Francis Bremer is Professor Emeritus of History at Millersville University. This interview is based on his new book, Lay Empowerment and the Development of Puritanism (Palgrave Macmillan, March 2015).
JF: What led you to write Lay Empowerment and the Development of Puritanism?
FB: When I began studying early New England and puritanism, I examined broad themes that tended to focus on clergymen and their role in shaping the region’s culture and its engagement with English history. Typical of this work was Congregational Communion: Clerical Friendship in the Anglo-American Puritan Community, 1610-1690 (1994). Starting with my study of John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father (2003) I have been focusing more on individuals, and this biographical approach heightened my awareness of the variations within what one might call the orthodox consensus of New England. During my research for Building a New Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds (2012) I came to question whether the New Haven church required a narrative of personal conversion for admission. Further investigation led me to doubt how widespread that “requirement” was, but also to realize that aside from their possible use as membership criteria, shared experiences were a tool of evangelization. This led me to explore other ways in which lay puritans helped to shape each other’s faith, an investigation that led to this book.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Lay Empowerment and the Development of Puritanism?
FB: Because of a commitment to the idea that grace enabled ordinary believers to understand the message they read in Scripture, and because they drew little support from the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, puritanism began as a movement that was rooted in lay activities such as sermon gadding, conferencing, and lay prophesying. The role of the laity in shaping belief and practice eventually found expression in congregationalism and was an important force until the latter seventeenth century, when clergy gradually came to hold greater influence in the churches and in the way the puritan past was remembered.
JF: Why do we need to read Lay Empowerment and the Development of Puritanism?
In his recent book on Silence: A Christian History (2013) the English historian Diarmaid MacCulloch observed that religious institutions “create their own silences, by exclusions and shared assumptions, which … silences are often at the expense of many of the people who could be thought of as actually constituting the Church.” Among those rendered silent in the early history of puritanism are the lay believers who gathered in private homes to pray, read and discuss scripture, and share their own religious experiences. During the late sixteenth century it was often lay pressure that was responsible for the refusal of parish clergy to wear vestments or perform what were seen as papist ceremonies. Where a sympathetic clergyman was not available to preach lay believers often filled the gap – Oliver Cromwell preached in private homes around St. Ives in the 1630s; John Winthrop often preached by way of prophesying in early New England. The religious life of the Plymouth colony for most of its first decade was directed by the lay elder William Brewster. Lay men and women noted for piety drew groups of fellow believers to listen to their views – Brigit Cooke in Kersey, Suffolk and Anne Hutchinson in Boston, Massachusetts are examples. Religious discussions occupied soldiers around the campfires of the New Model Army in the 1640s. The sharing of religious experiences were means whereby lay men and women could help others to understand their own spiritual struggles. These and other similar activities are removed from under the veil of silence by this book.
In exploring such themes I became more aware of some of the broad continuities that connected mainline puritans and some that we have become accustomed to dismissing as radicals. As noted years ago by Geoffrey Nuttall, the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding believers to religious truth was a key element in puritanism as broadly conceived – including the Quakers as well as those who persecuted them. In his “Christian Charity” lay sermon, John Winthrop expressed the hope that if the colonists faithfully sought God, they might come to “see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness and truth than formerly we have known.” Many, though not all puritans were open in this way to the hope that further light might lead them closer to their God, though the debate among them on where to erect the perimeter fence delineating acceptable belief and behavior from that which was not was often fierce. It is my hope that this book will not only focus deserved attention on the laity, but encourage readers to think of puritanism as a broad spectrum of beliefs rather than one or two “orthodoxies” struggling to impose a uniform system of belief. And the diversity within the mainstream of that spectrum becomes much more evident as we look beyond Massachusetts to the way puritanism emerged outside of Boston and to the debates to define a new religious order in England in the 1640s and 1650s.
The latter part of my book looks at how the clergy and their allies in the civil government sought to regulate and control lay power and influence. Key to this effort was placing a primary emphasis on education rather than inspiration as a requirement for religious leadership. There was a substantial movement in New England in the latter seventeenth century to carve out greater authority for ministers within their congregations and for councils of churches over individual congregations. The movement was not uniformly successful and, suggested but not explored in the final chapter, the debate would break out with new intensity during the revivals of the eighteenth century.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
FB: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the past, but it was during my college years at Fordham University that I became to think of history as a career. My focus on seventeenth century puritanism came about through a confluence of circumstances. Having spent many summers vacationing in New England I had an interest in that region of the country. And a series of theology courses at Fordham stimulated what has become a life-long interest in religious thought. This was a period when intellectual history and religious history were dynamic fields in the study of American history. Merle Curti and John Higham were prominent historians. New England studies were still shaped by the work of Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan. The new social histories of New England by John Demos, Kenneth Lockridge, Darett Rutman, and Philip Greven pointed to new ways to look at the region, but accepted its basic puritan character. I did my M. A. thesis at Columbia working under Alden Vaughan, and focused on New England’s reactions to the English Civil Wars, questioning Miller’s views as expressed in “Errand into the Wilderness.” I have been toiling in the same vineyard ever since.
JF: What is your next project?