Sacred Violence in Early America

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Susan Juster
Early American Studies
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , April
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sacraments. Holy war. Idolatry and sacrilege. These are hardly the terms that spring to mind when thinking of the English Protestants who colonized North America in the seventeenth century. Yet Susan Juster’s recent monograph, Sacred Violence in Early America, upends conventional wisdom by contending that these unusual themes were actually major concerns for the Anglo-American colonists of that period. Such terms reflect anxieties, Juster reminds us, that reached their apogee in the early modern period, an age in Europe of explosive religious conflicts with fallout that lasted for centuries. Seventeenth-century European colonists were well within the blast zone of these conflicts; they did not merely reinvent themselves as new people in a new land, as so much American historical scholarship still tends to take for granted. Rather, emigration involved exportation; in their movement colonists transported a great store of theological and discursive baggage—much of it highly combustible—from a massively troubled world. If themes like blood sacrifice, blasphemy, and iconoclasm sound unfamiliar in a narrative of early colonial America, Juster argues, it is only because we have told that story without important prologues and continuities.

The fundamental premise of Sacred Violence in Early America is that colonial encounters reanimated deep-seated and fire-forged religious antipathies among the English settlers. “Discursive paradigms that took shape in the cauldron of Reformation Europe,” Juster writes, “were reinvigorated in the unsettled conditions of English America” (243). Injected into a primal world of heathens, papists, and schismatics, Protestants found themselves disoriented. The New World overflowed with pagan idols, vicious racial warfare, and heretical disorder, forcing colonists to reconsider and to redeploy the tenets of their Protestantism. This especially applies to confrontations with America’s physical realities, Juster argues, and speaks to Protestants’ deep ontological struggle with the material world. Yet Juster’s account of Protestant reformation is not the cardboard cutout of much of American history, since she has recovered the dynamism and ambivalence of early modern religion. We find New England Puritans who supposedly abjured sacramentalism and sacrificial blood, for instance, still longing for visceral satisfaction in the Lord’s Supper. Juster’s sensitivity on such points goes a long way toward recovering the complex and ambivalent legacy of the Reformation Era, especially the powerful religious concerns that helped to catalyze acts of physical, symbolic, and verbal aggression.

Four sophisticated thematic chapters form the body of this slender volume, each with its own provocative title. “Blood Sacrifice,” perhaps the loosest chapter in the book, delves into what Juster characterizes as an intersection between colonial conflicts and traditional Christian discourses of sacraments, flesh, blood, and sacrifice. Resurrecting the Reformation legacy of sacramental conflict, she calls into question the Reformed backlash against the medieval cultus, noting that materialistic language of blood and sacrifice appears with regularity in colonial accounts of conflict (especially those involving Native Americans). Collectively, these patterns represent what Juster calls “a sacramental discourse of violence” (72). “Holy War,” the second chapter, overlaps and extends this conflict, showing how another medieval discourse was revived and reanimated in the colonial context and in the crucible of war against America’s native peoples.

“Malediction” analyzes transgressions of speech and the tongue, offering a deep history of blasphemy, heresy, sacrilege, and related religious crimes in early modern England and colonial America. Ranging over legal history, sectarian conflict, and witchcraft, the chapter details the early modern performativity of language and traces now-obscure linkages between speech and political or sexual subversion. Finally, “Iconoclasm” traces the profound Protestant reaction against false worship or “idolatry,” and the flourishing of this animus despite the virtual absence in America of anything resembling traditional liturgy. The Protestant ideology of idolatry was sufficiently flexible and capacious, argues Juster, to facilitate animus against a wide variety of material objects, from religious books and buildings to native “idols” and even Indian bodies. Across all of these chapters, Juster reassembles fragments of language, composing what she characterizes as a “grammar of colonial encounter,” a discursive web of “presuppositions, referential chains, and linguistic homologies” (3-4).

As productive as she repeatedly shows her approach to be, Juster’s method of discursive analysis can also spend to excess. “Linguistic homologies” sometimes seem gratuitous, and Juster traces out conceptual links that are often ingenious, but sometimes ahistorical. The emphasis on linguistics and an alacrity to move from the straightforward “to the symbolical” also enables the creative but unlikely argument in the final chapter on “Iconoclasm,” contending that the iconoclastic impulses of Anglo Protestants, wrenched free from their liturgical context, were projected upon Indian bodies as incarnations of “idolatry,” fit to be desecrated and destroyed. To support this assertion, Juster presents some suggestive evidence of symbolic violence in colonial conflicts, including that gathered from bloody frontier war between English Carolinians, Spanish Floridians, and their native allies. Yet such claims ultimately rely more upon linguistic theories like the “poetics of implication” than upon historical evidence.

Fortunately, venialities like these are a small price to pay for the set of powerful analytical frameworks that Sacred Violence in Early America has to offer. This is an innovative, path-breaking book. It introduces fresh categories and opens exciting new avenues of study. By telescoping outward to incorporate the longue durée of the early modern period, Juster offers a brilliant reframing of the religious phenomena that catalyzed so much of the animus and volatility in the seventeenth-century English colonies. The complexes of religious language and thought that she recovers will demand far greater attention in the cultural and intellectual history of early America.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ryan Tobler is a Ph.D. candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Susan Juster is Rhys Isaac Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. She is author of Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution and coeditor of Empires of God: Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic, both available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.


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