Killing, and dying, in the name of God in the New World

by Nick

What’s “Sacred” about Violence in Early America? is a piece by Susan Juster in a back issue of Common-place, a fascinating online journal sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society. It talks about the deliberate setting light by a Puritan militia of Fort Mystic during the Pequot war of 1637, which resulted in the deaths of five hundred Pequot Indians.

“We must burn them!” the militia captain famously insisted to his troops on the eve of the massacre, in words that echo the classic early modern response to heretics. Just five months before, the Puritan minister at Salem had exhorted his congregation in strikingly similar terms to destroy a more familiar enemy, Satan; “We must burne him,” John Wheelwright told his parishioners. Indians and devils may have been scarcely distinguishable to many a Puritan, but their rhetorical conflation in these two calls to arms raises a question: Was the burning of Fort Mystic a racial or a religious killing?

It’s a fascinating article, particularly her arguments on whether sacralisation of violence actually intensifies and worsens it. I’m also really interested by her argument that the early colonists arrived imbued with concepts of martyrdom, which were reinforced by the relatively isolated status of their communities. It’s certainly true that seventeenth century Europe was a far more religious, even apocalyptic place than is often portrayed. I’m reminded of Conrad Russell’s line:

It does not help that the word “religion” has slowly changed its meaning with the retreat of the State from religious enforcement, and that what takes place outside the South African Embassy may sometimes be nearer to seventeenth-century meanings of “religion” than what takes place in St-Martin’s-in-the-Fields. (The Causes of the English Civil War, p. 63).

Her point about Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is also well made – it provides one of the backdrops in England for a century of “troubles”, anxiety about the Catholic Counter-Reformation and violence as society briefly turned in on itself.