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Book Review: Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England
Back in 1998 I took a history course about Colonial America, which heavily focused on the religious beliefs of the settlers in the original thirteen colonies. Whereas the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam was devoted to religious tolerance at the inception of the colony, the one thing that should be noted is the English colonies were not always as tolerant. Actually, the Dutch settlers had to insist upon the respect of religion tolerance when the English captured their colony and renamed it New York in 1664.
Puritans left England because of religious persecution and their refusal to join the official Church of England, but when they moved to the New World they imposed their own version of religious persecution on those who did not fall in line with their own church's teachings. This reign of persecution culminated in the Salem Witch Trials, wherein Puritans realized how far their zealotry and extremism had gone when a few lies told by bored teenagers resulted in needless deaths and the ruining of lives.
The celebrated American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was a descendant of a judge during the time of Salem Witch Trials, John Hathorne, and he wrote books such as the Scarlet Letter to condemn the hypocrisy and the Puritan movement in their need to condemn anyone who did not prescribe to the rigid definition of Christianity. I believe examining the fanaticism of Puritans is very much pertinent today because in many was America is still very much of a Puritan country, and as of recent we have had a vocal resurgence of right wing Americans who like the condemn the religious convictions, or lack there of, of their fellow Americans who do not fall in line with a certain way of thinking.
The United States was a country founded on religious freedom, and as such we should respect the beliefs of others. This hub is a book review I wrote back in 1998 about David D. Hall's book World's of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England, and I belief the analysis of this paper has a lot of pertinence with the rise of religious fervor once again in the US. It is my hope that Americans can stop guessing or caring about the religion of politicians and their neighbors, and to allow their neighbors to live in peace and harmony. So when I hear right wing Americans and Tea Party members declaring how they "want their country back" in the year 2010, well this conjures up memories of people I read about long ago who thought their fellow citizens were not "as good" as themselves.
I am saddened in the year 2010 that so many people fall for the propaganda of the Tea Party and ultra right wing conservatives, which in actuality is backed by rich corporate interests that want to end all of their own tax burdens while cutting programs that benefit many middle class and poor Americans. This paper I wrote back in 1998 is merely my reflections at the time from class lecture and reading the book. It has nothing to do with the resurgence of conservatism in America, but I am well aware this conservative impetus is a by product of the Puritan roots that some Americans embrace, but of which many have only a superficial understanding of the dark side of this past. I have nothing against people deciding they want to live a conservative lifestyle, that is their choice and right as Americans citizens, but when people try to impose their religious viewpoints on others with prejudiced legislation such as Prop 8 and by refusing to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, I cannot help but think we have evolved as a country and need to get away from the more extreme traits that reflect our Puritan heritage.
One of the integral themes of Hall's book is that the clergy and the laity shared a common culture that was based upon religion and magic. In this culture, the soul was torn between Christianity and the magic of pagan wonders such as astrology and witchcraft. However, the seventeenth century was a time of change in which one set of actors, i.e. the laity, book publishers, booksellers, Quakers, Baptists, and those falsely accused of witchcraft, would destroy the box that symbolized the authority of another set of actors, i.e. the ministry and the educated upper classes. By examining the literacy, interest in the wonders of magic, interaction at the meetinghouse, and the personal diary of Samuel Sewall, Hall reconstructs a world in which Christianity and pagan superstition were part and parcel of everyday life.
Samuel Sewall's diary serves a the basis upon which to model our understanding of the main themes presented in Hall's book. Sewall, like most Puritans, used the power of literacy to explain the world in which he lived. Sewall followed the advice of the clergy by turning his family into a "little commonwealth," which conducted daily studies and lived by the strict moral code of Christianity. It is imperative that there was no challenge to the authority of the master of the "little commonwealth," especially since it reflected the large commonwealth of Puritan society. In addition to the Bible, Hall notes that Sewall also read literature and sermons written by the clergy, which used this literature to create the "box" of popular religious belief and clerical authority that was imposed on the laity.
Magic had just as much influence as religion did in the construction of the "box," which symbolized popular religion and clerical authority. Puritans, like all "Elizabethans," were drawn to the pageantry of pagan rituals. Despite the efforts of the clergy and the educated upper classes to "purify" the church of these influences, it turns out often they were also mesmerized by magical wonders. Life was much more interesting in the seventeenth century Puritan world when you could also think about astrology, Greek meteorology, natural history, and apocalypticism rather than just read the same old ho hum religious texts that the church produced. Although the Harvard educated Sewall objected to the celebration of "pagan" holidays such as New Year's Day, he shared a fascination with the "common" masses in wonder literature. Puritans saw no contradictions between the Bible and magic since both systems foretold the doom of mankind. Hall notes Sewall's fear that natural phenomenon such as rainbows and earthquakes were "signs" of the coming judgment, which illustrates the symbiotic relationship that existed between religion and magic in seventeenth century Puritanism. Thus, the ministry had no moral qualms about producing wonder literature since it helped to reinforce the congregations' fear of the Christian apocalypse.
However, literacy empowered the laity by allowing them to begin the process of breaking free from the "box" of clerical authority. The laity delighted in the role of being able to point out there were discrepancies between the Bible and the sermons preached by the clergy. Although the doomsday of mentality wonder literature reinforced the laity's belief in the Christian apocalypse, there were also many lay people who simply read wonder literature for its entertainment value. Although the clergy attempted to censor the book trade; profit driven publishers in London, and booksellers in the New World were successful in their attempt to permeate the "box" which symbolized the ministry's authority.
The decrease in the number of "full" church members after the first couple of decades since the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony was yet another challenge to the power of ministry. The children of the Puritan emigrants were not as anxious about becoming members of "the Elect" as the parents had once been. Many felt Sewall did when he questioned his worthiness of salvation as a young man. Those who questioned their worthiness cited I Corinthians 11:27-29. which states that only those who have no doubts about their faith should participate in the ritual of the Lord's Supper. Sewall eventually overcame his fears of being unworthy of the resurrection, and thus entered the covenant of "full" church membership. After being covenanted within the church, Sewall, like many other members of "the Elect," quickly forgot what it had been like to ponder their salvation.
However, with the adoption of The Halfway Covenant in 1662, was intended to allay the fears of church members, such as Sewall, who wanted to ensure the salvation of their children and grandchildren. People were now allowed to participate in every ritual of the church besides the Lord's Supper, by virtue of at least one of their parents being a church member. Nevertheless, many decided not to become "full" church members, feeling that they were not worthy of being saved. Others could care less about joining "the Elect," and simply viewed church as another opportunity to talk about their crops and livestock. The Half Way Covenant failed to offset the attrition in church membership, thus dealing yet another weakening of the "box" of the ministerial authority.
Roger William and Anne Hutchinson were actors who tested the foundations of the "box" established by clerical authority. Roger Williams questioned the hegemony of the ministry by claiming that the Puritan faith was not as "pure" as it claimed to be since it had not completely severed its ties with the Church of England. Williams was branded a heretic and exiled to Rhode Island in 1635, where he founded the Baptist Chruch. The ministry of Anne Hutchinson also posed a grave theological and political threat to Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially since the government's main concern at the time was to win the Pequot War of 1637. The charismatic and fiercely independent Hutchinson was a challenge to the status quo of the "little commonwealth," which required women to be submissive and meek in the face of male authority. Hutchinson was excommunicated from the church and sent to Rhode Island because she dared to question male religious authority; how dare she! The banishment of dissenters such as Williams and Hutchinson demonstrates the lengths to which the anxiety ridden clergy would resort to in order to protect the fragile "box" that represented their authority.
Quakers and those falsely accused of witchcraft played the role of martyrs in order to undermine the power of the clergy. Hutchinson's Antinomian faith was a precursor to the Quaker movement, which drew upon the sympathy of the laity by comparing the execution of their fellow Quaker martyrs to those of the Protestant martrys who had died for the Christian cause under the reign of Mary Tudor. Those who were falsely accused of witchcraft played the ultimate role of martyrs in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Salem's mass hysteria over witchcraft led to the loss of many innocent lives, which serves as a good reminder today why would should never let one extreme religious interpretation gain to much hold over a people. The clergy and the educated upper classes proceeded to place themselves above the superstitious beliefs of the "common" lay people.
Sewall asked to be forgiven for his role as a judge in the Salem Witch Trials, believing that the death of his children was punishment for his sins. The break between the clergy and the laity destroyed the "box" of the latter's hegemony, which meant from herein people who question the teachings of the ministry with far more scrutiny. Hall notes that congregations began to question the practices of the clergy, thus leading to the Great Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.
Hall's book makes many important connections between the shared culture between the clergy and the laity in seventeenth century Puritan America, but the above observations are merely my reactions after reading the book, and on notes from class lectures back in 1998.