The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

II. The Historians, 1607–1783

§ 8. Edward Johnson

Like the early Virginia historians, Bradford and Winthrop were English-bred. Their culture was English and it was superior to that which the succeeding generation, born in America, could be expected to have. Two historians, however, Captain Edward Johnson and Nathaniel Morton, stand between them and the historians who are of purely American birth and training. Both were born in England, but they arrived in Massachusetts at such an early age that they were colony-trained to all intents and purposes.

Johnson was a man of strong natural traits, self-made, and representing the middle class in colonial society. He was a ship-wright by trade, and showed ability in leadership. He was the chief founder of the town of Woburn and its representative in the General Court. He gave loyal allegiance to the ministers, and was dazzled by their piety and learning. Puritanism offered him complete satisfaction, and he willingly accepted its dogmas. “You are not set up for tolerating times!” he exclaimed in the face of certain signs that the hold of the system was weakening. To preserve the influence of the early doctrines he wrote Wonder-Working Providences of Zion’s Saviour in New England, published in 1654. We read it today to learn to what degrees of credulity the early New Englanders went in their acceptance of the power of the supernatural over human affairs. To the author and his contemporaries the book was plain history, a record of the actualities of life. The chief merit of the Providences for those who rightly value a human document is that it is a picture of early Puritan life as seen by an average man. Winthrop and Bradford lived at the centre of things. The problems of governors and assemblies concerned them. Johnson was interested in the planting of churches, the life of the towns, and the affairs of ordinary people, and it has been well said that while he “shows little precision in anything but his creed; yet his book is one of the most curious that an inquirer into the manners and institutions of our fathers can peruse.”