What makes a name a Puritan name?

One of the projects we hope to resurrect this summer with the help of our research interns is a paper on Protestant vs. Puritan names. One of our interns, Adelia, is currently collecting relevant literature, and I’m making an effort to prioritise reading through the fascinating looking articles she’s finding. What better way to do that than to write up commentaries on them as I do so?

Today’s article is

Daniel Kilham Dodge, “Puritan Names”, New England Quarterly 1, no. 4 (1928): 467-475, http://www.jstor.org/stable/359527.

Dodge kicks things off by summarising popular suppositions about Puritan names:

  • They are “now regarded as old-fashioned” (p. 467).
  • “Most of them come from the Old Testament, especially from the minor prophets” (p. 467).
  • “The New Testament is almost as carefully avoided as mine pie at Christmas” (p. 467).

But his purpose in this article is to question this popular opinion:

But what if our modern historians and writers of fiction were wrong in their assumption that, in the naming of their children, the Puritans were a people by themselves and that they were as old-fashioned in their names as in their dress? (p. 467).

Dodge adopts two principles for collecting evidence to demonstrate that this assumption is wrong: that the data be both representative and sufficiently large. A list of a hundred names is not large enough to draw any conclusions from, while a much larger list of names of clergy men will not be representative. With these principles in mind, Dodge draws his data from “copies of official records extending from the earliest entries of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1628 throughout the seventeenth century and including various church and town lists and the graduates of Harvard College from 1641 to 1700” (p. 468). With this, Dodge places himself in the century after the terminus of our interest; given the significant cultural differences in England (and English colonies) between the 16th and 17th century, we must be chary of taking for the 16th century any of his conclusions concerning the 17th century.

The data that Dodge collected he divides into four categories (p. 469):

  1. Old Testament names
  2. New Testament names
  3. Non-descriptive profane names
  4. Descriptive names (including such names as Deliverance, Hopestill, Satisfaction, and Tremble)

When he considers names in his data that occur 10 or more times, there is a slight preference for Old Testament names (18 vs. 11 or 12, depending on where Joseph is categorised); the numbers shift somewhat when the individual occurrences, as opposed to the distinct names, are counted: 2062 occurrences of New Testament names vs. 1193 occurrences of Old Testament names (p. 469).

The cause of this strange reversal, is, however, not unexpected: It is due to the popularity of the given name John (around 20% of all instances), which was not unique to the Puritans and whose historic popularity even shifting priorities and practices could not shift it from the Puritan naming pool. As Dodge puts it:

the given name John, most popular of names among the Puritans, was not a Puritan name at all (p. 471).

Dodge’s feminine data shows the trends he wants to highlight somewhat stronger than the masculine data, as “the proportion of Biblical names is larger and the Old Testament is more generously represented”, though the smaller numbers overall mean that of names occurring ten times or more, “five are from the Old Testament and four from the New Testament” (p. 472). The clearest demonstration of the trends, though, is the fact that the most popular “profane” (by which Dodge merely means “neither Biblical nor descriptive”) feminine name, Margaret, is only the 10th most popular feminine name (p. 472), compared to the most popular profane masculine name, William, which was the third most popular masculine name (p. 471). From this, Dodge concludes:

early New Englanders, and possibly other Englishmen as well, depended upon the Bible to a greater extent in naming their daughters than their sons (p. 472).

Of the descriptive names, Dodge argues that they were never common and that their status as the “supposedly typical Puritan names” (p. 473) is due to psychological rather than ontological reasons: It is a fact of human consciousness that we tend to fixate upon the unusual and atypical and give it more prominence than it necessarily desires. As he says, “we are all given to generalizing from insufficient data” (p. 473), and when we look at actual numbers and statistics, it is clear that “In the majority of cases Puritans, like Anglicans, chose names not as Puritans but as Englishmen” (p. 473). More controversially, he argues that

Faintnot and Hopefor, Faith and Prudence are quaint, but they are evidently not so typical Puritan names as John and William, Mary and Elizabeth (p. 474).

But while it may be true that these names were all more common amongst Puritans than the descriptive names or names of obscure Old Testament characters, one must be careful what question one is asking when considering the question of whether there is a uniquely or distinctively Puritan pool of names. For it could be either of the following:

  1. What is the probability that a person is a Puritan, given the name they bear?
  2. What is the probability that a person bears a Puritan name, given that they are Puritan?

It may be that the answer to the former question is “rather low” while the latter question might be “quite high” — there could be names which are distinctively Puritan not in the sense that many Puritans were named this name, but in the sense that no non-Puritans were. It is these latter class of names that are apt to give us a pool which is uniquely or characteristically Puritan.

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