The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England

By Sarah Rivett

380 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 20 illus., notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-8407-9
    Published: August 2024
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-8078-3524-1
    Published: November 2011
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-3870-9
    Published: December 2012
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-8573-9
    Published: December 2012

Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

Paperback Available August 2024, but pre-order your copy today!

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Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

Awards & distinctions

2011 Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize, American Society for Church History

The Science of the Soul challenges long-standing notions of Puritan provincialism as antithetical to the Enlightenment. Sarah Rivett demonstrates that, instead, empiricism and natural philosophy combined with Puritanism to transform the scope of religious activity in colonial New England from the 1630s to the Great Awakening of the 1740s.

In an unprecedented move, Puritan ministers from Thomas Shepard and John Eliot to Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards studied the human soul using the same systematic methods that philosophers applied to the study of nature. In particular, they considered the testimonies of tortured adolescent girls at the center of the Salem witch trials, Native American converts, and dying women as a source of material insight into the divine. Conversions and deathbed speeches were thus scrutinized for evidence of grace in a way that bridged the material and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible, the worldly and the divine.

In this way, the "science of the soul" was as much a part of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural philosophy as it was part of post-Reformation theology. Rivett's account restores the unity of religion and science in the early modern world and highlights the role and importance of both to transatlantic circuits of knowledge formation.

About the Author

Sarah Rivett is professor of English and American studies at Princeton University.
For more information about Sarah Rivett, visit the Author Page.


β€œAn extraordinary work of interdisciplinary scholarship and a rich and rewarding read.”—New England Quarterly

β€œA careful and accomplished book: thorough in its mining of seventeenth-century print culture; revisionary in its placement of key Enlightenment texts in conversation with more obscure theological sources; and masterful in its treatment of very tricky, sinuous threads of religious, scientific, and intellectual history.”—Early American Literature

β€œ[An] ambitious book.”—Journal of American History

β€œThis deeply intelligent book is essential reading for scholars of Puritan studies, early American literature and religious history more broadly, and the history of science. Its cogent writing and sophisticated argument will make it an important addition to reading lists for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in those fields for a long time to come.”—The Historian

"Rivett's book reminds us of the interconnectedness of seemingly distinct ways of knowing, and suggests that modernity may inhere in propensity to question what is appropriate to be known."β€”American Historical Review

β€œ[A] sophisticated and sensitive reading of theology and spirituality. . . . Fascinating.”—William and Mary Quarterly