The Puritans, English and Print Media

Generations of historians have used John Winthrop’s oft quoted phrase – “the eyes of all people are upon us” – to describe how the first puritans in Massachusetts Bay saw their errand into the wilderness as a venture worthy of emulation by a corrupted England. However, most historians, particularly Americanists, proceed to matters more pertinent to the story they wish to tell – the founding of a colony that would significantly impart its character on a later American identity. The puritan architects of Massachusetts Bay had no such plan in mind. Their stated purpose was to create a godly community and an example for those in England to follow. They fervently denied accusations that they were separatists. This first generation risked their lives and souls, but also with it the legitimacy of Puritanism in England, or at least its most radical part. When scathing accounts of the Bay colony appeared in England beginning in the 1630s, the leading lights of the colony mounted a transatlantic print campaign designed to propagate the righteousness of their endeavor.

Massachusetts Bay colonists participated in and contributed to the growing print culture in mid-seventeenth-century England. Inheritors of a rich tradition of dissent via the printed word, the puritan colonists knew full well the power – and danger – of print. These were men of letters. Many had published tracts in England before coming to Massachusetts Bay. When the colonists published tracts in England they were simply using a means of communication familiar to them. But instead of using print as a weapon to reform the Anglican establishment, the puritan leadership of Massachusetts Bay now found themselves in the position of defending their own orthodoxy from the attacks of radical dissenters.