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  • A Rhetoric of American ExperienceThomas Shepard’s Cambridge Confessions and the Discourse of Spiritual Hypocrisy
  • Andy Dorsey (bio)

A dominant tradition of early American scholarship treats the Puritan conversion narratives in John Fiske’s Notebook, Michael Wigglesworth’s Diary, and the confessions of Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge church as repositories of a nascent and singularly American form of experience. Among those scholars who espouse this perspective, most have relied substantially on Shepard’s Cambridge confessions to gain access to the ostensibly unvarnished record of lay selfunderstanding that colonists in seventeenthcentury New England left behind.1 One of the most influential studies of Shepard’s transcriptions of the oral testimonies of the “saving work of grace”2 offered by aspiring communicants before the church membership is Patricia Caldwell’s The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression. In her oftencited book, Caldwell argues that the New England Puritan conversion narratives, primarily those from Shepard’s Cambridge congregation, constitute a trove of an incipient and uniquely American form of experience—one of a muted migrationrelated despair (128, 134). Caldwell’s interpretation has served as a foundation for much of the scholarship on the Cambridge confessions that has followed. Michael McGiffert, for instance, asserts that Shepard’s faith testimonies reveal how the participants‘ “religious sensibilities” were affected by the rigors of their “experiences as refugees” (138). Similarly, Charles Lloyd Cohen contends that the spiritual melancholy to which many of the New England Puritan laymen and women give voice in the conversion narratives Shepard recorded “reveals real personal experience” (19n). More recently, Meredith Marie Neuman has asserted that the Cambridge confessions should be understood as the products of an interpretive dialogue between Shepard and his lay auditor, who absorbs countless sermons and then “weaves” them into a “narration of lived experience” (104). Likewise, [End Page 629] Andrea Knutson has argued that the Puritan migration was an ordeal that required “a new interpretation, a new home in language, when the reality of the experience” was unable to confirm that settlement in the New World was a conduit for God’s grace (28).

While still widely viewed as valid, such arguments are nevertheless inherently problematic because they foreground American “experience” as a unique essence that is either entirely or “at least partly free from ideological coercion” (Delbanco 4). As Jim Egan observes, “America reveres few terms as passionately as it does ‘experience.’ No concept plays a more crucial role in the stories told about the nation’s founding or in the reasons given for America’s distinctive cultural features” (3). However, as Egan rightly argues, this ostensible “foundational category” should be viewed “as a rhetorical” construct that must itself be examined (5, 7).3

To trace their rhetorical provenance, we must consider the lay formulations of regenerate experience in Shepard’s record of conversion narratives in the context of the seventeenthcentury discourse of hypocrisy. The extent to which this discourse shaped the experiences of Shepard’s confessors becomes apparent when they are compared with those of John Fiske, the Wenham and later Chelmsford minister. In what follows, I juxtapose some representative conversion narratives from these two congregations to draw attention to crucial differences between the accounts using Shepard’s and Fiske’s respective treatments of hypocrisy as a classifying term. Such a comparison, I argue, reveals how “experience”—understood as an extradiscursive knowledge category—has been misapprehended as an essential bedrock of American identity (Egan 4). Furthermore, I contend that this scholarly misrecognition has obscured the connection between the discourse of hypocrisy and the New England Puritans‘ construction of an authentic form of conversion experience, both of which emerged in the context of the Antinomian Controversy.4

In the Christian tradition, a centuriesold discourse centers on spiritual hypocrisy.5 This ancient discourse was once again revived in the form of pamphlets, sermons, histories, letters, journals, and conversion narratives as a result of disputes between “the Massachusetts establishment” and Anne Hutchinson, her followers, and her magisterial and ministerial allies.6 At issue was the definition and meaning of authentic conversion during the religious and political crisis that threatened Massachusetts’s survival as a colony between 1636 and 1638. In connection with the transatlantic [End Page...


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