Sympathetic Puritans

Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England

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Abram Van Engen
Religion in America
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Whether an intentional choice or a fortuitous coincidence, the selection of Jennie Brownscombe’s painting, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914), is an ironically apposite decision for the cover art of Abram C. Van Engen’s Sympathetic Puritans. Brownscombe’s irenic take on the first Thanksgiving depicts the separatists of Plymouth Colony partaking in the long-mythologized feast of thanks in 1621 with their Native American guests. As suggested by the painting’s title, this meal has served as the ahistorical anchor to the past for modern Thanksgiving Day celebrations. The irony in the selection of Brownscombe’s painting lies in the fact that her image of the early New Englanders is as historically contrived as (although the obverse of) the cold, legalistic, and authoritarian characterization that Van Engen combats throughout the detailed research and convincing analysis of Sympathetic Puritans. Nonetheless, after taking stock of Van Engen’s descriptions of the impact of “fellow feeling” present in Puritan New England communities, this irony is overshadowed by the possibility that Brownscombe’s painting may be a more appropriate rendering of interactions among the early Puritan colonists of New England than it seems at first glance. Indeed, Van Engen rightly notes that despite the maligning characterization of New England Puritans as calculating arbiters of an oppressive legal and social regime, a pervasive theme in “the American literary tradition”—a “Calvinist theology of sympathy shaped the politics, religion, and literature of seventeenth-century New England” (2). Thus the communal table and apparent corporate prayer of Brownscombe’s scene serves as an apt representation of the “fellow feeling” uncovered and explicated in Van Engen’s work.

Over the course of a thorough introduction, six chapters and a cohesive conclusion, Van Engen weaves a narrative of Puritan social relations that serves to enlighten the seemingly overlooked themes of sympathy, compassion, and mutual affection embedded in the society of seventeenth century New England. The interpretation he offers works not only to recast the reputation of the Puritans in a mold formed from a rigorous review of their extant writings, but also to highlight how “the history of modern sympathy extends beyond Latitudinarianism and moral sense philosophy,” which typified the Scottish enlightenment, “to the Calvinist theology of fellow feeling emerging in Early Modern England” (220). This Puritan “fellow feeling” has its roots in the writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other continental Reformers, and was transmitted across the Atlantic during the settlement of New England. In Sympathetic Puritans, Van Engen does not seek to question the traditional “genealogy of sympathy” which stretches from Latitudinarianism and the Scottish enlightenment to eighteenth and nineteenth century American sentimentalism (6). Rather, he addresses what appears to be a hole in the body of scholarly work on early New England: the “unobserved language of sympathy” (10).

The overarching task in Van Engen’s inquiry is to determine how sympathy “shape[d] the culture of Puritan New England” (10). Largely, the answer to that question stems from the tripartite, tautological operation of sympathy among the Puritans. The true believer, who has experienced the saving grace of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, will sympathize with other believers—the “Body of Christ”—as a result of receiving that grace. This sympathy with other members of the Body of Christ then serves as a sign of sincere belief and hence, a foreordained election by God for salvation. The “elect” are then commanded to “fellow feel” with the Body of Christ which, in turn, will follow from true belief. Van Engen explains that, “as sympathy turns from a sign into a duty, the fulfillment of that duty leads to a ratification of the initial, theological assertion—that sympathy results from election” (44). Sympathy for the Puritans was then, simply put, both a sign and a duty, and permeated “sermons, treaties, poems, journals, histories and captivity narratives,” wherein they “urg[ed] it on all” and “us[ed] it to judge the virtue of a citizen and the sanctity of a saint” (6).

To support his assertions about Puritan “fellow feeling,” Van Engen links together methodological themes embedded in four historical case studies which serve as useful paradigms for the operation of sympathy in Puritan New England: the antinomian controversy; continued transatlantic correspondence with believers in England; missionary work among Native Americans; and Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. Through all four historical case studies, Van Engen is able to demonstrate the importance of sympathy as a sign of election, and therefore its role as a creator of identity. Sympathy, in Van Engen’s estimation, appears to have meant something akin to “empathy,” or the ability to place oneself in the position of an afflicted believer. Thus those who hurt visibly with members of the Body of Christ in times of hardship had evidence of their own elect status.

Sympathetic Puritans adds a much-needed interpretation of Puritan social sentiment to the existing early New England Studies corpus. Van Engen’s analysis is a thoroughgoing unmasking of seventeenth century Puritan sympathy that provides a more nuanced understanding of ecclesial and civil communalism in the New England colonies. While his construction of sympathy in the seventeenth century can feel unduly synthetic at times, his overall analysis does not suffer. There is much to commend in this work, but its chief accomplishment appears to be Van Engen’s revelation that the New England Puritans inherited a Calvinistic theology that logically posited sympathy and “fellow feeling” among co-inheritors of divine election. Henceforward any characterization of the Puritans as legalistic authoritarians must contend with Van Engen’s substantive discoveries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Baddley is a recent graduate of The George Washington University Law School.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Abram C. Van Engen is an Assistant Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, where he researches and teaches early American literature, history, and culture. Van Engen received his Ph.D. in English from Northwestern University in 2010, earning the Hagstrum Prize for best dissertation in English.


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