Date of this Version
In 1696 there appeared in Boston an anonymous 16mo volume of 56 pages containing four “epistles,” written from 66 to 50 years earlier, illustrating the early history of the colony of Massachusetts Bay.
The four “epistles” compiled in Massachusetts, or The First Planters were all originally addressed to English or European audiences:
1. The Humble Request of His Majesties Loyal Subjects (1630), sent from aboard the Arbella and usually attributed to John Winthrop, defended the emigrants’ physical separation from England and reaffirmed their loyalty to the Crown and Church of England.
2. Thomas Dudley’s letter “To the Right Honourable, My very good Lady, The Lady Bridget, Countess of Lincoln,” written in March 1631, narrated the first year’s experience of those “planters” who came over in Winthrop’s fleet of 1630. It appeared in print for the first time in the Massachusetts compilation.
3. “The Preface of the Reverend Mr. John Allin, of Dedham, and of Mr. Thomas Shepard of Cambridge in New-England, before their Defence of the Answer made unto the Nine Questions” (from 1645) was taken from a longer work on church government, and it recounted the religious reasons for—and the providential design observable in—the great migration of the Independent or Congregational churches to New England.
4. “In Domini Nortoni Librum, ad Lectorem Præfatio Apologetica,” by John Cotton, was the preface to a Latin treatise (Responsio ad Totam Quæstionum Syllogen à clarissimo Viro Domino Guilielmo Apollonio) by John Norton, published in 1648 to explain and defend the Congregational system of church government as practiced in New England. Cotton’s preface again depicts the flight into exile not merely as a justifiable necessity for the continuance of the true Church, but as a stage in the history of redemption: “John ... was carried away into the wilderness that he might see more clearly not only the judgment of the great whore but also the coming down from heaven of the chaste bride of Christ, the new Jerusalem (Revelation 17:1, 3; 21:2).” An English translation of Cotton’s Latin preface is supplied as an Appendix to this edition.
The compilation and publication of this volume has long been attributed to Joshua Scottow, then a retired Boston merchant and antiquary who had recently published a history of those early years—A Narrative of the Planting of the Massachusets Colony Anno 1628 (1694)—that incorporated materials found in Dudley’s previously unpublished letter. Whoever its compiler, the work is interesting for its astute selection of materials, all of which reaffirm Massachusetts’ original religious and theocratic mission in the face of events of the 1690s which had cost the colony a great degree of its political autonomy and social consensus of purpose, i.e. the purification of the Christian churches.
This online electronic edition includes the complete text of the 1696 printing. Some added notes identify people and references, situate the documents in their historical and disputational context, supply portions omitted by the original compiler, and discuss the textual history of the work and its component documents.