Banned Books Week and an Incident in Boston
The American Library Association’s “Banned Books Week” (September 30-October 6) underscores a disturbing recurrent theme in American life — and a trait we clearly share with other parts of the world. While perhaps more notorious and frightening in other countries, the dangers from banning and burning books continue in our own, as we have seen when a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Quran on September 11, 2010.
The Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts, has one copy — and there are only nine known in the world — of the first book banned and burned on American territory. This significant event occurred in Boston on October 17, 1650. The volume in question is The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption. Its author was William Pynchon (1590-1662), a merchant and magistrate of considerable importance to the puritan venture in New England.
Pynchon was so busy as the colonizing founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, that it is extraordinary that he had time for anything else. But much to everyone’s surprise copies of a theological treatise he wrote arrived in Boston in October 1650. As luck would have it –- or not –- the Massachusetts General Court (the colony’s legislature) was then in session. Even though it is a thin volume, 158 pages of text, the authorities did not need to read it. The Meritorious Price was a book you could tell by its cover: a glance at the title page convinced them that Pynchon’s views were somewhat unorthodox. That, in their judgment, was enough to make it potentially prejudicial to the Bay Colony, especially among those in the British parliament who were already skeptical about the Massachusetts experiment. Pynchon fell victim to the puritan versus puritan struggles which eventually doomed the English republican Commonwealth.
The General Court voted a “protestation” on October 16, 1650, which called for “the said book now brought over be burnt by the executioner… & that in the market place in Boston, on the morrow, immediately after the lecture.” (Mass. Records, III, 215)
As for the aftermath: the book-burning incident had a traumatic impact on Pynchon. Though he tried a conciliatory approach when he conferred about it with three Court-approved clergy, he never attended the Massachusetts legislature again. And while the dramatic public censure of The Meritorious Price reflected badly on Massachusetts, its result at the time was negligible, if not counterproductive. The symbolic execution by burning Pynchon’s book changed nothing. By 1653 Pynchon was back in England, where he wrote several more increasingly wordy volumes, mostly on the same theme. He never changed his mind. He died late in 1662.
Adapted from a posting on Beacon Street Diary
For a more extensive analysis see David M. Powers, “William Pynchon and The Meritorious Price: The Story of the First Book Banned in Boston and the Man Who Wrote It,” Bulletin of the Congregational Library, Spring 2009, pp. 4-13. For more on burning books, see Hans J. Hillerbrand, “On Book Burnings and Book Burners: Reflections on the Power (and Powerlessness) of Ideas,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74, (2006: 593-614).