Posts Tagged ‘Law’

Banned Books Week and an Incident in Boston

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

By David M Powers

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).

American Indians and the Doctrine of (Christian) Discovery

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

by Linford D. Fisher

On June 24, 2012, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) voted to officially repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery (DOD). The what, you say? Exactly. The DOD (or Doctrine of Christian Discovery, as it is sometimes referred to) is one of the most important historical and contemporary issues that Native activists and communities talk about, educate regarding, and work against, and yet the vast majority of non-Natives have never heard of it.

In short, the Doctrine of Discovery is the deceptively simply historical notion that Europeans had rights to the lands of the Americas by right of discovery and verbal fiat from the Pope and Christian European kings and queens. Although this may sound to most modern readers like historical malarkey that we have all abandoned long ago (and, in fact, never subscribed to in the first place), this notion has resurfaced repeatedly in American history and, indeed, silently undergirds not just public discourse about Native land rights and sovereignty, but the U.S. Federal Court system as well.

The DOD has its roots in pre-Columbian European expansion, mainly in the colonization of the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands by the Portuguese and Spanish in the fifteenth century. Most scholars date the official origin of the DOD to the papal bull issued in 1452 by Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, which specifically sanctioned the colonization of non-Christian lands by Christian European monarchs and their emissaries. It was with this fictive legal and religious authority that Columbus first claimed the island of Guanahani (San Salvador, in the present-day Bahamas) for Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (an authority that was reconfirmed by Pope Alexander VI in 1493).

Papal bulls between 1481 and 1529—including The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494—attempted to keep the peace between competing and expanding European empires by officially dividing the newly “discovered” lands of the northeastern Atlantic, the Americas, and the West Indies between the Spanish and the Portuguese. After the 1520s, Protestant nations like England and eventually the Netherlands followed suit, replacing the authority of the pope with that of a king or ruler.

It takes little effort to convince most modern-day Americans (or Euro-American residents of the Americas) that this was a preposterous notion, rooted firmly in the arrogance of Europeans’ self-perceived cultural and religious superiority. So then, what’s the big deal?

The problem is that the DOD—or at least the ideas behind it—has never gone away. It still influences much of the cultural assumptions of non-Native inhabitants of the Americas, particularly in the U.S. and Canada. More perniciously, the DOD actually continues to inform the U.S. legal system in terms of how it determines the ongoing rights of Native peoples within its borders. One of the clearest examples of this is the infamous 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In it, Chief Justice Marshall ruled that only the U.S. Congress had the right to buy and sell Native land and based this right on the original “discovery” and conquest of the Americas by Europeans who were sent by Christian kings and queens to Christianize and conquer the “heathen” peoples.

The implications of this ruling were simply tragic, and its logic defies rational and historical analysis. In an astonishing overturning of colonial practice and belief, in one fell swoop American Indians were decreed to have never been the rightful possessors of their land in the first place, all based on this notion of the authority of European discovery (the word “discovery” is used twenty-three times in the ruling).

Johnson v. M’Intosh has had a long shadow. Up through the present, it remains the legal standard for Native land rights cases and was indirectly cited in court decisions as recently as the 2005 decision City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. (this 2005 ruling cited a 1985 ruling, County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation, which explicitly references the “doctrine of discovery” and cites Johnson v. M’Intosh as one of the prior precedents).

In many ways, however, the tide is turning, even if officially this legal precedent is still firmly in place. Some of the most interesting recent developments have been taking place on the international stage. The United Nations established a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2000. In 2007 the United Nations overwhelmingly passed an unprecedented document, titled the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It is the boldest and most comprehensive statement to date on the rights of indigenous populations worldwide, but particularly of those in the “Lands of the Demographic Takeover,” as Alfred Crosby has described it (PDF), or North and South America (including the Caribbean islands), New Zealand, and Australia. The United States was only one of four nations out of 147 that voted against UNDRIP (the other three were, predictably, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia). Although the governments of Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have all subsequently signed on to UNDRIP, the U.S. remains the sole holdout. Obama declared in December 2010 that the U.S. will sign UNDRIP, but so far he has been unable (or unwilling) to get the U.S. Congress to officially endorse it.

As groundbreaking as the UUA resolution was last month, it was not the first such motion by a religious body. That honor goes to the Episcopal Church, which in 2009 passed a resolution that officially denounced the DOD and called for the U.S. to sign on to UNDRIP. The World Council of Churches eventually followed suit in February 2012 during its executive committee meeting in Switzerland. The hope is as other denominations learn about this doctrine and its history, they, too, will be compelled to repudiate it officially and join the growing chorus of calls for the U.S. to adopt UNDRIP. The DOD even has its own Wikipedia page (which marks a certain coming of age in the wider public consciousness, I guess).

In the meantime, despite the wider academy’s failure to engage the DOD as a serious academic topic of inquiry, Native academics have led the way, putting together panels at academic conferences, running regional seminars and listservs (like the one out of Syracuse University), creating an informative website, and publishing books and articles on the topic (one of the best summaries of the DOD is a little essay titled “Five Hundred Years of Injustice,” by Steve Newcomb). This dedicated cadre of Native scholars and activists deserve the credit for bringing this important historical and present-day issue to the attention of literally millions of people around the world, including a growing number of Christian churches and other religious bodies.

Linford D. Fisher is Assistant Professor of History at Brown University and author of The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford, 2012).