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Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism.

In this fast-paced age of e-mail and the fax, most scholars struggle just to keep up with their own fields, and feel constant pressure to follow (if not anticipate) the latest intellectual trends. Puritan specialists share these pressures, but face an additional challenge exemplified by the appearance of two new studies that speak directly to Perry Miller's 1933 classic, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts. Despite decades of revisionist work, Miller's massive writings still dominate American Puritan studies, adding their considerable weight to the burden of anyone who wishes to engage the most recent scholarship in the field. It is pointless to wonder whether more books on Puritanism are really necessary; historians have been obsessed with this subject for centuries, independent of Miller's influence. But we might well approach these latest revisions of Miller by asking, what more can be gained by continuing to frame the most innovative scholarship on Puritanism within Miller's paradigm?

By its title alone, Janice Knight's Orthodoxies in Massachusetts announces itself as a response to Miller, and on one level the title says it all. Where Miller described the New England Way as the product of a single mentality shared by "nonseparating Congregationalist" Puritans, Knight argues that these same orthodox founders were divided against each other. Miller's unitary New England Mind contained a variety of internal tensions. Knight locates these tensions in two distinct parties of ministers and their followers, and claims that their polemics constructed a system that included a dominant voice along with a subversive alternative; not one orthodoxy, but "twin orthodoxies."

Orthodoxies in Massachusetts traces the roots of this division to English clergymen who recruited their own networks of disciples. The primary mentors of Knight's two camps, William Ames and Richard Sibbes, emphasized different aspects of orthodox Calvinism. Ames and his followers (whom Knight calls "Amesians" or "Intellectual Fathers") focused on God's sovereignty. They often described God's covenant with humanity, as a bargain requiring individuals to prepare themselves to receive God's grace, and they viewed a person's godly behavior (or "good works") as potential evidence that salvation had been granted. The mystically inclined "Sibbesians," on the other hand, emphasized God's love and mercy rather than his power, and understood grace as God's free and unconditional gift. These "Spiritual Brethren" recognized conversion as "a new perception or sensibility, a new relish for divine things" (p. 21), and required no further assurance of salvation through good works.

Knight's argument relies heavily on close readings of the works of three leaders of each group: John Cotton, John Davenport, and John Norton among the New England Sibbesians; Thomas Hooker, Peter Bulkeley, and Thomas Shepard among the Amesians. The book begins with a retelling of the Antinomian controversy of the 1630s when these divisions rose to the surface, then presents a "speculative genealogy" of the personal allegiances that bound the two camps. Knight contrasts the two sides' opposing views of the nature of God and mankind, describes their distinct positions on the covenant of grace, and explains how these differences shaped their respective visions of the ideal church and state. A chapter on the Half-Way Covenant controversy of the 1660s stresses the enduring significance of these divisions, a theme reinforced by an epilogue that claims Jonathan Edwards for the Sibbesian camp.

The basic argument of Orthodoxies in Massachusetts is easily summarized, but no summary can capture the elusive quality of Knight's interpretations, which are grounded in brilliant explications of the most subtle rhetorical and theological nuances imaginable, distinctions so fine that John Winthrop himself could not always perceive them.(1) Knight reads Puritan prose with an ear poised to detect the faint undertones that distinguish the sermons of John Cotton from those of Thomas Shepard. She convinces the reader that these two authors are rhetorically worlds apart, and demonstrates the consistency of her literary demarcations across an impressive range of Puritan texts. This alone is a remarkable achievement.

But Knight wants to insist that "the early history of New England must be rewritten in terms of a continuing contest between these two orthodoxies" (p. 11). Here, Knight's argument encounters problems in projecting literary readings onto social history, difficulties that are registered in a certain uneasiness about making generalizations. Knight habitually backs away from the conclusions she seems most intent on making. Even on the central matter of defining her two camps, her position is equivocal. She admits that Thomas Shepard, one of the three mainstays of her "Amesian" party, "quite literally embodied in nearly equal measure the competing affections marking the two fellowships" (p. 56). John Norton's classification as "Sibbesian" is similarly problematic: "Like Shepard, Norton occupies an intermediate position between the two groups" (p. 124). An exception can sometimes prove a rule, but when the "rules" themselves are drawn from only a handful of examples, two exceptions are enough to cast doubt on the coherence of the groupings. Why does Knight force these ministers into categories that they seem to resist?

The reason seems to lie in Knight's obvious sympathy with the Sibbesian literary sensibility and in her desire to find social implications for it. If New England Puritanism was a monolithic structure, then all Puritans shared responsibility for its faults. By dividing the founders into two parties, Knight hopes to exonerate her Good Puritans of all the evils popularly associated with Puritanism, while insinuating that the Amesians were guilty of everything from cold, choleric temperaments to the origins of capitalism. But these accusations are only suggested, never asserted; Knight prefers to build slowly toward a conclusion without quite reaching it, leaving the reader to make the obvious leap. The following passage is characteristic:

Though Hooker and Bulkeley taught no covenant of works, their emphasis on conditional faith before justification and their anxiety about covenant-keeping afterward seem linguistically and philosophically compatible with the system of signs and rewards Weber identifies with emergent capitalism. (p. 104)

First the modest disclaimer, then the subtle implication of guilt. Knight's style emulates what she admires about her Sibbesians, their desire to have it both ways, to be both "in and out of the game" (p. 35). Without actually saying as much, she encourages the reader to think that the "Intellectual Fathers" crushed the utopian possibilities envisioned by the "Spiritual Brethren."

My point is not to defend a maligned party but to question whether Knight's argument sufficiently demonstrates that Amesian and Sibbesian "parties" existed at all. In this respect, Knight's account of the Half-Way Covenant controversy undermines her case. She excuses the deceitful tactics that John Davenport employed in the late 1660s to excommunicate thirty members of Boston's First Church who favored the Halfway Covenant; after all, Davenport's "sordid" means were used to fight the Sibbesian "good fight" (p. 191). But she neglects to mention that the Bostonians driven out by Davenport were loyal followers of John Norton, another leader of Knight's "Spiritual Brethren."(2) The coherence of the competing parties clearly breaks down here, because complicated literary interpretations have been forced into a binary structure too crude to accommodate them. Knight fails to make adequate distinctions among terms for varying degrees of influence and association ("literary traditions" or "shared sensibilities" are not the same as "parties" or "camps"). By using such terms interchangeably, the larger argument does a disservice both to the sophistication of Knight's readings and to the Puritans whom she interprets. Ministers "ambidextrous" enough to produce these multivocal texts were also flexible enough to modulate their emphases and alter allegiances as circumstances dictated. The instability of Knight's literary categories when applied to the social realm suggests that it would be a mistake to rewrite the early history of New England as a battle between orthodox alternatives. By simply splitting Miller's orthodoxy into warring camps and then recasting his familiar narrative as a contest between the two, Knight's work remains trapped within the constraints of Miller's formulation without improving upon its explanatory power. To accommodate the rhetorical nuances that Orthodoxies in Massachusetts uncovers, a social history more complicated than either Miller's crumbling orthodox monolith or Knight's polarizing revision would have to be invented.

No one could be better prepared to supply a social framework for Knight's insights than Francis Bremer, whose Congregational Communion is based on extensive research into Puritan networks of clerical friendship. Bremer's work occasionally lends support to Knight's argument, noting chains of association from Sibbes to Cotton to Preston and from Perkins to Ames to Hooker, but Bremer also demonstrates the intricacy and flexibility of these connections. John Preston named not only Sibbes and Cotton but also Hooker and Bulkeley as beneficiaries in his will. John Wilson, an arch-Amesian in Knight's book, looked forward on his deathbed to heavenly reunion "with my old friends Dr. Preston, Dr. Sib[be]s, . . . Dr. Ames, Mr. Cotton, Mr. Norton" (p. 62). If Knight's two parties were as combative as she suggests, it seems unlikely that they would enjoy the prospect of spending eternity together.

Like Knight, Bremer is interested in describing how shared religious experiences created lasting friendships and encouraged the development of commonly held ideas on theology and church polity. But where Knight tries to differentiate among Puritan Congregationalists, Bremer demonstrates how members of the "congregational communion" as a whole distinguished themselves from the larger Puritan spectrum.(3) According to Bremer, the close relationships engendered by godly fellowship led Puritans of the congregational persuasion to trust individual churches with greater authority than the more conservative Presbyterians could tolerate, and yet also to demand greater cooperation and unity among churches than radical separatists would accept.

Perry Miller located this "moderate Puritan" group's origins in abstract theoretical writings by English clergymen that were later implemented in America's "wilderness laboratory." Bremer revises Miller by describing the movement's beginnings among friends pushing to advance their own cause within English religious politics. In addition, the thrust of Miller's narrative was always from English origins to American developments, but Bremer's work is transatlantic in both directions. Congregational Communion begins by describing the formation of Puritan friendship networks in English universities, particularly at Cambridge, which was more hospitable to Puritans than Oxford. A second chapter explains how the Puritan subculture "shielded its members from the sense of isolation many of them would face" in the real world after college (p. 41).(4) Ministers within the congregational communion developed informal correspondence networks, arranged joint publication of each other's sermons, and cultivated patrons to protect them from hostile government and ecclesiastical authorities. The book then turns to a chronological narrative of the congregational communion's efforts to mold both church and state. Bremer gracefully balances between English and American Puritanism as he traces the movement's course from persecuted and exiled minority through its emergence as the dominant voice in Cromwell's regime and back to outcast status after the Restoration of Charles II.

Unlike Knight's account, where lines of friendship define the boundaries of ongoing conflict, Bremer argues that ligaments of affection among individuals counteracted the potential for division inherent in Puritan ideas. He advances the notion of the congregational communion as a negotiated "middle way" in which, according to one minister, "variety of opinions and unity in opinion are not incompatible" (p. 168). As circumstances changed, the congregational brethren shifted their position, moving at one moment closer to radical ideas of "liberty," later toward Presbyterian "order," but always committed to moderation and balance within the Puritan spectrum.

Congregational Communion is a model of synthetic scholarship built upon original research. It compiles a story told in its many parts by scholars of English and American Puritanism, but never brought together before as a whole. Bremer's research on the transatlantic friendship network provides the means for restoring a historical fabric torn apart by the subsequent historiography of two separate nations. As a revision of Miller, Bremer's major contribution is to imagine the Puritan movement as an ongoing conversation among individuals rather than the historical implementation of a set of abstractions. This focus on friendship networks rather than theoretical constructs as the source of the New England Way has the additional (if unintended) consequence of undermining the majesty of Miller's account - visionary intellectuals are recast as an old-boy network bent on protecting its own interests. By tracking this network's activities closely, Bremer also keeps the story centered in England, making New England one of several interesting side-shows rather than Miller's utopian "errand" gone astray. In this light, New England's declining influence on English events seems more pathetic than tragic, since colonial influence was never great to begin with.

Despite the disagreements between Bremer's evidence and Knight's arguments, their revisions of Miller have similar effects. Knight also takes Miller's American exceptionalism to task, and her account makes Miller's august founders seem like petty bickerers, unwilling to set aside the slightest disagreements. These are valuable correctives, since Miller's worship of the first generation and his claims for New England's errand have inspired some dmstorted history and pernicious mythology about American destiny. (The penchant among politicians and newspaper columnists for abusing John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" quotation leaves Miller with a lot to answer for.) The limitations of Knight's otherwise brilliant study suggest that the value of further nuances discovered through the intellectual approach Miller pioneered may actually be obscured when placed within Miller's historical paradigm. By cutting New England's founders down to size, both Knight and Bremer erode the mythic scope which has given Miller's sweeping narrative the power to fend off or subsume revisionist nitpicking. By refusing to make the congregational movement into an American story, Bremer begins to outline possibilities for new ways of imagining Puritanism. Only when historians step outside Miller's framework and create alternative yet equally powerful story lines for the Puritan movement will we finally enter a new scholarly era. Knight's struggle against the constraints of Orthodoxy in Massachusetts and Bremer's insistence on a truly transatlantic narrative may be signs that the time is at hand.

1. Winthrop claimed that these doctrinal points were so abstruse that "no man could tell (except some few, who knew the bottom of the matter) where any difference was"; The History of New England from 1630 to 1649, ed. James Savage (1853; reprint, 1972), p. 213.

2. John Norton had introduced the Halfway Covenant to the Boston church in the 1650s, and the Boston members who opposed Davenport built their own meetinghouse on land donated by Norton's widow, who became one of the first women to join the new church; see Hamilton Andrews Hill, History of the Old South Church, 2 vols. (1890), 1:13-202.

3. Bremer uses the lower-case "congregationalism" to distinguish the group of Puritans he is discussing, essentially Miller's orthodoxy, from the denominational history of Congregationalism, which arose in the aftermath of the Puritan movement.

4. Unlike Miller and his contemporaries, Samuel Eliot Morison and Kenneth Murdock, who were fascinated by the university's curriculum and its underlying philosophy, Bremer and Knight view the university as a social experience, a place where friendships and antagonisms were formed. Their works can be read as commentaries on life in the postmodern academy; Knight's battling Puritans reflect the canon and culture wars that plague English departments, while Bremer's embattled clerical brotherhood resembles historians struggling to persist through hard times and fears of public indifference.

Mark A. Peterson, Department of History, Boston University, is the author of "The Plymouth Church and the Evolution of Puritan Religious Culture," New England Quarterly 66 (Dec. 1993): 570-93, and is completing a study of the relationship between social and economic development and the spread of Puritan culture from the Halfway Covenant to the Great Awakening.
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Author:Peterson, Mark A.
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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