The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England

[This post originally appeared at Religion in American History on December 16, 2012.]

Since it was published last year, Sarah Rivett’s The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (OIEAHC, 2011) has been garnering plenty of praise, including the American Society of Church History’s Brewer prize. This demanding but gracefully written first book by Rivett, a professor of English at Princeton, has been reviewed by Bryce Traister at Common-place, by Douglas Sweeney, by Jason LaFountain in the New England Quarterly, and doubtless elsewhere, but readers of this blog might appreciate this brief notice of the book.

Rivett argues that in the seventeenth century, Puritan religion and Enlightenment science shared an empirical, experimental epistemology. Pastors and theologians, on the one hand, and scientists or natural philosophers, on the other, all faced the same problem: the Fall of humanity into sin and depravity had made the human intellect prone to error. Humans therefore could not be reliably certain of their observations of the world nor of their knowledge of their own souls. Both theology and science needed a method to achieve knowledge: “Inductive reasoning, recourse to discoveries, the compilation of data, and the testing of a scientific theory through experiment were among the new measurements applied to metaphysics and spiritual study. Each method was integral to the testimonies that constituted the basis of experimental philosophy in the Royal Society was well as to the Puritan testimonies practiced in New England” (5).

One of the smart things about the book is the way Rivett traces its theme over all the standard topics of early New England religious history: Congregationalist conversion narratives, John Eliot’s mission to the Indians, deathbed speeches, the Salem witch trials, and the Great Awakening. After an introductory chapter, each of these topics gets its own chapter.

I think it’s fair to say that what distinguishes this book is not the close reading of documents such as the conversion narratives or Salem trial transcripts—a close reading which is well done, but scholars have been turning over these texts for generations—but Rivett’s research into other sources which give these standard texts a new context. By reading the correspondence between the likes of John Eliot, Thomas Shepard, John Fiske, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards with the likes of Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and the Royal Society, Rivett demonstrates their shared experimental epistemology. We all know that as a young man Jonathan Edwards wrote a letter about a flying spider, but Rivett shows how those scientific endeavors were the same project as Edwards’s investigations into the “distinguishing marks” of a converted soul. John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into Algonquian was part of a search for a universal language, made possible by the encounter with “more deeply fallen sons of Adam” (130). The book also sets its subjects in the long intellectual history of Christianity, with ample attention paid Augustinian theology.

The book ends with two claims: that Jonathan Edwards and David Hume represent the divergence of religion and science to a shared Lockean empiricism, and that Edwards’s edition of The Life of Brainerd set the parameters for the American genre of conversion, characterized by “certainty, as it has evolved from a long history of soul science” (346). On that last point I’m skeptical that certainty is the hallmark, but not that the Life of Brainerd is an archetype of the genre. But I am sure that Rivett’s book is a rare book that succeeds as both a monograph and a synthetic treatment of a field.