Friday, October 24, 2008

Ross on Puritans and Legal Pluralism

Richard J. Ross's “Puritan Godly Discipline in Comparative Perspective: Legal Pluralism and the Sources of 'Intensity" is just out in the print version of the American Historical Review and on-line through the University of Chicago Press--if you are an AHA member with a cookie or your institution otherwise provides access. Here is the AHR editor's summary:
The New England Puritans were famously disciplined: intense in their drive for moral righteousness and a more fully Christianized society. In “ Puritan Godly Discipline in Comparative Perspective: Legal Pluralism and the Sources of ‘Intensity’,” Richard J. Ross attempts to explain this disposition by situating the colony in two contexts not normally considered together. The first is a comparative exploration of post-Reformation campaigns for godly discipline and confession-building. A comparative investigation of legal pluralism among New World settlements constitutes the second. His study begins by considering the assumption of European Reformation historians of an inverse relationship between the effectiveness of godly discipline and a territory’s social complexity and legal pluralism. Contemporary critics of Massachusetts, in fact, viewed the New England way as deficient in precisely those sorts of mechanisms, available in other Reformed polities such as Calvin’s Geneva and seventeenth-century Scotland, which could coordinate among different congregations and police the boundaries between the civil and ecclesiastical realms. These critics predicated that schism, oscillations between enthusiasm and lethargy, and inconsistent standards of judgment and administration between clashing churches and civil authorities would together undermine the colony’s discipline. They were, however, wrong. And part of the reason lies in Massachusetts’ low level of social complexity, at least as compared to European Reformed societies, and its relatively modest degree of legal pluralism. The colony’s experience challenges the expectation of scholars of New World pluralism. Rather, the historiography of European confession building offers an insight into family resemblances among settlements in different regions that were pursuing parallel programs of intense godly discipline and Christian education. In short, evidence from the New World can contribute to debates among scholars of the “confessional age” by demonstrating the importance of legal history in understanding the level of godly discipline.
Update: Ross's article, together with his own abstract, is also available on-line as an SSRN paper here.