Religious Rhetoric and Zero-Sum Games in Puritan New England

mezzotint portrait of Cotton Mather (Feb. 12, ...

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Robert Wright presents an interesting thesis in The Evolution of God: the Abrahamic religions have traditions for both amiable and antagonistic relations with other groups; the amiable traditions are put into play when the groups can mutually benefit from the relationship, while the antagonistic are called upon when direct competition is the only option. It would be hard to say that this is totally explanatory – Tyler Cowen has some interesting critiques here – but it is a useful framework for viewing some conflicts. I applied it to the Puritan-Native American conflict of the 1660s-90s here. Anyway, I figure if I’m writing these papers I should put them up here. The first paragraph below the fold:

Cotton Mather’s “Magnalia Christi Americana” was the culmination of a transformation in the way the English colonists of North America viewed their presence there, specifically their relation to their native neighbors. While the English had always seen their relationship with the Indians in starkly religious terms, the fact that early settlers had much to gain from trade and good relations with their neighbors meant that they used Christian paradigms that promoted relative tolerance and good will. Thus Roger Williams could invoke “the most holy & jealous God” in beseeching his fellow colonists to avoid “Unnecessary Warr & cruell Destruction” of the Narragansetts in New England. By the late 1660s, however, dwindling fur stocks and an oversupply of wampum left the Indians increasingly economically irrelevant, and to the rapidly growing English, something worse: a hindrance to their further expansion. Even as war approached, settlers cited God to avoid it. But after the collapse of an Indian economic presence following the war, the dominant religious paradigm became not conversion but conquest. So Cotton Mather could title his history of the Indian wars “A Book of the Wars of the Lord”, and compare Indians to serpents invading “‘the garden of the east’” – that is, the garden of Eden.

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