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Early New England: A Covenanted Society.

Early New England: A Covenanted Society. By David A. Weir. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005. Pp. xviii, 460. $34.00.)

This book is an encyclopedic study of covenants, both civil and religious, in New England from 1620 to 1708. Excluding the notes and index, it contains 102 pages of back matter that will be essential for anyone writing on colonial-era covenants. The back matter includes a list of political and religious establishments that generated covenants, a typology of New England's civil covenants, and a bibliographic essay on sources. Appropriately, David A. Weir finds covenants and covenantal thinking suffused throughout the life of early New England. His argument is that both the covenants themselves and the style of thought reflected in them were part of a move into modernity in a way quite different from that presented in one of Perry Miller's classics, The New England Mind. Miller saw covenants developing into contracts in the seventeenth century, and because contracts (documents assuming a more or less equal relationship between parties) differed from covenants (documents assuming, in a biblical mode, one omnipotent party over the human participants) then New Englanders were becoming more modern.

Weir's views are more complex. Early seventeenth-century church covenants adhered to an English Puritan model of the formation of a congregation, whereas civil covenants were experimental. Life changed profoundly for New Englanders after 1660. The Restoration and the Glorious Revolution affected covenants in that religious ones came to assume a diversity of Christian doctrine in New England whereas civil ones came to reflect the encroachment of imperial power and standards--both processes that would continue up to the War of Independence. Weir emphasizes religious diversity more than he does constitutional government, but both are essential to modernity. Yet the church covenants after the Restoration remained biblical in nature: God was still omnipotent, and human beings did not enter into contracts with Him. Indeed, Weir's approach to Miller is the same as that of some of the great historian's earliest critics, who argued that he overstated the modernity of his subjects.

One subtlety of the arguments deserves examination. Weir seems to consider it a weakness in The New England Mind that seventeenth-century covenants rarely developed covenantal or federal theology. Defining a religious worldview characterized by federal theology, Miller saw the universe in a grain of sand in the covenants New Englanders wrote. This made sense because in federal theology, the first major covenant, that of "Works," had been made by God with Adam at the creation of the human race, whereas the second major covenant, that of "Grace," had been made with humankind through Jesus at the advent of the Christian era. Any document titled a covenant would seem inevitably to share some elements with those two overarching ones. The covenants themselves, however, were often brief and spare. The obvious answers are that New Englanders articulated federal theology in sermons, not church or civil covenants, and that their biblical predecessors had been relatively short. The action in the Bible is in the human and divine responses to men's and women's difficulties in adhering to the covenant that God has offered.

Despite this slippage between Miller's and Weir's arguments, Early New England makes an intelligent and persuasive point about the brevity of the colonial-era political covenants. "The lack of a developed theology and christology in the civil covenants," Weir writes, "later ultimately paved the way for a more secularized New England. This transformation was legally articulated by the Rhode Island Colony, which disestablished both the church and what has been traditionally termed 'religion' in its civil covenant" (239). This is surely correct. Seventeenth-century covenants, kept alive by commemorations, rededications, and local and congregational histories, became a resource for New Englanders as they grappled with issues of church and state.

John Saillant

Western Michigan University
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Author:Saillant, John
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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