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America’s First Banned Book

By Emma Laws, Cathedral Librarian

To mark the beginning of Banned Books Week this weekend, here is the Cathedral Library’s copy of the first book to be banned in America: The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption by William Pynchon (1590-1662).
Originally from England, Pynchon purchased land at Agawam in Massachusetts in 1636 and developed a prosperous settlement which he later named Springfield after his Essex birthplace. Pynchon was an astute and highly successful business man; he denounced the harsh treatment of native peoples and instead promoted fair trade of animal furs and meat. 


Pynchon was also a critic of some of the religious doctrines of the Puritans; his book, The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, published in London in 1650, was condemned by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony which decided, ‘perceiving by the Title Page that the Contents of the Book were unsound, and Derogatory’. It would seem that members of the Court may not have actually read the whole of Pynchon’s argument but instead judged his book by its cover or, more accurately, by its titlepage. However, the Court likely knew enough of Pynchon’s alternative views on grace, obedience, atonement and predestination to be riled and, in any case, were probably wary of anyone, especially a layman like Pynchon, who challenged its monopoly on biblical interpretation. 
Given Pynchon’s high status within the colony, the Court would likely have disregarded his ideas had he kept them to himself or to casual conversation, but Pynchon crossed the line when he committed his ideas to print: ‘endangering… the faith of such as might read them… we held it our duty, and believe we were called of God, to proceed against him accordingly’. Pynchon’s book was immediately banned with copies burned on Boston Common; Pynchon himself was accused of heresy and ordered to retract his book. However, following his first Court hearing, Pynchon quickly transferred his assets in Springfield to his son and fled to England, never to return.