Student Honors Theses

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Fall 2012


As the Reverend Cotton Mather sat face to face with William Fly in 1726, a sailor brought into Boston harbor on charges of high piracy, he contemplated not how Fly’s crimes were a detriment to the commercial activity of New England but only how to save the man’s soul from the fires of hell. To do this he would preach to Fly for two weeks; essentially begging him to seek redemption through God. Much to the esteemed Reverend’s surprise, however, Fly would have none of it. The fear of death and eternal damnation would not move the man to confess his crimes and accept God’s redeeming presence in the last few days of his life. Reverend Mather used every threat he could to induce Fly, but the pirate died as he had lived: obstinate and independent. According to historian Daniel Williams, in refusing Mather’s attempts to bring him back into the fold of religion and honest society, Fly made his own brazen statement to the citizens of Boston. In refusing redemption he refused Boston’s religious idealism and the minister’s authority. [1] To the Puritans of New England, this would have been shocking indeed. To prove the moral superiority of Puritan principles Reverend Mather set out to destroy Fly’s image in print. In The Vial poured out upon the Sea (1726) Mather transformed the seaman’s independence, courage and defiance into a foolish disregard for the status of his soul. With the culture of Massachusetts changing and Puritanism losing its hold on society the stakes were high in this game. Reverend Mather felt compelled to prove the moral superiority of Puritanism.[2] In doing so Mather faced several barriers. Piratical activity along the coast of North America was high and reports of pirates obtaining substantial riches filled Boston’s papers. At the same time in many colonies, Rhode Island and South Carolina in particular, piracy had been sponsored instead of punished. Reverend Mather sought to destroy any positive qualities the general public could attribute to piracy, and thus destroy any allure a citizen might find in joining the rogues. Fly was only one of several pirates Mather counseled in the last few days of their lives, and he used each as a chance to scare the public against engaging in and condoning the sins of piracy.[3]

[1] Daniel E. Williams, “Puritans and Pirates: A Confrontation Between Cotton Mather and William Fly in 1726,” Early American Literature, no. 3 (1987), 233-34.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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