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Unlike the Puritans he lived among, Thomas Morton loved nature, local tribes, and pagan traditions like dancing around the maypole. The Puritans banned a book book he wrote — the first banned book in America. 

Today we joke about Boston and its “Banned in Boston” moniker. We criticize other communities that ban books they believe threaten local morals. People have always tried to address threats they believe are posed by certain ideas. Even now we argue about the best way to keep fake news off social media. But who is to decide? I hope we don’t think government officials — whether they’re currently the ones we voted for or not —  are capable of deciding.

Let’s take a look at an old controversy over America’s first banned book.

Matthew Taub writes at Atlas Obscura, “Apparently, Thomas Morton didn’t get the memo. The English businessman arrived in Massachusetts in 1624 with the Puritans, but he wasn’t exactly on board with the strict, insular, and pious society they had hoped to build for themselves.

“ ‘He was very much a dandy and a playboy,’ says William Heath, a retired professor from Mount Saint Mary’s University who has published extensively on the Puritans. …

“Within just a few short years, Morton established his own unrecognized offshoot of the Plymouth Colony, in what is now the town of Quincy, Massachusetts (the birthplace of presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams). He revived forbidden old-world customs, faced off with a Puritan militia determined to quash his pagan festivals, and wound up in exile.

“He eventually sued and, like any savvy rabble-rouser should, got a book deal out of the whole affair. Published in 1637, his New English Canaan mounted a harsh and heretical critique of Puritan customs and power structures that went far beyond what most New English settlers could accept. So they banned it — making it likely the first book explicitly banned in what is now the United States. …

“The Puritans’ move across the ‘pond’ was motivated by both religion and commerce, but Morton was there only for the latter reason, as one of the owners of the Wollaston Company. He loved what he saw of his new surroundings, later writing that Massachusetts was the ‘masterpiece of nature.’ His business partner — slave-owning Richard Wollaston — moved south to Virginia to expand the company’s business, but Morton was already deeply attached to the land. …

‘He was extremely responsive to the natural world and had very friendly relations with the Indians,’ says Heath, while ‘the Puritans took the opposite stance: that the natural world was a howling wilderness, and the Indians were wild men that needed to be suppressed.’

“After Wollaston left, Morton enlisted the help of some brave recruits — both English and Native — to establish the breakoff settlement of Ma-Re Mount, also known as Merrymount. …

“The Puritan authorities didn’t see Merrymount as a free-wheeling annoyance; they saw an existential threat. The problem wasn’t only that Morton was taking goods and commerce away from Plymouth, but that he was giving that business to the Native Americans, including trading guns to the Algonquins.

“With Plymouth’s monopoly dissolved and its perceived enemies armed, Morton had perhaps done more than anyone else to undermine the Puritan project in Massachusetts. Worse yet, in the words of Plymouth’s governor William Bradford, Morton condoned ‘dancing and frisking together’ with the Native Americans . … Governor Bradford nicknamed Morton the ‘Lord of Misrule.’

“There could be no greater symbol of such misrule than Morton’s maypole. … Throughout medieval Europe, maypoles had been a popular installation for May Day (or Pentecost or midsummer, in some regions) — encouraging human fertility as the land itself sprung up from winter. Now that was a tradition that Morton could get behind, and he gladly called upon the residents of Merrymount to drink, dance, and frolic around the pole. The establishment of Merrymount had been a provocation, but Morton’s May Day celebrations meant war.”

What happened next? Find out at Atlas Obscura, here.

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The Puritan thinker Roger Williams got fed up with the rigid Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and went off to found the state of Rhode Island and advocate for freedom of religion.

Recently Lucas Mason-Brown, a Brown University math major, worked with a small group of undergraduates to crack the shorthand code Williams used while making notes.

According to Martine Powers in today’s Boston Globe, here, translation of the notes was an achievement that had resisted scholars for centuries. No major insights about Roger Williams were revealed, but some were confirmed.

For example, the notes show that Williams was against baptizing Indian children — a new example of how adamantly he opposed pressure to convince anyone of any religious belief.

In an earlier AP article in the Herald Online, Erika Niedowski writes, “College history professor emeritus J. Stanley Lemons and others at Brown started trying to unravel the so-called ‘Mystery Book’ a few years ago. But the most intense work began this year after the university opened up the challenge to undergraduates, several of whom launched an independent project.

” ‘No one had ever looked at it systematically like this in generations,’ Widmer said. ‘I think people probably looked at it and shrugged.’

“Senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown, who has done the majority of the decoding, said his first instinct was to develop a statistical tool. The 21-year-old from Belmont, Mass., used frequency analysis, which looks at the frequency of letters or groups of letters in a text, but initially didn’t get far.

“He picked up critical clues after learning Williams had been trained in shorthand as a court stenographer in London, and built his own proprietary shorthand off an existing system. Mason-Brown refined his analysis and came up with a rough key.” Read more.

AP Photograph
The preface page of the Mystery Book from Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library. Lucas Mason-Brown, a senior mathematics major, helped crack a mysterious shorthand code developed and used by religious dissident Roger Williams in the 17th century. The handwritten code surrounds the printed text on the preface page.

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