Spaces of Empire: Two Early Modern Views from both sides of the Atlantic

In order to understand the relationship between empire and space in American history, it is necessary to address the historiographical tendencies and myths of the past four hundred years.[i] Retrospective historiographical myths of the nascent United States, as it sought to establish its own history in the shadow of the mother country, England, need to be distinguished from ideas and practices of empire prior to US independence. The importance of this break between early and late modernity in the history of US nation building and nascent imperial aspirations becomes clear once the historical and theological details are taken into consideration. Two histories of empire from both sides of the early eighteenth-century Atlantic reveal diverging aspirations and conceptions of space and empire at work in the mother country and in early modern New England.

It is now widely recognized that early modernity is significant for understanding the later imperial aspirations of the United States. Yet aside from recent publications that focus on empire in North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, early modernity remains a relatively neglected period in American studies.[ii] This neglect is reinforced by the emphasis in public discourse and scholarly focus on American imperialism following the “American century”, and remains the case, despite the fact that contesting imperial worldviews were being played out in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century transatlantic publishing scene, especially following the Glorious Revolution.[iii] As the United States became the new world empire in the twentieth century, following the British, the fact that competing rhetorics, theological worldviews, and denominational allegiances colored the imperial discourse has often been overlooked.

Recently, in The Latest Early American Literature, published in 2016, Richard De Prospo renewed his trenchant criticism of established perceptions of the eighteenth century in North America, especially prevalent among scholars of literary history.[iv] He discredits a series of twentieth-century constructions that still loom large in American studies, for example, the perception of Jonathan Edwards as the greatest American theologian, or the modern understanding of self in the writings of Benjamin Franklin, both of which he sees as retrospective Whig constructions[v] of the Awakening[vi] in the nineteenth century.[vii] Any interpretation of empire in early modern North America hinges on the interpretation of the first European settlement of New England and especially of the Great Migration of the 1630s and 1640s. According to the ‘Whig’ reading that De Prospo criticizes, this migration is perceived as an exodus rather than an exile. This distinction is not merely a question of a different motif or pattern to explain the Great Migration, but theologically (and historically) crucial, involving wide-ranging implications regarding the Puritans’ communal and individual self-understanding within the transatlantic and world-wide spaces of empire: the Puritans continued to perceive themselves as members of the Church of England, and hence in exile from it and the mother country—thus even in historical terms, the foregrounding of exodus as a pattern for the Great Migration is inaccurate. Theologically, the implications are even more significant: whereas exodus describes the divinely led migration of an entire people (modeled on the departure of the people of Israel from Egypt and their journey to Mount Sinai under Moses’s leadership, cf. Exodus 1–19; Numbers 33), exile refers to several relocations of large groups of Israelites/Jews throughout history (most prominently the Babylonian exile) and circumscribes the existential condition of the Christian believer during earthly existence, awaiting the soul’s return to heaven. Whereas exile relates the individual to the divine and to a community of believers without aspirations to a new and separate empire, exodus introduces the discourse of the chosen people led by God—the chosen people, for New England Christians, however, remained the Jews well into the eighteenth century. Hence the misapplication of the exodus motif to the Great Migration and the first generations of New Englanders has served as a tool to justify later imperial US American discourse. If one critically assesses such traditional views in cultural and literary studies from a historical and theological perspective, one is therefore compelled to revise such false projections of later US American imperial conceptions of space into the past and see early modern American studies with a heightened sensitivity to potential instrumentalizations in the shifting roles of church, state, and empire.

This can be shown in light of New England theologian Cotton Mather’s (1663–1728) ecclesiastical history Magnalia Christi Americana in relation to the criticism it prompted shortly following its publication in 1702. British authors such as the historian and political pamphleteer John Oldmixon (1672/3–1742) used Mather’s material for their own histories of the British Empire. While Mather was thinking theologically in terms of a world Christianity and an empire of right belief (the visible and invisible Churches of Christ[viii]), Oldmixon was writing with a view to the political unit of the British Empire and how to justify its existence and expansion. Indeed, Mather’s and Oldmixon’s competing historiographies mark the onset of an Anglican concern for imperialism at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Oldmixon’s dismissive response to Mather’s church history of New England in 1708 may be seen as a response to the Act of Union of 1707.[ix] By no means did Mather attempt to write a history of New England and to claim special status for this colony and its provinces.[x] Rather, Mather’s church history of New England Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) makes clear that there were no proto-nationalistic tendencies in New England at the time.[xi] His historical writing, as much as Oldmixon’s, may be regarded as ‘English Atlantic imperial writing’.[xii] His aim was to draft a church history as micro-history, which would prove the universality of the workings of Christ, whereas Oldmixon attempted an imperial macro-history that incorporates partly ‘provincial’, partly exploratory accounts, along with personal information from family and business contacts.[xiii]

The recent edition of Cotton Mather’s Bible commentary (2010) reveals that, in light of his over four hundred publications, his fame has been unjustly attributed to one of these writings: his Magnalia Christi Americana, a church history of New England published in London, England in 1702. John Oldmixon’s reference to this work in his book The British Empire in America (1704) may have contributed to this bias in the reception history of Mather. Both works were criticized over the following two centuries; while Mather’s Magnalia was generally recognized as an important work, Oldmixon was generally dismissed as a historian.[xiv] Although Oldmixon used Mather’s Magnalia as a major source for his chapter on New England, he mocked Magnalia Christi Americana for resembling the work of ‘School Boys Exercises Forty Years ago’ and called Mather’s historiography ‘loose collections’.[xv] It remains unclear whether Oldmixon’s heavy mining of the Magnalia as source material and his dismissive polemics betray an imperial attitude, or whether his polemics were simply driven by market considerations and the need to maximize book sales.

With regard to empire, Mather and Oldmixon exhibit two rivalling allegiances and historical worldviews. Their differences may be traced to diverging conceptions of space characteristic of a reformed theologian (Mather) and an Anglican imperialist (Oldmixon).[xvi] Their divergence is marked by Oldmixon’s more worldly and Mather’s more theological ambitions. In this context, it is important to recognize that Mather was not a proto nationalist who sought to bolster New England’s status with the help of Christian theology.[xvii] Understandings of empire are negotiated between these different views of historical writing. Mather’s and Oldmixon’s histories could not differ more. Given the fact that Mather had extensive correspondence with European colleagues despite having never been to Europe, Mather’s and Oldmixon’s histories are less a reflection of the authors’ different locations and more an expression of their religious allegiances and their intentions in their publications: Mather assembled his Magnalia from his previously published lives of ‘Puritan Saints’, miracle stories, and elements that revealed how New England participated in a World Christianity, whereas Oldmixon’s popular Whig history took a much more descriptive, functionalist, and geographical stance towards empire for readers in the mother country. Mather had his Magnalia published in London, England, most probably to demonstrate the achievements and prove the worthiness of New England to the mother country. Oldmixon’s response to Mather’s work introduced a colonialist’s perspective into the Whig historiographical mainstream of his time.

Oldmixon’s criticism basically circles around the issue of style—the Magnalia were attacked more for their ‘Baroque style’ rather than for their content, and for the fact that they were conceived at the young Harvard University. To give a first-hand impression of this critique, it seems appropriate to quote a passage at length:

The History of New-England written by Mr Cotton Mather, a Man of Fame in his Country, as appears by the barbarous Rhimes before it in Praise of the Author, is a sufficient Proof, that a man may have read hundreds of Latine Authors, and be qualify’d to construe them, may have spent his Youth in a College, and bred up in Letters, yet have neither Judgment to know how to make a Discourse perspicuous, nor Eloquence to express his Sentiments so that they may please and perswade, the easiest way to Conviction; for of all the Books that ever came from the Press with the venerable Title of a History, ’tis impossible to shew one that is so confus’d in the Form, so trivial in the Matter, and so faulty in the Expression, so cramm’d with Punns, Anagrams, Acrosticks, Miracles and Prodigies, that it rather resembles School Boys Exercises Forty Years ago, and Romish Legends, than the Collections of an Historian bred up in a Protestant Academy. […] This is not said to reflect on the Design of their [Harvard] University, but if possible to make them see their Error in the Execution of it, that they may leave off mean Cant, which was in Fashion a hundred years ago, add the Purity of Language to that of Doctrine, and let the Scoffers see that Religion needs no little Shifts and Arts to support its self [sic], and that the Force and Harmony of the Divine Truths are never so convincing and moving on reasonable Souls, as when they are express’d in elegant and apt Phrases, free from Poverty of and Tautology of the present New England Diction; let their own Dr. Bates instruct them better in his best Pieces, if they think themselves too pious to learn of our Tillotson and Calamy.[xviii]

This reference to John Tillotson (1630–94), Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Mather’s father Increase Mather (1639–1723) had met during his stay in England,[xix] and the Presbyterian minister and historian Edmund Calamy (1671–1732), who counted it his ‘Honour to be descended on ye [sic] side both of Father & Mother’ from the ‘Old Puritans of Elizabeth and James I’s reigns’,[xx] showcases the imperial aspirations of the mother country in historiographical terms. The idea of New England’s deviation from an original Puritan mission that was to dominate American historiography into the present can already be found here. Many of Mather’s allusions were biblical, and so attacking them as ‘little Shifts and Arts’ meant rejecting Mather’s scripturalism, which had, under the influence of Lutheran and Pietist as well as Jewish and Catholic theology, by far outgrown the Presbyterian tradition Oldmixon adhered to. The reference to ‘Romish Legends’ makes clear that this is an argument about the correct understanding of Protestantism, revealing the often underestimated significance of church membership for early modern understandings of empire. From Oldmixon’s old-world Protestant perspective, Mather’s church history is not valid, and needs to be corrected with an imperial history. Oldmixon prefers the historiographical sacralization of empire, emphasizing the subordinate status of New England as a marginal part of the empire, and also criticizing Harvard University for its inferiority.[xxi] In this small window into the historiography of the early eighteenth century, we are witness to the transition towards the sacralizing of history that came to dominate the next century and pave the way for the sacralization of the US empire. Different religious attitudes are connected to diverging conceptions of empire, contesting spatial imaginaries, and different ways of writing history.

[i] This article is a shortened and revised version of material previously published in ‘Recasting the Boundaries of Empire in Eighteenth-Century New England Historiography: Cotton Mather and John Oldmixon.’ Special Issue ‘Teksty − Pisarze – Książki’ / ‘Texts – Writers – Books’, Bibliotheca Nostra: Śląski Kwartalnik Naukowy / Bibliotheca Nostra: Silesian Research Quarterly 49.3 (2017) 50–61. The author would like to thank Mahshid Mayar for her editorial assistance and Aaron Shoichet for his help in preparing the article for publication.

[ii] For instance, Elizabeth Mancke argues that early modern empires in northeastern North America had more to do with contested use of space and resources than with colonial settlements as such. James B. Bell reminds us of the significance of the expansion of the Church of England to Massachusetts Bay Colony after the Restoration, and it has been emphasized that the thirteen mainland colonies of early America were never more British than on the eve of their War of Independence from Britain (Elizabeth Mancke, ‘Spaces of Power in the Early Modern Northeast.’ New England and the Maritime Provinces: Connections and Comparisons. Ed. Stephen J. Hornsby and John G. Reid. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014, 32–49; James B. Bell, Anglicans, Dissenters and Radical Change in Early New England, 1686–1786. Cham: Palgrave, 2017; Anglicizing America: Empire, Revolution, Republic. Ed. Ignacio Gallup-Diaz, Andrew Shankman, and David J. Silverman, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

[iii] In English history, the Glorious Revolution designates the events of 1688–89 that resulted in the deposition of the Catholic King James II, who was replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange, thereby sparking high hopes following the difficult time for Protestants during the Restoration of the Catholic monarchy 1660–89.

[iv] Richard C. De Prospo, The Latest Early American Literature. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2016.

[v] Whig history refers to an approach to historiography that presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. Emanating from the British political system, the term may be seen as a precursor to what later (in the nineteenth century) became known as progressivism.

[vi] The Great Awakening was a religious revival in the British American colonies between 1720 and the 1740s. Its connection with the so-called Second Great Awakening (c. 1795–1835) in the United States has been a matter of dispute. James D. Bratt, for instance, sees both as a single Awakening (James D. Bratt, ‘The Reorientation of American Protestantism, 1835–1845.’ Church History 67 (1998) 51–82, cf. 56–57.

[vii] If he is right, then the present surge in research on autobiographical writings, which comes under the rubric of ‘Life writing’, as well as the surge in intellectual and spiritual biographies of central figures in American cultural history, may further entrench traditional misperceptions of the beginning of modernity and hence profit from De Prospo’s intervention.

[viii] The visible Church or Church visible is a term from Christian theology referring to the visible community of Christian believers on earth, as opposed to the Church invisible or Church triumphant, constituted by the fellowship of saints and the company of the elect, that is, the real believers who are not known during earthly existence, but rather only to God (cf. Matthew 7:21–24; 13:24–30; 24:29–51, ESV).

[ix] The consequences of the Act of Union for the citizens’ historical and denominational views of themselves on both sides of the Atlantic have been underestimated. See Ned C. Landsman, ‘The Episcopate, the British Union, and the Failure of Religious Settlement in Colonial America.’ The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America. Ed. Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda (pp. 75–97). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, 78.

[x] Jan Stievermann, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity: Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016, 90–103; 339–40; 355; 423–24.

[xi] Ibid. 97, 215, 341, 425; Larry Fitzgerald Kutchen, “The Dark Fields of the Republic”: Pastoral, Georgic, and the Writing of Empire from Cotton Mather to James Fenimore Cooper. Diss. U of Berkeley, 2011, viii.

[xii] Ibid., ix.

[xiii] Microhistory addresses a specific or localized subject, whereas macrohistory seeks large, long-term trends in world history in search of ultimate patterns by a comparison of proximate details.

[xiv] Pat Rogers, ‘An Early Colonial Historian: John Oldmixon and The British Empire in America. Journal of American Studies (July 1973), 114. This work has been criticized especially for its inconsistency in the treatment of the various provinces (p. 122). Rogers’s account has an apologetic tone, emphasizing that ‘the disorderly, peppery, rumbustious book . . . better reflects the colonial experience than any number of more finished accounts we have had since’ (123).

[xv] Ibid., 120; John Oldmixon, The British Empire in America, containing the history of the discovery, settlement, progress and present state of all the British Colonies, on the continent and islands of America. In two volumes. … With curious maps of the several places, done from the newest surveys. By Herman Moll, Geographer. Vol. 1. London: printed for John Nicholson, 1708, ix.

[xvi] The success of Oldmixon’s and later Daniel Neal’s view contributed to Mather’s work falling out of favor. See Daniel Neal, The History of New England: Containing an Impartial Account of the Civil and Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Country, to the Year … 1700. To which is Added the Present State of New England…. London: J. Clark, etc., 1720, viii.

[xvii] Such views, which subsequently expanded to the rest of the United States, were a later phenomenon partly emerging from evangelicalism, a complex and vaguely defined trans-denominational Protestant movement that came to encompass believers from the Catholic denominational spectrum. Casting Mather as the first American Evangelical is a recent trend in scholarship that has not been adequately substantiated. A more promising approach may be to interpret his church history and theological work as arising from ideas of world Christianity and the church triumphant (invisible church).

[xviii] Ibid., 108–9; see also Oldmixon’s similar dismissive reference to Mather as his only source for his chapter on New England, ibid., p. ix.

[xix] Ned C. Landsman, From Colonials to Provincials: American Thought and Culture, 1680–1760. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997, 27.

[xx] David L. Wykes, ‘Calamy, Edmund (1671–1732).’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ODNB], Downloaded 10 January 2008 at:

[xxi] While Oldmixon may be considered a polemic historian, Mather was much more a hagiographic historian, whose efforts belonged to a pious engagement and transmission in an ultimately eschatological project. Oldmixon, by contrast, wanted to reassure his readers by polemically criticizing the historical work of other scholars; in other words, his style was more journalistic whereas Mather’s was more epic. Mather published as a polemic theologian and not as a polemic historian, yet cherished a historical perspective throughout most of his work. The word “polemic” is derived from Ancient Greek πολεμικός (polemikos), meaning ‘warlike, hostile’, from πόλεμος (polemos), meaning ‘war’. Polemics often concern issues in religion or politics. A polemic style of writing was common in Ancient Greece, as in the writings of the historian Polybius. Later, polemic writing became a form of theological dispute. A hagiography (from Ancient Greek ἅγιος, hagios, meaning ‘holy’, and -γραφία, -graphia, meaning ‘writing’) is a biography of a saint or an ecclesiastical leader, and by extension, an adulatory and idealized biography of a founder, saint, monk, nun or icon in any of the world’s religions. Hagiographical historical writing takes up elements from this tradition for larger historical narratives.

About Philipp Reisner

Philipp Reisner teaches as a lecturer at the American Studies Departments of Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. His approach to research is multidisciplinary. His dissertation on the New English theologian Cotton Mather (1663–1728), focusing on his theological role in the context of early modern society, appeared in 2012. He submitted his habilitation thesis, a study of contemporary Anglo-American poetry, at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in 2020.
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