Marc Aronson, John Winthrop, Oliver Cromwell, and the Land of Promise (Clarion Books, 2004)

Aside from being an armchair theologian, I'm also an armchair historian. I'll be the first to admit that I love reading history, and historical theology or theological history just plain excite me. As a Protestant, I find the whole 17th-century in England a fascinating time period, if for no other reason than there is hardly a single popular historian who can approach the period without showing his or her prejudices. Let's face it: England in the 17th century was not only a powder keg time, it is still a powder keg amongst students of history. On the one hand, you have those who overly sympathize with the Puritans and view the Puritan experiment as the closest the church has ever come to establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. On the other hand, you have those who see the Puritans as a bunch of power-hungry, position-grabbing hypocrites who used religion as a weapon to incite the masses to overthrow the government and establish their own reign of terror, both in England and the in the Colonies.

So, it was with great interest that I read John Winthrop, Oliver Cromwell, and the Land of Promise by Marc Aronson. The title reveals little about the author's position, pro or con, on the Puritans. Could this truly be a popular history of the Puritans and their beliefs that took a balanced view? I am glad to report that it was this and more.

As the title implies, Aronson approaches the 17th century by looking at two of the key figures from that time. John Winthrop was the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from its inception until his death in 1649 (with the exception of a short period in 1636-1637 when Henry Vane Jr was governor). John Winthrop was born into a family that had gained its property from the land that Henry VIII had confiscated from the monasteries. Young Winthrop spent his youth as a nominal protestant, not showing anything particularly outstanding about his position. He struggled with the Puritan issues of the time of personal holiness: what actions were pleasing to God and which weren't? He was not, however, overly holy. As Aronson comments, 'John seems to have enjoyed sex.' In Puritan terms, young Winthrop was a legalist with no heart conversion to the Christian faith. In 1616 this all began to change when his second wife (his first had died of disease), Thomasine Clopton, a devout protestant, died after a difficult childbirth. This shook John up a bit and within the year he had the conversion experience that many Puritans sought after. He wrote that God 'filled me with such power of faith, sense of his love, etc., as has made my heart melt with joy.'

About a decade after this conversion, Winthrop found himself presented with the opportunity to go to the New World and establish a colony there. This was a Puritan mission, and as a Puritan, he devoutly considered it his duty to help establish the Kingdom of God on earth and the New World was seen as an opportunity to do so.

At this point in the history of John Winthrop, a biased historian could easily present Winthrop and his group of colonists as land-grabbing zealots more interested in a holy crusade than in respecting the rights of the natives in the North American continent. As Aronson is careful to point out, Winthrop struggled deeply in his soul about how best to establish a colony and still respect the rights of the natives to their land. He resolved not to take the land except that which was purchased from the natives. Even this resolve was made only after the preacher John Cotton convinced Winthrop that the Puritan expedition to the New World was analogous to the Jewish exodus from Egypt to Canaan. But it is important to note that even with this Biblical 'justification,' Winthrop still felt he could not unilaterally take the land from the natives.

The history of John Winthrop continues in such a vein: he finds himself confronted with a religious dilemma in the Land of Promise and he must carve out a solution such that his religious convictions are not compromised, but that his colony can survive. As Aronson so deftly shows, Winthrop was human: he made decisions using all the knowledge he had of the day. Some of that knowledge we might find suspect in the 21st century, but it would be an act of chronological snobbery to completely dismiss Winthrop as a zealot. He may have been zealous, but he was also a compassionate, warm human being. When the Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted to execute Roger Williams, Winthrop took a chance to warn Williams to flee. He didn't have to do this, but he could not envision doing else.

The other main character of this history, Oliver Cromwell, provides an equal study in how Puritan theology and beliefs shaped men of character who were still yet flawed. Even more than Winthrop, Cromwell is often viewed as a great villain in history by those who see the Puritan experiment in self-determination as a massive error. But as Aronson points out, it is this very experiment which started world politics down the road that resulted in the creation of representative governments as we know them today. To dismiss Cromwell completely out of hand as a religious zealot would be to invalidate much of the foundation that established the modern freedoms we enjoy today. We'd be cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Cromwell had beginnings similar to Winthrop, being born into a family that gained land from Henry VIII's destruction of the Catholic holdings in England. However, unlike the Winthrops, the Cromwells were in decline. This had an effect on Cromwell's psyche; as Aronson writes, 'Perhaps the constant sting of feeling like a failure and comparing himself to his relations drove him [Cromwell] to succeed at any cost.' Cromwell, like Winthrop, was a devout Puritan, and as such, he felt that '[w]hen he felt he knew God's wishes, he was the boldest, most forceful, most organized leader. When he did not, he was lost.'

Aronson painstakenly looks at some of the events in Cromwell's life in light of this. It is easy for us to look back 350 years to these events and cast judgment on what Cromwell did, but Aronson in his narrative makes us see what Cromwell was up against. Some of his decisions were good and sound, some were not. But it is hard, after reading Aronson's book, to declare that Cromwell was just a power-grabbing zealot. While we may not understand or agree with his beliefs about acting on the will of God, we should at least be fair and try to understand what drove him to make these decisions.

In the final analysis, that is both the success and the shortcoming of Marc Aronson's history: he tries to be as fair as he can and as sensitve as he can to the historical period about which he is writing. On the plus side, he brings strongly to life the peculiarities that drove each of the historical personages (Winthrop, Cromwell, and Charles I) to act the way they did. They were not 'monsters' intent on evil actions, but men who -- for right or wrong -- were acting according to what they believed God to be commanding and desiring them to do. It would be easy for us to say 'time will judge them', but doesn't that mean us putting our own historical milieu with its rights and wrongs in the judgment seat?

On the negative side, Aronson's very desire to put the actions of these great historical men in context sometimes goes too far. Most particularly Aronson tries hard to show how Cromwell was not able to stop the execution of the rightful king. However, this whole passage in the book comes across as too reaching. It would have been much better if Aronson had just had Atlas nod and admit Cromwell really made a mess of things of his own doing. But that's just one minor section in an otherwise excellent book that skillfully creates a context for one of history's most divisive periods. No matter where you stand on the rightness or wrongness of the Puritan experiments of the 17th century, I recommend John Winthrop, Oliver Cromwell, and the Land of Promise as a balanced and fair presentation of the period that goes to great pains to create a context for events that to the 21st-century denizen may be confusing and unclear.

[Matthew Scott Winslow]