Review: Sympathetic Puritans

Review of Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England, by Abram Van Engen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), Fides et Historia, 48.1 (Winter/Spring 2016)189-191.

There was the New England mind, then the New England soul. Here, now, are New England feelings. By restoring sympathy to our portrait of the Puritans, Abraham Van Engen offers an emotional history of seventeenth-century Puritanism and also revises the literary history of sentimentalism. Sympathy, he argues, was integral to Calvinist theology, to New England’s community and mission, and to Puritan literature. Fellow-feeling was a Puritan trait long before Jonathan Edwards declared that, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” Taking a “history of emotions” perspective allows Van Engen to offer interesting re-readings of several of the best-known moments in the story of New England Puritanism: the contexts of John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon; the Antinomian controversy; the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson; John Eliot’s Native American mission; and the Salem witchcraft trials. Three key themes recur throughout Sympathetic Puritans: the dual meaning of sympathy as both sign and command; the role of fellow-feeling in the creation of emotional communities; and the “sentimental” techniques of Puritan literature.

Tears of sympathy could indicate a person’s inner spiritual disposition—a sign of election recognized by others, confirming membership in the godly community. Yet sympathy was often contested. Van Engen, for example, ascribes affections-as-signs a central place in his revisionist interpretation of the Antinomian controversy. Often portrayed by scholars as a contest between the rapture of the antinomians and the orderly obedience of the elders, Van Engen proposes that the conflict was actually between exceptional religious experiences and ordinary religious affections, including sympathy. If sympathy could be a sign, it was also a practice—an imperative to extend the reach of godly affections. So John Winthrop, in his sermon, A Model of Christian Charity (1630) could enjoin the Puritan community to exemplify “the sweete Sympathie of affeccions” among themselves (54). But active, commanded sympathy could also motivate Puritans in their missionary errand. Focusing on sympathy allows Van Engen to explore the emotional experience of what Stephen Foster described as the “long argument” inherent in the Puritan tradition: the tension between the purity of the godly community and the impulse to broader reformation.

Van Engen adopts Barbara Rosenwein’s concept of “emotional communities” to reveal how shared feelings could draw together or exclude. New England authors used the language of sympathy and feeling to mediate an emotional community of transatlantic Puritanism, though these ties became increasingly strained. Conversely, Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682), sought to delimit her sympathy for her Indian captors to posit two opposing emotional communities—making the English rather than the church her primary emotional community.

The book also explores the literary uses of sympathy, techniques later adopted by sentimental writers. The tracts written by John Eliot and others, for example, described melting, tearful Indian conversions to authenticate those experiences, to defend the New England errand, and especially to elicit the sympathetic tears of English readers.

Though the substance of Sympathetic Puritans focuses on seventeenth-century New England, it is effectively positioned to make an important contribution to scholarship on eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century sentimental literature and the culture of sensibility. The career of sentiment is usually described as beginning with the Latitudinarians and Cambridge Platonists, developing prominence in the Scottish Enlightenment, and spreading through sentimental novels. It is not Van Engen’s project to gainsay the importance of texts such as Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), but rather to acknowledge an affective stream in Puritan experience and thought. Though the tears of the eighteenth-century “man of feeling” indicated gentility rather than Calvinistic penitence, they both cultivated sympathy and responded to sentimental texts.

Historians of the sentimental tradition, perhaps beginning with Ann Douglas’ The Feminization of American Culture (1977), have emphasized its anti-Calvinist impulse, taking cues from the unfeeling portrait of Puritans by early American novelists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Without flinching from the contested meanings of sympathy, or from the way that fellow-feeling was entwined with power relations, Van Engen persuasively makes the case for the centrality of the affections in Puritan thought. His work is helpfully read alongside Claudia Stokes’ The Altar at Home: Sentimental Literature and Nineteenth-Century American Religion (University of Pennsylvania, 2014)—together these recent works begin a reexamination of the religious roots of the culture of sensibility and sentimental literature.



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