Academic journal article Early American Literature

Light Apparitions and the Shaping of Community in Winthrop's History of New England

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Light Apparitions and the Shaping of Community in Winthrop's History of New England

Article excerpt

In his History of New England, John Winthrop reports a number of light apparitions, which have remained as mysterious to Winthrop's audiences over the centuries as they were to the people who saw them in Massachusetts between 1630 and 1649. The light apparitions connect in obvious ways to the tales of prodigies and wonders common in contemporary popular literature and religious treatises alike, but Winthrop does not offer the interpretations of them one might expect from a work so concerned with the role of providence in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While Winthrop's reluctance to interpret the light apparitions has been noted--as has his providential interpretation of prodigies and wonders elsewhere in the History--the significance of Winthrop's dispassionate handling of the light apparitions themselves has been largely unexplored. (1)

The work of this article will be to show how the light apparitions contribute to the form and function of Winthrop's History. As unexplained and apparently supernatural phenomena, they can be grouped with the prodigy" as a literary convention, but as vivid, self-contained, and cryptic images that invite interpretation they also fit with the emblem genre. Their location in the text among passages dealing with the displacement of people and the management of the physical colony asks the reader to pause and bring a wide range of knowledge to bear on the History's nuanced concerns with the material community of Massachusetts Bay. The effect of the light apparitions, so placed, is not to encode the author's judgments about these controversial matters but to emphasize the controversy itself and its importance in the shaping of both community and religious belief. The godly community Winthrop envisioned was a participatory one formed by the fluid interplay of religious and civic consciousness, one that was necessarily subject to change as the practical needs of the colonial project changed and that was given strength and legitimacy through consent but also through the reconciliation of dissent. (2) The use of the light apparitions exercises this participatory act of interpretation through which religious and civic convictions were mutually shaped in response to the colony's uncertain, controversial, and mutable relation to the material world.

But for whom is this exercise in spiritual and civic consciousness intended? A problem for anyone approaching the History as a literary text, and one that must be addressed before going forward, is that Winthrop did not publish his journals but kept them privately over the course of the first two decades of the Bay Colony's formation. The inherited text has also been influenced by editors as much as any early modern work of its magnitude. James Savage's early nineteenth-century edition is the last one derived from the whole of the writings Winthrop left behind, since a fire in Savage's office destroyed one of Winthrop's notebooks (Dunn, "John Winthrop" 187). Although Winthrop was an educated lawyer who reveals in his letters and other manuscripts an experienced writer's interest in style, Winthrop himself was not a published author, and there is little hard evidence to suggest his journals circulated among his fellow New Englanders (189). (3) The claims above about the form and function of the History would seem perhaps fatally to depend on a readership the text did not have until the nineteenth century.

New English Puritans tended to look at community participation as a conscientious and consensual action, however, and although they distinguished "social role" from "inner identity," the tendency toward a "self-suppressive communalism" is everywhere traceable (Zuckerman 184). (4) There is a sense in which someone like Winthrop would have been writing for the community even if he were writing only for himself. What distinguishes the History as a kind of "public record-keeping" from other Puritan private writings about which the same might be said is its composition and its context. …

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