American Heritage: If their purpose was to succeed, sin could not be tolerated

Published 10:37 pm Wednesday, April 11, 2012

“It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife … deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” — First Corinthians 5:1, 5

The scripture reference with which I have opened this article shows what the Puritans were faced with. They needed to take a strict stand upon the teachings of the Scriptures. They could not allow sin to go unchecked. Discipline was necessary if their desires to establish a Godly commonwealth were to become reality.

The commonwealth would begin with the people who came here to establish it. If the people were ungodly, then the commonwealth would be ungodly. After all, was it not because of corruption within the Church that they took their stand against it? They knew that God would not bless a nation who allowed her people to do as they pleased and shunned the word of God.

The Puritan churches, as do many churches today, kept records of all of the business that they conducted.  It is best to research those records to see just how the Puritans actually did deal with sin within their commonwealth and church.  Remember.

The Puritans had drawn up a compact that was similar to the Mayflower Compact, which the Pilgrims agreed to when they arrived in America.

This was a covenant between the people. It established how they would live and what they should abide by in their new land. It was the “law of the land.” It was established upon the strict moral code of the Bible.  They believed that because of this covenant, when one person sinned, the sin had an affect on the whole commonwealth.

When looking at the records, one will see that the Puritans were strict in their discipline.  But, one will also see that their actions were almost always tempered with great mercy and compassion.

For instance, we find the words of a young girl by the name of Tryal Pore. She was arraigned before the Middlesex County Court in 1656. She confessed, “by sin I have not only done what I can to pull down the judgment from the Lord on myself, but also upon the place where I live.” The Puritans knew the Bible very well.

They knew that Hebrews 12:5-11 teaches that God will chasten those whom he loves. If a nation or a commonwealth ignored sin within their ranks, they have seen through Biblical examples that God would not only deal with the sinner, but with the nation or commonwealth as well for overlooking what had been done and by not dealing with it.

When the young lady had finished her confession, the magistrates felt that she had truly repented for what she had done. They felt that since she had repented, God had forgiven her sin, so they would also. They knew that Ezekiel had quoted the Lord when he said, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). God is not a God who just looks for an opportunity to strike a person down. He would prefer that the person would repent and receive his forgiveness.  So, the Puritans felt that they would follow his example. After all, the Bible was their law book.

Another example of the way that the Puritans handled disciplinary actions was in the case of a lady by the name of Ann Hibbens. Ann was a wife of an elder in the First Church of Boston. She felt that a man who had done some decorative carving for her had overcharged her for the work that he had done. The man insisted that the price was fair.  After some time, the church had to step in and settle the problem. They called impartial woodworkers in from another town. These individuals looked at the work and stated that the man’s price was fair.  Mrs. Hibbens then confessed her error with tears.

But, it didn’t last long. After a while, she brought it up again. Again, the church got involved. This time the church severely censured her for her attitude. She settled down for a while again. But, before long, it started all over again. She attacked the man in his presence and behind his back.

The church had no alternative. They had to act. The church called a hearing to decide on the action that was needed. The church gave Mrs. Hibbens the opportunity to admit her error. However, she refused. The church then acted. Pastor John Cotton announced the sentence. He stated that because she slandered, raised up an evil report, lied, sowed discord and would not adhere to what the church had admonished her to do, she was excommunicated. As Paul had stated in 1 Corinthians 5, she was turned out from the church and turned over to Satan for his pleasure.

It is recorded that ten years later Mrs. Hibbens was again placed on trial. But this time it was a civil trial instead of a church hearing. This time she was charged with witchcraft.  If found guilty, the sentence would be death by hanging.

It is important to remember that the purpose of excommunication was to let the pressure of a person’s sin bring them to repentance and not to condemn the person. But, there were times that excommunication did not bring about the desired result and the person would wind up committing something more serious and suffering a more severe punishment.  The criminal law would take over since the person was not under the jurisdiction of the church itself.

As we can see by these examples, the Puritans did not lack compassion for those who went astray. They did what they could to get the person to do what was right. But each person had to make up their own mind as to what they were going to do with the opportunity that they were given by the church and the commonwealth elders.

One final example of how the Puritan Commonwealth dealt with sin was the case of John Underhill.  John was excommunicated for adultery. After his excommunication, he repented for what he had done. He begged to be reinstalled. The pastor gave him an opportunity to address the congregation.

Mr. Winthrop stated in his records of the incident that Mr. Underhill came before the body in his “worst clothes.” Mr. Underhill was a man who took great pride in his appearance and would not usually be seen in front of a group of people dressed in this way. He addressed the body “with many sighs and tears” and openly confessed the sinfulness of his adulterous lifestyle. He stated that God and the church were right in the way that they had dealt with his condition. He asked the church to have compassion on him and to take him back into the church and out from under the hand of Satan. The church felt that he had truly repented and readmitted him into the church.

It is stated that he went on to become a very successful military captain. He also held many other positions of responsibility as well.

What can we learn about the Puritans? They were a compassionate people. They believed in dealing with sin in a very absolute manner. But, they also believed that if a person repented, then they should be given an opportunity go on with their life within the church and the community. But, if a person rejected the opportunity that was afforded him, then he would have to suffer the consequences of his sin.

Later, when this nation was established, the writers took these practices into consideration as they established our Constitution. It was not their intent to have their government to rule as a tyrant. Every citizen was to be given a trial. Every sentence was to be administered by taking every circumstance into consideration. The “time was to meet the seriousness of the crime.”

One final thought. The death penalty had never, in the early time of this nation’s history, been considered cruel and unusual punishment. The death penalty was established prior to the old Jewish Law. God also carried it on in certain crimes under what is called the Law of Moses. It was established by God before the Jews even became a people. In Genesis 9:5-6 we are told that because life is sacred and that man was created in the image of God that “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”