Early New England: A Covenanted Society.
In 1935 Perry Miller identified the covenant idea as "the marrow of Puritan divinity" in his now famous essay by the same name ("The Marrow of Puritan Divinity," in Errand Into the Wilderness [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956], 48-98). Several years later, in the first volume of The New England Mind, he described in greater detail how a series of interlocking covenants unified theology and society in Puritan New England (The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939], 365-491). Since this time, the covenant idea has become a permanent element of American Puritan studies, spawning a vast literature that first amplified and then criticized Miller's analysis. Early New England: A Covenanted Society is a welcome addition to this literature. Although admitting, as has become common, that Miller's work was "deeply flawed," David A. Weir identifies as one of the central aims of his study to explore how "the covenants, both church and civil, relate to the account of Puritan covenant theology articulated most famously by Perry Miller" (148, 2). Weir never directly answers this question, but through painstaking analysis of a wide variety of covenant texts he addresses a number of other interesting issues.
Early New England: A Covenanted Society is the second volume in what Weir projects to "be a series on the importance of the theme of covenant in early modern European and colonial American history" (The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990], vii). It has, however, a very different focus and aim from his first book, which analyzed the foundational role of the covenant of works in early modern Reformed theology. The difference lies primarily not in Weir's movement from the European to the colonial American covenant tradition but in a methodological shift, from theological to textual analysis. In researching Early New England: A Covenanted Society, Weir "systematically examined the formation of every civil and religious institution founded in New England before 1708 for which evidence is extant," and "developed an unpublished collection of copies of the surviving covenant documents--both civil and ecclesiastical--of seventeenth-century New England" (3). This collection of covenant texts, which Weir helpfully catalogues in an extensive appendix, comprises the documentary foundation of the book. Instead of analyzing the theological treatises of Puritan divines, the dominant approach to covenant studies since Miller, Weir takes the covenant texts themselves as a lens through which to view the interrelation between religion and civil society in Puritan New England.
The book first considers the various types of civil covenant, which Weir defines as "a document that legally established a civil government at either the local or colonial level" (26). This section discusses both the charters and patents that established the New England plantations and colonies and the local combinations that defined the powers and responsibilities of colonial and town governments. The second section of the book considers church covenants, which were documents signed by the foundational members of a newly gathered congregation, although it also includes a chapter on confessions of faith typically written after the foundational process. Weir's analysis of these texts focuses on the issue of change over time. His central thesis "is that the content of the early New England church and civil covenants reflected a counterpoint of unity and diversity over the seventeenth century" (3-4). After the Restoration, as civil covenants became more uniform in content and style, church covenants, which initially followed a "covenant formula," became more diverse. As part of the increasing Anglicization of New England society in this period, the Crown exercised more control over colonial governments, resulting in more standardized civil covenants and more tolerant religious establishments.
In his analysis of these covenant documents Weir also addresses "the question of the relationship between church, state, religion, God, and Jesus Christ" (26). Weir's exploration of this question displays the central weakness of the book: the sacrifice of in-depth historical analysis for broad coverage of the variety of covenant texts. For example, Weir observes that the Massachusetts Bay charter, like most colonial charters, failed to explicitly establish the Church of England in the colony. The Crown lawyers who drafted this document, Weir asserts, "were working within an established legal tradition of royal charters issued by the Crown to various boroughs and corporations in England" and "knew that too much attention to religion would bring trouble" (41). He does not, however, support this claim with an analysis of common law precedents. Furthermore, repeated efforts during the 1630s to recall the charter after John Winthrop took the Massachusetts Bay religious establishment in unforeseen directions, which Weir also does not discuss, suggest that the Crown did not intend the charter to be as silent on the matter of religion as Weir indicates. This recall debate would also have helped Weir explain why the royal charter granted by Charles I to Sir Ferdinando Gorges for the province of Maine, unlike other charter documents, expressed "a vision for New England that is explicitly European, English, and Anglican" (48). Gorges, who had been intimately involved in developing a case for the recall of the Massachusetts Bay charter, had perhaps learned from experience the necessity of including more explicit language about religious establishment in charter texts.
Weir's thin contextualization of texts also affects his analysis of church covenants. For example, he interestingly observes that "the practice of restricting the foundation members [of newly gathered churches] to only seven males" developed after 1636 and began to break down at the end of the century, but he does not discuss the factors that may have contributed to these changes (152, 231-32). And he also claims to detect a "drift towards the Arminian doctrine that human beings could initiate the process of salvation" in the confessional statements written by churches in Killingworth, Connecticut, and Marblehead, Massachusetts (213). This too is an interesting observation, since historians generally date the advent of Arminianism in New England to the eighteenth century. But in the absence of additional evidence of Arminian sympathies in these two congregations the significance of a word or phrase in their confessional texts cannot be fully assessed.
Weir's primary aim in Early New England: A Covenanted Society is, however, to catalogue and survey the vast number of both civil and church covenants generated in seventeenth-century New England. In completing this task and by compiling the fifty-page bibliographical essay included in the volume, which supplements his previous volume s equally extensive bibliography, Weir has made a significant and unprecedented contribution to the literature on the Reformed covenant tradition. As the next volume in his covenant series, Weir should publish the texts of the covenants he has labored so hard to locate. With these texts readily available, other historians could continue the interpretive project that Weir has so admirably begun.
Wright State University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2006|
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