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Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England.

Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England. By Abram Van Engen. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 318. $74.00.)

In the struggle to achieve "sympathy," argues the author of this study, readers will find the interpretive key to the most basic messages of early New England literature. "Calvinist" because it derived from the biblical exegesis of John Calvin, sympathy was a set of "mutual and reciprocal affections" that united godly hearts to one another and marked the boundary between saints and the nonregenerate (4).

At the heart of this book, then, the reader finds one prominent text after another illumined through the lens of "sympathy." Abram Van Engen moves through, most notably, John Winthrop's Model of Christian Charity, the material collected by David Hall in The Antinomian Controversy 1636-1638: A Documentary History, Anne Bradstreet's "Dialogue between Old England and New," William Hooke's New Englands Teares for Old England's Feares, the "Eliot Tracts" produced to support Native American missions, Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, and the records of the Salem witch trials.

To take what seemed to this reviewer Van Engen's most significant discussion, he explains in his treatment of the texts of the "Antinomian" controversy that for most ministers, the presence of sympathy toward other saints would be a demonstrable sign of one's elect status. It was John Cotton's refusal to agree and his insistence that only a "semimystical superadded testimony of the Holy Spirit" could provide assurance of salvation that sparked the controversy (64). Far from a conflict between discipline and feeling, the controversy was actually a dispute about what constituted authentic religious experience (75). In a metaphor that will likely entrench itself in future scholarly debate, Van Engen pits those who imagined the quest for personal assurance of salvation as "a hurdles race"--in which "a Christian could look back over all the bars already leapt and accumulate comfort in an ever-increasing sanctification"--against those, like Cotton, who imagined it as a "pole vault" in which semimystical testimony would propel one once and for all over the bar (83).

Though its graceful and accessible style would make it an ideal supplementary text for an undergraduate course in colonial American literature, Van Engen clearly wants to bring scholars, and particularly scholars of literature, around to his point of view. So he argues repeatedly, with such scholars in mind, that "the process of stirring up sympathy ... could lead Puritans to literary strategies that look in many ways like precursors of sentimentalism" (143). Students of history will be more inclined to see the texts he analyzes as documents providing evidence for seventeenth-century events, but they too have much to learn from Van Engen's insightful interpretations.

There are some minor quibbles: Published sermons were not only the primary literary genre of seventeenth-century New England but also the primary means to induce sympathy; Van Engen could have examined more of them. Too, some attention to John Davenport's New Haven and Thomas Hooker's Hartford would have allowed "New England" to mean more than the Massachusetts Bay. Notwithstanding, students and scholars alike will now want to grant "sympathy" a prominent place in their interpretive toolbox.

Baird Tipson

Gettysburg College
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Author:Tipson, Baird
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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