Francis Bremer on Boston’s Forgotten History

Francis Bremer - credit Keegan L. Bremer

Francis Bremer – credit Keegan L. Bremer

Here, Francis J. Bremer, author of the recently published biography, Building a New Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worldsdiscusses the intertwined religious and political histories of Boston, the first founders—its clergy, and their importance to our historical understanding.
Francis J. Bremer—

At a time when religion is politically charged, and politics is religiously charged, it would pay Americans to contemplate the early roots of our society.  This is one of the reasons why I have been long fascinated with the study of puritans and puritanism in the Anglo-American world of the seventeenth century.  And yet there are few periods of our history that are more neglected.

A few weeks ago I made a visit to Boston, which was the heart of puritan New England, to speak at the Congregational Library.  As I customarily do, I walked around the downtown to renew my contacts with the rich heritage of the city.  I was struck by the numerous tourist groups led by interpreters in the costumes of eighteenth-century America – the men in tri-cornered hats and the women in mob caps.  I was impressed by the new location of the National Park Service visitor center in Fanueil Hall.  And I couldn’t avoid hearing the amplified commentary on Revolutionary Boston as the duck boats and buses passed me on the street.

What was missing, more so than on previous visits, was any sense of the first century and a half of Boston’s history.  I had to peer over the shoulders of the flow of tourists going to Quincy Market in order to see the marker on the building at 53 State Street that indicated where John Winthrop, the colony’s first governor, lived.  I was alone in the section of the burial ground next to King’s Chapel where the graves of Boston’s early clergymen John Cotton and John Davenport are located, along with John Winthrop and the merchant Robert Keayne who donated the funds for Boston’s town house.  I watched countless visitors walk across the mosaic on the School Street sidewalk commemorating the site of the first school in the town without glancing down.

The neglect of Boston’s puritan heritage is nothing new. But it has gotten progressively worse as many promote the idea that America began with the Revolution.  While there are no remaining seventeenth-century structures in Boston, there are sites to remind us of the role of the puritans – the places I mentioned above, but also the Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer statues in front of the State House, the outline of the original harbor on the ground in front of Fanueil Hall, the monument commemorating the founding of the city that was placed on the Common during the 300th anniversary, and Harvard College, to mention but a few.  Some of these are part of the little known “Founders Trail” which  can be found on the Internet, though it is dwarfed by the popularity of the “Freedom Trail.”

Boston is rightly proud of what residents such as Sam and John Adams, James Otis, and John Hancock among others contributed to the Revolution and the making of the United States.  But that is no reason to ignore the first founders such as John Winthrop, whose “Christian Charity” sermon influenced and was oft quoted by John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and others.  Yes, there was intolerance, though often overstated.  It was the puritans who defined Massachusetts as a commonwealth and set the pattern of participatory and voluntary congregational government that evolved into a broader democratic impulse, the puritans who emphasized the importance of a moral dimension to public policy, and the puritans who laid the foundations of America’s commitment to education for all.  Hopefully the city and its citizens can recapture their pride in the Bostonians who were the first founders of America.


Francis J. Bremer is the author of over a dozen works on colonial history, most recently First Founders: American Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World (University Presses of New England, 2012).  His Building a New Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds is now available from Yale University Press.

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