Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Document Analysis: New England’s First Fruits

I don't usually post my homework on here, but we recently had to analyze documents for my historical sociology course, and I thought my assignment might be of interest to the two people reading this who do philanthropy.

New England’s First Fruits; In Respect, First of the Conversion of some, Conviction of divers, Preparation of sundry, 2.Of the progresse of Learning, in the Colledge at Cambridge in Massacusets Bay, With Divers other speciall Matters concerning that Countrey is a pamphlet published in 1643 for use by fundraising agents who were attempting to raise funds for various causes in the Massachusetts Bay colony.(1) While it states that it was composed by “New-England Men who are here present, and were eye or eare-witnesses of the same,”(2) the precise authorship is unknown; it has been included with the papers of John Eliot, a colonist active in attempting to convert Bay area Indians to Christianity (Clark, 2003). It was printed in London at the request of Hugh Peter and Thomas Weld after their first year in London was not entirely remunerative (Kellaway, 1961). In modern terms, this document served as a piece of public relations.

The document is divided into three sections. The first, “In respect of the Indians, &c,” tells of missionary work to the Indians, their thirst for the Gospel, and of the extension of this work that would be possible with further funding. The second, “In respect of the Colledge, and the proceedings of Learning therein,” covers the establishment and early financial gifts to Harvard College as well as the current state of the college, including its rules and curriculum (the latter in Latin). The third section, which is not divided from the second by any heading or preamble, purports to give facts about life in New England and answers critical questions, with an eye toward proving the wholesomeness of the place and dispelling stories about poor soil, cold weather, weakness of colonial character, out-migration, and the likelihood of wanting clothes from England in the future. The rest of this analysis focuses on the second portion, which is regularly cited as the first example of fundraising for higher education in the United States. For example, according to one fundraising expert, “The first recorded instance of fundraising in the colonies was in 1643, when Harvard College conducted the first fundraising drive” (Lindahl, 2010, p. 73). Another more precise statement of its import as a bracket is an encyclopedia entry indicating that “the first systematic fund-raising appeal to raise money for an American institution was probably that for Harvard College” (Burlingame, 2004).

Given that the pamphlet was produced as a public relations product for fundraisers, certain biases are to be expected and were most likely not unconscious. Fundraisers then as now walked the line between presenting the object of philanthropy as a healthy, going concern worthy of funds, and as a struggling entity that that requires aid. Thus we read that “the Edifice is very fair and comely within and without” and the president is “a learned conscionable and industrious man.” In fact, what work is left for further donors is never explicitly stated. Perhaps this is the reason it “made little impression upon potential benefactors” (Kellaway, 1961, p. 10), or perhaps the style of the time was to leave “the ask” up to the fundraising agents. Other biases are due less to the stylistic conventions of the genre than to beliefs held in common by the English and their colonists. The Indians are represented as sincerely desiring to convert to Christianity (and as doing so out of a desire for salvation); Christianity is assumed to require English customs, including attire; the colonial seizure of North America is claimed to be “free and faire” rather than “with violence and intrusion.” While no instrument yet devised allows us to see with certainty the desires of the deceased, contemporaneous documents such as diaries, letters, and government and church records may tell us to what extent Indians embraced English ways and establish the degree of violence in this instance of colonization. Still, the preponderance of these documents originate with the colonists, and therefore tell only one side of the story. Similarly, the college is represented as a flourishing enterprise in First Fruits, while in fact operations had been temporarily suspended due to a lack of funds. Knowing this, even the segments that detail the college’s rules and the questions put to candidates for degrees are likely to represent ideals rather than actual practice. Students did likely study the trivium and ethics; it is less likely that all graduates lived lives as godly as the rules hope. Omitted altogether are the number of students at the grammar school and the college, how many were dismissed or left of their own accord, any details on tutors beyond President Dunster – any information that might suggest Harvard was less than flourishing. There are, again, plenty of other records that may contradict this image, such as record of the Overseers, diaries and letters, records of legislative support, and Cambridge village records. The pamphlet, then, is best used by scholars as an example of public relations than as evidence of Indian-colonist relations or the state of Harvard College in 1643.

(1)This analysis is based upon two copies available through the Vanderbilt Library; one is a poor quality facsimile of the original available online, and the other is a reprint, retaining the original font and text ornaments but with new pagination.
(2)It is unclear, however, whether “the same” they were witnesses to was the conversion, etc. of the Indians, the progress of learning, and the diverse other special matters, or whether it was “the instant request of sundry Friends, who desire to be satisfied in these points.”

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