Prospero's America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676

By Pointer, Richard W.; Woodward, Walter W. | Church History, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Prospero's America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676


Pointer, Richard W., Woodward, Walter W., Church History


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An alchemist willing to engage in occult practices, an advocate for religious toleration and Pequot Indian rights, an entrepreneur eager to strike it rich--such impulses were bound to set one at odds with mainstream Puritan culture in seventeenth-century New England. Or were they? In the person of John Winthrop, Jr., as presented in this new account by Walter Woodward, they were not. Woodward offers a stunning reinterpretation of Winthrop. But even more, he paints a revised portrait of early New England that forces us to look again at seemingly familiar ground and find there more than a few surprises.

Alchemy--the effort to gain "mastery over the natural world through the study and manipulation of the visible and occult forces permeating nature" (2)--is at the heart of Woodward's story. Persuaded that its importance has been overlooked or misread, he sets out to show that what he coins "Christian alchemy" played a critical role in shaping New England's cultural character on most every front including its economic development, settlement patterns, interactions with Indians, treatment of religious outsiders, healing practices, witchcraft crises, and imperial relations. Winthrop's life, and particularly his participation in a transatlantic network of Christian alchemists, is the prism Woodward employs to discover alchemy's heretofore hidden importance.

When Winthrop arrived in Massachusetts in 1631 as a twenty-five year old, he was already fully immersed in the world of natural philosophy, and more specifically, the world of alchemy thanks to contacts in England and on the Continent. His active participation in alchemical research for the remaining forty-five years of his life sprang from both religious and economic motives. Along with other Christian alchemists, Winthrop was convinced that alchemy could provide providentially revealed knowledge that could enhance society's economic well being and godly character, and thereby help pave the way for Christ's return. He and his associates on both sides of the Atlantic imagined that alchemy could lead to nothing less than the acquisition of universal knowledge which would in turn be the basis for a thoroughgoing reformation of the Old World and the New. In that vein, Winthrop envisioned first New London, then Connecticut and all of New England as a kind of laboratory within which the benefits of alchemical practice could be pursued and realized. As he became settled in the region, much of his energy in the 1630s and 1640s went into a host of business schemes in mining, industrial processing, and agriculture. None proved especially successful but all were rooted in his alchemical philosophy.

So, too, were Winthrop's activities in four other key spheres of New England life. In them, according to Woodward, the younger Winthrop proved himself to be a remarkably successful leader. Winthrop became a highly respected medical practitioner serving patients from across the colony and region because of, not in spite of, his use of alchemical medicine. Its remedies and "godly theoretical underpinnings" fit well with the "medical providentialism" (170) of Puritan New England. It also enabled him to represent himself to Indians as a "magico-religious specialist" (110) akin to a native shaman, and even better, one with considerable political clout given his family connections. Indians considered that a rare and potent combination, an acknowledgment that made Winthrop a key power broker in the region's complex intercultural relations. …

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