Book Write-Up: Orthodoxies in Massachusetts, by Janice Knight

Janice Knight.  Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism.  Harvard University Press, 1994.  See here to purchase the book.

Janice Knight teaches English at the University of Chicago.

This book challenges what Knight believes is a monolithic scholarly view of Puritanism in the seventeenth century.  Knight essentially argues that there were two kinds of Puritans.

Knight occasionally calls the first kind of Puritans the “legalists.”  They appealed to logic rather than emotion and stressed God’s sovereignty more than God’s grace.  They gave stern “jeremiads” that threatened people with God’s wrath if they did not stay on the straight-and-narrow.  For them, God’s covenant was conditional: one has to stay on the straight-and-narrow to be saved.  Knight frequently refers to them as “preparationists”: they exhorted people to prepare themselves spiritually for saving faith and grace by cleansing themselves of sin and doing what is right, and they saw Christian living as a gradual, uphill process.  People who followed them often were uncertain if they arrived.  Exemplars of this line of Puritan thinking include William Ames and Thomas Hooker.  John Winthrop, the Puritan leader in America, leaned towards this school.

Knight often refers to the second kind of Puritans as “spiritists.”  They emphasized God’s love and grace in transforming and regenerating people, enabling them to believe.  God’s covenant was more of a testament and a promise, in their eyes: God regenerated Christians and would uphold them until the end.  Emotion and mystical union with Christ played a greater role in their sermons and outlook.  Adherents to this line of thinking included Richard Sibbes and John Cotton.  Knight also argues that Jonathan Edwards was an heir to the spiritist Puritan outlook.  It was controversial on account of its association with the antinomians in seventeenth century New England.

You might think that the “legalists” were exclusive and conservative, whereas the “spiritists” were inclusive and liberal.  But that was not entirely the case, in Knight’s picture.  The legalists supported including the grandchildren of believers as members of the church, even if their parents displayed no evidence of personal conversion.  The heirs of the spiritists, by contrast, saw that as abhorrent: they wanted the church to be a holy community of regenerated people, however small the community might be.

Knight draws other distinctions between the legalists and the spiritists:

—-The legalists included a lot of application in their sermons.  The spiritists preferred to linger in the text of Scripture.

—-The legalists had a practical view of love of neighbor.  They acknowledged that people should love themselves, and exhorted people to prioritize loving their family over others.  The spiritists had more of an emotional, effusive picture of love: the Christian felt affection towards others, and the truly regenerate person would be full of love and pour it out to everyone he or she encountered.

—-The legalists thought that God could be effective in a person’s spiritual growth even if that person read a sermon at home.  The spiritists thought that there was greater power in gathering with other Christians to hear the Word preached.  You would think that the spiritists had a stronger view of the church and the clergy than the legalists, but the situation was messier than that.  The legalists regarded ministers as authorities, whereas the spiritists did not as much, stressing instead the community of the saints.

—-The legalists did not focus on conversion testimonies.  The spiritists did, thinking they could encourage and foster community and mutual identification within the body of Christ.

—-The legalists were tribalistic, in that they believed in the importance of the Puritan community in North America.  Some scholars have argued that the legalists paved the way for Manifest Destiny.  The spiritists, by contrast, encouraged Christians to see themselves as part of a worldwide body of believers.

—-Some scholars have argued that the legalists supported capitalism and financial success.  The spiritists, by contrast, saw the pursuit of wealth as a possible hindrance in one’s relationship with God and preferred a more “primitive” society.

—-The legalists were bolder and more open in their dissent from the establishment English church, so they were eager to start anew in North America.  The spiritists tended to be discrete about their dissent, rose in the ranks of the establishment English church, and were reluctant to leave their congregations in England to come to North America.

—-The legalists were pessimistic and stressed God’s wrath.  The spiritists had an optimistic postmillennial perspective: God was at work in history, drawing closer to creation, and the millennium would precede Christ’s second coming.

Knight engages in some psychologizing of the legalists and spiritists.  The spiritists were often lucky in life, gaining the renown and the position that they sought.  The legalists were not as successful in life.  Some of them were itinerant preachers rather than having an actual ministerial position.  The spiritists, Knight seems to imply, naturally transferred their life experiences onto their theology: they saw themselves as blessed and assured of salvation.  For the legalists, by contrast, the spiritual life was more of an uncertain, uphill journey.

Knight’s thesis has been controversial.  My suspicion is that some scholars have wondered if Puritans can be divided into such neat categories.  Knight herself acknowledges places where the distinction can get rather messy:

—-Did the preparationists reject the Calvinist idea that God needed to regenerate a person for that person to believe?  Indeed, some have accused the preparationists of Pelagianism, Arminianism, or semi-Arminianism.  Knight is rather unclear here.  She states that the preparationists did believe that God made the first move, but they simply did not emphasize that, stressing human effort and activity instead.  At other times, though, Knight seems to portray the preparationists as thinking that people needed to muster up their own faith and clean themselves up before God could save and dwell in them.

—-Knight cites an example of a legalist who was quite mystical in his private journals, even though he did not bring that mysticism into his public sermons.

Here are other possible areas of messiness, in my estimation (not that I am Knight’s peer on this subject, by a long shot):

—-Did not the optimistic postmillennial view that Knight associates with the spiritists contain the tribalism that Knight associates with the legalists?  The Puritan settlement in North America was deemed to be a crucial part of God’s positive work in history, culminating in the millennium.

—-Conversion testimonies and stress on spiritual transformation, which Knight associates with the spiritists, could coincide with the spiritual insecurity and fear of hell that Knight associates with the legalists.  People could look at their lives and see no evident powerful spiritual experiences or much evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, and they could despair that they are unsaved and on their way to hell.

—-I am slowly going through Sibbes’ “The Bruised Reed,” and he does depict spiritual growth as a process: God does not transform a person all at once, but a person grows gradually.  Maybe he did not portray the spiritual life as an uphill, uncertain journey, but there was an element of gradualism in his conception of it.

—-I sometimes got the impression in reading Knight that the preparationists believed that people should prepare themselves for an intense mystical experience, which may imply that mysticism played some role in their thought.

There may have been more messiness and overlap between the two schools of Puritan thought than Knight presents.  At the same time, she does well to identify tensions within Puritan thought: for instance, a belief in God’s unconditional election of the Christian, co-existing with conditionalism and uncertainty about whether one is saved.  And different Puritan thinkers probably had different emphases, as some stressed God’s grace and love, whereas others focused on God’s judgment.

From my personal perspective, what is ironic is this: you would expect me to sympathize more with the spiritists than the legalists.  I crave God’s love and grace and detest spiritual uncertainty.  And yet, there is a strong part of me that gravitates more towards the legalists, as Knight presents them.  The legalists offered a practical, realistic picture of love, in contrast to the nebulous, touchy-feely, “love everybody” approach of the spiritists; I find the same sort of distinction between Christians today, as the conservative “fire-and-brimstone” types present a practical picture of love, whereas the “God-loves-you” free grace types are more touchy-feely and emphasize extroversion.  The former appears more attainable to me, as one who has Asperger’s and struggles socially.  Yet, I will admit that Jonathan Edwards had beautiful things to say about the community of saints, and how the saints mutually glorify one another before God, as the stars are beautiful when they shine together.




About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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