Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards and the Science of the Soul

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

This thought-provoking book traces the multiple intersections of early modern natural science (known then as “natural philosophy”) and Puritan spirituality, especially those located close to Locke’s epistemology. Rivett, a junior professor in the English department at Princeton, shows that Puritans did not oppose the rise of modern science, or every form of the Enlightenment. Rather, they took empirical study of the sensory world quite seriously, contributing to an evangelical form of the Enlightenment, primarily through their science of spiritual testimony.

The Puritans, that is, studied the human soul and the saints’ varied experiences of grace using the same methods scientists used to study the natural world. In chapters recounting the public testimonies of conversion in New England, both by Anglos and by Indians, deathbed professions, public statements made by those who claimed to be haunted by witches in Salem, as well as testimonies of grace made in New England’s Great Awakening, Rivett claims that “the science of the soul” in early New England played a major part in the flourishing of modern empiricism. Modern science, then, for her, is not a product of secularization, but was fueled in part by Protestant religion.

Readers of this blog will want to know that Rivett’s final chapter deals at length with Edwards, whom Rivett interprets as a part of the evangelical Enlightenment who helped to effect an important shift in the science of the soul to more immediate and individual testimonies of grace. “It is through [a] combined nexus of influences from Enlightenment philosophy to New Light theology to the knowledge supplied by lay testimonies,” she avers, “that Edwards produced a New England version of the evangelical Enlightenment that would constitute the last phase of the science of the soul: an empirically discernible sign of regeneration, more certain than the evidentiary criteria to come before” (p. 281).

Rivett does make a number of mistakes when dealing with Edwards. She says his sermon series devoted to the History of the Redemption was comprised of 39 sermons (p. 282, though on p. 310 she notes correctly that the series was actually 30 sermons long). She bases much of the Edwards chapter on the mistaken understanding that Edwards sought to return Northampton to the early Puritan practice of requiring public testimony of all who would be members. (Edwards never said any such thing.) She interprets the Stockbridge period, like so many others have done, as one of “philosophical and ministerial exile.” The Stockbridge Edwards “still continues to write, preach, and convert,” she says, “but he does so without the ambitions of the historical and geographical specificities of the colonial endeavor or the conviction that philosophy might learn from the larger cosmic meaning behind the Puritan project” (p. 284, a sample quotation that indicates the rather abstract nature of much of Rivett’s narrative). She identifies Sarah Edwards’ famous spiritual ecstasies, experienced in the revival, as her “conversion experience” (repeatedly). She dates the “initial phase of Sarah’s conversion experience” to 1758 (p. 309, clearly a typographical error). She exaggerates what she labels Edwards’ “attempt to attain religious certainty through testimony” (p. 321). She also misleads readers by saying that “Edwards fails in his empirical quest to transform Northampton into a laboratory of grace” (p. 322—I dare say Edwards would not have owned this “quest”).

But though its author proves unstable on the field of Edwards studies (and with theological history), this monograph is helpful on the scientific study of the soul incited by testimonies of grace–and on the rise of Christian empiricism generally. Rivett offers a thoughtful reading of the broader implications–for modern science and religion–of the practice of public testimony in early modern New England.

Recommended for graduate students and other scholars working on early American culture.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

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