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Raced Identities in Puritan New England: How Theology and Ideology Transformed the “City Upon a Hill

The colonial period saw the development of a series of distinct societies in the American colonies that were distinguishable from another based on the type of developing economy, the country of origin of their inhabitants, and most importantly, the influence of religion. One of the most unique societies that developed in the British American colonies during this period was that of Puritan New England. While the presence of Native Americans and black African slaves was a reality throughout all of these societies, the ideas of racialization that develop over time and space remained quite distinct and were heavily informed by the specificities of individual colonial societies. In Puritan New England, ideas of race, which emanated from slavery and indigenous relations, developed in a manner that was distinctive from other colonies because of the agrarian structure of the economy and the immense influence of religion on social structures, governing structures, and commonly held inflections on the human soul. This essay will argue that the racialization of slaves in Puritan New England took an entirely different form from the colonies to the South, such as the Chesapeake, by bringing slaves into the religious system so that it could be used to exert a form of dominance that became increasingly racialized over time.

The conceptualizations of race that emerged in Puritan New England during the early modern era were much different than the ideas of race that are commonly associated with the enlightenment period and the scientific racism of the late nineteenth century because they emerged within the context of a communal society that was emersed in Puritan theology. Thus, there was a distinct difference between racial doctrine, which arose later as a result of the ideas of the enlightenment era and became codified into colonial law, and racist attitudes, which emanated from the religious doctrine and grew into ideas of race. As Colin Kidd notes, the settling of the North American continent by Europeans generated a unique set of intellectual problems for Christian orthodoxy.1 Before the discovery of the American continent, the leaders of modern Christianity had divided the world along religious lines distinguishing between “Christians” who were European and “Pagans” who were inhabitants elsewhere in the known world.2 Thus, Europeans relied on religion as a mechanism for establishing social structure and standards of control. However, the discovery of the New World brought about challenges to those mechanisms of control because of the existence of civilized cultures that had not been hindered by the absence of Christianity.3 By the end of the Seventeenth Century, skin colour became the common marker of identity surpassing previous identifying characteristics such as national or religious distinctions. As Richard Bailey notes, the increasing dependence on the title of “white” as a marker of identity for Europeans demonstrated “the propensity to collapse physical and cultural differences of all sorts into simple distinctions of skin color.”4 The increasing reliance on the identity-defining title of “white” contributed to an emerging definition of “other” whereby Puritan leaders used religious rhetoric to amplify their emerging views about white Christian identity along racial lines. Further, as Randall Fowler points out, ideas about race were not limited to Natives or African slaves, Islam was commonly used by Puritan ministers such as Cotton Mather to “express Puritan identity in racialized exceptionalist terms.”5 Nonetheless, the malleability of different ethnic groups inserted into the “non-white” category at different times reinforces the idea that—although poorly and ambiguously defined—racist attitudes were not only emerging, but overwhelming previously held categories of distinction to be used as a means of demarcating belonging in religious communities.

The shifts in the way that Puritan New Englanders identified different members of their community were much more complex than enacting labels of white and non-white because the meanings they attached to these labels were bounded by and inseparable from Puritan theology. Whereas the thinkers of the enlightenment era and the later scientific revolution used race as a means of distinguishing different types of human beings, the Puritans of New England approached race from a paradoxical position. On the one hand, the Puritan communities in New England were intensely stratified, where race seen through the prism of religion, was a mechanism among many to draw spiritual boundaries between those at the center of the community and those on the margins.6 On the other hand, Puritan ideas of race could not marginalize non-white members of the community outside the reach of biblical salvation because this would generate questions that would delegitimize their theology. As Kidd explains, the truth of Christianity’s theological system depended on a judicious explanation for the settling of North America because the existence of a race that had emerged separately from the rest of humanity made “the universality of original sin and of the corresponding gospel of promise … nonsense.”7 The importance of reconciling the marginalization of non-whites in Puritan society with their ability to obtain salvation was demonstrated in the attention that Cotton Mather gave to it. In his pamphlet, The Negro Christianized, he said “‘tis true; [negroes] are barbarous … [but] the britons were in many things as Barbarous, but a little before our Saviours nativity, as the negroes are at this day … Christianity will be the best cure for this barbarity.”8 Although Mather seems to draw some comparisons between the barbarity that New Englanders saw in non-whites and the barbarity of his British ancestors before the Roman Empire, this was not said out of solidarity for Africans or Natives; rather, it was said so that New Englanders did not adopt a stance that non-whites were not eligible for salvation—an important facet of Puritan theology that would justify raced identity. Mather later added, “as if none but Whites might hope to be Favoured and Accepted with God”, continuing to opt for a route that allowed the developing ideas of identity, that would be defined by race, to operate within Puritan theology, thereby avoiding the theological dilemma of a distinct race apart from the line of Adam.9 In doing so, Puritan leaders managed to associate the physical attributes of enslaved Africans within the doctrine of the depravity of man, thereby elevating the identity of the white-Puritan to the nominal outcome of conversion.

In order for the racial attitudes that were developing to be harmonious with the theological beliefs of Puritanism, New England religious leaders began to speak about race as different branches of one family lineage that could be traced back to the biblical figures of Noah and Adam—a concept that was commonly referred to as “One Blood.” This theologically aligned interpretation of race was not exclusively accepted by Europeans or all of the British American colonies, which was due in large part to the emergence of the idea of Polygenesis, a theory that advocated for the existence of men on earth before the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve. The emergence of this theory during the seventeenth century was the work of Isaac La Peyrère who wrote an ensemble of theology on the issue that was published in 1655. However, just one year after publication, the opponents of the theory, known as Anti-Pre-Adamites, published a dozen rebuttals which left La Peyrère with the reputation of a heretic.10 The religious dissent that emerged in the face of La Peyrère’s ideas is important because it demonstrates the intent of seventeenth-century Christians—including Puritans—to characterize Africans as individuals who “shared the same blood as did all people descended from the first man, Adam.”11 However, the idea that Puritan ministers in New England advocated for a common lineage of whites and non-whites should not be understood in the context of an appeal to equality or even solidarity with African slaves or Natives. On the contrary, the unique attributes of Puritan society, the influence of religious dogma, and the presence of the slave trade all affected the theological manner in which raced attitudes developed. The idea of “One Blood” did not preclude Puritans from associating the physical attributes of non-whites to the doctrine of the depravity of man, which led them to repeatedly associate blackness with sin or Satan. A key example of this association was the Puritan perspective on the African female body, which they emphasized was “beastly” with “monstrous qualities.” Further, Puritans compared the lack the pain at childbirth in African and Native women with the intense pain that European women experienced as an exemplification that the curse of Eve only applied to European Christian women.12 These types of associations between non-whites and the devil were also seen in direct of the devil such as the testimony of Sarah Osborne at the Salem witchcraft trials, which further demonstrates the propensity that New Englanders had to associate blackness with the devil.13 The idea of comparing blackness with depravity, demonic activity, or the devil while maintaining an understanding that Africans and Europeans are of “one blood” allowed Puritan leaders like Cotton Mather to reinforce the social hierarchy that was commonplace in Puritan society. In The Negro Christianized, Mather issued an invitation to slave owners saying, “all you that have any Negroes in your houses … be the happy instruments, of converting, the blackest instances of blindness and wickedness, into admirable candidates of eternal blessedness.”14 Thus, the images of blackness and bestiality that can be extrapolated from different sources within Puritan New England demonstrate how the concept of “One Blood” aided the Puritans to explain the dilemma that the different races posed to their theology while allowing them to create a sense of racial superiority within the church.

Although the justifications that were created through the ideas about race and blackness were theologically based, they were inherently intertwined with the institution of slavery because the culture that they were created within dictated so, which perpetuated various mechanisms of dominance on behalf of the white slave-owning class of Puritan New England. One of these mechanisms of dominance was “naming”, where slave masters assigned, changed, and removed a slave’s first name as a way of emphasizing to a slave their status of subordination and projecting that status to others. This was all the more important in the distinct agricultural economy that existed in Puritan New England whereby daily life between whites and black slaves was much more intertwined than in the Southern Colonies.15 Further, the act of changing a slave’s name once they were purchased was a way for slave masters to “control their new property, to strip [slaves] of their African heritage, and to break their wills.”16 In speaking of naming practices at large in the American colonies, Ira Berlin explains that most slaves were addressed with some form of abbreviated common European style name such as “Jack and Sukey.” Others were given names that emphasized inferiority or likeness to barn animals and women such as “Bossey, Jumper, and Postillion”, while some slaves were assigned names of ancient mythological deities such as “Hercules or Cato” for comical reasons.17 However, in addition to the name changing practices highlighted by Berlin, Puritan New Englanders also kept biblical names and those commonly associated with Christianity for the white population although there were some exceptions.18 When biblical names were used for slaves, it usually followed a conversion to Christianity which signified an additional layer of control that extended beyond the slave owner's household to the local church and religious community. Furthermore, cases of name changes that followed religious conversion were usually forced on slaves, many of whom were familiar with European languages, customs, and Christianity because New England slaves were generally purchased from the Caribbean Sugar Islands or the Middle Colonies because the slave trade in New England was less profitable than in the plantation colonies.19 Although the practice of naming and renaming slaves was not codified into law or practiced uniformly, it does provide insight into the developing racial ideology that informed the mechanisms that Puritan New Englanders used to dominate and discipline their slaves. Aside from the practice of naming and renaming slaves, other practices developed concurrently which enabled slave owners to publicly indoctrinate slaves into a status of subserviency in a culture that was much more community-oriented than the slave societies that developed in the Southern Colonies. The Puritans in New England partially justified the practice of slavery through the “family” appeal of Puritan society that incorporated black slaves into the daily life of New Englanders creating the potential for the development of affective relations with each other. In some cases, these relationships seemed to be paradoxical because slave owners exercised control over their slaves through ownership yet simultaneously behaved in ways that exhibited a significant level of care for their slaves. The relationship between James MacSparran and his slave Stephney who lived in his MacSparran’s household was a key example of this seeming contradiction. MacSparran wrote about the trust that he had in Stephney in several journey entries telling the story about how, in 1745, only nine years after MacSparran personally baptized him, Stephney drowned while he was boating wood across a frozen pond in the spring. The death seemed to affect MacSparran so deeply that he spoke at Stephney’s funeral, buried him in the churchyard and spoke of the grief he had for Stephney in the years after his death.20 The following year when MacSparran sent another slave across the frozen pond for wood, he wrote a prayer in his journal, “Grant, Good lord … I may have better Fortune … [than] the last Boatload whereof I lost my dear Servant, Stephney.”21 Although the particularities of daily life in Puritan New England led to more affective relationships between slave and master than was seen in the Southern Colonies, these relationships did not preclude slave owners from maintaining control over their slaves. Further, the increased number of daily interactions between slaves and slave owners provided space for slave masters to behave in a manner that reinforced chattel ownership and the notion of the superior white Puritan, which aligned with the emerging racial identities in New England.

The action of name changing and the affective relationships between masters and slaves contributed in part to the increasing ideology of the superiority of the white race within the context of the slave trade as it existed in Puritan New England, but the practice of renting out slaves, albeit for economic reasons, also contributed to the furtherance of the developing racial ideology. The diversified New England economy led to a need for slave labour that was of higher quality than the typical plantation-style labour in the Middle and Southern Colonies which was the main reason that slaves were brought into New England. As Lorenzo Greene has indicated, the New England slave had to be prepared “to act as servant, repair a fence, serve on board shop, shoe a horse, print a newspaper”, amongst other tasks that could be required in such a diversified economy.22 This reality in the New England economy, compounded by the effects of seasonal needs for labour in different industries led to the practice of hiring out slaves for wages. As previously noted, the type of work that slaves in New England were forced to do did not, in and of itself, constitute such a divide between owner and slave as to promote ideas of race, but the manner in which slave masters referred to the work of their slaves helped to promote the concept of a racial hierarchy. For instance, slave owners often tallied slave labour in farm books and ledgers in the same way that they would for their livestock which reflects the perception that slave owners had of their slaves’ humanity.23 Further, the practice of hiring out slaves also aided in the reinforcement of the emerging racial ideology because it allowed slave owners to maintain ownership of the slaves that they could no longer afford or were not needed as well as to provide opportunities for other New England Puritans to experience slave-owning through rental.24 Although the practice of renting slaves would slowly lead to the erosion of the subordination of slaves because of the mobility that it provided them, it did contribute to the development of raced identity because of the shared experience that slave ownership or rental provided a larger group of white New Englander Puritans.

Although name changing, master-slave bonds, and slave renting aided to reinforce raced identities, the development of an ideological hierarchy rooted in racial identities within the context of the particular nature of slavery in Puritan New England would not have been possible without instances of explicit public discipline. As the institution of slavery and the Puritan church were inextricably intertwined, slave owners often used the church as a mechanism through which they could discipline their slaves. Unlike the slave societies that developed in the other British American colonies, Africans and New Englanders often attended church together, which was one of the many aspects of daily living that joined black slaves and whites into a family or community setting. As the custom was in Puritan society, the community submitted themselves to the authority of the church through congregational correction, which was a means of publicly shaming an individual by exposing an offence or sin to the congregation followed by the enactment of a punitive measure. However, the punitive measures were often quite subjective in their scope and duration, such as the punishment for London, a black slave who had confessed to the sin of fornication and was suspended from the church until he demonstrated “good evidence of evangelical humiliation.”25 New England slave owners were also able to seek assistance from the civil courts to discipline their slaves, which they often did in addition to individual and congregational discipline. Further, Bailey notes that while Church records demonstrate relatively equal discipline among black and white church members, the use of a combination of congregational discipline and the civil court system allowed slave owners to exert dominance over their slaves because it allowed them to exert harsher punishments.26 As was the case for the other forms of dominance exerted over slaves in New England, whether conducted on an individual basis, in a congregational setting, or through the court system, discipline was one of the most brutal forms of control exerted over slaves in New England. Taken together with the other forms of dominance that grew to reinforce a racialized hierarchy in New England society, these exertions of power over slaves created increasing contradictions with Puritan theology and values which, when reconciled, reinforced the racial identities that subordinated African slaves in Puritan New England.

As the behaviours towards African slaves in Puritan society grew increasingly harsh, some Puritan congregants began to feel that the conduct of the community towards slaves was growing antithetical towards their Puritan religious beliefs which led Puritan ministers to carefully weave into the religious narrative justifications for the denigration of slaves. The result of the shifting theological beliefs about slavery allowed the Puritans to justify the practice through increased conversion and water baptism, which in turn reinforced the racial distinction between whites and non-whites in Puritan New England. As Rebecca Anne Goetz notes, the commitment that Protestants had to religion and slavery allowed them to reinforce the racial hierarchy that was developing because it merged slaveholding with Protestantism and conversion.27 The most significant hurdle in the Christianisation of slavery throughout all of the colonies during this era related to water baptism because the ambiguity of Scripture created questions about slave emancipation through baptism. Baptized slaves argued that 1 Corinthians 12:13, which says “for by one spirit are we all baptized into one body … whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one spirit”, emancipated them from slavery by bringing slaves and non-slaves into “one spirit.”28 In response to these pleas for freedom along biblical lines, Puritan ministers, who often had conflicts as slave owners, argued that baptism did not lead to physical freedom because God had pre-ordained a hierarchization within society. In The Negro Christianized, Cotton Mather wrote “what Law is it, that sets thee baptized slave at Liberty? Not the Law of Christianity”, adding that the baptized slave “is the Lord’s freeman tho’ he continues a slave.”29 Although six colonies passed legislation in the latter seventeenth century codifying the position that baptism did not confer freedom on a slave, such a law was not necessary for New England because of the reassurance that the laws in the South provided and as a result of the influential and authoritative position that Puritan ministers occupied within the body politic.30 Once the issue of slave baptism was resolved, the conversion of non-whites to Christianity increased significantly in Puritan New England, which simultaneously resolved the theological conflicts in the way that slaves were treated after they were brought into the body of Christ.31 This facilitated the idea of owning another human being as chattel property within the theological context of Puritanism and aided in reinforcing the raced identities that accompanied slavery in New England.

The emerging racialized identities in Puritan New England also impact Puritan beliefs about the existence of the devil, demonic activity, and witchcraft in their midst. Although the belief in demons and witchcraft was not limited to New England during this time, the witchcraft cases that occurred in New England, such as the Salem witchcraft trials, have been characterized as inherently communal events.32 As such, the emerging racial identities developing in Puritan culture between whites and non-whites significantly racialized the perception that Puritans had about the devil and witchcraft, which could be seen through the events surrounding the witch trials in New England. Ibram X. Kendi notes that as the arrests and trials in Salem gained steam, nearly every witness testified to a varied black representation of the Devil, while the victims of such criminality were always white Puritans.33 Although the images of the devil that people alluded to were not always black, the devil was predominantly seen in manifestations of blackness or redness. In Salem, some testified that the devil had been lurking around as a “little black bearded man” or “a black thing of a considerable bigness”, while others testified that a black dog was Satan.34 The idea that the devil lived amid the Puritans was central to their belief about divine providence and their mission in the New World. It was rooted in Joseph Mede’s 1634 notion that the devil had deceived the Indians and led them into the New World to evade the evangelization of the gospel before the time of Christ. Thus, the Puritans believed that their settling of New England—which they saw as divine providence—was an invasion of the devil’s territory and the frenzy of accusations about witchcraft were seen as the devil’s efforts to undermine God’s work.35 Although the allusions to criminality for witchcraft in Salem were not exclusively made with blackness or redness, they were significant enough to correlate criminality—which involved whatever actions were perceived as assisting the Devil—with blackness.36 The elusive nature of the characterizations of the Devil’s activities in New England, in addition to the emerging perceptions of raced identities, allowed for non-white people to be the targets of shifting ideas about witchcraft and the devil.

The focus of this work was on the emerging racial identities in Puritan New England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which required a specific focus on those who owned slaves and on the impact that the Puritan church had on these emerging identities. However, the emphasis on those themes should not discount the malleability of the emerging ideas of race nor the agency that slaves had to utilize that malleability—and other tools—to improve their situation within the emerging slave society. The ambiguity of colour lines in New England could sometimes lead to uncertainty about which identity—black, red, mulatto, or white—a certain individual belonged to. This dynamic allowed white slave owners to distinguish between blacks and Indians or group them together, depending on the necessity of the situation. Likewise, slaves were also able to use the malleability of these emerging categories to their advantage, as Sarah Chauqum, the daughter of an Indian servant that was sold into slavery because of the darkness of her skin tone, had done. As a slave in Connecticut, Sarah fled slavery in New London retreating to Rhode Island where she successfully argued to a court that on the basis of her skin colour, she was an Indian. As Bailey notes, Sarah “used the flexibility of identity and ideas about color and about New Englanders of color to her advantage.”37 Sarah’s example demonstrates that the lack of rigidity of the emerging racial identities at this time, which had not been codified into the law, provided one mechanism through which slaves and natives had agency within the dominant white Christian society to improve their situation.

The ideas and circumstances that contributed to the development of a racialized hierarchy in Puritan New England were distinct in many ways from those that were developing in the other British American Colonies because of the agricultural economy specific to New England and the elevated influence that the Puritan church had in the body politic and individual communities. Although the Puritans made distinctions between white Europeans, non-white Native Americans, and black Africans, their ideas of race were specific to their time period because of the need to both distinguish whiteness from non-whiteness yet justify that both emerged from the line of Adam and Eve. Additionally, the existence of the slave trade in New England amplified these emerging ideas about racialized identities because of the mechanisms that slave owners used to control, dominate and discipline their slaves. The seeming contradictions between the raced identities of white and non-white led to certain dis-easiness among the Puritan community and motivated Puritan ministers to adapt their theological interpretations of Scripture to accommodate slavery and slaveholders which in time led to an increase in conversion of slaves to Christianity. However, the conversion of slaves only amplified the racialized identities ascribed to black Africans and Natives that increasingly associated Puritan fears of demonic activity on the continent with blackness. Thus, the raced identities that developed in Puritan New England from a range of sources, which were not intended to work together, transformed diverging and often contradictory ideas about racialized identity into an emerging racial doctrine. Overall, the influence of the slave trade, the uniqueness of the New England economy, and the inseparable influence of the Puritan church on New England culture led to the emergence and evolution of the racialized ideas that contributed to the racial doctrine. This doctrine was unique to its historical moment in Puritan New England because it held that all races emerged from the blood of Adam and Eve, yet some, usually non-white were pre-ordained for brutal treatment as slaves, while others, usually white, were pre-ordained to lead society. Thus, the uniqueness of Puritan New England led the “City Upon a Hill” with its raced ideas, to be transformed into a white civilization upon a mountaintop, where raced identities and racialized hierarchization within Puritan society had both been foreordained by God.


1. Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 55.

2. Richard A. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 40.

3. Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000, 55-56.

4. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, 44.

5. Randall Fowler, "Puritanism, Islam, and Race in Cotton Mather's The Glory of Goodness: An Exercise in Exceptionalism," Rhetoric & Public Affairs 21, no. 4 (2018): 573.

6. Heather Miyano Kopelson, Faithful Bodies: Performing Religion and Race in the Puritan Atlantic (New York: NYU Press, 2014), 18.

7. Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000, 61.

8. Cotton Mather, The Negro Christianized: An essay to Excite and Assist the Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity. (Boston: B. Green, 1706), 24-25.

9. Mather, The Negro Christianized: An essay to Excite and Assist the Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity.

10. Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000, 62.

11. Kopelson, Faithful Bodies: Performing Religion and Race in the Puritan Atlantic, 115.

12. Kopelson, Faithful Bodies: Performing Religion and Race in the Puritan Atlantic, 116.

13. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, 45.

14. Mather, The Negro Christianized: An essay to Excite and Assist the Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity., 3.

15. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, 100.

16. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, 94.

17. Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 95-96.

18. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, 94.

19. Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, 47-48.

20. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, 99.

21. James MacSparran and Daniel Goodwin, A Letter Book and Abstract of Out Services, written during the years 1743-1751 (Boston: D.B. Updike, 1899), 27.

22. Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in colonial New England (New York: Atheneum, 1968), 100-01.

23. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, 101.

24. Robert E. Desrochers, "Slave-for-Sale Advertisements and Slavery in Massachusetts, 1704-1781," The William and Mary Quarterly 59, no. 3 (2002): 101.

25. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, 109.

26. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England.

27. Rebecca Anne Goetz, "From Protestant Supremacy to Christian Supremacy," Church History 88, no. 3 (2019): 764.

28. 1 Corinthians 12:13 (KJV).

29. Mather, The Negro Christianized: An essay to Excite and Assist the Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity., 26.

30. Kopelson, Faithful Bodies: Performing Religion and Race in the Puritan Atlantic, 122.

31. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, 64.

32. Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 89.

33 Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016), 61.

34. Edward J. Blum, The Color of Christ: The Son of God & The Saga of Race in America, ed. Paul Harvey (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

35. Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, 108.

36. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, 61.

37. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, 47.


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