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Reviewed by:
  • Female Piety and the Invention of American Puritanism by Bryce Traister
  • Zach Hutchins (bio)
Female Piety and the Invention of American Puritanism bryce traister Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2016 232 pp.

As Bryce Traister rightly notes, an increasingly secular academy now relates to American Puritanism primarily from the perspective of disavowal, rejecting the efforts of John Winthrop and his contemporaries to regulate civic and social life according to the dictates of the Bible as bigoted and narrow-minded. In an exceptionally ambitious book, Traister works to renegotiate our relation to Puritanism, arguing that the seeds of American secularism were sown by the same preachers and magistrates now caricatured as ecclesiastical oppressors and that we might recognize the discourse of dissent and liberty characteristic of modern society in both their language and the language of the women who argued with them. To that end, he presents the New England Way "as both a story of profound and controlling American religiosity and an equally American story of religious tolerance and secularism" (20). [End Page 602]

But the New England Way of Traister is very much not the brand of American Puritanism served up by prior generations, which looked to the sermons of John Cotton, Thomas Shepard, John Eliot, and other ministers as the best sources on Puritan thought and culture. Instead, Traister reads the records of five events as indicative of the ways in which radical female piety shaped American Puritanism: Anne Hutchinson's trial, the Quaker invasion of the 1650s and 1660s, the Halfway Covenant of 1662, Mary Rowlandson's captivity, and the Salem witch trials. Christian theology has long placed believers in a feminine position, characterizing the church and its members as the bride of Christ, but Traister suggests that New England Puritans adopted a more radically feminized piety than many other Protestant sects and makes the development of this deeply gendered theology, through key moments when women challenged or questioned their ecclesiastical leaders, central to his secularist thesis. In the five episodes he treats, Traister contends that the feminized piety of seventeenth-century New England Puritans "articulated and helped to imagine categories of personhood, cultural politics (including feminism), psychological realism, and even natural rights discourse we characteristically associate with 'modernity,' 'secularism,' and 'Enlightenment.' By reading the feminine back into Puritanism, we will also be reading religion forward into secularism" (11). Three projects—reading these five key events, tracing the evolution of a feminized piety, and searching for the influence of American Puritanism on modern secularism and postsecularism—are interwoven into a single thesis.

Brilliant insights are scattered throughout Traister's work, and it should be required reading for those investigating the texts or historical moments he treats as well as those with an interest in the role of gender in early American literature and theology. Among these many fine moments is a close reading of Rowlandson's Narrative centered on a passage in which Rowlandson compares her desire to look back toward her own town of Lancaster with the desire of Lot's wife to look back toward Sodom. This comparison, Traister notes, positions Lancaster (and New England more generally) as a latter-day Sodom, separating Rowlandson's experience of providential punishment from that of the larger society to which she belongs and establishing her spiritual autonomy. Traister concludes, "Her implied criticism of New England establishes the sovereignty of Mary Rowlandson not just as an author-recorder of her own experiences, but [End Page 603] as a person claiming a personal religious experience independent of New England's spiritual discipline" (154). In a text for which Increase Mather supplied the preface and in which "a more intrusive Matherian presence" has long been suspected, Traister's reading is delightfully subversive, empowering readers to hear Rowlandson speaking to and against the ministerial culture with which her Narrative has long been identified (133). This insight and similarly innovative readings throughout his book should meaningfully shape the ways in which we discuss and teach the texts that Traister examines.

However, the larger claims that Traister links together in his introduction and conclusion are more provocative than persuasive. Enough evidence is presented that his claims with respect to American Puritanism, female...


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pp. 602-606
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