September 28

On this day in 1651, it is recorded that William Pynchon deeded his property to his son John and made preparations to return to England. One of the original patentees of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Pynchon was a wealthy Englishman who had arrived in the Colony in 1630. He had helped to found the town of Roxbury and had later traveled into the wilderness a hundred miles west of Boston. Here he established, on the Connecticut River, a trading post which later was named Springfield, after Pynchon’s English home.

The town became an important outpost of the Colony, situated as it was at the head of navigation in the river, ideally located to receive the furs which were trapped to the north in the Hampshire Grants.

While amassing a large fortune from the fur trade, this Colonial functionary became disenchanted with the narrow limits set by the Governors of the Colony. He had published in London in 1650 a tract entitled, The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, in which he vehemently disagreed with the then orthodox theological viewpoint relating to the atonement. While his criticisms were subsequently regarded as constructive by later generations of more liberal divines, they were not so accepted by the clergy in Massachusetts. In fact, the book was considered to be so offensive that Pynchon was brought before the General Court in October, 1650. Agreeing with the theologians that august body condemned Pynchon’s treatise forthwith. In a self-righteous statement the court declared:

“The Courte, having had the sight of a booke lately printed under the name of William Pinchon in New England, Gent., doe judge meete, first, that a protest be drawen, fully and cleerly, to satisfy all men that this court is so farr from approving the same as they doe utterly dislike it and detest it as erronjous and daingerous; secondly, that it be sufficjently answered by one of the reverend elders; thirdly, that the sajd William Pinchon, gent., be summoned to appeare before the next Generall Courte to answer for the same; fowerthly, that the sajd booke now brought ober be burnt by the executioner, or such other as the magistrates shall appointe, (the party being willing to doe it,) in the markett place in Boston, on the morrow immediately after the lecture.”

The book was burned the following day, as directed, and is probably the first instance of bookburning in the land which became the United States of America. Ironically, Pynchon returned to England to attain the very freedom for which he originally left his home. Finding the atmosphere more congenial and liberal, he lived to write a number of other theological tracts prior to his death a decade later.

Fortunately, book burning is an activity which has never been popular in the United States, although it is threatened on frequent occasions by groups of even narrower viewpoint than the General Court of Massachusetts in 1650.

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