SARAH RIVETT. The Science of the Soul in Colonial New
England. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, for the Omohundro Institute of Early American
History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va. 2011. Pp. x, 364. $45.00.
Puritanism and early modern science were profoundly linked, Sarah Rivett argues in this innovative study, by their shared quest to gain forbidden knowledge. Puritan ministers who carefully collected, transcribed, preserved, and interpreted conversion narratives were gathering evidence to document God’s actions on human souls, a project they shared with natural philosophers. Engaged in a transatlantic conversation centered on efforts to recover from the worst consequences of the Fall, scientists and theologians were by turns optimistic and doubtful about the potential of finding secret knowledge. Rather than regarding science and religion as locked in conflict, Rivett sees them as part of a broader exchange of ideas lasting from the early seventeenth century through the middle of the eighteenth century. Rejecting any simple causative account of the contribution of Protestant religion and the scientific revolution to modernity, Rivett emphasizes how both traditions negotiated the turbulent boundary between certitude and doubt.
Rivett deftly demonstrates the correspondence and connection between theologians’ methods of collecting evidence of God’s invisible commerce with individual souls and natural philosophers’ efforts to uncover truths from the unseen world. Anne Hutchinson violated Puritan norms in the 1630s by evincing absolute assurance in her revelation—a degree of assurance,
Rivett insightfully points out, that was on par with the certainty Rene´ Descartes expressed in his “I think, therefore I am” formulation, published in the same year as Hutchinson’s trial. In the wake of the Restoration, however, ministers sought out the testimony of marginalized people—Indians, women, and people on the brink of death—because their accounts were considered more authentic than those of elite men, who had been tutored in theological writings and might pattern accounts of their conversions on known sources, thereby allowing hypocrisy to creep into the discourse.
Because the sociopolitical environment in Massachusetts had changed after 1660, such that visible sainthood lost its implied link to political agency, it was safe to inquire into the secret or lost knowledge women and
Indians were thought to possess. These testifiers were not being called upon to assert the primacy of their own spiritual experiences, but rather to reveal their innermost traffic with the world of spirit to an expert. For deathbed confessors, the proximity to death was thought to act as a solvent against hypocrisy and posturing, while at the same time briefly positioning the dying person in a place where she or he could access hidden knowledge. Navigating the variables of gender, racialization, and colonialism, Rivett demonstrates the alignment between imperialism and the collection of conversion narratives and dying testimonies of Native peoples. She points out, too, that the quest for hidden knowledge had deadly consequences during the witch scare at Salem in 1692, when the scientific method was engaged to study the evidence of specters as part of a transatlantic impetus to counteract atheism and materialism by finding evidence of supernatural phenomena.
In insightful detail, Rivett elucidates the simultaneity and connectedness of ideas and people throughout the transatlantic world. The praying Indians’ possession of vital primitive knowledge, for example, was of interest to the Royal Society of London, particularly the endeavor to recover the perfect “pre-Babel” language in which words and things were unambiguously linked.
John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into an Algonquian tongue thus proceeded apace with a multiplicity of efforts to decipher the core linkages among all languages.
Rivett’s account of the connections between Puritans and natural philosophers is not wholly novel, given the work of Charles Webster and J. R. Jacob, which she does not fully engage in the text. But her juxtaposition of the familiar figures of New England with their counterparts in the “new science,” and her explication of the conversion narrative as a key site of scientific experimentation, are highly innovative. So too are her sporadic accounts of figures who registered disagreement with the dominant intellectual tradition. Anne Bradstreet, for example, doubted the ability of humans to gain access to supernatural truths by reading accounts of the motions of grace on the dying, and the towering figure of John Locke excluded the supernatural world from study. Given that Bradstreet was an integral New
England figure and Lockean theory was incorporated into New England’s political discourse, it would have been interesting if the author had given more coverage to currents opposed to the ones she documents.
Rivett’s story comes to an end during the lifetime of
Jonathan Edwards. At that time the professionalizing scientific community began to confine its inquiries to the material world while Protestant evangelicals became increasingly assured of their own salvation and righteousness—a process that Rivett associates with
American exceptionalism (although she acknowledges its empowerment of marginalized figures like Phillis
Wheatly to challenge injustice). Rivett’s book reminds us of the interconnectedness of seemingly distinct ways of knowing, and suggests that modernity may inhere in the propensity to question what is appropriate to be known, regardless of the answer that various groups ultimately articulate.
LOUISE A. BREEN
Kansas State University
LISA SMITH. The First Great Awakening in Colonial
American Newspapers: A Shifting Story. Lanham, Md.:
Lexington Books. 2012. Pp. vii, 185. $60.00.
In 1982 Jon Butler published a wonderfully revisionist article in the Journal of American History titled “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretative Fiction.” He argued that the term 1514 Reviews of Books