The Emergence of Religious Toleration in Eighteenth-Century New England

Baptists, Congregationalists, and the Contribution of John Callender, 1706-1748

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Jeffrey A. Waldrop
  • Berlin, Germany: 
    , April
     258 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Emergence of Religious Toleration, Jeffrey A. Waldrop’s concentrates on 18th-century toleration among New England Congregationalists and Baptists. The first half of the work establishes the broader framework, and Waldrop spends the latter half of the text exploring toleration through the exemplary life of John Callender (1706–1748).

From the start, Waldrop clearly outlines four goals: (1) identify the nature and arising of toleration in New England; (2) feature the increase in tolerance between Baptists and Congregationalists in Boston; (3) identify Callender’s contribution to religious toleration through a biographical and literary review; and (4) critically engage with Callender’s general works, theology of tolerance, and historiography—specifically, Callender’s influence on Isaac Backus’ Baptist history (1).

Waldrop situates his work in contrast to previous research concentrating on the same time period by examining the role of toleration over and against religious persecution. More specifically, Waldrop understands his work as contributing to Baptist history through his concentration upon the person and works of Callender. Until now, Callender has been treated as a periphery figure in religious history, only alluded to in Baptist dictionaries and encyclopedias.

In the first half of the work, the author achieves his first goal of identifying the type of toleration that develops in New England. The scope of this historical context extends from the early founding and growth of the colonies to the beginning of the Great Awakening. Waldrop establishes a historical foundation upon which to develop his argument by addressing a variety of external factors which contributed to the increase of toleration during this time frame (50-57).

In chapter 2, Waldrop builds upon his first goal by describing four types of Puritan piety (24-29). This framework provides a unique way of accounting for the early Congregationalists’ treatment of dissenters. It is in this way that Waldrop deals with the historical dilemma surrounding the term “Puritanism.” He underscores the need to nuance the historical understanding of this term as “multi-colored,” which means it encompasses a variety of political and religious perspectives transplanted into the Colonies from England during the 16th and 17th centuries (31). Yet, this framework falls flat in the second half of the text; there is no explicit integration of how the Congregationalists’ “Nomistic Piety” developed into toleration.

Waldrop accomplishes his second goal of focusing in on the toleration demonstrated between Baptists and Congregationalists in Boston. The nature of writing history, however, often results in focusing in on a sliver of historical events while in the process precluding the majority experience. Waldrop presents his work as an examination of toleration between Baptists and Congregationalists, but it is really an examination of the academic elite Boston General Baptists and Old Light Congregationalists from 1707–1748. Waldrop makes extensive limitations to his work, in order to present his argument for toleration.

For instance, Waldrop demonstrates his awareness of this narrowing when he addresses the contrast in toleration among Baptists living in Boston, and the majority who were less tolerant living in rural areas (111). While it can be said that Waldrop achieves his second goal, it must be questioned whether this goal is representative of the majority Baptist experience at this time. Similarly, Waldrop’s presentation of relations between Baptists and Congregationalists is incomplete due to the downplay of religious persecution. From the beginning, Waldrop makes clear that this work is not centered upon Puritan persecution; instead, it is fixed upon toleration.

However, the extent of this omission is to the detriment of the work. Waldrop merely makes reference to prosecutorial acts, such as the hanging of Quakers or the whipping of Obadiah Holmes (56). It is impossible to obtain an all encompassing picture of Baptist and Congregationalist toleration when one half of the narrative is left out (i.e., persecution). The full impact of toleration cannot be fully appreciated.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 are dedicated to exploring three generations of relationships between the Mathers and Callenders: Increase Mathers and Ellis Callender (grandfather), Cotton Mathers and Elisha Callender (uncle), and Samuel Mathers and John Callender. Waldrop highlights key events in the first two generations’ relationships in order to build his argument surrounding John Callender’s toleration (75-86). This approach serves to accomplish Waldrop’s third goal of exclusively identifying John Callender’s contributions to toleration; however, the work—and argument for toleration between Baptists and Congregationalists—could have been enhanced through a richer analysis of the other figures additional contributions to toleration.

Waldrop’s third and fourth goals are realized in the second half of the work. He demonstrates that Callender’s toleration extended beyond his friendships into his local community. Waldrop points to various relationships, over the span of Callender’s life, with individuals outside of the Baptist tradition as evidence for his toleration (128-134, 147). Additionally. Callender helped establish the Newport Philosophical Society of Rhode Island (164), he was appointed the Newport School Master, and he served as a Colony Assembly Member (165). Waldrop zooms in on the life of John Callender in order to provide examples of toleration between Baptists and Congregationalists.

Chapters 8 and 9 entail Waldrop’s literary analysis concerning three of Callender’s works. An Historical Discourse (Boston: S Kneeland and T. Green in Queen Street, 1739)encompasses a centennial history of Rhode Island. Waldrop provides an examination of this text in order to highlight the limitations of Callender’s toleration. First, the work neglects to address the experience of non-Protestants living in the region (196-200). Additionally, Callender’s attempt to maintain unity with Congregationalists through the writing of his Discourse, resulted in the white washing of past persecution (202-205). Finally, Callender’s racism towards Native Americans is apparent in the work (206-208).

Waldrop’s decision to conclude his examination of Callender’s contributions to toleration with the work of Isaac Backus creates a natural bookend. Following the death of Callender, there is a transformation within the Baptist tradition through the efforts of Separatists, such as Isaac Backus. Generally, the work accomplishes the fourfold goals of providing an overview of the origins and development of religious toleration in New England, alongside an analysis of Callender’s life and works. Waldrop avoids the fallacy of a “Great Man” history, yet his scholarship could have been enhanced through a broader examination of diverse figures. Concerning Baptist History, Waldrop’s work contributes to the study of General Baptists during the early Awakening period. Waldrop’s scholarship highlights the nature of toleration shared between educated General Baptists and Old Light Congregationalists.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jordann A. Heckart is Adjunct Faculty of World Religions at Des Moines Area Community College.

Date of Review: 
July 2, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey A. Waldrop is Assistant Professor of Church History at Fuller Theological Seminary.


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