The Power of the Puritan Sermon: The 30th Anniversary of Harry Stout’s The New England Soul

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In 1986, historian Harry Stout published The New England Soul, a book on the sermon as colonial New England’s “only regular medium of public communication.” Thinking back, I am struck by all the communication technologies not yet available even in 1986! When explaining the significance of the New England sermon in paragraph 1 of the book, Stout concludes with a now-dated clincher: “the sermon, whose topical range and social influences were so powerful in shaping cultural values, meanings, and a sense of corporate purpose that even television pales in comparison.”

That statement highlights just how dynamic our communications culture is today—no mention here of the dizzying distractions of Facebook or Twitter, iPhones or text messages—and reaffirms, even more now than in 1986, Stout’s central contention of the stark centrality of the sermon in shaping early New England’s culture. Media profoundly shape and delimit us, as his opening paragraph puts it, but in ways that are hard to understand in the blizzard of media forms we currently inhabit. The regular rhythms and theological consistency of colonial New England’s sermons seem more impressive to me today than it did when I first read The New England Soul in graduate school.

We know an awful lot about Puritan theology and religion in colonial America. In our time, in which the historical study of religion is red hot, colonial America remains the period most closely associated with religious topics. But strangely, we know very little about what weekly congregational life was like in the colonial era (or indeed, in much of American religious history generally). In terms of content, this may be the enduring contribution from Stout’s remarkable labors, especially his reading of more than 2,000 regular sermons.

There is no doubt that our understanding of New England religion has been skewed by the focus on published occasional sermons, and I don’t think that this disproportionate focus has changed much in the literature (including in my own work) since 1986. Perhaps this is because comprehensive archival reading is so demanding, usually requiring research trips and patience with inscrutable handwriting.

By contrast, reading printed sermons has become much, much easier because of the advent of the Evans Digital edition [library subscription], which has made available most of the printed materials from the colonial era. True, some sermons not prepared for special observances—the revival sermons of George Whitefield come to mind—have always been published. And although some manuscript sermons, especially those of Jonathan Edwards, are now publicly available, Stout’s thousands of sermons remain largely unavailable outside of the archives and The New England Soul.

Again, we know a lot about what was said in the occasional, published sermons, and we know a fair amount about what was said and done at revival meetings, thanks to awestruck descriptions in surviving diaries. But what Stout illuminated for us so insightfully was the content and continuity of the regular sermons and regular church meetings.

As some reviewers noted when The New England Soul appeared, the regular sermon is just one perspective on congregational life, and a very minister-centered one at that. But let’s be serious—there are relatively few lay diaries that survive, much less that describe or critique the weekly routine of preaching, singing, prayer, and sacraments. Church records give us some texture of congregational challenges and controversies, albeit still from an elite perspective.

Manuscript sermons, The New England Soul demonstrated, evoke the quiet, continuous flow of the themes that animated New England preaching for centuries: salvation, grace, and, as Stout particularly emphasizes, covenant—and not so much apocalypse and millennium, which was a common focus circa 1986 and remains a tantalizing topic today.

The traditional themes sustained the churches through the turmoil of the Glorious Revolution (1688), the new requirement of toleration under Massachusetts’ new charter of 1692, the pressures of economic development and demographic expansion, and intellectual fashions associated with the Enlightenment. The New England Soul, historiographically, represented a final nail in the coffin of Perry Miller’s declension thesis, explicated most thoroughly in Miller’s magisterial The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. Harvard’s Miller, the greatest historian of the American Puritans, argued that the Puritans’ original commitment declined over the course of the 17th and 18th century, until they had lost their religious mission and ironically become prototypical Americans.

Historians always gravitate more toward explaining change rather than continuity, and Miller’s brilliant but factually challenged declension thesis set Stout up perfectly for his corrective approach. (Stout also told us, unlike Miller, what sources he was using to prove his thesis.) Other than the pointed title, he does not ever take on Miller explicitly in the book, but I don’t think this was necessary to make his point, especially in 1986, when Miller remained the patriarch of Puritan studies.

The circumstances of Anglicization and pluralism in the early 18th century required new emphases, but not new themes in regular preaching, and the macro-trends did not fundamentally challenge the pastors’ authority. Or the sermon’s. The Great Awakening, however, became the most profound assault on the pastors’ authority ever seen in colonial New England, partly because Congregationalist pastors could no longer agree whether experience or intellect lay at the heart of everyday Christian piety. Moreover, itinerancy broke up the relative tranquility of parish life, raising the possibility not only of lay dissent, but of a multiplicity of authoritative religious voices, moving beyond the older dialectic of orthodoxy and dissent.

Stout rightly shows that the revivals would have fizzled without a groundswell of lay support. The laity often challenged just those pastors who had shifted away from the tried-and-true messages of sin, salvation, and covenant. The fractious Congregationalist laity, including radical evangelicals, Separates, and Baptists, revealed that the traditional sermon genre had only “succeeded too well,” and “how deeply embedded Puritan piety had become” in the hearts and minds of the laity (210). Even the more Enlightenment-oriented pastors learned after the revivals that they needed to preach with a “new balance” of moderate evangelical themes, including conversionism and biblicism. This may help explain why revivals continued on a local and occasionally regional scale (as they did in the mid-1760s and early 1780s) but did not generate as much furor as they did in the 1740s.

Even in the Revolution, the messages of sin, salvation, and covenant remained relatively stable, although the worldly implications of freedom in Christ had never seemed so pertinent. Worldly and spiritual liberty became closely connected, at times indistinguishable. Malden, Massachusetts’ Peter Thacher preached an unpublished sermon to Massachusetts militiamen in 1777 and told them that in war and in salvation, it was futile to depend on anyone or anything but God.

Even as he urged them to fight for American liberty, Thacher presented the war as a possible distraction from spiritual liberty. “God forbid that I should fail urging upon you that repentance and reformation,” he said, “which, with the atonement of Jesus Christ, are necessary in order to avert divine displeasure and secure his favor unto us. If we are saved God alone must save us.” Save us from what? Hell, or the British? Thacher did not make a distinction; the answer was both (306).

Here Stout helps us to understand why, even though we might (with Mark Noll) retrospectively see intellectual inconsistencies in evangelicals’ ready acceptance of republicanism, they hardly ever saw this as a problem themselves. Since republicanism was so malleable as to be almost indefinable, the Congregationalists of 1776 easily saw its themes as consistent with those preached from their pulpits since 1630. They had long warned of powers who would deprive them of their civil and economic liberties, and ultimately of their religious liberty, whether they be the Catholic Stuarts or, since the 1690s, the French. Civil liberty set the context for the pure preaching of the gospel, which brought liberty to the soul.

New England went through massive social, political, and economic changes from 1630 to 1776, but historians have been too eager to assume that these changes transformed the theological priorities of New Englanders. Only someone who delved as deeply as Stout into the weekly diet of the New England churches could effectively demonstrate that theirs was a story of continuity as much, if not more than, change.

The core of the historian’s business is explaining change over time. In Miller’s declension thesis Stout found an utterly compelling narrative of change, but one gone to seed. Thanks to the New England Soul, we can see that perhaps Miller himself, eager to tell a story of how the “greatness of man’s dependency” became a “euphemism for the greatness of man,” underestimated the enduring power of the Puritan mind.

I originally gave this address at an American Society of Church History meeting in early 2012, upon the 25th anniversary of Stout’s book. 

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