Sweeney’s Booknotes: Sympathetic Puritans

Abram C. Van Engen, Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England, Religion in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

9780199379637This work has little to do with Edwards, at least not directly, but much to do with his argument that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” It also has to do with Edwards’ interest in the sentimental fiction of his age (especially that of Samuel Richardson), and his legacy in the writings of American sentimentalists (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan Warner, in particular)—though these literary connections are my own.

The author, son of Notre Dame medievalist John Van Engen, is an alumnus of Calvin College working at Washington University. Sympathetic Puritans began as a dissertation in English literature at Northwestern University.

Van Engen seeks to revise the still prevalent assumption that the Puritans were cold, stern, and pessimistic people. He also wants to correct the regnant view among scholars that Western sentimentalism and sentimental literature are best traced back to opposition to the Puritans by Latitudinarians and moral sense philosophers who held a higher view of the native human capacity for sympathy with others (because they held a lower view of native depravity).

Making use of Puritan sermons, poems, journals, and major treatises, Van Engen demonstrates that “a Calvinist theology of sympathy shaped the politics, religion, and literature of seventeenth-century New England” (p. 2), and that sympathetic Calvinism played a major role in the development of Anglophone sentimentalism. Along the way, he crafts a fine interpretation of the Puritans’ understanding of the affections, which framed the way that many came to view fellow feeling, or sympathy with others, especially those whose hearts seemed to be tuned to the symphony of the Lord.

“The history of modern sympathy,” Van Engen summarizes, “extends beyond Latitudinarianism and moral sense philosophy to the Calvinist theology of fellow feeling emerging out of early modern England. From the moment Puritans first set themselves apart and called for greater reform in the Church of England, they turned to sympathy as a Christian duty and a sign of salvation. Required of all, it was reserved for some, and in coming years, the display of a tender heart melting for the misery of certain others could mark one as godly—as a member of the communion of saints. This is the discourse that Latitudinarians subtly changed as they began to preach a universal ethics shorn of election and human depravity. Yet in changing sympathy, they still used it as a mark of identity: what it identified, however, was no longer godliness, but goodness—no longer the grace of salvation but the refinement of civilization. Thus, while the eighteenth-century sympathetic, tender-hearted man of sensibility may have been familiar only with Latitudinarian preaching and the treatises of moral sense philosophers, his ancestry went back much further. This gentleman—quick to his tears and always ready with a compassionate sigh—descended from a people concerned with predestination and the communion of saints; his presence included a past of sympathetic Puritans” (p. 220).

There are merely three references to Edwards in this monograph, whose argument would gain greater traction if it featured some examples of sentimentalists from eighteenth-century England and/or nineteenth-century America whose attitude was shaped self-consciously by Puritans. (Edwards could help here as a literary conduit.) Its importance for our understanding of Edwards and his world will need to be worked out by specialists for many years to come.

This is a beautifully written book that deserves a wide, “sympathetic” readership.