The Puritan influence on the press

Media | Christian belief and the 325th anniversary of American newspapers
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 9/26/15, 11:22 am

Several publications yesterday noted that Sept. 25 was the 325th anniversary of the publication in 1690 Boston of America’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences: Both Forreign and Domestick. None of the reports I saw gave the theological context, though. Publications in the 17th century usually put out only news that would make the king or his officials look good, but New England Puritans encouraged the reporting of bad news because they saw everything, good and bad, as a message from God.

For example, Boston printer Marmaduke Johnson in 1668 published God’s Terrible Voice in the City of London, Wherein You Have the Narration of the Late Dreadful Judgment of Pleague and Fire. In 1674, when Benjamin Goad was hanged in Boston for committing bestiality, Samuel Danforth wrote of crime and punishment and offered a why: “God’s end in inflicting remarkable judgments upon some, is for caution and warning to all others.”

News sermons became an established form of New England communication. Twice on Sunday and often once during the week, ministers spoke for at least an hour and often reported military defeats or victories, election results and government decisions, and crimes (preferably with punishments). The best-known Massachusetts minister of the late-17th century, Increase Mather, also became its leading journalist. Mather argued in 1674 that God was not pleased with the sins of pride and envy that were common in New England, and that “a day of trouble is at hand.”

Mather’s forecasts of general disaster hit home in June 1675 when members of the Wampanoag tribe of American Indians burned and looted homes in the town of Swansea, Mass., and killed nine residents. Indian attacks escalated in August 1675 as Wampanoags led by Chief Metacom—also known by his adopted English name, “King Philip”—were joined by the Narragansetts and Nipmucks in an attack on towns in western Massachusetts and other outlying areas. A ballad contextualized the news: “O New-England, I understand / with thee God is offended: / And therefore He doth humble thee, / till thou thy ways hast mended.”

In the summer of 1676, Philip’s forces were within 10 miles of Boston, but so many had been killed in battle that a final push was beyond their grasp. When Philip was captured and executed, the war was over. The tribes were left devastated, but one in every 16 colonists of fighting age was also dead, many women and children had been killed or carried into captivity, and 12 towns were destroyed.

For the Puritans, the war was an exceptionally clear example of judgment upon sinful people, and many ministers and/or writers spoke or wrote about it. Chief among them was Increase Mather, whose Brief History of the War with the Indians of New-England was filled with information about who, what, when, and where: “March 17. This day the Indians fell upon Warwick, and burnt it down to the ground, all but one house. May 11. A company of Indians assaulted the Town of Plimouth, burnt eleven Houses and five Barns therein.”

Mather then contextualized the news by seeing God’s hand not only in the beginning of the war but also in its prolongation. In reporting on the aftermath of one battle, he wrote, “Had the English immediately pursued the Victory begun, in all likelyhood there had been an end of our troubles: but God saw that neither yet were we fit for deliverance.”

Like other Puritan journalists, Mather was careful to juxtapose evidence of God’s anger with dramatic news of God’s mercy. When one house was about to be set on fire by hundreds of Indians who surrounded it, it appeared that “Men and Women, and Children must have perished, either by unmerciful flames, or more unmerciful hands of wicked Men whose tender Mercies are cruelties, so that all hope that they should be saved was then taken in: but behold in this Jount of Difficulty and Extremity the Lord is seen. For in the very nick of opportunity God sent that worthy Major Willard, who with forty and eight men set upon the Indians and caused them to turn their backs. … [H]owever we may be diminished and brought low through Oppression, Affliction, and Sorrow, yet our God will have compassion on us, and this his People shall not utterly perish.”

Mather’s reportage was a prototype of the cavalry rescues beloved in Western movies, but the emphasis here was on God’s grace, not man’s heroism. He reported that when New Englanders recognized their reliance on that grace and renewed their covenant with God, the war ended. He emphasized the importance of accurate reporting—“a brief, plain, and true story”—in understanding the why of the war: God’s punishment because of sins such as “contention” and “pride.”

Mather also argued, though, that too much guilt, like too much pride, could “run into extreams.” Instead of pouring it on, Mather offered hope: “[God’s] design, in bringing the Calamity upon us, is not to destroy us, but to humble us, and reform us, and to do us good in the latter end.” We sinned more than we thought we did, but God loved us more than we thought He did.

The next step for American journalism came in 1681, when a general meeting of the Massachusetts ministers urged careful coverage of “Illustrious Providences, including Divine Judgements, Tempests, Floods, Earth-quakes, Thunders as are unusual, Strange Apparitions, or what ever else shall happen that is Prodigious, Witchcrafts, Diabolical Possessions, Remarkable Judgements upon noted Sinners: eminent Deliverances, and Answers of Prayer.”

Here was a definition of news not unlike today’s in its emphasis on atypical, man-bites-dog events: “unusual” thunders, “strange” apparitions, and other “prodigious” or “remarkable” happenings—except that the why was different, since for the Puritans all unusual occurrences showed a glimpse of God’s usually invisible hand.

The ministers’ resolution also provided a method for the recording of events that anticipated the relationship of freelance writers and editors in later years. First, each minister was to be a correspondent, with the responsibility to “diligently enquire into, and Record such Illustrious Providences as have happened, or from time to time shall happen, in the places whereunto they do belong.” Second, to avoid the supplanting of fact by fiction, it would be important to rely on eyewitnesses and make sure “that the Witnesses of such notable Occurrents be likewise set down in Writing.” Third, it would be important to find a main writer-editor who “hath Leisure and Ability for the management of Such an undertaking.”

That person turned out to be Mather himself—and he proved himself to be right for the job. Mather read widely and well, citing in appropriate places in his writings the work of Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Robert Boyle, and other leading scientists of the day. Mather himself wrote reports about comets, magnetism, lightning, thunder, and other natural phenomena, and would not report about an event unless a reliable source made a written, signed statement. After noting one extraordinary occurrence, he remarked, “I would not have mentioned this relation, had I not received it from serious, faithfull, and Judicious hands.”

Mather and others thought accuracy important because events were their report card signed by God, and they wanted to know where they stood, for better or for worse. Mather wrote about not only political events but storms, earthquakes, and fires: all such events, he wrote, were “ordered by the Providence of God. … When a fire is kindled among a people, it is the Lord that hath kindled it.” Puritans also set the stage for an honoring of the journalists themselves.

The idea that God was acting in the world made journalism significant, for Mather wrote, “[I]t is proper for the Ministers of God to ingage themselves recording the providentiall Dispensations of God.” Increase’s son Cotton even wrote that “To regard the illustrious displays of that Providence wherewith our Lord Christ governs the world, is a work, than which there is none more needful or useful for a Christian.”

Now, in context, we can tell the story of one Christian in 1690 who took the next step by trying to put out a regular newspaper, but he encountered trouble. Benjamin Harris knew persecution: Jailed in 1679 and sentenced to a harsh prison regime for publishing in London an independent newspaper, Domestick Intelligence, Harris said simply, “I hope God will give me Patience to go through it.”

After Harris did go through it, he continued to print pamphlets that exposed wrongdoing. Aided by Cotton Mather, Harris on Sept. 25, 1690, published the first newspaper in America, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick.

Belief in Providence was evident throughout its four pages. Harris’s expressed purpose for publishing it was in line with his previous writing: “That Memorable Occurrents of Divine Providence may not be neglected or forgotten, as they too often are.”

Harris’s combination of reporting and teaching showed as he reported “a day of Thanksgiving to God” for a good harvest and noted, concerning a tragedy averted, that God “assisted the Endeavours of the People to put out the Fire.” When a man committed suicide after his wife died, Harris explained, “The Devil took advantage of the Melancholy which he thereupon fell into.”

When Harris emphasized God’s sovereignty over international relations as well, controversy followed. Harris’s report of mistreatment of prisoners by Mohawk Indians, and his criticism of royal officials for making an alliance with those Indians in order to defeat French forces in Canada, was based on his belief in Providence: “If Almighty God will have Canada to be subdu’d without the assistance of those miserable Savages, in whom we have too much confided, we shall be glad, that there will be no Sacrifice offered up to the Devil, upon this occasion; God alone will have all the glory.”

Furthermore, Harris took seriously reports of adultery in the French court. British officials, hoping at that time for peace with France, were refraining from comments that could arouse popular concern about trusting those of low morals. Since sexual restraint was not a common court occurrence in Restoration England, either, they probably thought such news was non-news. But Harris went ahead and reported that Louis XIV “is in much trouble (and fear) not only with us but also with his Son, who has revolted against him lately, and has great reason if reports be true, that the Father used to lie with the Sons Wife.”

Puritans who liked to emphasize God’s sovereignty over all human activities were pleased with Publick Occurrences. Cotton Mather called it “a very noble, useful and laudable design.” But the royal governor and his council members were not amused. They told Harris any further issues would give him long prison nightmares. Harris gave in. He stayed in Massachusetts for a time and was given some public printing jobs because of his “good behavior,” but he returned to England in 1695—and published no more newspapers.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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