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Edward Johnson and the American Puritan Sense of History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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When Edward Johnson needed to express his deepest hopes about history, he found in the Bible an encoded emblem for the destiny of America. In the proclamation from Christ's herald that begins The Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New England, he concludes with an urgent appeal to all believers:

Pray, pray, pray, pray continually with the valiant worthy Joshua that the Sun may stand still in Gibeon, and the Moone in the vally of Aijalon, for assuredly although some small battailes may be fought against the enemies of Christ, yet the great day of their finall overthrow shall not come till the bright Sonne of that one cleare truth of Christ, stands still in the Gentile Churches, that those who fight the Lords Battells may plainly discerne his enemies in all places, where they finde them, as also such as will continue fighting must have the World kept low in their eyes, as the Moon in the valley of Aijalon.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1989

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Author's note: The author wishes to thank Dorothy Ross, Dewey Wallace, Donald Weber, Robert Silberman, Robert Daly, and Philip Gura for helpful readings of this essay.

1. Johnson, Edward, Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New-England (1654; rept. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, 1974), pp. 1213Google Scholar. Further references to this edition are given in the text.

2. Joshua 10: 13–14, The Geneva Bible (1560; rept. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), p. 101.Google Scholar

3. Jameson, J. Franklin, “Introduction,” in Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence 1628–1651 (New York: Scribner's, 1910), pp. 68.Google Scholar

4. The work of Sacvan Bercovitch, Ursula Brumm, Cecilia Tichi, Edward Gallagher, and Philip Gura in particular has helped to encourage a more careful look at Johnson's history. Bercovitch points out that Johnson, despite the awkwardness and overreaching of his prose, has a readily discoverable structure and employs typological parallels systematically through the work (“The Historiography of Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 104 [1968]: 138–61Google Scholar). Ursula Brumm has shown the linkage of theology and history in the Puritan mind as exemplified by Johnson, where “history is a territory between the present and the eternal truth of God's word … both a memorial of past events and a fulfillment of God's providence.” Brumm has noted the way that Johnson uses the present tense to convey the intense continuing importance of divinely directly events to his readers (“Edward Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence and the Puritan Conception of History,” Jahrbuch fur Amerikastudien 14 [1969]: 140–51Google Scholar). Tichi and Gallagher have both pointed to the work's function as a group spiritual biography, and Gallagher has noted (without expanding on the observation) that the work should be seen in its polemical context, among other defenses of the New England Way written in the 1640s and 1650s in response to criticisms from both Presbyterians and Independents (Tichi, Cecilia, “Spiritual Biography and the Lords Remembrancers,” William and Mary Quarterly 28 (1971): 6485CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gallagher, Edward J., “The Wonder-Working Providence as Spiritual Biography,” Early American Literature 10 [1975]: 7587Google Scholar). Philip Gura describes Johnson as “the locus classicus for understanding the shift in the colonists' way of understanding their nature and destiny in the New World” (A Glimpse of Sion's Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620–1660 [Middletown, Ct.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984], p. 229Google Scholar and elsewhere). Even these interpreters of Johnson do not claim that he was a powerful and original mind or a graceful literary stylist. But he could exercise competently the complex intellectual equipment of 11th-Century Puritanism, and his energy of expression bears witness to the vitality of that belief in New England.

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The exercise and troubles which God is pleased to lay upon these kingdomes and the inhabitants in them, teaches us patience and forebearance one with another in some measure, though there be difference in our opinions, which makes me hope that, from the experience here, it may also be derived to yourselves, least whilst the congregationall way amongst you is in its freedom, and is backed with power, it teach its oppugners here to extirpate it and roote it out, from its owne principles and practice. (Hutchinson Papers, vol. 1, pp. 152–53)Google Scholar

During the same month Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, and John Owen wrote to the Massachusetts General Court to complain about the laws against Anabaptists, on the grounds that the Independent position in England was undermined by such laws (Miller, Perry, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province [1953; rept. Boston: Beacon, 1961], p. 9).Google Scholar

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47. Walker, , Creeds and Platforms, p. 359.Google Scholar

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55. Ames, William, The Marrow of Theology, trans. Eusden, John D. (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1968), p. 158.Google Scholar

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57. Winthrop, , Papers, vol. 2, p. 285.Google Scholar

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