GREAT anniversaries summon us to commemorate the past. The 350th anniversary of the founding of Massachusetts also called for something more. It challenged us to think anew about the meaning of the seventeenth century, a complex period that found the American colonists still recognizably English, yet somehow set apart from European culture and society.

This task of reappraisal was central to “New England Begins,” a major exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.1 “New England Begins” celebrated a New England that did not correspond to stock wisdom or standard images. The glories of the exhibition were the abundance of portraits, furniture, and silver that in their glowing colors and elaborated forms silently rebuked old and still persistent notions that the Puritanism of the colonists or the harshness of a frontier settlement had stifled the artistic impulse. To the contrary, “New England Begins” was a convincing demonstration of high standards and sophistication—of continuity, not of change or deprivation. Here were works of art that flowed from an aesthetic originating in Catholic Italy. Here, too, were other forms of culture embodying a deep, almost instinctive, conservatism, as in the Latin broadsides from Harvard College commencements or maps portraying how the colonists imposed themselves upon the wilderness. The theme of “New England Begins” was undoubtedly the transfer of culture from Europe to America.

It was no accident that this was the theme of the exhibition or that its scope was so encompassing. From the moment of its inception, the planning of “New England Begins” was entrusted to an interdisciplinary group chaired by the Curator of American Decorative Arts, Jonathan L. Fairbanks, and including members of his staff, as well as historians from other institutions in the Boston area. Early on, this group sensed that the issues being raised would merit more attention than the exhibition by itself would offer. The Colonial Society of Massachusetts agreed to be the sponsor of a conference addressed to such issues and entrusted the planning to David D. Hall and David Grayson Allen, both of whom were also engaged with the development of the exhibition. Seventeenth-Century New England contains all the essays that were presented at this conference, which met in Boston on 18 and 19 June 1982. The essays are grouped here, as they were for the conference itself, into two broad categories: Economy and Society and Religion and Mentality.

To its organizers the conference seemed to coincide with a new phase of New England studies. The 1960’s and early 1970’s had witnessed an influx of ideas and energies that cumulatively transformed the social history of colonial New England. Much of this influx was in the form of local studies of a single town. A cluster of books deserve to be mentioned as inaugurating this transformation: histories of seventeenth-century Sudbury and Boston by Sumner C. Powell and Darrett Rutman, and, in 1970, the annus mirabilis of such local studies, histories of Andover and Dedham by Philip Greven and Kenneth Lockridge.2

Several lines of influence would converge in these local histories and their successors. One was certainly the methods of historical demography as they had been popularized by the British historian Peter Laslett in The World We Have Lost. Laslett himself acknowledged the primacy of French historical demography, and some Americans went directly to that work. Various of the social sciences were influential in suggesting that history must rest upon quantifiable data that was used to test hypotheses and to construct models. Some older kinds of history, and especially intellectual or religious history, seemed quite lacking in this regard. From France came yet another strand of thinking, the emphasis associated with the Annates school on peasants in the setting of rural society. Local history as practiced by British historians provided something of a counterpart to an ideal type of peasant communalism, for English towns and villages appeared immensely different one from another. There were general patterns, to be sure, but these patterns were unevenly dominant depending on such factors as soil type and distances to market. Out of English social history came, therefore, the concept of localism. In general, the French and British points of view served to suggest that change came slowly in rural society.

These overlapping strands of influence were crucial to the conference and the exhibition. Consider, for example, the twin themes of continuity and cultural transfer. Scarcely twenty years ago historians of colonial America were emphasizing the disruptive consequences of immigration to the New World. The thrust of their argument was that a series of circumstances—the uprooting from an ordered web of relationships, the actual voyage to America, and most importantly, the “disorder” resulting from frustrated expectations—had functioned to Americanize the colonists, making them a people accustomed to disorder and fluidity, and America a society that lacked stable institutions. The history of the family seemed paradigmatic of this process; by comparison with Europe, the structure of the colonial family—so it was argued—became looser and less hierarchical as authority shifted from fathers to sons.3

This understanding of the seventeenth century would rapidly collapse as historians rediscovered the stability of New World institutions. The most stable institution of all now seemed to be the seventeenth-century New England family, with the town not far behind. By comparison with Europe, the demographers were demonstrating that the colonists lived longer and raised more children to adulthood. As for continuity, these families had practiced an inheritance system that functioned to preserve enough land—the essential form of economic security—in the hands of successive generations. “Familial continuity” and the social norm of consensus made the seventeenth-century New England town seem highly “traditional,” so much so, indeed, that some historians began to liken them to “peasant” communities. The old assumption that Americans “have been a permanently uprooted and mobile people from the beginning,” yielded to an emphasis on stability and order.4 And in place of the assumption that Americans began anew, improvising in response to the wilderness, appeared the story of the persistence of “English ways” in architecture, crops, and field systems. Moreover, the localism of English landed society would carry over to the colonies; these distinct units of culture were transported across the Atlantic in the minds of people who, in exchanging Europe for America, intended (consciously or not) to recreate familiar ways of doing things.5 Instead of reading the social history of post-Revolutionary America back into colonial times, historians were locating early New England within the context of European rural life.

Some of this revisionism has not stood the test of time, and certain lines of inquiry have proved less fruitful than anticipated. That the emphasis upon stability was overstated would become evident from a careful reappraisal of mobility rates in England and New England.6 Historians in the 1950’s had erred in regarding English society as extremely stable and hierarchical. Ironically, historians of the New England town were committing the same mistake. To characterize these towns as “peasant” societies was useful insofar as the term drew attention to an ethos of communal solidarity and to the nexus of land ownership, inheritance patterns, and family structure. Otherwise the term had little relevance to a society in which land was owned in freehold and where most adult males participated vigorously (or could, if they wished) in wider political, economic, and religious systems. In Bernard Bailyn’s afterword to the essays in Seventeenth-Century New England, he notes that none of them employ the word “frontier.” Nor do any invoke “peasant” culture or society.7 Instead these essays suggest adaptation and flexibility in response to market forces. Another difference between these essays and New England studies of some fifteen years ago is their silence on demography and family structure. We have learned much about these topics, yet the data remains inconsistent, incomplete, or curiously without broad meaning. The editors have therefore preferred other topics. There remains the question of when and with what consequences the colonists were drawn into a market economy. For England itself, the transition may have occurred long before the founding of the colonies.8 Some of the emigrants—certainly the fishermen who formed transient communities along the coast, but also many of the merchants and even, possibly, the farmers who emigrated from particular areas of England—were entrepreneurial in spirit.

The opening series of essays in Seventeenth-Century New England explain the interplay of environment and culture, of land, labor, and capital. Karen Ordahl Kupperman addresses a factor that has long deserved more adequate attention, the climate of early New England. Describing the weather that the colonists experienced, she also tells a story of long held expectations, reluctant adaptation, and realities that darkened the mood of the colonists in the closing decades of the century. Joan Thirsk describes experiments in agriculture and cropping among English farmers from about 1640 to 1750. Her essay reinforces the conclusion, long held by agricultural historians, that pre-industrial farmers lived in a dynamic world and were responsive to new crops, markets, and opportunities created by general economic changes. David Grayson Allen reviews the similarities between seventeenth-century England and New England before exploring local life in four Connecticut towns where the replication of English regional patterns was wider and more striking than has been found in comparable Massachusetts communities. Allen also analyzes several dimensions of New England localism and the degrees to which “English ways” persisted throughout the region’s early history. Daniel Vickers’ study of Essex County fishermen illustrates the cultural gap between the “worldly fishing periphery of New England [and] its settled Puritan core.” According to Vickers, the mainland colonists found it necessary for their economic survival to coexist with non-Puritan outsiders who, like other fishermen scattered along the Atlantic coast, lived in rough-and-tumble communities of their own.

The final essay in this section brings the vantage point of the historical geographer to bear upon the history of settlement in the Northwest Atlantic. Cole Harris describes a process of elimination and recombination in culture and economy as Europeans moved into the wilderness or set about harvesting the abundance of the sea. New relationships among land, labor, and capital, and selective pressures of the environment made it impossible, he argues, to recreate the “complex texture” of European society. His essay is a tale of change, but also of continuities.

The question of Puritanism and its significance is as inescapable as the question of continuity or change. Even more so than in the social history of early New England, the conference coincided with a shift in direction. To place this shift in perspective, we must return to the town studies and especially to Darrett Rutman’s Winthrop's Boston. Rutman was reacting to the work of Perry Miller, who in two magisterial books, The New England Mind: the Seventeenth Century and The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, had described Puritanism as a complex intellectual system. But from Rutman’s point of view Miller had failed to demonstrate that the pronouncements of the ministry expressed in any way the thinking of ordinary citizens. A telling fact for Rutman was the diminishing number of Bostonians who were church members. In place of intellectual and institutional coherence—which was what Rutman took Puritanism to mean—he described a community that was “fragmented almost from the very beginning,” one that improvised a church order and contradicted in practice its ideals of peace and order.9

Suddenly it seemed as though Puritanism was not a powerful factor in the making of New England. In an important study of the merchants who engaged in international trade, Bernard Bailyn had previously argued that this group resented the social norms of the magistrates and ministers, preferring flexibility and the values of the marketplace to any a priori or communal ethics. As the merchants rose, Puritanism waned.10 Was decline and fragmentation the story of New England Puritanism? Even in the agrarian community of Sudbury, the minister was unable to preserve peace when disputes broke out in the 1650’s over the division of the town commons. Farmers seemed more concerned with land and family security than with salvation. When social historians happened to refer to Puritanism, they had in mind not a highly elaborated theological system but an ethic of communal harmony and attitudes toward childrearing, neither of which was unique to the colonists.

The importance of Puritanism was called into question, finally, by new work on popular belief in early modern Europe. As Keith Thomas demonstrated in Religion and the Decline of Magic, ordinary people in seventeenth-century England resorted to all sorts of beliefs that did not square with Protestant Christianity. Indeed these were beliefs that helped such people to meet spiritual and psychological needs that Protestants ignored or tried to force in other channels. Religion and the Decline of Magic seemed to differentiate popular religion from the religion of orthodox and zealous Protestants, and in doing so, opened the way to suggestions that many of the colonists preferred occult or “magical” beliefs to the tenents of the ministers.11

Separately from this turmoil, literary historians and historians of religion were revising Miller’s portrait of New England Puritanism. According to more recent studies, the sermons of the ministers were less concerned with issues of free will and God’s sovereignty than with experiential piety. An emphasis on conversion, and, more broadly, on religion as experience, emerged in Edmund S. Morgan’s Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea and in several other books.12 Patterns of experience became the basis for institutionalized procedures, for Morgan demonstrated that the colonists’ familiarity with conversion underlay their conception of church membership. Another theme that Miller had neglected was the colonists’ expectation that Christ’s kingdom would soon be reestablished. Apocalyptic expectations had surrounded and sustained the migration to New England and the emergence of Congregationalism. Could this apocalypticism be described as “popular religion”? In effect, religion was becoming more inclusive, a matter of ritual, experience, and prophecy as well as of the covenantal relationship between God’s will and man’s. As several of these essays demonstrate, religious motifs in this broad sense penetrated far into the culture of the colonists.

The conference thus took place at a time when the history of New England Puritanism and the history of New England society seemed no longer as divergent. The essays on religion and mentality all take up the task of finding bridges. Lillian B. Miller’s essay on the portrait in seventeenth-century New England takes as its point of the departure the false stereotype that Puritanism was hostile to the art of the portrait. She demonstrates that portrait painting in New England incorporated motifs common to many English portraits of the Tudor-Stuart period; the colonial artist may have been responsive to Puritanism, but he also worked within a broader tradition. Inquiring into the nature of lay Puritanism, Steven Foster describes the emergence of a “militance” in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England that had important consequences on both sides of the Atlantic. Foster challenges the story of “declension,” pointing out that in late seventeenth-century New England the ministers implemented new strategies that were effective in sustaining lay commitment. As Foster views it, popular Puritanism was closely linked with the Puritanism of the ministry.

David D. Hall describes a lore of portents and prodigies that was credible to many Europeans and Americans in the seventeenth century. This lore was surely “popular,” as the printing history of such stories indicates, and it circulated in New England via story telling. Yet the ministry was as much involved as were the plain people to whom they preached their sermons. Hall concludes that Puritanism was far more tolerant of folk belief than most historians have assumed, and, like Foster, he disputes the distinction of the religion of the ministers from the religion of the people. Robert St. George takes up the meaning of speech among the colonists, and finds it richly significant. Speech was threatening to these people, and in explicating its dangers, St. George uncovers structures of belief, as in the significance of gender, that owed little or nothing to Puritanism per se. These two essays tell of collective beliefs, a folklore if you will, that was endemic in late medieval culture. In this regard the colonists seem remarkably traditional in their mentality, even though as Puritans they were breaking with the past.

These concluding essays underscore the persistence and power of deeply rooted habits and beliefs. The essays in Seventeenth-Century New England acknowledge change and innovation while placing their main emphasis upon continuity. In arguing for a popular Puritanism, several of these essays help dispell the spectre of a social history without religion; they also make it plain that culture in New England was enriched or inherited from several directions. Many questions remain unanswered. Historians of material culture have mapped several different regions of production within New England. Are these regions meaningfully discrete in other respects? Authority became decentralized in early New England with the rise of the town. Yet most (if not all) of these towns remained parts of some larger whole. What were the patterns that linked these scores of semi-isolated communities? In what ways was rural society in New England responsive to a marketplace that stretched across to Europe? And was there a transition point within the century, a moment when the agrarian economy entered a new phase or when the mechanisms of consensus faltered?

We leave to the curious reader the task of adding to this list of queries and the pleasure of finding answers to them in the pages of Seventeenth-Century New England. It has been a singularly comfortable experience to share with the Editor of Publications for the Colonial Society, Frederick S. Allis, and the Associate Editor, Philip Chadwick Foster Smith, the preparation of this book for publication. We are grateful to Fritz Allis and Sinclair Hitchings for undertaking, with patience and skill, all of the housekeeping tasks associated with the conference of 18 and 19 June 1982. These essays contain little direct trace of the audience to which they were initially presented. Yet in the best tradition of the Colonial Society comments from the floor were informed and argumentative. To all those who, by participating in the discussions, helped enrich our understanding of the past, we offer a final word of thanks.

David D. Hall

David Grayson Allen