First Founders: American Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World (New England in the World)
Francis J. Bremer
New Hampshire, 2012
296 pp., $35.00
Francis Bremer's inviting collection of Puritan portraits nicely complements some of his longer, more detailed academic biographies. Those include the fullest study of John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay and the heart of the early Puritan enterprise, as well as a forthcoming book on John Davenport, founder of the little-remembered New Haven Colony, which tried to implement a more strictly biblical regime for church and state than even Massachusetts (John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father [Oxford, 2003]; Building a New Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds [Yale Univ. Press, forthcoming]). This book sketches the lives of nearly twenty noteworthy early Puritans, ranging from the well-known Winthrop and poet Anne Bradstreet to neglected figures like Winthrop's sons, one of whom (Stephen) returned to England to play a significant part in the Puritan army of Oliver Cromwell and another (Samuel) who ended his life as a prominent slave-holding Quaker in the Caribbean.
The portraits are consistently interesting for the individuals themselves. For example, the chapter on John Endecott, Winthrop's colleague and then his successor as Massachusetts governor, reveals a leader who pursued Puritan goals more militantly than had Winthrop (to the point of removing royal emblems from Massachusetts flags in order to underscore the independence of the colony from royal corruption). Another on John Sassamon details the life course of a Native American who converted to Christianity, provided valuable help to many Puritan pastors for many tasks (including Bible translation), but was tragically killed in the tensions that led up to the horrific King Philip's War.
Together, Bremer's skillful sketches make two larger points. First, early New England history cannot be studied without also studying Britain, since back-and-forth movement of goods, ideas, and people was constant. Second, while certain key principles, like a desire to further the English Reformation, joined all Puritans together, the movement included unusual diversity of personality, principle, and theological profession. It should also be noted that Bremer's First Founders supports many of the conclusions of Michael Winship's recent revisionist history, Godly Republicanism: Puritans Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill (Harvard, 2012).
Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. The third edition of his book Turning Points: Decisive Moment in the History of Christianity has recently been published by Baker Academic.
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