Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England

Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England

Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England

Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England

Synopsis

In 1678, the Puritan minister Samuel Nowell preached a sermon he called "Abraham in Arms," in which he urged his listeners to remember that "Hence it is no wayes unbecoming a Christian to learn to be a Souldier." The title of Nowell's sermon was well chosen. Abraham of the Old Testament resonated deeply with New England men, as he embodied the ideal of the householder-patriarch, at once obedient to God and the unquestioned leader of his family and his people in war and peace. Yet enemies challenged Abraham's authority in New England: Indians threatened the safety of his household, subordinates in his own family threatened his status, and wives and daughters taken into captivity became baptized Catholics, married French or Indian men, and refused to return to New England.

In a bold reinterpretation of the years between 1620 and 1763, Ann M. Little reveals how ideas about gender and family life were central to the ways people in colonial New England, and their neighbors in New France and Indian Country, described their experiences in cross-cultural warfare. Little argues that English, French, and Indian people had broadly similar ideas about gender and authority. Because they understood both warfare and political power to be intertwined expressions of manhood, colonial warfare may be understood as a contest of different styles of masculinity. For New England men, what had once been a masculinity based on household headship, Christian piety, and the duty to protect family and faith became one built around the more abstract notions of British nationalism, anti-Catholicism, and soldiering for the Empire.

Based on archival research in both French and English sources, court records, captivity narratives, and the private correspondence of ministers and war officials, Abraham in Arms reconstructs colonial New England as a frontier borderland in which religious, cultural, linguistic, and geographic boundaries were permeable, fragile, and contested by Europeans and Indians alike.

Excerpt

In 1678 Samuel Nowell preached an artillery election sermon he called Abraham in Arms, in which he urged New England men to remember that “Hence it is no wayes unbecoming a Christian to learn to be a Souldier, not only a Spiritual Souldier but in the true proper sence of the letter.” His warning was timely, and prescient: Nowell preached in the wake of King Philip’s War (also known as Metacom’s Rebellion), a united Indian uprising that lasted from 1675 to 1676 in southern New England and persisted on the eastern frontier until 1678. Unlike previous Indian wars and threatened uprisings, King Philip’s War was not waged by just one Indian tribe or by one leader, as the name implies, but by nearly all of the Algonquians living near the English settlements of New England. From the Narragansett and Wampanoag of Rhode Island to the Eastern Abenaki of Maine, Indians made common cause against English settlers. At the time that Nowell warned his flock that they must be soldiers for their faith and for New England, the war had barely ended in Maine. The eastern frontier was worrisome for another reason—namely, because it harbored another enemy to Protestant New England. Early English explorers and French Jesuits had made competing claims on Maine’s waterways, land, and peoples, from the Saco River northeast to the mouth of the Kennebec. Already in this latest war, Maine settlers notified their governor in Boston that they had spied French men among the Abenaki, aiding them in their efforts to drive the English back into the sea. Thus with New England on the brink of more than eighty more years of war with Indians and the French, Nowell urged New England men to be girded for battle, ready to advance and defend the frontier of English Protestant settlement. Perhaps this is why Nowell preached so insistently that military readiness was on a par with spiritual preparedness: after all, “the Battle is the Lords.”

Nowell’s sermon title was significant. The Abraham of the Old Testament resonated deeply with English men in the New World, as he embodied the ideal of the householder-patriarch, at once obedient to God and the . . .

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