Another leader of the colonization enthusiasts was Francis Bacon, an English government official and philosopher, who at the time was also laying foundations for science and the Enlightenment. He was bracingly clear-eyed about the New World project, and he seemed to understand better than any of his proto-American contemporaries the distorting power of wishful belief, how fantasy can trump fact. "The human understanding," he wrote in 1620,
“when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate. . . . And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happen much oftener, neglect and pass them by.”
Was Bacon referring then to what is now known as our genetic hardwired cognitive and confirmation biases, leading to these neurorealities? And was Sir Walter Raleigh and argumentative theory pitching a paradise fantasyland of gold across the ocean to the King and the masses in England? Did truth matter?
In his London circles, Bacon said, it was all “gold, silver, and temporal profit" driving the colonization project, not "the propagation of the Christian faith." For the imminent next wave of English would-be Americans, however, propagating a particular set of Christian superstitions, omens and divine judgments were more than just lip-service cover for dreams of easy wealth. For them, the prospect of colonization was all about the export of their supernatural fantasies to the New World.
The God-Given Freedom to Believe in God
The Massachusetts Bay Colonies grew FAST, from a population of a thousand to forty thousand in its first decade or so. One of them was Anne Hutchinson, daughter of a minister, wife of a well-to-do merchant, mother of a dozen children, Boston neighbor of Governor Winthrop, and a charismatic, extremely impassioned Puritan. She promptly set herself up as a de facto preacher. Every week dozens of women came to the Hutchinsons' big house to hear her critiques of the previous Sunday's church sermons and ask questions about sin, salvation, and God: “Since the Lord decided before the beginning of time which of us will spend eternity with Him, she explained to her listeners, any one of us might hold a winning ticket, regardless of our status in the here and now. The clergy’s learning and degrees and titles give them, no special lock on godliness.”
But she didn't just argue the logic and quibble over the fine points of the beliefs they all shared. No, she gleamed with an absolute conviction, knew she was Heaven-bound, felt the truth in her gut. The Puritans in Massachusetts "were the first Americans to enact the paradigm that underlies all
romantic projects," as the historian Andrew Delbanco says: they "dared to assert the direct apprehension by the believer of the divine." Hutchinson took the paradigm and upped the ante, calling the leaders' bluff. People "look at her as a prophetess," Governor Winthrop anxiously wrote in his journal. She claimed to have some kind of sixth sense for divining who was or wasn't a member of God's special elect.
Men began attending the gatherings as well, and she added a second weekly session. Enlightened and emboldened, her followers took to walking out of church in the middle of sermons by ministers they weren't feeling. Anne Hutchinson, resident in America for only a thousand days, was leading a movement to make her colony of magical thinkers even more fervid. Protestantism had started as a breakaway movement of holier-than-thou zealots - and in the even-holier-than-thou zealots' state-of-the-art utopia, they now had a still-holier-than-thou mystic militant in their midst.
Once a faction of the colony's leaders signed on to Hutchinson's more radical, passionate, extra-pure Puritanism, she became problematic. Sure, individuals sometimes overflowed with the Holy Spirit. And yes, everybody's a Bible-reading amateur theologian; the "priesthood of all believers" made Protestants Protestants rather than sheeplike Catholics or crypto-Catholics. But come on, we've got a brand-new theocracy to run here (and at that moment a war to wage against a native tribe in Connecticut). Anne Hutchinson had gone rogue.
She was charged and tried for defaming ministers. Governor Winthrop served as chief judge. On the first day of her testimony in November 1637, she stayed within the bounds of Puritan intellectualism, batting scriptural references back and forth, arguing that her religious meetings weren't public events. She didn’t quite tell them she was godlier than they, but her contempt was clear. "We are your judges," Winthrop told her, "and not you ours." She fainted.
When her trial resumed the next day, she let it all hang out. It wasn't just the Bible that guided her but the Holy Spirit - that is, God, speaking to her personally, just as He had spoken to people in the Bible. It was, she told them, “an immediate revelation. . . . by the voice of his own spirit to my soul. . . .God had said to me . . . 'l am the same God that delivered Daniel out of the lion's den, I will also deliver thee.'” Governor Winthrop and his forty fellow judges had assembled to convict her of something, and now she'd made it easy. Furthermore, she threatened them and their misguided regime with God's own wrath: "Therefore take heed how you proceed against me - for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state."
“This is the thing that has been the root of all the mischief" Winthrop bellowed, pointing at her, and also: “I am persuaded that the revelation she brings forth is delusion.”
"Mistress Hutchinson," a once and future Massachusetts governor among the judges said during the trial, "is deluded by the Devil." And a witness against her, one of her fellow shipmates on the passage from England, testified that she'd made "very strange and witchlike" pronouncements when they'd landed in America three years earlier. The court might have brought a conviction for witchcraft and executed her. Instead, they threw her out of the colony.
In the modern era, Anne Hutchinson is inevitably portrayed as the first great American heroine, a feminist crusader for religious liberty and the victim of a show trial. Undoubtedly her gender made her freelance shamanism even more appalling and unacceptable. The trial transcript, dozens of male judges and witnesses versus one female defendant, is a horrible, hilarious episode of mansplaining. One minister testified that she "had rather been husband than a wife; and a preacher than a hearer."
But the intolerance she experienced isn't what makes Anne Hutchinson a prototypically American figure. Protestant communities in Europe surely would’ve punished or exiled her as well, and by global standards, Massachusetts was not an unusually oppressive place for women. No, Hutchinson is so American because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality. She's so American because, unlike the worried, pointy-headed people around her, she didn't recognize ambiguity or admit to self-doubt. Her perceptions and beliefs were true because they were hers and because she felt them so thoroughly to be true. They weren't mere theories and opinions delivered by her Oxford-and Cambridge-educated antagonists. Hutchinson didn't have to study any book but the Bible to arrive at the truth. Because she felt it. She knew it. The great historian of Puritanism Perry Miller refers to her "fanatical anti-intellectualism"- in other words, a prototypical Fantasyland American.
The American Puritans were the Protestant avant-garde, and she was the most avant of all – a dissident persecuted and banished by a corrupt and self-serving elite, a self-righteous individual whose individual imagination was all that mattered. By claiming she had personal access to God, Hutchinson took a big piece of the nonconformist Protestant idea to an even more fantastical and perfectly American extreme.
It's hard for us to understand or empathize with our founding Puritans,
not because of their wild religious beliefs - many of which a great many Americans still share - but because of their ferocious insistence on discipline. Alone among the Puritans, Anne Hutchinson is the one with whom American sensibilities today can connect, because America is now a nation where every individual is gloriously free to construct any version of reality he or she devoutly believes to be true. American Christianity in the twenty-first century resembles Hutchinson's version more than it does the official Christianity of her time.
In other words, Anne Hutchinson lost her battle in Cambridge but would finally win the war. For the Puritan leaders, it was their way or the highway. But in America there was an infinity of highways and new places not so far away where outcast true believers could move.
While Quaker Pennsylvania soon welcomed Christian zealots of almost every kind, the Quakers' famous civic reasonableness - tolerant, democratic, pacifist, protofeminist, abolitionist - tends to obscure their own founding zealotry: each person could directly commune with God, which variously took the form of prophecies, trancelike rants, and convulsions.
Hutchinson's fellow charismatic Massachusetts Puritan, the young minister Roger Williams, claimed no wizardly superpowers. Nevertheless, he was also problematic for the Boston theocrats - he disapproved of theocracy, and his hatred of the Church of England was a bit too self-righteously fervent. They convicted him of heresy and sedition shortly before they banished Hutchinson. He moved forty miles south to start a new colony, which he named for God's blessed omnipotence, Providence. Williams and Hutchinson were thus both key inventors of American individualism. He disagreed with the religious nonsense you spouted, but he would defend to the death your right to spout it; she was the crackpot case study for extreme freedom of thought and speech, insisting she be allowed to believe and tell people she had magical powers. Which Williams was willing to let her do in Providence, where she moved.
Today we tell ourselves a story of America's progress toward freedom of thought and a happy ending. Williams in Rhode Island and the Quaker William Penn in his new colony were indeed heroic progressives , separating the state from any one church. The Massachusetts theocracy softened and eventually dissolved. Then a century later came Thomas Jefferson's Virginia statute for Religious Freedom, the constitution, and the First Amendment.
All that was indeed progress. Disbelief was eventually permitted, at least Iegally.
But during our founding 1600s, as giants walked in Europe and the Age of Reason dawned - Shakespeare, Galileo, Bacon, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza - America was a primitive outlier. Individual freedom of thought in early America was specifically about the freedom to believe whatever supernaturalism you wished, you could generate whatever neuroreality you wanted. Four centuries later that has been a freedom, revived and unfettered and run amok, driving America's transformation.
Imaginary Friends and Enemies; The Early Satanic Panics
Witchcraft didn’t officially exist in the Middle ages, but as soon as protestantism emerged, so did alleged witches and witch hunts.
Once the Puritans were in their wonderful and horrifying new promised land, fulfilling God's plan and fighting Satan, witches were probably inevitable. In the 1640s the Puritans in Connecticut and Massachusetts began indicting a couple of people each year for witchcraft. But they fined and banished and acquitted more witches than they hung, thus proving to themselves their moderation. That early hysteria over sorcery subsided, and for two generations New England wasn't executing witches.
But then in 1689, at the conclusion of decades of religious struggle back in England, parliament passed the Act of Toleration, which obliged the Puritans in America to allow their fellow Americans to believe and practice almost any version of Protestantism. The grandchildren of the original great dissenters now had to permit some dissent - and therefore to become just one more Christian sect among burgeoning Christian sects. Some of them detected Satan's hand in this existential demotion. But . . . witches: witches didn't need to be tolerated. Young Reverend Cotton Mather had recently published an essay describing the slippery slope of faithlessness: once you started disbelieving in witches, what was to stop you from disbelieving in God? The year the Toleration Act became Iaw, he published another book, Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, about a recent episode of witchcraft and enchanted children in Boston.
Mather's handy guide was a bestseller, and one of its readers was the minister of the First Church in Salem, the New England Puritans' oldest. In the winter of 1691, his nine-year-old daughter began acting strangely - screaming, barking, burning up with fever. After other girls displayed similar "distempers," the cause became clear – witchcraft - and some sorceresses were identified: the minister's Caribbean servant, plus two other local women, one very poor and the other a non-churchgoer. More girls turned weird, a few other women were accused, then men, then dozens more people.
Cotton Mather, the golden-boy witch expert in Boston, weighed in. He declared that "spectral evidence," tricky as it was, should be allowed at the trials - that is, prosecution witnesses' accounts of their dreams and supernatural visions of ghostly witches and demons. After the first convicted witch was hung, Mather suggested the court use spectral evidence carefully, but it continued to be prime evidence. and he encouraged the judges in their "speedy and vigorous prosecutions." Most of the several dozen accusers were girls. In four months more than two hundred trials produced dozens of guilty verdicts, mostly of women, and at least twenty witches and sorcerers (and two satanic pet dogs) were executed. A few, others died in jail. The total population of the towns of Salem and Andover was only 2400.
As the madness reached its peak that summer, the Reverend Increase Mather, Cotton’s Father and a leader of the colony, returned from a trip to England and promptly hit the brakes. After eight witches and sorcerers were hanged in Salem in one day, the most so far, he wrote a tract called Cases of Conscience and had it approved by the Puritan clerical association. Presently his friend the governor disbanded the Salem witchcraft court.
Ever since, Cases of Conscience has been regarded as the great turning point in the restoration of reason in colonial America. Its title seems appealingly liberal, and its most famous line makes us think Salem was a completely anomalous moment of temporary insanity: "lt were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned." But the seldom-quoted complete title of the book is a giveaway: Cases of Conscience concerning evil SPIRITS Personating Men, Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are accused with that Crime. It's an explanation of how Satan actually works, filled with secondhand tales of evil magic from around the world, such as a new report of "a Venetian Jew" who knew "how to make a Magical Glass which should represent any Person or thing according as he should desire." For Increase Mather, the problem in Salem was that Satan had bewitched some of the accusers into making false accusations - the devil made the good people do it. As the historian Edmund Morgan has written, "In 1692 virtually no one in New England . . . disbelieved in witches."
Although the special witchcraft court adjourned, the chief judge from Salem was also the chief judge of a replacement court. And although to his
great disappointment spectral evidence was no longer admissible, for months his new court continued trying people for witchcraft, and he signed the death warrants for three more convicted witches. The following year he was elected governor of Massachusetts. This was William Stoughton.
Increase Mather never fully condemned the Salem episode, and his son backpedaled hardly at all. Although mistakes were made, Cotton eventually admitted - decades later, deep into the eighteenth century, in the lifetime of his neighbor Ben Franklin - he did not stop defending the witchcraft trials and executions.
The big piece of secular conventional wisdom about Protestantism has been that it gave a self-righteous oomph to moneymaking and capitalism - hard work accrues to God's glory, success looks like a sign of His grace. But it seems clear to me the deeper, broader, and more enduring influence of American Protestantism was the permission it gave to dream up new supernatural or otherwise untrue understandings of reality, untrue neurorealities, and believe them with passionate certainty.
Science was being invented at the time. Like science, Protestantism was powered by skepticism of the established religious paradigms, which were to be revised or rejected - but unlike science, the old paradigms were to be replaced by new fixed truth. The scientific method is unceasingly skeptical, each truth understood as a partial, provisional best-we-can-do-for-the- moment understanding of reality. In their travesty of science, Protestant true believers scrutinized the natural world to deduce the underlying godly or satanic causes of every strange effect, from comets to hurricanes to Indian attacks to unusual illnesses and deaths. For believers in the new American religion, the truth was out there: everything happened for a purpose, and the purpose wasn't so hard to figure out.
This country began as an empty vessel for pursuing fantasies of easy wealth or utopia or eternal life - a vessel of such spaciousness that an assortment of new fantasies could be spun off perpetually. That had never happened before. Ordinary individuals took the initiative and improvised a country out of a wilderness, reshaped the world. That had never happened before, either. In just a century, the (white) American population grew from a few thousand to a million people, and it continued doubling every couple of decades. This improbable and peculiar new place thrived. The dream - that is, any of several and then dozens and finally hundreds of coexisting American fantasies - those neurorealities - seemed to be coming true.
Note now we have political hucksters pitching untruths, falsehoods and flat out lies, and a significant portion of the electorate stands by those statements. A prominent phrase in the late 1800s states this precisely: "There's a sucker born every minute." And Vladimir Lenon coined the term "useful idiot", someone who is susceptible tp propoganda and is cynically misused for political and partisan gains. It appears now that a significant protion of the US population has such neurorealities, which is representative and a result of the early gene pool comprised of the original gold minded settlers and the early Protestant settlers, and their fantastic or supernatural, or otherwise untrue neaurorealities. It's in America's gene's.
Fantasyland - Chapter 22, continued...