The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England

Sarah Rivett
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Paperback price: $34.95
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Publisher: Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press
Imprint: OIEAHC
Cloth/Hardcover Publication Date: 11/2011
Pages: 384
Cloth ISBN: 9780807835241
Paperback ISBN: 9781469684079
Paperback Publication Date: 08/2024
Ebook ISBN: 9780807838709


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 assistant professor of English at Princeton University.


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


“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

“[An] ambitious book.”–Journal of American History

“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

“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

“[A] sophisticated and sensitive reading of theology and spirituality. . . . Fascinating.”–William and Mary Quarterly

“A beautifully written and well-considered account of a key moment in the American cultures of knowledge.”–Catholic Historical Review

“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

“An impressive display of interdisciplinary scholarship.”–American Studies Journal

“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

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