Title: Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Beliefs in Early New England
Author: David Hall
Categories: Puritans, Religion, Culture, New England
Place: New England
Time Period: 1600s
David Hall attempts to get at the "popular religion" of seventeenth-century New England and approaches it from the standpoint of a cultural historian. Hall describes popular religion as a continual dialectical process between elites and common laity. Far from having hegemonic power over religious beliefs, clergy and their more learned allies often had to make compromises and had much more limited power than we might believe. Clergy and lay people BOTH crafted a fluid vision of Christianity that incorporated a "lore of wonders" consisting of occult, magic, superstition, and astrology that he characterizes as debris from older traditions in Europe. The "lore of wonders" provided a common language with which to operate for both learned and unlearned, although by end of the 1600s the more learned classes were beginning to turn away from this, pushing wonders into the tradition of the "folk." Nevertheless, Hall argues against a division between high/low and elite/lay culture.
Religion was modified depending on the practitioner, and a recurring figure for Hall is the "horse-shed" Christian that hung back at meetings, did not offer up public confessions, but nonetheless tried to have their loved ones baptized and protected under the covenant of the church - epitomized by the compromise of the Halfway Covenant in 1662. Finally, Hall argues that literacy and print culture played a central role in the popular religion of New England. High rates of literacy ensured a bustling market for not just Bibles, but also almanacs and books containing occult material. Access and ability to read this material ensured that common people could also challenge or limit the authority of the clergy in disseminating religious messages (as their message was tempered by the countervailing print market demands and the ability for individual choice).
Key Themes and Concepts
- Dialectical conversation between elites and lay people - NOT a division between high/low culture
- "Lore of Wonders" central to both elite and lay - occult, magic, superstition, astrology
- Printing press and literacy central to popular religion - literary market
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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