Sacred Rites: Religious Rituals and the Transformation of American Puritanism

Hochstetler, Laurie Anne, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, Department of History, University of Virginia
Kett, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation is a study of the practice of religious rituals in Puritan New England. It argues that in the second half of the seventeenth century and in the first decades of the eighteenth, Puritan settlers developed an inclusive, richly ceremonial religious culture whose practice was grounded in the celebration of religious rituals. Compared to the contemporary Church of England the churches of early-seventeenth century New England were devoid of ceremony. But Puritanism at the turn of the eighteenth century looked far different than it had in 1630. As the size, population, and needs of New England's settlers changed, their pietistic practices changed in tandem. This dissertation is a study of these changes. It examines how and why during the first century of settlement New England Puritans adapted their religious practices to create a new kind of piety. Lay men and women and ministers alike participated in the widespread adoption and celebration of religious rituals, though their needs and their reasons for so doing were not necessarily the same. Ministers turned to ceremonialism to combat what they believed to be a spiritual crisis: the crisis historians now call declension. The laity had other reasons. The men and women who filled the pews wanted to solidify their ties to the church in visible and meaningful ways. They wanted to connect the most significant events in their worldly lives to their religious lives. Some of the strongest advocates of these religious changes were the lay men and women who never achieved membership in the Puritan church. These men and women, who formed a sizeable majority of the church-going population by the late-seventeenth century, have often been overlooked by historians of Puritan religion. This dissertation argues that these men and women were a significant force in effecting religious change. The celebration of religious rituals allowed Puritan men and women to solidify their place in a community of faith, and it made Puritanism an outward-looking, inclusive religious culture.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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