(an unedited take on the New England Green from the forthcoming book)
The original settlers of New England left their mother country because any number of apostasies and restrictions of the Anglican Church grew to be unacceptable to their Puritanical perspective. To the Puritan, Anglican services had become unserious – involving music. The Church of England allowed baptisms to those whose parents had not been explicitly saved by the blood of Christ. The common practice of tithing – the automatic contribution of 10% of income or wealth – was being imposed by its sponsoring government: England.
Tithing is an ancient practice of giving a portion of everything you have to God. Per the Book of Leviticus: “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord;” It was not the contribution the Puritans objected to per se, it was the imposition of obligation by a state religion. Rather than just another tax, for Puritans giving to the church was the recognition that God had given you everything anyway, so getting a little less, net, is no loss.
So when the tiny waves of religious zealots sailed west from England and its Church in the first half of the 17th century they left music and tithing behind. What set sail with them was extreme faith and a deep commitment to working in the way of the Lord. When the Puritans arrived they had few assets beyond Faith and the capacity for Hard Work. They either appropriated land vacated by the native populations diminished by diseases spread by 16th century European explorers, or bartered things they had for real estate owned by the indigenous occupants.
But if all things come from God, and all they had was from Him, then walking the talk of Puritanism meant that the land they now were using in His name was His gift to them, no matter what the transactional mechanisms involved were: and what better way to consecrate a gift in the world than by dedicating part of it for God’s purposes? Worshipping God was the Puritans central purpose, so putting Him at the center of their lives in this world was completely natural.
Riches were lacking and in fact meaningless to Puritans, but the land was central to their survival, and so the most truly meaningful tithe they could offer their Lord and Savior was the best and central property of their new world. So just about every 17th century New England town had, at its very center, a place of collective purpose and Worship: the Town Green.
Greens are not parks. By definition a park is a place of recreation, a place of calm or fun amid the hustle and bustle of commerce and culture. For the Puritans, recreation and fun were literally the work of the Devil. Greens, then, supported the collective agricultural activities of grazing or harvest – and the sacred place of burial and worship complemented sustaining farm activities. Once survival was assured, a common building could be built on common land for common purposes on the Green – the Meeting House.
All roads in these new towns emanated from the Green or led to it – and thus others. Each Green was the heart of the first places of New England.
If the Puritan life was devoted to but two things – work and worship – then the central space and common building each town created and used was simply the manifestation of that ethic and culture. The Green was a place of God’s Grace in a hostile world, and place that embodied and thus reflected Faith.
As this overwhelming devotion to God waned in subsequent generations, towns grew in number and diversity and housing, shops, inns, mills, schools were all built and had land dedicated for their use: but each Green remained largely unaffected, and remained the central abiding cultural and physical focus of New England towns created in its first 200 years of existence.
On the Greens themselves, buildings and landscapes were built that reflected the shift from the centrality of God to the multivalent activities of an emerging energetic culture. Eventually some churches were added to meetinghouses, courthouses, libraries and schools often reposed on what had been sacred ground – evicting cemeteries and cattle. As towns grew, open space grew harder to find, and as American became itself, versus a child of England, it needed protectors, and local militias needed a place to train and rally, and a place of the Peace of God became a place to prepare for war.
As the 19th century dissociated the home from the workplace, recreation and sport similarly found its own place on the Green – games, strolls, dog-walking, concerts and outdoor markets came to add culture and commerce to what had been the fundamental tithe paid to God in recognition of His mercy.
Raw cleared property became designed to have carefully planted trees, walks, memorials, flagpoles, band stands and fountains. What were foundational focal points for exquisitely new 17th century communities slowly transitioned into places that venerated an inevitably distancing past. While these gifts of cleared land to the Almighty had been created to serve His purposes at the hands of His followers, New England Greens transition to become preserved and venerated oasis places – portals to the time of their creators, rather than to The Creator.
Like the seeds the Colonists first planted, their manifest freedom to leave England and live the love they had for God grew in their successors to become the love of freedom that created a country that made their freedom to worship the law of the land – versus the law of England that mandated support for a state church. The central datum from which each town’s physical growth emanated, its Green, became a place that silently harkens to those centuries of faith – first in God, then in Freedom.
That freedom made commerce, education and culture explode over 300 years – most often pirouetting around the hundreds of Greens at the center of everything. Whether it’s the blessings of a loving God or the blessings of American freedom, these once tiny New England towns grew far more successfully than the colonists’ crops: the growing season was centuries, not months, and the roots of each are clearly set to each Green from which they grew.