An article titled “The Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force” appeared in the New York Times in June 2007. It explained that evolutionary biologists and cognitive neuroscientists had so thoroughly discovered the physical bases for feelings and moral sense as to refute Descartes’s division between humanity and the rest of the world. Despite such evidence, we often continue to refuse the notion of a world based on strictly material terms. Theologians, philosophers, and others persist in their attempts to reconcile the existence of some kind of immaterial soul with a material world, turning to arguments and methods beyond the realm of biology or chemistry.

But in the early modern period (1500–1800), this epistemological and methodological divide between scientists and theologians did not exist. Cotton Mather was both the infamous Puritan minister who defended the Salem Witchcraft Trials and an active member of the Royal Society who frequently sent natural specimens to London. Francis Bacon founded the empirical method at the same time he wrote his Confession of Faith. These seventeenth-century philosophers and ministers were not simply good at maintaining contradictions. Early modern science and religion worked together in a variety of ways, assimilating what only seem to us retrospectively as oppositional worldviews.

Yet the story of continuity between religion and science—or natural philosophy, as it was more commonly known at the time—is well established. Less well known is a religious practice by which Puritan ministers in New England applied philosophy and empiricism to study the souls of their converts in new ways. This was a “science of the soul” quite different than the one described by the Times. It began in seventeenth-century New England as a unique practice of tracking knowledge of God as it became manifest in the human soul.

Ministers drew upon methodologies culled from empiricism and natural philosophy, methodologies otherwise unavailable to them in a strictly theological sphere. To some degree, the “science of the soul” that I am about to describe was a practice unique to the theological and social peculiarities of Puritan New England. Yet the confluence between science and religion that we see there speaks to larger epistemological convergences in Enlightenment modernity. Religion modernized along with science and philosophy, allowing belief in transcendent and sacred domains to flourish rather than diminish over the eighteenth century. And conversely, early modern science borrowed from theology a commitment to large questions about structures of nature and invisible realms, all while adhering to the human condition of uncertainty.


In 1630, 30,000 Puritans migrated to the eastern seaboard of North America to practice their religion freely and to escape persecution experienced under Charles I and Archbishop Laud. Shortly after they settled in New England, they developed a unique form of spiritual testimony. A communal audience, composed of a minister and members of the elect, meaning those who had identified themselves as likely candidates for God’s saving grace, listened to short, oral performances that narrated the feeling of conversion. First-generation Puritans delivered the bulk of these conversion narratives, and recounted their passage to the New World as a spiritual journey.

Each narrative responded to one of the central questions of the Protestant Reformation: how do I know if I am saved? Testifiers attempted to supply evidence of grace that would respond affirmatively. This evidence in turn consisted of some statement about what the soul felt like during conversion. A female convert in Cambridge described how her heart melted at the touch of Christ. And a Christian Indian explained to a Puritan missionary: “I saw that Christ did bring healing and Life for my Soul…I found the presence of God in my soul.” Ministers observed attentively, listened carefully, and recorded their words.


Far from opposing the advances in knowledge prompted by the Scientific Revolution, Puritan ministers were deeply engaged with them.


There is something rather puzzling about this process of narration: read any Protestant theologian—from John Calvin to Jonathan Edwards—and you will learn that you can not fully know the status of your soul while you remain on earth. To presume to know was even heretical. These theologians believed deeply in a central problem of human knowledge imposed by Original Sin. As a consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God had limited human inquiry into his divine purpose. The convert had only a limited ability to discern his or her spiritual standing, a restriction that also made it nearly impossible to communicate knowledge of one’s own faith to others.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, lay people were called upon by the thousands to give public testimony to evidence of God’s grace upon their soul. Published collections of these testimonies appeared from congregations as far flung as Dublin, Ireland, and Natick, Massachusetts. Anglo men and women, children, and Native Americans delivered this evidence in a variety of settings: in congregations, in missionary communities, on their deathbeds, during witchcraft trials, and during the 1740 revival that became known as the Great Awakening. Through these testimonies, lay people were authorized repeatedly to violate a fundamental theological law, the inability to know the status of your soul or communicate that knowledge to others. Testifiers supplied the evidence of grace that ministers could not write about, let alone preach.

As they listened to and often recorded these lay testimonies, religious leaders tried to distinguish true from false emotions, spiritual insight from human error. The testimonies transcribed by ministers were meant to provide evidence of God’s grace imprinted on human souls. If the convert could give adequate evidence, he or she was accepted into the church.

To interpret the evidence produced by the convert’s experience, the ministers borrowed from methods rooted in new scientific discoveries and practices to compensate for what could not be known theologically. They also used the new sciences to discipline their inquiry according to strict and precise reminders of the boundaries of knowledge. The methods employed in the study of the soul oscillated between the theological and the natural philosophical. Empiricism and natural philosophical inquiry were as integral to the Puritan testimonies practiced in New England as they were to the basis of experimental philosophy in the Royal Society. The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did more than establish the methods of modern science: it transformed ideas about the human soul.


From the late 16th to early 18th centuries, natural philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and John Locke produced the first major challenge to the long-standing paradigms established by Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. They put together a program that included much of what we know as modern science, such as a professional vocation that emphasized empirical research and communal verification of evidence and data. This historical lineage often leads to other conclusions: we tend to assume that the rise of modern science also paved the road to secularism, and replaced Christianity as the focal point of European civilization. The New England Puritans, however, demonstrated a different way of relating to these developments. On the surface, they would seem an odd population to link to the Scientific Revolution: in some sense, they opposed many of its ideals, such as human capacity for self-improvement or the derivation of knowledge from sources other than God. They looked backward to Augustine and the Old Testament rather than forward to new discoveries, and believed deeply in predestination, Original Sin, and the inability of humans to exercise control over their lives. They maintained such a profound belief in revelation that, in 1692 while John Locke was publishing his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, they tried and hanged twenty on charges of witchcraft.

The science of the soul emerged through the conditions of an age of new learning and discovery, when ancient verities no longer held as absolute truths in natural philosophical and religious realms. Protestantism’s drive for the individual’s unmediated access to God fueled an ambition for a deeper awareness of the divine. The human soul resided within the natural world without being a part of it. Composed of invisible and immaterial particles, the soul provoked the human desire to further inquiry, to seek to know what could not be known, to defy the limits of human comprehension (without, of course, going quite so far as Adam and Eve once did). New England ministers attempted not only to resolve the ambiguity surrounding election through such lay testimonies—they also attempted to respond to the philosophical problem of human knowledge circumscribed by the Fall.


She linked scripture to nature: the material form of the leaf found in late summer is literally a leaf of the Psalms.


So, far from opposing the advances in knowledge prompted by the Scientific Revolution, Puritan ministers were deeply engaged with them. When Robert Boyle became the first president of the Royal Society of London in 1662, he also became head of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England. This was the missionary company responsible for converting the Algonquian tribes in New England to Christianity, and Boyle’s letters and writings reveal more than a philanthropic interest in the missionary project. An essay published in 1690 exclaimed that what “could never be learned” in Aristotle or Ptolemy is revealed in the “supernatural testimonies” of America’s “Heathen” as they convert to Christianity. The science of the soul was not just about a religious accommodation of scientific principles. An interest in revelation and Christian conversion persisted in early modern scientific circles.

Francis Bacon wrote a Confession of Faith in 1603, though it remained unpublished until 1641. In the Confession, Bacon thought about the consequences of the Fall of Adam as thoroughly as John Calvin: he explained that only through the transformative effects of “Christ’s seed” is the human capacity for observation and reason restored. The scientist, by this logic, depends upon Christian conversion in order to perceive the natural world properly. Bacon’s Confession was published multiple times over a hundred-year period.

One particular 1700 edition was printed along with a treatise on conversion by minister Richard Baxter. A Puritan minister sits alongside the founder of modern science. And perhaps most significantly, this book was owned by a woman named Jane Knight, who wrote right across from Bacon’s text: “Jane Knight. Her Book In the Year of Our Lord 1707.” Not only theologians, but also lay women read Baxter alongside Bacon.


At the end of the Principia, Isaac Newton lamented that, even though humans know that “God exists,” “there is no direct sense and there are no indirect reflected actions by which we know innermost substances.” By the end of the seventeenth century, Newton’s mechanical philosophy had firmly separated material and spiritual domains, reducing the former to a sequence of automated causes that revealed nothing of divine essence. Furthermore, John Locke cautioned that his empirical method would increase human understanding only in the material world; the invisible world must remain cordoned off from empirical pursuit. This mandate thwarted the tenuous attempts to chart evidence of God on human souls and led to divisive debates among natural philosophers over whether empiricism could be used to study supernatural as well as natural phenomena.

Jonathan Edwards, the eminent American theologian and philosopher of the eighteenth century, had a particular stake in these philosophical limitations newly imposed upon the pursuit of divine knowledge. Newton’s lament and Locke’s caution had further dissolved the fragile, testimonial practice as an avenue to divine evidence. Edwards attempted to resolve this seemingly irreconcilable Enlightenment problem of knowledge represented by Locke, Newton, and many others.

In 1725, Edwards heard a possible solution to this dilemma in the conversion testimony of a twenty-four-year-old woman, Abigail Strong. At the time, Edwards was only a year older than Abigail and a student at Yale Divinity School. He had returned home for the summer to his father-in-law’s house, also a minister in East Windsor, MA. That August, Abigail stood before the members of the East Windsor church to offer her spiritual testimony. The small, intimate group of church members comprising her audience sat attentively, while their minister, Timothy Edwards, sat with pen poised above his notebook, ready to record the evidence of God’s grace that Abigail was about to supply. Abigail spoke of a “sensible feeling” that indicated an inward transformation through God’s grace, which enabled her to see the world in a new light. Her encounter with the natural world was transformed through this “sensible feeling”—she joined her experience of nature with her reading of scripture. While walking in the woods, Abigail found “a leaf of the Psalms…accidentally” upon the ground. She linked scripture to nature: the material form of the leaf found in late summer is literally a leaf of the Psalms.


We partake in the history of religion, even as we reject its current forms.


Abigail’s testimony foreshadowed some of the primary theological transformations that would redirect this history of Protestantism in America. Psalms 90.5-6, the passage Abigail uncovered in the forest, was the same passage that Edwards would use to instruct his parishioners of the connection between the elements of nature and the elements of their own soul. Edwards expanded this link between nature and spirit into an entire cosmological scheme in his sermon series, History of the Work of Redemption, written and preached over several months in 1739.

The Work of Redemption was a direct response to Newton. Seeking to find God where Newton could not, Edwards revitalized nature as a space where divine evidence could be gathered and where the human soul could be viewed as a microcosm of the larger cosmos. What Edwards heard in Abigail’s discovery was not simply a premonition of evangelical things to come but rather a proposed solution to the dilemma of unknowable knowledge. He discovered a way of reading the natural world and the human soul as coextensive microcosms of a macrocosmic divine. The certainty supplied by the indwelling presence of Christ in the soul of the convert contributed to philosophy a certain knowledge of divine essence.

Edwards proposed the concept of the indwelling light to supply unparalleled and otherwise unavailable data on the workings of God’s presence throughout the world. But by the mid-eighteenth century, evidence of God as recorded on human souls mattered less and less to scientists. The uncertainty surrounding knowledge—which emerged out of the myth of the fall—was becoming a condition of modern science, not an obstacle to overcome through the second coming of Christ. David Hume, the great radical skeptic, wrote in his Natural History of Religion, “the whole [of the cosmos] is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery.” In the latter half of the eighteenth century, natural philosophy accepted this mystery rather than trying to solve the riddle or lament its own inability to do so. The philosophical elite and Edwards’s contemporaries did not want certainty, much less religious certainty, to answer to their own shortcomings. In his Enquiry into Human Understanding, Hume proclaims “uncertainty” to be “the only sensible way to live.” The problem with religion, Hume explains, “is not that it relies on faith but that it seeks certainty. It grasps for truths that are beyond our powers, speaking the language of metaphysics, which only increases our uncertainty by clouding our minds.” The Enlightenment cosmos, like the Reformation God to come before it, was too complex to supply a totalizing picture. Its riddles might be partially understood through hypotheses and experiments, but the whole would forever elude full explanation.


Historians of science often point to the late eighteenth century as the time when science became professionalized and, soon thereafter, separated from biblical stories of the Fall and the second coming of Christ. According to this account, human inquiry retreats to a more modest position exemplified through Hume’s embrace of the uncertain. Religion comes to occupy a marginal status because its own knowledge base no longer correlates to reason-based models coming out of the Enlightenment.

The science of the soul suggests a slightly different story. While, in many cases, practices associated with science and religion part ways by embracing two distinct paths of inquiry, the epistemological convergence and methodological borrowing displayed in colonial New England’s science of the soul persist well beyond the dismantling of the Puritan experiment. Consider again the 2007 article, “The Science of the Soul?”: neuroscientists are committed to grounding human nature in strictly materialist terms; theologians and a host of other believers and non-believers seek evidence of at least the possibility that something resembling an immaterial soul might exist within and alongside matter. The objectives distinct to each group make them appear fundamentally opposed. Yet across the theological and neuroscientific divide, both share a commitment to the limitations of knowledge as well as a need for empirical proof to ground their claims.

We see in this debate modern resonances of the words of the sixteenth-century Reformation theologian, John Calvin: we remain unremittingly employed in acquiring further knowledge “even though we know it is impossible to comprehend that which is infinite,” be it an infinity of matter or of spirit. Across the sciences and the humanities today our distinct methods dwell in this same form of uncertainty. Knowledge commits us to continued inquiry despite our awareness of what cannot be known and of the limits of human understanding.

To embrace the uncertain is to reside in—rather than struggle with—the mystery of our own existence. It eschews a perspective on human knowledge that imposes a literal and unequivocal frame on the world. The persistent claim to certainty demarcates the very thing that has so troubled academic culture about certain strands of contemporary evangelicalism. Like Hume, academics critique the truth claims of religion more than the framework of belief. How can what those of us trained in a secular academy perceive to be an unsubstantiated claim be made with such certainty? But, paradoxically, to embrace uncertainty is also to inherit the residue of the very thing that we think we have disavowed. We partake in the history of religion, even as we reject its current forms. We have transformed Augustine’s and Calvin’s crisis of knowing into our own story of the Fortunate Fall. The great lesson of the Reformation as it prefigured and was refigured through the Scientific Revolution was that uncertainty is a condition of modern knowledge. These sciences of the soul offered one way to confront that given, and indeed the best we can do to circumvent it is to try to supply human answers. Uncertainty in all of its various modern guises—hypothesis, experiments, research questions, methodological frameworks, and case studies—bespeaks a deep continuity across varying academic domains and disciplines. Knowledge is incomplete. The cosmos as well as the humans residing therein remain a mystery.

Sarah Rivett is an associate professor of English at Princeton University. She specializes in early American and eighteenth-century transatlantic literature and culture, and her first book, The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (2011), was awarded the Brewer Prize of the American Society of Church History. Her second book, Unscripted America: the Origins of a Literary Nation, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.


Image from Flickr via dchrisoh


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