- The Spice of Popery: Converging Christianities on an Early American Frontier by Laura M. Chmielewski
The Spice of Popery is an original contribution to the fields of American Colonial history, the Atlantic World, and the history of religion that successfully challenges and revises some conventional historical thinking about rigid religious dichotomies of the era. This impressive first book by author Laura M. Chmielewski, is a prodigiously-researched and elegantly written revision of her Ph.D. dissertation completed at the Graduate Center City University of New York.
Chmielewski constructs her case study of the Maine frontier in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in response to historian Jon Butler’s call to examine the American religious experience in terms of “religious eclecticism.” She employs “a geographical perspective to Butler’s thesis to how this eclecticism worked within an area of colonial North America that placed a high priority on establishing and enforcing an orthodox, Protestant religious culture.” (5) Her analysis is informed by theoretical insights from recent scholarship on borderlands studies and the Atlantic world, including the work of Eliga Gould, Claudio Saunt, and especially Alan Taylor.
As Chmielewski shows, while the Province of Maine was technically part of Massachusetts, the orthodoxy of the “city upon a hill” failed to dominate the “pagan skirt” that was the Maine borderlands. The Maine frontier was a cultural crossroads where Christianities converged, competed and sometimes cooperated. [End Page 69] Colonial Maine’s remoteness on the periphery of New England and its site as a constant battleground discouraged large settlement and shaped a fragile and often fluid religious identity among its English inhabitants.
The author’s central argument is that in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, “Maine’s religious culture was informed and shaped by intertwined and dependent, versus parallel, communities” (10). Chmielewski demonstrates her thesis in six imaginative, thorough, and convincing chapters, the richness and complexity of which cannot be done justice in a short review. After a first chapter sketching the development of Christian diversity in seventeenth-century Maine, the bulk of the study focuses on the four decades of near ceaseless hostility on the frontier resulting from Anglo-French Wars for Empire – King William’s War (1688–1698), Queen Anne’s War (1703–1713), Dummer’s War (1722–1727), a local conflict – and its consequences for religious identity in the province. After 1727 these wars saw victory for the English and consolidation of the “Protestant interest” on the Maine frontier, but Chmielewski rejects any sense of “Whiggish” triumphalism by reminding us that the contested nature of the region left Maine with a “mixed religious culture with deep roots” (268).
Chmielewski draws upon a vast number of written sources in both French and English. She deftly uses accounts by and about the large number of “cross-cultural travelers” – frontier diplomats, clergy and especially war captives – who acted as the culture brokers in the borderlands province. Chmielewski exhibits a writer’s eye for the apt quote and the telling anecdote, using either to drive home an interpretative point or to humanize her story. For example, the book’s title suggestively hints at her thesis and is taken from a quote by the seventeenth-century Massachusetts Puritan divine Increase Mather, who worried that Catholic influence from French Canada might taint the purity of the Calvinistic commonwealth established in New England. Chmielewski populates her analysis with numerous fascinating and complex individuals whose own lives exemplify the complicated “intertwined stories” that resulted on the cultural crossroads of the Maine borderlands. Most emblematic, perhaps, are Nathaniel Wheelwright, a prominent Boston Puritan whose family was once associated with the radical Anne Hutchinson, and his aunt Mere Esther Marie-Joseph de l’Enfant Jesus, a former Protestant captive who converted to Rome and entered the Ursuline convent in Quebec for life. Moreover, Chmielewski imaginatively and effectively examines material culture (holy days, liturgical calendars, holy books, and places of worship) to get a sense of “lived religion” on the frontier, [End Page 70] and to tease out their...