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Endecott and the Red Cross: Puritan Iconoclasm in the New World

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 January 2009

Francis J. Bremer
Professor of History at Millersville University, Millersville, PA 17551, USAand Editor of the Winthrop Papers for the Massachusetts Historical Society.


The place was Salem, noon on an autumnal day in 1634 as Nathaniel Hawthorne told the story. The town's train band has assembled to be put through its paces. Fluttering in the wind is the military ensign featuring the royal colours – the red cross of St. George on a white field. Captain John Endecott receives a message from Roger Williams, who has just returned from Boston. The note tells of a plan by the king to send a governor general to rule Massachusetts and establish episcopacy. “Endecott,” writes Hawthorne, “gazed round at the excited countenances of the people, now full of his own spirit, and then turned suddenly to the standard-bearer, who stood close behind him:”

‘Officer, lower your banner!’ said he.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1990

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1 The excerpt is from the Library of America edition of Hawthorne, Nathaniel, Tales and Sketches (New York: Library of America, 1982)Google Scholar, but the spelling of Endecott has been changed to maintain consistency. Colacurcio's, MichaelThe Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984)Google Scholar offers insights into the nature of Puritan society as seen by Hawthorne. A point of particular interest is Colacurcio's observation that in Hawthorne's stories “we are to imagine Winthrop and his fellow expatriates as perfectly alert to all manner of symbolic possibilities from the outset” (271). Certainly Endecott's major appearance in Hawthorne comes as a destroyer of symbols – the maypole at Merrymount and the red cross at Salem.

2 Morgan, Edmund S., for example, gives little attention to the incident in The Puritan Dilemma (Boston: Little Brown, 1958)Google Scholar; the episode is ignored in Labaree's, BenjaminColonial Massachusetts (Milwood: KTO, 1979)Google Scholar; Endecott's action is categorized as rash by Pomfret, John E. in Founding the American Colonies (New York: Harper and Row, 1970).Google Scholar

3 Winthrop, John, Winthrop's journal: “History of New England,” ed. Hosmer, James Kendall (New York: Charles Scribner, 1908), 1, 128–35, 137.Google Scholar

4 Ibid., 1, 137. There is no detailed description of the ensign which Endecott defaced. According to Mrs, S K. Hopkins of the Department of Uniform at the National Army Museum in London, “there were no formal rules or orders set down for Colours in 1634.” A 1622 work entitled Five Decades of Epistles of Warre recommended as rules that a Captain's Colours should consist of the two principal colours in his coat of arms with the red cross of St. George on a white field in the upper hoist canton (the upper corner against the pole) and a Colonel's Colours be one colour with the red cross in the upper hoist canton. These recommendations were possibly a reflection of what was becoming accepted usage, and Ensignes of the regiments in the rebellious Citty of London (London, 1643) by R. Symonds shows that these rules were being observed by the London Train Bands. Private communication from National Army Museum, reference 1022 (vi), 13 April 1987. Noble, John, ed., Records of the Court of Assistants of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay, 1630–1692 (Boston: Suffolk County, 1904), 11, 50Google Scholar. Interestingly, the ensign bearer, Richard Davenport, was an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Winthrop, 1, 137.

5 Ibid., 1, 141–42. Endecott, John to Winthrop, John Jr, 8 12 1634, in Emerson, Everett, ed., Letters from New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976), 131–32Google Scholar. Winthrop, , 1, 145.Google Scholar

6 Ibid., 1, 147, 148–49.

7 Ibid., 1, 149–50. Endecott was returned to the Court of Assistants in the 1636 elections.

8 Ibid., 1, 150–51.

9 Ibid., 1, 174. Morris, Jonathan, The British Flag: Its Origin and History. Incidents in Its Use in America (Hartford: Lockwood and Brainard, 1889), 4.Google Scholar

10 Ibid., 12–13.

11 Winthrop, , 1, 181–82.Google Scholar

12 Covey, Cyclone, The Gentle Radical: A Biography of Roger Williams (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 78Google Scholar. For the Antinomian controversy see Stoever, William K. B., “A faire and Easier Way to Heaven”: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1978).Google Scholar

13 Phillips, John, The Reformation of Images: Destruction of Art in England, 1935–1660 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 2, 86 n. 11, 14–15, 27.Google Scholar I have gained some insight into the importance of both the cross and the flag as symbols from the papers collected in Lyman Bryson, Louis Finkelstein, Hudson Hoagland and Maciver, R. M., eds., Symbols and Society: The Fourteenth Symposium of the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).Google ScholarEire, Carlos M. N., War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 1920.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 Phillips, , 4546, 53, 57.Google Scholar

15 Eire, , 106.Google ScholarDent, C. M., Protestant Reformers in Elizabethan Oxford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 4.Google ScholarJordan, W. K., Edward VI: The Young King (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 148150Google Scholar; Phillips, , 8990Google Scholar. Collinson, Patrick, “The Godly: Aspects of Popular Protestantism,” in Collinson, Patrick, Godly People: Essays on English Protestantism and Puritanism (London: Hambledon, 1983), 118.Google Scholar

16 Phillips, , 99, 102, 109, 116Google Scholar. Davies, Horton, Worship and Theology in England: From Cranmer to Hooker, 1534–1603 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970)Google Scholar, Chapter VII. Many Puritans, and some other Englishmen as well, believed that the lure of the cross and other such ancient symbols would draw Englishmen from their true allegiance and into the hands of Rome. See Wiener, Carol, “The Beleagured Isle: A Study of Elizabethan and Early Jacobean Anti-Catholicism,” Past and Present, 51 (1971), 4445CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Clifton, Robin, “Fear of Popery,” in Russell, Conrad, ed., The Origins of the English Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).Google Scholar

17 Phillips, , 159, 162–63Google Scholar; McGee, J. Sears, “William Laud and the Outward Face of Religion,” in De Molen, Richard L., ed., Leaders of the Reformation (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1984), 326Google Scholar; Tyacke, Nicholas, Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism c. 1590–1640 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 199.Google Scholar

18 Smith, Harold, The Ecclesiastical History of Essex Under the Long Parliament and Commonwealth (Colchester: Benham, 1932), 22Google Scholar. Ire, , 62Google Scholar. Tyack, Norman C. P., “The Humbler Puritans of East Anglia and the New England Movement: Evidence from the Court Records of the 16305,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 120 (1984), 102Google Scholar; Cope, Esther S., Politics Without Parliaments, 1629–1640 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987), 72Google Scholar. Phillips, , Reformation of Images, 176, 177.Google Scholar

19 Come, Donald Robert, “John Cotton: Guide of the Chosen People” (Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University Press, 1949), 119–22Google Scholar; Calendar of State Papers. Domestic, James I: 1619–25 ed. Greene, M. A. (London, 18571859), III, 244245, 258Google Scholar summarizes the documents in the case; Holmes, Clive, Seventeenth–Century Lincolnshire, History of Lincolnshire, Vol. 7 (Lincoln, 1980), 95Google Scholar, Hough's deposition is contained, along with others in Blenkin, G. B., “Boston, England, and John Cotton in 1621,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 28 (1874), 133Google Scholar. Anne Kibbey argues persuasively for the Canticles sequence having been preached at that time in The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism: A study of rhetoric, prejudice, and violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 150–51; Cotton, John, A Brief Exposition of the Whole Book of Canticles, or Book of Solomon (London, 1642), 4647Google Scholar. Thompson, Pishey, The History and Antiquities of Boston (London: Longman, 1856)Google Scholar does not discuss the incident of the mace but provides valuable background on the ecclesiastical scene in Boston, Lincolnshire at that time.

20 Quintrell, B. W., “Gentry Factions and the Witham Affray,” Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, 3rd series, 10 (1978), 118–23.Google Scholar

21 Aylmer, G. E., “St Patrick's Day 1628 in Witham, Essex,” Past and Present, 61 (1973), 139–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Breen, T. H. refers to the incident in “The Covenanted Militia of Massachusetts Bay: English Background and New World Development,” in Breen, T. H., Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980)Google Scholar. Quintrell, , 118.Google Scholar

22 Another part of the context for this dispute was the developing political factionalism in the Bay. In December 1633 and January 1634 the Court of Assistants had dealt with Roger Williams for his authorship of a manuscript challenging the legitimacy of the colonists' right to the region's land. John Cotton had helped to moderate the magistrates' concerns, and Williams's apparent penitence allowed the issue to be put aside for the time. A few months later Cotton preached against the position taken by Williams and Endecott that women must be veiled in church. The summer of 1634 saw the first indications that the settlers of Newtown, including Thomas Hooker and John Haynes, were interested in moving. The Fall session of the General Court produced the first debate over the Assistants' assertion of a negative voice, with Israel Stoughton among the deputies who opposed Winthrop and the Assistants.

23 Stoughton, Israel to Stoughton, John, 1635Google Scholar, in Emerson, , 152–152.Google ScholarWinthrop, , 1, 182Google Scholar. Come, 8;, 86. Mayo, Lawrence Shaw, John Endecott, A Biography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), 87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 Covey, , 7778Google Scholar; more recently Gura, Phillip has identified Williams as the force behind the cross incident in his A Glimpse of Sions Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620–1660 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1984), 41.Google Scholar Richard Gildrie believes that Endecott was led on by Williams and that his punishment by the General Court helped wean Endecott from Williams's influence (Salem, Massachusetts, 1626–1683: A Covenant Community [Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1975], 3435)Google ScholarWilliams, Roger, Mr. Cotton's Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered (London, 1644)Google Scholar in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams (New York: Russell and Russell, 1963 reprint), 1, 321Google Scholar. Cyclone Covey inaccurately identifies Williams's statement as being in The Bloudy Tenent, Covey, 78.Google ScholarHubbard, William, A General History of New England from the Discovery to MDCLXXX, Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, series 2, vols 5 and 6 (Cambridge: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1815), 1, 164, 205.Google Scholar

25 Sewall, Samuel, The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674–1729, ed. Thomas, M. Halsey (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1973), 1, 119–20.Google Scholar

26 Mss, Historical Papers and Tracts, British Museum, Harley 4888. There is a transcript in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

27 Hooker, Thomas, “Touchinge the Crosse in the Banner,” Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, 62 (1909), 271–80.Google ScholarHooker, Thomas, “Miscellanae,”Google Scholar transcribed and printed in Denholm, Andrew T., “Thomas Hooker: 1586–1647” (Ph.D. dissertation, Hartford Seminary, 1961), 372 ff.Google Scholar

28 Stoughton, Israel to Stoughton, John, 1635, in Emerson, 144–45.Google Scholar Harleian Mss 4888.

29 Hooker, , “Miscellanae,” 272 ff.Google ScholarWinthrop, John to SirD'Ewe, Simonds, 20 07 1635Google Scholar, Winthrop Papers: Volume III, 1631–1637, ed. Forbes, Allyn (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1943), 200.Google Scholar

30 Shepard, Thomas, “Journal,” in McGiffert, Michael, ed., God's Plot, the Paradoxes of Puritan Piety: Being the Autobiography and Journal of Thomas Shepard (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972), 220.Google Scholar The iconoclastic aspects of the English Puritan Revolution is a complex subject in its own right. Though the first ordinance of the Long Parliament regarding images was not passed until 1643, the Journal of the House of Commons reports a 1641 resolution that all crucifixes and religious pictures be abolished. The destruction of the Cheapside Cross was one of the most celebrated examples of popular iconoclasm, but others were to be found in all strongly Puritan areas. The Irish Rebellion of 1641 added fuel to the attacks on Catholic symbols. Nehemiah Wallington was one of many Puritans who rejoiced when images were removed from London churches in October 1641 (Seaver, Pal, Wallington's World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985], 151)Google Scholar, and Underdown, David cites various rural examples of the destruction of images in Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England, 1603–1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 138, 140, 178.Google ScholarRowse, A. L., Reflections on the Puritan Revolution (London: Methuen, 1986)Google Scholar, contains much valuable information on incidents of iconoclasm, but Rowse's anger at the cultural loss from these acts prevents him from having any understanding of the motives of the Puritans. I have not encountered any evidence of English Puritan concern about the cross in the flag, though it is perhaps of interest that when the Restoration was proclaimed the royalist citizens of Sherborne heralded the event by breaking out the cross of St. George (Underdown, 271).

31 Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay, IV (Boston: W. White, 1853), 41.Google ScholarMorris, , 20.Google ScholarPalfrey, John Gorham, History of New England During the Stuart Dynasty, III (Boston: Little Brown, 1864), 348.Google Scholar

32 Sewall, , 1, 120.Google Scholar

33 Sewall, , 1, 544–45.Google Scholar This smacks of the same Puritan scepticism that led the citizens of Norwich, England, to dispense with the traditional St. George's Day pageant in 1645 (Underdown, 259).

34 In The Interpretation of Material Shapes Anne Kibbey expands the concept of icons to include a variety of symbols, including people. She characterizes Puritan violence against Indians and women as forms of iconoclasm. There are many questions that can be raised regarding Kibbey's thesis that are beyond the scope of this article. She is correct in asserting that Puritans were not against the use of icons and symbols of other sorts. As Dickran Tashjian has argued, Puritans interpreted the second commandment to forbid not the use of images but their worship (“Puritan Attitudes toward Iconoclasm,” Puritan Gravestone Art II, The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife: Annual Proceedings 1978, ed. Peter Benes, pp. 37–45). Endecott reacted to the cross not as a symbol but as an idol.

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