April 08, 2013

The Alchemist of Connecticut, or the Christian Hermes

I'm reading a fascinating book about a Puritan alchemist who founded several Connecticut towns, started industries, and stopped witch trials. The book is Prospero's America. John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606 - 1676, by Walter W. Woodward, a history professor at UConn. The Puritan in question, as you can tell by the title, was John Winthrop Jr.

Although I read a lot about magic and folklore, my knowledge of alchemy is not particularly deep. I knew that Puritans at Harvard and Yale dabbled in it, but I didn't realize how closely intertwined the alchemical and Puritan worldviews could be.

John Winthrop Jr.
I tend to think of alchemy as a murky pseudo-science with a lot of cryptic symbolism and magical jargon. After reading Woodward I realize I was only partly right!

Alchemy has its roots in the writings of Renaissance authors like Marsilio Ficino and Cornelius Agrippa. Drawing upon the works of the ancient mythical mage Hermes Trismegistus ("thrice great Hermes"), Ficino and Agrippa thought that mankind could use astral magic and the power of the stars to manipulate nature for mankind's benefit. A later writer with the fantastic name of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim (aka Paracelsus) refined their Hermeticism into what we now know as alchemy. Observation and experimentation, said Paracelsus, were important to "discovering the divine keys of the workings of nature." Alchemy was similar in some ways to modern science but also incorporated mysticism, Cabalist magic, astrology and Christian prayer.

Hermes Trismegistus, a syncretization of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Anubis.

According to alchemical thought everything in nature was slowly working its way towards perfection. Humans, plants, animals and minerals were all gradually improving over time. Only when a total state of perfection was reached would the world be ready for the second coming of Christ.

The alchemist's job was to help the world reach perfection. For example, gold was considered the most perfect metal, so alchemists spent a lot of time conducting experiments to find the philosopher's stone, which could transmute any metal into gold. They also worked at discovering the alkahest, a substance that would cure all human illness. Hermes Trismegistus, and Adam before him, had possessed perfect knowledge so the alchemists also placed a high premium on increasing human learning.

Many practical benefits emerged from alchemy, particularly in lucrative fields like metallurgy, mining, agriculture, navigation and medicine. Alchemical thought also blended well with Christian (including Puritan) theology so it was attractive to John Winthrop Jr., the son of the first governor of Massachusetts. Born in England in 1606, John Winthrop Jr. traveled through Europe and Turkey meeting with alchemists and acquiring alchemical texts before emigrating to New England in 1631. As his personal symbol Winthrop used the monas hierogyphica, a sigil representing cosmic unity developed by John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's famous astrologer. (Dee is often thought to be the inspiration for Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest and the titular character in Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus.)

John Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica, which John Winthrop Jr. adopted as his personal symbol.

Winthrop brought alchemy's practical benefits and emphasis on progress to his new home. In Salem, Winthrop developed a saltmaking venture. In Quincy, he created a successful ironworks. With backing of wealthy English alchemists he founded the town of Saybrook, Connecticut and later established New London, which he hoped would be a Utopian alchemical haven.

Utopia never arrived, but Winthrop still served for many years as Connecticut's governor. As governor he discouraged witchcraft trials. Although he believed in magic, as an alchemical practitioner he knew how difficult it actually was to get any magical results. If he couldn't get results how could the average witch? Winthrop also encouraged a certain level of religious tolerance, based on the belief that a perfect understanding of Christianity had yet to emerge.

Finally, Winthrop practiced medicine. He tended to patients in his home, and also distributed cures through a network of mid-wives and healers. Although they included items like seahorse penises, millipedes, and mouse feces (and were ineffective by modern standards) his cures were eagerly sought by people across New England. The Boston minister Cotton Mather dubbed Winthrop the "Christian Hermes" for his charity and healing skills.

John Winthrop Jr. died in 1676. A poem written for his funeral extolled his virtues as an alchemist:

"...His fruits of toil Hermetically done
Stream to the poor as light doth from the Sun.
The lavish Garb of silks, Rich Plush and Rings,
Physicians Livery, at his feet he flings."

If you like New England history I would recommend Woodward's book. If you want a more concise but still really informative discussion of Winthrop and other early American alchemists, I'd recommend this article in Newtopia Magazine. It has some fantastic illustrations!


Soli said...

Just out of curiosity, do you know where he is buried?

Peter Muise said...

Hi Soli,

John Winthrop Jr. died in Boston and is buried near his father at King's Chapel Burying Ground in Boston. I should try to find his grave the next time I'm downtown.