Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Books

Unless otherwise indicated, all OI books are published and distributed by The University of North Carolina Press.


The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England

Sarah Rivett

Cloth: 978-0-8078-3524-1 ($52.50)

Copyright 2011
University of North Carolina Press

A Prize-Winning Book

  • Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize, American Society of Church History (2011)

Description

The Science of the Soul challenges long-standing notions of Puritan provincialism as antithetical to the Enlightenment. Sarah Rivett demonstrates that, instead, empiricism and natural philosophy combined with Puritanism to transform the scope of religious activity in colonial New England from the 1630s to the Great Awakening of the 1740s.

In an unprecedented move, Puritan ministers from Thomas Shepard and John Eliot to Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards studied the human soul using the same systematic methods that philosophers applied to the study of nature. In particular, they considered the testimonies of tortured adolescent girls at the center of the Salem witch trials, Native American converts, and dying women as a source of material insight into the divine. Conversions and deathbed speeches were thus scrutinized for evidence of grace in a way that bridged the material and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible, the worldly and the divine.

In this way, the "science of the soul" was as much a part of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural philosophy as it was part of post-Reformation theology. Rivett's account restores the unity of religion and science in the early modern world and highlights the role and importance of both to transatlantic circuits of knowledge formation.


About the Author

Sarah Rivett is associate professor of English at Princeton University.


Reviews

An extraordinary work of interdisciplinary scholarship and a rich and rewarding read.

--New England Quarterly


A careful and accomplished book: thorough in its mining of seventeenth-century print culture; revisionary in its placement of key Enlightenment texts in conversation with more obscure theological sources; and masterful in its treatment of very tricky, sinuous threads of religious, scientific, and intellectual history.

--Early American Literature


Admirable for its erudition and impeccable in its scholarship, The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England challenges the conventional wisdom that scientific modernity is the product of secularization. It compellingly shows the inextricable interconnectedness of empiricism and faith in early British America and the Atlantic world. It is a ‘must read’ for historians of science and religion alike, as well as for all scholars of early American literature.

--Ralph Bauer, University of Maryland


Tracing the astonishing ways in which early empiricism and Protestant theology and conversionary practices intersected and diverged in their quest for unknowable knowledge, Rivett’s study reanimates intellectual history. Simultaneously local and global, dependent on the evidence of marginalized voices as much as elite theories, the quest for a science of the soul offers a new narrative of our own modernity.

--Teresa Toulouse, University of Colorado


The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England employs a strikingly novel perspective, the interpenetration of early modern science with Reformed theology and philosophy, to cast a long-familiar axial narrative of early American history in new light. Rivett challenges a historiographic age steeped in Atlanticism and critical theory to rethink the classic tale of New England Puritanism’s evolution.

--Charles L. Cohen, University of Wisconsin-Madison


A fascinating study of how colonial believers wrestled with the age-old question: How do I know I am saved?

--Journal of the North Carolina Association of Historians


The breadth and detail of Rivett's The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England are impressive, and her argument is often compelling.

--William and Mary Quarterly


A careful and accomplished book: thorough in its mining of seventeenth-century print culture; revisionary in its placement of key Enlightenment texts in conversation with more obscure theological sources; and masterful in its treatment of very tricky, sinuous threads of religious, scientific, and intellectual history.

--Early American Literature


Rivett's book reminds us of the interconnectedness of seemingly distinct ways of knowing, and suggests that modernity may inhere in propensity to question what is appropriate to be known.

--American Historical Review


This deeply intelligent book is essential reading for scholars of Puritan studies, early American literature and religious history more broadly, and the history of science. Its cogent writing and sophisticated argument will make it an important addition to reading lists for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in those fields for a long time to come.

--The Historian


An impressive display of interdisciplinary scholarship.

--American Studies Journal


An extraordinary work of interdisciplinary scholarship and a rich and rewarding read.

--New England Quarterly


[A] sophisticated and sensitive reading of theology and spirituality. . . . Fascinating.

--William and Mary Quarterly


[An] ambitious book.

--Journal of American History