Martyrs' Mirror: Persecution and Holiness in Early New England

Martyrs' Mirror: Persecution and Holiness in Early New England

Martyrs' Mirror: Persecution and Holiness in Early New England

Martyrs' Mirror: Persecution and Holiness in Early New England

Synopsis

Martyrs' Mirrorexamines the folklore of martyrdom among seventeenth-century New England Protestants, exploring how they imagined themselves within biblical and historical narratives of persecution. Memories of martyrdom, especially stories of the Protestants killed during the reign of Queen Mary in the mid-sixteenth century, were central to a model of holiness and political legitimacy. The colonists of early New England drew on this historical imagination in order to strengthen their authority in matters of religion during times of distress. By examining how the notions of persecution and martyrdom move in and out of the writing of the period, Adrian Chastain Weimer finds that the idea of the true church as a persecuted church infused colonial identity.

Though contested, the martyrs formed a shared heritage, and fear of being labeled a persecutor, or even admiration for a cheerful sufferer, could serve to inspire religious tolerance. The sense of being persecuted also allowed colonists to avoid responsibility for aggression against Algonquian tribes. Surprisingly, those wishing to defend maltreated Christian Algonquians wrote their history as a continuation of the persecutions of the true church. This examination of the historical imagination of martyrdom contributes to our understanding of the meaning of suffering and holiness in English Protestant culture, of the significance of religious models to debates over political legitimacy, and of the cultural history of persecution and tolerance.

Excerpt

In early New England, martyrs represented a vision of the true church as an institution that resists unjust power, champions right doctrine, and demonstrates the way to sincere religious experience. The categories of martyrdom, persecution, affliction, and sainthood; the associated virtues of cheerfulness, patience, and fortitude; and the related cosmology of a bloody battle between saints and Antichrist—these terms delineate an immensely significant rhetorical field in colonial literature. Understanding this cluster of categories, images, and ideals is necessarily a transatlantic and crossconfessional task. As Protestants competed for legitimacy on the highly contested religious landscape following the English Reformation, historic martyrs moved close to the center of their understanding of authentic Christianity.

Early English Protestants shared a historical imagination filled with stories of martyrs and persecutors, stories that encompassed the sweep of Christian history from the early church to the English Reformation. They were especially fascinated with the vivid stories of laypeople and ministers who died at the stake under the Catholic Queen Mary in the 1550s. This book uncovers the workings of this historical imagination in a related place and time, the Protestant culture of seventeenth-century New England. In this setting, people employed the folklore of martyrdom when they remembered fleeing persecution in England to settle on freer shores. New England Congregationalists stepped into the narrative of martyrdom when they felt attacked by their heterodox neighbors. Separatists, Antinomians, Quakers, and Baptists all drew on the martyrs’ stories for models as they confronted the establishment and suffered for their convictions. Each group argued its claim to be the true heir of the Marian martyrs as they battled for religious legitimacy. The theme . . .

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