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Records of Trial from Thomas Shepard’s Church in Cambridge, 1638–1649

Part of the book series: Christianities in the Trans-Atlantic World ((CTAW))

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For decades, the published transcriptions of two sets of manuscript records created by puritan minister Thomas Shepard in Cambridge, Massachusetts Bay Colony, between 1638 and 1649, have been described as Shepard’s on-the-spot recording of oral relations of faith delivered by candidates for church membership. Rogers-Stokes’ reading of the original Shepard manuscripts leads her to conclude that they are not relations of faith but records of trial sessions. This fundamentally new understanding of the manuscripts is based on the author’s new transcriptions, which reveal original manuscript pages replete with crucial punctuation and paragraphing that demarcate clear pauses, new conversations, and new sessions. Rogers-Stokes dispels much of the confusion produced by the published transcriptions, and in particular reveals the strong individuality expressed by the women of Cambridge.

A sample exploration of the records suggests that a thorough study would answer some old questions and provoke new ones. (Edmund S. Morgan, “New England Puritanism: Another Approach,” The William and Mary Quarterly 18, No. 2 [April 1961]: 238)

—Edmund S. Morgan

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  1. 1.

    Morgan, “New England Puritanism,” 237. The main assumption Morgan wanted to test was whether there was “actually a decline in the number of church members during the seventeenth century,” and whether that decline was caused, as scholars insisted, by a decline in puritan religious fervor and confidence.

  2. 2.

    Rutman devoted his article to supporting the established hypothesis that the second and third generation of puritan settlers in New England lost their religious way, falling back into the sinful world and letting the “bridge which the Winthrops and Cottons were attempting to build between this world and the next” collapse. That declension (lack of interest in, respect for, or confidence about religion) was the source of falling numbers of church members was a fact, according to Rutman, and he produced many types of records to back the claim. Darren B. Rutman, “God’s Bridge Falling Down: ‘Another Approach’ to New England Puritanism Assayed,” The William and Mary Quarterly 19, No. 3 (July 1962): 410. Morgan would respond with a Letter to the Editor in the October 1962 issue in which he mildly claimed Rutman had mistaken his point and reiterated his question about the reasons behind declining numbers of church members in seventeenth-century New England. Edmund S. Morgan, “New England Puritanism,” 642–644.

  3. 3.

    Rutman, “God’s Bridge,” 408.

  4. 4.

    Thus the Cambridge records provide that “historical voyeurism” that records of relations, which could be more formal, cannot. David R. Como, “Women, Prophecy, and Authority in Early Stuart Puritanism,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 61, No. 2 (1998): 207. Susan Juster describes this as “men and women caught in a moment of intense self-scrutiny and self-assessment.” Susan Juster, “‘In a Different Voice’: Male and Female Narratives of Religious Conversion in Post-Revolutionary America,” American Quarterly, 41, No. 1 (March 1989): 37.

  5. 5.

    For a concise description of this requirement, which was unique to New England, see David D. Hall, ed., The Antinomian Controversy, 1636–1638: A Documentary History (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990), 12–14. The first anecdotal evidence of New England puritans giving relations of faith in the course of, or as a requirement for, church membership comes from Roger Clap of Dorchester, who described “many in their Relations [speaking] of their great Terrors and deep Sense of their lost Condition.” Roger Clap, Memoirs of Roger Clap. 1630 (Boston: David Clapp, 1844) 24, Clap describes people testifying to “God’s Work on their Souls,” which sounds like the usual practice of lay prophesying—non-clergy standing up in the meeting-house after a sermon and sharing its impact on them, or any other “exhortation” that inspired them. The puritans developed this tradition of laypeople praying, prophesying, and even preaching when reformed, properly “orthodox” puritan ministers were scarce. Qualified puritan laymen could do everything a minister was authorized to do except preside over the sacrament of communion. Women were not allowed to speak aloud in church, so it is surprising when Clap describes “Men and Women, young and old … confessing their faith publickly.” John Winthrop wrote in his journal that in December 1633, when John Cotton became minister at the church in Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony, “Divers profane and notorious evil persons came and confessed their sins and were comfortably received into the bosom of the Church. Yea, the Lord gave witness to the exercise of prophesy, so as thereby some were converted and others much edified.” Richard S. Dunn & Laetitia Yeandle, eds., The Journal of John Winthrop 1630–1649 (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1996): 61. The connection Winthrop makes between lay prophesying and church membership was never made explicit by John Cotton himself, and in fact, documents instituting relations of faith as part of the requirements of Congregational church membership have not yet been found. Edmund S. Morgan’s hypothesis that “[i]n the absence of further evidence it is impossible to tell whether the Boston church at this time demanded that candidates describe their conversion, but it may be that Cotton’s religious revival prompted converts, before admission to the church, voluntarily to narrate the experiences that led them to the step. … Whatever the practices of the Boston church in 1634, by the next year a number of ministers, whether prompted by Cotton or by their own reasoning, had decided that evidence of a work of grace in the heart, or in other words, saving faith, was a necessary qualification for church membership.” Morgan notes that in that next year, 1635, the Hooker congregation left Cambridge, Massachusetts Bay Colony, for the Connecticut River Valley, and in 1636 Thomas Shepard and his flock gathered the church anew; they asked neighboring ministers for guidance and were told that “such as were to join should make confession of their faith, and declare what work of grace the Lord had wrought in them.” Edmund S. Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1963): 98–100. Patricia Caldwell traces these origins and makes a fruitful comparison to developments in the English puritan church in the “Origins” chapter of her classic book The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983).

  6. 6.

    A few records of seventeenth-century relations each from John Fiske in Wenham and Michael Wigglesworth in Malden, and then the sixty-seven from Shepard in Cambridge, made up the entirety of seventeenth-century relations widely available to scholars before NEHH began. David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990): 119–120.

  7. 7.

    “There is an earlier record of the church in existence covering part of Rev. Thomas Shepard’s ministry. This is now in the custody of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. The officers of this society have refused permission to copy it. It is the record written by Rev. Thomas Shepard of the experiences related by those who wished to join the church.” Stephen Paschall Sharples, S.B., ed., Records of the Church of Christ at Cambridge in New England, 1632–1830 (Boston: Eben Putnam, 1906): iv.

  8. 8.

    The puritans believed in predestination—that eons before God created the universe he decided the fate of every individual who would ever live, granting some salvation and reserving damnation to the vast majority. So the puritans’ task was not to attempt to earn salvation, as they believed some Protestants attempted to do, or to buy it, as they believed Catholics tried to do, or to ask for it, as they believed the Arminians did (this third way eventually winning out in the mid-nineteenth century to become the mainstay of modern Protestant Christianity). The puritan’s task was to discern God’s will, to hear God speaking his choice through his word, the Bible, through prayer, and through the words of godly ministers. One had to discover whether one had been granted salvation. If the happy discovery of salvation was made, then a person “closed with Christ,” finding “assurance” of God’s grace (what later Christianity called “salvation”). Then the rest of their life was spent in trying to move ever closer to Christ, to do his will as much as possible on Earth until fully united with him in Heaven.

  9. 9.

    For “non-separating Congregationalists … the church, once organized was ‘to be informed, directed and guided by the Pastor chiefly …’” with the pastor and “grave assistant Elders” in complete control and the congregation “striving rather ‘freely to consent to their Guides preparing & directing every matter’ … If the clergy failed to control the internal affairs of their churches, then [those churches] would inevitably drift apart, divergences and schisms appear, and popular frenzies break out. … Though a church properly began with the people, and though a ministry could not exist until the people had themselves ordained it, yet newly associated members could not linger to congratulate each other upon the power they had acquired, but immediately must subject themselves to the rule of proper superiors. … The congregations retained no ‘residual powers’; their existence simply was prerequisite to the ministers’ opportunity ‘to do that which they themselves cannot do.; … the primary condition of their becoming seated in a [church] corporation was that they formally enslave their will to the revealed Word of God, and the revealed Word required them to nominate a fitting man upon whom Christ and not themselves should bestow the authority they were to obey.” Perry Miller, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts 1630–1650 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1933): 174, 179, 180. Scholars in the decades since Miller have begun to rethink this description; see David D. Hall’s proofs in his chapter “Godly Rule” that while “Samuel Stone, the minister at Hartford, described the workings of church government as ‘a speaking aristocracy in the face of a silent democracy’ [this] was not how governance functioned in Stone’s own congregation.” and that New England ministers joined with their congregations in deliberately limiting ministerial power and encouraging “saints empowered.” David D. Hall, A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England (New York: A. A. Knopf, 2011).

  10. 10.

    As Mary Cappello puts it, in these records we hear “the interpenetration of public and private voice—here, the communal speaks through the church member who speaks through the transcribing pen of the preacher.” Mary Cappello, “The Authority of Self-Definition in Thomas Shepard’s ‘Autobiography and Journal,’” Early American Literature 24, No. 1 (1989): 35. This stands in contrast to George Selement’s premise that “laymen whose relations end abruptly, even sometimes in mid-sentence, may have been prompted by Shepard, who stopped writing in order to lead them with questions and reminders. After all, these narrations served a didactic function, and Shepard wanted each one to be exemplary for the sake of both the confessor and the congregation.” George Selement, “The Meeting of Elite and Popular Minds at Cambridge, New England, 1638–1645,” The William and Mary Quarterly 41, No. 1 (January 1984): 35. Emphasis added.

  11. 11.

    Meredith Neumann assumes this, saying “Thomas Shepard famously recorded the spiritual narratives of his congregants seeking membership in the Cambridge church in a single notebook” and “As a woman, [Jane Wilkinson] Winship probably delivered her confession in front of Shepard and a small group of elders.” The possibility that these were not the final, formal relations is not broached. Meredith Neumann, Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013): 174, 182. Charles Cohen says that the records’ “unpolished appearance chronicles the spontaneity of the original event and the excitement of preachers trying to keep pace with confessors.” Charles Cohen, God’s Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986): 140. Selement and Woolley state that “distracting redundancies” in the records are “probably a result of the speed at which Shepard had to take down the relations.” George Selement and Bruce C. Woolley, eds. Thomas Shepard’s Confessions (Boston: The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1981): 28. Sarah Rivett has also claimed that relations demonstrate “the denial of the speaker’s authority, as it was delivered in a spirit of submission to the discerning authority of the elect and ministerial judges.” Sarah Rivett, The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011): 97. Rivett and Stephanie Kirk say that “men as well as women publicly performed an act of self-discovery in order to orally translate the evidence of grace recorded upon their souls into communal knowledge. Between 1638 and 1645, Thomas Shepard recorded several such testimonies in his church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” Stephanie Kirk and Sarah Rivett, “Religious Transformations in the Early Modern Americas,” Early American Literature 45, No. 1, Special Issue: Methods for the Study of Religion in Early American Literature (2010): 72. David Hall says that “a woman [Ellen Greene] began to make her relation to his congregation but faltered and fell silent soon after she began.” Hall, A Reforming People, 170. Daniel Shea also describes Shepard as writing down the relations as they were spoken, and “subsequently, he committed these oral narratives to writing under the title ‘The Confessions of diverse propounded…” Daniel B. Shea, Spiritual Autobiography in Early America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988): 140.

  12. 12.

    Michael McGiffert, ed., God’s Plot: Puritan Spirituality in Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972): 136–7.

  13. 13.

    Mary Rhinelander McCarl, “Thomas Shepard’s Record of Religious Experience, 1648–1649,” The William and Mary Quarterly 48, No. 3 (July 1991): 434.

  14. 14.

    Stephanie Kirk and Sarah Rivett state, “In contrast to the transparency of the male-witnessing subject who replicates a waxlike impression of his introspective practice of self-scrutiny through the testimonial form, first-generation women perform a reluctance to claim the signs of grace as their own autonomous discovery, and to be reliable witnesses to the evidence of their own soul. … New England women defer consistently to the minister’s help in discerning their own signs of grace.” Kirk and Rivett, “Religious Transformations,” 74.

  15. 15.

    On my second reading, I went through and wrote “yes” or “no” after each person’s record to note whether the person speaking had found assurance and only a handful earned a “yes.” I have lost count of how many times I’ve read the Cambridge records, but some of the pages of my copy of Selement and Woolley are still covered in post-it notes filled with my own attempted gloss of their meaning.

  16. 16.

    The spirit of the nineteenth-century description of the later set of Shepard records as “visits to prisoners,” likely based on a quick scan of the many individuals recorded bewailing their sin and spiritual “crimes,” remained mostly intact through the years that followed, up to the present day. Andrew Delbanco chose the title The Puritan Ordeal for his book on the beliefs and material circumstances of the puritans. Michael J. Colacurcio’s hostile take on Thomas Shepard is extreme only in the openness of his expressions of contempt for its puritan subject (Michael J. Colacurcio, “A Strange Poise of Spirit: The Life and Deaths of Thomas Shepard,” Religion & Literature 32, No. 1 (Spring 2000).

  17. 17.

    Douglas Winiarski noted in 2009 that “two decades ago” Charles Cohen “posited a spiritual equality in Reformed theology that rendered ‘androgynous’ the language that laymen and laywomen deployed in the oral church admission testimonies recorded by Cambridge [minister] Shepard.” Sadly, as I will show in Chap. 5, since then there has been a wealth of effort poured into tweezing out minute differences between the male and female records from Cambridge, and almost none devoted to exploring this remarkable fact. Later in his chapter Winiarski notes a minor difference between mid-eighteenth-century conversion narratives but then concludes that this data “offers a warning to scholars who would push the notion of gender difference too far in their interpretation of church admission narratives…” Douglas L. Winiarski, “Gendered ‘Relations’ in Haverhill, Massachusetts, 1719–1742,” in In Our Own Words: New England Diaries, 1600 to the Present – Volume 1: Diary Diversity, Coming of Age, ed. Peter Benes, Vol 31, Annual Proceedings of the Dublin Seminar of New England Folklife (Boston: Boston University, 2009), 60, 76.

  18. 18.

    Lori Rogers-Stokes, “Making Sense of the Shepard Conversion Narratives,” The New England Quarterly 89, No. 1 (March 2016). Like Morgan, I was published in the “Memoranda and Documents” section.

  19. 19.

    Mary Rhinelander McCarl, “Thomas Shepard’s Record of Religious Experience, 1648–1649,” The William and Mary Quarterly 48, No. 3 (July 1991): 434.

  20. 20.

    McGiffert notes that final relations were not the work of a day, but does not recognize them as the end result of sessions of trial: “We know these [relations] were not impromptu performances; they had been practiced at home, coached by the minister, and vetted by senior saints. The confessors tell us, too, that they had sometimes shared their spiritual problems with other ministers, relatives, and friends.” McGiffert, God’s Plot, 137. Elizabeth Reis notes that “Conversion narratives represented the last measures taken before individuals were allowed to join a church,” then describes the process of trial, referring to relations as the “final test” of the candidate. Elizabeth Reis, “Seventeenth Century Conversion Narratives,” in Religions of the United States in Practice, Volume 1, ed. Colleen McDannell (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 22, 23.

  21. 21.

    Extracts from the Notebook of the Rev. John Fiske, 1637–1675 (Cambridge: John Wilson and Son, 1989), reprinted by HardPress Publishing, 11. Fiske’s records are fascinating because they include in detail relations that were part of “second propoundings.” People dismissed from other Congregational churches in New England who wished to join the church in Wenham were asked to give a relation of faith even though they had already done so in their original church. Thus many of the narratives Fiske records are not true relations of faith but forms of trial session in which people gave the relation they had given in their previous church, took questions from Wenham representatives, were considered by the church, and then, if approved, allowed to give a new, slightly updated, relation to the Wenham church. This method of being “twice propounded” was controversial, as it seemed to question the good practice of other Congregational churches, but Wenham stuck by it; as Fiske noted on November 10, 1644: “The grounds of the second propounding seemed, viz. to free the church’s practice in receiving in members from just exceptions to such as are without, to offer an occasion of further discourse of the party propounded whether from such as not members of such, as members of other churches. Hear the second propounding and after it a fortnight’s time before they are called forth to the relation of public trial.” The five women who first underwent second propounding, including the minister’s wife Anne Fiske, all did so on November 1, 1644, and were accepted on November 17. Phineas Fiske’s unnamed wife went through a prolonged trial on November 30, 1645, enduring questions and objections from her listeners, and the session was adjourned. A new session began on December 5, a day of humiliation, whereat Mistress Fiske “made her confession, particularly of the evil by her speeches of her husband and against the church and pastor. It was voted satisfactorily.” She was received into covenant that day. Generally, people who successfully made their second relation after second propounding were received the following Sunday. Robert G. Pope, ed., Volume 47: The Notebook of the Reverend John Fiske, 1644–1675 (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1974), 20, 42–43, 45.

  22. 22.

    In an entry for October 22, 1644, Fiske notes specifically that the church decided that in the case of “receiving in members that were not yet of any church,” there had to be more than one session of trial: “Whether the pastor was to propound such persons upon a sole or single trial? Resolved that it would be neither safe, comfortable, nor honorable so to proceed. Hereupon voted that Brother Read should be joined with the pastor in taking the first trial of such members and with both of their consents they are to be propounded.” Pope, Volume 47: The Notebook of the Reverend John Fiske, 17.

  23. 23.

    Pope, Volume 47: The Notebook of the Reverend John Fiske, 12–13.

  24. 24.

    In Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England (Williamsburg: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982): 152; see more examples through p. 155. Hambrick-Stowe also records Samuel Sewall’s sessions of trial with Peter Thacher’s father at Third Church in Boston in January 1677; Sewall “mentioned my desire of communion with his Church, rehearsed to him some of my discouragements, as, continuance in Sin, wandering in prayer. … At my coming away [Thacher] said he thought I ought to be encouraged.”

  25. 25.

    Emphasis added. Quoted in John A. Albro’s Introduction to Thomas Shepard, The Sincere Convert and The Sound Believer (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999): cxxviii-cxxix.

  26. 26.

    Ironically, Charles Cohen, who aided Selement and Woolley with their transcription and states at one point in his own later book God’s Caress that the records are of relations, opens the door to the possibility that the Cambridge records are of trial instead: “Selement and Woolley… misrepresent the procedural differences between Hooker and Shepard… They allege that Hooker ‘examined his Hartford candidates in the privacy of his study,’ whereas Shepard required a relation ‘before the entire Cambridge congregation,’ but this assertion confuses two separate steps. Both Hooker’s ruling elders and Shepard’s (perhaps in his presence) conducted private screenings in the weeks before the relation.” Charles Cohen, God’s Caress, 143. Italics in original.

  27. 27.

    The brevity of many of the records has led scholars to posit that Shepard instituted a ban on lengthy relations. This is hard to justify for a few reasons. First, when those scholars were writing, they did not have a lot of examples of relations to compare and contrast with the Cambridge narratives—short as compared with what? If we compare them to the English (see Chap. 3), their content is clearly different, and it’s clear that different expectations made the English ones longer. Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative, 26, 34–35. Next, it is not possible that a mere paragraph could pass as a full relation; as we see in an imagined exchange written by Richard Mather to explain why the Congregational church demanded relations, while the apostolic church did not: “[Objection] But yet there would not be such long narrations [in the apostolic church] when each one makes a good long speech, in the profession of his Faith and Repentance. [Answer] … we deny not but they [those apostolic relations] might be briefer, because there was not such need that they should be long in regard of some difference between them and us, their time and ours … we need more time to hear, and try the soundness of men’s repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ. [In] our times in New England … there is more need now to be more studious in examination of men’s estates when they offer themselves for Church members…” Richard Mather, An Apologie of the churches in New-England …, 29–30,;view=fulltext

  28. 28.

    David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990): 131. William Rathband offered a similarly negative description of a scene he had never witnessed from his seat in England, of “the stronger that can speake better, may grow in spirituall pride of their own abilities, and contempt of those that are weaker. In the weaker, envie at those that doe better than themselves, and discouragement, being afraid to offer themselves to triall, because they know not whether they shall be judged fit or no …” William Rathband, A briefe narration …, 9, Hall would later soften his view, noting that “well before they immigrated, most of the colonists had become versed in the repertory of private meetings, conventicles, and fast days that sustained those who affiliated with the godly. The textures of this training are strikingly apparent in the lay ‘relations’ or religious experience made by men and women in Thomas Shepard’s congregation.” David D. Hall, A Reforming People, 73.

  29. 29.

    George Selement, “The Meeting of Elite and Popular Minds at Cambridge,” 34–35. Interestingly, in the Confessions Selement and Woolley note that “a candidate for church membership first arranged for a semiprivate interview at the home of one of the elders of the congregation. At that informal meeting the candidate … at the elder’s request, made ‘known unto them [the congregation] the worke of grace’ upon his soul.” Of course, it would be impossible to stuff “the congregation” into the home of an elder, and Selement and Woolley’s decision to interpret “them” as “the congregation” shows the power of their belief that the records were of relations. Selement and Woolley, eds. Thomas Shepard’s Confessions, 18.

  30. 30.

    Neumann, Jeremiah’s Scribes, 177.

  31. 31.

    Rachel Trocchio reveals the deep importance of memory to the puritans, the intense debates over its purpose and uses in England, and its crucial role in preparation and claims of assurance as described by Thomas Hooker in New England: “Remembering is this ‘swimming,’ the labour by which a person makes his or her way to land only by passing through, with arduous repetition, what he has gone through before.” Repeating what one has heard is not the same as remembering it, for the application of memory is the application of analysis and meaning-making. Memory for Hooker and the puritans in New England was interpretation and computation, without which there could be no understanding of God’s grace or claims of assurance. Rachel Trocchio, “Memory’s Ends: Thinking as Grace in Thomas Hooker’s New England,” American Literature 90, Number 4 (December 2018), 703, 707.

  32. 32.

    This insight into lay counsel is invaluable. Francis Bremer describes the powerful role of lay counsel in the Congregational church in Lay Empowerment and the Development of Puritanism, and it is there that Bremer also states, clearly and persuasively, if only in passing, that the records that Selement and Woolley and McCarl transcribed are not records of live, final relations given to win church membership: “The ‘confessions’ gathered by Thomas Shepard in a notebook during the period from roughly 1638–1645 are examples of laymen and laywomen sharing religious experiences. They have been viewed by historians as part of the requirements specified by Shepard for those who wished to join his church. [But] Thomas Welde [acknowledged] that private meetings were held, categorizing them not as admission tests, but as ‘meetings of the Saints, for such an holy end.’ [Seeing] the Shepard ‘confessions’ in this light would help explain the hesitant nature of many of the recorded relations. … the ‘confessions’ attest to the important role that fellow believers played in each other’s progress towards faith and assurance.” Francis J. Bremer, Lay Empowerment and the Development of Puritanism (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015): 83–84. Bremer notes that “In light of this it is striking that the modern editors of the ‘confessions’ [Selement and Woolley] point out that ‘Unfortunately, there is little evidence in the Confessions to indicate that the relations of faith were actually given in public.’”

  33. 33.

    See David Kobrin, “The Expansion of the Visible Church in New England: 1629–1650,” Church History, 36 (June 1967), 192–94 for a concise description of the stages of preparation. Not all scholars are careful to be accurate in their description of the goal of preparation or the event of conversion, stating that grace came at the end of preparation as if it was a guaranteed conclusion. “Conversion” for the puritans of New England meant the realization that grace had been granted to an individual by God. It did not mean that if someone went through a thorough spiritual preparation they would receive grace as a result. One prepared to know one’s spiritual status—saved or not. One did not go through preparation in order to be converted, or to somehow bring about one’s own salvation. See examples in Selement and Woolley, eds. Thomas Shepard’s Confessions, p. 2, and Susan Juster, “In a Different Voice,” 34.

  34. 34.

    Patricia Caldwell says that “… in New England conversion stories, [the] narrators do not know how to account for the fact that the selves whose stories they are telling suffer guilt, depression [and] ‘deadness,’ and there is no acceptable external object in which to embody these feelings except the whole ‘situation’ in which they find themselves.” Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative, 61. As I will show throughout, the Cambridge narrators could account for their deadness and recounted their battles to overcome it in great detail, for victories represented coming closer to Christ.

  35. 35.

    “Turning does not inhere in a single event; it stretches out through a lifetime of faithful discipline.” This is Charles Cohen’s masterful summation of the preparation cycle before and after assurance. See the full description above this quote. Charles Cohen, God’s Caress, 7.

  36. 36.

    Michael McGiffert, God’s Plot, 24. Perry Miller noted the simultaneous humility and self-confidence of Puritan logic in The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983): 439.

  37. 37.

    Katherine Sutton, A Christian Womans Experience of the glorious working of Gods free grace (Rotterdam: Goddaeus, 1663), p. 3. Sutton was an Englishwoman who did not make the trip to New England and wrote out her own relation after our time period, but hers is one of the few English relations to bear a strong resemblance to a Cambridge narration and is thus useful to include here.

  38. 38.

    Francis J. Bremer, “‘To Tell What God Hath Done for Thy Soul’: Puritan Spiritual Testimonies as Admission Tests and Means of Edification,” The New England Quarterly 87.4 (December 2014): 652, 629.

  39. 39.

    McCarl, “Thomas Shepard’s Record,” 459.

  40. 40.

    I must acknowledge my own failure to address this question in my own article, in which I confidently stated that “All of the Shepard narratives provide proofs of assurance, though they may be hard for modern readers to recognize.” My realization that the language of assurance was hard to decipher for modern readers led me to make this false statement, as I decided that those records that did not show assurance actually did, if only I were a better reader. I gave those failed records the benefit of a doubt—exactly what I said Shepard would not do: “The commonly expressed notion that Thomas Shepard was an ‘easy grader’ of narratives, compassionately accepting people who showed little or no evidence of assurance and conversion, is based [on] negative misreadings.” In my article I list some of those negative misreadings; I also crucially hedge a little, changing my confident statement that all of the relations show assurance to “almost all.” I wish I had listened to my doubt about this. Rogers-Stokes, “Making Sense of the Shepard Conversion Narratives,“ 5, n. 6.

  41. 41.

    Selement and Woolley state that “Shepard was lax in his admissions standards, a laxity which is startling in view of the alleged severity of the Bay Colony admission practices. … Shepard simply did not force prospective members to demonstrate that they had closed with Christ, that is, to demonstrate a personal certainty about their salvation.” Selement and Woolley, eds., The Confessions, 22, 23. Patricia Caldwell notes that “only the minimal stirrings of one’s ‘first conversion,’ as Thomas Shepard called it, were expected [to] be exhibited by those who would join the gathered churches. First conversion involved ‘the least breathings’ of the Holy Spirit.” Caldwell interprets this to mean that “applicants … were to be treated leniently.” But Shepard refers to first conversion—the applicant must describe a closing with Christ. The important thing for both Cotton and Shepard was that the applicant did have assurance. No one was allowed membership without assurance simply in the hope that one day they might find it. As Perry Miller puts it, church member audiences for narratives did not mistake the “natural perturbations of the unregenerate for the stirrings of authentic grace.” Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative, 77; Miller, The New England Mind, 29. Thomas Weld said “we accept Christians of the lowest form, and never reject any for want of parts of eminency of grace, if we can discern in them a heart smitten with sense of sin and need of Christ joined with a blameless conversation, though very weak in knowledge and faith.” That “sense of sin and need of Christ” is one of the two crucial components of the conversion morphology: an utter reliance on God’s help rather than one’s own abilities. Thus Weld makes the very important distinction here, for only those with assurance had this realization that their own sin made it impossible for them to achieve anything through “means.” Thomas Weld, An Answer to W.R., His Narration (London: 1644), 17–18. See a good definition of “godly conversation” in Jane Kamensky, “Talk Like a Man: Speech, Power, and Masculinity in Early New England,” Gender & History 8 No. 1 (April 1996), 28.

  42. 42.

    Quoted in Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative, 93. Charles Hambrick-Stowe goes further, stating that “The criterion for membership that comes out in most of the confessions is full repentance for sin. The narratives tend to reach their climax at this point, and hope for future growth in the joy of grace was founded on such preparation. … When a person [could] say ‘then I saw the Lord had begun,’ the doors to church membership opened.” Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety, 87, 89.

  43. 43.

    “Puritans took the new birth in John 3.3 literally; Saints begin their spiritual life with infantile capacities. … Spiritual growth requires the constant exercise of faith.” Charles Cohen, God’s Caress, 103.

  44. 44.

    Winship makes this point when he says that Shepard required “confessions of faith [and] conversion narratives” of himself and six others when his church was gathered in Cambridge in February 1636. I disagree with his ensuing argument that this was to establish strict “doctrinal orthodoxy”; there was a difference between confessions of faith, or “owning the covenant,” and making a successful relation. The former required only doctrinal knowledge, the latter required evidence (as far as humanly possible) of assurance. This is why Richard Mather’s church-gathering in Dorchester two months later was aborted, at Shepard’s recommendation; as Winship notes, Shepard specifically faulted three relations of faith as potentially inadequate. That is, they did not offer convincing proofs of assurance. But then Winship states that “Neither Mather nor his congregation realized that what was expected was something other than accounts of the various methods by which they found assurance. Instead they were to produce narratives of their conversions, something that English critics of New England insisted would be a hard thing for many genuine Christians ever to do, let alone when the expectation was not clear to begin with.” But this does not hold together: if one could give an account of the way in which they had found assurance, that in itself is a “narrative of their conversion,” or relation. The one record we have of the aborted Dorchester gathering specifically notes doubts about the relations of three of the men involved, not their doctrinal orthodoxy. There was a world of difference between the two. Anyone could learn the rules and parts of reformed doctrine. Not everyone could give a successful relation, which is what mattered most. Michael P. Winship, Making Heretics: Militant Protestantism and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1636–1641 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002): 72–3.

  45. 45.

    Thomas Weld, An Answer to W.R., 23. Emphasis added.

  46. 46.

    Andy Dorsey, “A Rhetoric of American Experience: Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge Confessions and the Discourse of Spiritual Hypocrisy,” Early American Literature 49.3 (2014): 632–33, 635–36.

  47. 47.

    Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative, 167.

  48. 48.

    Neumann, Jeremiah’s Scribes, 184, Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative, 167–8.

  49. 49.

    Shepard would not be alone in this: “The procedures for entering a church were set down by numerous observers, but since the actual happenings were not so dutifully transcribed, their reconstruction is necessarily partial.” Charles Cohen, God’s Caress, 148. Cohen notes in a footnote on the same page that Dedham’s church records claim that particular professions (relations) “‘remaine in private notes,’ & were too large heere to be inserted.” This mention of “private notes” could have two meanings: the people listening to the relations, rather than the minister, took notes on what was said or that the notes were “private” because these Dedham records were actually records of trial.

  50. 50.

    Thomas Weld replies to William Rathband’s scandalized cry that “everyone that is admitted is brought before the whole Church (though never so many) to make their Declarations in publike … [how can we be] so harsh in our dealing, as not to betrust the Elders and some private men with their examinations” by saying “we have seene such a tender respect had to the weaker sex (who are usually more fearefull & bashfull) that we commit their trial to the Elders & some few others in private, who upon their testimony are admitted into the Church, without any more adoe … frequently.” Thomas Weld, An Answer to W.R., 18–19. The word “frequently” is important. It tells us that it was not required or expected of women to let an elder read their relation for them. I agree with Patricia Caldwell that the minister of each church probably influenced this issue and that Shepard clearly expected women in Cambridge to give their own relations from their own mouths. Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative, 50, n. 16. The report of Edward Johnson that women never gave their own relations in the Watertown church may be an example of a minister, in this case Thomas Carter, curbing women’s free expression—though Johnson begins his observation by stating that “some men cannot speak publikely to edification through bashfulness, [and so] the less is required of such.” Edward Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence, J. Franklin Jameson, ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910): 217.

  51. 51.

    “Puritan spirituality was an affair of the mouth and ear.” Jane Kamensky, “Talk Like a Man,” 27.

  52. 52.

    “The relative rarity of such occasions make them all the more precious and their impact all the stronger. To hear these testimonies was to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit; these were moments that affirmed the church as spiritual community.” Hall, Worlds of Wonder, 118. Hall makes clear the rarity of publication of relations, much later in the century, in the 1680s and 1690s, by noting a few individual relations published much later, after the death of the persons who gave them, by their friends and family members as a tribute (p. 130). Susan Juster notes that in the late eighteenth century, “the motive for publishing these once private accounts of conversion was clearly pedagogical”; the same would have been true, I believe, in the seventeenth century. Juster, “In a Different Voice,” 35. It’s ironic that the Selement and Woolley publication of the records has led virtually all scholars to think of, and describe them, as “texts” designed to be read and considered as literature. One example can stand for all: “The conversion narrative, a text which recounts a process of confessional change or spiritual awakenings, is recognised as being one of the most dynamic literary forms associated with early modern religious culture. … often composed by men and women [and] designed to provoke a further change on the part of the reader.” Abigail Shinn, “The Senses and the Seventeenth-Century English Conversion Narrative” in Sensing the Sacred in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, ed. Robin Macdonald, Emilie Murphy, and Elizabeth Swann (Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge Press), 1. This mindset in which all relations or sessions of trial are assumed to be written means that much scholarly attention is also paid to imagining a system in which ministers wrote and edited the relations, stifling and controlling the voices of the faithful, which I will explore more fully in Chap. 5. Finally, it also leads scholars to refer to relations as “performances”; see Meredith Styer, “The Pen of Puritan Womanhood: Anne Bradstreet’s Personal Poetry as Catechism on Godly Womanhood,” Rhetoric Review 36:1, 16–18.

  53. 53.

    Bremer, Lay Empowerment, 83–84.

  54. 54.

    Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative, 85. There is no primary evidence that any candidates in Shepard’s church stood silently as the minister read their relation for them, so we may assume for now that they were always delivered by the candidate. In Fiske’s church in Wenham at about the same time, Fiske sometimes notes that a relation was read for someone, but does not make it clear whether the person stood there and listened as it was read out. “23 of 1st 60 - On this day the relation of Brother Farwel and his wife and Sister Hincksman read and their assent given and Brother Hincksman made his relation viva voce. And the church after (none objected), upon their approbation of the same by virtue of the persons for … observance and their desires and their assent to the said profession of … voted the receiving into our covenant. And so they were.” “Volume 47: The Notebook of the Reverend John Fiske,” 51.

  55. 55.

    “Hooker … placed [an] aggressive eroticism at the center of an otherwise sober picture of self-control. … [In] a passage from The Unbelievers Preparation for Christ [Hooker says] ‘you should daily be persuading of your soules [to] bid him welcome.’” Amanda Porterfield, Female Piety in Puritan New England: The Emergence of Religious Humanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992): 44. Hooker did not develop this idea as Shepard did, falling back frequently on descriptions of the believer passively making themselves available to receive Christ.

  56. 56.

    This separateness of women’s spiritual identities can obscure their power. See Lyle Koehler, A Search for Power: The “Weaker Sex” in Seventeenth-Century New England (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980) for the usual focus on public, political power that obviates the all-important puritan spiritual realm. The overwhelming majority of puritan women in New England did not bring the empowerment of their spiritual identity out of that realm and into the public, political realm. Unlike the “visionary women” of English puritanism, whose political speech and public activism “inspired a mixture of awe and terror among males during the 1640s and 1650s,” New England puritan women reserved their independence to the spiritual realm, where the “effusive, powerful, and emotive outpourings of the spirit were not merely tolerated but in fact highly prized.” See David R. Como, “Women, Prophecy, and Authority,” 205, 207, 219 for differences and parallels between English and New English puritan women’s public and private spiritual identities. Juster describes this as “authority for women experienced as personal rather than abstract power.” Susan Juster, “In a Different Voice,” 39.

  57. 57.

    Margaret Manchester’s exploration of the Verin family and the political disorder sown by Jane Verin’s actions to move her spiritual independence into the political realm reveals the exception that proves the rule that all but a fraction of puritan women in early New England felt a “strongly confident sense of individual self-working in cooperation with god’s purposes” strictly within the context of their own spiritual seeking and activity, public and private. Margaret Manchester, “‘Much Afflicted with Conscience’: The Verins and the Puritan Order,” Journal of Family History 2017 42, No. 3, 214, 217.

  58. 58.

    What Susan Juster says of later evangelical women in America is true of these puritan women: “The restoration of agency is the key to understanding women’s experience of grace.” Susan Juster, “In a Different Voice,” 53.

  59. 59.

    Primarily through the digital publications of New England’s Hidden Histories

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Rogers-Stokes, L. (2020). Re-reading, Re-interpreting, and Recovering Priceless Texts. In: Records of Trial from Thomas Shepard’s Church in Cambridge, 1638–1649. Christianities in the Trans-Atlantic World. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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