On COVID-19, Plymouth, and providential history

Many Christians believe in providential history. This is the idea that human beings can understand the will of God in the affairs of men and women as they lived through time. Most providential historians have no place for the mysteries of providence. Instead, they are certain that they know exactly what God has done in the world, especially if such divine action enhances the glory of the United States.

I have roundly rejected providential history on both historical and theological grounds. See my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past for more.

But after I read a recent piece on the 400th anniversary of the settlement of the Plymouth colony, I thought I would imagine a way of doing providential history that does not invoke the glory of the United States or its supposedly Christian roots.

Based on the methodology (if you can call it that) of providential history, one could make some interesting interpretations of the relationship between COVID-19 and the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Plymouth colony.

What if God brought COVID-19 at this particular time, in this particular year, to remind Americans that the Plymouth settlement may not have been possible if disease had not killed-off most of the local native Americans before the Pilgrims arrived?

Just to be clear, I am not endorsing such a view. But if you are going to invoke God’s providence in founding Plymouth as the forerunner of an exceptional United States, then what is to stop someone from offering an alternative providential reading? This is why providence is not a useful category for historical interpretation.

Here is Allen Breed of the Associated Press:

The year 2020 was supposed to be a big one for the Pilgrims.

Dozens of events were planned to mark the 400th anniversary of the religious separatists’ arrival at what we now know as Plymouth, Massachusetts. But many of those activities have been postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Historian Elizabeth Fenn finds that deeply ironic.

“Novel infections did MOST of the dirty work of colonization,” says Fenn, a history professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied disease in Colonial America.

Disease introduced by traders and settlers — either by happenstance or intention — played a significant role in the “conquest” of Native people. And that inconvenient fact, well known to the Natives’ descendants, is contrary to the traditional narrative of the “New World.”

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Francis Bremer

One small candleFrank Bremer is Professor Emeritus of history at Millersville University. This interview is based on his new book, One Small Candle: The Plymouth Puritans and the Beginning of English New England (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write One Small Candle?

FB: As we approached the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower and the settlement of the Pilgrim colony, I realized that for a long time scholars had neglected the religious dimension of the story. Anticipated new studies were going to examine the impact of the settlement on the lives and cultures of the indigenous people, and the contributions the settlers made to the political structure of the region. What was most important to the people themselves, their faith, was in danger of being ignored.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of One Small Candle?

FB: The congregation of believers commonly referred to as the Pilgrims was formed and shaped by English lay men and women of faith who moved first to the Netherlands and then to New England in order to continue their search for a further reformation. The example and advice they provided to the early settlers of Massachusetts determined the character of the new England Way of puritan church practice.

JF: Why do we need to read One Small Candle?

FB: Despite the best efforts of many scholars the popular perception of puritans is that they were steeple-hatted killjoys with dreadful fashion-sense who persecuted dissenters, and executed witches. These assertions are all exaggerated to various extents, but the fact is that most attention to the puritans (including the “Pilgrims”) focuses solely on the negative aspects of their beliefs and practice. In terms of legacy they are mistakenly portrayed as the source of modern evangelical conservative politics. While acknowledging the warts, I wanted to explore some elements of the story that are worth our consideration. Their belief in lay empowerment contributed to forms of participatory government in congregations, towns, and other political entities. Their belief in the importance of reading scripture led them to require all–men and women, servants and slaves–to be taught to read. Their openness to “further light” made them less dogmatic than most of their religious contemporaries, though not as open to diversity as we are. Their commitment to the welfare of the larger community as opposed to individual self-advancement provided a model social gospel, though one limited to their own small society.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

FB: I have been interested in stories of the past for as long as I can remember. Short summer vacations in New England when I was a child focused my interest on that region. When I developed a taste for theology as an undergraduate at Fordham University, that, combined with my New England interest, made puritanism an attractive field of study. While I have taught courses on numerous aspects of American History, I consider myself a religious historian of the early modern Atlantic world. I have been studying, restudying, lecturing and writing on puritanism in the Atlantic world for over fifty years. Most of my teaching was directed at undergraduates and in my books I have tried to explain complex notions in a way accessible to ordinary readers, because I believe that knowing about and thinking about the past helps us to be better citizens.

JF: What is your next project?

FB: In recent years I have found myself reconsidering some of the assumptions about early New England and puritanism that I had adopted from the work of earlier scholars and promulgated myself. The results have been reflected in some of my recent works. In keeping with this revisiting of familiar views, I am reconsidering the role of women in the development of puritanism. While the “virtuous wives” written about by Laurel Ulrich and the radicalism of figures such as Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer are part of the story, I am more interested in the women who formed congregations by attesting to covenants, who helped other believers understand the state of their own souls by sharing their professions of faith, who prophesied in formal and informal church settings, who wrote religious treatises, who voted in congregational meetings, and–in England–actually preached publicly.

JF: Thanks, Frank!

The Pilgrims and the 1625 London Plague

London Plague

Over at We’re History, early American historian Peter Wood writes about the London plague from the perspective of Plymouth Rock.  Here is a taste of his piece:

But in 1625, New England’s “hideous and desolate” isolation suddenly began to seem a God-given blessing in disguise. Captain Miles Standish had been sent back to England, aboard a ship laden with furs and fish, to negotiate with overbearing creditors for their “favour and help.” He went at “a very bad time,” Bradford related, for their home country was “full of trouble.” To his dismay, Standish found “the plague very hote in London, so no business could be done.”

Hot indeed. England’s plague had arrived, apparently from Holland, early in 1625, but it went undetected through most of March. George Wither, a poet who survived the epidemic, recalled how the stealthy sickness first approached London through the city’s “well-fill’d Suburbs” and spread there undetected for weeks…

By the end of 1625, the contagion had claimed nearly 70,000 lives across England. More than half the deaths had been in London. There, the disease had killed well over 35,000, in a city of fewer than 330,000 people. Many more may have been undiagnosed victims. One Londoner wrote that “to this present Plague of Pestilence, all former Plagues were but pettie ones.” Another lamented that no prior chronicle had “ever mentioned the like” for “our famous citie.”

As for Standish, he found the English adventurers who supported the Plymouth Colony were fearful in the midst of an economic collapse and a public health disaster. When the New Englander sought a loan, they could only offer him money at a whopping 50% interest rate.  As Bradford later summarized: “though their wills were good, yet theyr power was litle. And ther dyed such multitude weekly of the plague, as all trade was dead, and litle money stirring.”

In early April 1626, the Plymouth colonists welcomed Standish home safely, but his mission had been unsuccessful, and “the news he brought was sad in many regards.” Numerous English allies had been struck down financially and physically, “much disabled from doing any further help, and some dead of the plague.” Faced with such news and given “the state of things,” Bradford observed of his colonists, “it is a marvell it did not wholy discourage them and sinck them.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with John Turner

They Knew They Were PilgrimsJohn Turner is Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: A few years ago, I had finished writing the second of two books about the Latter-day Saints. I wanted to write about a new topic, but one that had some continuity of themes, namely religious persecution, exile, a quest for the true church. Obviously, the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, and the founding of Plymouth Colony are well-worn subjects. But I discovered that most historians neglect the story of Plymouth after the first Thanksgiving, perhaps returning to the colony with the advent of King Philip’s War. I found that there was a great deal more to the story.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Americans inaccurately have praised the Mayflower passengers for planting the seeds of republicanism that bloomed at the time of the American Founding. I argue instead that we need to examine the debates about liberty–religious liberty, political liberty, and the enslavement–present in Plymouth Colony on their own, local, seventeenth-century terms.

JF: Why do we need to read They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: It’s not quite as essential as physical distancing during a pandemic, but… we think we know the story of Plymouth Colony. The Mayflower passengers are the most famous colonists in American history, their lives scrutinized by armies of genealogists. I did not realize how poorly I had understood them until I began the research for this book. I begin my book with Robert Cushman, who as of 1603 was an apprentice to a grocer in Canterbury. He was excommunicated for posting “libels” on church doors, dabbled with something akin to antinomianism in Canterbury, became a wool comber in Leiden, had a falling out with the other organizers of the colony, and preached a remarkable lay sermon during his very brief stay in Plymouth. If you think you know the Pilgrims, think again. I promise that what you’ll learn in this book will surprise you.

I also discovered that the seventy-year history of Plymouth Colony contains a host of remarkable episodes about a variety of peoples. If you read They Knew They Were Pilgrims, you’ll learn about an expanded cast of characters: an African American slave who became one of the first “English” casualties in King Philip’s War; the decades-long struggle of Quakers for religious liberty; a female sachem who held her community together for two decades amid war and dispossession. In addition to fresh material about seventeenth-century understandings of liberty, there are a lot of gritty human stories in this book.

JF: You have now written books with subjects based in the 20th century (Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ), 19th century (Brigham Young), and now the 17th century (Plymouth). What are the challenges of writing across such a wide historical spectrum?

JT: The foremost challenge is getting up to speed on the existing scholarship. Let’s face it – there’s a tremendous volume of books appearing on so many elements of American religious history. It’s a golden age for the field, from my vantage point. So many scholars are writing deeply researched and eloquently written books. It’s very hard to keep up! Just think about the deluge of titles published in the last decade on twentieth-century evangelicals or on the Latter-day Saints.

At the same time, though, I’ve found it very refreshing to immerse myself in new places and times. We require our students to study things with which they are unfamiliar, so it’s good for us to do so as well, at least from time to time. I also love meeting new people, both people from past centuries in archival sources and new scholars who work on various subjects.

My research strategy has always been to immerse myself as much as possible in a new subject and its sources. I really marvel at the many people in our field with the ability to trace a phenomenon or group across time and place. Many recent examples come to mind, such as Erik Seeman’s Speaking with the Dead in Early America, David Silverman’s This Land Is Their Land, or to mention some slightly older but even more expansive and synthetic books, Colleen McDannell’s Heaven or Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries.

JF: What is your next project?

JT: I’m writing a biography of Joseph Smith. It seems that despite my penchant and preference for new subjects, I can’t quite get away from early Mormonism.

JF: Thanks, John!

Commemorating the Mayflower

plymouth

400 years ago this year the Mayflower landed on present-day Cape Cod. Over at The New York Times, Tanya Mohn writes about how the United States, England, and the Netherlands will commemorate the event later this year. A taste:

Paula Peters remembers the last major anniversary of the historic voyage in 1620 of the Mayflower from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Mass. It was in 1970. She was 12. “It did not go well,” recalled Ms. Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag TribeFrank James, whose Wampanoag name was Wamsutta, was invited to give a speech, but was prevented from delivering it because the event’s organizers “didn’t like what he had to say.”

This year’s 400th anniversary promises to be different. “It will include all the things Frank James wanted to say and then some. It’s an opportunity to take our story out of the margins and onto an international platform,” said Ms. Peters, who through SmokeSygnals, a marketing and communications agency, curated and consulted for exhibitions and programs on both sides of the Atlantic. “What’s most important to stress is simply that we are still here.”

The Wampanoag Nation, encompassing the federally recognized Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes, are equal partners in the yearlong commemoration with Plymouth 400 in the United States, Mayflower 400 in the United Kingdom, and Leiden 400 in the Netherlands, umbrella groups for museums and organizations that are hosting Mayflower-related events in their respective regions.

Read the rest here.