- “Where Religion and Profit Jump Together”: Commerce and Piety in Puritan New England
Decrying the declension of his day, Eleazar Mather urged his auditors to recall the purity of the first generation of New England settlement when there was “Less Trading, Buying, Selling, but more Praying, more watching over our own hearts, more close walking.” 1 Historians of Puritan New England tend to take such jeremiads at face value, ascribing a decline in spiritual fervor after the middle of the seventeenth century to a rising commercial ethos or “worldliness.” In the last fifteen years, however, this view has been challenged by a small but influential body of scholars. Christine Leigh Heyrman (Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, 1690–1750 ) has shown that the growth of trade and a commercial ethos in Gloucester and Marblehead actually promoted social cohesion and spiritual commitment. John Frederick Martin (Profits in the Wilderness: Entrepreneurship and the Founding of New England Towns in the Seventeenth Century ) has demonstrated that the institutional paradigm of Puritan communitarianism, the New England Town, was organized with an eye to speculative and commercial gain. More recently, Stephen Innes has persuasively argued along neo-Weberian lines that Puritanism promoted a fully commercial, and indeed capitalist, social and economic order in New England, albeit one restrained from “anti-social” excesses by the communitarian notion of stewardship in Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England (1995). Mark A. Peterson’s intriguing study draws on this scholarship and, in many ways, pulls it together in what appears to be a new “commercial” paradigm of Puritan development in New England that has far-reaching implications.
In his introduction, Peterson proffers two theses. First, rather than a conflict between piety and trade, commercial development actually supported and promoted orthodox religion. Puritan religiosity was an expensive business—what with the cost of clerical salaries, meetinghouses, public [End Page 8] schools, printing presses, etc.—and “without the economic resources provided by a vigorous economy, the Puritan movement in America would have died out rapidly” (p. 3). Peterson’s other thesis is that, contrary to the “myth of declension” (p. 4), New England’s second generation actually witnessed a growing evangelicism that sought to make the spiritual life of the orthodox congregations more inclusive and vital. Peterson substantiates these claims by a remarkably subtle and nuanced examination of two Massachusetts churches founded in the aftermath of the Restoration and the so-called “half-way” Synod of 1662, Edward Taylor’s church of Westfield and Boston’s Third or “Old South” church. By taking his comparative church analysis up to the Great Awakening, Peterson raises important questions about the relation of social and religious development in New England, as well as the nature of what he calls “New England’s long Puritan century” (p. 236).
From its controversial founding in the 1660s, Boston’s Third Church was dominated by some of the most solid and respectable men of commerce in New England. Originally a dissenting minority within the First Church of Boston, the founders of Old South split from their parent congregation over the call of John Davenport to its vacant pulpit. Rejecting Davenport’s “virtually reactionary” (p. 27) opposition to the half-way covenant, the new Third Church sought in the new baptismal stipulations a “‘middle way’ of church polity that would preserve the purity achieved by the first generation but would also reach out in an evangelical fashion to a world that threatened to leave the Puritan churches behind” (p. 24). Despite the intense political and ecclesiastic firestorm that surrounded the formation of Third Church Boston, Peterson demonstrates that this commitment to an orthodox evangelism characterized the life of the church for the next eight decades. Equally important, he shows that this outreach and the remarkably rich spiritual life of the congregation was underwritten by the commercial wealth of its principal members. It was this wealth that allowed Old South to erect a spacious and elegant meetinghouse and to...