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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Thomas Shepard
Born in the same year as the symbolic defeat of Catholicism in England in the discovery of Guy Fawkes’s infamous Gunpowder Plot—the 1605 Catholic conspiracy to blow up the king and House of Lords—Thomas Shepard began life in a society rent by religious schisms. The first half of the seventeenth century was a turbulent time in the developing English Reformation, marked by extraordinary levels of intolerance and violence that would culminate in the regicide of Charles I in 1649. Religious persecution in the sixteenth century had resulted mostly from the competition between Catholic and Protestant world-views, as the throne passed from the Protestant convert Henry VIII and his short-lived son, Edward VI, to the Roman Catholic Queen Mary, and back to the Protestant Elizabeth I. But by the early seventeenth century, the Protestant church was firmly established in England, and in the absence of a unifying papal threat, political and theological divisions within the Protestant church began to widen.

Protestantism in England broke down into two primary factions: one was the Church of England, consisting of High-Church and Low-Church parties, with the monarch at its head and a ruling episcopacy similar in organization to the Catholic Church hierarchy; the other was the Puritan faction, divided into two principal camps, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. The New England Puritans were Congregationalists. Unlike the Scottish Presbyterians, with their churches regulated by a central governing body known as the presbytery, the Congregationalist Puritans viewed each church—the congregation, deacons, ruling elders, and minister—as an autonomous body responsible for regulating the conduct of the members of its own community.

Because autonomous congregations were perceived as a threat to the political chain of command, critics of the New England Puritans labeled them Separatists, subject-citizens who denied the authority of church and state. The New England Puritans were not Separatists to the degree that their counterparts who removed to Holland in the early part of James’s reign were. Rather, they were noncomformists, who, while accepting allegiance to the king, denied fealty to the Church of England. This was not an easy distinction to maintain, for the king was head of the church, and to dissent from the episcopacy could be construed as treason against king and state. The Puritans further objected that the Anglican Church had not gone far enough in its reform. They came to see Archbishop William Laud’s High-Church party as promoting Roman Catholic liturgy and elaborate religious iconography pleasing to the Stuart kings, suspected Catholic sympathizers. The Puritans earned their name as noncomformists because they refused to sign Laud’s Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, which mandated uniformity among the clergy by a signed avowal of High-Church liturgy and the “divine right of the episcopacy,” a doctrine that held that the members of the bishopric had their commission directly from the Holy Spirit. Those like Shepard who refused to sign the oath were turned out of the pulpits and officially “silenced.”

Shepard’s autobiography and journal are among the most trenchant accounts of the persecution of the Puritans under Laud. Such persecution initiated the Great Migration (1629–1640) of nearly 20,000 Anglican dissenters to New England, and it inspired these Puritans to forge a covenant alliance with God in the New World and to build a holy city—a New Jerusalem—whose light would shine not only over the New World but also across the Atlantic to the shores of their native land. The first half of Shepard’s autobiography chronicles his role in the Protestant skirmishes and the early part of the Puritan Revolt, even as it models for his New England posterity the good fight each Christian must undertake to defend the true church.

This tradition of life-writing (autobiography, journals, and conversion narratives) was a vital part of Puritan spiritual life. Puritans like Shepard discovered their predestined membership in the Invisible Church—those Christians preordained for salvation—by a constant scrutiny both of their own inner impulses and of the natural occurrences in the world around them. They believed that the human soul and the larger natural world operated as an elaborate sign system, which when read in the appropriate way conveyed God’s will. Because, as The New England Primer phrased it, “In Adam’s Fall / We Sinned all,” the Puritans believed that humans had lost the ability to communicate directly with God and so instead had to rely upon his message indirectly conveyed through a sophisticated interpretive system—the reading of dreams, historical events, and natural occurrences, such as shipwrecks, deaths, earthquakes, and Indian attacks. Nowhere is this more poignant than in Shepard’s interpretation of the death of his wife and child as a sign of his having placed too great a “store” in earthly things. They were taken prematurely, he writes, because he loved them too much. Recording such reflections allowed each individual to analyze and arrange the data and to construct a narrative that explained the world and one’s place in it.

Such master narratives of God’s plan for a community, however, were never wholly free from personal and imperial interests and were thus friendly to ideologies of racial and gender superiority and colonial expansionism. Shepard’s autobiography indeed offers a celebratory account of most of the prominent Puritan players in the early drama of New England, even as it seeks to justify the brutal Pequot War (1636–1637) and the horrible, sweeping violence of Puritan retaliation against Native Americans for what were isolated Indian attacks. And we cannot lightly dismiss Shepard’s signature role as one of Anne Hutchinson’s principal inquisitors in the Antinomian purge. Far from being disgraceful only to modern sensibilities, both of these events achieved infamy in their own day.

Puritan life-writing powerfully shaped the individual’s identity in the act of narrating experience. One interpreted the discrete events of life, and then used those interpretations to weave a larger fabric of meaning, to shape a spiritual destiny. Like Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Shepard’s autobiography validated his membership among God’s chosen. Why, after all, would God allow him to encounter so many evils—religious persecution, near imprisonment, a perilous wreck at sea, the deaths of his wife and children, and Indian attacks—and to prevail over them if not to bring him to an awareness of God’s saving grace? Just as Rowlandson’s narrative attempts to bring meaning to the randomness of the violent world she encounters, Shepard’s autobiography attempts to translate a historical record—a catalog of personal and national events—into a logical demonstration of God’s preordained design. By making a temporal connection between his birth and Fawkes’s terrorist attack on Parliament, Shepard suggests a powerful affinity between autobiography and allegory. Generations of Christians would, after all, view Shepard’s narrative as a guide to understanding their own role in sacred history. Shepard points out precisely this narrative purpose when, by prefacing his autobiography with a letter to his son, he dedicates his life’s story to family posterity—a posterity that five generations later would include Abigail Adams, wife of the second U.S. president and mother of the fifth. Such a correlation between New England’s secular history and sacred design helps explain the national tendency to interchange American history and providential destiny.

Gregory S. Jackson
University of Arizona

In the Heath Anthology
Autobiography (1640)

Other Works

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A Note about the Writings of Thomas Shepard
An introduction to Shepard's writings with a link to three primary texts.

Secondary Sources

Patricia Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression, 1983

Mary Cappello, "The Authority of Self-Definition in Thomas Shepard's Autobiography and Journal, " Early American Literature, XXIV (1989)

Charles Lloyd Cohen, God's Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience, 1986

Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism, 1994

Baird Tipson, "The Routinized Piety of Thomas Shepard's Diary," Early American Literature, 13 (1978)

Thomas Werge, Thomas Shepard, 1987