The Spice of Popery

Converging Christianities on an Early American Frontier

Laura M. Chmielewski

A Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2012

The title for this work comes from the Puritan minister Increase Mather, who used the colorful metaphor to express his concern about the state of English Protestantism. Like many New Englanders, Mather’s fears about the creeping influence of French Catholicism stemmed from English conflicts with France that spilled over into the colonial frontiers from French Canada. The most consistently fragile of these frontiers was the Province of Maine, notorious for attracting settlers who had “one foot out the door” of New England Puritanism. It was there that English Protestants and French Catholics came into frequent contact. The Spice of Popery: Converging Christianities on an Early American Frontier shows how, between the volatile years of 1688 to 1727, the persistence of Catholic people and culture in New England’s border regions posed consistent challenges to the bodies and souls of frontier Protestants.

Taking a cue from contemporary observers of religious culture, as well as modern scholars of early American religion, social history, material culture, and ethnohistory, Laura M. Chmielewski explores this encounter between opposing Christianities on an early American frontier. She examines the forms of lived religion and religious culture—enacted through gestures, religious spaces, objects, and discreet religious expressions—to elucidate the range of experience of its diverse inhabitants: accused witches, warrior Jesuits, unorthodox ministers, indigenous religious thinkers, voluntary and involuntary converts. Chmielewski offers a nuanced perspective of the structured categories of early American Christian religious life, suggesting that the terms “Protestant” and “Catholic” varied according to location and circumstances and that the assumptions accompanying their use had long-term consequences for generations of New Englanders.

Laura M. Chmielewski is assistant professor of history at Purchase College, State University of New York.

“In her beautifully written and richly researched study, Laura Chmielewski provides an important new interpretation of the borderlands between French and English settlements in North America. She persuasively argues that this boundary was far more permeable than we have imagined, for despite prejudices and hostilities on both sides, these frontier colonists adapted and adopted many of their enemy’s cultural and religious patterns. Connections were made, kinships formed, and histories were shared, and what they—and we—once thought of as a firm barrier turns out to be a middle ground of exchange and synthesis. Anyone interested in early American history should read this book.” — Carol Berkin, Presidential Professor of History, Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY

“Laura Chmielewski’s The Spice of Popery is an inspired contribution to our understanding of ‘entangled Christianities’ in early America—erudite, thorough, and eminently readable.” — Edwin G. Burrows, Distinguished Professor of History, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

“In this fresh interpretation of early New England, Laura Chmielewski reminds us that religious borders were just as unsettling as interethnic frontiers. Using both textual evidence and material culture to craft an intimate history of religious violence, captivity, and conversion, she demonstrates the ways in which ‘the spice of popery’ bound Protestants and Catholics together and shaped Maine’s distinctive religious diversity.” — Ann M. Little, Colorado State University


“The author develops an oft-neglected theme noted in the subtitle ‘converging Christianities.’ Chmielewski’s nuanced understanding of the relevant varieties of Catholicism and Protestantism, their commonalities as well as oppositions, should inspire other scholars of colonial America. The author’s grasp of the social and political consequences and contexts of these religious expressions, including material culture, is also exemplary.” — Choice

“The Spice of Popery is an original contribution to the fields of American Colonial history, the Atlantic World, and the history of religion that successfully challenges and revises some conventional historical thinking about rigid religious dichotomies of the era . . . [An] impressive first book by author Laura M. Chmielewski.” — American Catholic Studies

“The main thrust of Chmielewski’s thesis—that Maine was a restive religious borderland across which intrepid souls and sacred objects made occasional but revealing passages—is persuasive. In an age when place and faith were often identical, Chmielewski’s account demonstrates that boundaries of neither kind were impassable.” — The Journal of American History

“The Spice of Popery is an examination into the religious lives of Protestants and Catholics on Maine’s colonial northern frontier. . . . A well-researched and well-written work, it is recommended for students of early American history and for those interested in the influence of religion on empire building in early North America.” — Religious Studies Review

“Chmielewski argues . . . that the ferocious confrontations between French and English settlers and their indigenous allies in the decades from 1688 to 1727 altered at least Protestant observers in the Massachusetts Bay colony that this province to the northeast badly needed a shot of Puritan orthodoxy to prevent the infection of Catholicism—the ‘spice of popery’ of Chmielewski’s title—from spreading.” — The Catholic Historical Review

“Chmielewski’s book has a great deal to offer. Her discussion of Maine captivity narratives takes us far beyond the better-known world of Mary Rowlandson…. [And she] encourages discussion about the ways in which people in the early modern period defined and used religion in their daily lives.” — Journal of Church and State

“Spice of Popery is an impressive achievement. . . . In the past, the story of the Maine borderlands has essentially been one of combat and violence, of contested boundaries. There is much about this story that is true. Chmielewski shows that such an interpretation is insufficient.” — Huntington Library Quarterly