Mary Rowlandson’s Cupboard

Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, MA

Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, MA

It stands about seven feet tall against a wall in the special collections room of the Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, Massachusetts: the heavy wooden cupboard that Mary Rowlandson inherited when her husband, Joseph, died in Wethersfield, Connecticut.  I had the privilege of seeing it when I was in Lancaster early in May to talk about my novel Flight of the Sparrow. It’s both exciting and a little eerie when I see a real-life artifact belonging to one of the historical people I’ve written about.  I stood there, studying it, imagining Mary’s hands opening the bottom cupboard door to put away a carefully folded tablecloth, or pulling out one of the drawers to retrieve her embroidery scissors.  In her time, the upper part of the cupboard was probably draped in a piece of fine cloth, possibly lace-trimmed linen.

It is the work of Peter Blin, the French Huguenot joiner whose work was renowned in Wethersfield.  Built of solid English oak, the joined “court cupboard” is held together with mortise and tenon joints instead of nails.  Nearly indestructible, such chests were a symbol of permanence, stability and power.

Mary Rowlandson's Cupboard

Mary Rowlandson’s Cupboard

The Rowlandson cupboard is carved with tulips and gillyflowers and decorated with trimmings painted black to resemble the ebony trim used on high-fashion pieces in England. The shelf is supported by turned columns and provides a flat space on top for displaying valuable containers and plates.  Below, three doors and two drawers give access to the storage spaces.  The overhanging shelf is supported by pilasters and provides a flat space for displaying silver or ceramic vessels.

The cupboard, though almost certainly the Rowlandsons’ prize furniture piece, was less valuable than the linens it held.  Cloth was one of the most expensive commodities in the early colonies.  The eight tablecloths, twenty-eight towels and napkins were valued at five pounds, while the cupboard itself was valued at two.

When I was visiting Salem, Massachusetts, several years ago, I took a tour of an early 18th century home.  The guide mentioned that researchers had found a list of instructions the homeowner had written for his servants, detailing what to do if the house caught fire.  I was shocked to learn that the bed hangings were to be rescued before the children.

In her narrative, Mary Rowlandson claimed that her time in the wilderness had taught her “the extreme vanity” of the world.  While she no doubt found pleasure in the beauty and utility of her cupboard, I suspect that her own harrowing experiences had given her the wisdom to the perceive the limitations of material things.

Display shelf in Plimoth Plantation home

Display shelf in Plimoth Plantation home

 

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On the Record

old bookReading early town and church records can often be tedious, but worth the effort when it turns up interesting incidents that undermine our common ideas about Puritans.  There’s a contentious vitality just under the surface of daily life, a tension that sometimes even leaks into the official records.  If nothing else, these records prove that living in a community was no easier in the 17th century than it is today.

The early records of the town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, contain references to some ideas and behavior that may challenge our preconceptions about the Puritans.  Here are just three:

  1. In 1651 there was a controversy between groups in Lancaster over what should be held in common. As good Puritans, they looked to their Bibles for guidance in all things, and some  focused particular attention on the early church practice of holding all things in common (as described in the New Testament book of Acts).  One George Whaley reported that Goodwife Hall had asserted that all things should be held in common, “men’s wives also.”  Later, Whaley was charged with slander, though the case was never tried.
  2. In the original town covenant, there was a clause prohibiting distribution of land to any people who had been excommunicated, or “otherwise prophane and scandalus,” or any known to err against the “Doctrin and Discipline of the Churches.” This was for the “better preserving of the puritie of Religion.”
  3. On a Sunday in 1656, after worship, a woman named Mary Gates was “called forth to give satisfaction for some offense done against Master Rowlandson,” the town’s minister. Goodwife Gates defended herself, insisting that she had already given him satisfaction.  Mr. Rowlandson then replied “by sum arguments” proving that she had not done so, at which point Gates’s daughter, Marie, stood up and without permission and “very boldly in the public assembly” contradicted the minister and said she would swear an oath to it.  The case went to court and, not surprisingly, Mary Gates lost her case, was fined and ordered to pay the court costs for both sides.

 

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It’s About Time

timeI’ll be honest: I’ve always had a contentious relationship with time.  I experience the precision of our modern-day measurements of time as tyrannical.  The need to be somewhere at a particular time (even if it’s a time I’ve agreed to) annoys me and I often regard time as a despotic force that pulls me out of my body’s natural rhythms.  When I was a child, I often stopped what I was doing to study the world around me.  “Dawdling” my mother called it, and I learned early-on that it was unacceptable.  Once I became so absorbed in watching the clouds that I was late to school.  (I thought I’d made a singular discovery – that clouds moved.  I was disappointed that nobody seemed impressed with this startling revelation.)

Tonight we’ll be turning our clocks ahead an hour, which usually gives me an on-the-ground version of jet-lag for about a week as my inner clock adjusts. It’s got me thinking about how the perception of time has changed over generations and cultures.

Seventeenth century Europeans had clocks and pocket-watches.  I don’t know how common they were in Massachusetts Bay Colony, but given that the Puritans were an orderly and largely middle-class population, I’m sure some, if not many, owned time-keeping devices.  That doesn’t mean they were synchronized for travel or precision as they are today, but people had a farily clear idea of what time it was. They had night watchmen who walked through town calling out the hour.  They had set times for meetings and worship.

For the Puritans, time was a linear experience, with starting and ending points. Over the course of a lifetime, time could be organized by milestones, and once they were passed, they couldn’t be revisited.  Each week had a schedule, with some tasks (such as laundry) usually assigned to specific days.  Sunday was set aside as a time of public worship and rest, when all non-essential tasks were suspended. It was important for community members to honor this schedule.  If a task or event was skipped, it created problems, not just for the individual, but often for the community.

The native sense of time was different. Ordered by seasonal and diurnal cycles, time was experienced as cyclical.  It was more important to complete a task or stay with an interaction than to devote a specified amount of time to it.  If tasks or events were skipped, there wasn’t the sense that they were past forever, but that they would at some point come up again.

I’m sympathetic to the native view because it matches my own experience of time, especially as I’ve grown older and become more attuned to how quickly time passes.  What I find myself seeking – and welcoming – are those life experiences when time itself seems to disappear. This happens when I’m completely present in the moment – not thinking about the past or the future.  It happens when I’m deeply absorbed in writing, or focusing all my attention on someone I’m listening to, or watching a fox hunt in the snow-covered field above our house.  Then time is no longer a tyrant.  In fact, it doesn’t exist.

clouds

Starving Time

It’s been a hard winter here in New England. The city of Boston is still struggling to cope with record-breaking snow accumulations. In my corner of Vermont, we haven’t seen bare ground since early December. And the cold has been unrelenting. Last night the temperature fell to minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit.

fox hunting groundIn the last few weeks, our yard has been increasingly filled with the tracks of wild animals, which has heightened my awareness that, as challenging as this winter has been for us humans, it’s nothing compared to the life-threatening hunger faced by animals.

When our water pipes froze last week and we were without running water for about 24 hours, it also prompted me to wonder what the Puritans did for water in the winter. A simple question maybe, but when I went looking I couldn’t find a ready answer. I know they dug wells and often lived close to rivers and streams, so probably one of their many daily chores was chopping ice to access water. It’s one of those time-consuming seasonal tasks that now hardly merits a mention in history books.

We know that the settlers of Plymouth Colony suffered terribly in the harsh winter of Untitled-11620. They called it the “starving time” and nearly half of them died. Possibly they all would have perished without the help of generous Native Americans. They learned a vital lesson: in New England, you have to prepare for winter.

In the 17th century, getting ready for winter meant stocking food. Nuts, seeds, root vegetables, grains, and legumes were harvested and stored. Domestic animals were slaughtered in the fall, since it wasn’t practical to feed them through the Untitled-2winter. Their flesh was preserved through salting and smoking. The daily winter menu was bread, cheese, beans, and meat boiled with whatever root vegetables were available.

As many pundits have commented, we 21st century Americans look kind of silly packing t grocery store to stock up on bread and milk whenever there’s news of a coming snowstorm. Very few of us are likely to be snowed in for more than a day. But instead of feeling embarrassed, maybe we should see it as a variation of a long and life-giving winter tradition: be prepared.

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.

What Did the Puritans Have Against the Quakers?

quakersRecently I joined a wonderful book group in Mississippi via Skype and was asked about the differences between the Quakers and the Puritans.  I knew that the Puritans didn’t like the Quakers, and that they persecuted and exiled them from Massachusetts Bay Colony.  But I didn’t know much more than that.  So I did a little digging.

Today Quakers are known as a peaceful people who embrace nonviolence and spiritual principles and who were strong advocates for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. But in early 17th century New England, they were outlawed, imprisoned, exiled, and sometimes executed.  Why?

Both the Puritans and the Church of England regarded Quakers as “heretics.” In Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Congregational Way (which the Puritans believed was the purified Church of England) was the only legal religion.  Every resident was required to attend Sabbath worship and to pay local taxes to support the minister and church.  Just as in England, it was treasonous to oppose the state religion.

quakers2The Quakers who came to Massachusetts in the 1650’s were as righteous and fanatical as the Puritans.  They knew very well they weren’t coming to a colony where their way of worship would be tolerated.  They were there to make points about their own religion.  And they weren’t quiet about it.  In fact, they were often uncivil and overbearing and not always truthful.  They made a practice of interrupting worship services, and of creating a raucous uproar by yelling and banging pots and pans in the streets.  They shouted people down who didn’t agree with them and humiliated public figures with name-calling and ridicule. Sometimes they even stripped off their clothes in public. The Puritans responded to these outrages with fines, which escalated into more severe punishments, including boring holes in their tongues, whippings, banishments, and even executions.

We condemn the Puritans for their intolerance and persecution of other religious groups, and rightly so.  But the 17th century Quakers weren’t quite the meek and innocent victims they’re portrayed as.  Even Roger Williams, the early proponent of religious freedom who was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony, was so irritated by Quaker incivility and lack of respect that he considered restricting their liberties. The Quakers were pretty disagreeable at times.  Not so very different from the Puritans themselves.

Imagined Encounters III: A Puritan Childhood

One of the things I like best about writing historical fiction is vividly imagining what it must have been like to live in another time and place.  As I’m shaping a novel, I do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book.  Here’s a sample in which I explored Mary Rowlandson’s childhood, combining the limited biographical information about her with research I did on the experience of Massachusetts Bay Puritans.

shipShe remembered the crossing as a haze of bright sunshine and black water, dirty white sails slapping at the sky, and darkness.  The images hung on the walls of her mind like portraits in a great hall.  She was not certain they were memories – perhaps she had been told of light and bright square sails and a black sea and lying beside her mother below decks, encased in the creaking, rocking hull.  Perhaps she dreamt it.  She was two years old.

In Salem, her father’s land was six miles from the harbor, surrounded by fields and woods through which their cattle wandered.  The house was a sturdy two-room box wrapped in fresh-milled clapboards, large enough to shelter all the family and servants.  At night Mary slept in the loft on a pallet between her older sisters, listening to the forest sounds.  Owl screams and wolf howls made her shiver and burrow against her sisters’ warm bodies.  Sometimes the wind shrieked and rain beat on the roof but her father had built the house well and she felt safe.

Once Mary, pulling weeds in the kitchen garden at her mother’s direction, was struck in the shoulder by the hoof of a stray cow, and the wound festered so she lay fevered in her parents’ great bed for a week.  She remembered watching morning light trickle through the oiled paper of the room’s single window.  She remembered her mother stroking her brow with a wet rag.  She remembered thinking that illness was a luxury to be savored.  Later she learned that such thoughts were sinful.  Indolence was a particular evil, a devil’s trap she must work hard to avoid.

On her fourth birthday, as she stood in the great fireplace tending a roasting fowl, repeatedly twisting the cords so that the goose spun slowly, its fat splattered up onto her face instead of into the chipped dish she’d carefully set beneath it.  Her mother made a poultice of cooling herbs that eased the pain, but Mary would not go near the fire again for weeks.  Her mother set her to other tasks.  Her chin and left cheek carried three dark red scars that slowly faded to white.

Saturdays were a flurry of flour and heat; her mother opened and shut the wooden oven door again and again, as she waited for the fire to make it hot enough for baking.  Finally, when black soot flaked away from the ceiling bricks and the whole interior shone with pale brown light, it was time.  Mary would watch her mother scrape coal chips out with the long oven peel.  They fell gently as snow into the bucket.  Then it was Mary’s task to pass the food to her mother: loaves of brown rye bread, wheat flour drop cakes, meat pies, fat brown potatoes, and great crocks of beans sweetened with maple sugar.

Mary was seven when her father moved the family north to help incorporate the town of Wenham.  The children huddled together under blankets in a rocking wagon drawn by the family’s two oxen. Mary tended her infant sister, Sarah, between feedings.  It was not until they settled into the new house that she apprehended that her mother’s sadness was not a part of her nature, but a consequence of the loneliness she had experienced in Salem.  Physical isolation from other women was too heavy a burden to bear.

05__3Wenham was all mud and half-built houses, swine and fowl and goats clotting the streets.   But living there, close to neighbors, her mother became bright and strong.  Like a plant; responding to the summer light, she seemed to grow taller and more vigorous. “This be civilization,” she declared on a rainy Sabbath morning as the family joined others picking their way through deep muck to the meeting house.  She was smiling, though her skirts dripped with mud to her knees.

Mary remembered sitting on the hard family pew on a Sabbath morning in February while her mother wept beside her.  Wept over the power of God’s grace, which she told Mary later had touched her heart like a burning coal.  “Sin flayed me like a knife,” she said that evening, the words trembling on her tongue as the firelight glimmered.   Mary’s feet and hands were still numb with cold.  She leaned into her mother’s skirts, seeking warmth, but her mother pushed her gently away.  Mary saw that her mother was devoted utterly to God, that she loved Him more than husband or children.  She understood that God demanded she do the same, that she must model herself after her mother.  But her mother’s godliness was a mountain she could not climb.  Mary heard the story of her mother’s conversion so many times that it became a gospel of its own, a sacred if unwritten scripture, as familiar as the psalms.

From the moment she joined the church, Mary’s mother mounted a vigilant watch over her children’s souls.  Her daughters especially, for it was well established that females were easily drawn to pagan ways.  Their graceful habits often hid untamed passions.  They must be guided with particular severity lest they stumble on the path of Christian virtue.  Thus, she endeavored to break their wills, that her children might cleave to God.

Mary knew that her mother considered her particularly wild, cursed with a spirit of independence and determination.  Sometimes she said it was because of Mary’s flame-bright hair; sometimes she whispered that some corruption that had overtaken her while Mary was still in the womb.  Mary knew that she often taxed her mother beyond patience.  Yet gradually she came to understand that the challenges she presented created the very paste that bound them.

There had been a particular moment of humiliation when, at eleven, Mary had presented her mother with a collar she had worked.  “This is monstrous!” Her mother had held the collar at arm’s length, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger as if the linen were covered in offal and not her daughter’s painstaking stitches.  “Did I not set you at your sewing when you were four, just as I did your sisters?  Did I not show you with my own fingers how to make neat and regular stitches?  Did I not tell you to make more care in your stitching than in anything you do?  Have I not made it plain that a sturdy-made seam is the chief sign of a diligent woman?  And a well-proportioned embroidery her crown?”

Mary bowed her head, though a rebellious flush crept up her neck to her cheeks and she had to clench the stool seat with her fingers, lest she fly off like an infuriated hawk, all wings and feathers and sharp cries.

“This is slovenly work.”  Her mother peered more closely at the offending scrap, before tossing it back into Mary’s lap.  “Slovenly.  I want you to tear it out – every stitch – and begin again.”

Mary snatched the cloth before it slid to the floor and stared down at her work.  As if she could see anything through the burning blur in her eyes.  “Every stitch?”

“Mary.”  Her mother placed a firm hand under Mary’s chin and forced it upward so Mary had no choice but to look into her eyes.  They were the same soft gray they had always been, deceptively gentle.  But Mary knew that her mother reserved her tenderness for infants and young animals.  When it came to everyone else, she was the Lord’s task mistress.

“Mary, you are a woman near grown.  There is no excuse for slovenliness.  You shame me.”  Shame.  Her mother used the word again, surely knowing that it was as cruel as a knife plunged into the flesh, that it reduced her to a trembling, fear-struck babe.

“I’m sorry,” Mary whispered.  “I had not the time.”

“There is always time, Mary.  God provides for what needs be done.”  Her mother finally released her, and Mary’s head dropped to her chest.  Anger battled regret.  She did not look at her mother, though she was aware of her movements at the hearth, heard her fussing with the porridge, stirring up the fire, checking the corn cakes in the oven.

“Does God need embroidery, Mother?”  Mary regretted her words as soon as they were out.  She had been whipped for less.

Need embroidery?”  Her mother turned in a swish of apron and skirts and petticoats.  “Now you would blaspheme His word?  Is it not written that the good wife sews fine cloth without destroying it?  That a woman must be a crown to her husband?”

Mary longed to stop her ears.  She had heard the lecture so many times she could recite it.  It took all her willpower to stay on the stool and let her mother’s voice wash over her, like a sea in flood.  Mary set her teeth and tongue so that she would not respond again in haste and anger.  Yet even as she waited for the tirade to end, she was forming objections in her mind, promising herself that when she was married and mistress of her own house she would never sew, except from necessity.  She would hire a girl to do the fancy work; she would barter clothes-making with her sisters and friends, exchange food for mending tasks.  And she would never ask a daughter of her own to embroider anything.

“Look ye, daughter.”  Mary raised her head and saw her mother reach into her pocket and draw out her scissors.  The small silver pair that Mary’s father had brought from England after his journey to settle their financial affairs.  They were her mother’s most treasured possession; she never lent them to anyone, yet now she was holding them out to Mary.   “Take them.  Take out your stitches and start again.”

When Mary didn’t move, her mother reached down, pried opened her hand and firmly placed the scissors in her palm. Mary’s throat clenched.  She saw something in her mother’s face that she’d never seen before, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what it was.  Sorrow?  Regret?  Some dark and nameless need?  Mary looked down at her hand.  The scissors glinted in the firelight.  She picked them up and cut away her careful stitches, one by one.

That night, Mary lay on her pallet in the loft between her sisters, pretending that she was her mother’s favorite.  She imagined that some bright morning her mother would tell her to put aside her churning and they would walk down to the river, just the two of them, alone.  Her mother would confide that she had struggled against her feeling for years, but could no longer deny her preference, that she was helplessly captive in her bond to Mary, that they were two souls so attuned to each other that it was impossible to know where one left off and the other began.

 

A Puritan’s Christmas Chronicles

In 17th century New England it was not atheists or secular humanists who declared a “war on Christmas,” but Christians themselves.  As I noted in my 2013 post, “A Long Time Coming,” [https://amybeldingbrown.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/a-long-time-coming/], the Puritans reacted to the elements of excess and paganism in Christmas celebrations by shutting it down.  Samuel_Sewall

Samuel Sewall was a Puritan judge and businessman who lived in Boston.  He kept a diary from the age of 22 until his death.  Knowing that the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the celebration of Christmas from 1659 to 1681, I spent some time looking at his entries for December 25th.  Though his first mention of Christmas comes four years after the ban was lifted, it’s clear that the practice of “Christmas-keeping” continued to be a concern for pious Puritans.  Sewall takes pains to note that shops were open and commerce was vigorous.

Here are his entries (including his 17th century spellings) between 1685 and 1706.  (Some years are missing because he made no entry for December 25th.)

1685   Dec. 25.  Friday.  Carts come to Town and Shops open as is usual.  Some somehow observe the day; but are vexed I believe that the body of the People profane it, and blessed be God no Authority yet to compel them to keep it.  A great Snow fell last night so this day and night very cold.

Dec. 28.  Cous Fissenden here, Saith he came for Skins last Friday and [there] was less Christmas-keeping than last year, fewer Shops Shut up.

Dec. 31.  Mr. Allen preaches from 2 Tim. 2. 19.  Sasith should pray for the Natives that they may name Christ.  Spoke against Observing the 25 Instant, called it Antichristian Heresie: Spokke against the Name.  Canker began in the Tongue.

1686  Satterday, ,Dec 25.  Shops open today and generally and persons about their occasions.  Some, but few, Carts at Town with wood, though the day exceeding fair and pleasant.

1687  Sabbath, Dec. 25.  Have the Lord’s Supper at the South Church, break up about noon, at which time I heard that Mr. Mater was, on Saturday between 1. and 2. PM, Arrested by Larkin, to answer for trespass on Mr. Randolp, 500 £. damage.  Major Richards and Capt. Turell bound.  Just as Morn-Exercise ends Mr. Cotton Mather’s child dies; yet he preaches at Charlestown in the afternoon.

1691   December 25, 1691.  Mr. Moodey takes his journey towards Portsmouth this day.  Cold and Snowy.  Shops open and business carried on as at other times.

1694  Tuesday, Dec. 25.  Shops are open, men at work; Carts of Pork, Hay, Coal, Wood come to Town as on other days.  Mr. Mccarty’s shop is open.

1696  Dec 25, 1696.  We bury our little daughter.  In the chamber, Joseph in course reads Ecclesiastes 3, a time to be born and a time to die – Elisabeth, Rev. 22, Hannah the 38th Psalm.  I speak to each, as God helped, to our mutual comfort I hope.  I order’d Sam. to read the 102 Psalm.  Elisha Cooke, Edw. Hutchinson, John Baily, and Josia Willard bear my little daughter to the Tomb.

1697   Decembr 25.  97.  Snowy day: Shops are open and Carts and sleds come to Town with Wood and Fagots as formerly, save what abatement may be allowed on account of the wether.  This morning we read in course the 14, 15, and 16th Psalms.  From the 4th v. of the 16th Ps. I took occasion to dehort mine from Christmas-keeping and charged them to forbear.

1703  Dec. 26, Sabbath; very sore vehement Storm of Snow; exceeding high Tide, which did much hurt in Cellars and lower Rooms, and carried many Stacks of Hay quite away.  It seems Roxbury Meeting was held at Mr. Walter’s Dwelling-house.  The Christmas keepers had a very pleasant day, Gov and Mr. Dudley at Church, and Mr. Dudley made a pretty large Entertainment after.

1704  Dec 25. Monday, a Storm of Snow, yet many Sleds come to Town, with Wood, Hoops, Coal &c as is usual.

1705  Tuesday, Dec. 25.  Very cold Day but Serene Morning, Sleds, Slays, and Horses pass as usually, and shops open.

1706  Mid-week, Dec. 25.  Shops open, carts come to Town with Wood, Fagots, Hay, and Horses with Provisions, as usually.  I bought me a great Tooth’d Comb at Dwight’s; 6s.

Pilgrims and Puritans

PilgrimsIt’s easy to get them confused. From our 21st century vantage point the Puritans and Pilgrims look much the same. They were both from England, braving the dangerous Atlantic crossing to the new world in pursuit of religious freedom. Both had issues with the Church of England and were looking for a place where they could worship according to their beliefs and principles. They both settled in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims in Plymouth in 1620, and the Puritans in Salem nine years later. Both were part of the Protestant Reformation and they both wanted change.

But they weren’t the same. Puritans and Pilgrims were distinct groups with fundamentally different approaches to the religious issues of their day.

In England, the Church of England was the only legal church. Everyone who lived in England was a member of the church parish in their community whether they wanted to be or not. The worship services were read and there was little or no preaching. Parish priests were assigned to communities and individual priests were often their “living” as a political favor to a family. Church members had no voice in this.

It’s not surprising that there were calls for change. The difference between the Puritans and Pilgrims was their approach. Puritans wanted to reform, or “purify” the Church of England from within, while the Pilgrims were “separatists” who had given up on the possibility of reform and wanted to establish their own separate church.

In Plymouth Colony, the separatists favored a congregational approach to church government, which came to be known as the Congregational Way. Instead of including everyone who lived in a community, no matter their belief or personal character, the Pilgrims believed that only committed Christians should belong to a “gathered” church. These believers were bound together by a covenant with God. Instead of a church hierarchy and appointed priests, each congregation had the power to choose and ordain its own minister, and to accept or dismiss individual members.

In Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, the Church of England was still the official church and everyone was under the jurisdiction of the parish. But since there were no bishops or other hierarchy in the colony to support the Church of England bureaucracy, they became, in a sense, de facto separatists.

Eventually, both Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies embraced the Congregational Way. Despite their differences, their faith and their physical distance from England drew them together in a new land.

The Irish Connection

irishWhen the New England Puritans tried to understand the culture of the natives who were their neighbors, they thought immediately of the Irish.  English Protestants had been colonizing Ireland since the first half of the 16th century.  They regarded the Irish as “savages,” “uncivilized,” and “fifthy” people who lived in tribes, were semi-nomadic, lived in domed dwellings, did not hold private property, and failed to “plant any gardens or orchards,” or fence off and “improve their land.”  The Irish were described as “lazy” and “wild,” “naturally given to idleness,” unwilling to work, and inclined to steal from the English.

English colonists believed they had a God-given responsibility to “civilize” the Irish. In order to “teach duty and obedience,” the colonists burned Irish villages and crops, relocated people on reservations, and sometimes killed whole families. They made it a practice to take the heads of the Irish they had killed as trophies. The English then viewed the newly “cleared” land as “void” and available to English settlers.

When the English began to settle in the New World, the natives reminded them of the 394px-Philip_King_of_Mount_Hope_by_Paul_RevereIrish.  Deerskin robes reminded them of “Irish mantels.”  They noticed that native homes were “houses much like the wild Irish.”  The swamps and thickets that New England Indians retreated to in wartime were “like the bogs to the wild Irish.”  The colonists projected their view of the Irish onto the natives they encountered in New England.  The image of the “savage,” once defined by their experience of the Irish, quickly expanded to include native Americans.

These perceptions were oddly unconnected to reality.  Instead of “lazy savages” who refused to plant gardens, the English explorer, John Smith, had actually found farmers with a highly developed agricultural system.  All along the New England coast he saw fields “all planted with corn, groves, mulberries, savage gardens.”

But the colonists paid little attention to reality and, instead, invented their own image of natives, largely based on their perceptions of the Irish.  I wonder how history would have been different if they’d based their behavior on actual observations and experiences instead of projections?  Even more importantly, in what ways do we see other groups of people not as they truly are, but as we imagine them to be?