Female Piety and the Invention of American Puritanism

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Bryce Traister
Literature, Religion, & Postsecular Studies
  • Columbus, OH: 
    Ohio State University Press
    , January
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Secularism has been an even busier, more peculiar, business than we would have thought, Bryce Traister demonstrates in his vital new book, Female Piety and the Invention of American Puritanism. “This book,” Traister argues, “suggests that the way in which our scholarship has framed and organized the cultural field of American Puritanism is itself a symptom of secular thinking,” and that the “career of American Puritanism, if we can put it that way, has therefore developed within the context of what we now call the 'secularization thesis'” (4). Traister is clearly versed in the substantial body of criticism and theory that has troubled the conclusion that religious thinking—sometime in the early 18th century—blinkered off. Yet, to summarize Female Piety by stating that it contributes to a larger effort to reconceive the persistence of the sacred within the secular would make pleasantries out of the work’s profundity. Traister puts forth two, meticulously braided, lines of argument. The first is that disparate strains in the history of female Puritan piety—one elaborating “the mystery of private experience” (164) privileged by Reformed doctrinal and devotional orthodoxies, the other fanning untoward “interior” spirituality (21-23) into an essentially heterodox, anti-institutional position—ground certain postures of modernity. Traister’s second argument is that secularism’s own posturing of American Puritanism as signs or sites of religious persecution, religious regime, public sphere liberalism, and democratic personhood emerged out of these intensities of female piety, as well as both 17th century and contemporary responses to them. Secularism, Traister demonstrates, is not merely an invention but is inventive; it has retrospectively made a world that is conceptual, cultural, and literary: we call that world American Puritanism. 

To grasp the significance of this claim requires that we elaborate its participation in two of Puritan studies’s most proximate conversations: with secular studies—chiefly the work of Charles Taylor, Michael Warner, and Talal Asad—and with women and gender studies. The latter field has revealed the myriad of ways in which female agency has flared, diversified, struggled, been quashed by, and subverted reigning powers. This has been and continues to be important work, though a constituency ran beside it—particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s—that came close to making, for example, Anne Hutchinson, the mother to a crypto-feminist cause. I mention this anachronism to reiterate my admiration for Female Piety, in how it so deftly trains its gaze not only on the actual 17th century lives with which women’s studies has been absorbed, but also on the range of historiographical responses to those lives that have fashioned “Puritanism” as a shorthand for both religiously-minded quackery and for the institutional stomping down on the practice of individual beliefs, including religious ones. That our understanding of Puritanism should contain both registers—“religious victimization and belligerence”—is strange indeed, and it is brilliant for Female Piety to document how the “double-tongued martyrology” (3) issued by Puritanism in what Taylor titled a “secular age,” proceeded out of reactions to two vectors of female piety in a spiritual one. “As radicalized, mystical, extemporaneous, and ascetic linguistic and bodily sets of religious activity, female piety performed older, even ancient, spiritual practices,” explains Traister. “At the same time, indeed sometimes in the very same activity, seventeenth-century female piety helped to imagine categories of personhood, cultural politics (including feminism), psychological realism, and even natural rights discourse we characteristically associate with ‘modernity,’ ‘secularism,’ and ‘Enlightenment.’ By reading the feminine back into Puritanism, we will also be reading religion forward into secularism” (11). 

And so he does. Across four chapters on Anne Hutchinson, New England’s “Quaker Invasion,” Mary Rowlandson, and witchcraft at Salem, Traister plots how the energies devoted to interiority, bodily suffering, retrospection, and visibility find their ways into secular teleologies more strangely than is initially apparent. So, for instance, far from relaxing into a reading of the Antinomian Controversy that would “personalize” (41) Hutchinson by sexing her, Traister’s opening chapter shows us with clarity and nuance how Hutchinson’s internally practiced spiritist piety “forecast the emergence of a modern individual for whom religion would become a compelling aspect of private self-realization” (35). The following chapters trace three routes by which piety became secularized: via Quakers's physical suffering at the hands of (Puritan) persecutors; Rowlandson’s ambivalent relation to her own captivity; and the testimonial speech of the accusers at Salem. The Quakers’s torments, Traister argues in chapter 2, finally found no religious epistemology that could contain them, and helped instead to constitute a new discourse of “human rights.” Chapter 3 documents how, in The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Rowlandson endeavors to preserve “the credibility of private faith” (169) at the very moment Puritanism was obviating its need. Chapter 4 reads the Salem witchcraft trials as an “insurgency” of the testimonial culture that Puritanism had, by around 1662, left behind—though one that now moved between legal and spiritual domains.

While I might take minor issue with some elision of Quaker piety and Puritan female piety more broadly construed, and while there are some small stretches of analysis that feel slightly obliged and others slightly impacted, none of these issues has any significant bearing on the power and grace of Traister’s argument. The readings are simply exhilarating. This, for instance, is how Traister explains the contours and consequence of a Quaker form of witness that, in its obsessive cataloguing of the body in pain, “took on a nearly forensic quality” (107): “religiously motivated protest against [Puritan] state-sponsored injustice,” he writes, “promoted the interests of secular understanding of suffering—that it had become ‘scandal’ rather than anointment, an assault on body rather than on spirit” (106). A bourgeoning discourse of human rights could not be far behind (99-114). Traister’s powers of interpretation, here and elsewhere (or, rather, here and everywhere), are stunning in their ability to split the difference between what happened on the ground and what, and how, intellectually-affective activities (including the act of criticism itself) came to bestow on these events a series of afterlives that continue to shape our ideas about privacy, human rights, trauma, and legal credibility. “What happens when the management of emotional life becomes a human rather than a divine problem?” (121), we ask with Traister early in his chapter on Rowlandson, then watch as, step-by-step, he articulates how Rowlandson psychologizes a Puritan ordeal (Am I saved?) so completely that the essential worldview goes from being gracious to being therapeutic. “The Puritan doctrine of affliction produces bafflement, wonder, admiration, trauma, clarity, and confusion. These are all states of the person as much as they are states of the soul” (157). Traister is not the first to draw a line from female piety to a secular notion of privacy, or to merge post-secular and Puritan studies, but in Female Piety he has pushed these fields forward in ways that are expansive, rigorous, and unexpected. There has been for some time now in Puritan studies a vague, nearly atmospheric, sense that common critiques of the secularization thesis have missed something. It has taken Traister, as a literary critic, to show us what it is: an account of how modernity, in its various and often vicarious “inventions” of American Puritanism, imagined secularism for itself.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel Trocchio is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College and Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale University's Beinecke Library.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bryce Traister is Associate Professor, Chair of the English Department, and American Studies Centre Director of Undergraduate Studies at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada.


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