This month in class I’m teaching the Puritans, which means that an idea I’ve had for several years has returned, and I’ve been mulling it for a few days. As most of our readers already know, the Bible was easily the most widely owned and widely read publication in the British North American colonies (in particular in New England). Protestant Christian settlers were deeply versed in the Bible – they could cite and quote regularly from a broad range of prophecies, parables, and psalms. But they also read and understood the Bible in historically specific ways, focusing on certain books of the Bible in their study and reflection, quoting certain passages with higher frequency than others. For those of us who are not religious historians (and/or were raised ourselves in traditions in which textual exegesis was not strongly emphasized), figuring out not only the meaning of Biblical passages but also the ways in which specific historical actors used them would require significant reading.
Guest posters Richard Calis and Madeline McMahon are graduate students in the History Department at Princeton University. Along with Frederic Clark, Anthony Grafton, and Jennifer Rampling, they are part of a collaborative research project (@WinthropProject) studying how multiple generations of Winthrops read, annotated, and acquired books on both sides of the Atlantic.
John Winthrop (1588-1649) and his son John Winthrop Jr. (1606-1676) are now known primarily as protagonists in the turbulent political history of early America. But in addition to shaping the government and theology of New England as governors of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut (respectively), they and the rest of the Winthrop family also participated in a transatlantic and inter-generational bookish culture. Long before the Arbella sailed to Boston in 1630 to build a “city upon a hill”, generations of Winthrops began to talk about books, ways to read them and, as we will illustrate here, the difficulties and contingencies of collecting them—on both sides of the Atlantic. Continue reading