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My Puritan Ancestors

November 18, 2012

In the 17th century, just a hundred years after the Reformation had begun, the Church of England which had developed out of the Reformation was still unsettled. Some of its members thought it had not gone far enough and was still too filled with human rules and traditions based in pagan rites. Those members wanted a “purer” faith founded on the Scripture only and became known as “Puritans.” In order to find a place where they could live according to their beliefs and make a good living doing it, many of them moved to North America. It started as the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony and then expanded to the New Haven Colony.

My 9th great-grandfather, Thomas Munson (1612 – 1685) and his family were among those Puritans who established the New Haven Colony (later to be absorbed into the Connecticut Colony). The Puritans had a defined hierarchy within the community with the upper echelon being “freemen.” When Thomas first moved to the colony, he was neither a freeman nor, on the other end of the white male hierarchy, a hired servant or an indentured servant. (Women and children had no status or rights; there were a few African and Native American slaves, also with no rights, of course.) Through his service in the Pequot War, he earned the status of a freeman. As such, he was allowed to become a member of the church, own property, and vote in community elections. He likely also needed to prove a “conversion experience” to become a member of the congregation (1).

At a “General Court,” June 11th, Thomas Mounson, Francis Newman and four others ” was made freemen and admitted members of the Court.” A list of 70 names, comprising “all the freemen of the Courte of New Haven,” in the handwriting of Thomas Fugill (whose term of office expired 16 March 1646), has Thomas Mounson as No. 25. (2)

The Puritans held themselves and each other to extremely rigid standards of behavior. The penalties for living outside those standards were harsh. They used the stocks and pillory, the ducking stool, wearing letters, and even more extreme punishments. This was not just for the sake of cruelty, but they worked hard to live to a standard they believed would honor their faith and their Lord. They believed passionately in predestination–the theory that only specially chosen people were “predestined” to be accepted in heaven–and were committed to behaving in ways which they believed would be deserving of that status if they happened to be among the predestined. They also valued education and worked hard to educate their children. Both Harvard (in Boston, MA) and Yale (in New Haven, CT) Universities were begun by the Puritans–Thomas Munson’s descendents being among those who help establish Yale.

Thomas Munson’s signature on the letter requesting Rev. Cotton Mather to be their pastor.

As a member of the congregation, Thomas became a person of some esteem. He was among the leaders who wrote to the Rev. Increase Mather asking (after having been turned down after an earlier request) that his son, Cotton Mather, might come to New Haven to be their pastor (3). In part, the letter requested (in 17th century English):

Having formerly made our Address to the Rev. M [Mr] Cotton Mather, a worthy member of your Society, and (for a tyme, limited as we understood, in ministry) among you as an Adjuvant to his hono [honored] father, your Rev Pastor,–hoping at the end of that tyme to have attained him for the supply of our great and pressing necessity. Instead thereof, . . . we found dissappoinmt [disappointment] . . . . Now, although by renewing our mocon to yourselves about that worthy & p-cious [precious] Instrument, . . . yet not knowing what God may doe [do], nor how far the sence of our inexpressibly sorrowfull condicon may affect your harts with a compassinat simpathy  with vs [us] therein, and incline you to deny yourselves . . . to helpe a poore church of Christ in eminent daunger of vtter [danger of utter] ruin & desolacon [desolation] . . . we are bold to make this applicacon to your selves.

Signed by William Peck, Thomas Munson, Moses Mansfield, John Cooper, John Winstone. (4)

Joanna (Mew) Munson, Thomas’ wife, would not have had any rights in the community but their son, Samuel, was raised in the faith and became a second-generation leader among the Puritans. The Puritan “experiment” only lasted a few generations, but had lasting effects on the psyche of this country.

(2) The Munson Record, Vol 1, p. 6.
(3) ibid.  pp. 55 – 56.
(4) ibid.

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