David D. Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Relief in Early New England is a multilayered and subtle portrayal of popular religion in seventeenth century New England. Drawing on letters, diaries, books, and church and town records, Hall leads his reader through a fascinating tour of an ambiguous cosmos in which competing claims are thrust and held together by the necessities of spiritual and material survival. Mostly, the book concerns what theologians call “theodicy,” only this book is not about theologians. Rather, Hall describes how the persistence of obstacles to the ideals of social and natural order were practically and theoretically reconciled to the conviction of God’s providential omnipotence by both the laity and a clergy which sought to shape the laity’s point of view.
Hall does not mean to present yet another book about “the puritans.” The term, as he observes in his introduction, seems to conjure up images of unwavering consistency and unstinting spiritual rigor, and such an image distorts the religious stops and starts, the ambivalence, and, in the case of the large number of “horse-shed” Christians, even the relative laxity of the majority of New Englanders. Hall argues that their religious beliefs were characterized by three broad marks. First, theirs was a different brand of “folk religion” from that characteristic of Europe. In the European context, it makes sense to speak of two “Christianities”—that of the clerics and that of the peasants. In the case of the latter, we can even speak of a syncretism of two religions—Christianity and a stubborn archaic folk religion which only gradually gave way to official Christian teaching. Here, a series of divisions emerges: clergy versus laity; geographically centralized authority versus peripheral diversity; magic versus religion; oral culture versus literary culture. This model, according to Hall, will not work for New England popular religion. The New Englanders came from a literate “middling” class intent upon purging themselves of “vain superstitions.” To them it was a religious duty to be literate, to be as free to read the Bible as their clergy, to be rid of papal mediation. Their ministers did not flock around official religious centers, but lived at home in the frontiers with their parishes. These people rejected magic but thrived on “reading” the “wonders” and portents by which the world revealed its underlying providential order.
Second, what New Englanders carried with them from England was a literate Protestantism and a new sensibility born from the decline of the traditional medieval cultural synthesis. To the former is attributed the use of the vernacular, which allowed for extensive lay participation in doctrinal and church affairs. In the latter is located the “liberalization” of the marketplace and civil authority as autonomous spheres of life over against the religious sphere. In New England, both of these streams of development translated into the empowerment of lay people in both religious and civic life.
Nevertheless, and this is Hall’s third point, the religious outlook of the New Englander was forged from collisions and confrontations between traditional needs and instincts, competing religious and social ideals, and the “modernizing steps” described above. Through these struggles flowed much “European debris”—folk traditions—though now reworked. In this context, the clergy played the role of mediator, articulating religious modes of interpretation of the internal and external course of events. The laity, at once autonomous and dependent, pieced together from the mediated tradition images through which they could make sense of their lives. The result was diversity overlaying a broad but fragile consensus as recurring images were used to read off from the events of the world an account of the world’s ultimate meaning.
In a sense, reading is the central metaphor of Hall’s book. It is with a consideration of “The Uses of Literacy” that he begins his book, and the themes of this initial chapter resurface again and again.
Some background on reading and the laity may be of help. By the fourteenth century, the idea of reading as a religious practice had widened from the monastic setting to include significant numbers of the laity as well. In movements such as the Lollards and the Devotlo Moderna, “rumination” on vernacular translations of the Bible as well as on liturgical and devotional texts was a central component of the daily piety of lay people. The Church generally permitted this practice unless heresy was suspected. Then, as now, established authority viewed literacy as dangerously empowering and hence as potentially subversive. Indeed, the...
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