The Spice of Popery: Converging Christianities on an Early American Frontier. By Laura Chmielewski. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 366. $38.00.)
Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 113–115, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Tiro, K. M. (2014), The Spice of Popery: Converging Christianities on an Early American Frontier. By Laura Chmielewski. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 366. $38.00.). Historian, 76: 113–115. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_14
- Issue published online: 4 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
This study offers a meticulously researched account of religion as it was lived on New England's eastern frontier in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. According to Laura Chmielewski, the phrase “the spice of popery” was coined by Puritan minister Increase Mather [1639–1723] to describe and decry the contamination of Puritan orthodoxy by various heresies. In the author's view, poverty, war, distance from Boston, and proximity to Wabanaki and French settlements made it difficult to sustain a religious life that was coherent, let alone orthodox.
Chmielewski reminds us that we should not conflate Maine's early colonial history with that of Massachusetts. A relatively larger proportion of Maine's early settlers were more concerned with fish and pine than religion, and those with firm commitments included Anglicans and Dissenters with ideas of their own. Even as Maine communities were pulled into Massachusetts's social and political orbit, they were unable to attract and support a settled ministry. Ministers came to Maine either because they were inexperienced or because “Maine's remoteness [was] a good place to conceal at least temporarily their unorthodox views or less-than-holy pursuits” (174). (If television had existed in colonial America, “The Real Ministers of Colonial Maine” would have been very entertaining.)
To make matters worse, Maine communities were periodically overrun by their French and Wabanaki neighbors. Captives were taken, and their abductions were sometimes of such sufficient duration that they converted to Catholicism. This left numerous Protestant Maine families with a serious quandary: Catholic relatives. Chmielewski delves particularly deeply into the experiences of these captives, tracing their lives in New France and back in New England in impressive detail. Some of these stories are truly extraordinary. In general, they were treated well; converting a Protestant was considered a good work, sometimes spurring affluent families to ransom captives. Moreover, New France needed people, so the government granted favors such as land.
Interestingly, Chmielewski's description of the captives' experiences among the Indians bears little resemblance to that of James Axtell's famous essay, “The White Indians of Colonial America.” Chmielewski finds little evidence of the Indians' acculturative savoir-faire as described by Axtell. It is entirely possible that this reflects local factors, overstatement on Axtell's part, or Chmielewski's weaker grasp of the Indian dimension of her story. Most likely it is a combination of all three.
Over the course of the book, Chmielewski uses a variety of terms to describe the history of English encounter with French and Wabanaki Catholicism. Having scoured not only the documentary record but the material record as well, Chmielewski offers some discrete examples of debate, indoctrination, and borrowing. Ultimately, “entangled” seems to fit best, as religious belief and practice never became truly hybridized (10). As Chmielewski points out, even if Mainers were sometimes forced to confront certain misconceptions regarding Catholicism, their colony was no multicultural utopia. They still identified strongly with Protestantism, and if that meant anything, it meant opposing Catholicism. The cultural otherness of the region's Catholic Indians only amplified that repulsion. For most of Maine's population, the “convergence” alluded to in the subtitle seemed to be more a grudging toleration than a transformative spiritual engagement.