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Female Piety in Puritan New England: The Emergence of Religious Humanism.

Amanda Porterfield's new book provides a culturally-based interpretation of gender status in Puritan New England. Sermons and prescriptive literature on family behavior furnish the principal sources, but the author also makes use of a few studies in social history to sketch in the environmental context for each of three phases of development she discerns in seventeenth-century New England religious ideology.

Female Piety consists of a series of brief essays organized into thematic chapters which focus on female imagery in New England Puritanism. These are laced together by her three-part scheme characterizing the history of Puritanism in Massachusetts-Bay: establishment, development, and decline, paralleling the chronological sequence of settlement, growth, and crisis. Chapter one explores erotic themes in Puritan theology which serves to introduce to readers her notion of a "female" cast to Puritan piety which enabled men to chain and master their corrupt impulses, while providing women with a means for achieving moral authority through suffering. Fear of God's wrath drove men to seek relief in feminine submission to His will, but for women, suffering itself brought redemption, shifting their own search for salvation to this-worldly relationships.

Porterfield then develops this rather abstruse argument more concretely in Chapter Two through close study of episodes in the careers of three famous early New England ministers: Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, and John Cotton. She follows these profiles with two on women exemplars in Chapter Three: trouble-maker Anne Hutchinson, as a "radical exponent" of female piety, and establishment poet Anne Bradstreet as religious humanist.

Chapter four turns away from the analysis of individuals to describe the rise and fall in Massachusetts-Bay of female piety as religious symbolism for appropriate behavior. Here Porterfield describes female fasting from the medieval period forward to the seventeenth century as an introduction to a fascinating piece of detective work on the hidden meaning of the Lord's Supper in New England and its intersections with domestic life. This leads us to Porterfield's central image of "Eucharistic" female suffering as an image of New England's moral strength. She shows how Mary Rowlandson deliberately associated her personal sufferings as Indian captive with those of ancient Israel, just as ministers represented the trouble besetting their churches and society as God's testing of his chosen people.

This image eroded as New England's economy commercialized, Porterfield argues, and the Salem witchcraft hysteria witnessed its overthrow. Borrowing the interpretation of that event by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, she says, "The trials represent a crisis point in the modernization of New England."(1) Although it was the social cohesion of New England culture which "made possible the economic success of the merchant class," that success then polarized society, undermining its cohesion. In addition, urban life tended to soften suffering and piety among affluent women for whom the image no longer fit.

Along with Edmund Morgan, Porterfield assumes that the Puritan family departed from English norms and raised women's status, although both also acknowledge that men continued to regard women as morally inferior and subject to husbandly governance.(2) Porterfield, however, deliberately links women's ability to use their condition as moral leverage within the marriage bond to their men's fear of God's wrath. Although she does not say so, this may be the missing ingredient in contemporary Catholic societies whose women could evoke the more direct and poignant example of Jesus' sorrowing mother, Mary.

One should note that social historians remain unconvinced that New England families did, in fact, depart from English cultural norms. Moreover, Porterfield and Morgan both assume that New England became different from old England because Puritanism could work out is implications there more or less unfettered or unobstructed. However the Puritan settlers could not simply impose themselves on an alien environment. They had to adapt to survive, yet Porterfield's rhetorical strategy provides no way of distinguishing among ideas "working themselves out" and those responding to new challenges. Wouldn't those that got in the way of that adaptation be jettisoned or re-defined in order to "sanctify" new kinds of behavior?

Porterfield never really tries to relate behavior to religious ideas, merely asserting that social cohesion among Puritans aided their economic success. Thus, despite the provocative ideas contained in this very original work, we still don't know how, or indeed whether, Puritanism reshaped gender relations.


1. Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge, Mass., 1974).

2. Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England (Boston, 1944; reprinted New York, 1966).
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Author:Main, Gloria L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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