the new settlement for himself and his fellow Puritans. These struggles serve as an example of what it meant to be a Puritan in colonial America. John Winthrop’s title as Governor was a hassle within itself.
King Charles I granted the members of the Massachusetts Bay Company authority to establish laws and long as they did not contradict the laws of England. He also allowed the Company to organize a government of their choosing and allowed them to appoint others to government positions (Morgan 77). This was essentially a grant of unlimited authority. After agreeing to be live by God’s laws, Puritans had to establish a government to enforce those laws (Morgan 85). Winthrop had to fight the temptation of power as governor.
He was given unlimited power and he could not let it consume him. If he did, he would not be acting on God’s will. He would have been acting as part of the world; as a Puritan was not allowed. It was just his job to recreate the world “in the image of God’s holy kingdom”, but he knew the “evil of the world was incurable and inevitable” (Morgan 5). Winthrop went so far as to relief himself of so much power by extending suffrage within the colony to other laymen to satisfy God for he believed that “God intended civil government to be in the hands of men like himself” (Morgan 81).
Some would view Winthrop’s extension of suffrage as an act of democracy, therefore an act of the world. However, Winthrop justified his action by claiming legislative power was practiced by a select group and not the people based on his reading of the Bible (Morgan 86). Winthrop’s argument defended his decision so that it was not viewed as upholding a democracy. Within the Puritan religion, democracy is considered dangerous to peace and the well-being of the community (Morgan 81).
It was believed that rulers “received their authority from God, not the people and were accountable to God, not the people” (Morgan 86). At the same time however, Winthrop struggled to stray away from a theocracy. Within the Anglican Church, the head of the government was also the head of the Church. Winthrop did not want to mix government with religion because that was not the way to purify their Anglican origins. On the contrary, Puritans agree to be live by God’s laws, therefore religion still took a major role in governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Morgan 85).
There was no escape from the things Winthrop should not do. As a matter of fact, Winthrop knew there was “no honorable escape from sin… perils… [or] temptations of the world”, so it was his job to be accountable to others who attempted to escape into themselves away from God or become indifferent to God’s commission (Morgan 91). Despite Winthrop’s attempts to keep his fellow Puritans in order, he too fell into his flesh and exhibits a “morbid satisfaction” when God works in his favor and he possesses an “I told you so” attitude (Morgan 94).
Eventually as other Puritans began to notice his “worldly” behavior, they start disagree with the way Winthrop was governing the colony. Because Winthrop could not maintain control of his flesh and was not being of God, the laymen elect another Governor. Winthrop became too consumed with his efforts to be of God and he failed as a ruler. Since he failed, the people had to the power to “turn him out without waiting for election time” (Morgan 87). In turn, Winthrop had no choice but to accept this change of power. The Puritans’ actions are constantly challenged by their own consciences.
They are expected to live a holy life however it cannot be successfully done because it is in their human nature to defer from their holiness. Much of a Puritan’s time is spent attempting to act of God in everything they do. John Winthrop was constantly challenged throughout The Puritan Dilemma. This historical account, gave an insight on how everyday life was for a group of people dedicated to purifying their hearts and minds with no hope of actually being able to do so. Any struggle that occured was simply a result of the problem of living in the world without being a part of it.