Tag Archives: Christianity

Henry Dunster–Bonus Material

Here’s an additional use for a blog: the posting of bonus material. I know some people devour all the extras that come on DVDs. So, one more thing I could use this blog for is to post material that doesn’t find a place elsewhere.

Today’s post might be thought of as a “deleted scene.” Due to space limitations, I had to cut it out of the final Henry Dunster article. But, so that words might not be lost, I’ll share it with you.

The set-up is that Henry Dunster’s memory became contested territory after his death. In fact, people were arguing about it into the eighteenth century. One example of this is that Henry Dunster shows up in the writings of a British historian, Daniel Neal.

I should highlight again that I was put onto this scent by Baylor’s Bracy Hill.

This paragraph deals with Neal’s treatment of Dunster:

Several decades later, Dunster also became a figure for comment for the British minister and historian Daniel Neal.[1] Neal walked a fine line as a British dissenter who was sympathetic yet critical of seventeenth-century Puritans. Neal’s larger point was to ally the dissenting tradition with the Protestant British empire.[2] Although he drew on [Cotton] Mather’s Magnalia, “he also exercised a critical judgment which to Mather might well have verged on disloyalty.”[3]  Neal rejected Mather’s easy accommodation of Dunster and others into a heroic, univocal New England Way. As a dissenting reformed Congregationalist, Neal was generally suspicious of the extremes of most Anabaptists, but he could also find some respect for a few devout baptists, of whom Dunster was one. In The History of New-England, Neal suggested Baptists deserved religious liberty because they were “following the Light of their Consciences” and making use of “the natural Rights of Mankind.”[4] Puritan persecution of these Baptists was thus unjust. In this context, Dunster was especially badly treated, because “He was an excellent Scholar, and a modest, humble, charitable Man.”[5] Dunster was thus worthy of respect and a personal lesson for reform in Britain and America. Although Neal remained most interested in religious liberty for dissenters, his histories could also be used to work for religious liberty for Baptists.

            [1] My specific thanks to Bracy Hill for pointing me to Neal’s treatment of Dunster. Hill, “Suffering for their Consciences: The Depiction of Anabaptists and Baptists in the Eighteenth-Century Histories of Daniel Neal,” The Welsh Journal of Religious History 5 (2010): 84-113.

            [2] Neal expresses this clearly in Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans, Or Protestant Nonconformists; From the Reformation in 1517, to the Revolution in 1688, Comprising An Account of their First Principles: Their Attempts for a Farther Reformation in the Church; Their Suffering, and the Lives and Characters of Their Most Considerable Divines (London: Richard Hett, 1732; Reprint ed., NY: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1863), ix-xv. For Neal’s general purposes, see Laird Okie, “Daniel Neal and the ‘Puritan Revolution,’” Church History 55 (December 1986): 456-467; John Seed, Dissenting Histories: Politics, History and Memory in Eighteenth-Century England (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 1-12, 41-72.

            [3] Neal’s historiography shaped how colonial New Englanders thought about their own history. Bruce Tucker, “The Reinterpretation of Puritan History in Provincial New England,” The New England Quarterly 54 (December 1981): 481-498. Qt. on p. 484.

            [4] Daniel Neal, The History of New-England, Containing an Impartial Account of the Civil and Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Country, To the Year of our Lord, 1700, The Second Edition (London: A. Ward, T. Longman, T. Shewell, J. Oswald, A. Millar, J. Brackstone, 1747), I: 303, 305.

            [5] Neal, The History of New-England, 309.

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Who is Henry Dunster?

Some readers might be thinking the better question is, “Who is John Galt?”

I am going to “Shrug” in response to that question to answer my original question.

Henry Dunster was perhaps the most important Puritan that even American historians haven’t heard much about. He was the real founding president of a little institution called Harvard. He arrived in the New World in 1640, at the tail end of the “Great Migration” and quickly proved his value to the colony. A man of learning with an MA from Cambridge, he was a scholar of Near Eastern languages. He was quickly appointed to lead the infant Harvard College, which he did well, securing both its financial security and intellectual rigor. During the 1640s, he was near the center of the leadership of the Bay Colony, working for Indian evangelization and revising the colony’s Psalter hymnbook.

Then, something happened. In the 1650s Dunster began having concerns about infant baptism. He refused to have a new-born baptized. When challenged, he prompted a large, public debate in which he defended the anti-infant baptism position against eleven other church leaders. Removed from his presidency at Harvard, Dunster further disrupted the public order by interrupting an infant baptism in his Cambridge Church.

Banished to Plymouth Colony, Dunster lived a few quiet years before his death.

My contention is that Dunster’s theological challenge also carried with it a political challenge. Because baptism was tied to church membership and membership to citizenship, any adjustment to any of those elements had significant political implications.

I explore this at length in my article, “National and Provinciall Churches Are Nullityes”: Henry Dunster’s Puritan Argument against the Puritan Established Church.” The article is forthcoming from the Journal of Church and State, but an advance access article is available here.

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Puritans on a Monday Morning

If you’re looking for your Puritanism fix this Monday morning (which I know you are), I have a post for you!

Just up at the Religion in American History Blog, my reflection on new studies about Puritanism.

At the end, I talk a little about an article of my own. I’ll be blogging more about it later this week.


The piece was also linked through John Fea’s Way of Improvement Blog. You can see his comments here.

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Reading Liao Yiwu

After my post last week about Jonathan Spence, I thought I would continue on the East Asian theme.

One of the best books about Modern China I’ve read in the past year has to be Liao Yiwu’s God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China.

God is Red Cover

Don’t let the title fool you–it is not meant to imply that Liao believes God supports the “Red” Communist Government. Rather, since Red is the Color of Life in Chinese Culture, it comes from the assertion within the book, by a Christian convert, that God is Life.

The book allows many Chinese Christians to speak for themselves and explain why they find Christianity compelling.

Liao came to this subject in an interesting way. He was originally a musician and a poet. In the wake of Tienanmen Square in 1989 he became a dissident. Being outside of official recognition pushed him into contact with common people from all walks of life. Liao would interview them and interject his own reflections. This method was first evident in his book The Corpse Walker. (If you want to think about “dirty jobs”–how about picking up a corpse and “walking” it back to its village?) In his wanderings, Liao discovered that Christians were some of the few people who 1) seemed to have hope in dire situations and 2) showed real concern for the poor and outcast. The best example of the second impulse comes from a doctor. Although well-trained, he practices his medicine among the Miao people, healing their bodies and supporting the indigenous church.

For this project, Liao decided to focus on Christians in contemporary China. He largely allows the Christians he meets to speak for themselves, so there are long passages of interview transcripts. These “unfiltered” reflections speak powerfully to the experience of Christians in China over the past century.

Four moments encapsulated both the pathos and triumph that has to be part of the story. First, Liao and a friend visit an overgrown graveyard down a side road. It turns out this was part of a European missionary complex in the first half of the twentieth century. The missionaries had been expelled and the compound torn down, but a few memories remained, and churches in the area could still trace their roots to those endeavors. Second, Liao visited a Catholic monastery compound. The only remaining nuns were very old, but they were determined to keep it operating until their deaths and perhaps to see it revitalized with a few younger novices. Third, Liao visited with a Christian family that had suffered under the Cultural Revolution. Family members had suffered physical and psychological torture, and they had lost all of their possessions. Still, they maintained their Christian confession intact. Even that great suffering could not trump their beliefs. Finally, Liao visited a House Church pastor who was under house arrest. He and his family recounted their deprivations, as well as their on-going games of cat and mouse with the authorities. Altogether, these pointed to the weight of official persecution that had occurred, yet how remarkably resilient these Christians were.

In short, this is Chinese Christianity at the ground level. The result is profound.

In the last chapter, though, Liao interviews a young, urban male convert. He seems more interested in Christianity because it’s popular than because of any specific doctrines. This may point to a challenge in the coming years. As the Church expands, how does it continue to engender commitment among growing numbers of converts? On the other hand, continued pressure from authorities (whether directed by Beijing or not) could continue to keep the movement constantly alert.

In the global expansion of Christianity (highlighted a decade ago by Philip Jenkins), the growth in China has to be given a very prominent place. Since solid statistics are impossible to achieve, the exact numbers aren’t currently possible. However, the magnitude is definitely huge. Even more remarkable, this growth has occurred as an indigenous movement. Western Missionaries have been gone for sixty years, but the Church has exploded. Further, the development of the Church in China will continue to be important for World Christianity. To that end, Liao’s book might be read profitably next to David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing.

Finally, let me say that I think this book would be great to teach. I can’t foresee an opportunity to teach it, but you can be sure that I’m looking for one.

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