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  • The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England by Sarah Rivett
  • Crawford Gribben
The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England. By Sarah Rivett. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 2011. Pp. xvi, 364. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-8078-3524-1.)

The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England is an extraordinary account of the relationship between spiritual and scientific knowledge of the self in the earlymodern transatlantic. With broad range, intellectual depth, and carefully crafted prose, it outlines an innovative reading of early American writing, which it pursues with rigor and precision across an extended geographical and chronological range. Returning to familiar texts, cultures, and contexts, the book offers an entirely new way of imagining links between the religious and rational cultures of the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. Engaging within and across disciplines, The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England makes a dynamic contribution to theological, literary, and historical discussions, and offers to shift entirely the perspective of a great deal of recent scholarship. [End Page 169]

Rivett’s book returns to the question of the character of life writing in colonial America. Her discussion of familiar texts edited or written by John Eliot and others advances upon earlier efforts to contextualize the genre of the conversion narrative. The innovative aspect of the argument of The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England is its consideration of the discursive field in which these arguments were articulated—a discursive field that borrowed the heuristic tools of emerging scientific communities to gather and interpret the data of spiritual experience. Discussing subjects as varied as praying Indians and Anglo antinomians, Rivett argues that early American spirituality was advancing on the basis of widespread reflection upon the noetic effects of the fall and upon awareness of the contingency and fallibility of all human self-knowledge. Nevertheless, she claims, early-modern preachers and scientists pushed, sometimes together, against the standard arguments of Reformed Protestantism to place accounts of experience at the center of social and ecclesiological knowledge networks. And, despite the wider contexts of theological discussion, these accounts of self-knowledge were public, tangible traces of purported experience that could be recorded, edited, publicly or privately circulated, and used as proof that humanity stood on the brink of an existential great leap forward.

The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England is a beautifully written and well-considered account of a key moment in the American cultures of knowledge. Its deft argument draws upon well-established conclusions to reformulate the questions that can be asked of critical sources in early American writing. Its argument offers broader resources for discussions of the relationship between science and religion in the contexts of early modernity. As a model of interdisciplinary inquiry, it significantly advances our knowledge and understanding of the literary, imaginative, and spiritual contexts of British and American Protestants in one of their most crucial theaters of operation.

Crawford Gribben
Queen’s University Belfast


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pp. 169-170
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