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Many (although not all) of the early colonists in New England were religious dissenters – persons who had separated from established churches in Great Britain – for whom the New World represented a haven from royal persecution. Particularly in the colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts, shared religious commitments and the experience of persecution led community leaders to frame their colonies as quasi-utopian places for the faithful to prosper. Given the opportunity to create societies according to their own understandings, they did not hesitate to engage in radical social experiments meant to prove that “godliness” was not only a spiritual virtue but had practical implications for everyday life as well. From the beginning, ministers like Robert Cushman and civil magistrates like William Bradford and John Winthrop urged their citizens to recognize that they were drawn together for a purpose far beyond their own liberty, or even security, and to place the welfare of the community as a whole above their own.
Cushman and Winthrop, for example, offered advice to the colonists about how to best prepare themselves mentally and spiritually for the arduous task of a godly commonwealth. Both men urged their audiences to embrace the Christian ideal of “brotherly affection.” In response to the extraordinary demands of colonization, they urged their listeners to willingly be generous and abjure “self-love.” This was taken quite literally at Plymouth, where the London-based investors funding the colony required the colonists to agree that everything would be held in common for the first seven years, and then at the end of that term, all property/profits divided equally between colonists and investors. Although this experiment with communalism failed rather spectacularly and was abandoned after only three years, the ethic of neighborliness continued to be an important touchstone in both colonies throughout the seventeenth century.
New colonists continued to arrive regularly throughout the 1630s and 1640s, and as the population increased, the colonists struggled to balance their desire to remain true to their founders’ idealized notion of community with the realities of life and commerce. In Massachusetts Bay, for example, merchants such as Robert Keayne were expected to moderate their desire for profit with a due consideration of the extreme needs and limited means of their customers. Keayne, who was both a shrewd businessman and a devout member of his church, apparently struggled his whole life to meet this standard; at various times, he was admonished by both his congregation and the civil government for unjust business practices (see Admonishment and Reconciliation of Robert Keayne with the Church, 1639 – 1640). This accusation apparently stung so deeply, Keayne used his last will and testament to present an extensive Apologia for his actions.
Source: “Will of Robert Keayne,” in Report of Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, Containing Miscellaneous Papers (Boston, 1886), pp. 1–54.
. . . I look up to His throne of grace and mercy in the blood of Jesus Christ with some hope and confidence. . . . In this faith alone I desire both to live and die and to continue therein to my life’s end.
This faith in the Lord Jesus Christ hath been most plainly and sweetly taught in these churches of New England, in which place, though I met with many and deep sorrows and variety of exercises of spirit and hard measures offered to me, yet with unrepentant thoughts I desire to acknowledge it for a great blessing and undeserved favor of God that he hath brought me hither to enjoy His presence in the beauties of holiness, and to see His walkings in his Holy sanctuary. And though there may be failings in both our civil government and churches. . . yet I do unfeignedly approve of the way of the churches of Jesus Christ and the civil government that God hath here set up amongst us, and rejoice therein. . . .
I am not ignorant that formerly there hath been many clamors and evil reports raised up against me here and elsewhere as if I had got my estate by unjust dealing and wronging of others. That all might take notice that I durst not allow myself in any such known wickedness as hath been falsely reported against me, I did in some of my former wills and also in my last before this, of anno 1649 . . . set apart two hundred pounds out of my own estate, that if any man or woman (not knowing but that I might have died long before this time) young or old, in Old England or New, could justly challenge or make it appear by good proof or reason that I had in anything unjustly wronged or defrauded them, that they might have had full satisfaction allowed them, though I know of no such things that can justly be laid to my charge, nor any pretense of show of it [which], if I were alive to answer for myself, I should [not] easily clear and remove. But having now lived in New England this 17 or 18 years where there is an open passage in church and commonwealth where any that are unjustly wronged may easily right themselves if I should obstinately refuse to do them right, and none such having appeared in so many years, I think it needless to continue any longer what I formerly sequestered out of my estate for such ends. If any should come with such pretenses after I am dead, the falseness of them may the more justly be suspected in that they came not while I was alive. I speak of debts and unjust frauds, not of human infirmities and failings which may be common to myself as to other men. . . .
I desire in this my will to give an account of my actions and endeavor to remove all jealousies as near as I can, these being as it were my last words that will live to speak for me when I am dead and in my grave. And God may be pleased so far to bless something or other that I have had occasion to express in this will, that such which have taken liberty to load me with diverse reproaches and long to lay me under a dark cloud may have cause to see that they have done amiss and now to be sorry for it, though they have not been so before.
The objections are these:
First, if I value my estate to be worth 4000 lb. or thereabouts, how could I get such an estate with good conscience, or without oppression in my calling, seeing it is known to some that I had no portion from my parents or friends to begin the world withal. If none did know of this, I am bound to acknowledge [it], that all may be attributed to the free mercy and kindness of God alone who raiseth up and pulleth down as he pleaseth. . . .
To which I answer, I have now traded for myself about 40 or 50 years and through the favor of God, though I had very little at first to begin with, yet I had good credit and good esteem and respect in the place where I lived so that I did ever drive a great trade not only since I came hither but especially in England.
Now to get 4000 lb. in 40 or 50 years is not 100 lb. a year clear gains, one year with another, which we account to be no great matter. . . . A tradesman or merchant that hath a full trade may get 100 lb. a year above his expenses and a great deal more very honestly without hurting his own conscience or wronging those that he deals with at all.
Since I came into New England . . . I have been no prodigal spender as I have been no niggardly sparer in things needful, as the account of my daily and weekly expenses will testify for me when those books come to be viewed over. . . .
For . . . I have undergone many censures since I came hither according to men’s uncharitable and various apprehensions, some looking at me as an oppressor in trading and getting unconscionably by what I sold and others as covetous and niggardly in housekeeping and not so liberal and bountiful as I should be. How those two contraries can justly be charged upon me and yet have increased my estate no more in so long a time, I yet see not, [unless] it be [charged] by such as care not what they say of other men though never so false, so [long as] they may lay others under reproach and magnify themselves and their ways by disgracing others. . . .
But some may further object [that] if I do value my estate at so much as before mentioned, how could I deal honestly in suffering myself to be valued in rates to the country but after a 1000 lb. estate at most, or sometimes less.
To which I answer, first, that I do not think a man is bound in conscience to make known his whole estate and suffer himself to be valued to the uttermost extent thereof if he can honestly prevent it. It is not so in any nation in the world that I have heard or read of, except in case of great extremity by an enemy in the country. . . .
I know myself and others here pay more to rates and public charges yearly than those that are three times of my estate in England in four or five years. . . . Here we are rated every year, and in some one year I have paid near twenty lb. to country rates. Therefore, though some may judge that men’s estates are undervalued, everyone seeking to ease themselves and lay the burden upon others, yet rates did rise so high upon the pound and came so fast about that men may be truly said in that respect to be rated far above and beyond their estates. . . .