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tv   Douglas Winiarski Darkness Falls on the Land of Light  CSPAN  August 29, 2021 4:00am-4:56am EDT

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documents america's story and on sundays book tv brings you the latest in nonfiction books and authors funding for c-span 2 comes from these television companies and more including wow. the world has changed today the fast reliable internet connection is something no one can live without. so wow is there for our customers with speed reliability value and choice now more than ever it all starts with great internet. wow. wow, along with these television companies support c-span 2 as a public service. c-span's american history tv continues now you can find the full schedule for the weekend on your program guide or at cspan dot org slash history. dr. renewarski is joining us today from virginia. thanks so much karen. it's great to be with you all this afternoon. even if it's only virtually, you know, the newbery is one of my it's one of my favorite places to work and it's one of the
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premier historical research institutions in the nation. so it's a great honor to be invited to speak as part of the library's colonial history lecture series and i wish i could be with you in person as you can see from my virtual background. i've been suffering from a kind of historical archives deprivation syndrome over the past year. but let's get right to it. i've got a tail to spin for you this afternoon. it's a quirky and occasionally troubling story about the religious history of 18th. century, new england. and as with all great melodramas this one begins on a dark and stormy night. march 15th 1750 rain and snow fell in alternating torence on the small hamlet of canterbury, connecticut and mehetto bell smith lay dying. earlier that day a young woman named mary smith who was not related had served her a pancake laced with rats being or what we tomato as arsenic. almost immediately metabel, phil violently ill and died the
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following day and autopsy conducted by several local doctors revealed. what appeared to be foul play and so mary smith was remanded to the wyndham county jail to await trial for murder. indicted on the same day mary's alleged accomplice was none other than john smith. had a bell's husband of 10 years and the father of their four children. surviving court records, you'll feel few clues to the motive that led john smith to conspire with mary smith to murder his wife, but isaac backus the prominent leader of the new england separate baptist movement provided additional details in a theological treatise nearly two decades later. the well-known facts of this sorted affair according to backus were these john smith was a member of mr. solomon payne's separate congregational church in canterbury. but after a while he declared that was revealed to him by god that marry smith was to be his wife. and what he was questioned upon
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it. he said he did not pretend to put away the wife he then had. but divine providence would take her out of the way. this appeared so dark that the church called him to account for it and the pastor openly told him in the church that this principle carried murder in its nature. but smith would not hear the church and therefore was cast out that is excommunicated. and three or four months after he went to an apothecary at norwich and bought some rats bane with which to a supposed the woman he had a fancy for poisoned his wife. so the murder of metabol smith was a crime of passion, but if backus is report is to be trusted then the perpetrators were motivated by a kind of religious passion born of the riotous revivals and ecclesiastical controversies that american religious historians have called the first great awakening and so we might properly think of this fascinating case of death by pancakes as a forgotten chapter in the history of early american
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evangelicalism. in my remarks this afternoon all situate the murder of mehetto bell smith within a series of adultery scandals involving the controversial practice of what people at the time called internal marriage or marriage in the new covenant and that more recent historians have termed spiritual. whiffery. then i'll sketch the popular theology that underwrote these incidents. in order to make sense of the smith murder as more than an active irrational madness will need to ask how men caught up in the whitfield and revivals of the 1740s arrived at the conclusion that god was commanding them to put away their wives. much of my talk this afternoon will center on a particular group of early american protestants and most scholars take for granted that they're the progenitors of the modern evangelical movement. but i'm going to bracket the term evangelical for reasons. it should become clear at the conclusion. instead of referring to figures
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like john and mary smith as radical evangelicals. i'll use the phrase most common in the 18th century. the people called new lights the phrase new lights of course is well known but few scholars recognize that it was recycled from antiquar pamphlets of the 17th century and reemerged as a term of derision during the new england revivals of the 1740s to discredit specifically those lay men and women who had succeeded in breaking away from the congregational churches of the standing order. by the turn of the 19th century only the most zealous anglo-american protestants claim this moniker. self-identified new lights could be found in places like nova scotia and the trans appalachian frontier. they were by and large restless spiritual travelers in search of new spiritual homes. alan taylor has aptly called them the free seekers of the early republic. the thesis of my talk is this
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that the people called new lights experienced problems involving the dualism of mind and body with greater intensity than other kinds of protestants. if as many scholars have argued the transformative experiences of the whitfieldian new birth in gendered a sense of certitude among revival converts about the state of their elect born again souls. it all made them acutely aware of the persistent failings of their all-to-earthly bodies. sexuality marriage and family structures thus became issues of deep and abiding concern for men and women like john and mary smith of canterbury, connecticut and solving the conundrum of immortal souls constrained by mortal bodies became a lifelong obsession. i'll be painting with a broad brush this afternoon moving outward from the immediate context of the smith's murder trials in new england to
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parallel examples from elsewhere in british north america and the early american republic. so i hope you'll grant meal some latitude and letting this talk sprawl a little bit in terms of geography and chronology. and this is definitely an experimental talk much more a tentative knowledge seeking presentation than a polished and completed arguments. so i'll be eager to hear your thoughts on whether you think this argument works or not and we'll pause in the middle of my remarks to field your questions and expand on issues that seem odd or unclear after all, i'm trying to reconstruct what we might call a populist theology of radical religious experience from 18th. century, new england. nowhere, did anyone ministers or lay people offer a coherent or systematic overview of the peculiar constellation of religious beliefs and practices. i'll be sharing with you today. in the end. it's my hope that tracking a cluster of related experiential issues related to sexuality and the body among the people called
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new lights. well, tell us something new about the history of early american evangelicalism and perhaps by extension about their progeny in our own times. so at this point, let me turn to the local context of the smith murder case and here i'll be borrowing some of the material that i present in part five of my recent book darkness falls on the land of light. as it turns out john and mary smith's murder trials lay at the center of a series of marital scandals that plagued the towns of southeastern new england during the years between the religious revivals inaugurated by the touring anglican evangelist george whitefield in 1740. and the conclusion of the seven years war in 1763. in each case the leading figures had experienced wrenching conversion experiences and withdrawn from communion and the established tech supported congregational churches in which they had been raised indeed all of these adultery cases exploded
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within so-called strict or separate congregational churches breakaway institutions formed during the 1740s in opposition to the region's puritan or congregational establishment. by the time the scandals broke many of these same renegade congregations were rapidly evolving into the region's first new light baptist churches. the best documented of these controversies involved a lay preacher named ebenezer ward who presided over a small separatist congregation in cumberland, rhode island? in 1749 ward ran afoul of civil authorities when he allowed his daughter molly to sleep with a young revival convert from the town of norton, massachusetts named solomon, finney. several years earlier molly had married a sailor named joseph bennett, but ward appears to have frowned upon their union. believing bennett to be in an unconverted state ward informed his daughter that it would be sinful for her to cohabit with him as her lawful husband.
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so he allowed mali to lodge with finney while bennett was at sea provided a lay with the bible between them. returning from one of his voyages bennett found his young wife pregnant and engaged in an adulterous relationship with her father's approval. he immediately sued for divorce claiming that ebenezer ward had conspired with solomon finney to seduce his wife. the rhode island courts granted bennett's request find any and sent ward to jail. released several months later ward moved with his daughter and her new spiritual husband who molly legally married in 1751 back to the town of norton and there ward proceeded to spread his wicked and strange tenants among the members of solomon finney's extended family and neighbors. between 1751 and 1764 isaac backus presided over a series of bitter church councils in which the norton separate church
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excommunicated several of ebenezer awards followers who testified they had not got their right wives and had taken up with other women. according to backus the norton radicals maintained that the union between two persons when rightly married together was a spiritual union they denied the authority of civil magistrates to establish marriage contracts and perhaps most puzzling ward and his followers believed they were getting into a state of perfection in this world. so as to be free from all sinkings and trouble and so that they shall never die. over the next two decades allegations of similar abominations sprang up in the neighboring towns of easton, taunton and attleboro. among the eclectic group of radicals who worshiped for a short time during the 1750s with the finnies and ebenezer ward in norton was sarah prentice the wife of solomon prentice a one-time revival preacher and the former minister of the
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grafton congregational church in central, massachusetts. during the years leading up to her husband's dismissal from his pastorate in 1747. sarah had passed through a powerful conversion experience and separated from the grafton church. rumors abounded that prentice had engaged in what one congregational minister called criminal freedoms with the other sex under the splendid guise of spiritual love and friendship. later in the century yale college president as respiles listed prentice among the wild enthusiasts associated with a shadowy lay preacher named shadrach ireland with whom she used to lie as her spiritual husband. ireland would go on to form one of new england's first communal utopias in the small village of harvard. he built a large dormitory known as the square house for his followers and continue practicing his peculiar form of spiritual marriage into the 1770s.
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then in 1753 prentice passed through what she called a second change in her body equivalent to death so that she had been entirely free from any disorder in her body or corruption in her soul ever since his practice informed a shocked isaac backus. she was convinced that her new physical and spiritual incorruptibility would last until the end of time and that she would live on earth until christ's personal coming. sarah prentiss had declared herself to be sinless and immortal. meanwhile, the strict congregational churches in and around backus' hometown of norwich, connecticut where nearly rent to pieces by a string of marital controversies. shortly after the new and separate church was organized in 1748 a prominent layman named bliss willoughby pronounced mary smith again, no relation to our canterbury murder suspect to be his spiritual wife. for several months. will it be allowed his legal
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spouse to live with him in his house while he scandalously coupled with smith and refused to heed the admonitions of the newen church. will it be eventually renounce that scheme as a delusion of the devil, but mary smith went on to partner with another member of the new and congregation a man named john burnham. and then the surprising turn of events burnham's wife bethiah approved of the match and was charged with being confederate with her husband in striving to hide his sin. new and elder john palmer had little choice but to excommunicate his recalcitrine parishioners for what he called their god provoking family destroying and soul -- practices. the marital conflicts in nuance soon spilled over into the neighboring town of canterbury. one case involved a single woman named mary wilkinson who had developed a reputation during the whitfieldian revivals as a person of evil name and fame. in 1746 the nearby
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congregational church in the scotland parish of windham connecticut had banished wilkinson her mother and two siblings after they declared that minister ebenezer devotion presided over a church of antichrist wilkinson soon fell in with a small click of radicals who like sarah prentiss believe that they had passed the first resurrection, and we're perfect and immortal. during the same month that bliss willoughby was censured for his marital heresy. only a few miles away inuit wilkinson stunned the canterbury separates with her blasphemous outbursts. if you will come and lie in my crotch, i will bless you and you shall be saved. she declared to a stunned young man in the congregation, but if you will not i will curse you and you shall be --. wilkinson proceeded to hike up her skirts exposing her naked thighs in a very obscene manner and she left about the canterbury meeting house offering to expose her nakedness further. hold before the new london
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county court magistrates wilkins wilkinson confessed her vile and profane discourse and paid a fine, but she also attempted to excuse her strange tirade. for some years past wilkinson explained her elevated religious experiences had convinced her there was neither good nor evil in any expressions or actions under whatsoever circumstances. they were spoke. so this was the broader regional context in which john smith of canterbury began talking about his spiritual union with mary smith sometime during the winter of 1749. the canterbury church censured both for their vain irreverent speeches and carnal spirit, but john and mary refused to repent of their sins and so on september 27th, 1749 the canterbury brethren voted to excommunicate john smith from the church. six months later his wife. mehettabel was dead.
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local residents in cumberland rhode island later recall that the late 1740s were a time of considerable discourse about marrying in the new covenant. molly bennett who stood at the center of that controversy defended her union with solomon finney by claiming he was made for her the two were man and wife internally, but not externally she maintained for god had made it known to them that it was so here it's worth remembering that new england congregationalists and their puritan ancestors. never considered marriage to be a religious sacrament indeed for nearly all of the 17th century and well into the 18th marriages were performed by justices of the peace with little ceremony other than publishing the bands. they were much more akin to what we might call civil unions than religious rituals. in order to understand the theological reasoning behind these so-called internal or new covenant marriages. therefore we need to return to
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george whitefield. and the religious revivals that surged across new england during the 1740s whitfield's critics including the english artist john walliston whose scandalous portrait of whitfield. you see here claim that his powerfully emotive preaching worked principally upon the passions of weak-minded women and youths and thus promoted lewd behavior and licentiousness. but the real connection late elsewhere in whitfield's distinctive notion of conversion as an instantaneous intrusion of god's holy spirit directly into the bodies of reborn saints. 17th century puritan ministers to be sure regularly employed marital metaphors in their sermons the puritans believe that both men and women possessed feminine souls that yearn to be espoused to christ. and yet ministers also understood that the consummation of this metaphorical spiritual union would not take place until christ's return and the day of judgment.
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more confident of their instantaneous conversion experiences whitfield's young converts of the 1740s by contrast frequently asserted that the holy spirit literally took possession and ravished their once sinful bodies. for the people called new lights the bridegroom had finally arrived to make them direct partakers of his love and the imminent prospect of consummating this heavenly union seductively invited sexually charged descriptions of their conversion experiences. a number of prominently people who wrote about their according experiences during the peak months of the whitfield, indiana revivals. spoke of seeking potential spouses who had been born again. likewise a few of the most radical itiner creatures of the period including leading figures such as eleazar wheelock the future founder of dartmouth college preached against converted wives continuing with unconverted husbands. diarist hannah heaton of north
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haven connecticut, for example recalled how the fiery evangelist james davenport attempted to dissuade her from marrying a man who could not testify to having experienced the indwelling presence of the holy spirit. mary none, but believers davenport warned conflicts over the meaning of marriage proved to be especially troublesome within strict congregational and separate baptist churches. unlike their puritan forbearers many of the people called new lights conceived of marriage not just as a physical union or a civil arrangement, but as an institution of god a spiritual joining of souls. although their breakaway churches tended to be much more zealous and maintaining strict standards of moral discipline among their members separatists also firmly believed that god continued to communicate with his faithful saints through new revelations that came in the form of audible voices visions and other regular phenomena. thus many new lights thought
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divine direction in the choice of a spouse to take but one example several years before the smith murder case elisha payne informed the canterbury connecticut church that god had sent angels to incline his heart toward an aims. they could know more doubt that their union was a clear demonstration of god's will then question their own conversions. based on these examples it would appear that are relatively coherent theology of the religious phenomenon. that would come to be called spiritual wifery took shape in new england during the 1740s. the key elements of this nascent populist theology include these five factors. first george whitefield's concept of conversion as a datable full-bodied and above all knowable experience involving the descent and physical implantation of god's holy spirit. which was secondly paired with a fascination with various charismatic gifts of the holy
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spirit and continual revelations that extended beyond and even superseded what is contained in the bible. resulting in thirdly a desire among many revival converts to be married or yoked only to saints who could testify to a similar experience of the indwelling holy spirit. that fourthly elevated marriage to an internal union of souls ordained by god independent of social practices and human authorities. and last for some produced a concomitant sense that their souls at least have not their bodies were immortal perfect without sin and morally corruptible. leaders of the separate congregational movement quickly recognized that internal marriage represented a cunning heresy indeed. it was a logical extension of many of the beliefs and practices. they had previously nurtured and sought to institutionalize among their breakaway churches and as you can see from this map ideas
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about internal marriage were spreading rapidly throughout southern new england during the 1740s and 1750s. in an especially candid letter written to isaac backus several months after the smith's murder trials jedidiah hide minister of the separate church in norwich connecticut placed internal marriage in the context of what he called a dangerous negativing spirit that had gripped his congregants. high traced a slippery slope to infidelity beginning with parishioners to refused even to pray until they had experienced what whitfield called the new birth or conversion. from there. they renounce their infant baptist baptisms which were invalid because they had taken place while they were in an unregenerate state. finally the most zealous among them maintained that marriage is an institution of god. those who had not been married in faith. that is after the holy spirit had entered into their bodies in the act of conversion would
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inevitably put away their wives and husbands. if left unchecked high concluded whitfield's concept of the new birth would push overzealous saints directly along in this line. from the revivals into this separate movement through believers baptism and into what high called the great mystery of iniquity the adultery scandals that had rocked the separate churches of eastern, connecticut. okay, so that's my argument. it's pretty heady stuff. right? what do you think? let me just pause here and see if i can answer some of your questions before we move on and draw a larger arc around some of these topics. we've been covering. thank you so much. wow, i think that people's view of 18th century religion as being demure and drab and so on is probably shattered forever. well what there was a while for
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sure. yep. nothing up. quite that we had background on the congregational church, and i think by that they probably mean related to the congregational church that we know today. okay, so today's unitarian universalist churches in new england draw from the new england's puritan heritage in the 17th century in the era of the puritan great migration of the 1630s the important thing to remember for the story. i'm telling today is for roughly the first hundred years of settlement in new england those congregational churches, especially in connecticut and massachusetts enjoyed a state supported monopoly on religious culture. so that is to say every person that that was a settler or inhabitant of most towns in connecticut and massachusetts will required by law to pay taxes to support their local congregational minister and to attend worship services every sunday twice a day and that
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meant that there was very little religious descent in new england into the into the early 18th century. and in fact as i argue in the first part of my book darkest falls in the land of light doing became much more of a religious mono culture during the early decades of the 18th century. there were small groups of baptists and quakers and anglicans or episcopalians. usually mostly in the larger seaports and especially in rhode island, but in the places that i've been talking about here places like eastern, connecticut central and southeastern, massachusetts, there was really one and only one kind of way of being religious and it's the whitfielding revivals of the 1740s that teach new englanders. to experience religion differently and it's out of that. experience of religious difference those different kinds of experiences that the kinds of adultery scandals that i've been talking about appear at kind of the far end of that experimental kind of piety the emerges that whitfield being revivals. okay, you keep mentioning
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whitfield. i wonder if you could tell us just a little bit more about him. why is he important to your story? yeah, george whitefield. he's a a famous figure in the history of frankly global level evangelicalism one of its founding lights. so he's an english field preacher. he studies at oxford university in the 1730s. he's a contemporary of the wesley brothers the founders of english methodism, and he's a dramatic orator and theatrical performer and during the late during the late 1730s. he embarks on the first of many transatlantic preaching tours. so in 1739, he preaches his way all the way from, south carolina to york, maine and electrifice. his audience is everywhere. he goes whitfield preaches in a kind of a folksy style. he uses all sorts of oratorical techniques derive from the theater to connect with us audiences and he preaches powerful message a message of
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instantaneous conversion people that heard whitfield preach suddenly realized that the ways they have been kind of participating in congregational life. was lacking something was lacking what whitfield called the new birth simply to be raised in one of these congregational churches to be baptized in them to attend the sabbath it worship services every sunday was not enough one needed to be born again to have what whitfield call the holy spirit dwelling inside them. it was a relevant revolutionary new way to experience religion and it's the one that we see is one of the hallmarks of evangelicalism and this idea that conversion is something that could be known and instantaneous. what ministers that trailed in whitfield's wake would often say you could know the difference between the difference between midnight and noonday light that instantaneous transformation. people started to look for it and once they begin to see it in their experiences, they begin to look for it in their neighbors and when they found it lacking
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that's when they began to split away from their churches form these separate churches. it's that purification movement that gives rise to a lot of the issue a lot of the controversies that i'm talking about today interesting. um i have a question from neil's who says did these separatist views did these separatists view their ideas as new revelation or were they grounding this in prior movements in christianity? so i think it depends on whether you ask we're able to ask them or whether they're asking me they probably would say so there's a lot of rhetoric during the whitfield and revivals and in new england religious culture during the 1740s that people had never seen anything like the outpouring of the holy spirit since the days of apostles and many of them turn to metaphors or ideas or imagery derive from the book of the acts of the apostles the day of pentecost the outpouring of gifts of the holy spirit upon the disciples and the earliest followers of jesus. so new englanders really felt
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like they were living in a really heady time when almost anything was possible things like speaking in tongues dreams trances and visions and new revelations from god. so while in some ways the separatists who are at the sort of the most radical edge of the whitfielding revivals would have seen themselves living as if they were living again in apostolic times the things that they were doing were revolutionary for new england congregationalists. most puritan ministers would have argued that revelation had closed at the end of the apostolic age that things like miracles faith healings speaking in tongues. those things don't happen in our world in the 1740s, but they're radical revival congregants really did so it's a kind of a little of both as i think the way i'd answer that question. yeah, interesting. i have a question from brett. was there any sense that spiritual wifery was somehow akin to catholic sacramentalism
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and suspect in that way sort of like this is a sec. you know where we're breaking the sacrament by. i don't i don't think so. it's a really interesting question. the new englanders obviously especially during the time period we're talking about here the 1740s 1750s and 760s are locked in a series of political struggles with catholic new france. so there is a lot of anti-catholic rhetoric. you'll see it in minister's sermons particularly political sermons, and there's just sort of a hatred of those papis up north in french, canada. but i don't see any. have anti-catholic language appearing in any of the documents that survived from the controversies i'm talking about today. that's really interesting that we actually have some questions that are bring some of this up to the to the present, but i think i'm going to wait until after the second part of your talk to to bring some of those
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up so i know that you have more to tell us so let me let you do go ahead and take that that on and we'll see you again in a few minutes. that sounds good. okay, so and we will get to the we will get to those larger issues because i think they're important but first, let me tell you then a little bit about the bigger picture and i'll spread i'll spread out these cases that i've been talking about spread them out a little wider for you. so far we've been looking at a rather narrow range of new light adultery cases from a relatively short period of time so to what extent did these mind-body issues continue to shape the experiences of the people called new lights in the decades that followed the whitfieldian revivals of the 1740s. to answer that question. i'll try to trace this distinctive logic as it spread throughout what we might call greater, new england. so consider the case of mary backus a distant relative of the famed baptist leader isaac
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backus. she was censured at canterbury for usurping and gain saying the church's decision to excommunicate john smith. mary backus defiantly declared that she would continue to hold communion with smith. even after you've been cast out of the canterbury church, even though he brazenly admitted that he had been embroiled in an adulterous affair with mary smith. even after he had been tried for murder. the stated reason of her descent which canterbury elder solomon contain solomon payne condemned as a dangerous heresy offers a fascinating glimpse into an emerging sectarian strain within the new light movement. back is held that an elect soul could never sin. john smith may have yielded to carnal temptations when he conspired with mary smith to poison his wife but back as assumed those bodily transgressions did not taint the purity of his converted soul.
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and for this reason she concluded the canterbury church had no grounds on which to excommunicate him. the belief that elect souls were spiritually perfect immortal and incapable of sin, whatever the failings of their mortal bodies surfaced repeatedly during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and here i'll just site one example among many. this one comes from the provinces of maritime canada where interestingly enough a disproportionate number of the earliest nova scotia planters hailed from families in towns in southeastern, connecticut. during the new light star of the 1770s and the new dispensation movement two decades later perfectionist ideas surfaced alongside controversies over spiritual marriage. one charismatic female profit in cornwallis denounced marriage as being from the devil and vowed in the presence of the local presbyterian clergyman. john payson who you can see in his portrait here to live a part from her unconverted husband for
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was as much a sin for her to have children by him by any other man. other new light preachers and nova scotia denied even the possibility of true saints getting drunk or committing acts of murder or adultery for they held that only the bodies of the saints not their converted and perfected souls were capable of sin. a believer is like a nut thrown into the mud explain the prominent itiner and preacher henry align, which made dirty the shell but not the kernel. meanwhile in cumberland rhode island the congregation that ebenezer ward had organized in 1748 evolved into a separate baptist church under the leadership of a combative minister named daniel miller. among its earliest members was james, ballou. during the 1760s blue moved his family to richmond, new hampshire where he fell in with a group of zealous perfectionists led by a baptist elder named moses hicks. hixson is followers had recently
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exchanged what they called their old flood wives for spiritual wives. in 1781 the massachusetts superior court sentenced several members of hicks's group to be whipped and sit on the gallows wearing in good nathaniel hawthorne fashion garments and blazing with the letter a as punishment for their adulterous in discretions. baloo and most of the hicks faction eventually rejected the principle of what they called spiritual wifery instead they moved on to become the founders and leading members of the nascent universalist denomination, which swept across the northern new england hill country early in the 19th century. another notable member of miller's separate church in cumberland was jemima wilkinson whom you see here in the bottom left corner? a young woman from the neighboring town of smithfield, rhode island languishing with typhus during the british occupation of providence in 1776 wilkinson fell into a fever's
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trance during which she was visited by a pair of angels clad and white robes and wearing golden crowns. rising from her sick bed wilkinson proclaimed that she was the person of jesus christ come forth and now appears in her body with all the miraculous powers of the messiah. the genderless public universal friend soon took to the highways as an itineran preacher dressing in men's clothing and preaching to vast audiences in a grum and shrill voice that confounded and titillated her many critics. refusing to respond to the name for the soul that once animated wilkinson's body the celebrate friend claimed to his have existed from eternity an exhorted audiences to live fully in a state of perfection with no liability of error or possibility of defect in any respect. after gathering followers in southeastern new england and philadelphia during the 1780s the friend founded new jerusalem a communal society in western new york, which flourished into
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the 19th century. and then of course, there were the shakers the most successful and notorious new religious movement in british north america prior to the rise of mormonism in the 1830s. founded by ann lee an english millworker who emigrated to the colonies in 1774 shaker beliefs and practices epitomized the tensions between elect souls and sinful bodies that so preoccupied. the people called new life dirt new lights during the second half of the 18th century. lee taught that sexual intercourse was the original sin of humanity the root of the fall of adam and eve in the garden of eden shakers believe that lee was the second coming of the christ spirit in female form by following her example and taking up the cross of celibacy shakers disciplined their lustful bodies and perfected their immortal souls. by 1800 the shakers had converted thousands of new englanders and organized a dozen
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prosperous communal villages shown here in blue. early shaker converts hail from the ranks of the most radical new light factions most were former congregational separatists were separate baptists who had long since broken away from the churches of new england's once puritan establishment, and there were many familiar faces among them. sarah prentice experimented with shakerism for a time during the 1780s. shadrach ireland's famed square house formed the nucleus of the shaker village at harvard, massachusetts indeed dozens of families from the very towns we've been talking about eventually found their way into the shaker fold places like, canterbury, connecticut and norton, massachusetts that had experienced powerful religious revivals and bitter church schisms during the 1740 and more important controversies over marriage and sexuality during the 1750s and 1760s. what unites all of these disparate stories from yankee new england and nova scotia to
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the new york frontier is this basic fact? the people called new lights were religious seekers whose experiences of the indwelling holy spirit and commitment to continuing revelation propelled them into a ceaseless quest for spiritual purity. as lay men and women worked through the logic of their homespun theology and revelatory conversions. they began to question all institutions sacraments churches communities and families and they generated startling new ideas about the body sexuality marriage and the family some such as molly ward the nuance separatists and the disciples of moses hicks elevated marriage to an internal spiritual union which set the stage for various eruptions of spiritual wifery and the adultery scandals that follow although sarah prentice initially embraced this position. she and the public universal friend eventually turned in the
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opposite direction and attempted to transcend their bodies by denying marriage altogether and practicing a rigorous sexual asceticism. the shakers too followed this celibate path to spiritual perfection. still others including the new dispensationists of nova scotia resolve the issue by splitting soul from body denying the resurrection of the latter and proclaiming that the former was sinless, perfect and immortal, whatever the carnal failings of its physical husk. now to bring some interpretive order to the sprawling world of spouse swappers live forevers and celibate perfectionists. let me offer three tentative conclusions or to be more precise three suggestions for thinking about how the mind-body struggles that came to define the experiences of the people called new lights challenge us to rethink our understanding of religion and early america. first the connections and trajectories. i've been sketching this evening should give us pause when we
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deploy the old nomenclature of the so-called first and second great awakenings. reviewers seem to think that darkness falls in the land of light is a book about the great awakening, but i disagree. in fact i carefully avoid using that phrase altogether in the book and as i've tried to do in my talk today. as we've seen controversies over the body marriage and sexuality bubble to the surface repeatedly during the century following the whitfield in revivals of the 1740s and often independent of peak surges of revivalism. if the 1730s and 1740s marked the emergence of the people called new lights, then the next century witnessed the unfolding and development of an unbroken tradition of religious radicalism. secondly, we may need to reconsider how we situate the so-called sectarian strain within the broader currents of american religious history. for many although by no means all scholars the shakers and other religious outsiders are
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products of the purportedly free air of the revolutionary political and social climate. they are creatures of what nathan hatch has famously called the democratization of american christianity. and yet one thing is clear from the eclectic examples of assembled in my talk today radical new light sex predate the revolution. of course, it's true that the early national period gave rise to a surprising number of alternative really alternative religious communities including obscure free love groups such as the cochranites the vermont pilgrims the halcy and society and the kingdom of matthias. and beyond these small short-lived and often ephemeral movements stand the pillars of the american sectarian tradition. the church of jesus christ of latter-day saints and the united community whose sexual and marital practices have inspired generations of scholarship. all of them i would argue are lineal descendants of the people called new lights. the roots of these movements lie
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much deeper than we once thought john butler's famous antebellum spiritual hothouse was generations in the making it seeds were sown in the fertile soil of the popular religious experiences of the mid 18th century with fielding and revivals. which is why we might just as easily look for similar developments around the atlantic world rather than viewing the people called new lights as american originals as one scholar has provocatively suggested. we might consider looking for similar developments among the early methodists of manchester england, for example, or the moravians of parenthood germany and bethlehem, pennsylvania. indeed the many ways in which morabians sought to regulate and promote the sexuality of its members has produced a robust body of scholarship in recent years. the moravians wrote more about the challenges and possibilities of living saintly lives while encased in earthly bodies than any other protestant community in vast early america.
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and the popular religious history of the atlantic world as i've argued elsewhere is largely a story that still remains to be told lastly there's the notorious e-word evangelicalism. readers of darkness falls in the land of light will recall that i intentionally left that term undefined in my introduction just as i've done in this talk. by focusing on the people called new lights instead. i've tried to distance my narratives from other studies that emphasize continuity between say english puritans and the conservative christians of our own time. best exemplified in the works of scholars such as nathan hatch mark knoll george marston and thomas kidd this intellectual genealogy has often been buttressed by the static fourfold definition of evangelicalism first proposed by historian, david, bebington. but nearly all early evangelicals were religious travelers of one sort or another to use a classic 18th century
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religious metaphor. they rarely stayed put for too long experientially speaking, especially during periods of intensive revivalism the gales that blew these laymen and women through the spiritual tempests of early american revival revivalism. we're not a scholars have so often maintained theological ones. but experiences that in float that flowed from the indwelling presence the holy spirit. the heady sense they were living in a latter-day of signs and wonders and the resulting conviction that they were obligated. not merely to reconsider the state of their souls, but also their bodies their sexuality their marriages and their families. none of these concerns figure into standard definitions of modern evangelicalism, but perhaps when it comes to talking about the people called new lights, we should dispense with definitions altogether to cease thinking about evangelicalism as if it had a definable essence. that is we need to move away from conceiving of evangelicalism as a religion of being and toward an understanding. that's that's stress as always
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becoming in this way, we might devote more space to seekers like mary and john smith and the very crooked roots. they followed through the fragmented religious cultures of the 18th century and the early american republic. oh and speaking of the smiths. we have one piece of unfinished business to complete here. how did things work out in their death by pancakes murder trial? on june 19 1750 mary smith was summoned from the wyndham county jail and a rain before the connecticut superior court. she pleaded not guilty and put herself on god and the country. king's attorney called nearly two dozen witnesses many of them mary's former brethren and sisters in the canterbury separate congregational church, but to the astonishment of many isaac backus later reported the court found mary not guilty of the murder of mehetto bill smith when her paramore appeared at the bar later that day the grand
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jury returned to bill of ignoramus and thus rejected john smith's murder indictment altogether. although him they had been free john and mary smith. nonetheless were forced to bear the costs of their trials as was customary and colonial america in cases where the accused were still considered suspicious following an acquittal those costs were staggering in excess of 377 pounds for mary and 240 for john. then in an extraordinary turn events, john and mary smith were married less than six months after the conclusion of their trials. mary was already pregnant at the time and resigna the first of their four children was born later in 1751. at the time of his death nine years later john smith owned a small farm some kitchen implements furniture embedding spinning wheel and a few old books. valued at only a hundred and seventeen pounds nearly all of his estate was sold off to pay his creditors mary smith remained in canterbury for the rest of her life living
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miserably according to backus. still alive in the spring of 1782 mary may well have watched ann lee the elect lady ride right past her front door and down the main road to windham opening her new celibate gospel to many of the same families would once endorsed the practice of internal marriage and who would soon gather the first shaker villages in new england. thanks so much. wow. thank you. okay, we have quite a few questions. let me start with an anonymous one. you have told us a lot about the situation in new england. have you discovered evidence that concerns? these kinds of concerns that the people called new lights had among religious people in other parts of america. so the answer that is yes.
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it isn't it is a this is a kind of a popular folk theology of religious experience and it's one that many people can arrive at from different places, right? i've tried to trace some direct connections among those families in southeastern, connecticut and massachusetts, but one of the things i'm working on now is a book about the rise of western shakerism and one of the things i've noticed, is that the earliest shaker missionaries that travel to the west in 1805 at another period of intensive revivalism called the great revival. it's often considered the the birth of the american bible belt went out to places like kentucky and ohio and when they when they met people there they were surprised to find that many of them were already playing around with ideas about sexuality and marriage so a surprising number of of people that they talk to that became their first western a converts would say things like yeah, we tried to practice my wife and i tried to practice
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celibacy for a few months a couple years ago during the peak months of the revival, but we weren't able to do so and these people became these radical sort of revival converts of the great revolve become some of the shakers first converts. they all they also met people like this guy i just stumbled on his name is daniel doty. he was one of the he's a new jersey transplant and he's the founder of what today is the the town of hamilton, ohio and when dodie met the shakers, he was all excited to learn about them or learn about their their their teaching and their messages and the shakers thought initially that he'd be a promising convert until he started talking about these ideas radical ideas that he could be partnered with anyone. he wanted that he was one of these sort of free type characters and then the shakers were horrified, but you can see that both sides of the the spectrum that i've been tracing here. you could find those those things growing up independently far removed from from in time and space from what we've been looking at today. so the answer to that question i think is yes.
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interesting um several people asked about mormonism joseph smith and mormonism of the 1840s that a lot of the same terminologies spiritual referee marriage in the new covenant all that sort of thing. is there some connection there you know these i think these are things these are i'd like to hope that what i've been sketching today is kind of a prequel to some of the issues that mormon scholars have been working on that. they would want to i think there's there's a fair amount of scholarship that suggests that the mormon tradition comes out of a certain kind of evangelicalism and that upstate new york and new england are definitely definite seed beds for that. there's good genealogical evidence that indicates that many of your list mormon converts have deep roots genealogically in new england. i think it remains to be seen how many of those early mormon families were trapping along the same roots that i've been studying and then i presented
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today that that they've been tracking out of new england's puritan establishment into separate baptist and as strict congregationals and separate baptist churches and then within a couple of generations into the 19th century are enough of a seeker there's enough of a seeker mentality among those families that makes mormonism and joseph smith's ideas about plural marriage attracted to them. interesting so i have several different questions and i will sort of summarize it and also wrap it into a question that i wanted to ask people are asking about the relation how you might relate more recent sexual scandals involving evangelicals modern evangelicals to this sort of background. and also i wanted to say at the beginning of your presentation. you mentioned your argument might tell us something about our own times at the risk of sort of opening a can of worms. can you expand on that?
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so obviously, this is it's a complicated question to answer right? but i think for contemporary evangelicals and those who we consider themselves conservative christians. my senses is that they have raised the bar on on what it means to be a religious person to a point where these kinds of mind-body issues become activated. i think that might help to i think in some ways what i've been trying to trace here this very long and and sort of centuries long sort of history of this problem. i think it's just one that evangelicals feel a little more than other kinds of protestants. it might account for the the stance that some conservative christians take on marriage the interest in and concern for so-called family values and and then at the same time it would
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also i think help to explain a little bit more about why why evangelicalism is a movement that in which the scandals that have impacted certain kinds of communities are seen as such a betrayal of its central core values because i think the idea that one can have a born-again experience creates a certain what we'd say wait on a person's religious life and it makes these these these issues about what do i do that? i still live in this kind of a body more of a live issue than for other kinds of christians and protestants in particular. wow, so thank you. i think we've just about reached the end of our time but such an intriguing talk and you've given us a lot to think about. thank you so much. i look forward to seeing what you come up with for your next book. it also sounds really really interesting. thanks so much. this was great. i really appreciate it. and thanks everybody for for tuning in.


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