- Female Piety and the Invention of American Puritanism by Bryce Traister
Bryce Traister’s Female Piety and the Invention of American Puritanism makes an important contribution to studies of New England Puritanism, to our still nascent understanding of secular modernity, and to histories of women’s religiosity and its central role in American religious and political life. The “American Puritanism” of Traister’s title encompasses both the particular set of religious and civil arrangements that characterized seventeenth-century New England and the larger historiographical category that has preoccupied scholars from George Bancroft to Sacvan Bercovitch. The text shifts deftly between two intertwining but distinct arguments. The first is that an uncontrollable spiritism, wielded primarily by women and rhetorically feminized in myriad ways, stood at the core of seventeenth-century New England Puritanism, frustrating verbal representation and threatening both civil order and religious orthodoxy. The second is that the narrative of female piety’s eruption and violent suppression, retold by scholars and artists over centuries, eventually became the story of American secularity. The embodied religiosity of radical Puritan women was transformed, through a series of legal and rhetorical interventions, into the story of religion itself—feminized, unruly, and ostensibly incompatible with the rational, liberal state.
The guiding figure of Traister’s narrative is Anne Hutchinson: reappropriating the slur used against her by John Winthrop and others after her 1638 miscarriage, Traister argues that America’s particular form of religiously haunted secularism is Hutchinson’s true “monstrous birth” (36). The text thus begins with an account of Hutchinson’s role in the antinomian controversy, in which the Puritan authorities’ determination to “keep this loudmouthed woman in her proper place… overwrote a conflict over spiritual authenticity with a story of gender transgression” (37). This narrative would eventually become part [End Page 391] of American Puritanism’s self-representation, as it appeared both in contemporary accounts of the crisis and in later historiographical ones, particularly Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. It would also inform the New England response to the Quaker invasion of the 1650s, itself framed as a story of embodied transgression. The persecution of Quakers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Traister argues, underwrote the formation of secular legal codes: whereas in Hutchinson’s trial there was much wrangling about the content of her religion and whether it accorded with New England clerical orthodoxy, Boston’s anti-Quaker statutes rested only on the fact that the Quakers had a religion—one instantiated in their feminized, quaking bodies. This move from identifying (and sanctioning) the content of religion to naming religion as such, Traister argues, marks a crucial moment in the formation of American secularity.
If Hutchinson and the Quaker martyrs had their stories violently suppressed by Puritan civil and religious authorities, Mary Rowlandson’s verbose piety met a different fate. Traister reads Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God as a precursor to secularism’s self-narrativization as a story of loss. Because Rowlandson’s tale is never quite contained or explained by the biblical exemplars she uses to make sense of it, Traister argues, her narrative prefigures anxious modernity and the “therapeutic worldview” that frames religion as a salve to personal suffering rather than a convincing account of universal truth (117). Rowlandson’s failure to “transform herself into an emblem of remembered religious experience,” in other words, marks her text as secular by exposing religion as capable of insufficiency and thus, according to narratives of secularization, as historical artifact (122). The insufficiency of Puritan orthodoxy as an explanatory system also undergirds Traister’s reading of the Salem witchcraft trials as a public eruption of radical female piety into a culture in which religious experience was becoming increasingly personal and privatized. Situated between the 1662 Halfway Covenant and Cotton Mather’s post-Salem narratives Wonders of the Invisible World (1692) and A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning (1693), the Salem witchcraft outbreak has come to exemplify two of secularism’s most cherished stories about itself: the relegation of...