Most family historians would be thrilled to have an ancestor figure prominently in a bestseller like Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. But not Judith Church Tydings, whose letter to the editor of the Washington Post appears in today's paper.
As a descendant of militia captain Benjamin Church, one of the two main historical figures in the book, I wish to stress the unreliability of my ancestor's account of King Philip's War, upon which Mr. Philbrick relied heavily. [Link]Tydings points to Harvard historian Jill Lepore's critical review of the book in the New Yorker of April 24th, in which Lepore faults Philbrick for giving too much credence to Church's memories of the war, written down by his doting son forty years later. "This as-told-to, after-the-fact memoir is the single most unreliable account of one of the most well-documented wars of the Colonial period," she says, and it casts the elder Church in a light usually reserved for comic-book heroes.
“Entertaining Passages” paints Church not only as the hero of every battle he fought but as the Puritans’ voice of reason and restraint, as the man of conscience who attempts, in vain, to halt every atrocity: when his Mohegan allies want to torment a captured Nipmuck with fire and knives, Church “interceded and prevailed for his escaping torture”; in the Great Swamp Fight, Church, badly injured, valiantly hobbles to his commanding officer and begs him to stop the attack, only to be rebuffed. [Link]I should note that, at the time of these events, my own ancestor, Samuel Dunham, was at home working on the drinking habit that in 1681 would get him excommunicated from the First Church of Plymouth. I have not read Philbrick's book, but assume that Samuel's name is not in the index.