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By the early seventeenth century, English dissenters had developed a vital tradition of voluntary religious exercise operating within the shadow of the established church. Those who immigrated faced a new world of possibilities for public expression of religious commitment. How three generations of New Englanders altered and adapted these habits of religious sociability is the subject of this study.

The dissertation examines religious culture in Charlestown, Massachusetts through the history of three institutions: the family, the private devotional society, and the local church. The focus throughout is on lay religiosity and the interrelation of "private" and "public" religious activities. Church affiliation is studied as a form of spiritual and social behavior; the social and symbolic complexity within church membership categories is explored. Household, rather than individual, patterns of participation in church covenanting rituals are emphasized, and particular attention is given to how gender, life cycle, and family traditions, both matrilineal and patrilineal, affected the timing of spouses' church involvement. A young men's society meeting in Charlestown (1703 to 1737) is reconstructed through a study of members' ecclesiastical and kin connections.

The Charlestown case suggests that the function of religious institutions cannot be properly understood apart from specific historical conditions and social relations. This community developed its own norms; the meaning of church membership was lay-defined. Through their participation in church rituals, lay men and women shaped their own religious identities. Families, especially, exerted an independent influence on church life. They refashioned the boundaries of membership, investing church fellowship with private notions of covenantal community. In the eighteenth century, the society of young men became an alternative both to family- and church-centered religious experience, thus testifying to the resiliency of the voluntaristic impulse within the Anglo-American reformed tradition.


Dissertation presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Yale University in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

Reproduced and made available with permission from the author for for educational and research purposes only.