Library Serendipity

One of the marvelous things about Harvard’s Houghton Rare Books Library (and there are many marvelous things about it) is that a person who wishes to see a seventeenth-century English book won’t automatically be escorted to the door with instructions to look at the EEBO version and never come back. (Such is the reception one gets at the Harvard Law Library Rare Books room.)

Yesterday, the writing was not going so well so I decided to look at a tract that has been on my list for awhile but that I never got to. As it turns out, Thomas Blake’s The Birth Priviledge, or, Covenant-Holinesse of Beleevers and their Issue in the time of the Gospel Together With the Right of Infants to Baptisme (London, 1644) was bound in a volume containing five other tracts about baptism I had never even heard of. They were bound in chronological order, with publication dates ranging from 1641 to 1648, and some helpful seventeenth-century hand had recorded the different instances in which the tracts “talked” with each other. All were anti-Anabaptist, but all held varying beliefs on the meaning, efficacy, and availability of infant baptism.

Thomas Blake’s comments were exceedingly helpful, as it turns out. For starters, he addressed the concept of heredity: The essentiall or integrall parts of a species, with the naturall properties, that doe accompany it, so one bruit beast brings forth another, one bird brings forth another, and man brings forth one of man-kind. He elaborated on this issue as regards religion: The priviledges or burdens, which in Family or Nation are hereditary, they are conveyed from parents to posterity, from Ancestors to their Issue: As is the father, so is the child, as respecting their particulars: The child of a free-man with St Paul is free borne: The child of a Noble man is noble. The child of a bond-man (where servants were wholy their masters to dispose) is a bond-man likewise. So the child, of a Turke is a Turke; The child of a Pagan is a Pagan; The child of a Jew is a Jew; The child of a Christian is a Christian: As by vertue of the grand Charter of Heaven among the people of God, this priviledge doth descend: So it is the nature of those things that are descendable.”

Wow. Religion was a heritable characteristic that served to bind not only families but also nations together. It’s the strongest statement of a proto-racial ideology centered on religion I have found in English. And helpfully, the kind person who bound these tracts together allows me to easily trace the development of this idea, as well as scholastically arranged arguments for and against the idea.

Who was that helpful person? The inscription on the frontispiece of the first tract bound in the book reads “Increase Mather his book 1656.” Increase Mather graduated from Harvard College that year and went on to study in Dublin. He returned to Massachusetts in 1661, and I entertained myself for awhile by imagining the young Increase, preparing for his ordination, reading this little collection against the backdrop of the synod that approved the Half-Way Covenant in 1662. Rev. Mather was later President of Harvard College and was even sceptical about the Salem Witchcraft Trials (at their conclusion he wrote a treatise denouncing “spectral evidence”).

And now the marginalia of this master Puritan theologian will guide me through the thicket of English argument about baptism. That’s a serendipitous find one would never have on EEBO.

Update! My father thinks Increase Mather is guiding my dissertation from the great beyond. I think I might actually now be creeped out by my library serendipity.


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