- A Paradise of Reason: William Bentley and Enlightenment Christianity in the Early Republic
William Bentley, who served as minister of the Congregational East Church in Salem, Massachusetts, from 1783 until his death in 1819, had many acquaintances but few friends. His social near-isolation, J. Rixey Ruffin tells us, was mirrored in his distinctive theology. What, then, is there to gain from studying Bentley, seemingly a fringe intellectual, an obstinate Republican in a Federalist town, a "one-man faction of reasonable Christianity" (76)? Much, in fact. A Paradise of Reason centers on Bentley to give a cogent, insightfully written analysis of his thought alongside a synthesis of significant historiographical strands of religion and politics in the early republic. In some ways, following Jill Lepore's useful distinction between the two, A Paradise of Reason is actually a mixture of biography and microhistory.1 Ruffin's exploration of Bentley is less about Bentley's life than it is about situating him amidst the "kaleidoscope" [End Page 546] (6) of New England's religions and politics. Salem is itself a central character in the story, and indeed, Ruffin focuses overwhelmingly on only two decades of Bentley's life (the period 1783–1805). Bentley matters, Ruffin argues, not merely because he was personally important to early national Salem, but because from his pulpit one not only glimpses, but immerses oneself in, "a conflict as geographically broad as the Anglo-American world" (44).
Bentley left behind extensive writings on which Ruffin relies: commonplace books, published sermons, thousands of manuscript sermons and sermon outlines, and, of course, Bentley's voluminous diary (which Ruffin consults in its original manuscript as well as its published form). Ruffin also deftly situates Bentley in his local context with frequent recourse to Salem's town and church records and newspapers. The picture of Bentley that emerges is that of a man who fit awkwardly into the religious categories of his day. He was an opponent of deism who shared the deists' ontological naturalism. He was a theological Arminian whose view of Christ was Socinian (Christ as unique but fully human), rather than Arian (Christ as subordinate to the Father but somewhat more than human) after the theology of his liberal Congregationalist contemporaries. Ruffin sees Bentley as a category unto himself, describing him as a "Christian naturalist," a minister who split the difference, as it were, between liberals and deists.
Bentley's theological uniqueness is the animating force of Ruffin's narrative, which embeds Bentley's religious and political evolution within a more or less chronological framework. After a solid introduction that helpfully demarcates the boundaries of Salem's diverse religious communities, Ruffin briefly details Bentley's background and then devotes four chapters to a thorough exploration of Bentley's theology, the social location of his parishioners, and the interpenetration of Arminianism and classical economic liberalism. Beginning with Chapter 5, Ruffin explains how Bentley's "spiritual libertarianism" transformed him from a self-satisfied proponent of religious and economic liberalism in the 1780s to a steady member of the Republican camp during the partisan warfare of the 1790s. Despite his disdain for their beliefs, it was not orthodox Congregationalists and other evangelicals against whom Bentley triangulated his own moral politics, but liberals. Religious liberals not only failed to embrace Bentley's Christian naturalism; they encouraged attacks on Bentley's intellectual exemplars, such as Joseph Priestley. Economic liberals by the mid 1790s had demonstrated that they preferred to "seek [End Page 547] profit over human happiness" (110) in their opposition to a brief congressional trade embargo. In the end, Bentley identified himself with the Republican insurgency and became integral to its success in Federalist Salem. Here Ruffin engages the extensive historiography on early national liberalisms and republicanisms without falling into the trap of false dichotomies. Indeed, showing us a liberal who became a republican reminds us of the complex political and intellectual negotiation that shaped those ideologies.
With his deft interweaving of religion and politics, Ruffin reinforces the reality...