Early American History Seminar: Abram C. Van Engen, Northwestern University

Early American History and Culture Seminar
Thursday, October 28, 2010

5:30 pm to 7:00 pm

Scholl Center Seminar papers are pre-circulated electronically.  For a copy of the paper, e-mail the Scholl Center at scholl@newberry.org.  Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.

“Performing Sincerity: Religious Affections in The Eliot Tracts
Abram C. Van Engen, Northwestern University

From the 1640s to the 1670s, several Puritan ministers in New England published letters and reports in London intended to raise funds for their missionary work among the Native Americans.   Recent scholarship on these Eliot Tracts, as they are known, has highlighted the use of sentiment to construct an English transatlantic unity.  Yet beyond such politics, the portrayal of feeling in these documents reveal several features of conversion, rhetoric, and persuasion in seventeenth-century Puritanism.  For a conversion to count as genuine, ministers needed to deem it so; as a result, potential Indian converts had to perform the sincerity of their conversion.  That performance required three elements: Christian knowledge, “godly” behavior, and emotional display.  No part would suffice without the others, but of the three, the last became the most important—and, in scholarship on these tracts, remains the least acknowledged.  For many Puritans, I argue, evaluations of authenticity turned not on objective signs (such as knowledge and practice), but on subjective response (their gut feeling): ministers judged as they were moved to judge, and potential converts, knowing this, heightened the emotional performance of their prayers, meetings and confessions.  In the end, the many processes involved in judging authenticity and moving readers—vividly illustrated in The Eliot Tracts—reveal a trajectory that leads from Puritan doctrine and theological treatises to moral sense philosophy and a cult of sensibility.  The seeds of sentimentalism, I argue, lay in a Puritan search for sincerity.