Elijah’s Mantle & its Annotations: A Source for Puritan Constitutionalism

by Adrian Chastain Weimer, Providence College

I can imagine the 18th century historian Thomas Prince turning over the pages of the recently printed Elijah’s Mantle (1722), and wondering if the editors and printers got it right. As a college student Prince had taken an interest in the history of New England and decided he wanted to begin preserving old documents.[1] He now pulled out the original manuscript, a sermon from his grandfather’s generation by the Cambridge pastor Jonathan Mitchell. On comparing the two he must have been surprised at how far the printed version departed from the original. And so Prince decided to fill in the margins with the exact language of the manuscript, now lost. In doing so he preserved the full force of Mitchell’s language about Christ’s kingly government, a way of expressing constitutional resistance to arbitrary rule.

Elijah's Mantle
Thomas Prince’s copy of Elijah’s Mantle

As I opened Prince’s copy of Elijah’s Mantle in the Massachusetts Historical Society reading room I was first disappointed that the edges had been cut off by an over-industrious nineteenth-century re-binder. But then I looked more closely at the neat blockish handwriting scattered on the pages of the text, most of which had avoided the knife. The ownership signatures indicated the book had belonged to Thomas Prince, Thomas Prince Jr., and Mercy Prince. At the suggestion of Peter Drummey, the Stephen T. Riley Librarian at the MHS, I spent some time going through Prince Sr.’s own papers to confirm the writing was indeed his. And then I started to use Prince’s annotations as a source for re-assessing Mitchell’s role in the resistance movement of the early Restoration.

Ownership signatures
Signatures indicate the book belonged to Thomas Prince, Thomas Prince Jr., and Mercy Prince

Jonathan Mitchell died young, but he was one of the most compelling preachers of his day. He had given the sermon extracted for Elijah’s Mantle, called “The Great End and Interest of New-England,” in December of 1662, at a moment when New Englanders were reeling from news of the Act of Uniformity, English legislation that took political rights and freedom of worship away from nonconformists (non-Anglicans) in England. They had also just received a letter from the restored English king Charles II that demanded they redesign their government to benefit wealthy Anglicans. Mitchell was already an intriguing figure for several reasons. First, the magistrate Daniel Gookin, when describing how people mobilized to defy the king in the 1660s, had written, “I remember that eminent Mr. Mitchel, now in heaven . . . speaking of Christ’s Kingly Government upon a civil Acc[oun]t” as one of the most important rationales for constitutional resistance. Second, Mitchell had helped to draft a 1664 letter to the king which explained why the Stuart government’s demands violated their charter liberties, the very reasons men and women had come to New England.

Prince’s annotations on Mitchell’s sermon recovered a stronger version of his words, which the printed edition had tamed down. For example, while the printed version, referring to the feared imposition of Church of England ceremonies, said “to Go backward unto those Things which we knew, have openly Testified…to be not of GOD, and which we departed from, will be such a Wickedness as the Lord’s JEALOUSY will not bear withal,” Prince added from the manuscript: “& Hence for our Civil Government to put forth any act of Consent thereto would be a Thing to be Trembled at.” That this was an important line is confirmed by John Higginson’s quote in his 1663 election sermon: “And for our Civil Government to put forth any act of consent unto either of the former, would be a thing to be trembled at, and Prayed against, that the Lord would keep them from.”[2] In the case of any attempt by England to extend the Act of Uniformity to the colonies, the Massachusetts General Court should hold its ground.

Prince's annotations on Jonathan Mitchell's sermon
Example of Thomas Prince’s annotations on Jonathan Mitchell’s sermon

Mitchell’s 1662 language provides essential context for the 1664-1665 petition campaigns, when colonists in at least a dozen towns pledged support for the Massachusetts government in its decision to resist the demands of the new regime. From studying the extant town petitions, I had realized that the 1664 petition from Cambridge – Mitchell’s hometown –  was probably the first. Colonists had many reasons to oppose any English move toward arbitrary rule, and they were not the only ones to do so. But Mitchell’s understanding of the liberties of self-government as instituted by Christ as well as by the king provided one colonial language for resistance, the stronger version of which has been preserved both by Prince and the MHS.

Read an article in The New England Quarterly written by Adrian Chastain Weimer that uses the Society’s copy of Elijah’s Mantle.

[1] Kenneth Minkema, “Prince, Thomas,” ANB. Prince identifies the writer of 1722 preface as W. Cooper.

[2] John Higginson, The Cause of God and His People in New England (Cambridge [Mass.], 1663], 14.