Tuesday, January 26, 2010

All For a Day

'To make of the Sabbath a Holy Day unto the Lord' was an utmost practice of those seeking to purify the Church of England of its errancy in the early 1600s. The Church, under both King James I and Charles I, had regressed to an emphasis on ritual and Catholic ostentation with its vestments, iconography, altar magic; some thought the country was slipping. Those who took the English Reformation to its most logical conclusion were called "Puritans," a term of derision. In truth, the Puritans were a diverse population composed of many factions and of many more opinions; they included the Levellers, the Ranters, and the Quakers; what they had in common was a desire for a simpler, cleaner, more literal spirituality, and they sought practice over ritual. They have lost the respect of history as we have come to view them through the lens of the Victorians. But, in many ways, I identify with their need for a more sincere and introspective spirituality, and their complaint that the state and secular society have gone awry with their dismissal of the poor and worship of title, power, and the flash and dash of celebrity culture.

John Dresser emigrated with his wife Mary in England's Great Migration. My 12th great-grandparents were Pilgrims who uprooted--along with an entire congregation--from Rowley in Yorkshire, England and set down in Rowley, Massachusetts. The complexities of their emigration amazes me; American history, as commonly told, began with the landing at Plymouth Rock. But, the "rock" was not a rock but the sandy beaches of Cape Cod, and there had already been many ventures up and down both coasts of the American continent for generations. But the story of America's spiritual founding is what has stuck, and its religious rhetoric still colors American political discourse.

As a daughter of Pilgrims' Pride, I'm fascinated by the true story of the English Great Migration, and how it was motivated as much by economic dislocations and promises as it was by the desire for religious freedom. We know religious freedom in early America had its limitations: for instance, Quakers were not greatly welcomed and were even condemned in the Massachusetts colony.

I visited Rowley, Massachusetts, a few years ago and searched out the plot of land that had likely been allotted to my ancestors. According to the remnants of any records, John Dresser was part of the congregation of Protestant separatists who came with their minister, Ezekiel Rogers, in 1638. John was a cordwainer, a term for a shoemaker; he left shoemaking tools to his descendant in his will. The name Dresser has its roots in its functional role: a 'dresser' was a tanner or finisher of hides or cloth. Shoemakers often became shipbuilders because of their skill with materials, and in Essex County, Massachusetts, there is a shipbuilding museum that notes the role of shoemakers in the country's early shipbuilding activities.

"Coming over" was a 2-3 month sail from the east of England, and families brought as much as they could to a land that lacked any kind of store, tavern, inn, or church. They brought cattle and axes, shoemaker tools and, on the ship that carried my ancestors, the "John," the first printing press to arrive in the New World. They also brought rules about what it was to be a religious person in community, including many restrictive rules about what one could or could not do of a Sunday. What they had in common was the harsh weather of the new land, the Bible and their minister, and a vision for some kind of intentional community. But as dissidents, they also had diverse opinions about how to organize their society, how to get ahead in a new world, and their goals and methods for reaching them did not always correspond. The Pilgrim's enterprise in American history was actually short-lived, yet lingers so profoundly in our nation's identity. Most recently, the story is one that is mentioned mockingly or with scorn, as the Puritans are blamed for everything from America's myth of exceptionalism and our conflicted and often prudish sexuality.

We wish history were simple and bound up in quaint stories. It is not. The truth, so much more complicated, is also so much more interesting. Our DNA is woven from many fibers.

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