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“Venture and Try”: Women Taking the Ultimate Leap of Faith

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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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This chapter explores the unique final step of spiritual preparation that puritan minister Thomas Shepard required in his Cambridge, Massachusetts church: a bold, unplanned, and irresistible leap from humiliation at the feet of God to the bosom of Christ. Rogers-Stokes describes how this active step departed from the usual puritan model of waiting passively at God’s feet for grace to be offered—and how deeply it intimidated Shepard’s congregation. Rogers-Stokes demonstrates how the constant references in the Cambridge records to this unique final leap have so far been ignored or undetected by existing scholarship, despite it being the primary cause of the difficult spiritual seeking that Shepard recorded, and what he viewed as the greatest proof of the failure of New England.

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  1. 1.

    One example may stand for many: Mary Cochran Grimes describes compunction and “its close partner” humiliation as the final element in the puritan conversion morphology, describing it as “when one’s pride is so broken that one is ready to obey God’s will with complete submission.” Mary Cochran Grimes, “Saving Grace among Puritans and Quakers: A Study of 17th and 18th Century Conversion Experiences,” Quaker History 72, no. 1 (Spring 1983), 15–16.

  2. 2.

    Strangely, Selement and Woolley claim in their Introduction that Shepard “eschewed preaching a systematic doctrine of conversion.” They then admit that in The Sound Believer sermons Shepard “minutely” explains the steps of preparation, but note that he “felt compelled to apologize to his hearers expressing his apprehension about being ‘thus large in less practical matters.’” I believe Shepard may well have been referring to the fact that the established steps of preparation mattered less than the new, final step that he proposed. As the authors go on to say, once the established steps were taken, a person “knew only how God saved a man and not whether God had redeemed him in particular.” That’s why Shepard’s new final step was so important—it answered that most important question. Selement and Woolley, eds., Thomas Shepard’s Confessions, 14.

  3. 3.

    Amanda Porterfield describes the traditional view of the end of puritan preparation well: “The relationship between self-abasement and divine power assured aspiring saints that God was absolutely powerful and that the only way to avoid being tormented, destroyed, or rejected by that power was to yearn for it submissively and accept it gratefully.” Shepard vehemently rejected passive yearning. Amanda Porterfield, Female Piety in Puritan New England: The Emergence of Religious Humanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992): 32.

  4. 4.

    Thomas Shepard, The First Principles of the Oracles of God, published in 1655. Quoted in David D. Hall, ed., Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004): 74.

  5. 5.

    Thomas Shepard, The Sincere Convert and The Sound Believer (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999): 31.

  6. 6.

    Shepard, Sincere Convert, 48, 173.

  7. 7.

    Shepard, Sincere Convert, 145, 229, 235.

  8. 8.

    Shepard, Sincere Convert, 32. This hearkens back to John Shepard quoting John 15:16, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit remain, that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my Name he may give it to you.”

  9. 9.

    Shepard, Sincere Convert, 201; Thomas Shepard, The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997): 49, 48. Emphasis added.

  10. 10.

    Charles Cohen, God’s Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986): 96, 97, 98, 23. He continues this thread in later chapters: “Acted on by God and acting through faculties newly regenerated, Saints turn from bondage in Satan to freedom in Christ. ‘Turning’ is what Puritans called ‘conversion’” (p. 75). That is, reaching out for Christ in an uncontrollable act of passion may be the final evidence that someone is actually elect and saved because it’s the complete turning to God from self and sin, the epitome of an emotional confrontation with grace. “The ‘engine’ whereby one goes to God, faith [comprises] the soul’s ‘answer’ to God’s call … the ‘coming of the whole soul to Christ’” (p. 96).

  11. 11.

    Michael McGiffert, ed., God’s Plot: Puritan Spirituality in Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994):140. Abram Van Engen is one scholar who accepts that Shepard did indeed find assurance, as a student at Cambridge in England: “After Shepard finally converted, he proved his election by testifying to the Christian fellowship he desired.” Abram Van Engen, Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015): 73.

  12. 12.

    Amanda Porterfield is just one example. She claims that Shepard’s description of preparation as “stages of remorse” that end with “Humiliation, or Self-Abasement” is evident of the “harshness of his emotional world.” But Shepard’s message was that being “repentant” before Christ was not enough—one also had to be passionately in love with Christ. There is nothing harsh or bitter about this message; it is more positive and loving than traditional preparation’s miring of miserable human beings in a state of humiliated prostration, unable to do anything to learn their spiritual fate. Later, Porterfield seriously misreads Shepard about passion: “Although Shepard understood well the importunate nature of the Christian’s pursuit of divine love, he objected to Cotton’s silence about the patient submissiveness that restrained importunate longings for union with God and characterized preparationist images of female humility. Shepard insisted on placing the erotic longing [for] Christ firmly within the context of a relentless self-deprecation and humble regard for moral law. For Shepard, wifely humility was the necessary, sufficient, and constant condition of faith.” For Shepard, self-deprecation and humility had nothing to do with one’s ability to fall in love with Christ. He urged the women of his congregation to leap to Christ’s breast often enough that almost all of them mention it explicitly in their records of trial. Amanda Porterfield, Female Piety, 57–8, 63.

  13. 13.

    This unexpected jewel is signposted early on, when Colacurcio asks, “What singular events can have persuaded Shepard that, amidst the wreck of so many others, his own peculiar life was worth the saving? What love was this that seemed to tempt the Christian God more pointedly than hubris ever threatened Zeus?” Michael J. Colacurcio, “A Strange Poise of Spirit: The Life and Deaths of Thomas Shepard,” Religion & Literature 32, no. 1 (Spring 2000), 2.

  14. 14.

    Colacurcio, “A Strange Poise,” 28–29.

  15. 15.

    Colacurcio, “A Strange Poise,” 30, 31–32. Emphasis added.

  16. 16.

    Colacurcio, “A Strange Poise,” 25–26. Emphasis added. This active step of Shepard’s predates the evangelical movement that begin in the United States in the late eighteenth century, which “transformed the conversion experience from a passive to an active encounter with God, one which allowed evangelical men and women to confront their spiritual state in a more direct and immediate way.” Susan Juster, “‘In a Different Voice’: Male and Female Narratives of Religious Conversion in Post-Revolutionary America,” American Quarterly 41, no. 1 (March 1989), 40. The verb “confront” is perfect for describing Shepard’s final step, in which Jesus is confronted by the seeker who demands to know their fate.

  17. 17.

    The fruitlessness of the uncertainty this question provoked in the seventeenth century is described well by Charles Cohen, God’s Caress, 9.

  18. 18.

    “[G]race does not just happen, nor does it happen suddenly; instead, divine power works gradually upon the human material—slowly mending, shaping, schooling, refining, Conversion is thus not a lightning strike, but a carefully scripted process … God leaves his work unfinished here and now [so] that true saints, being only dimly visible to themselves and others, will go on asking the hard questions and trying to work out the answers in all the hours of their lives. To accept this lesson [is] to grasp the secret of saintliness.” McGiffert, God’s Plot, 141–2. This is contradicted by Shepard himself, who wrote in one of his notebooks “tis no evid[ence] of grace to feele a want of it.” See Chap. 4, p. 118.

  19. 19.

    David D. Hall, The Puritans: A Transatlantic History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019): 324–5. Hall’s reading of the records as relations then leads him to question why so many of them don’t show assurance. Elizabeth Reis contradicts her own statement that relations were the “final test” of a seeker by claiming that “The ritual [of the relation] marked a passage from sin to salvation, though always within the bounds of Puritan theology, which stressed ultimate unknowability about God’s salvation of an individual soul. By offering their conversion relations, potential church members demonstrated both their knowledge of Christian doctrine and their introspective yearning to cast off sin and turn to Christ in the hope that he would save them.” Only in trial would someone yearn to turn to Christ; a relation would explain how they had actually gone to Christ and claimed salvation and been received. If it were true for the puritans of New England that “church members could never be completely sure that they were truly among the saved,” there would have been no Congregational church, as each church was gathered by the elect and served to verify election for its members. Elizabeth Reis, “Seventeenth Century Conversion Narratives,” in Religions of the United States in Practice, Volume 1, ed. Colleen McDannell (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 23, 25.

  20. 20.

    Shepard, Ten Virgins, p. 54.

  21. 21.

    “If the Lord did not make love to thee, he would not be really angry for [your] rejecting of this love, but the Lord is really angry for [your] rejecting it, and wroth with nothing so much as that. Here he swears in his wrath, when he opens his bosom for thee to rest in, and thou wilt not. [Sometimes] a suitor is real, but he is not earnest. Now, thus the Lord is. … O beloved, have you such a husband as Christ in heaven, that loves thy looks, thy company, thy sighs, thy speeches, and will you neglect him thus? What! no love? Is he not broken with this whorish heart? … Where are your hearts?” Shepard, Sincere Convert, 170; Ten Virgins, 45, 66.

  22. 22.

    George Selement claims that Shepard’s seekers experienced failure not because they would not leap up for Christ, but as the result of technical problems and a fundamental gap between themselves and the minister: “candidates alluded 425 times to the key elements of closing with Christ and thereby demonstrated a conceptual understanding of Shepard’s preaching on preparation and vocation. But they usually failed to use a proper terminology. And whereas Shepard presented his doctrines systematically, the laity randomly mentioned various points—often repeating the same one in different ways and consistently failing to proceed logically from conviction through vocation. Hence a gap existed between the candidates and their mentor … one of vocabulary and logic rather than doctrinal knowledge.” 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), 41. Throughout, Selement describes the steps of preparation without ever mentioning the final step of reaching for Christ that Shepard made so explicit and that so many of his candidates explicitly reference. I will make the counter-argument that the candidates knew exactly the path set out before them and failed only to find the nerve to proceed to the final step Shepard clearly laid out, and that they clearly understood.

  23. 23.

    Shepard, Ten Virgins, 70, 87, 49.

  24. 24.

    Patricia Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 106. Caldwell provides an in-depth comparison of relations in Old and New England in Chap. 5, “The American Morphology of Conversion.”

  25. 25.

    Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative, 158–9, Selement and Woolley, eds., Thomas Shepard’s Confessions, 145–6.

  26. 26.

    Susan Juster offers some evidence that much later, in the late eighteenth century, American women’s conversion stories would be much more aligned with their English cousins ‘than their New English foremothers’. See Susan Juster, “In a Different Voice,” 40–43.

  27. 27.

    Emphasis added.

  28. 28.

    Emphasis added. This warning struck many of Shepard’s female parishioners. Mary Parish experienced the same anguish in recounting her sin of not believing in Christ’s free offer of grace, and seems to reference the Shepard passage from the Ten Virgins cycle about incurring Christ’s anger thereby: “Hearing also what a sin it was not to believe, [and] hearing a servant of the Lord, he said Lord would be angry with me if I refused yet I could not.” Emphasis added. Jane Greene recalled “hearing … if take Christ on His own terms you may have Him now—and as none loved so as receive Him, none hated so much as reject him.” Both women did come to assurance. Parish concluded that “hearing of the Lord’s free grace it made me seek the lord. And hearing out of Peter—an obstinate heart yielding up himself to Christ—but Lord will cleanse this. This stayed,” and Greene ended her relation by stating that “now God may set His seal on [me].” Selement and Woolley, eds., Thomas Shepard’s Confessions, 137, 154. Emphasis added.

  29. 29.

    Emphasis added.

  30. 30.

    Alice Stedman also mentioned this particular sermon of Shepard’s in passing: “Mr S speaking what an honor it was to the Lord to believe.” Selement and Woolley, eds., Thomas Shepard’s Confessions, 105.

  31. 31.

    Mary Rhinelander McCarl, “Thomas Shepard’s Record of Relations of Religious Experience, 1648–1649,” The William and Mary Quarterly 48, no. 3 (July 1991), 449. Selement and Woolley, eds., Thomas Shepard’s Confessions, 67–8.

  32. 32.

    Hannah Brewer recorded the same experience: “And I heard that promise proclaimed—Lord, Lord merciful and gracious etc.—but could apply nothing.” Mary Parish also recorded “hearing oft of the offer of Christ, how willing Christ was to receive me, but I thought Lord was unwilling to receive me etc.…” Selement and Woolley, eds., Thomas Shepard’s Confessions, 141, 137.

  33. 33.

    McCarl, “Thomas Shepard’s Record,” 460–1. Cooke “could not answer … what of Christ she saw in him or tasted from him to make her prize him.”

  34. 34.

    Selement and Woolley, eds., Thomas Shepard’s Confessions, 152.

  35. 35.

    Selement and Woolley, eds., Thomas Shepard’s Confessions, 51–2.

  36. 36.

    Selement and Woolley transcribe this as “lowered” – “will lowered lose glory by me that have been so vile?” It is an error that strips all meaning from what is a powerful and dangerous question. Selement and Woolley, eds., Thomas Shepard’s Confessions, 149.

  37. 37.

    Meredith Neumann expresses this well: “In these narratives, to ‘hear’ rarely signified mere auditory experience; by common usage, the verb implies that the opening of scripture has stuck its intended target. In essence, hearing serves both as the end of means and the effectual mechanism of grace.” Neumann, Jeremiah’s Saints, 179. Thomas Hooker noted that “hearkening” to scripture was a process: “hearing with the ear, [then] closing with the truth, by the understanding of what we hear.” Quoted in Rachel Trocchio, “Memory’s Ends: Thinking as Grace in Thomas Hooker’s New England,” American Literature 90, no. 4 (December 2018), 705. See also Jane Kamensky: “Intoning and hearing scripture were central acts of meaning in a culture that banished more other forms of ritual.” Hearing was “ritualized” for these puritans in the sense that it was a process by which receive the means and connect with God’s message contained within them. Jane Kamensky, “Talk Like a Man: Speech, Power, and Masculinity in Early New England,” Gender & History 8, no. 1 (April 1996), 27. Finally, Abigail Shinn notes seventeenth-century English minister Stephen Egerton describing hearing this way: “to hear … is to attend with the eare, to receiue with the heart, to conuert in the life and conuersation’ … the ear is the link to the heart and thereby the primary site for conversion…” Abigail Shinn, “The Senses and the Seventeenth-Century English Conversion Narrative.” Robin Macdonald; Emilie Murphy and Elizabeth Swann, eds. Sensing the Sacred in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge Press),!/4/2/2/2/2@0:0

  38. 38.

    McCarl, “Thomas Shepard’s Record,” 465.

  39. 39.

    Emphasis added.

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Rogers-Stokes, L. (2020). “Venture and Try”: Women Taking the Ultimate Leap of Faith. 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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