Puritanism and the Pursuit of Happiness

The Ministry and Theology of Ralph Venning, c.1621-1674

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S. Bryn Roberts
  • Suffolk, UK: 
    Boydell Press
    , March
     2015.
     232 pages.
     $115.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781843839781.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Puritanism and the Pursuit of Happiness, S. Bryn Roberts gives readers a detailed theological history of Ralph Venning, a seventeenth-century British Puritan minister. Roberts, an adjunct instructor in early modern church history at the International Christian College, Glasgow, argues that Venning has been largely overlooked in Puritan studies, and is an integral figure in early modern British puritanism (5, 9). Most importantly, Roberts seeks to upset the “deeply ingrained” image of the dour, austere Puritan by explicating Venning’s theology of happiness (1-2, 5).

Roberts begins by providing immensely useful context for Venning’s theology. Venning, like many prominent moderate Puritans, attended Emmanuel College at Cambridge. Here, Venning trained with pastoral and academic emphases in affectionate preaching, rational toleration, and classical philosophy (32-33). This was a particularly helpful section of the book as it grounded Venning’s theology of happiness in his Cambridge training and tied him to more prominent Puritan ministers, such as John Cotton, who also attended Emmanuel College and exhibited similar theological leanings. Most important for this work, Roberts points out that this was where Venning was instructed that challenges to reason, avid study, godly community, and personal piety—a all undergirded by knowledge of God’s saving grace—led to true happiness (38-40).

Also significant is Venning’s physical location. Roberts notes that, in combination with his training at Cambridge, Venning preached near an area of Southwark brimming with inns, taverns, theaters, and their employees (60). Such a demographic encouraged Venning’s appeals to relative toleration, earthly pleasures (enjoyed faithfully), and affectionate preaching. Historically positioning his thought within that of Augustine and Aquinas, Roberts describes Venning’s theology of happiness as one utterly dependent upon “conformity to God,” but also one that values responsible and pious recreation (115, 132). Believers are intended to enjoy temporal modes of pleasure, especially in community, as God creates them. In fact, Roberts notes, Venning proposed that happiness, not melancholic asceticism, evidenced the rate at which the Holy Spirit was molding and changing one’s spirit (159). Moreover, man’s longing for happiness was a conviction wrought by God as an “essential motivation for godliness” (148).

Roberts’s study of Venning critically adds to studies that complicate imagery of Puritans. This book is particularly creative in its points about happiness, the individual, and the community. Roberts, through his study of Venning’s writings, gives his thesis teeth by unearthing the role of happiness as a tool of the Holy Spirit, communal glue, and personal marker of salvation. This is particularly interesting in light of Abram Van Engen’s recent work on Puritan affections, Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England (Oxford University Press, 2015), and how important feelings—or “sympathies”—were to one’s spiritual state, or a community’s strength. Like Van Engen, Roberts, gives nuance to the experiences and personalities of Puritans. Such studies reveal that, perhaps, these historical subjects lived lives made up of more just than perpetual weeping over transgressions in prayer closets.

For all its merit, this work is not without its faults. At times, it is difficult to discern the differences between “happiness,” “salvation,” and “regeneration.” Roberts makes it clear that, for Venning, happiness is wholly defined by knowledge of, faith in, and interaction with, God. Such an explanation, though not inaccurate, can begin to make “happiness” read as confusingly synonymous with other common terms employed in puritan spirituality. Lastly, more mention of fellow godly ministers would have increased the contextual power of Roberts’s work. Brief comparisons between Venning and John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, or Thomas Shepard (whom Roberts mentions only in passing) would have better situated Venning’s theology of happiness in Puritan history. In all, however, Roberts’s book is one of excellent original research and refreshing perspective. It is a helpful contribution for scholars and students in Puritan studies, British or American.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tucker Adkins is a graduate student in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Bryn Roberts was awarded his doctorate from the University of Aberdeen and has been Adjunct Lecturer in Early Modern Church History at International Christian College, Glasgow since 2011.

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