DAMNABLE HERESY

William Pynchon, the Indians, and the First Book Banned

(and Burned) in Boston

Puritan Era Scholarship

Heresies Today?

All Saints Church, Springfield, England

Font where William Pynchon was probably baptized.  All Saint's Church, Writtle, England.

“Damnable Heresy” sounds like superstitious clap-trap that comes from a very long time ago, from an ignorant, intolerant era when religious control had a firmer grasp on people’s lives.

But I would argue that far from being an outmoded notion, heresy, meaning an unwelcome, variant conviction, is ever-present as a threat to the status quo. To speak of the unacceptable, and even the forbidden, and to do so deliberately always has the capacity to create confrontations which can prove devastating.

Over the years many topics have perched dangerously on the borderlines of public conversation and at the risky edges of acceptable discourse. Granted, in the seventeenth century undisciplined theological conjecture about the atonement was deemed heresy, and put its proponents severely at odds with acceptability. But provocative language and ideas are still considered dangerous. Today “heresy” applies more to political than religious expression: unguarded speculation about the righteousness of revolutionaries, for example, or tolerance of terrorist plots, might provoke the same reactions. Champions of the insufferable inevitably present a threat. They threaten those in charge and also the shared public conversation which creates the community. Nobody wants heresy in any form, religious or political – except the heretics.
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Remarkable, If Not Unique –

The Springfield Indian Deed, 1636.

The deed which William Pynchon made with the Agaam Indians was extraordinary for several reasons:

1. It names two women: Kewenusk and Niarum. Pynchon figured out the importance of matriarchal authority for Native peoples.

2. In addition to names it includes seven Algonquian words, such as cotinackeesk (cultivated ground) and tamaham (wife) and Masaksicke (Long Meadow).

3. It grants rights the Indians requested to sustain their hunter-gatherer lives.

4. It includes payment in goods and wampum.

This deed, written two years earlier than the surviving Roger Williams deed to Providence, Rhode Island, became the model for land agreements crafted in the Connecticut River valley by Pynchon and his son, John. It reveals Pynchon’s developing respect for Native culture.  Fellow colonists also respected him because of his expertise, which became increasingly evident during his years of trading peacefully with the Indians. Even though his point of view was at variance with the common wisdom in the colony, his advice was well-regarded and his intercultural role valued..

Mouth of the Agawam (Westfield) River.

The Birth of Springfield – May 16, 1636

The original pioneers in Springfield took a weekend in mid-May, 1636, to frame the shape of their settlement.  In typical Puritan fashion they entered a covenant together, a written agreement to create a new community.  Their basic constitution, composed on a Saturday, listed thirteen “articles and orders.” The initial article acknowledged the bedrock requirement for any Puritan settlement:

     We intend by God’s grace as soon as we can with all convenient speed to

      procure some Godly and faithful minister with whom we purpose to Join

      in Church Covenant....

Other articles exhibit a Puritan core value, the “principle of equity.” (David D. Hall, A Reforming People). Everyone was supposed to be treated right. Real estate taxes were to be levied proportionally, “aker for aker”; in fact all was to be done “accordinge to every ones proportion.” All recruits to Springfield would share in bearing the costs of creating it, including the price of boats which were needed for moving to the Valley, and a £6 expense for the original Agawam “House Meadow” shelter. Any trees cut for timber and left on the ground for more than 3 months would be fair game for anyone.

The founders limited the new settlement to 40 families, or 50 at the most, both rich and poor. Each would have a house lot in “convenient proportion ... for everyones quality and estate.” All would have shares in pasture, meadow, and planting lands on the west side of the river and to the north and south of the town. House lots would be laid out along a primitive Main Street. Everybody would also receive a portion of the low-lying marshlands which ran along the eastern side of this street.

After a break on Sunday, on Monday, May 16, the settlers added a rudimentary scheme for dividing property. They also decided on generous minimum sizes for homestead lots. All eight of what Pynchon called the “first subscribers & adventurers for the plantation” signed, two by making their marks.

So, on May 14 and May 16 every year – Happy Birthday, Springfield!

The "House Meadow," Agawam -- where Springfield was born.

How Massachusetts Puritans Dealt With the Books They Banned
From 1630 to 1661 the Bay Colony banned four books.
The first was William Pynchon’s The Meritorious Price. On October 16, 1650, the government voted that “we doe hereby condemne the sd booke to be burned in the market place, at Boston, by the common executionor.” The Court didn’t say what people should do with any copies they had on hand. (Increase Mather kept his and passed it on to his son, Cotton.)


Next came two acts directed against outsiders. A vote in August, 1654 condemned “any of the books” by John Reeves and Lodowick Muggleton, who claimed to be the last two witnesses mentioned in the book of Revelation. Their pamphlets were to be turned in and burned.


Then in May, 1656 the Quakers Ann Austin and Mary Fisher arrived from Barbados with perhaps a hundred volumes. Though there was no law against Quakers when they landed, a meeting of the Colony’s Assistants, counselors to the Governor, ordered on July 11, 1656 that the books the two women had brought “be forthwith burned and destroyed by the common executioner.”


Finally, on May 22, 1661 - scarcely a month after King Charles II was crowned at Westminster Abbey - the General Court voted to “totally suppress” a book by John Eliot, the celebrated “Apostle of the Indians.” The government felt that “in sundry passages & expressions” of Eliot’s The Christian Commonwealth, his volume was “justly offenciue, & in speciall relating to kingly gouernment in England.” The Court urged people to “cancel or deface” Eliot’s blatantly anti-royalist passages by do-it-yourself censorship – or turn the books in to authorities. No mention of burning.

So, Massachusetts approached each case individually: symbolically burn a copy, burn all the copies turned in, burn all the copies that could be found – or simply have people cross out the offending paragraphs.


Book by John Eliot, banned in 1661.