Saturday, February 23, 2013

Racism and Slavery in Puritan New England (Part 2)

The larger issue behind the question of slavery was the question of race. Why was it that in Puritan New England only Blacks and Indians could be enslaved and not Whites? While a white person might enter into a condition of indentured servitude, the law always protected such a person from the type of slavery inflicted upon blacks. What was it about being White specifically that allowed a person to come under an alternative ethical and legal framework than Blacks and Native Americas?

The answer to this question is not clear, but it may have had something to do with the fact that the Puritans thought of themselves as the New Israel while thinking of all “others” (which in their context included all non-whites) as Canaanites. 

Puritanism and National Mission

In his Place and Belonging in America, Jacobson showed that there was a seamless web between religion and land that featured in the background of disputes between early colonists and the Native Americans, since it allowed the Puritans to attach covenantal—and at times even eschatological—importance to the land they believed God had given them. At its most perverse this would justify the idea of the messianic nation, since it allowed the Puritans to develop a unique typology which appropriated to themselves and their land the Biblical motifs of the New Israel.

This typology took on an added spiritual significance in the second generation after the Puritan settlements, when the story of the early years was rewritten as a golden age. What developed was a certain mythos in which New England came to be associated with the Biblical land of promise, and not in a merely metaphorical sense. Thus, we find Cotton Mather so completely interweaving the history of New England with the history of Israel so as to form one integrated narrative. Thomas Shepard the younger was echoing widely held sentiments when he suggested in a 1672 election sermon that the establishment of New England towns and social institutions was God bringing about New Creation. Similarly, Increase Mather’s declared in 1674 “This is Immanuel’s Land” and was echoed in 1707 when John Williams associated white New England with Zion. Because the New England Puritans believed they were God’s chosen people in a special and unique sense, they believed their land was poised to play an unprecedented role in God’s eschatological purposes.

What would later develop into ‘Manifest Destiny’ ideology was already implicit in how colonial Puritans perceived their national mission. Such beliefs served to ease the discomfort New Englanders might otherwise have felt when ordering the deaths or enslavement of countless Native American men, women and children.

Armed with the conviction that they were the New Israel, energized by a sense of national mission and propelled by self-fulfilling interpretations of the doctrine of divine sovereignty, New England puritans were prepared to do whatever it took to defend what Cotton Mather would later call the “patent” God had given them to the land.

One of the most brutal examples of this theology in action was the genocide of an entire Pequot village, where the self-proclaimed soldiers of God burned alive between 300 to 700 members of the Mystic village and sold into slavery the few who managed to escape the incineration. At Plymouth John Cotton interpreted the killings as the work of God, as did many pastors and leaders in the other colonies. Though the brutal conflicts with Native Americans throughout the 1670s were propelled in part by defensive concerns, behind it lay the simple logic that Bailey summarized as follows: “New England puritans believed that their God desired for them to rule the area, even if doing so meant the destruction of the Indians already living there.”

The Pequots who escaped Puritan genocide were sold into
slavery by self-proclaimed soldiers of God.

If the religion of New England Puritans was agile enough to sanctify such acts of violence, it was even more accommodating when it came to explaining the virulence with which Old World pathogens attacked New England’s native population. The diseases that wiped out such vast multitudes were conveniently interpreted within the Calvinist theology of providence, which at its most perverse could sanctify all events through reference to the divine decrees. As one anonymous Puritan author wrote in New England’s First Fruits, “the good hand of God” removed “great multitudes of natives by small pox, a little before we went thither, that he might make room for us there.”

Similarly, John Winthrop saw the diseases as proof that God had given them a “title” to the land. Writing to Nathaniel Rich in 1634, Winthrop declared “The natives are neare all dead of the small Poxe, so as the Lord hathe cleared our title to what we possess.”  Cotton Mather echoed this same thinking in his 1702 Magnalia Christi Americana: “We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what work thou didst in their days, in the times of old; how thou dravest out the heathen with thy hand, and plantedst them; how thou did'st afflict the people, and cast them out!"

Throughout both the Pequot War and King Philip’s War, Puritan theology had provided a way to make sense of social realities in which they themselves acted as agents. However, there was nothing straight-forward in these appeals to Providence, as David Jones demonstrated in 2004 with his Rationalizing Epidemics: meanings and uses of American Indian mortality since 1600. Jones pointed out that “providential explanations were not simply the reflexive response of devout colonists. Instead, providence could be emphasized or de-emphasized, presumably where it suited the purposes of the colonists. Such choices, grounded in the local political or economic needs of their worlds, recurred whenever and wherever Europeans responded to American Indian epidemics.”

These self-serving and selective appeals to Providence did not stop Puritans from taking the divine decrees into their own hands to finish off what Old World diseases left undone. Indeed, Bailey reminds us that
“Microbes… were not even the greatest threat to the continued existence of Native Americans. English colonists reserved that honor for themselves. By constant dislocation due to their seemingly unquenchable desire to acquire more land, the threat and reality of warfare, which all too often crossed the line into genocide, and the spectre of chattel slavery, white New Englanders drove their indigenous neighbors from the ‘citty upon a hill,’ effectively doing what even epidemics could not do—erasing from their own imaginations the Native American population from the northern colonies for generations…. In community after community, the English colonists hoarded land that only recently had belonged to various clans. Little did the Indians of coastal New England realize that the arrival of these white men in the early seventeenth century foretold their own forced migration westward.”
New Englanders justified these wars of territorial expansion by taking comfort in the fact that they were the New Israel tasked with driving out the Canaanites. Those who were fortunate enough to escape with their lives and suffer enslavement instead of death, were seen as the modern equivalent of the type of slavery God had allowed His people to practice in the Old Testament.

Further Reading

Some of this material will be appearing in the monthly newsletter of Christian Voice, a ministry whose website is It is printed here with permission of Christian Voice.


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