Yet even in the moment of triumph, things started to crumble. Roger Williams challenged the biblical basis for the Christendom assumptions of the entire New England Way. The clear-eyed Bible-reader Anne Hutchinson charged that the “works” required to build a Puritan social ordered violated the crucial doctrine of “free grace” that grounded all of Puritan theology. In the 1640s, concern began to grow about the increasing numbers of rising adults who, though living upright lives, could not or would not make a profession of saving grace. That problem, which threatened the entire system, became the subject of intense divisiveness for more than a century. In the 1650s, the violent potential of the system broke out when Massachusetts executed four Quakers for returning to the colony after they had been banished. And then in the 1680s, when the dynamics of power shifted in England and Massachusetts lost its charter, which again made voting a function of property, the colony meekly gave up the crucial mechanism that had grounded their entire system.

None of these upsets completely compromised what John Winthrop and the other early Puritans had hoped to accomplish in the new world. Yet all of them spoke to how much easier it was to protest evils in church and society than to translate dedicated personal holiness into a godly political regime. All also spoke to the really difficult problem of getting deeply committed Bible-believers to agree on what Christian politics actually entailed.

The message of hope from such scholarship today is that whatever shape Christian politics now takes, it would benefit by learning from the Puritans. They were indeed heroic spiritual ancestors. But if they—even with unusual purity of heart and unusual dedication for the long haul—could not succeed, then those of us who are weaker in faith and less self-sacrificing in resolution should look first in our politics to cultivating the virtues that even these hardy pioneers sometimes neglected, including modesty, patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control.