Sacred Violence in Early America

Sacred Violence in Early America

Sacred Violence in Early America

Sacred Violence in Early America


Sacred Violence in Early America offers a sweeping reinterpretation of the violence endemic to seventeenth-century English colonization by reexamining some of the key moments of cultural and religious encounter in North America. Susan Juster explores different forms of sacred violence--blood sacrifice, holy war, malediction, and iconoclasm--to uncover how European traditions of ritual violence developed during the wars of the Reformation were introduced and ultimately transformed in the New World.

Juster's central argument concerns the rethinking of the relationship between the material and the spiritual worlds that began with the Reformation and reached perhaps its fullest expression on the margins of empire. The Reformation transformed the Christian landscape from an environment rich in sounds, smells, images, and tactile encounters, both divine and human, to an austere space of scriptural contemplation and prayer. When English colonists encountered the gods and rituals of the New World, they were forced to confront the unresolved tensions between the material and spiritual within their own religious practice. Accounts of native cannibalism, for instance, prompted uneasy comparisons with the ongoing debate among Reformers about whether Christ was bodily present in the communion wafer.

Sacred Violence in Early America reveals the Old World antecedents of the burning of native bodies and texts during the seventeenth-century wars of extermination, the prosecution of heretics and blasphemers in colonial courts, and the destruction of chapels and mission towns up and down the North American seaboard. At the heart of the book is an analysis of "theologies of violence" that gave conceptual and emotional shape to English colonists' efforts to construct a New World sanctuary in the face of enemies both familiar and strange: blood sacrifice, sacramentalism, legal and philosophical notions of just and holy war, malediction, the contest between "living" and "dead" images in Christian idology, and iconoclasm.


Writing a book on religious violence can be a dark enterprise. the subject is dispiriting, the reading grim, and the moral stakes high—especially in this era of heightened awareness of the violent propensities of all the worlds great religions. But it has also been a profoundly inspiring experience. This is not a topic about which people are agnostic or indifferent, and the conversations I’ve had over the past decade with scholars, friends, and family have been richly rewarding. I’ve come to understand early modern Anglo-Americans— my subjects—and the craft of history-writing from new perspectives, and to expand my mental and moral horizons in order to comprehend the terrible power of faith to destroy what humans most cherish. I am not writing a brief for or against the argument that organized religion is inherently violent, nor am I trying to understand modern episodes of religious violence through the lens of the past. the past is the past, and the present is not the past updated. a prolonged exposure to the corrosive rhetoric of sacred violence in a time and place quite distant from our own only reinforces my conviction that history never simply repeats itself, even if we can discern disquieting echoes of the past in the present.

It’s hard to overstate just how omnipresent religious ideas and language were in seventeenth-century English America. the first European settlers in North America were children of the Reformation, that seismic breaking apart of Western Christendom that created new texts, doctrines, and practices, and destroyed old ones. But it can be just as hard to remember that these men and women, living on the very edges of the known world and struggling to survive, were not always preoccupied with religious matters, as historians of the early modern world have sometimes assumed. We know that their exposure to scripture and their grasp of theology were impressively deep, and we know that the vast majority of the books they read and the letters and journals they wrote concerned religious topics. But we also know that they worried about whether their children would live and their crops flourish, about whether . . .

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