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Dissertation Notes: “The Weather and Theology” in Puritan New England

Darryl Sasser, “The Weather and Theology: The Influence of the Natural World on Religious Thought in Puritan New England” (PhD diss., Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, 2010).

Were the New England Puritans eco-theologians? Darryl Sasser, Visiting Instructor of History at Simpson College in Indianapolis, Indiana, explores this question in his dissertation, “The Weather and Theology.” He describes eco-theology as the intersection of God, nature, and humanity, and he finds in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Puritan theology a recurring interest in the surrounding environment. In short, by probing the influence of the physical environment on the Puritans’ lived religion through a variety of texts, he argues that both weather and place shaped their religious identity. Sasser specifically follows a thread of discussions about the natural world in five New England Puritans: William Bradford, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, Samuel Sewall, and Jonathan Edwards.

Bradford represents the early Separatist Puritans who launched Plymouth Colony. They faced unique challenges in an untamed “wilderness,” an environment they feared because they were so susceptible to its whims (30). But Bradford also exhibited their corporate confidence in God’s providence no matter how it was manifested in the weather.

Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and Samuel Sewall represent a later generation of Puritans living in a tamer New England and seeking to make sense of nature and weather in light of the emerging ideas of the “New Science” (56, 98, 125). They sought to apply the methods of science in their environment: Increase wrote a book on comets, Cotton penned a treatise on natural philosophy and Christianity, and Sewall devoured almanacs and kept notes on the weather in his diary for business endeavors. All three believed, in different ways, that divine providence could fit together with the New Science, thus representing a shifting landscape in Puritan theology.

With Edwards Sasser marks a significant shift in the Puritan approach to nature. While the other four subjects often found divine judgment in weather, Edwards found God communicating himself positively in nature, and he often met God powerfully on his walks through the woods near his rural home. Sasser argues that Edwards’ appreciation for nature and his natural typology led him to elevate nature to the point that he claims Edwards “held nature in equal, if not greater esteem, than the Bible” (164). By making this move, Sasser can cast Edwards as the shifting point toward modern eco-theology. He acknowledges Edwards’ moderate path between pantheism and deism, but states that “[e]ven though an anachronism, Edwards can be thought of as an eco-theologian,” and that “he easily falls within the modern model” (174, 177).

What Sasser’s dissertation does well is remind us that the Puritans lived in a particular place and that that place made an impact on their theology and lived religion. Weather, environment, and nature caused New England Puritans to wrestle with their theology in a world with changing views on science and nature. Insulated from political and philosophical pressures of Old England and influenced by frontier living in New England’s harsh climate, their experience shaded their theology in ways that differentiated them from their counterparts on the British Isles.

Sasser also reminds us of the global-local tension. While many historians are exploring colonial New England in the broader context of Atlantic studies, Sasser calls us not to neglect local influences, showing that the weather and environment of Massachusetts gave the New England Puritans a unique experience of faith.

What remains unconvincing to this reader, however, is Sasser’s interpretation of Edwards on two accounts. First, to say that Edwards “believed nature was equal and possibly superior to Scripture when revealing God” (163) fails to take seriously Edwards’ commitment to the authority of the Bible, which so pervades his work. It is true that Edwards valued God’s communication in nature, but he held that Scripture was a tutor that teaches us the “language” of types, so that we can interpret God’s communication in Scripture and nature (“Types,” WJE 11.150–152). The Bible saturates Edwards’ writings, and he said himself that “[t]he Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature” (“Images of Divine Things,” WJE 11.106), a quote Sasser explains away. Yet the Edwards scholars who best understand his engagement with the Bible—Robert Brown, Stephen Stein, and Douglas Sweeney—all agree that the Scriptures held supreme authority over nature in Edwards’ mind, against the arguments of Perry Miller, a key source for Sasser.

Second, what Sasser does by making nature equal to Scripture is cast Edwards as a proto-eco-theologian. While he rightly shows that Edwards developed a theology of nature, he burdens it with modern notions of environmentalism that were foreign to Edwards. Yet this misreads Edwards. One example may suffice. In a sermon on Rom 8:22, Edwards states, “Natural man should earnestly seek after conversion.” Sasser argues that Edwards defines the “natural man” as “one who seeks conversion and to be in ‘alignment’ with God and nature,” as opposed to the “unnatural man” (173). But for Edwards, the “natural man” is the “unconverted person” who has not yet been affected by the Holy Spirit’s gracious influences. The man in a natural state needs God’s supernatural grace to be freed from the natural state of original sin. Sasser mistakes an environmental focus for Edwards’ perennial gospel-centered revival preaching.

All in all, Sasser is at his best when showing us that weather and place affected the religious experience and thought of the New England Puritans. But his reading of Edwards seems to fit more into his own eco-theological interests than into the thought of Jonathan Edwards, the New England divine.

– David Barshinger, Senior Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS