In 1650, William Pynchon Tweaks the Puritans

Given their intolerance it’s surprising it took so long, but in 1650 the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts banned their first book and ordered all copies of William Pynchon’s analysis of Christian doctrine burned on Boston Common. They, and time, got all the copies but four.

william pynchonPynchon was one of the original founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arriving with John Winthrop in 1630. Rather than staying by the coast, however, Pynchon moved inland. He purchased land in what was called Agawam from the American Indians and named it Springfield after his home in England.

Pynchon was somewhat out of step with his Puritan comrades in more than just the fine points of religion. He believed in fair trade with the Indians. When the Connecticut Colony to the south turned confrontational with the Indians, Pynchon ended his affiliation with it and joined with the Massachusetts Colony.

Pynchon was dedicated to business rather than war. He immediately established Springfield as a working community that carried on a brisk fur trade with the Indians. Because of his principles of honesty and fairness, his reputation spread with the native people and he prospered.

Percolating in the back of his mind, however, were questions about some of the beliefs of the Puritan religious leaders, and he brought these forward in 1650 in a fully-formed book: The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption.

He conflicted with the church leaders of the day on what was a crucial pillar of Puritan belief: Jesus did not suffer the torments of Hell to absolve mankind of its past sins. Rather, it was through his obedience to God that he won a state of grace.

This interpretation left open the idea that the way one behaved on earth could dictate whether one would be accepted into heaven rather than a selected few reaching heaven by virtue of predestination.

The idea was not new to Pynchon, and nor was it one that others hadn’t espoused. But he had the temerity to have his ideas published (in England, though copies reached America) and that was one step too far. The General Court declared his work heretical and ordered Pynchon to come to Boston in 1651 and he was questioned by the prominent clergy of the day.

Though he backed off his arguments somewhat, he did not satisfy the General Court. They ordered him to return the following year to take up the matter again, and set bail of 100 pounds. Sensing the storm gathering against him, Pynchon didn’t wait to try his luck again with the court. Instead, he left Massachusetts for England and never returned because he did not want to be muzzled by the puritans.

From his safe perch in England, Pynchon continued needling the Puritans. He published several more books promoting his views on religion. When the Massachusetts Puritans ordered a rebuttal published, Pynchon fired back with another volume of his own and he stayed active in the argument until death silenced his pen in 1662.

Often overlooked among key founders of the colony, Pynchon not only opened up the Connecticut River Valley for trade and founded Springfield, he also gave a start to the concept of “Banned in Boston” that continued for so many centuries.

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