Naming the Children

BibleYou can often find them in old family Bibles – names of generations of children, often entered proudly soon after a birth. The Bible seems an appropriate place for such a record, especially when it comes to looking at the names of early New Englanders..

In my research for Flight of the Sparrow, I looked into how New England Puritans named their children. We commonly think of Puritans as giving their children strange “hortatory” names, such as “Experience,” “Increase,” “Thankful,” and “Mindwell.” But in Massachusetts Bay Colony in Mary Rowlandson’s time, the children were given traditional English names, such as “John,” “Elizabeth,” “Samuel,” and “Ann.”

I was not surprised when I discovered that oldest boys were often named after their fathers, but what did surprise me was that the oldest daughters were frequently named after their mothers. In fact, in Mary’s generation, between 50% and 75% of firstborn daughters were named after their mothers. Surprisingly, it was actually more common than naming oldest sons after fathers.  childrenMary’s mother, Joan (or Joane) White, followed this custom, as did Mary herself.

It was also common to name children after an older sibling who had died. (This practice continued well into the 18th century.) Mary Rowlandson did this.  Her oldest daughter, (named Mary), died at the age of two. When her second daughter was born, eight years later, she was given the same name.

Interestingly enough, this was not a pattern that was common in England, or in other English colonies, such as Virginia, where firstborn children were usually named for their grandparents and/or godparents. (In fact, in England it was considered inappropriate for a mother to name her first daughter after herself.) This parent-centered naming – especially daughters – seems to have been unique to New England Puritans.

Why this change?

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted to worship as they chose but they weren’t trying to invent a new society. They brought most of their English customs with them to the New World. They wore English clothes, built English houses, and even considered themselves members of the Church of England (albeit “purified” members).

One scholar has pointed out that mothers who named their daughters after themselves were breaking a cultural “taboo,” and that something in their religion allowed them to defy the cultural norms. This may have been the importance of “covenant theology” in the Puritan colony, with its emphasis on the spiritual role of parents in the family. Or it may have arisen because the Puritans banished godparents from the baptismal ceremony. They connected godparenting with Catholicism, labeling it “popish” superstition. With no godparents to honor, a mother naming a daughter for herself at baptism was using one way to claim God’s protection.

One thing that became clear as I researched the first few generations of New England Puritans: social changes were almost always carved out of their religious understanding. Whenever they were in doubt about how they should act, individually or as a society, they turned to the Bible. We might frown at some of their practices, but it’s hard not to admire the fact that they always tried to stay true to their faith as they understood it.  And occasionally that faith took them in new and liberating directions that affirmed the power and importance of mothers.

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