Be Thankful, Stand Fast, and other Puritan names

Puritans frequently bestowed “grace names” as a way of encouraging children to strive for moral goodness.

In September of 1620, the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers, including Remember Allerton, Wrestling Brewster, Humility Cooper, and Resolved White. The Puritans on board wanted to start a new life away from what they saw as the corruption of wider English society, and one of the ways they signaled this desire for separation was through a distinctive “onomastics,” the practice (or study) of naming.

For Puritans, a first name had to do much more than suit your last name. As one minister put it, “a good name is as a thread tied about the finger, to make us mindful of the errand we came into the world to do for our master.” A name, in other words, should remind its bearer of his or her duties to God, or of blessings received from him.

These “good names” tended to fall into three categories. Biblical names were popular, and some Puritan favorites, like Sarah, Elizabeth, Thomas, and John, are still common today. Puritans also frequently bestowed “grace names” as a way of encouraging children to strive for moral goodness. The most common of these were Faith, Hope, and Charity, the three theological virtues. While today Faith and Hope are among the 300 most popular girls names, Puritans used them for boys as well – these virtues were too important to limit to children of just one sex. In fact, most grace names were fairly gender-neutral: Perseverance, Abstinence, Prudence, Temperance, Repentance, Humility. All were desirable qualities for both sexes, and so could be names for boys and girls. Obedience, Silence, and Tace (Latin for “Be quiet!”) were reserved for daughters, however.

The most famous Puritan names are the “hortatory” ones, which urged children even more strongly to “Fight the Good Fight of Faith,” as one man in Sussex, England, knew intimately, since that was his name. Around 1650, Fight seems to have served on a jury with his neighbors Kill Sin Pimple, More Fruit Fowler, Stand-Fast-on-High Stringer, and Be Faithful Joiner, and parishes in the area record multiple Hate-Evils, Fear-Nots, and Sin-Denys. Praise-God Barebone, a lay preacher who became a member of Oliver Cromwell’s last Parliament in 1653, named his son If-Jesus-Christ-Had-Not-Died-for-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned. He went by Nicholas.

The Pilgrims who came to North America shied away from the most extreme hortatory names, which were found in communities that remained in Sussex.

Perhaps they felt that having crossed an ocean to separate themselves physically from English society, it was less important to mark that distance onomastically. But they still left us many Wrestlings, Resolveds, and Be Thankfuls to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

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