America’s Christian propagandists tell their children the story of Pilgrim Fathers who fled persecution in England for religious freedom in the New World. (And yes, it is propaganda, look the word up). And no, I’m not slapping down the Christians and taking the Mormon side of this argument. Mormons are big advocates of this happy American Pilgrim fable.
The proposition that there could be anything inherently wrong with the Pilgrims is going to be infuriatingly offensive to Christians of any stripe in America. And remember, again, in their mind, this includes Mormons, because they think they’re Christians like anyone else. Like every other American Christian, Mormons believe they are the end product of thousands of years of Godly guidance and constant refinement.
The American need to romanticize the Pilgrims stems from telling yourself for generations just how specially blessed by God you are for simply being an American citizen if for no other positive attributes. Of course you need proof of this every day just to stem off the creeping disbelief caused by looking at yourself in the mirror every morning and knowing how messed up you really are. So American children are raised on this wonderful little fairy tale about the quaint boys and girls of Plymouth Rock and how they helped mommy Pilgrim and daddy Pilgrim bring Jesus to the red American savages and preserve “True Religion” in the free country the founded. Naturally, it makes you, as a young Christian, and patriotic child of America, feel all warm and fuzzy, and your eyes get all rosy red and weepy when you are reassured like this, from sea to shining sea, every year in a national holiday, that you are absolutely wonderful and chosen by God.
The truth is, the Pilgrims were Puritan fascists who were only looking for their own religious freedom. They were too damned pious, independent and fanatical even for the more mainstream zealots of English and European Reformations. They called themselves “Puritans” because they were dedicated to purifying the Church of England of Roman influences. They hated Rome and they hated heretics, and they hated sinners and they really hated witches. Their reigning English King, James I was also a foaming Protestant Scottish witch hunter, and was every bit as fanatical as the Pilgrims were, since they were all theological soul mates. But James I actually had to sophisticate himself a bit, particularly stifling his witch-hating fanaticism when he took power in England. He had to accommodate the more moderate and educated Protestantism that then still held great sway in his English Court and Parliament. This social moderation at home however, didn’t slow him from encouraging the exportation of sharp, Puritan zeal to his growing colonies in the New World though, where raw Puritanism would be free to dominate the new society he intended to found there.
I say with very little exaggeration, that living under Puritan rule in the New England American Colonies would be nearly as religiously oppressive as living under the Taliban in Afghanistan, or Wahhabi ruled Saudi Arabia. The principle difference between Sharia Law and Pilgrim Law would be that the Pilgrims let women show their whole faces in public.
When American Protestants in particular talk about “Puritanism,” they allude to what they term a Protestant reaction to a Roman Church who’s clergy had become entirely corrupt. The Roman Church sold forgiveness to those who could afford it. The Roman Church was liberal and debauched within its hierarchy, but punishingly strict to the common folk. The Roman Church picked who would and who would not be saved based upon social and political intrigue and if it were at all possible to extract from the sinner, the Roman Church would invariably negotiate a generous contribution to the Church which could fix nearly any sin. We are also told by modern Protestants, when they praise their “Reforming” of this corrupted Roman Church, that it was also the goal of the Reformation to correct the excesses of the Inquisition, to liberate mankind to think and speak freely in Church or public venues. Modern Protestants contend that it was the torture and torment and brutal repression of art and science and music and free will that the Puritans wanted to purify out of the Roman Church. It was the selling of indulgences and political meddling that the Reformers wanted to reform out of the Church.
While it was true that the Reformation wanted to correct the corrupt doctrinal cottage industry the Roman Church had set up to support its clergy, the Puritans in particular on the other hand, weren’t all that put off by the Inquisition’s tactics or even goals in and of themselves. The Puritans and many other Reformers in truth just wanted the Inquisitional zeal applied unilaterally up and down the Church ranks from clergy to commoner. They just didn’t think you should be able to buy or politic your way out of being tortured into a confession of heresy. They figured that kings, Popes and bishops and priests were just as good candidates for heresy as anyone else—the more the merrier. Puritans in short, actually wanted more repression and more micromanaging of the Body of Christ. They wanted the power to institute the same sort of fanatical purification of Christendom that the Inquisition only pretended to enforce, and then only selectively, often for personal, social, or political reasons. The Puritans wanted their newly cleansed Protestant Inquistition to be universally applied to all Christians of whatever rank. The Puritans wanted everyone to be beaten into piety whatever his station in the Church or society– they just wanted to insure it was being done fairly and correctly by a dictatorial theocracy of their own design.
We read about the Salem Witch trials, some decades after the Pilgrims landed, and think that hanging nineteen men and women as witches on the say-so of a couple of snotty little girls looking for attention was a fluke carried out by an isolated, small group of inbred fanatics. We think the old man they crushed under stones for refusing to submit to their trials was the result of some abnormal paranoia due to the bunker mentality of a pioneer colony in a harsh new land. When we read about the dozens of fellow colonists they just let rot in jail for months as they queued them up for their American Inquisition, we assume that this sort of fiendish treatment had to be the product of some sort of atypical mass mental illness brought about through a bad diet and not enough sunlight. But no, that’s what Puritans did. That’s what Protestants did. That’s what the Roman Church did before them. That’s what Christians have always done.
The Reformation just made torture and inquisition a sport anyone could dabble in by voting themselves into power, rather than restricting the game to a permanent class of elite clergy and the high-born. The Pilgrims merely wanted to democratize religious persecution so the common man–and men only mind you–could get a piece of the action.
The Pilgrims didn’t intend to found a nation based upon the freedom of religion at all. They hadn’t the slightest conception of a pluralistic society that could tolerate letting everyone worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience and understanding. Their America was founded as the Puritan’s chance at the unfettered purification of human society as they defined purity, through whatever means necessary, with nobody looking over their shoulder to moderate their efforts. The Pilgrims intended to establish a Bible Commonwealth. Citizenship, or “Freemanship” as they called it, was restricted to church members. Religious dissenters were banished. Originally even freemen didn’t even have the right to elect the colony’s officers. These were appointed by the clergy councils.
The allegedly God-fearing, venerated, funny-hat-and buckle-wearing Pilgrims we celebrate at Thanksgiving every year by eating pumpkin pie and turkey till we can’t walk straight, brought with them a culture of religious bigotry. They whipped, imprisoned, hung, and publicly humiliated even their minor religious offenders in stocks, dungeons, gallows and on whipping posts usually in the town square or other places of public access where their fellow colonists could pass by and mock or taunt them. When we see these quaint depictions of Puritan discipline in woodcuts or read about them in history books, we are usually told or allowed to assume these punishments had something to do with civil misdemeanors or criminal activities. To the contrary, most of these routine sentences to ritual public humiliation were related to not living up to their legally mandated “Christian” obligations. Or rather, poor Christian observance was criminal activity to them.
The Pilgrims didn’t really put a big red letter “A” on your breast to shame you as an adulterer, or suspected adulterer–since the accusation alone was usually enough to destroy you. The Pilgrims by law could kill you for adultery, though in practice this never happened. And it was the letters “AD” with which you would be marked, and if found without this mark you would be branded on the forehead. This was later liberalized to merely whipping adulterers severely twice, giving recovery time between whippings, and marking them with “AD” letters–then if caught without this marking, rather than branding them, the sentence was moderated to severely whipping them again and again, every time they were found improperly labeled.
Fornicators who refused to get married were severely whipped, fined, and imprisoned. Getting married would let you off with only a fine, but the fine was far greater if you were already engaged, because you had already gotten the ultimate sex problem solved and you just didn’t have the piety to patiently wait for the ceremony. You would get three hours in the public stocks for cursing God or lying in public. If you denied the Holy Scriptures, a magistrate could sentence you to as severe a whipping as he felt appropriate to humble you, short of endangering life or limb.
In one rare Plymouth Colony case, bestiality got one confused farm boy hung, and the interesting thing there is that they also executed the sinful animals. I presume this was so these corrupted livestock would not go about the colony enticing other colonists into the same sin with their sexy barnyard ways.
Two gay Pilgrims in Plymouth got both whipped to shards, one of which was banished into the wilderness to die, and the more repentant one, the one apparently not deemed the instigator, was branded on the shoulder with a hot iron and banned from ever owning property in the colony, but allowed to remain.
There were two witchcraft trials in Plymouth colony, decades before the more famous Salem trials, though in Plymouth “not-guilty” verdicts were issued and the complainants were fined for bringing false charges.
The Pilgrims lived in a patriarchal theocracy and its patriarchs were misogynists bastards in general. For example, in 1662 Thomas Bird was sentenced to a double whipping for adultery with the unfortunately named Hannah Bumpass. Bumpass was essentially seduced or coerced by Bird, but she was given a stout single whipping anyway for quote: “…yielding to him, and not making such resistance against him as she ought.”
If the Pilgrims really didn’t like you over some generalized heretical activity they couldn’t pin down with a specific charge, or if they just didn’t like your attitude, or you were missing too many sermons on Sunday without a good excuse like being trapped in a well or withering away on your sickbed, they would just banish you to die alone out in the wilderness by “shunning” you.
The Pilgrims would fine you for harboring a Quaker. (The Quaker they would drive out to die in the wilderness.) The Pilgrims would even punish you for celebrating Christmas or Easter because they weren’t in the Bible. They probably would not approve of the nation of their legacy inventing yet another un-Biblical holiday in their honor and calling it “Thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving is not in the Bible and therefore is not holy. Celebrating it would be unholy. Unholiness is punished.
The architect of the American Theocratic Paradise the Puritan Pilgrims had come to create, was called by the English, John Calvin. His allegedly brilliant religious mind fired up Reformationists all over the European religious theatre into ecstatic heights of raving piety. If you believe his modern Christian fans, Calvin was a modest and quiet man who restored pure, Biblical Truth to all mankind. To other Christians, he’s a despotic know-it-all and a sanctimonious, unqualified upstart. To quite a few Christians, and many more non-Christians, John Calvin is one of the most evil men in the history of the planet.
Jean Cauvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, in the Picardy region of France, son of Gerard Cauvin, primary attorney for Charles de Hangest, bishop of Noyon, who among other things oversaw the prosecution of heretics and witches. The Church routinely tortured and murdered heretics of course, but in the wake of the Papal Bull of Pope Innocent VIII, (1482-1492) the publication of Summis desiderantes affectibus in 1484, and the follow-up pamphlet Malleus Maleficarum in 1486 by Dominican monks Henrich Kramer and James Sprenger, the French Church became infected with the witch hunting hysteria that had already been sweeping across Europe.
John Calvin retained a fervor for sniffing out and prosecuting witches throughout his life, which was about the only thing he and the Vatican ever agreed upon. In fact, he started out his education in Paris to study Latin, and prepare for the Roman priesthood. He was sent there by his father to build upon the Church and social base of power he had already laid the infrastructure for in Noyon.
A few years into it, Calvin’s father became involved in a Church-related financial debacle that inflated into a full-fledged scandal. Gerard was either guilty of a major screw-up or just got chosen by the Church to be the patsy and was excommunicated. His former boss added the trumped-up charge of heresy just to teach him a lesson.
Nicholas Cop, Rector of the University of Paris, a Protestant activist, had grown fond of young Calvin, and agreed to fund his education if he would change his studies to law since a career for him as a professional Roman Catholic was at that point pretty much out of the question. It was also a tribute to Calvin’s old man. John did change his study to Legal Humanism, but his father died some years later as the result of a long and dragging depression and physical illness. John’s mother had died earlier, and His father was denied burial on consecrated ground with her until John and his older brother were able to give security for the payment of their father’s debts and other obligations the Roman Church demanded.
Having lost all pride, family fortune and social position, John continued with his legal studies and attained a Doctorate in Law at Orleans in 1532. He returned to Paris rather cheesed off at the Catholic Church. He tied up with Nicholas Cop again and became an enthusiastic Protestant Reformer. That didn’t last long before the French Church chased them both out of town and Calvin settled in Basel, Switzerland, where he worked on and published his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion.
John rubbed elbows throughout his law studies with fellow Humanist lawyers who based their philosophies on the Classic Greek and Roman thinkers. He moved amongst Protestant Reformers of all stripes who moved in the same legal and philosophical circles. Calvin postulated a new sort of theocratic system based around a council of elders (“consistory” he called it) and envisioned openly that his hereditary heirs would carry this absolute rule into posterity. He wrote a catechism and confession of faith for this proposed social order. About the time he had worked his religious master plans out he had moved his quest for a job and a congregation into largely French-speaking Geneva Switzerland. There he had gained powerful supporters like the city Chancellor Ami Perrin and noted evangelist, pastor and Reformer, William Farel.
After gaining an audience and some favor with the Geneva City Council through his highly placed friends, in January of 1538 , Calvin presented his plans for the systematic Reformation of a wild and wooly Geneva. The city council was hotly divided but ultimately rejected his proposals, particularly the earnestly drafted religious creed he wanted the entire city to swear to. The council also refused to grant Calvin and Farel the power to excommunicate, an authority they had demanded because it was critical to insure that their plans could be enforced. Calvin retaliated by denying the Lord’s Supper to all Genevans at the Easter services that soon followed, saying the entire city was too debased to be worthy of communion. The City Council kicked Calvin and Farel both out of Geneva literally on their arses, calling Calvin a would-be “Pope.”
Calvin hid out in Strasbourg Switzerland and found some financial support there. He engaged in a travelling lecture series. He secured a modest position as a pastor and began to build a reputation there as a speaker. Eventually in 1540 somebody still boostering him in Geneva remembered his polemic skills and invited him to author the city’s written response to a new Papal Bull demanding Geneva’s return to Vatican rule. Calvin wrote such a great refusal that he was invited back almost immediately to come help run the Reformation in Geneva, but Calvin didn’t trust Geneva’s government and Church councils enough to risk his life right away. There had been a genuine turnover in these social and political powers however, and Calvin’s supporters had indeed taken full charge of the city. After a year of negotiations that reassured him his authority would never again be questioned, Calvin returned triumphantly in 1541 to a huge banquet in his honor and piles of booty as a reward.
Calvin had so re-arranged his new Geneva government that he had absolute power. He literally ran a theocracy. He controlled the police, the courts, the media, and every church in town. Those who cared to oppose or even debate him were swiftly dispatched one way or another, sometimes fatally, often brutally.
When he couldn’t find any conventional sinners to persecute, Calvin had an obsession with ferreting out witches. Most of his victims in this sport were women who wouldn’t submit to his will or the will of their husbands. But again, that doesn’t make him unique in the Protestant world, Martin Luther was likewise an avid witch hater. Rating these two on the scale of social enlightenment, the best you can say about Calvin is that he was slightly less anti-Semitic than Luther was, and the best you can say about Luther is he was too busy demonizing Jews to have very much time actively persecuting any other demons in his pantheon of the Godless.
One of Calvin’s French fans from Geneva published Les Sorciers in 1564. This little tome, published in Geneva, proposed that witches were a major danger for humanity and had to be systematically exterminated.
In 1553 Calvin had a dispute with a Spanish physician through the mail. Servetus was one of the most brilliant minds of the era and the first man to chart the human pulmonary system. Servetus opposed Trinitarianism and rejected infant baptism. Furthermore, Servetus had been mocking Calvin openly in various academic venues, calling him a despot and the “Pope of Geneva,” and bragging that he was coming to Geneva to argue the matter in person and hoped to join the honored ranks of those the great John Calvin had banished. Instead Calvin had him arrested, tried for heresy, and Calvin’s wholly-owned review panel obligingly condemned Servetus to be burned to death in a public square over a stack of his writings. The only objection Calvin raised was that he would have preferred to have beheaded Servetus rather than burn him.
Well, the whole truth is, Servetus wasn’t burned in a conventional sense at all. He was slowly roasted from a distance and scourged by showers of faggots, or hot coals over a period of at least five excruciating hours.
Calvin’s period and even modern supporters have actually defended Calvin’s actions by claiming–and I’m serious about this—that it’s fine that Servetus was executed for blasphemy and heresy, because he was indeed a blasphemous heretic. They sometimes claim that he should have known better than to come to Geneva and debate Calvin directly man-to-man, and that Calvin had warned him, and some even say that had Servetus been merely decapitated by sword as Calvin had preferred instead of being roasted alive with his books as the tinder, nobody would have been outraged and we wouldn’t still be remembering this one small blot on Calvin’s otherwise wonderful career. Some even say that Servetus repented to God as he slowly went up in greasy, fleshy smoke and begged Calvin to forgive him. This the Calvinists say, not only proves Calvin was right about his heresy, but demonstrates that Calvin actually did him a favor by lighting him up because he found Jesus in the end.
Probably to avoid another unpopular and grisly public spectacle, what with all the screaming and the smell of burnt flesh permeating the town, In 1547 Calvin did actually specify the beheading of another congregant prone to debate, Jacques Gruet, for blasphemy. At some point Calvin got tired of his objections, so after breaking him down under torture, he got him to confess numerous sins, the biggest of which was taking credit for an anonymous note left on Calvin’s pulpit arguing against infant baptism. Jacques Gruet
In his reign over his City/State of Geneva, Calvin is known to have overseen the execution or torture of thousands of witches and religious non-conformists. Not even his supporters contest this fact. He tortured or killed adulterers and blasphemers, and even hung children from their armpits from gallows to signify that they deserved death, or just threatened them with death if they didn’t obey him. Calvin even executed one child for striking his parents.
To many, even those who helped John Calvin initially to power, like Ami Perrin, Calvin became a despot, a bully and hypocrite, the founder of a personality cult, not a Christian hero. In the end, Calvin imprisoned Perrin’s wife for the crime of dancing. His father-in-law was prosecuted in connection with his wife’s dancing for accusing Calvin of being the “Bishop of Geneva.” Perrin had originally hailed Calvin as a component of Guillaume Farel’s Reformation battle against Rome, but Farel soon came to be known as an appendage of Calvin’s Reformation Empire, and Perrin eventually lost all belief in Calvin’s mission in Geneva.
I understand that you are considering imprisoning my father-in-law and my wife. My said father-in-law is old, my wife is ill; by imprisoning them you will shorten their days, to my great regret, which I have not deserved, and which would be to give me poor recompense for the services I have done you. Therefore I beg you not to imprison them. If they have done wrong, I will bring them here to make such amends that you will have reason to be content. I pray you to grant me this, since if you put them in prison, God will aid me to avenge myself for it.
I don’t know what made Perrin think this plea would have any effect on Calvin. In 1548, Calvin imprisoned his own brother’s wife for suspected adultery but couldn’t prove the charge. Calvin dogged her down for nine years and in 1557 finally convicted her of adultery with one of his own servants. If Calvin’s own blood, family, and household wasn’t immune to his deadly piety, Perrin’s begging for mercy wasn’t going to have any influence at all on the “Pope of Geneva.” Not only was Perrin’s petition refused but Perrin was accused of treason.
Perrin still maintained tremendous influence in Geneva however. There was a lengthy trial and acquittal, and Perrin began to openly move against his former comrade Calvin. Eventually Perrin led an attempted coup against Calvin’s government, based mainly on the promise to expel the hordes of French Protestant refugees like Calvin who were flocking to Geneva to escape the Inquisition or Roman Church in general. These “Huguenots” had all but taken over the Swiss city, and Perrin’s native Reformationists, who Calvin disparagingly and incorrectly called “Libertines,” could no longer stand the oppression of Calvin’s Calvinism. The Huguenots however, Calvin’s French friends, and many other refugee foreigners seemed to embrace Calvin’s pious, unilaterally oppressive and uniformly prosecuted religion. This has to be evaluated of course, in light of the alternative, which was for most going back to France or Spain or elsewhere in the Holy Roman Empire, and was being tortured and burned by the Inquisition.
Perrin’s rebellion failed and he was sentenced in absentia to have his right hand cut off.
Perrin’s revolt was the last time anyone dared quibble with John Calvin about anything on any level on any subject in Geneva. Calvin dismissed Perrin’s defeat as God’s justice and described Perrin as “our comic Caesar.”
And yet, for all it’s blatantly despotic nature, today’s Calvinist apologists go so far as to claim Calvin’s Geneva is the pattern upon which the US Constitution was modeled.
The truth is, even Calvin’s Bible said: By their fruits ye shall know them. The United States of America wasn’t the fruit of Calvin’s despotic theocracy. The United States of America was God’s attempt to clear His vineyard of Calvin’s religious weeds.