First Soundings: The Seventeenth Century

If, in the words of Jonathan Edwards, the December 1733 Northampton awakenings struck the community "almost like a flash of lightning upon the hearts of young people," the warning peals of thunder sounded from the distant 17th century (Edwards, "Narrative" 11). Long before the modern evangelicalism of the 1730's and '40s split the ranks of the New England clergy into Old Lights and New Lights, the conversion narrative, which I will demonstrate to be the central document of early American evangelicalism, emerged as a major--and controversial--force in American protestant theology.

Although my argument will follow a trajectory that climaxes in what I will term "The Great Awakening," it should be noted from the outset that modern scholars have reasonably challenged the notion that any monolithic "Awakening" ever existed. Jon Butler, in "Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction," points out that 18th century revivalism is best described as a series of isolated, local, and politically moderate events that hardly deserve such a commanding title: "[T]he term 'the Great Awakening,'" Butler writes, "[...] distorts the character of eighteenth-century American religious life and misinterprets its relationship to prerevolutionary American society and politics" (322-324). Butler cites the scattered nature of the revivals, both chronologically and geographically, as well as the failure of revivalism to create any true change in the hierarchical structures of the church as evidence that no magnificently transformative cultural event took place (322-324). Like Butler, I will argue that the democratic potential of evangelical revivalism was highly limited; unlike Butler, however, I have not rejected the term "the Great Awakening." I must specify now, then, that in speaking of the Awakening I refer, in a somewhat colloquial but nevertheless not uncommon way, specifically to the Calvinist revival movements engendered in New England during the 1730s and 1740s, which even Butler admits cannot be "seriously" disputed (309). I have chosen to use this terminology not to naively subscribe to its monolithic implications, but to attempt to complicate a useful, if flawed, historical concept by examining the various forms of the document I take to be at its heart: the conversion narrative.

In seeking the progenitor of the American conversion narrative, Patricia Caldwell traces oral "relations"--which she characterizes as consisting of two steps, repentance and conversion--back at least as far as 1630, the year in which Roger Clap recollected that he had joined the church at Dorchester (Massachusetts) amidst a number of "prospective members" who apparently described their own conversion experiences during the process of admission (64-69). When Clap recounted this practice in his memoir, he suggested one purpose of these narratives when he indicated that "[t]hey helped and encouraged those who heard them 'to try their own hearts' and deeply affected their emotions" (Caldwell 70-71). Caldwell, although hesitant to trust Clap's memory, grants his words some credence and rightly likens the practice he describes to "prophesying--that practice of spontaneous exhortation by laymen, following the regular sermon, which was widely used in reformed churches" (71). Within the same decade, Anne Hutchinson's trial for antinomianism cast the practice of prophesying in a suspicious light (Caldwell 71); thus, even in its earliest stages, the American evangelical conversion narrative flirted with controversy.

The brand of prophesying of which Anne Hutchinson was accused in 1637 officially consisted of "disturbing the peace of the commonwealth, slandering the ministers, and holding private meetings" (Withington 226). Yet the suspicion underlying these charges was that Hutchinson subscribed to Antinomianism, "an old heresy which technically means opposition to the law" and which "embodies the view that since men can be set free from sin by grace alone, obedience to the law is irrelevant to salvation" (Withington 226). In sum, Hutchinson seemed to believe that man's acts on earth had no relation to his spiritual state: as she articulated during the trial (perhaps, as some historians have suggested, thoughtlessly), she believed that only "immediate revelation" could establish salvation (Withington 233-235). Hutchinson seemed to espouse a radical vision of "free grace," itself "the cornerstone of Puritan piety" (Shea 105). Withington and Schwartz, interpreting the trial as a political attempt to remove an ideological insurgent, describe the impact of this credo as follows: "Her belief in direct, immediate revelation threatened the Puritan reliance on the Word and on the church as the means of propagating the Word" (229). In other words, by suggesting that one need not follow church doctrine in order to be saved, Hutchinson encouraged a view of grace that threatened to render the church superfluous. It is little wonder, then, that colonial authorities (among them Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop) saw fit to clamp down upon Hutchinson's influence, and subsequently upon anything that too closely resembled her practices (Withington 226).

Yet even if Anne Hutchinson seemed to push the covenant of grace beyond its limits, thus shedding suspicion upon proseletyzing, she hardly inspired a reactionary turn toward the covenant of works. Antinomianism might undermine the church's authority, but full adherence to a covenant of works represented an Arminian rejection of the doctrine of election. If anything, the Antinomian controversy signaled the necessity of compromise between the conflicting doctrines of Arminianism and Antinomianism. John Winthrop himself seemed aware of the need for mediation when he wrote his spiritual autiobiography, "Christian Experience," during the winter prior to the Hutchinson trial (Shea 102). Daniel Shea, Jr., notes that Winthrop's account traverses "the range of emphases which comprised Puritan orthodoxy," treading "first near the border which separated the impious doctrine of works from the legitimate search for evidences of salvation" and subsequently "appear[ing] as a bright embodiment of the doctrine of free grace, to be distinguished from the irrational intensity and lurid illuminism of the Antinomian" (Shea 108-109). As an early predecessor to the autobiographical expressions which make up the bulk of this study, "Christian Experience" demonstrated the inherent tensions in an evangelical narrative which seeks proof positive of election in the "evidences" of one's life (Shea 109). What Shea identifies in Winthrop's narrative as the "strain of incompatible terminologies" is a "strain" which appears throughout the genre of Puritan self expression (109).

The inherent tendency of the Puritan conversion narrative to anchor itself firmly between these two controversial extremes likely explains, at least in part, how it enjoyed continued popularity while prophesying, its close cousin, fell into disfavor. Even as Hutchinson's trial convened in Boston, New England pastorates continued to use the conversion narrative in the same vein as the Dorchester ministry. From 1637 through 1645, Thomas Shepard recorded the "Confessions" of 51 individuals seeking admission to the church, a practice which he upheld despite protestations from British observers that it was ecclesiastically improper to demand a "confession" of the state of a person's soul (Caldwell 27, 68). This scrutiny on the part of British Presbyterians is a matter of some confusion among historians, as similar conversion narratives were used in Britain; but Caldwell identifies the "the particular issue of admissions" as the "sticking point" (82). It may be that the narratives were used as a limitation to church admission; perhaps they allowed instead for an expanded membership; quite possibly they were used to satisfy the psychological need for "assurance" of salvation (Caldwell 86-87). The true reasons for the conversion narrative's use as an entrance examination are likely both inscrutable and multitudinous. Regardless of its origins, and despite persistent controversy, the tradition continued for several decades.

The practice of requiring conversion narratives for church membership withstood early attacks, but its import in Puritan practice began to decline during the latter half of the seventeenth century (Goen 12). The Halfway Covenant, passed in 1662, allowed unconfessed members who had been baptized as children to have their own children baptized, despite the fact that they were not full members of the church; as a result, fewer people felt compelled to offer their own confessions and enter wholly into the religious community (Goen 13-14). Then, during the Reform Synod of 1679, Solomon Stoddard managed to assert that "'a personal and public profession of [...] faith and repentance'" rather than the more mystically phrased "'relation of the work of God's Spirit upon [the] heart[]'" was required before communion would be extended to any member of the church (Goen 15). Stoddard later interpreted this phrase to mean that "visible sainthood had nothing to do with inward grace and conversion"; he very influentially admitted all potential members as full members, thus further reducing the role of the conversion narrative in church membership (Goen 15). Although Stoddard fully believed in the import of conversion, he perhaps unintentionally implied that works were at least as important as grace in establishing salvation (Goen 16).

As the role of good works in salvation rose in import, so too did the role of the church, the official director of those good works; the radical evangelicalism which thundered during the Antinomian controversy began to recede into the distant memory. Concurrent with this shift in church doctrine was the movement toward "professionaliz[ation]" of the clergy, which was occurring in response not only to "major crises" (like the Antinomian incident of the 1630s) but also to "petty squabbles" over such mundane issues as salary (Harper 560). Ministers like Increase Mather seemed more focused on their studies than on congregational interaction; this "clericalist conception of the ministry" dominated the congregations of New England during the early eighteenth century (Harper 560-561). Thus the burden (and agency) of salvation was shifting both doctrinally and practically from congregation to clergy. It was with this ecclesiastical atmosphere that the first subject of our study, Cotton Mather, would contend.


Introduction                            Chronology                            Genre                            Summary

"Such a Means of Promoting His Work Amongst Us":
Evangelicalism and Autobiography in Early American Conversion Narratives

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