Lori Rogers-Stokes, PhD

Heroic Souls: Puritan Women as the First American Individuals

“…to go back, I would not.” This confident statement was made by a woman known to us only as “Katherine, Mrs. Russel’s maid”; it was part of the spiritual autobiography she related in a session with her pastor and perhaps a few friends and fellow-seekers in her Puritan church in Cambridge, Massachusetts Bay Colony in the late 1630s. Her minister, Thomas Shepard, recorded the sessions of 31 women in his congregation between 1638 and 1649.

In these women’s sessions, we hear uncanny echoes of the modern hero: a sole individual, relying on her unique powers, suffering through many failures and dangers to complete an epic personal quest. This type of narrative is wholly uncharacteristic of the 17th century, anticipating the modern hero by over 200 years. The individual in this relation is not anchored in family, class, location, religious tradition, history, marriage, or motherhood. What we read in these relations are narratives of the heroic soul, struggling alone against cosmic forces, rejected by and rejecting of all others, ultimately acting in a theater reduced to two players: the seeker and the Lord.

All of the people, male and female, who met with Shepard exhibit this oddly modern individuality. But it is most remarkable to find it in the women’s narratives, since women’s identities were usually so completely folded into men’s, and so completely confined to the roles of daughter, wife, and mother. A personal narrative unshaped by sex is unexpected at any moment in history; women’s narratives with none of the traditional markers of female identity even more so. We will explore these heroic narratives and hear these women speak for themselves, as they did over 370 years ago.

Lori Rogers-Stokes, PhD, (lori.stokes@comcast.net) is an independent scholar studying puritan New England with a focus on women’s roles and its place in the development of American democracy.

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