When many of my ancestors came to this country in the 1600s, their prime motivation in coming was to have the freedom to practice their own version of religion, without fear for their lives. So they came, and settled.
Then, they started to send their gaze out to the wilds of this new world that they were now inhabiting. It frightened them. A lot. The people that were living in this world when they arrived were these strange, incomprehensible ‘savages’. They dressed very differently, spoke bizarre languages, practiced scary religions that were nothing like their own.
Of course the first thought that pops into some of their tiny, closed minds is that these folk needed to be ‘civilized’. And by civilized, they meant converted over to their beliefs, their own system of values, way of dressing, language, rules of law. They needed to convert these ‘savages’ to make themselves feel more comfortable, self-satisfied, safe. They also needed everyone to believe in their version of God. They wanted to save them.
Sorry to say, one of those religious zealots is mine.
William French was born in England, some histories say about 1603, in Halsted, Essex County. He married there, and had four children with his wife Elizabeth. In the summer of 1635 William and his family boarded the ship Defense, along with the Rev. Thomas Shepard, and left England in order to practice, in freedom, their own interpretation of the christian religion.
William settled his family first in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They moved again in 1652, being one of the original proprietors, and earliest settlers of Billerica, Massachusetts.
He was very involved in his community, as were many of the early settlers. (Well, the male ones, of course. The women just had to stay home and mind the household, not worry their pretty little heads with men’s business.) He was a Lieutenant of the militia, and later a Captain. Was chosen “to sit in the Deacons seat” and as Commissioner to establish the county rates, [whatever that is]. Served nine years as a selectman starting in 1660. And he was also on the committee to examine children and servants in “reading, religion and the catechism.”
In 1652 the following volume was published in London:
This was a publication of several volumes consisting of testimonials, in the form of letters, sent to the Pastor Mr. Henry Whitfield.1
The introduction to the Reader is as follows:
These ensuing Letters doe represent unto thee, and to the Churches, the outgoings of Christ, as a Light to the Gentiles, that the grace which brings salvation hath appeared unto them also in the furtheset parts of the Earth, for the accomplishment of that ancient and glorious Promise; “I will give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou may’st be my Salvation to the Ends of the Earth”…The People of God have been greatly affected with the appearances of Christ, when he hath rode forth upon a red Horse to the destruction of his Enemies; for he “is glorious in his apparell, even when his garments are dipt in bloud”, but much more when he rides forth upon a white Horse, for the Conversion of Soules, and goes on “Conquering and to Conquer”.
It continues along this theme. The summary of which is that they were printing these volumes to show how they are enlarging the “Kingdome of Christ” making sure to spread the word of their God from sea to shining sea. “Hereby the soules of men are rescued out of the snare of the Devill.”
This particular volume was number V and included a letter from William French. I have included the pages from the volume below. Is this a true letter of a conversion, or merely an anecdote? The subject of the ‘conversion’ is not named or personalized in anyway, so it is hard to tell.
It starts out — The best news I can write you from New England is, the Lord is indeed converting the Indians, and for the refreshing of your heart, and the hearts of all the godly with you; I have sent you the relation of one Indian of two yeares profession, I that took from his owne mouth by an Interpreter, because he cannot speak or understand one word of English.
William’s first wife Elizabeth died in 1668 and he married his second wife Mary Lathrop (my 9x great grandmother up the Brooks/Hatch line). Mary was the granddaughter of John Lathrop, a famous religious martyr, who was imprisoned in England, and eventually released, with the promise he would leave the country and never come back.2
I am sure that William wasn’t the only one in my tree that pushed to convert others to their faith. He is just one we can point to, because he made his work known with this publication.
- “Strength Out of Weakness” afterwards republished in the Massachusetts Historical Society Collection 3d S. Vol. 4, pages 149, 196.