What’s “Literary” about Puritan Missionary Writing?

Paul Thifault

For generations, scholars have examined the writings of the early Puritan colonists of New England. In doing so, they’ve painted a clear portrait of the interactions between indigenous populations and the English at the time of colonization. Yet our tendency to view these texts as historical documents – as records of what occurred in the early days of the American colonies – can cause us to overlook the imaginative qualities of Puritan writing. When the Puritans recounted their experiences with the indigenous people of the New World, they did not simply report on what occurred. They laced their writings with poetry, dialogue, allusions, digressions, dream analysis, indigenous legends, sentimental anecdotes, and the occasional joke.

One body of work that we rarely think of as literature is the collected writings of the early Puritan missionaries to the Wampanoag people. Taken as a whole, these texts from the 1640s and 1650s have been dubbed “The Eliot Tracts,” in honor of the most famous of its missionary authors, John Eliot (1604-1690). Known as “The Apostle to the Indians,” Eliot eventually pulled off the stunning feat of translating the Bible into a Massachusett dialect. His enduring position in Puritan history is evident in the fact that Hawthorne would later cast him as a friend to the fictional Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter (1850).

But Eliot’s reputation is not without blemish. He was also eventually responsible for the controversial formation of “Praying Towns” in which Christian Indians were separated from their unconverted friends and family and made to adopt an English lifestyle. As with many missionary projects, the religious impulses behind Eliot’s mission contributed to aggressive policies involving exploitation, cultural eradication, and open violence.

For Eliot and fellow authors like Thomas Shepard, their primary purpose in writing “The Eliot Tracts” was to secure financial and political backing for their missionary work. They were attempting to convince readers in the colony and in England to donate and support the missionary cause. The literary result was what we might recognize today as a multi-genre format consisting of memoir, sermon, anthropology, history, drama, and poetry.

Modern readers who can get past the dusty title page of “The Eliot Tracts” are treated to a surprisingly vivid account of the intimacy, awkwardness, hostility, and hilarity that results from a collision of seventeenth-century worldviews. The experience of these intercultural encounters sometimes knocks missionary writers off course, leading to detailed ethnographic descriptions that have little bearing on the task of proselytizing. As a reader, one can feel the missionary straining to focus on the business at hand, caught up in the dynamic nature of the exchange. One might even find in the text some evidence of mutual influence. At key moments, exposure to Native culture reorients the Puritans’ own conception of themselves and their mission.

There are many literary aspects of “The Eliot Tracts” worth exploring, but I am most drawn to a ghostly presence that haunts nearly every encounter between the Wampanoag people and these English Calvinist missionaries: the specter of Roman Catholicism. It is important to point out that no actual Catholics appear in these accounts of what happened when Puritans sought to introduce Christianity for the first time to New England’s indigenous population. And although the Wampanoag had little knowledge of any form of Christianity in the 1630s and 1640s (they were “pagan,” in Puritan terms), the Puritans wrote as if they were attempting to convert a staunch group of European “Papists” to the guiding light of Protestantism.

Native political leaders like the Sachems are subtly described in harsh terms usually reserved for Popes. Accounts of Wampanoag worship resemble typical anti-Catholic depictions of the Mass, a chaotic mix of superstition and primitive ritual. Indians also appear excessively worried about not being able to read the Bible in their own language. Puritan writers take this basic linguistic problem (the fact that the English and the Wampanoag do not have a text they can both read) and link it to Rome’s so-called diabolical efforts to prevent average people from reading the Bible. Even a simple language barrier bears linguistic traces of a Catholic plot, minus the Catholics.

In one telling moment, Eliot goes off on a tirade about (among other things) the evils of Catholicism, only to write “I forget myself; this is not my present work, it is my desire and my prayer; my work is to endeavor the setting up of Christ Kingdome among the Indians.” Why would anti-Catholicism so frequently enter conversations between Calvinist Puritans and traditionalist Native Americans?  Why can’t Eliot get Catholicism off the brain?

One reason has to do with the imposing presence of other European colonial powers in the North America. Certainly, England’s competition with Spain and France for the land and souls of Native Americans would have kept the dreaded Catholic menace on English minds. But that is no reason to portray Natives themselves as quasi-Catholic people in need of conversion to Protestantism.

A more convincing explanation is that the Puritans created this Catholic-Indian analogy by force of literary habit. Up until that point, most Puritan writing had aimed to refute doctrines associated with “popery,” including those elements of the “Romish” faith that lingered in other Protestant sects. To be a Puritan writer was to be a skilled surgeon who could diagnose and dissect “popish” errors. And it wasn’t just the New England Puritans who practiced this rhetoric. It was part of a larger Protestant writing strategy in the seventeenth century. The rhetorical tactic known as “pagano-papism” meant discrediting a rival Christian group (often Catholicism) by highlighting its similarity to non-Christian religious practices such as the rituals and polytheism of classical paganism. Given the prominence of such comparisons and the Puritans’ particular animosity toward Rome, it makes sense that Puritan writers would frame the traditional Native American religions that they wanted to eliminate as akin to Roman Catholicism.

But here is where it gets really interesting. Despite the Puritans’ disdain for Rome, “The Eliot Tracts” often portray the crypto-Catholicism of indigenous people as a good thing. Prominent missionaries like Eliot and Shepard represent Native American behaviors as similar to those of Roman Catholics, and then portray that similarity as the start of a path toward a “truer” Puritan Christianity. Whereas Roman Catholicism is pure Satanism in most Puritan writings, in “The Eliot Tracts,” it’s a step along the way to salvation.

It is hard to overstate the strangeness of these moments, and if you’re interested in a fuller explanation of why contact with the Indians encouraged the Puritans to take a temporarily positive attitude toward Catholicism, you can check out my article on the topic in the most recent issue of Christianity and Literature entitled “Native Americans and the Catholic Phase in Puritan Missionary Writing.”

It suffices to say here that the Puritans may have admitted the relative “goodness” of the Natives’ Catholic-like behavior to stave off a larger problem at the very root of their missionary project.  The problem is this: if the “The Eliot Tracts” are designed to show Indians becoming Puritans, and if being a good Puritan meant being a good reader of Scripture in the vernacular, how can the Puritans claim any progress in converting a group of indigenous people who cannot read English and do not have a Bible in their own language? Until Eliot could complete his Indian Bible in 1661 (more than thirty years after the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay), the Puritans would have to find another way to chart the progress of their mission to potential supporters.

The problem of how to represent, in literary terms, the conversion of the Wampanoag was one the Puritans knew they couldn’t completely solve yet, but bringing Catholicism into the equation at least allowed them to show their work. Projecting an aura of Catholicism around Native traditions created familiar markers against which Puritans could chart the mission’s achievements. If you can make readers see a group of itinerant indigenous shamans as a highly organized collection of scheming Catholic bishops, it’s a bigger deal when those healers show some polite interest in your religion.

The “Catholic-like” behaviors of the Wampanoag may also have been portrayed as a relatively good thing because it allowed Eliot to link his fledgling missionary project in this far corner of the world to the Reformation, a narrative in which Protestantism is a fated and divinely led cause, a narrative that Puritans knew how to write.

For literary history, perhaps the biggest takeaway from this discovery – the discovery that Puritans would actually celebrate the “Catholicism” of those they would like to convert – is how a rhetorical and literary situation can shift even the most grounded of cultural and religious prejudices.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Native Americans and the Catholic Phase in Puritan Missionary Writing,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.2 (December 2018). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.