Sunday, January 6, 2013

Puritan baby names of the 17th century

© 2013 Christy K Robinson

A baby-christening party, 1629, Flemish.
The mother lies recovering in the cupboard bed
at the rear, where two women are holding a baby in white.
 In Western culture, we know people with virtue names such as Hope, Faith, Irene, Zoe, and Joy, and those with biblical names like John, David, Jacob, Esther, Naomi, Mary, and scores of others. From ancient times, parents all over the world have named their children with religiously-significant meanings or prophecies in mind, names that would be something to live up to, names that could form a child's character and destiny. Many named their babies after kings, queens, and nobility, or after parents and other family members.

I christen thee "Flee-Fornication"
and thy twin, "Sorry For Sin."
William and Mary Dyer named their children in this manner. William’s father was William, Mary’s brother was William (which means her father was probably William), and they named their firstborn William. He died within a day or two of birth, and a later son was named William—that one, at age 18, bore the news of Mary's reprieve of execution in 1659, and later was mayor of New York. They named one son Samuel (“Asked For”), another son Charles after the recently-executed king, another son Henry (probably after Sir Henry Vane), a daughter Mary, and a son Mahershallalhashbaz. Oh, yes! It was shortened to Maher, but the name was bestowed based on Isaiah 8:4, after the death of their friend and mentor, Anne Hutchinson.

Only in the last few hundred years have children been named for popular figures or in an attempt to make unique sounds or word combinations. 

In the late 16th and throughout the 17th centuries, the Reformation gained ground in England, and splintered further when non-conformists insisted on “purifying” the Church of England. There was a large pocket of Puritans (as one branch of non-conformists was known) in Essex, and they tended to name their children with virtue names. I found a list of jury men in a PDF, with given names, followed by a comma and their surnames.

That's right, a grown man had lived his life thus far with the name, "Kill Sin Pimple."
 Thousands of Puritan emigrants to New England came from Essex, including Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay Colony. So many of them left England with money and possessions that the government of King Charles I believed that the English economy would fail. Eight ships were stopped in the River Thames in 1634, and the emigrants were prohibited from leaving. Among the passengers was Oliver Cromwell, bound for Connecticut—who would make war on the royalists in less than 10 years, and have King Charles beheaded in 15 years.

The Puritans of England and America—self-described as the Remnant or Elect in the book of Revelation— thought that the “world” was evil and they were living in the last days (indeed, deadly plagues and famines, religious wars, economic depression, and vicious crime regularly swept Europe), and Jesus would come in his second advent, in their lifetime, to take them to heaven and destroy the earth. Some of their names reflect that apocalyptic expectation: Return, Hope For, Redeemed, The-Lord-is-Near, and Wayte-a-While. Most of the Puritan emigrants to New England believed that the civilization they’d build would be a New Jerusalem, and these faithful ones would be hastening the Second Coming with their passion for perfection in keeping Old Testament laws. That was the reasoning behind the marriage of civil and ecclesiastical (blend of state and church) law. It wasn’t enough to live the sanctified life oneself. Oh, no. They were part of a larger community, and the entire community must conform to the law, or God would withhold his blessings, leave them in the dust, and rain down curses. A familiar story in this decade, don’t you think?

Church members were encouraged to report those who didn’t conform, or those who spoke against authorities, which was considered sedition. Hate-Evil, Obedience, and Zeal-for-the-Lord might be appropriate names given by families who believed that. The charge of sedition (for signing a mild remonstrance against the governor and assistants) prompted punishment and exile for about 75 families, including William and Mary Dyer and Anne and William Hutchinson. They purchased Aquidneck Island (later Rhode Island) from the Narragansett Indians and founded Portsmouth in 1638 and Newport in 1639. Massachusetts Puritans scornfully referred to the new colony as the Isle of Error or Rogues Island.

Most of the awkward names faded away with the English Civil Wars, replaced by virtue names such as Purity, Patience, and Faith. The vast majority of names we find in colonial archives and genealogies are what we’d consider “normal” names: names we still use 400 years later.

More great anecdotes about mid-17th century England and New England, supported by research, can be found in the nonfiction book The DYERS of London, Boston, & Newport, by Christy K Robinson. It's the third in a series about Mary Dyer, Anne Hutchinson, Sir Henry Vane, Roger Williams, and John Winthrop.

Christy K Robinson is author of these books:
Mary Dyer Illuminated Vol. 1 (2013)  
Effigy Hunter (2015)  

And of these sites:  
Discovering Love  (inspiration and service)
Rooting for Ancestors  (history and genealogy)
William and Mary Barrett Dyer (17th century culture and history of England and New England)
Editornado [ed•i•tohr•NAY•doh] (Words. Communications. Book reviews. Cartoons.)


  1. Christy K Robinson: In my genealogy, I had virtue names of Constant, Comfort, and Desire; and an abundance of John, Mary, Robert, William, and Old Testament biblical names.

    Carolyn: Great, Christy~~some in here I hadn't seen before~

    Pam: Thankful Cocks...

    Donna: Thanks, Christy. Kind of puts "Apple" in perspective.

    Cheryl: Thank you!! A very interesting (and educational) post into that time period. I have Thankful Bourne and her grandmother Thankful Morey from my Puritan roots. I have also seen Wealthy, Remembrance and Mindwell. There were other unusual names at that time, reflecting current events - like "Seaborne" who was born while crossing the Atlantic.

    Heather: My favorite was Hate-evil Nutter... can't even make up a funnier name!

  2. Hilarious names, but I'm sure they took themselves very, very seriously... Kind of scary, that kind of fervor.

  3. What a fascinating list of names! I am finding some very interesting names in my genealogical research, like "Free Love" (very 1960's but it was 1807) and "Loruhamah" also of that time but Mahershallalhashbaz takes the cake for sure!


Reasonable, thoughtful comments are encouraged. Impolite comments will be moderated to the recycle bin. NO LINKS or EMAIL addresses: I can't edit them out of your comment, so your comment will not be published. This is for your protection, and to screen out spam and porn.