Book Review

Teed on Ruffin’s A Paradise of Reason

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]

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Geoffrey,

    Thanks for your comment. I think that Ruffin’s book does present a good supplement to Dorrien’s. As you know, Dorrien begins his history of liberal theology with W.E. Channing and suggests that Joseph Priestly’s radical English Unitarianism had little impact on the American variety. Ruffin shows us that Bentley was directly influenced by Priestly — so the orgins of liberal theology may be a bit more contested than Dorrien suggests.

  2. In Dorrien’s defense, I think he was trying to describe a far larger movement. Your basic criticism – he ignores the place of Priestly’s theology in American Unitarianism – is true enough from your remarks. Yet, Dorrien was interested in a far larger theological movement, rather than just one denomination. But, your basic point – American liberal theology, in its earliest stages was rooted in British Unitarianism far more than Dorrien gives credit – is sound.

    Dorrien doesn’t really cover Preistly’s theological writings, and I have only read second-hand accounts of his role in British intellectual life and would like to know about some sources.

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