The Pagan Pilgrim:
Intellectual "heathen" remains an inspiration
by Steve Rasmussen
Thomas Morton of Merrymount
of Merrymount ... did devise amongst themselves to have ... Revels,
and merriment after the old English custom ... & therefore
brewed a barrell of excellent beer, & provided a case of
bottles to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of
that day. And upon Mayday they brought the Maypole to the place
appointed, with drums, guns, pistols, and other fitting instruments,
for that purpose; and there erected it with the help of Savages,
that came thither of purpose to see the manner of our Revels.
A goodly pine tree of 80 foot long, was reared up, with a pair
of buckshorns nailed on, somewhat near unto the top of it; where
it stood as a fair sea mark for directions, how to find out the
way to mine Host of Ma-re Mount."
Those dour Puritans who kneeled in thanksgiving at Plymouth
Rock before marching forth to conquer the wilderness and its native
inhabitants with Bibles and guns weren't the only Pilgrims to
seek spiritual freedom on the New World's shores. Just a few leagues
up the Massachusetts coast from Plymouth's fortress of fundamentalist
conformity, a poet and lawyer named Thomas Morton founded a colony
that, had it survived Puritan persecution, might have spawned
a far more Earth-friendly and egalitarian history of America than
the one that's come down to us.
Morton, a senior partner in a Crown-sponsored trading venture,
sailed to New England in 1624 with a Captain Wollaston and 30
indentured young men. They settled and began trading for furs
on a spit of land given them by the native Algonquin tribes, whose
culture the classically educated, broad-minded Morton soon came
to admire as far more civilized and humanitarian than that of
his intolerant, brutal European neighbors. When Wollaston began
seeking more profits by selling off the indentured servants to
hard labor on the Virginia tobacco plantations, Morton persuaded
the remaining servants (it wasn't hard) to reject their harsh
master and throw in with this visionary as free members of a colony
that would trade and live in harmony with the local tribes.
It didn't take long for the free-thinking Morton to draw the
ire of the nearby Puritans. His prosperous, easygoing colony attracted
escapees from the harsh, hunger-ridden regime of the Plymouth
plantation. Morton had no compunctions about trading guns to his
Indian friends, whom the Puritans viewed as hostile savages. They
resented Morton's intellectual scorn for their fundamentalist
pieties, which he thought simply masked their stupidity and greed.
(Morton made up mocking names for the Puritan leaders the
diminutive soldier Miles Standish he called "Captain Shrimpe,"
and the pompous John Endicott he dismissed as "that great
swelling fellow, Captain Littleworth.") The Puritans condemned
Morton as an impious, drunken libertine who worst sin of
all consorted with the native women and encouraged his
men to do so, too.
The final straw for the Puritans came when Morton erected his
great Maypole, renamed his colony (from Mt. Wollaston to "Merrymount"
or "Ma-re Mount," punning on the Latin word for
"sea"), and threw a merrie olde pagan MayDay party to
help woo Indian wives for his young bachelors. Morton penned a
courtly poem for the occasion full of references to Greek mythology
and gods and goddesses "which although it were made according
to the occurrents [fashions] of the time," he later wrote,
"puzzled the Separatists [as the Puritans were then called]
most pitifully to expound it.
"The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle
to the precise Separatists that lived at new Plymouth. They termed
it an Idoll; yea they called it the Calf of Horeb: and stood at
defiance with the place, naming it Mount Dagon; threatening to
make it a woefull mount and not a merry mount."
Or, as the Puritan Gov. William Bradford wrote with horror
in his History of Plymouth Plantation: "They ... set
up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together,
inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking
together, (like so many fairies, or furies rather,) and worse
practices. As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts
of ye Roman Goddess Flora, or ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians."
The Puritans made good on their "woefull" threat
motivated, later historians suggest, as much by Merrymount's
challenge to their fur monopoly as by its defiant heathenism.
Miles Standish and his troops invaded Merrymount, seized Morton
without a shot fired in defense to avoid bloodshed, according
to Morton; because the inhabitants were too drunk to lift their
weapons, according to Bradford and hauled him in chains
before the governor to be tried for his supposed crimes.
Bradford didn't dare execute Morton, who was well-connected
in London, so he marooned him on a desert isle till an English
ship could carry him back to England. John Endicott chopped down
the proud Maypole, scattered Merrymount's inhabitants and destroyed
Morton spent the next decade in London fighting the Puritans
with his pen and legal skills. He published New English Canaan
in 1637, describing America's bounty and defending the wisdom
and decency of her native inhabitants, while wittily excoriating
the Puritan settlers. He was instrumental in having the royal
charter of their Massachusetts Bay Colony revoked.
But times were rapidly changing in England, too. The newly
rising Puritan Roundheads, struggling with the old-guard Royalist
Cavaliers, would soon win the Civil War that not only decapitated
the English Crown (laying the groundwork for the American Revolution)
but also persecuted and destroyed the remaining vestiges of Merrie
Olde England's pagan past.
An aging, disheartened Morton set sail one last time for the
fertile wilderness he loved, only to find his Indian friends decimated
by the white man's guns and diseases and the Puritans' hold on
New England stronger than ever. They welcomed their old nemesis
back by throwing him into a dank dungeon all winter long. His
health broken, Mine Host of Merrymount finally died in 1647 in
Maine, as far away from the "precise Separatists" as
he could get.
Two centuries later, another rebel against rule-bound conformity,
Nathaniel Hawthorne, immortalized the seminal struggle among New
England's first settlers between pagan freedom and fundamentalist
rigidity in a still-popular tale, "The May-Pole of Merry
Mount." Today, as Earth-based spirituality is being practiced
more and more openly, modern Pagans and Wiccans point for evidence
of America's deep-rooted religious diversity to the true story
of Merrymount that could-have-been earthly paradise Thomas
Morton called "Glory Here."
First published in Mountain
Xpress, Nov. 21, 2001. All rights reserved.
For more information:
Read Bradford's and Morton's versions
of the events at Merrymount, Morton's poem which mystified the
Puritans, and his lusty MayDay song:
"Drink and be merry, merry, merry boyes,
Let all your delight be in Hymens joyes,
Iô to Hymen now the day is come,
About the merry Maypole take a Roome. ..."
and Customs of the Indians (of New England) describes the
homes, clothing, customs, and way of life of the Native Americans
May-Pole of Merry Mount," Nathaniel Hawthorne's fictional
account, published in 1837, hews fairly closely to the actual
about May Day and its history as a holiday of defiance of
the puritanical work ethic.
A happy footnote to Merrymount's history is that the community
at Mt. Wollaston (later Braintree, then Quincy) continued to
be associated with rebels and freethinkers for many years after
Morton was forced out. In 1636, Anne Hutchinson and her husband
William settled there upon arriving from England. (Anne was an
"Antinomian" who asserted that God could speak directly
to the individual through inspiration, and not through the Bible
alone as the Puritans insisted.)
Goody Cole, the Witch of Hampton, first settled there at the same
time as the Hutchinsons. Later, John Hancock was born there,
and the great-grandfather of John Quincy Adams owned the Mt.
Wollaston farm in the early 1700s.
Thanks to the Thomas Morton Alliance for first drawing
my [ed: the original poster's] attention to this pioneer of religious freedom some nine years
ago. Their motto was "Earth Religion, Earthly Concerns!"
Sadly, the group apparently no longer exists -- at least not
until someone out there rears up its standard anew ...
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