A Paradise of Reason: William Bentley and Enlightenment Christianity in the Early Republic (Religion in America)

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9780195326512: A Paradise of Reason: William Bentley and Enlightenment Christianity in the Early Republic (Religion in America)

William Bentley, pastor in Salem, Massachusetts from 1783 to his death in 1819, was unlike anyone else in America's founding generation, for he had come to unique conclusions about how best to maintain a traditional understanding of Christianity in a world ever changing by the forces of the Enlightenment.

Like some of his contemporaries, Bentley preached a liberal Christianity, with its benevolent God and salvation through moral living, but he-and in New England he alone-also preached a rational Christianity, one that offered new and radical claims about the power of God and the attributes of Jesus. Drawing on over a thousand of Bentley's sermons, J. Rixey Ruffin traces the evolution of Bentley's theology. Neither liberal nor deist, Bentley was instead what Ruffin calls a "Christian naturalist," a believer in the biblical God and in the essential Christian narrative but also in God's unwillingness to interfere in nature after the Resurrection. In adopting such a position, Bentley had pushed his faith as far as he could toward rationalism while still, he thought, calling it Christianity.

But this book is as much a social and political history of Salem in the early republic as it is an intellectual biography; it not only delineates Bentley's ideas, but perhaps more important, it unravels their social and political consequences. Using Bentley's remarkable diary and a vast archive of newspaper accounts, tax records, and electoral returns, Ruffin brings to life the sailors, widows, captains and merchants who lived with Bentley in the eastern parish of Salem.

A Paradise of Reason is a study of the intellectual and tangible effects of rational religion in mercantile Salem, of theology and philosophy but also of ideology: of the social politics of race and class and gender, the ecclesiastical politics of establishment and dissent, the ideological politics of republicanism and classical liberalism, and the party politics of Federalism and Democratic-Republicanism. In bringing to light the fascinating life and thought of one of early New England's most interesting historical figures, Ruffin offers a fresh perspective on the formative negotiations between Christianity and the Enlightenment in the years of America's founding.

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About the Author:


J. Rixey Ruffin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point

Review:


"A Paradise of Reason is far more than simply a book about a quirky eighteenth-century clergyman and his New England town. This impressive weave of social and intellectual history has deep insights about the complex relationships of Christianity, the Enlightenment, and the cultural politics of the early American republic." --Christopher Grasso, Associate Professor, Department of History, College of William and Mary


"The Reverend William Bentley of Salem was a towering figure in the early American republic, a voice of Jeffersonian liberalism in Federalist New England. He was also driven by a personal history of poverty, deprivation, and rejection. In this beautifully crafted synthesis of intellectual biography and community study, J. Rixey Ruffin restores this irascible loner to his rightful place in our understanding of the politics and theology of the American Enlightenment." --John L. Brooke, Ohio State University


"Scholars of the early American republic have mined the diary of the Reverend William Bentley for his keen observations, but no one before J. Rixey Ruffin has undertaken such a close and comprehensive study of the intellectual world revealed in Bentley's vast manuscript corpus. Readers interested in New England history, American liberal theology, and the political culture of the early republic will all learn much from the cogent analysis of this book." --Jonathan D. Sassi, author of A Republic of Righteousness: The Public Christianity of the Post-Revolutionary New England Clergy.


"This personal odyssey illustrates much about the tensions and aspirations of the era. Summing Up: Highly recommended." --CHOICE


"[An] erudite, beautifully written, and much-needed biography of Salem's prolific proponent of "Christian naturalism." ...This is a carefully researched and vividly presented history of a man whose unorthodox religious beliefs and republican politics both contrasted with and significantly influenced Salem's Arminian and Federalist majority. Ruffin shines in his re-creation of the social and religious world of Salem in the early Republic, and he has reintroduced us to a figure worth studying for the creative and possibly idiosyncratic ways he melded rationality and religion.--Church History


"J. Rixey Ruffin has gathered the celebrated diary, the neglected sermons, the East Church records, and exhaustive contextual research to produce the first critical biography of Bentley and the best cultural history of Salem's golden age in a generation...Ruffin has pondered Bentley's record with extraordinary care and produced a beautifully detailed account." --American Historical Review


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