Review of J. Rixey Ruffin’s A Paradise of Reason: William Bentley and Enlightenment Christianity in the Early Republic (Oxford University Press, 2009). ISBN: 978-0-19-532651-2 (hardcover). 280 pp. 9.2 x 6.4 x 1.
Guest Review by Paul E. Teed
Saginaw Valley State University
William Bentley has too long been neglected by students of American religious and intellectual history. Even among historians of American Unitarianism, a religious movement which Bentley helped to nurture during the Early Republic, his role has been overshadowed by better known religious liberals like William Ellery Channing. Although most scholars of the period have heard of Bentley, he is best known for his detailed diary which has been mined for references to the better known figures with whom he mixed, and for its insights into the social and political life of Salem, Massachusetts where he spent nearly four decades as a minister. In contrast, J. Rixey Ruffin’s new book places Bentley at the forefront of the intellectual and religious changes that swept New England and the new United States in the wake of the American Revolution. In the process, he makes a persuasive case that Bentley met the Enlightenment’s challenges to New England’s inherited religious and political values in ways that few, if any of his clerical contemporaries were prepared to accept. Bentley emerges from the book as a maverick, even a gadfly, whose commitment to freedom of thought led him to embrace not only the radical Enlightenment but also the party of Thomas Jefferson.
Bentley has remained under the scholarly radar in part because he published very little of his writing. A list of “major published works” by Bentley yields…[Continue here]