Tag Archives: scholarship

New book takes page-turning approach to Salem witches

Just in time for Halloween, there’s a new book out about the Salem witch trials.

It’s not clear  we needed a new book about the Salem witch trials, but it’s coming anyway. The Witches: Salem, 1692, is due out from Little, Brown and Company on Oct. 27. The book is written by Stacy Schiff, who has previously penned popular works on Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Véra Nabokov, Benjamin Franklin and Cleopatra. She won a Pulitzer for Véra: (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) and achieved bestseller status with Cleopatra: A Life. Now she turns her attention to Puritan New England.

The jacket copy promises a book that is “as psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal,” and says “the first great American mystery” will be “unveiled fully for the first time.”

Schiff, for her part, acknowledges a lot of historical work has been done on Salem, but says she wanted to take a different approach.

“Most of the really good books,” Schiff told Publishers Weekly, “are thesis driven: it was geographic hostility, or it was the trauma of Indian warfare, or it was conversion disorder. I felt that was cheating. The whole point is that you want readers to want to turn the page—you don’t want to tell them, here’s what you should be thinking . . . I wanted the reader to pick up the hints and put them together. Only at the end do I say, oh, yes—if you saw this and this and this, that’s how the pieces fit together.”

Some early reviews have been critical on exactly this point.

41+p60iyA1L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Library Journal Review reports that “Schiff’s goal appears to be creating a complete accounting—it’s hard to tell, though, because the work is weak in structure and organization and lacks a solid thesis.”

Kirkus faintly praises the book for being “intelligent and reliable,” but generally dismisses the effort. According to its review, “While Schiff has marshaled the facts in neat sequential order … she doesn’t have anything new to say or at least nothing that would come as a revelation to even general readers, until the final pages.”

Others found the narrative approach to the story of the Salem witches more compelling. Booklist Review, for example, calls Witches “a compulsively readable slice of Americana that will appeal to both book clubs and a wide variety of
individual readers.”

Some reviewers are also arguing that Schiff’s work is very thesis-driven, even if she doesn’t come right out and declaim it.

In the Minneapolis, Minn. Star Tribune, reviewer Hamilton Cain writes that “Schiff nimbly connects Salem’s fatal mania to subsequent witch-hunts, such as McCarthyism and the rise of Movement conservatism, revealing how close we remain to the specters and demons that stalked the Bay Colony more than three centuries ago.”

At the Atlantic, reviewer Adam Goodheart reports that Schiff re-tells the witch trials as befits “our own peculiar cultural moment.” She places the children at the center of the story, not unlike what one finds in wildly popular young adult fiction, like Harry Potter and Twilight. She also connects the hysteria to, among other things, problems of media and the uneven distribution of knowledge. Demonic possession is imagined as a matter of memes.

“The whole scholarly infrastructure of the 17th century—books, universities, learned societies—helped disseminate accounts of witchcraft and its dangers to the far ends of the Christian world,” Goodheart writes. “The judges in Massachusetts, and probably also some of the accusers, were deeply influenced by accounts of a witch outbreak in distant Sweden some years earlier. Witchcraft was science, and vice versa.”

Readers can judge for themselves at the end of the month. Or, for a sneak peak, check out the extended excerpt of Schiff’s book in the New Yorker.

“In isolated settlements, in smoky, fire-lit homes,” Schiff writes, setting the scene. “New Englanders lived very much in the dark . . . The seventeenth-century sky was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black that it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location, or that you might find yourself pursued by a rabid black hog, leaving you to crawl home on all fours, bloody and disoriented.”

Just in time for Halloween.

— Daniel Silliman

#Whitefield300

After 300 years, George Whitefield is trending on Twitter! Or maybe not trending, officially, but there’s a tweet-a-thon celebrating the evangelist’s birthday and religious historians and reformed evangelicals alike are pumping Twitter with Whitefield quotes and the hashtag #Whitefield300.

The social media campaign is largely organized by historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University. Kidd recently released a biography of the famous revivalist of the transatlantic Great Awakening: George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, published by Yale University Press. On the group blog The Anxious Bench, Kidd notes that the excitement over Whitefield’s 300th anniversary far exceeds that of his 200th.

“Whitefield is being more thoroughly commemorated this year than he was in 1914,” Kidd writes. “1914′s commemorations were more muted. Of course, all of Europe was preoccupied with the outbreak of World War I.”

The growing attention to Whitefield over the past century parallels the increasing attention to Jonathan Edwards. The correspondence makes sense considering the fact that these two men co-pioneered the revivalist fervor in Britain and America in the early-to-mid eighteenth century. In recent years, historians (such as David Bebbington and Mark Noll) have attributed the emergence of evangelicalism in large part to their influence. Popular reformed evangelical pastors (such as John Piper and Steven Lawson) have commended them as exemplary ministers and spiritual guides.

George Marsden recounts the intriguing beginning of Edwards’s and Whitefield’s relationship in his biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Edwards first wrote Whitefield in February 1740, inviting him to preach in Northampton. Whitefield accepted, and his preaching stirred Northampton just as it had in other parts of New England. Despite his excitement over his congregation’s response, Edwards had reservations about the genuineness of the enthusiasm. When Whitfield left, Edwards preached a series of sermons on the parable of the sower, warning the congregation to test their hearts and not facilely swing from religious zeal to indifference.

An imaginative recreation of Edwards and Whitefield's first meeting (from theblazingcenter.com).An imaginative recreation of Edwards and Whitefield’s first meeting (from The Blazing Center).

Whitefield was more comfortable than Edwards was with zeal and more eager to make use of the latest and greatest communications technologies. One can even imagine Whitefield making liberal use of Twitter and hashtags. Edwards, on the other hand, would more likely worry about the reliance on religious impulses and ecstatic experiences. The two men, despite their differences, advanced the same cause.

 

— Ryan Hoselton

Edwards & Emerson; Perry & Maizlish

Perry Miller once wrote that “There can be no doubt that Jonathan Edwards would have abhorred to the very bottom of his soul every proposition Ralph Waldo Emerson blandly put forth.” Nevertheless, for Miller, the relation between the two great New England thinkers was not merely one of hypothetical abhorrence. They actually had more than a little in common.

Rivka Maizlish, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggests the connections and constancies between Edwards and Emerson can be illustrated with a little pop quiz. At the blog of the Society of U.S. Intellectual History, Maizlish offers 16 out-of-context quotes and a challenge, can you tell which quote is from Edwards, which from Emerson?

The first four:

“1) Nature can only be conceived as existing to a universal and not to a particular end; to a universe of ends, and not to one,–a work of ecstasy, to be represented by a circular movement, as intention might be signified by a straight line of definite length.

2) Virtue is an act of will, but an act of will follows and is determined by a perception, and the perception of virtue is love, love to the totality of being. The love of self can be extended indefinitely (just as the particle can be indefinitely subdivided), from the self to family, to town, to nation, and still not become the perception of love until the mind leaps from all specific loves to a love of being. Out of selfishness arises a disinterested benevolence that adores the order in which the self is without reference to that self’s particular pleasures or pains.

3) The high and divine beauty which can be loved without effeminacy, is that which is found in combination with the human will. Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue.

4) All acts of the affections of the soul are in some sense acts of the will, and all acts of the will are acts of the affections.”

Maizlish’s gloss on this is to urge intellectual historians to “clear away prejudices and preconceptions about Edwards, Emerson, and Miller, and to perhaps reconsider Miller’s work — and intellectual history as a worthwhile project. She writes, admiringly, that “Miller uses history to show points where history collapses—where the minds, longings, and questions of Emerson and Edwards meet, and where the contemporary mind, if moved by the same concerns that lived beneath the doctrines of Puritanism and Transcendentalism, might meet the New England Mind.”

While Perry’s Hegelian reading of New England Puritans and New England Transcendentalists may not be entirely compelling, Maizlish’s point about putting aside preconceptions, and her call to engagement with this history and historiography most certainly is.

— Daniel Silliman

Inaugurated

The Jonathan Edwards Center Germany was successfully inaugurated last week with an excellent talk by Prof. Thuesen and a day-long symposium on new directions in Jonathan Edwards studies.

We here at JEC Germany are especially interested in and excited by the connections that were made. Scholars from the U.S. and Germany, but also the U.K., Belgium, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere came to the Heidelberg Center for American Studies last week, shared, and connected. There were multiple conversations over the two days of the conference about how different projects can come together. How there are possibilities for mutual aid and cooperation, and how available resources and information can be shared.

More photos of the conference can be seen here.

Edwards in our time

Thinking about Jonathan Edwards in his own time is difficult enough. Grasping Edwards as a theological figure today presents its own sets of unique problems.

Understanding how Edwards figures on the contemporary landscape requires a lot of a kind of back-and-forth cultural translation: allowing but then also critiquing (but then also still allowing) reconstructions, appropriations, and reanimaitons, as one attends to how 16th century theology is made relevant and applicable in 21st century theology. It’s one part reception history, one part history of ideas, one part discourse analysis. And the added complication: one has to do history, but then also set it aside, too, as the figure of Edwards at work in contemporary theological thinking is decidedly ahistorical.

One good place to start, to get a sense of how Edwards is talked about theologically right now, is with these videos of Doug Wilson talking about Jonathan Edwards.

Wilson, a pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and one of the founders of New Saint Andrews, is a Reformed thinker who was described himself as ” advanc[ing] what you might call a Chestertonian Calvinism.”

From that position, Wilson argues with Edwards on some points (in particular having to do with Edwards connections to present-day evangelicalism) and praises Edwards and feels himself challenged by Edwards on other points (“This was a man absolutely marinated in scripture“).

Especially of interest to those trying to figure out Edwards present shape or form in theological thought is the last video, where Wilson connects Edwards’ thought with the theology of C.S. Lewis and John Piper, specificall with the theology Piper has promoted, Christian Hedonism.

As Wilson explains it, all three of these men, despite their very different times and contexts and varieties of Christianity, “emphasize … teach, point out, admit” that:

“Everybody chooses that which they believe to be good, and that which they believe to be good for them. Now there’s a way of doing it selfishly. The difference between good and evil is determined by what you call ‘good,’ not whether you pursue good.”

This is one of the main ideas of Edwards — as it’s used and understood and talked about in certain circles of contemporary American Christianity. In Edwards, one can find these ideas even in his very oldest extant sermon, circa 1720 or 1721, where he argued for a necessary link between Godliness and hapiness, starting from exactly this foundational psychological idea that all people seek happiness.

The first words of Edwards first sermon:

“Reasonable beings, while they act as such, naturally choose those things which they are convinced are best for them, and will certainly do those things which they know they had better do than leave undone. (And, indeed, who in the world could imagine that there were such unreasonable creatures in the world, as that at the very same time that they themselves know a thing to be much to their advantage, yet will not choose or do it?)”

For Wilson, as well as Piper and a circle of Reformed Christians in American today, this insight serves as a starting point for understanding and explaining Calvinism. This is a key way in which Edwards “lives,” theologically, right now.

Curiously, there’s another near-contemporary figure who starts from this same place and has this same “disciplined understanding of what makes human beings tick,” as Wilson describes it, but who ends up somewhere very, very different: Ayn Rand. She called it the virtue of selfishness.

Where Wilson says “Everybody chooses that which they believe to be good, and that which they believe to be good for them. Now there’s a way of doing it selfishly. The difference between good and evil is determined by what you call ‘good,’ not whether you pursue good,” Rand agrees, “Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value.”

For her, though, starting with this idea that people do bad things only because they’re confused and think those things are good things, and if they truly understood what was good they would want that instead, ends not in the imperative, “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” but rather: Be selfish. Or, as her fictional spokesman John Galt declares, “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

The ideas are not the same, of course. The trick is articulating why. Which is the history of ideas part of the back-and-forth cultural translation of the tricky business of trying to understand Edwards in our time.

 

— Daniel Silliman

Attending to the transatlantic context

Transatlantic!  We like to see transatlantic.

We at the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany were happy to see the Wesley Studies and Evangelical Studies groups at AAR have put out a call for papers for the 2012 Chicago meeting comparing Edwards and John Wesley. The cfp says it will be a joint session, entitled, “Anthropology, Affections, and Awakenings in Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) and John Wesley (1703-91).”

They emphasize, too, that they’re not asking for papers that look at Wesley or Edwards. They’re not proposing a panel that would toggle back and forth between the Methodist and the Puritan, between England and New England. Instead, the cfp says, “Papers proposed for this joint session should be comparative in character and should give significant attention to both figures.”

Bravo, we say.

This is an encouraging direction in scholarship, and one the center here in Heidelberg hopes to support and encourage.

All too often, we find, transatlantic contacts are ignored, or, if mentioned, conceptualized only in terms of “early influences” on the English-speaking main protagonists. Rather than understanding the relationship as one between contemporaries, as a give and take, to be thought of in terms of a network, there’s a simple, linear narrative of Americanization, according to which European church traditions eventually metamorphosed into something new and distinctively American in the New World.

Though good work has already been done on interactions and exchanges between religious groups in 18th century Europe and America — Susan O’Brien researched her notable piece, “A Transatlantic Community of Saints: The Great Awakening and the First Evangelical Networks, 1735-1755,” in the 1970s — there’s still much to be done.

Some of which, it looks like, will be happening in Chicago this Nov., thanks to the good work of the Wesley and Evangelical studies groups.

 

— Daniel Silliman