Truth v. Myth

Stacy Schiff does not know anything about the Puritans

Posted on January 11, 2016. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’ve complained about this before, and we hate to start the New Year on a bashing note, but it’s been forced upon us by Schiff’s December 18 op-ed in the New York Times.

“Anger: An American History” is an attempt to contextualize the current anti-immigrant, “we are at war” environment Americans find themselves in now. This sort of contextualization is a good idea. But you can’t make up a context, and that is what Schiff does, once again, by demonizing the Puritans.

Let’s do a close-read:

From that earlier set of founding fathers — the men who settled 17th century Massachusetts — came the first dark words about dark powers. No matter that they sailed to these shores in search of religious freedom. Once established, they pulled up the gangplank behind them.

—The Puritans did not come to America “in search of religious freedom.” As we have pointed out, in The Puritans and Freedom of Religion, they came here so they could practice their own religion freely. That is a very different thing than “religious freedom”. They were persecuted in England for criticizing the Anglican church, so they came here specifically to create a new state where their own religion was the state religion. There was no “gangplank” to pull up behind them. No one in the western world that we know of was offering religious freedom at that time. To set the Puritans up as the only ones who didn’t, and as terrible hypocrites who denied others the liberty they sought, is ridiculous.

The city on a hill was an exclusively Puritan sanctuary. The sense of exceptionalism — “we are surely the Lord’s firstborn in this wilderness,” the Massachusetts minister William Stoughton observed in an influential 1668 address — bound itself up from the start with prejudice. If you are the pure, someone else needs to be impure.

—Yes, we’ve established that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was created by Puritans for Puritans. Just like Virginia was created by Anglicans for Anglicans. Schiff’s attempt to peg a start date for the concept of American Exceptionalism by tying it to the Puritans is again misguided. First, the Stoughton quote is (like almost all quotes from Puritan clergy) referring to religion and religion only: Stoughton is saying that because their parents came to America to set up a reformed Anglican state, the people listening to him are the first-born citizens of a state blessed by God with pure religion. This has nothing to do with American exceptionalism, which is a political theory that says America’s political founding as the United States was a unique—and uniquely good—event in human history because it created representative democracy for the first time and led other nations to adopt it.

Schiff does not understand either Puritan theology or American exceptionalism, and so she conflates the two. Then she makes an awkward leap to her next topic, which is:

Quakers fared badly. In Boston, Cotton Mather compared them not only to dogs, but to serpents, dragons and vipers. The great young hope of the New England ministry, he sounds as if he would have started a Quaker database if he could have. Banned, exiled, imprisoned, whipped, Quakers were a “leprous” people, their teachings as wholesome as the “juice of toads.”

Baptists and Anglicans fared little better. In 1689, Boston’s Anglicans discovered the windows of their church smashed, “the doors and walls daubed and defiled with dung, and other filth, in the rudest and basest manner imaginable.” The most moderate of Massachusetts men believed in Papist cabals; priests qualified as the radical Muslim clerics of the day. From the pulpit came regular warnings that boatloads of nefarious Irishmen were set to disembark in Boston harbor, to establish Roman Catholicism in New England.

—As so many people do, Schiff takes things that every other group in Europe did in the 17th century and pretends that only the Puritans did them. Only Puritans persecuted people who did not practice their version of Anglicanism (which evolved into Congregationalism in America). Only Puritans hated and feared Catholics. But anyone who casts even a passing glance over the history of the Reformation knows that hating anyone who did not practice your religion was the rule, not the exception. Catholics hated Protestants, Lutherans hated Calvinists, Calvinists hated Arminians, etc. etc. That’s what religious wars do: they create impermeable boundaries between sects or faiths. The Quakers were no better: they came into Massachusetts hell-bent on stripping away the Puritans’ religion and forcing their own onto the colony.

If she understood Congregational practice, Schiff would know just how much of a threat Baptists posed: they did not believe in infant baptism, which was key to the Puritans, who believed babies should be baptized as quickly as possible to bring them into the fold of believers, in case they died in infancy or childhood.

And if she read any history, Schiff would know that in 1689, the Dominion of New England was in place in all of today’s New England and in New York and today’s New Jersey. This was a government imposed by the new Catholic king of England, James II, and it stripped Massachusetts residents of their lands, their political representation, and their religious majority: everyone was forced to pay taxes to support the unreformed Anglican church at the expense of both Congregational and Baptist churches. The royally imposed governor forced Christmas and other religious celebrations that both Baptist and Congregational citizens rejected, and turned some churches into Anglican churches. This is the background to the desecration of the main Anglican church in Boston, which was part of a popular uprising against the governor that led to the overthrow of the Dominion.

The alerts naturally served an evangelical purpose. The common enemy encouraged cohesion, appealing to a tribal instinct. In the words of Owen Stanwood, a Boston College historian, the trumped-up fears neatly packaged the Massachusetts settlers’ “desire for security, their Protestant heritage, and their nascent sense of racial privilege.”

—Name the group in America at the time that did not seek to build cohesion by creating a common enemy. There isn’t one. Whites organized an identity against blacks in slaveholding regions; whites and sometimes blacks identified against American Indians; English colonists identified against the Catholic French in Canada. The list goes on. Again, something everyone did is presented as something only the Puritans did.

The enemies did not need actually to be in New England’s midst. As an Anglican official snorted from a Boston prison in 1689: “There were not two Roman Catholics betwixt this and New York.” New England was nonetheless sacrificed over and over to its heathen adversaries, according to the ministry, that era’s Department of Homeland Security.

—Schiff of course hates all Congregationalist ministers, and so connects them to the modern-day government organization she hates. In an NPR interview she did about this piece, she claimed that the ministers were the only source of information in Massachusetts because “there was no press.”

The first printing press was up and running in Boston in 1639. Pamphlets and broadsides published in London were always made available in New England. What she means perhaps is that there were no newspapers, but Publick Occurrences hit the presses in 1690. She just doesn’t know what she is talking about. People respected their ministers, but they got news from many sources.

Now Schiff moves to her favorite topic, the 1692 witch mania:

So great was the terror that year that grown men watched neighbors fly through the streets; they kicked at gleaming balls of fire in their beds. They saw hundreds celebrate a satanic Sabbath as clearly as some of us saw thousands of Muslims dancing in the Jersey City streets after 9/11. Stoughton would preside over the witchcraft trials, securing a 100 percent conviction rate. A Baptist minister who objected that the court risked executing innocents found himself charged with sedition. He was offered the choice between a jail sentence and a crushing fine. He was not heard from again. One problem with decency: It can be maddeningly quiet, at least until it explodes and asks if anyone has noticed it has been sitting, squirming, in the room all along.

—That second sentence should give everyone who reads it great pause. How many of “us” saw Muslims celebrate on September 11th? How “clear” was that for “us”? If you find yourself arguing back that very few Americans entertained such a bizarre conspiracy theory in 2001, you have an idea how most people in Massachusetts in 1692 would feel if they heard Schiff saying “they” saw people fly through the streets. Hey, they would respond; some people had witch-mania, but the vast majority of us did not, and did not support the trials, and were glad when they were over.

And it was Giles Corey, a farmer, who was killed by pressing (stones placed on his chest in an attempt to get him to confess). He was not a Baptist minister, and he had actually accused his wife Martha of witchcraft before he decided the trials were wrong, and he recanted his testimony.

The last sentence makes absolutely no sense in the context, but we are indeed squirming and squirming from reading this article.

Having firmly established that all bad things in America come from the Puritans and nowhere else, Schiff moves on to show how later generations used their inherited Puritan evil to create “toxic brush fires” of bigotry. But they only get one short paragraph, and the essay ends with the Puritans once again:

Anxiety produces specters; sensing ourselves lost, disenfranchised, dwarfed, we take reckless aim. “We have to be much smarter, or it’s never, ever going to end,” Donald J. Trump has warned of the war on terror. Amen. At least we can savor the irony that today’s zealots share a playbook with the Puritans, a people who — finding the holiday too pagan — waged the original war on Christmas.

—Christmas was not mentioned anywhere in this, but she just can’t resist adding it in. The Puritans did not think Christmas was “too pagan”. They thought God made all days equally holy, and that humans shouldn’t decide that certain days were better than others. Again, many other Protestant reformers in the 17th century  joined them in this, including Baptists and Quakers.

Creating false history does not help Americans see their way more clearly in the present. Creating a bogeyman to blame all our bigotry on is ridiculous–as if a group of people who held sway for under 60 years in one part of the country in the earliest settlement period, who if not for the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving were about to fade permanently from the public mind in the early/ mid-1800s, created all bigotry and hatred in this country and maybe the world. What does this line of “reasoning” do for the people who pursue it? What does it satisfy in them? How does abhorring a group most Americans, especially Stacy Schiff, know nothing about make present-day America a better place? How does it end hatred?

It doesn’t. Keep this in mind the next time you read about those hateful Puritans.

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Saints and Strangers and history

Posted on December 16, 2015. Filed under: American history, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to the wrap-up to our short series on Saints and Strangers, the NatGeo series on the Plimoth settlers. We’re keeping it brief, as promised.

We’re all pretty used to the fact that movies and TV shows and series that cover historical events are never fully accurate. It’s a shame that we all accept that, but it happens because most people don’t realize that what they’re seeing is inaccurate. Beyond that, most of the writers on these programs and movies don’t realize themselves that what they’re writing is inaccurate. Myths get passed down through the generations and become the basis of popular history, while facts get bullied into a corner and completely forgotten. This is doubly astounding because almost without fail, the facts are more interesting than the fictions. But because the facts are, sadly, less familiar than the myths, the facts are less appealing, no matter how interesting they are. Writers are also afraid to deviate from the accepted norms, to tell a story that goes against conventional wisdom, because they will be accused of violating the facts. It’s a real crazy-quilt of fiction given the gravitas of fact and fact being denigrated as deviation from the norm.

In the case of the Plimoth settlers, the norms/myths are taught early on, in grade school, in America. Pilgrims, First Thanksgiving, white caps, turkey, religious freedom. One thing we were immensely grateful that S&S abstained from was telling the apocryphal 19th-century “story” of Captain Standish courting Priscilla Mullins via John Alden, and losing her to Alden. (This myth was given a nod by S&S‘ decision to portray Mullins as a sassy, flirty beauty with long flowing hair who comes on pretty strong to the dopey Alden.)

The heart of the problem is that when you begin from a myth, any research you do will be bent to the task of supporting that myth. If you believe the Pilgrims celebrated a single Thanksgiving each November as a holiday, you will read Of Plimoth Plantation‘s description of thanksgiving days as proof of this, rather than proof that days of thanksgiving were as constant as days of fasting and humiliation, and you will completely ignore the fact that one of the reasons why the Separatists left England was that they refused to celebrate any holidays.

Thus were primary resources proudly cited by S&S, but we can’t get excited about it. Ignoring reams of facts while misapplying a few facts to support a general myth is not research.

It’s always dangerous to manipulate facts to promote your own worldview, as we see from multiple political races and the claims candidates make to support their wild variations from U.S. principles of representative democracy and make them seem like tried-and-true Americana. Long story short, if you’re interested in any topic, read objective histories about it, and then bring in as many primary sources as you can to test those histories, and then make a decision about what really happened, what it meant then, and how it reverberates now.

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Saints and Strangers: getting it wrong, getting it right

Posted on December 9, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Colonial America, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our brief series on the NatGeo channel’s Thanksgiving offering Saints and Strangers. Here we’ll go over highlights of part 2.

The episode begins with the English party going out to meet the Wampanoags who have kidnapped an English boy as a reprisal for the English raiding the Indians’ corn stores the previous Fall. This is a prime example of the show getting some things wonderfully right and others bafflingly wrong. It is accurate in presenting kidnapping as an Indian tactic, and in showing the kidnapped boy treated very well, and given clothes and gifts by his captors. Most kidnappees, Indian or English, were fully adopted into the groups they were kidnapped by (often to replace young men lost in battle) and treated very well. It is inaccurate in showing William Bradford apologizing for stealing the corn.

Remember how episode 1 showed Bradford refusing to help fix the mast on the Mayflower, even though the ship would sink without the repair, because he wouldn’t work on the Sabbath? This is a complete fabrication, but it was conjured up out of thin air to try to make a point about how devout Bradford and the Pilgrims were (as opposed to the non-Separatists on board). Having him apologize for stealing the corn is another fabrication meant to make us identify with Bradford as a good man. This is  acceptable in the context of reminding modern viewers that the English settlers did not come over with the intent of murdering as many Indians as possible, or with an immovable hostility toward all Indians. But the way in which it’s inaccurate is large and complex.

First, just as he approved fixing the mast on a Sunday, Bradford approved stealing the corn. There were two reasons: first, the settlers knew about the smallpox epidemic that had devastated the Indian population in today’s southeastern New England and actually fully consumed some groups, so when they found the corn caches untouched, they assumed the people the corn belonged to were dead. Therefore, taking their corn was not a problem. Second, even when he found out the corn’s owners were not dead, Bradford maintained the position that the corn had to be taken for the settlers to survive, which is true—they did not have enough food to last the winter.

The show’s determination to make Bradford sorry for stealing is part of its attempt to make a 17th-century person conform to 19th- and 20th-century cultural norms. The show portrays Bradford as apologetic because he recognizes the Indians as his equals, despite their race. That is a 19th/20th-century idea. For early-mid 17th-century Europeans, the only differentiator that really mattered was religion. Indians were not alien to the settlers because of their race; it was their religious difference that mattered most. They were not Christian, but almost more importantly to the Separatists, they were not people who had left the Anglican church to practice more pure Protestant worship. It was that specific for them. As we point out in The Puritans and Freedom of Religion, in Europe at that time, most people saw those who did not practice their exact form of religion as demons, heathens, spiders, monsters, and antichrists. The vitriol showered over Catholics by Protestants—and vice-versa—will turn your stomach if you read it. And within Protestantism, the proliferation of different sects produced just as much hatred. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought mostly in the principalities that became Germany, produced war crimes and atrocities that boggle the mind, and justified them on the basis of religion. Whole towns were set on fire and the population kept inside to be burned alive because they were Protestant, or Catholic.

So the Separatists in Plimoth did not hate the Indians for being heathens as much as they hated the Catholics and disdained their unreformed Anglican brethren. At least the Indians, unlike the Catholics, had the excuse of not ever having heard the Gospel. Neither did they hate the Indians for their race. Race was a concept just getting off the ground in the mid-1600s, as African slavery came to the Americas. When Bradford faced the Wampanoags, he faced them as potential allies or potential enemies, and practiced as sophisticated a diplomacy as he could to maintain them as allies. But he wouldn’t have apologized about the corn because he would have maintained that God provided it for his people. He would have told Massasoit this, to impress upon him the supernatural support the little group of settlers enjoyed. That godly support was a bargaining chip, and it was hard for Massasoit to completely dismiss it, after seeing his people and neighboring groups harrowed by disease that the English people seemed immune to.

That’s a long, long digression on a short point, but it seems like an important one.

Here’s something the show gets very right: when Bradford wants to build a separate church building, Stephen Hopkins counters that they need to focus their energy on paying off their investors, which was absolutely true. The colony lived under the threat basically of repossession if it didn’t send valuable raw materials back to England that its investors could sell. Copper and gold were the (vain) hope; fur was the sure thing, but timber was the resource that the settlers were able to send first. Any trees cut down that first year after houses were built had to be prepared for shipment back to England, not for building a church.

Hopkins also claims that the colony is first and foremost a commercial venture, which is exactly how the non-Separatist majority of settlers saw it. The friction between them and the Separatists who saw they colony as first and foremost a religious safe-haven would eventually see the Separatists buying the non-Separatists out so they could go their “separate” ways.

One badly anachronistic moment is when, after joining forces with Hobbamock to attack the Massachusetts, English military leader Miles Standish tells the surviving Massachusetts “if you force us to violence it will reverberate for generations to come”. This foreshadowing is something that would never have occurred to Standish. It wasn’t the kind of threat Europeans made at the time. They would have said “we will kill every single one of you right now so you have no posterity”. There were to be no future generations reverberating with anything for heathens.

Another thing the show does well is to keep us guessing about Squanto’s loyalties. We will never know what his motives or goals were, whether he loved the settlers or hated them or saw them merely as pawns in his own game of power and survival. We will never know if he loved Massasoit or hated him or saw him merely as a pawn in his own game. We just don’t know. All we know is that both settlers and Wampanoags mistrusted him from time to time. So when Squanto does not translate Bradford’s words accurately when Bradford is addressed Canonicus, sachem of the Narragansetts, and turns Bradford’s words into an insult, we are left wondering why, just as everyone at the time was left.

The show goes to great lengths to tell us that Bradford really loved Squanto as a friend, and risks the colony’s survival to protect him when Massasoit demands his head. But Bradford’s own account says that he protected Squanto because “[the attack on Squanto] was conceived not fit to be born; for if [the English] should suffer their freinds and messengers thus to be wronged, they should have none would cleave unto them, or give them any intelligence, or do them service afterwards; but next they would [attack the settlers] themselves.” [160]

Bradford later writes this very direct assessment (he writes in the third person):

…they [the English] began to see that Squanto sought his own ends, and played his own game, by putting the Indians in fear, and drawing gifts from them to enrich himself; making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would. Yea, he made them believe they [the English] kept the plague buried in the ground, and could send it amongst whom they would, which did much terrify the Indians, and made them depend more on him, and seek more to him than to Massasoit, which procured him envy, and had like to have cost him his life. For after the discovery of his practises, Massasoit sought it both privately and openly; which caused him to stick close to the English, and never durst go from them till he died. They also made good use of the emulation [jealous rivalry] that grew between Hobbamock and him, which made them carry more squarely. And the Governor [Bradford himself] seemed to countenance the one [Squanto], and the Captain the other [Hobbamock], by which they had better intelligence, and made them both more diligent.

This is powerfully different from the show’s presentation of Bradford’s deep friendship with Squanto. Here Bradford says he, and all the settlers, began to see that Squanto would use anyone to get more private power, and that he only stayed with the settlers because he was afraid of being killed if he left Plimoth. When Squanto and Hobbamock became enemies, Bradford prudently pretended to trust Squanto while Standish pretended to trust Hobbamock, so they could get as much information out of both men as possible to protect themselves.

This is just Bradford’s side of the story—we don’t have Hobbamock’s or Squanto’s—but it rings true for the English approach to American Indians. Bradford appreciated the practical help the settlement got from Squanto regarding planting and farming, and believed God provided Squanto to help them in that way. (Bradford would likely have been glad that Squanto had been sold into English slavery so he could learn English and eventually help them.) But he did not trust Squanto, and seems not to have considered him a friend.

Oh criminy, then comes the First Thanksgiving. The biggest problem here is that Wampanoag women are shown at the tables, which did not happen.  As we point out in Truth v. Myth: The First Thanksgiving, only Wampanoag men came (about 90 of them eventually) and the time was spent hunting and holding shooting games. No women. A tiny note is that there a lot of chairs at the tables as well as benches, but chairs were an expensive rarity in Plimoth in 1621.

Mrs. Billington yells “damn them!” twice when the men heading to Wessagusset steal the settlers’ corn, which would have gotten her whipped and/or fined in the real Plimoth, where cursing was not allowed.

When Squanto dies, Edward Winslow and Bradford talk about him, and Winslow says Squanto was a schemer. Bradford grabs him by the shoulders and says “The Lord forgives you for believing you are better than that man,” another example of 19th-century religion being foisted onto 17th-century Plimoth. The Separatists did believe that they were better than Indians—and Catholics and unreformed Anglicans and anyone else who was not an English Separatist.

Right: Winslow goes to help tend Massasoit when he seems to be dying. This was a critical turning point in the difficult relations between the two groups, and the Wampanoags seemed to have believed Winslow’s god helped their sachem.

The show nears its end with a terrible myth, which is Bradford saying we have to prepare for our second Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was not an annual tradition in Plimoth. Thanksgivings were held when appropriate, to thank God for his beneficence, just as days of humiliation and fasting were held to beg God’s mercy. There was no “second Thanksgiving” at Plimoth, but the show insists on it. At this mythical Thanksgiving, Indian women are again present and dance with English men, which was out of the question at that time.

At the very end, Bradford has a voiceover: “They called us Pilgrims, but what have we become? Saints, strangers, savages. We came for God, to move forward, for ourselves and our children.” His son arrives from Holland that Spring, and the circle is complete. Though no one ever called the Separatists Pilgrims in the 1600s.

We’ll quickly wrap this up next time—we promise it will be brief!

 

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Saints and Strangers, myths and misunderstandings

Posted on December 2, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

Yes, we sat through the four hours of Saints and Strangers on the National Geographic channel (“NatGeo”), and entered into it fearing the worst. The series made an effort to be authentic, using primary sources for some of the dialogue, but in the end the show was a queasy mix of fact and fiction.

There are two main problems with this and with almost all shows that address history: the people making the show don’t understand what their historical subjects really believed, and therefore can’t use their firsthand quotes properly; and anachronism creeps in almost unavoidably.

Saints and Strangers has another problem, which is since they announced that they used primary sources, viewers are led to believe that everything they hear the characters saying is authentic, something they actually wrote down at the time. For instance, when William Bradford first lands in America, and he and his party are exploring, he says in a voiceover “there were some things God neglected to mention”—just as Indians begin to attack.

This is not 17th-century language by any stretch; Bradford never said that.  It’s 19th-century language trying to evoke “old-fashioned” talk. But beyond this relatively small problem, a larger problem with the show is revealed here: the settlers are fixated on Indian attack. Yes, the settlers are shown worrying about lack of food, but even that is all about Indian attack: how will we trade for food if the Indians are our enemies and attack us? will our pillaging of food stores bring on an Indian attack?

The English settlers we call Pilgrims (they did not call themselves that, nor did anyone else at that time; it’s really a 19th-century term although the show has Bradford saying “they call us Pilgrims”) were worried about many things, most likely in this order: 1) will the Separatist minority in the colony be able to found and maintain it as a haven of true religion; 2) will the colony make enough money to pay off its investors; 3) will more Separatists really come from Holland to bolster the fledgling colony, or will they abandon us; 4) will we have enough food to survive until the Spring; 5) will the non-Separatist majority overwhelm us and take over the colony’s government, or will they just go back to England in the Spring?

These were the main concerns because they addressed the main reason for founding the colony of Plimoth: to set up a godly commonwealth in America. The non-Separatist settlers, who were not on a righteous mission to reform Protestantism, were concerned that the Separatists were too otherworldly to run a colony and do what had to be done, and they worried that their own chances of survival would be hampered by the religious nuts running things.

Neither group was unfamiliar with American Indians. English sailors had been visiting the Atlantic seaboard (today’s New England) for decades before 1620, fishing and trading with the Indians. That’s how the Indians eventually contracted smallpox, in the 1619 epidemic that decimated the native population so awfully, just before the Pilgrims arrived. That’s how Squanto and Samoset knew English (Squanto having also been kidnapped by sailors and sold into English slavery). So Indians were not an unknown and utterly terrifying quantity. The settlers arrived feeling relatively confident that they could establish trade relations with the Indians just as their predecessors had.

For their part, those Indians remaining were not deathly afraid of the English. The English just weren’t a threat: there were less than 100 of them after a few months, and they had no power, no alliances, no nothing. The Wampanoags, Massachusetts, and Narragansetts saw the English as potential pawns in their ongoing political game of chess and nothing more. There was no reason for them to immediately destroy Plimoth.

The grave-robbing that some settlers carried out was a terrible insult and desecration, and it was taken very seriously by the Indians. The show does not make it clear that when the settlers broke into mounds that they thought were corn caches but found to be graves, they were frightened and repulsed, and usually left them to find corn caches. Robbing a grave was not “okay” in England, and taking items from an Indian grave, symbols of a heathen religion, was definitely not okay or desirable.

But in the show, one of the settlers deliberately breaks into a grave and holds up a skull that seems to have long blonde hair—clearly implying that the Indians who lived there killed an English person (woman?) and therefore are criminals who don’t deserve any consideration. This bizarre moment is inexplicable to the Plimoth scholar, since it never happened and no women are recorded as having joined English fishing parties to America and again, an English woman would have been far more likely to have been adopted into an American Indian tribe than murdered.

To return to breaking into corn caches, Bradford vehemently protests that this is wrong; they can’t steal food, God is testing them by showing them corn that they mustn’t eat. If the makers of the show had opened Of Plimoth Plantation, Bradford’s history of the colony, they would have seen that Bradford had no such qualms. He calmly says they found corn and took it without a second thought and thanked God for it.

The urge to have Bradford reject stealing from Indians is problematic. The show’s makers want him to be a hero, so he can’t be racist. But that is not at all how the issue was framed at the time. We’ll get into this problem in the next post.

For now, the show’s intent to present Indian attack as the only concern, the only possible concern, of the settlers sits ill with the show’s generally positive portrayal of the Wampanoags, especially their leader Massasoit. This portrayal is contested by some Wampanoags, mostly on linguistic and material cultural grounds, but it’s the first time we’ve really seen American Indians presented as actual human beings who have virtues and faults and opinions and worries and axes to grind and suspicions and generosity just like any other people (rather than Noble Savages or George of the Jungle). To present the Indians as real people but the settlers as cartoon characters scared to death of savages is inaccurate and unhelpful.

Other issues: the show seems to claim that Dorothy Bradford, depressed and scared, killed herself by throwing herself overboard in the harbor. This is infuriating, and an example of not understanding the Separatists. Dorothy is shown as a weak, nervous woman (hysterical, in fact) who, when someone on the Mayflower talks about how Indians torture their prisoners screeches out to her husband, “Is such a place safe for settlement?!” She can’t accept the fact that they had to leave their young son behind in Holland, frets when William leaves the ship, and, of course, being so weak of mind, kills herself.

Where to begin. First and foremost, a woman like Dorothy Bradford, who had devoted herself completely to Christ, was extremely unlikely to kill herself. Taking your own life was a sin that damned you inevitably to Hell, and insulted God. As scholars, we posit that no devout Separatist would take her own life after so short a time of trial as the journey to America. And Dorothy Bradford was devout: you didn’t marry a man like William Bradford if you weren’t as iron-hard dedicated to your religion as he was. Second, Dorothy Bradford had already left her home to go to Holland, where life was not easy, and was not a weak, fainting female who couldn’t stand the challenges of America. She slipped overboard on the freezing, sleet-covered deck and drowned. Why is that inevitably a suicide? When the sailor falls overboard on the way over, he’s not labeled a suicide. John Winthrop’s son Henry fell overboard from the Arbella just days after it arrived in what is now Boston Harbor in 1630, but he is never labeled a suicide.

In the show, when Bradford asks what happened, he is told that she slipped on the wet deck, that it was an accident. That makes sense. But the build-up to the accident, where she is crying on deck, then her face goes deadly calm, and then she is falling face-first in a swan dive into the water, all claim suicide.

—Why are all the non-Separatists presented as loud, crude, mean, and lusty characters from Shakespeare? The show’s writers show more snobbery against them than the Separatists ever did.

—Why do the landing parties carry guns and wear full armor, but whenever they are confronted by Indians run away? Why carry guns you’re not going to use?

—When the mast of the Mayflower cracks and the ship is imperiled, Bradford says he and his men can’t help fix it because they don’t work on the Sabbath. This never happened. Separatists were not idiots, and Bradford does not record this protest in OPP. (He does, however, accurately describe the break as the result of deliberate “cunning and deceit” on the part of the ship’s owners who consistently over-laded the ship, weakening the mast, and then pawned it off on the settlers as fixed).

—When a young boy dies on ship, Dorothy Bradford says “He suffered for the sins of others.” This is a religious idea utterly alien to the Separatists that she would never have thought or said. Anything that happened to a person happened because it was God’s plan for that person, end of story. Only Christ suffered and died for the sins of others.

—Why are the houses they show in episode 1 in Plimoth so enormous? The first houses were tiny.

—A man enters his freezing hut in Plimoth in the dead of winter, where there’s a one-foot gap at the top and bottom of the door, and immediately takes his coat off since he’s “indoors” now. Then he washes his hands in a shallow basin of water. Pretty sure no one took their coat off for about 5 months over the New England winter, and water would have frozen solid inside any house. When the man’s wife dies, Bradford says “God doles out hardship to those with faith strong enough to accept it”, which is another anachronism better suited to the 19th century. Trials from God were strictly meant to reveal God’s will, and show a person how to fulfill it.

—When Squanto asks Bradford if he misses home, Bradford says “this is my home now.” Squanto asks, “Is the Lord with you now?” and Bradford stares mournfully into the distance, unable to answer. If you have read even one paragraph of William Bradford you know that his answer to that question was always, ever, and unequivocally yes yes yes. Because he believed it, and because no Protestant at that time (or now, really) ever believed God was not watching them.

—When Edward Winslow marries Susanna White they have a marriage ceremony with everyone gathered; this never happened for any Separatist. Marriage was not a sacrament (which is why divorce was allowed) and was carried out in a very brief civil ceremony with only 2 official witnesses.

—Few of the women wear caps to cover their hair, which is terribly inaccurate, and those who do have their hair flowing out from under the cap. Caps did two things: they kept your hair out of your face and your work, and they modestly covered your head as God willed. The women wore caps and kept their hair completely under them.

Next time,  part two and a wrap up. It has some good things to say about the show, and won’t be as long as this!

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Classic Truth v. Myth: The first Thanksgiving

Posted on November 25, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Colonial America, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , |

We’re still slogging our way through the unbelievably myth—no, it’s really worse: lie-packed Saints and Strangers series about the Pilgrims on National Geographic, so this week we present once again our TvM post on the first Thanksgiving. Enjoy, and have a good holiday weekend.

 

The first Thanksgiving: it’s a hallowed phrase that, like “Washington crossing the Delaware“, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” or “Damn the torpedoes!”, does not bring up many solid facts. Unfortunately, “the first Thanksgiving” is usually either completely debunked, with people saying no such thing ever happened, or used as a weapon against the Pilgrims—i.e., they had a lovely Thanksgiving with the Indians and then killed them all.

The truth about the first Thanksgiving is that it did happen, in the fall of 1621. The Pilgrims had landed in what is now Massachusetts the previous November—a terrible time to begin a colony. Their provisions were low, and it was too late to plant anything. It is another myth that they landed so late because they got lost. They had intended to land south of Long Island, New York and settle in what is now New Jersey, where it was warmer, but their ship was almost destroyed in a dangerous area just south of Cape Cod, and the captain turned back. They then had to crawl the ship down the Cape, looking for a suitable place to land. Long story short, they ended up in what is now Plymouth.

Most Americans know how so many of those first settlers died from starvation and disease over the winter, and how it was only by raiding Wampanoag food caches that the colony survived at all. By the spring, there were not many colonists left to plant food, but they dragged themselves out to do so. They had good luck, and help from the Wampanoags, who showed them planting techniques—potentially just to keep the Pilgrims from raiding their winter stores again. By November 1621, a very good harvest was in, and Governor William Bradford called for a day of thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims often had days of thanksgiving. In times of trouble, they had fasts, which were sacrifices given for God’s help. In celebration times, they had thanksgivings to thank God for helping them. So thanksgivings were a common part of Pilgrim life, and calling  for a thanksgiving to praise God for the harvest would not have been unusual, and would have been a day spent largely in church and at prayer.

So the men went out to shoot some “fowls” for the dinner, and perhaps they ran into some Wampanoags, or maybe a few Wampanoags were visting Plymouth, as they often did, and heard about the day of celebration. At any rate, here is the only—yes, the one and only—eyewitness description of what happened next:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.  They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.  At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

That’s Edward Winslow, writing about the thanksgiving in his journal of Pilgrim life called “Mourt’s Relation”, published in 1622. We see that Massasoit and 90 of his men arrived at some point, having heard about the feast, and the Pilgrims hosted them for three days, and had some rather Anglican sport firing their guns. Certainly the Wampanoags had a right to feel they should join in, since it was their help that had led to the good harvest. A one-day thanksgiving turned into three days of feasting and games.

And that was it. People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year—we have seen that thanksgivings were not annual events, but came randomly when the people felt they were needed as a response to current events, and the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. Holidays were a human invention that made some days better than others when God had made all days equally holy. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way. When things were going well, Separatists and Puritans had days of thanksgiving. When things were going badly, they had days of fasting. None of them were annual holidays or cause for feasting (of course fast days weren’t, but even thanksgivings were mostly spent in church, with no special meal).

So that one-time harvest thanksgiving was indeed a happy event, shared in equally by Pilgrim and Wampanoag. And those Pilgrims who sat down with Massasoit and his men did not then slaughter them all; it would not be until their grandchildren’s generation that war broke out, in 1676, once Massasoit and the Pilgrims at that table were long dead.

The first Thanksgiving was an impromptu, bi-cultural celebration that we can all think of happily as we sit down to our annual table (provided by Abraham Lincoln, who made an annual Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863).

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The Salem witch trials are not part of the history of witchcraft

Posted on October 5, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

We admit to a bit of hyperbole in that title, but we’re just amplifying the message sent by Diane Purkiss in her August 2015 review of the new Penguin Book of Witches (edited by Katherine Howe).

Her review article is called “We need more types of witches”, and in it Purkiss points out and criticizes the overwhelming fixation historians and average Americans alike have with the Salem witch trials in 1692 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

The Penguin Book of Witches disappoints. A better title for this volume might be “The Penguin Book of Witches in the American Colonies”, or even “The Penguin Book of Massachusetts Witches”. As its editor Katherine Howe admits, the English materials she selects are chosen as “antecedent”–her word–to the Salem trials, which are the sole witchcraft trials covered in detail in this slender collection.

The effect is to reinforce the already disproportionate place of Salem in the popular imagination. The Salem trials were very late; they occurred in 1692, while the peak decade for executions in the Anglophone world was in the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth I. Historians estimate that 30,000 witches died in the witchcraft persecutions [in Europe], of whom just twenty died at Salem. …In truth, Salem was in many respects profoundly unusual.

So far so good. We do take issue with Purkiss’ description of the causes of the witch trials:

The monocultural hardline Calvinism of the colonies, the lack of older and once powerful cultures as an anxiety-provoking substrate, the absence of the usual special interest groups, and the vicious hierarchy of the Calvinist churches all militate against using Salem as a representative case of witch-hunting. Yet that is how it is used, both here and elsewhere.

There was no “vicious hierarchy” in Massachusetts churches, which were not Calvinist in the first place (they were Congregational/Independent); Purkiss references the “extreme Calvinism that had led to the establishment of the colonies in the first place”. We assume she means Massachusetts and the Connecticut colonies. But the English reformers who went to New England were not “extreme Calvinists”; they had already worked out unique compromises with Calvinism before they ever left England, during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and his son Charles I. That was in 1630—by 1692, even the original Congregationalist platform had been pretty thoroughly undermined and partially demolished by the loss of Massachusetts’ political independence and the resulting influx of non-Congregational populations, as well as the growing Baptist movement in the 1670s, before the loss of the charter.

We go into this timeline in more depth in our article on Stacy Schiff’s new and wildly inaccurate piece of historical fiction The Witches of Salem. It’s a shame that even people making excellent points about the Salem trials don’t know the history well, but we do want to focus here on the many things Purkiss gets right. She points out the ridiculous fantasy that is The Crucible, and laments its hold on both the popular and scholarly imagination. And Purkiss points out that Matthew Hopkins, who took advantage of social turmoil and fear during the English Civil War to execute 300-500 women as witches in just two years, is never mentioned in the current Penguin anthology, and seems to be completely lost to history, while the people involved in the deaths of just 20 men and women in Salem continue to live in infamy.

If you’re interested in the history of human belief in witches, it’s best to study that entire history, not just one incident that has likely become famous simply because it was the only incident of witch-mania in all American/U.S. history. The anomaly always fascinates, but we can’t let it obscure the history.

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Kim Davis, the Supreme Court, and tyranny of the majority

Posted on September 15, 2015. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

If you read the HP regularly, you know that in 2008 we ran our first post on gay marriage and the tyranny of the majority. That’s when California legalized gay marriage, and when we heard someone on the radio complain about the role of the California State Supreme Court in making that happen. We explain in the post how the judiciary was specifically created to overturn majority laws/votes that oppress minorities, and therefore court rulings overturning laws against gay marriage are not, as is so often claimed, unconstitutional. Here’s the bulk of the post:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

We heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

Over and over we reposted this article as new states approved or disallowed gay marriage. When on June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell et al. v. Hodges that gay marriage is constitutional—or, more pointedly, that denying it is unconstitutional—we happily reposted for the last time on that subject.

Being historians, however, we knew that the backlash would not be long in coming. The clamor for “religious rights” that has grown up suspiciously in synch with the campaign for equal marriage began to claim that upholding gay Americans’ rights was oppressing Christian Americans’ rights. This is based on a fundamental and perhaps willful misunderstanding of the First Amendment, which we post about here. The First Amendment protects freedom of worship, not belief: here’s the gist from our post:

Worship is generally defined as attending a religious service, but it can be extended to prayer, pilgrimage, wearing one’s hair a certain way, and dressing and eating a certain way.

What worship is not defined as is belief. This is the crucial misunderstanding so many Americans have. Worship is an outward manifestation of belief. But it is not belief itself. And that’s why the First Amendment says nothing about religious belief. Absolutely nothing at all. This is what makes separation of church and state possible: religious belief is not allowed to determine what services the state provides. This means people who have certain religious beliefs can’t be refused state services, and it means that people who have certain religious beliefs can’t refuse to provide state services to people their beliefs condemn.

That’s why all these “religious freedom” bills being passed are bogus. They enshrine beliefs as rights (this is nowhere in the Constitution) and then say the First Amendment protects those beliefs by allowing people to refuse to serve others because their religion says to. Beliefs are amorphous. They are not concrete activities like worship. Anyone can have any belief they want, and their right to express those beliefs is protected. But if that expression comes in the form of refusing state or federal government services, then they cross a line by saying the state or federal government must conform to their beliefs.

This is what’s happening when county clerks refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The clerks are saying their right to do so is protected, but it is not. If something is legal in this country, the government must provide it—end of story. If people feel they cannot do that, then they should resign their position (quit their job). You cannot refuse to uphold U.S. law on the basis of your religious beliefs. The First Amendment specifically says this by saying Congress shall establish no religion.

So when Kim Davis and her ilk say their religious rights are being trampled, they are wrong. There’s a right to freedom of worship in the U.S., but not to protection of religious belief.

Yet Davis and her fleet of lawyers and her opportunistic supporters are making the same complaint against the courts that were made throughout the marriage equality campaign: Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said in an NPR report that “People are tired of the tyranny of judicial action that takes people’s freedoms away, takes their basic fundamental constitutional rights and puts them in jeopardy.”

Ah, the scourge of “judicial tyranny”. It ruins everything for people who want to oppress others. It seems we will have to keep running our post on the judiciary and its role in stopping tyranny of the majority for as long as people misrepresent and contort the Constitution to serve their goal of restricting liberties, establishing a state religion, and claiming that offering liberty and justice to all is contrary to their Christian beliefs.

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Stop saying “slaves”, “Union”, and “Compromise of 1850”—they’re all inaccurate

Posted on September 11, 2015. Filed under: Civil War, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

We were delighted to find this article on the History News Network: “There are words scholars should no longer use to describe slavery and the Civil War”, by Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. You need to go read it yourself, and not just because it affirms our decision here at the HP to refuse to use the word “slave” (see Why I don’t talk about black slaves in America). It’s important because we all know that terminology is the best weapon in any fight. Are people who oppose abortion anti-choice or pro-life? The first is negative, the second positive. Establishing the labels “right to life” and “pro-life” was the smartest thing anti-abortion advocates ever did, because those subjective labels skewed the public perception of what was being debated and what was at stake.

Labels created today go down in history and do the same thing: they shape how we think about past events. Let’s let Dr. Landis take over from here:

…We no longer call the Civil War “The War Between the States,” nor do we refer to women’s rights activists as “suffragettes,” nor do we call African-Americans “Negroes.” Language has changed before, and I propose that it should change again.

Legal historian Paul Finkelman (Albany Law) has made a compelling case against the label “compromise” to describe the legislative packages that avoided disunion in the antebellum era. …Instead of the “Compromise of 1850,” which implies that both North and South gave and received equally in the bargains over slavery, the legislation should be called the “Appeasement of 1850.” Appeasement more accurately describes the uneven nature of the agreement. In 1849 and 1850, white Southerners in Congress made demands and issued threats concerning the spread and protection of slavery, and, as in 1820 and 1833, Northerners acquiesced: the slave states obtained almost everything they demanded, including an obnoxious Fugitive Slave Law, enlarged Texas border, payment of Texas debts, potential spread of slavery into new western territories, the protection of the slave trade in Washington, DC, and the renunciation of congressional authority over slavery. The free states, in turn, received almost nothing (California was permitted to enter as a free state, but residents had already voted against slavery). Hardly a compromise!

Likewise, scholar Edward Baptist (Cornell) has provided new terms with which to speak about slavery. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications. These far more accurate and appropriate terms serve his argument well, as he re-examines the role of unfree labor in the rise of the United States as an economic powerhouse and its place in the global economy. In order to tear down old myths, he eschews the old language.

This excerpt reveals how powerful language that has been handed down for hundreds of years can be. Landis also advocates dropping “the Union” because this upholds the Confederate claim that the United States ceased to exist during the Civil War.

There are many words and phrases that were carefully crafted to shape perception that we use unthinkingly today: reservation, the opening of the West, Japanese internment camps, inner city, Gilded Age, carpetbagger, housing projects, robber baron, etc. Some are euphemisms (reservation, opening), some have become joke terms that imply that the people or issue in question a) weren’t that bad and b) don’t matter anymore because they have forever disappeared from our society when they haven’t (Gilded Age, robber baron). Some are vicious insults created by racists frantic at the notion that someone might help black people (carpetbagger). Others originally meant “poor, dangerous black people” and now are utterly meaningless (inner city, housing project). And don’t get us started on the meaningless parasite that “community” has become.

If you read the HP, you know we’re all about truth defeating myth, so we welcome the movement to speak accurately and honestly and fearlessly about our history, and we urge you to make your own changes and take back your history and your present-day reality.

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Stacy Schiff and The Witches of Salem—skip it

Posted on September 8, 2015. Filed under: Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

As readers of the HP know, the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony, were an anomaly; as we put it in the first post of our series on the Salem witch trials,

…the Salem event is actually an anomaly in the history of their colony. Here are some points that are often overlooked:

–There was only ever one “witch scare” in the Puritan colonies. For the roughly 60 years that Puritan theology and law dominated New England, only one time were dozens of people persecuted and some executed as witches.

–The scare did not spread. It stayed local to the Salem area, and did not create a prairie fire of persecution across New England.

–It generated almost no positive reaction in New England at the time. It was generally not celebrated as a victory of God over Satan, despite the strenuous efforts of Cotton Mather. It almost seems as if all New England wanted to forget about it as soon as possible.

–The scare itself was set in the midst of violent political upheaval in New England and especially Massachusetts, and cannot be separated from it.

–There is no one single cause we can pinpoint for the scare; just as there is never just one cause for any major event, there were multiple factors leading to murder in Salem.

The research into what really happened in Salem in 1692 and why has been prolific for the past 10 years, as scholars recruit modern science to try to answer some questions.

If you go to that series, you’ll see that we offer an interesting round-up of scholarly theories about why the outbreak of accusations happened and how/why they were allowed to get so out of hand.

Here, we address an article that appeared in the September 7, 2015 New Yorker magazine. We think it’s an article; the author, Stacy Schiff, is a novelist whose novel on the Salem witch trials is due out in October, but the item in question does not seem to be an excerpt from a novel. Instead, it is a queasy mix of fact and fiction whose purpose is very hard to discern. We will give it a shot.

The piece begins with a series of stark fallacies: that in 1692, “the population of New England would fit into Yankee Stadium today. Nearly to a person, they were Puritans. Having suffered for their faith, they had sailed to North America to worship ‘with more purity and less peril than they could do in the country where they were’… On a providential mission, they hoped to begin history anew; they had the advantage of building a civilization from scratch. Like any oppressed people, they defined themselves by what offended them, which would give New England its gritty flavor and, it has been argued, America its independence.”

This is astounding; where to begin?

First, by 1692 the population of New England was not majority Puritan; by that time, Massachusetts was at the end of a long process of losing its independence. In 1684, its independent charter had been revoked by the Lords of Trade; the practical outcome of this was that Massachusetts would lose its popularly elected legislation and governor (they would be replaced by royal appointees answerable only to England). Before this could fully take place, James II created the Dominion of New England, which we describe in depth here; suffice it to say that this basically removed local government in each of the affected colonies, threw all land titles into question, and enforced religious toleration.

In 1689, this Dominion was overthrown by local American colonists once they heard that the Glorious Revolution had taken place and removed James II from the throne. Between 1689 and 1692 the colonists were caught in the middle of the new King William III’s wars with France, as northern New England experienced attacks from French Canada that destroyed settlements and sent refugees fleeing south. In 1694, a new royal charter arrived at last in Boston, and the colony had a royally appointed governor and a popularly elected legislature.

That’s a lot of change, and what it adds up to is that by 1692 when the witch trials happened, Massachusetts was light years from the days of its founding generation in the 1630s. Its religious hegemony had been broken, and even within the original Congregational church there were sharp theological debates and a general drift away from traditional Puritan religion. The bar for joining a Congregational church as a full member (taking common) was lowered substantially, and in some churches removed altogether. Non-traditional Congregationalists were a strong minority throughout the colony, and a majority in the capital of Boston. Aside from that, there were growing Baptist and unreformed Anglican populations. Old social rules against things like public drunkenness were abruptly discontinued under the rule of the royally appointed governor.

So by 1692, the old Puritan colony was long-gone. No one felt they were on a providential mission anymore, and people in Boston only became more and more connected with London, enjoying the commerce and fashions and relaxed, luxury-appreciative lifestyle brought over by army officers, rich merchants, and others.

Next, no Puritan even in the 1630s ever thought they were “building a civilization from scratch”; it was the exact opposite. They were building on continental reformed Protestant traditions from Geneva and Holland and elsewhere to bring the Reformation to its logical conclusion, to act it out in a way that was not possible in a non-homogenous population. The Puritan founders hewed to English law and custom—clung to it, really, as a lifeline to the old country in an alien world.

Next, the Puritan founders hardly “defined themselves by what offended them” in America. America was their golden, God-sent opportunity to create a religious and political settlement that was everything they ever wanted, the glorious culmination of continental Reformation. In America, Puritans defined themselves by what they wanted, and what they believed was completely, wonderfully achievable.

Finally, the old, corny stereotype of “gritty” Yankees is laughable, and the idea that there is a straight line from the Massachusetts Bay to American independence has long been thoroughly debunked.

If all these errors are in the second paragraph of a piece that goes on for nine pages, that doesn’t bode well for the innocent reader. We tried to read it but gave up, as the piece veered between topics and people and times as if they were all one, and treated all with that condescending disgust that is so familiar to anyone who studies the Puritans. Clearly Schiff, like most people, sees the Salem massacre as typical of, rather than anomalous to, Puritans. She glides over topics to preserve that point of view: for instance, she goes on about how Puritans absolutely believed in witches (which they did) but elides (or does not know) that accusations of witch craft were a) relatively few, b) thoroughly investigated, c) usually thrown out of court, and d) when they weren’t thrown out, sent back to towns for mediation rather than criminal sentencing. All the reader of Schiff gets is a picture of ignorant, awful people who had no compunction about killing people as witches, perhaps on a daily basis.

She completely misunderstands Increase Mather’s warning to children that they would be horribly punished for disobedience to parents, takes on the putative “voice of the [ignorant] people” by saying things like “By the end of July, it was clear that …the Devil intended to topple the church and subvert the country”, lingers over descriptions of deaths by hanging and one by pressing, and mentions Governor William Phips putting an end to the court without saying that the prod to this action was that his own wife, in Boston, was accused!

It all ends with a lyrical description of Cotton Mather having a home-made bomb thrown through his window… but without any explanation of how 98% of the public were against the trials, this is meaningless.

Rather than allow Schiff to get free advertising for her novel, the New Yorker should have made it clear that this is a hybrid fiction-article piece meant to generate readership before anyone seeking real information on the witch hysteria made the mistake of reading it.

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Vanity Fair, John Winthrop and “a city upon a hill”

Posted on August 18, 2015. Filed under: Puritans, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

Aimlessly leafing through the August issue of Vanity Fair, not even we at the HP could have been expecting to see John Winthrop’s name come up, but such is the power of myth.

In an article on the nature of the political debate over the middle class in America, the author (Michael Kinsley) referred to a speech the then-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, gave in 1984 in which he lambasted then-President Reagan for ignoring the poor by talking about “two cities”, one rich, one poor. The author said this:

Cuomo’s ‘two cities’ imagery was a poke at Reagan, turning of of his favorite lines against him. In almost every speech he gave, it seemed, Reagan would refer to America as “a shining city upon a hill”, meaning an example for the rest of the world. Reagan got that from the Puritan preacher John Winthrop (though probably not directly). What Winthrop had in mind was a moral example, the but metaphor works on many levels.

Kinsley clearly did not get his information about John Winthrop directly from any historical source, as Winthrop was not a “preacher” at all, but a political leader who was elected many times to be the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony between its founding in 1630 and his death in 1649. It’s a little tricky, perhaps; the line “a city upon a hill” comes from a sermon Winthrop wrote while the Puritans were still on their sea voyage to the New World. The final section of that sermon is the section we set apart and study as the “City upon a Hill” speech.

Why would Winthrop write a sermon if he wasn’t a minister? Because the Puritans held four things very dear: reading the Bible, attending sermons, engaging in conference, and lay prophesying.

Each of these, in that order, was key to opening up one’s soul and consciousness enough to become aware of one’s own salvation (if it existed—but that’s another long story we cover here). The first two are clear; the third, conference, was just  talking with other people who were seeking religious light about what you read in the Bible and what you heard in sermons. The Puritans were extremely social, and their religion was founded on the idea that you must put your heads together—no one person could ever get as far in understanding God’s will as a group could. The Puritans needed and relied on each other for support during the difficult and, in England, the dangerous process of following their religion.

That’s exactly what Winthrop is talking about in the City on a Hill section of his sermon. Go read it here. It is an exhortation to the people to support and love and help each other, to put others first and self last.

So that is what conference meant to the people Winthrop was leading to America, and he was giving a sermon to them as part of conference. One of the striking innovations of the Puritan reform of Anglicanism was that every church got to hire its own minister. In most churches, there is a governing body—bishops, archbishops, pope, whoever it may be—that assigns a minister or priest to a church. The people have no say. But the Puritans said each congregation was independent—no overall, hierarchical governing body could tell it what to do. (That’s why in America they came to call themselves Congregationalists.) If a congregation could not agree on a minister, they went without one until they found one they could agree on. And if there was a shortage of good, reformed ministers, a congregation waited without one until one became available.

In the meantime, the deacons of the congregation preached and did everything the minister would except give communion. That was one of only two sacraments recognized by Puritans, and it had to be done by a minister. Having lay people lead the church was called lay prophesying. It could and did happen even after a minister was found, as members of the congregation were encouraged to share their light during and after church services.

The people crossing the Atlantic had not chosen a minister yet. So they asked their most important lay leader, John Winthrop, to preach them a sermon in the meantime. And he did such a masterful job that it has come down to us through the centuries. Once the people landed in Fall 1630, Winthrop and other lay leaders chose John Wilson to be the teacher of First Church in Boston. (Every Puritan church that could afford to pay them had both a teacher and a minister. Roughly, the minister was the administrative leader of the church who represented the church in meetings with other ministers and with the government; he also visited members of the congregation and gave them spiritual advice. The teacher was the scholar who wrote and preached sermons and published them, as well as other theological works.) Wilson served the church on his own until John Cotton was called as minister in 1632.

So that’s why Winthrop preached a sermon even though he wasn’t a minister. He was engaging in conference with other believers and lay prophesying. To go back to our Vanity Fair article, Winthrop was indeed talking about setting a good example in Massachusetts, but not in the pompous way implied in the article (“a moral example”). He wanted the people to treat each other well so that they would receive God’s blessing, and once they had done this, others would see the blessings that God gave to those who serve him and do the same. But most of all, when Winthrop said “we will be as a city upon a hill” he meant that any failures would be painfully visible to all—he might as well have said “we shall be as a city within a fishbowl”. All previous English colonies in North America had failed (Roanoke) or were failing (Plimoth [too small], Jamestown [small and wretched and chaotic]). The Massachusetts Bay Colony was being watched by all, particularly Spain and France, to see if it too would fail.

The stakes were high all around, then, when Winthrop gave his sermon; it became justly famous for urging people to find their best natures in a situation when people often did their worst. The least we can do is understand who Winthrop was and what he wanted for this new world.

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