USIH Review: Teed on Ruffin
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.

Review by Paul E. Teed
Saginaw Valley State University
January 2010

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 no books and only fifteen sermons over a thirty-six year career.    Yet Ruffin has been able reconstruct Bentley’s remarkable intellectual world through careful analysis of his voluminous manuscript sermons housed at Tufts University.  Bentley began preaching in Salem in 1783 after two years as a Harvard tutor, and took over the town’s East Church during a period of intense conflict between the congregation and its long-time Calvinist minister.  After helping to oust his cantankerous predecessor, the young minister quickly shifted the church’s theology toward an Arminianism that understood human salvation as a product of moral striving rather than as an infusion of divine grace.  Drawing upon an Enlightenment religious discourse that described God as “reasonable” and “benevolent,” Bentley taught his congregation of upwardly mobile ship captains, merchants, and privateers that their future state depended upon the rational cultivation of virtue rather than any moment of ecstatic conversion.  

Had Bentley’s innovations stopped at these moral and soteriological questions, he would not have stood out.  But as Ruffin shows, Bentley possessed both a restless mind and a thoroughgoing empiricism that led him to question other key aspects of New England’s Puritan legacy.  His discomfort with the idea of the Trinity, for example, led him to the theological rationalism of the English theologian and natural scientist Joseph Priestly. Bentley encountered such ideas first in the person of Priestly’s combative protégé William Hazlitt, who traveled from England to America in 1785, and then through the trans-Atlantic print market in radical books and pamphlets.  Through these influences, Bentley came not only to reject not the traditional Trinitarian conception of Christ, but also the moderate Arianism that had become popular with other New England religious liberals at the time.  For Bentley, the scriptural evidence of Jesus’s divinity, even a subordinate divinity as Arians understood it, was simply not persuasive.  Nor was such a belief necessary for the salvation of souls, since that object was achieved through right behavior rather than a metaphysical process of atonement.  This forthright embrace Socinian Christology, Ruffin argues, made Bentley unique among even his liberal colleagues in the New England ministry.  

A key element of in Ruffin’s larger argument is his contention that questions of salvation and Christology were actually secondary to ontological problems in generating religious anxiety in the Early Republic.  In denying the possibility of supernatural agency after creation, for example, Deists like Franklin and Paine understood the physical world only in relation to material causes.  They shocked their contemporaries by rejecting Biblical miracles, including the resurrection of Christ, on these grounds.  Unlike most of his contemporaries in the ministry, Bentley did not shun the works of Deists, and he was sometimes censured for lending them out to interested friends.  But in order to retain his belief that Christianity was a unique revelation whose precepts exceeded the powers of natural reason, Bentley embraced what Ruffin calls “Christian naturalism.” (4)  In this framework, God had broken through the ontological barrier between the physical and spiritual realms during Biblical times, but had ceased to do so once the final revelations of Christ, including the resurrection, had been accomplished.  For Bentley, the Deists were right to say that God does not intervene at all in the physical world now, but they were wrong to say that he had never done so. Compromising as this may sound; Ruffin argues that Bentley was actually closer to Deism than he might appear.  In rejecting any post-Biblical divine intervention, Bentley banished God entirely from the physical world, not even allowing divine use of secondary natural causes to accomplish “special providences.”  In doing so, he separated himself from liberal Latitudinarians in England and America who rejected ongoing miraculous intervention, but still saw God’s hand at work in the world through storms, military victories, or other events.

For all of its emphasis on theological questions, A Paradise of Reason also seeks to link Bentley’s intellectual worldview to his changing social and political ideology.  Following other historians, Ruffin argues that New England’s early religious liberals were socially conservative and that Bentley’s early sermons in Salem clearly demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between Arminian theology, with its tendency to equate worldly success with spiritual worthiness, and organic conceptions of the social order.  Yet unlike the other Arminian ministers in Salem who spent careers enjoying the cozy patronage of wealthy merchants, Bentley came to view the community’s elite with disdain and ultimately assumed the role of opposition leader.  Bentley’s humble background and eccentric manners did not suit the preferences of Salem’s aristocrats, and his support for both the French Revolution and the economic embargo of 1794 damaged his reputation with the political and mercantile establishment.  Ruffin argues, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, that Bentley’s disaffection from the “classical liberals” who ran Salem made him more sympathetic to downtrodden outsiders than he had been earlier in his ministry and far less deferential to his social superiors.  What is clear is that Bentley became a leading figure in the organization of the Jeffersonian Republican Party in Salem which triumphed after 1800.   Ironically, he did so by making common cause with evangelicals and sectarians who opposed not only Federalist political conservatism, but who also objected to the clerical standing order.  However much Bentley rejected the theology of evangelical sects, he regarded the overlapping political and religious authority of the Federalists to be a greater threat to intellectual and religious progress.  

Ruffin’s book succeeds in making its case for William Bentley as an important figure in Early American intellectual and religious history.  If for no other reason, Bentley’s theological and ontological positions provide an important point on a spectrum that usually finds little or no middle ground between Deists and religious liberals.  Bentley steadfastly occupied that ground, even if it led to frustration, isolation, and a periodic sense of personal failure.  Ruffin also allow us to view a road not taken in early American Unitarianism.  Bentley’s rationalism, his full acceptance of Socianism and Christian naturalism did not find many takers as liberal religion developed in the nineteenth century.  His views were moderated considerably by a later generation of Unitarians like William Ellery Channing and Henry Ware who retained a belief in Christ’s partial divinity and who balanced the austere dictates of empiricism with the equally important cultivation of religious affections.  If at times Ruffin’s use of terms like “classical liberalism” in contrast to Jeffersonian “liberalism” or “libertarianism” seems forced or confusing, his larger argument about Bentley’s importance to religion and the American Enlightenment always comes through loud and clear.


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