Author: Pointer, Richard W
Date published: March 1, 2012
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An alchemist willing to engage in occult practices, an advocate for religious toleration and Pequot Indian rights, an entrepreneur eager to strike it rich--such impulses were bound to set one at odds with mainstream Puritan culture in seventeenth-century New England. Or were they? In the person of John Winthrop, Jr., as presented in this new account by Walter Woodward, they were not. Woodward offers a stunning reinterpretation of Winthrop. But even more, he paints a revised portrait of early New England that forces us to look again at seemingly familiar ground and find there more than a few surprises.
Alchemy--the effort to gain "mastery over the natural world through the study and manipulation of the visible and occult forces permeating nature" (2)--is at the heart of Woodward's story. Persuaded that its importance has been overlooked or misread, he sets out to show that what he coins "Christian alchemy" played a critical role in shaping New England's cultural character on most every front including its economic development, settlement patterns, interactions with Indians, treatment of religious outsiders, healing practices, witchcraft crises, and imperial relations. Winthrop's life, and particularly his participation in a transatlantic network of Christian alchemists, is the prism Woodward employs to discover alchemy's heretofore hidden importance.
When Winthrop arrived in Massachusetts in 1631 as a twenty-five year old, he was already fully immersed in the world of natural philosophy, and more specifically, the world of alchemy thanks to contacts in England and on the Continent. His active participation in alchemical research for the remaining forty-five years of his life sprang from both religious and economic motives. Along with other Christian alchemists, Winthrop was convinced that alchemy could provide providentially revealed knowledge that could enhance society's economic well being and godly character, and thereby help pave the way for Christ's return. He and his associates on both sides of the Atlantic imagined that alchemy could lead to nothing less than the acquisition of universal knowledge which would in turn be the basis for a thoroughgoing reformation of the Old World and the New. In that vein, Winthrop envisioned first New London, then Connecticut and all of New England as a kind of laboratory within which the benefits of alchemical practice could be pursued and realized. As he became settled in the region, much of his energy in the 1630s and 1640s went into a host of business schemes in mining, industrial processing, and agriculture. None proved especially successful but all were rooted in his alchemical philosophy.
So, too, were Winthrop's activities in four other key spheres of New England life. In them, according to Woodward, the younger Winthrop proved himself to be a remarkably successful leader. Winthrop became a highly respected medical practitioner serving patients from across the colony and region because of, not in spite of, his use of alchemical medicine. Its remedies and "godly theoretical underpinnings" fit well with the "medical providentialism" (170) of Puritan New England. It also enabled him to represent himself to Indians as a "magico-religious specialist" (110) akin to a native shaman, and even better, one with considerable political clout given his family connections. Indians considered that a rare and potent combination, an acknowledgment that made Winthrop a key power broker in the region's complex intercultural relations. Winthrop likewise wielded considerable power over Connecticut's witchcraft cases in the mid-seventeenth century, and not just because he was governor at the time. Instead, his authority derived from his "understanding of the role of occult forces in the operations of nature" (211), a knowledge that allowed him to judge whether any real diabolical activity had occurred. Winthrop proved no skeptic about the reality of the magical arts but he consistently resisted witchcraft convictions and as a result, witchcraft prosecutions declined and then ended in the colony for a generation. As governor, his other great achievement was securing a favorable charter for Connecticut from England's restored monarchy and then adeptly warding off the designs of Charles II to impose much stricter control over the region. Here again Winthrop's science played a critical role for in 1662, he became the first colonist inducted as a member of the Royal Society. For the next decade, he took advantage of the access that honor afforded him to political power, money, and knowledge, while also coyly putting off the Society's imperially motivated requests for information about New England.
These arguments are fresh, inventive, and mostly persuasive. Together they give us a far more interesting and important Winthrop than prior accounts have constructed. Moreover, at most every turn, Prospero's America stakes out broader claims about Puritan New England that run counter to accepted wisdom or at least popular stereotypes. Puritans were not uniformly opposed to all forms of magic, Woodward says. Many of them made an important distinction between natural magic (acceptable) and diabolical magic (required a compact with the devil, and therefore unacceptable). That is what allowed Winthrop and many of his Puritan compatriots to embrace alchemy, and permitted him to function as a crucial arbiter of the validity of witchcraft accusations. Nor were Puritans uniformly opposed to making profits or tolerating religious differences. Economic enterprises and the profits they might generate were "seen as the indispensable means to achieving godly ends, and personal gain was to be a by-product of that effort, not an end in itself" (307). Meanwhile, moderate Puritans such as Winthrop extended Christian grace and intellectual space to a diverse set of others ranging from European scientists to Pequot sachems.
This image of Puritan New England as less binary, less black-and-white, less authoritarian fits well with other recent analyses of Puritanism and the region. What Woodward adds is the emphasis on alchemy and more broadly, early modern science, as a critical ingredient in shaping New England's cultural formation. At first blush, that argument seems to require Woodward to work some magic of his own, especially in light of the relative paucity of written evidence about the activities of colonial alchemists (theirs was a secret knowledge they preferred to keep to themselves). Yet slowly but surely he builds a convincing case that alchemy was widely though not universally accepted in seventeenth-century New England and constituted a core element in the Christian mindset of John Winthrop, Jr., and others like him.