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Dissenting Bodies: Corporealities in Early New England.

Dissenting Bodies: Corporealities in Early New England. By Martha L. Finch. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. xiv + 274 pp. $45.00 cloth.

John Demos, Edmund Morgan, David Hall, Anne Lombard, and Richard Gildrie are among those who have examined the religious underpinnings of everyday life in colonial New England. We can now add Martha Finch to this list of scholars bringing fresh perspectives to otherwise familiar themes in our nation's history. Focusing specifically on the Plymouth Colony, Finch explores both how Puritan theology shaped understandings of bodily existence and how bodies physically endured the stark realities of seventeenth-century life.

Finch's narrative begins with the moralistic exhortations of John Robinson, pastor of the English Separatist congregation preparing to journey across the Atlantic where they hoped to establish a community predicated on conformity to God's divine will. Robinson's highly ascetic, Calvinist view of the world put a premium on constraining prideful hearts. He envisioned a very particular kind of sociocultural environment capable of eradicating selfish tendencies. It was clear to Robinson that outer appearances mirror the inner self. Because the body was the external measure of inner virtue, it required specific kinds of discipline. For this reason Robinson and others generated an explicit set of rules for monitoring outer comportment A person's dress, manners, diet, sexuality, and outward piety all indicated the degree of commitment to a hierarchically stratified society and were therefore principal arenas for the contestation of cultural power. Those who settled in the Plymouth Colony thus brought with them a "theology of the body" that alerted them to correspondences between bodily comportment and saintly piety.

Colonists' bodies--how they were disciplined, how they were clothed, how they gestured during religious rituals, how Indians and English viewed one another's behaviors or expressions--are themselves texts that explain both the ideals and realities of Plymouth religious and social life. Finch draws upon a variety of sources such as letters, diaries, court records, travel narratives, and early histories to examine the success with which theological systems succeeded or failed in patterning colonial life. She provides vivid descriptions of how colonists' bodies endured brutal physical experiences as starvation, illness, or corporeal punishment even as they came together to sing, pray, preach, and be baptized. The body, both as material agent and metaphorical symbol, provides a rich perspective on how successfully the colonists were able to subjugate individuality for the purpose of erecting a godly society. The historical record is complex and Finch's interpretations are judicious and nuanced.

Finch's narrative is at its best when she strays from the somewhat warn constructivist argument that religious beliefs shape our views of the body and instead hints that the reverse can also be the case. Finch implicitly recognizes that our bodies are often the source of our religious beliefs. Our adaptive capacities originate, after all, not in cultural rhetoric but rather in the body itself. Humans apprehend their immediate surroundings through the physical senses and orient themselves through basic body postures: up and down, front and back, approaching or avoiding. Unfortunately, Finch never pursues these observations nor incorporates relevant insights from the natural sciences. Yet her study invites innovative hypotheses concerning the bodily origins of social and religious changes. She notes, for example, that those who most contributed to bodily survival (for example, Thomas Morton or Myles Standish) were often those whose physical vigor was more outwardly visible than their inner piety. And, too, she emphasizes that the wilderness environment was far less fraught with demonic peril than the pious initially feared. The colonists' bodies evidenced more physical health, grew taller, and lived longer than they had in Europe. Bodily vigor and personal initiative proved more adaptive over time than moral restraint and enforced conformity. Human bodies adjust their valuations of experience to maximize adaptive fitness. There is thus evidence to suggest that the body and its adaptive modalities eventually exerted corresponding changes in both social and theological polity.

Dissenting Bodies is a thoughtful look at the sights, smells, sounds, movements, and physical habitat that together filled the lives of the English Separatists who settled in New England. It also reminds us of the persisting tendency of humans to liken the social body to the physical body and to seek control over the former by disciplining the latter. A fine contribution to a corporeal history of American religion.

doi: 10.1017/S0009640710000843

Robert C. Fuller

Bradley University
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Author:Fuller, Robert C.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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