Volunteerism In Colonial America
The early migrations to New England exemplify the coexistence and common roots of public and private volunteerism. The Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth in 1620 were adherents of a Protestantism that rejected the idea of a state church in favor of a church as a voluntary gathering of believers (Ahlstrom, 1972). Rejecting ecclesiastical hierarchy and the authority of the priesthood, these "separatists" established independent self-governing congregations in which members covenanted with one another to live under a common religious discipline and accept responsibility for maintaining the church and its ministry. Though an important step toward modern forms of private volunteerism, the separatists nonetheless rejected religious toleration—the existence of competing congregations—and their congregations maintained many of the characteristics of state churches.
By contrast, the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, while embracing many of the theological positions and ecclesiastical practices of their Plymouth neighbors, saw themselves as operating within the Church of England and sustained the hope that their mode of worship would set an example for the reform of the church in the old country. Because the Massachusetts Bay Colony drew on a far broader range of the spectrum of Puritan belief and practice, the first decade of settlement was fraught with intense conflict between factions on a number of issues, including the civil role of the church. Though ultimately embracing a state church model—intolerant of religious diversity and depending on taxation for its support—the Massachusetts Bay churches nonetheless regarded themselves as covenanted bodies of believers and, to this extent, embodied important characteristics of modern volunteerism.
Conflicts over theology and church polity in the 1630s resulted in the fracturing of Puritan unity. A number of Massachusetts groups, including most notably the antinomian followers of Roger Williams, were expelled from the colony. The new colony they established on Narragansett Bay (Rhode Island) permitted complete religious tolerance, requiring all churches to be supported by their members and rejecting state support. The Baptist and other congregations of Rhode Island offer the first examples of completely private volunteerism.
Ironically, the new colony's religious diversity stood in the way of any large-scale voluntarily supported enterprises. As the Massachusetts colonists moved to define and enforce religious orthodoxy, they were able to allocate public funds and to encourage private philanthropy to found Harvard College in 1636. Harvard was in no sense a private institution: most of its revenues came from government rather than from private donations; the members of its governing boards were ex officio ministers and magistrates. Nonetheless, to the extent that it solicited gifts and bequests from individuals, it did embody elements that would become basic elements of private institutions when they ultimately emerged. Colonies with religious establishments—Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia—all established colleges by the first decade of the eighteenth century. In contrast, the colleges that embraced religious tolerance—Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—would not do so until decades later.
Even in Massachusetts, where the precursors of modern volunteerism would first take root, authorities were not entirely comfortable with the idea of voluntary activity outside the purview of the state. In 1638, when a group of Boston merchants petitioned the Massachusetts General Court requesting a charter for a private artillery company, worried legislators pondered "how dangerous it might be to erect a standing authority of military men, which might easily, in time, overthrow the civil power" (quoted in Bremer, p. 309). The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company was allowed to organize, but was denied corporate status.
In the later years of the seventeenth century, a variety of kinds of secular volunteerism began to flourish in England (Jordan, 1959, 1960, 1962). The most important of these were mutual benefit organizations—fraternal societies like the Freemasons, friendly societies, and social clubs—membership associations that enabled participants to assist one another in times of illness and death, to share resources like books, and to provide places of entertainment and relaxation. By the first decades of the eighteenth century, variants of these types of voluntary associations began to appear in North America. As early as 1710, Boston's preeminent religious leader, Reverend Cotton Mather (1663–1728), urged readers of his pamphlet Bonifacius to organize neighborhood "societies" to worship privately and to identify and care for residents in need. He also encouraged people to create associations to suppress disorders, to visit the sick and needy, and to enable young artisans to help one another.
Mather's writings had a profound influence on Benjamin Franklin, who, during his apprenticeship in London in the 1730s, had an opportunity to see firsthand the potent possibilities of voluntary association. On his return to America, he helped to introduce Freemasonry (which soon became one of the most important translocal organizations in the colonies) and, later, was instrumental in organizing young men's associations (the Junto), voluntary fire companies, an academy, and a hospital (Franklin, 1993).
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