Martyrs’ Mirror: Persecution and Holiness in Early New England

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Martyrs’ Mirror examines the folklore of martyrdom among seventeenth-century New England Protestants, exploring how they imagined themselves within biblical and historical narratives of persecution. Memories of martyrdom, especially stories of the Protestants killed throughout the reign of Queen Mary within the mid-sixteenth century, were central to a model of holiness and political legitimacy. The colonists of early New England drew in this historical imagination to be able to reinforce their authority in matters of religion throughout times of distress. By examining how the notions of persecution and martyrdom move out and in of the writing of the period, Adrian Chastain Weimer finds that the idea of the real church as a persecuted church infused colonial identity.

Though contested, the martyrs formed a shared heritage, and fear of being labeled a persecutor, and even admiration for a cheerful sufferer, could serve to inspire religious tolerance. The sense of being persecuted also allowed colonists to keep away from responsibility for aggression against Algonquian tribes. Surprisingly, those wishing to defend maltreated Christian Algonquians wrote their history as a continuation of the persecutions of the real church. This examination of the historical imagination of martyrdom contributes to our working out of the meaning of suffering and holiness in English Protestant culture, of the significance of religious models to debates over political legitimacy, and of the cultural history of persecution and tolerance.

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