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Image Massachusetts Child-naming Ways: Puritan Onomastics

“The naming of children,” writes historian Daniel Scott Smith, “is culturally never a trivial act.” This was specially so among the Puritans. One of their ministers declared, “ … a good name is as a thread tyed about the finger, to make us mindful of the errand we came into the world to do for our master.”1

The Puritan families of Massachusetts named their newborn infants in ways that differed very much from other English-speaking people. The most striking feature of their onomastic customs was their strong taste for biblical names. In seventeenth-century Boston, 90 percent of all first names were taken from the Bible; in Concord, 91 percent; in Hingham, 95 percent. That proportion was nearly twice as great as in non-Puritan colonies.2

Few biblical names failed to be bestowed upon one New England baby or another. Some parents cultivated a spirit of scriptural uniqueness. One unfortunate child was named Maher-shalalhasbaz, the longest name in the bible. Another, the son of Bostonian Samuel Pond, was baptized Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin Pond. There is evidence that parents sometimes shut their eyes, opened the good book and pointed to a word at random, with results such as Notwithstanding Griswold and Maybe Barnes.3

But onomastic eccentricities of that sort were rare in New England. A remarkably small number of biblical names accounted for a very large proportion of choices. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a whole during the seventeenth century, more than 50 percent of all girls were named Mary, Elizabeth or Sarah.4 These biblical namesakes were carefully selected for the moral qualities which they personified. Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to the Puritans as humble, devoted, thoughtful, sensitive and serious.Elizabethwas the faithful wife of Zecharias and mother of John the Baptist. Sarah was the wife of Abraham, mother of Isaac and “mother of nations.” Also very popular was Rebecca, wife of Isaac and mother of two nations, who appears in the Bible with a pitcher perched upon her shoulder. The few female prophets—

Anne, Hannah, Deborah and Huldah—were often honored in New England. So was Abigail, who bravely defended her husband against a monarch’s wrath, and Rachel who stood up for her husband even against her own father. Many a daughter of New England was named for Ruth, industrious and obedient, who gleaned the field and beat out her gleanings and lay down her head at the foot of her husband Boaz.5 Most feminine namesakes were firmly anchored in a domestic role. At the same time they were also notable for intellect, courage, integrity and strength of character. The feminist movement has trained us to think disjunctively of these qualities; but in early New England they were one.

For boys, the leading namesake was John, the most Christlike of the apostles, the disciple whom Jesus loved for his goodness of spirit. Another favored namesake was Joseph, not the father of Jesus but the first Joseph, whom the Puritans specially respected for strength of character. Other favorites were Samuel the upright judge, and Josiah the just ruler. The names of many great patriarchs and lawgivers were rarely used. Among 1,000 families in Concord, the name Moses was uncommon and Adam was virtually unknown. Few children were named Abraham or Solomon. A surprising omission was Paul, despite the fact that New England Puritanism lay squarely within the Pauline tradition of Christianity.6

Other common Christian names did not appear in Massachusetts. Puritan children were not named Jesus, or Angel or Emmanuel or Christopher, all of which were taboo among English Calvinists. A minister explained the reason: “Emmanuel is too bold,” wrote Thomas Adams. “The name is properly to Christ, and therefore not to be communicated to any creature.” Adams also thought it “not fit for Christian humility to call a man Gabriel or Michael, giving the names of angels to the sons of mortality.” The archangels were common namesakes in Anglican families of Virginia, but Puritan parents carefully matched biblical names to their mortal condition in the great chain of being.7

With equal care, Puritan parents also chose scriptural names which seemed suitable to their social rank. On New England muster rolls, the name of Hezekiah the king of Judah appeared ten times as often for officers as for enlisted men. Amos, the name of a simple herdsman, was generally more common among the rank and file.8

Onomastic customs of Massachusetts were also unique in another way—the descent of names within the family. Children in Calvinist families were not named after godparents; this was a “Popish” practice which Puritans detested. In Massachusetts, two-thirds of first-born sons and daughters were given the forenames of their parents. This nuclear naming strategy persisted through many generations in Massachusetts. As we shall see, it was very different from other cultures in British America.9

Still another onomastic custom in Massachusetts was the use of necronyms. When a child died, its name was usually given to the next-born baby of the same sex. A case in point was the Concord family of Ephraim and Elizabeth Hartwell who married in 1732 and had five children named Ephraim, Samuel, John, Elizabeth and Isaac. In 1740, the “throat Distemper” came to Concord, and the Hartwells watched helplessly as all their children died within a single month. But the parents survived and nine more children were born; their names were Elizabeth, Samuel, Abigail, Ephraim, John, Mary, Sarah, Isaac and Jonas. The name of every dead child was used again. The Hartwells were exceptional only in the scale of their suffering. When New England families lost a child, its name was used again in 80 percent of all cases where another baby of the same sex was born. Necronyms were a normal part of New England’s naming system and of other cultures in the seventeenth century.10

Massachusetts onomastics were the product of what has been called a “Puritan naming revolution,” in England during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. It is interesting that this revolution took different forms in various parts of England, and that once again it was the East Anglian pattern that came to Massachusetts, rather than naming customs from the south or west or north of England.11

A great many English Puritans lived in Sussex, for example, but only about 1 percent of New England’s immigrants came from that county. Sussex Puritans made heavy use of hortatory names such as Be-courteous Cole (in the Parish of Pevensey), Safely-on-high Snat (Uckfield), Fight-the-good-fight-of-faith White (Ewhurst), Small-hope Biggs (Rye), Humiliation Scratcher (Westham), Kill-sin Pemble (also Westham), and Mortifie Hicks (Hailsham). A classic example was an unfortunate young woman named ffly fornication Bull, of Hailsham, Sussex, who was made pregnant in the shop of a yeoman improbably called Goodman Woodman. So popular were these hortatory names among Sussex Puritans that in the parish of Warbleton, for example, more than 43 percent of children received them in the period between 1570 and 1600.12

In East Anglia, on the other hand, hortatory names were uncommon among Puritan families—less than 4 percent of children were given them. Massachusetts followed the East Anglian rather than the Sussex pattern; its onomastic customs were both religious and regional in their origins.13

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