Martyrs’ Mirror: The Paradoxical Road from Persecution to Tolerance

Last month, Adrian Chastain Weimer, assistant professor of history at Providence College, published Martyrs’ Mirror: Persecution and Holiness in Early New England (Oxford).  The book studies seventeenth-century colonial conceptions of martyrdom and religious persecution and the ways in which these conceptions unexpectedly shaped American civil rights landscape, especially in the areas of religious liberty and tolerance.

Weimer explores the power of martyrdom in the religious imagination in the early New England colonies.  The Puritans were subject to a variety of persecutions in England.  In the colonies, the memory of such persecution was fresh, informing the Puritans’ self conception as martyrs; so, as early as 1641, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties already outlawed the practices employed by the English to persecute them like oath ordeals before ecclesiastical courts under threat of torture, imprisonment, and death.  (It was this memory that would eventually develop, for example, into the constitutional prohibition against forcing persons to incriminate themselves.  See R. Carter Pittman, The Colonial and Constitutional History of the Privilege Against Self-Incrimination in America, 21 Va. L. Rev. 763 (1935) for a full discussion of this development.)

Complicating the picture, however, Professor Weimer adds the fact of religious persecution by Puritans in the colonies.  New England Congregationalists, Separatists, Quakers, Baptists, and Antinomians all suffered for their beliefs in England and also conceived of themselves as martyrs, a perception that only deepened when the Puritans, in turn, targeted them in the New World.  This passing on of persecution from Puritans to other dissenting religionists created a form of competition amongst early Americans to cast themselves in the narrative role of the persecuted martyr.

Weimer argues that, through this narratological competition, these ugly conflicts gave rise to paradoxical notions of religious tolerance.  The coveted narrative of persecuted martyr, which suggested divine favor, actually led to colonists’ looking askance at persecution.  Ultimately, what these diverse groups shared were memories of persecution.  And eventually, these memories and the competition for the role of martyr gave rise to legally enshrined rights of religious freedom that have developed until today.

Please see Oxford University Press’s description of the text after the jump. Continue reading

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