U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Science of the Soul

(Editor’s Note: This is the sixth, and final, in a series of weekly guest posts by Chris Cameron. We’re incredibly grateful for his blogging here and hope that he’ll return again in the future! — Ben Alpers)

Sarah Rivett’s recently published work The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England is certainly of great interest to religious historians, but should be to American intellectual historians as well. Rivett begins by noting that during the colonial period the soul was seen as a somewhat mysterious fount of all knowledge, but one had to be careful to not overreach, as had happened in the Fall. Individuals gleaned information on the soul through conversion and death narratives, as these were seen as open moments for all people to explore. “The evidence revealed in such testimonials was,” Rivett argues, “as much a part of seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophy, metaphysics, and empiricism as it was a part of the post-Reformation theological tradition.” [1] Where many scholars have discerned antithetical intellectual traditions in Puritanism and the Enlightenment, Rivett notes that “theologians and natural philosophers shared a commitment to pursue knowledge of God as the highest attainable form of truth.”[2]

Scholars ranging from Max Weber to Jürgen Habermas have argued for the connection between Calvinism and modernity, specifically linking Calvinism to later  ideas of progress through capitalist self-denial. Calvinism is at the center of Rivett’s narrative, yet she focuses on a different aspect of Calvin’s influence: the coupling of epistemological optimism and doubt. The intellectual heirs of Calvin, both Puritans and Baconians, constantly strove for greater truth about the world while recognizing the limitations of their work. But for both, science and religion were intimately mixed. The scientific investigations of Francis Bacon and Cambridge Platonists such as Ralph Cudworth were a means of studying God’s laws, whereas the religious investigations of Puritan ministers relied on similar empirical methods as natural philosophers. The former point is of course well known, but Rivett’s work is the first to systematically link the methods of discerning conversions in New England to Enlightenment praxis.[3]

In perhaps her most intriguing chapter, Rivett explores the connection between the Salem Witchcraft trials and the emergence of the Enlightenment in America. Earlier practices of discerning knowledge of the soul through conversion narratives and deathbed testimonies had fallen short, especially in the wake of the Halfway Covenant, when such testimonies and narratives became rarer. Thus, Puritan ministers turned their attention to the occult world in a continued effort to gain knowledge of the soul and the invisible world. Philosophers such as John Locke argued that their empirical methods applied only to the natural world, but ministers in Salem tried to apply them to the invisible world anyway. Their work resulted in a tragedy, but moving into the eighteenth century, “Enlightenment rationalism blended more seamlessly with Calvinism than in years past, restructuring the anxiety produced by the unknowable soul into increased confidence in the rational order of the universe and the human place within that order.”[4]

Rivett ends the study with the work of Jonathan Edwards. Just as Puritans in the 1650s constructed a soul science, Edwards endeavored to do the same through observing souls in their natural habitats, an approach that corresponds to scientists’ attempts to gain knowledge of the natural world through observation. In essence, he was trying to advance the optimism of Calvin while repudiating his epistemological uncertainty. Edwards’ efforts eventually fell short, a failure that marks the end of Puritanism and represents the last stage in the science of the soul. Even though this blend of the Enlightenment and Puritanism did not last more than 100 years, the development nevertheless demonstrates that the origins of religious certainty in our own time do not lie so much in a medieval past as they do in Enlightenment epistemology.[5]

In my graduate seminar this semester, I paired this book with Charles Cohen’s article “The Post-Puritan Paradigm of Early American Religious History.”[6] Here Cohen downplays the significance of New England and emphasizes the diversity of early American religious history. Three developments lie at the heart of his framework: the rise of social history, the growing importance of Atlantic history, and an emphasis on the importance of popular religious beliefs. In the same vein as Perry Miller, Rivett’s book focuses primarily on intellectual elites, which would put her squarely in the Puritan paradigm. Yet Cohen notes that recent scholars in his framework have begun focusing more on religious emotions that intellectual expression, which Rivett certainly does in her analysis of conversion narratives. Throughout the work she also effectively places intellectual developments in New England into their broader transatlantic context. Thus, it seemed that even though her work focuses on Puritanism, it could be a part of the post-Puritan paradigm that Cohen called for, especially in the way that she draws out the connections between theology and spiritual experience.



[1] Sarah Rivett, The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 5.

[2] Ibid, 6.

[3] The literature linking English scientific and religious pursuits in the 17th century is vast. See esp. Richard G. Olson, Science and Religion, 1450-1900: From Copernicus to Darwin (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), Chs. 4 and 5; Robert E. Brown, “Edwards, Locke, and the Bible” The Journal of Religion 79 (1999): 361-384. Brown traces the ways that both Locke and Edwards argued for the rationality of religion even when religious truth claims “lacked the evident qualities of knowledge (scientia) properly considered” (362).

[4] Rivett, 274.

[5] Ibid, 342.

[6] Charles L. Cohen, “The Post-Puritan Paradigm of Early American Religious HistoryThe William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Series 54 (1997): 695-722.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks so much for this introduction to Rivett’s book! In my Colonial America course, we look at Mather’s writings on “wonders” as an effort to catalogue, systematize, get scientific about the supernatural. Just wondering, does Rivett find any remnants of “soul science” after Edwards, in William James or modern psychology, for instance?

  2. Rivett’s book focuses primarily on intellectual elites, which would put her squarely in the Puritan paradigm.

    There’s an interesting hypothesis in here, that the Puritans became [mutated into?] today’s New England left-liberals. Certainly we know that the Puritans became the Congregationalists who became unitarians, who became the “Free-Thinkers” ala Theodore Parker, who eventually merged with the Universalist Church in 1961 and eventually abandoned theism altogether.

    They still own the churches, though. John Adams [buried in the cellar of one of them, admission at slight extra charge] might have been delighted to find that a Wiccan priestess would one day be in the pulpit above him.

    Or not.

    Walker Percy once winked and wagged about the eternality of the Jewish people, that there are no Hittites in New York City. So too, we might ask, where are the Puritans in Massachusetts?

    I’ve enjoyed this series, Mr. Cameron, and thank you. I shall leave as a gift or a curse with one of my favorite quotes from back in the day [c. 1740], from one Charles Chauncey, an opponent of the “enthusiasms” of the First Great Awakening [which “Angry God” Jonathan Edwards of all people thought was pretty cool]:

    “They are chiefly, indeed, young persons, sometimes lads, or rather boys; nay, women and girls, yea, Negroes, have taken upon them to do the business of preachers.”

    Yea, Negroes, oh my! As you’ve previously noted, siding with the “intellectuals” is a two-edged sword.

    Peace, and thx again.

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