Since the first Pilgrims sailed to what would become Plymouth Colony on the Mayflower, the history of the English immigrants with Puritan religious convictions settling in New England has played a predominant role in shaping American consciousness, both inside and outside intellectual circles. The historical writing on Puritans migrating to and living in New England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries reveals a subject which has held a robust interest among academic and popular circles for centuries. The field was dominated by the work of Perry Miller for the first half of the twentieth century, and many subsequent scholars have built upon his work. In terms of immigration literature, recent scholars have emphasized viewing Puritan English migrants within the context of the wider Trans-Atlantic world of the Early Modern Period, complicating their patterns of migration with the contemporary politics at the time, and reexamining issues of Puritan English identity and cross-cultural relationships. In addition, scholars have sought to emphasize issues which have been under-emphasized, such as religious diversity within migratory patterns as well as the role of forced migration in shaping New England.
One of the most important features of contemporary historiography on this topic is understanding Puritan immigration within the wider context of the Trans-Atlantic or North Atlantic World. This phrase features in many of the titles of scholarly works on the subject, and is emphasized as a foundational point for comprehending the ways in which Puritan migration to New England took place. In popular consciousness, there is a fallacious tendency to understand Puritan migration as the movement of an isolated group of religious dissidents from England to New England, where these settlers forged out a prosperous existence for themselves, fought the native peoples, and eventually became increasingly politically independent. Like most popular notions, this holds a mixture of fact and fiction, but mostly gross oversimplification. Rather, recent scholarship has taken a distinct interest in revising these binary perspectives which work as a limiting factor to understanding the world as the English Puritan migrants themselves understood it. Reexamining the Trans-Atlantic World has been approached from several vantage points, including religious, economic and political. These vantage points will each be examined in turn.
In their 2015 work Puritans and Catholics in the Trans-Atlantic World 1600-1800, Crawford Gribben and Scott Spurlock deconstruct binary notions of religious sects in the Seventeenth Century and nuance the divide which existed even between very theologically diverse faiths. This particular work seeks to evoke narratives of the period which have been overlooked, as stated in the book’s introduction “the Atlantic experience of Puritans and Catholics could be much less bifurcated than some of the established scholarly narratives have suggested…this could even reach to the level of being mistaken for one another.”1. The work, while edited by Gribben and Spurlock, includes a great range of contributing experts on the topic. For instance Francis Bremer, a noted scholar in the field, points out in chapter two that John Winthrop, staunch Puritan preacher and founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had Catholic family members. While the Puritans were certainly very devoted to their own particular understanding of religion, it cannot be said that they existed in isolation, having extensive interactions with Anglicans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, Jews and others across the Atlantic, and with some Puritans choosing to work inside and some outside the Church of England in their mission to reform.
Works such as that of Gribben and Spurlock are instrumental in unraveling popular conceptions of Puritan religious isolation. On the other hand, while understanding that these faiths were in no way isolated from each other, it is equally important to not fall prey to the misconception that there were not genuine and important differences between these religions. In her 2009 work Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World, Carla Pestana writes about the often understated religious motivations of the British Empire as a whole in its imperialist ambitions. Within this, she stresses a certain diversity within the different Protestant traditions: “Congregationalism in New England was more rapidly and completely organized than ecclesiastical systems elsewhere, such as the Church of England in Virginia or Barbados.”2. The current scholarship on Puritan New England would agree that it is most accurate to understand the Protestant Atlantic World as diverse rather than uniform and connected rather than isolated.
In addition to revealing religious diversity, economic relationships are also being reevaluated according to a Trans-Atlantic, rather than a binary, model. One of the most pervasive myths concerning New England, argues author Wendy Warren in her 2016 book New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, is that immigrants to New England were not dependent on slave labor for economic prosperity. As New England itself had relatively few slaves who were mostly employed in domestic labor, the Trans-Atlantic perspective is necessary to reveal the extent to which early New Englanders were reliant on enslaved Africans. As she puts it “A huge amount of New England’s economy had direct ties to the West Indies and their sugar plantations…it turns out that the same colonists trading with the plantation societies of the Caribbean also had family there, or owned property in both places.”3. For this reason it is essential to understand economies not within political or even physical borders, but as English Puritans themselves would have understood them, through commercial connections. Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean and New England itself are thus all essential economic players in revealing a Trans-Atlantic series of commercial enterprises- indeed, not a few Puritans may have seen all of those places and own property in at least two. With property ownership, trade and migration being in no way limited to certain pathways and locations, it is thus imperative to understand Puritan migration within the Trans-Atlantic framework.
Along with religious diversity and economics, political relationships should also be understood within the context of the Trans-Atlantic World. This topic plays a particularly large role in Jenny Pulsipher’s 2005 book Subjects Unto the Same King: Indians, English and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England, which explores issues of sovereignty and authority across the Atlantic world and in particular the New England colonies. Four separate issues enter into play when understanding the political dynamics of Puritan immigrants in New England: relationship with the English motherland, relationships with other English colonies, relationships with other European colonies, and relationships with different Native American peoples. The natural implications of a colonial project are obviously transoceanic in scope, but Pulsipher expands on this to note several important factors which are often missed in understanding English-New England relationships. One of these is the fact that migration patterns varied greatly over time, and were directly linked to political concerns in England. For instance, while migration from England to New England was abundant in the 1630s during the reign of Charles I, the migration explained primarily by a push factor, the migration was largely the other direction in the 1640s and 1650s, during which New England Puritans were drawn back to England in support of the Parliamentarian cause and the English Commonwealth. These factors are unique in their appeal to English Puritans rather than other groups of English colonists.
Also emphasized in Pulsipher’s work is the complex and often tense relationship between the English government and the New England colonies, and that some colonies were greatly favored at the expense of others. This was particularly noticeable after the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, when royal commissioners were sent to Massachusetts: “The royal commissioners’ list of changes to Massachusetts laws also contained many amendments that struck at the heart of the New England way…to colony leaders, this sounded like nothing less than transforming the colony into England, removing the very reason for coming to North America…the royal commissioners had made no secret of their contempt for the Puritans.”4. Rather than a slow development into independence culminating in the American Revolution, New England actually went through phases of increased and decreased royal control over time. In fact, as Pulsipher points out, this was not always opposed by members of the colony. She points out that following the Glorious Revolution when William and Mary came to power in England, there was a generational gap in Massachusetts concerning the colony’s stance towards increased royal control: “the younger generation turned away from local authorities who had been in power…there was a willingness of Massachusetts’s new leaders to embrace royal government.”5. This complicates a great deal of the narratives surrounding New England and its independent character, particularly those patriotic in tone from a later era.
In addition to the complex and tense relationship between England and New England, intercolonial relationships were also politically complex. While popular conceptions of the colonial period highlight an English-Native bifurcation, this was by no means always the case. As Pulsipher and others, an older example being Harold Lonkhuyzen, have pointed out repeatedly, relationships between Plymouth or Massachusetts could be better with certain Native American groups at one given moment than with fellow English colonies. One example Pulsipher uses to highlight intercolonial hostility is the reaction of Virginia Governor William Berkeley to the devastation wrought by King Philip’s War in 1676: “undoubtedly the New England men were as guilty of the late Blessed King’s murder by their Council’s Emissaries and wishes as any that most apparently acted on it.”6. It offers an interesting perspective to reflect that this was a man living far down the coastline from New England speaking of people he had not met and referring to an event from twenty-seven years before on the other side of the Atlantic.
These issues also bring into light questions concerning identity, a set of issues to which scholars have increasingly turned their attention, highlighting issues such as race, ethnicity, religion, morality, and political loyalty. These issues are explored extensively in works such as Richard Bailey’s Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, Kathy Cooke’s “Generations and Regeneration: ‘Sexceptionalism and Group Identity among Puritans in Colonial New England,” Philip Lockley’s Protestant Communalism in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1650-1850 and Jill Lepore’s The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, among others. Bailey’s 2011 work investigates the construction of race among Puritan immigrants, arguing that racial identity among English Puritans evolved as a response to living among Native Americans and Africans who increasingly joined them in the Christian faith. Due to the waning of religious difference, Bailey contends, race became an increasingly important distinguishing factor between Englishmen and their fellow New Englanders. The scholarship in this particular area of the construction of race has only really developed within the past thirty years or so, given changing attitudes on the nature of race and the time it took to apply new sociological ideas to various historical disciplines. Kathy Cooke’s article, published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality in 2014, also examines the intersecting factors of religion and ethnic identity, and brings to the forefront historical narratives surrounding sexuality, writing that Puritan immigrants created “a surprising, multifaceted discourse about sexuality that ultimately created a revised sense of group identity and continuity…Puritans believed that the reproduction of the saints would further God’s plan by increasing the population of English participants in the regeneration of the world.”7. Read in conjunction with Bailey’s work, a robust discussion of the relationship between Puritan immigrant ethnic and religious identity within contemporary academia is revealed.
Equally important is Jill Lepore’s 1998 work The Name of War, her first major publication for which she received much praise, which discusses Puritan immigrant identity within the context of the unparalleled brutality of the King Philip’s War from 1675-1676. While this conflict is barely remembered outside New England in popular consciousness, it was in fact the country’s bloodiest conflict by proportion of population. Lepore writes a great deal about the “literal advantage” possessed by the English, which allowed them to control the dominant narratives concerning the conflict both during and after the war- much of this advantage being directed towards moral justification for the English role in the war. For instance, the religious elements of the war were emphasized by Puritan writers, who almost entirely ignored the existence of Christian Native Americans during the war, who made up about one-fourth of the native population at the time and found themselves on both sides of the struggle. Lepore further notes that by the time of the American Revolution a century later, the descendants of these Puritan immigrants were downplaying religious elements in favor of writing about their ancestors’ revolutionary frontier spirit. By the Nineteenth Century, with Romanticism as a pervasive genre, most writers began depicting Metacom, the Wampanoag sachem known as King Philip, as a hero rather than villain. Lepore concludes that the literal advantage has put a permanent limit on the potential for historians to objectively evaluate the conflict, but that the historical sources do provide an excellent source for understanding Puritan conceptions of themselves and their own behavior.
Lastly, it is of paramount importance to examine historical areas which recent scholars have found to have issues of emphasis, that is, of having been either disportionately overemphasized or underemphasized in the historical record. The first issue to be examined here is that of the Native American perspective, which historians in this area practically universally agree has been underemphasized in previous scholarship. The relevant works on this point are Daniel Richter’s 2001 Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, William Simmons’ 1981 article “Cultural Bias in the New England Puritans’ Perception of Indians,” and Harold Van Lonkhuyzen’s 1990 article “A Reappraisal of the Praying Indians: Acculturation, Conversion, and Identity at Natick, Massachusetts, 1646-1740.” Lonkhuyzen’s article is significant in that it actually addresses an area Lepore noted had not received sufficient attention by Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century writers, and complicates matters with regard to Native American adoption of the English Puritan religion: “the literature argues that conversion was forced, that it was a necessary adaptation to a changing environment created by the English. Yet numerous bands living in close proximity to converted groups never adopted the English religion until decades after King Philip’s War.”8. In this sense, Lonkhuyzen’s article was written in direct response to the historiographical issues Lepore addresses, and while shifting the perspective to evaluate history from a native perspective, it nevertheless has exceptionally revealing insights on the nature of Puritan migration and identity as well, calling previous narratives about the history of conversion into question.
Daniel Richter’s entire work is centered around shifting the perspective from English migrants themselves to the native peoples whom they encountered. To do this means understanding the Puritans as immigrants- foreign arrivals from an alien land- in contrast to the ordinary narrative structure historical literature has taken on this subject. As Richter himself describes it: “If we shift our perspective to try to view the past in a way that faces east from Indian country, history takes on a very different appearance. Native Americans appear in the foreground, and Europeans enter from distant shores.”9. To return to Lepore’s “literal advantage,” Richter does confess to a certain historiographical limit on his proposed shift, noting “we might readily check the urge to look westward over the plow of a Plymouth patriarch and instead try to peer eastward over the shoulder of a Wampanoag woman hoeing her corn…we come up against the harsh realities that she left no direct record of her thoughts and that even her dialect of the Massachusett Algonquian language has long since ceased to be spoken.”10. Despite these limitations, Richter will likely not be the last author to attempt such a reversal in perspective.
The final subject in regard to historiographical issues of emphasis is captivity narratives and forced migration. “Captivity narratives” in this context refers to the kidnapping of Englishmen and women by Native Americans, particularly during King Philip’s War and most famously with the case of Mary Rowlandson. This forms the subject of Alden Vaughan and Edward Clark’s 2009 book Puritans Among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity and Redemption, 1676-1724. These scholars make the case that captivity narratives have never ceased to fascinate and dominate historical interests in the period, also noting the various changes in tone across time with regard to ways in which these kidnappings were perceived. Though early Puritans depicted these events primarily within a religious light and integrated their lessons into sermons, this changed over time: “By mid-nineteenth century the captivity narrative had become fully integrated into American literature. If it had largely lost its standing as a reliable and introspective autobiographical account, and had wholly lost its religious fervor, it had nonetheless assumed an important role in the minds of America’s most important authors.”11.
In stark contrast to this important role, argues author Wendy Warren in her work New England Bound, is the role forced migration and enslaved labor played in the lives of New England Puritan immigrants: “The importance of slavery to the region’s development has been erased from memory.”12. This history has been in some part forgotten, Warren notes, for political reasons, with New Englanders eager to contrast themselves to the slave societies of the antebellum south during the American Civil War. She establishes that there has been progress in this area, but there is still work to be done: “Historians in recent decades have told a more complicated story, one that highlights how the famed devotion of these colonists coexisted with their pecuniary desires…and yet there has remained an exceptional absence. Put plainly, it is this: the tragedy of chattel slavery.”13. This issue was also brought up in Race and Redemption and most contemporary scholars of the period would agree that slavery has been a historically underplayed yet important element of New England migration.
The legacy of English Puritan immigration to New England during the Early Modern Period is an exceptionally complex one, with several centuries of extensive and valuable yet problematic scholarship and the current literature reflects this. Building on the work of previous historians, academics of the past thirty years have sought to reframe the English Puritan world in a manner which accurately reflects the complicated reality of the time. In addition, many scholars have worked to reexamine issues which have been strongly represented within the historical record and even more vitally bring to light those issues which have been greatly underrepresented in the historical literature. The consistency of these efforts ensures constant reevaluation of the legacy of a very important and influential group of immigrants.
1. Crawford Gribben and Scott Spurlock, Puritans and Catholics in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1600-1800., (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 1.
2. Carla Pestana, Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 62.
3. Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016), 11-12.
4. Jenny Pulsipher Subjects Unto the Same King: Indians, English and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 62.
5. Jenny Pulsipher Subjects Unto the Same King: Indians, English and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 264.
6. Jenny Pulsipher Subjects Unto the Same King: Indians, English and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 193.
7. Kathy Cooke, “Generations and Regeneration: ‘Sexceptionalism’ and Group Identity among Puritans in Colonial New England,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 23, no. 3 (September 2014): 333.
8. Harold Van Lonkhuyzen, “A Reappraisal of the Praying Indians: Acculturation, Conversion, and Identity at Natick, Massachusetts, 1646-1740,” The New England Quarterly 63, no. 3 (September 1990): 397.
9. Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 8.
10. Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 9.
11. Alden Vaughan and Edward Clark, Puritans Among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity and Redemption, 1676-1724, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 28.
12. Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016), 251.
13. Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016), 2-3.
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