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A Midwife's Tale | Article

Public Religion, Private Piety


Recently scholarship in religious history has emphasized the contrasting themes of "public religion" (explored in the work of John F. Wilson and Patricia Bonomi) and "personal piety" (addressed by Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Patricia Caldwell, David Hall, and others). Public religion in early New England was based on the existence and authority of a single church in each town, a church that would define and explicate the individual and collective experiences of the community's members.

But such a church was never able to function effectively in Hallowell -- in part because it was located on the New England frontier (where church authority rarely took hold at any time), and in part because it was founded in a period when church authority was being eroded even in long-settled communities. In short, the official public religion had become profoundly conflicted, and the public authority of the established Congregational culture was falling apart. Steven Marini has shown how the residents of northern New England in the early 19th century might belong to a bewildering variety of new churches -- Freewill Baptist, Universalist, Shaker -- most of them spawned by foundering Congregationalism itself.

Yet in the 1780's, the inhabitants of Hallowell could not accept such a situation as "normal": they continued to believe that a single established church ought to represent the town's moral center. So they fought -- bitterly -- over theology.

Hallowell's own minister, Isaac Foster, was driven from his pulpit in 1788, and out of town a year later. In that intervening year, with his authority gone, Foster and his family were in a position of extraordinary vulnerability. Foster's wife claimed she was raped in her house by several men including a prominent judge, one of Ephraim Ballard's employers. The trial provided a real life example of the tensions revealed in printed literature of the period, a time when notions of evidence based on the power of community reputations were being challenged by formal legal codes. The resulting acquittal did not resolve the rift in the town over the role of the state in enforcing morality. The theme emerged, unresolved, in later arguments over the appointment of judges.

This overall context helps illuminate one of the most perplexing aspects of Martha Ballard's life: her seeming indifference to public religion. While Martha was a religious person (constantly thanking God for the babies she successfully delivered), she attended public worship only irregularly. Her religion appears almost non-denominational. In one of her infrequent diary references to public religion -- a Sunday service at which a visiting clergyman preached -- Martha reported merely that she had been "agreeably Entertained" by the minister's sermon. In contrast, a more sectarian member of the Hallowell community, a man named Henry Sewall, described the same sermon as "flagrant free-will doctrine." Martha's privatized piety may well have represented her personal response to the conflicting state of religion in Hallowell, her reluctance to tread upon the shifting sands that public religion had become. But her stance may also have been deeply traditional, related in part to her role as a midwife. A sermon published in Connecticut in 1739 eulogized a godly midwife as a woman who "remained a Common Friend to all" when others "were so Unhappy as to divide into Parties, and to burn with Contention."

By the end of the century, dissenting churches began to outdistance the Congregational establishment in towns around Hallowell, provoking fears that without some central authority, individual behavior would become unmoored. Martha Ballard's neighbor James Purrinton was a case in point: Purrinton had been, in turn, a Calvinist Baptist, a Freewill Baptist, and a Universalist. In 1806 he murdered his wife and children in cold blood, without any apparent motive. Most people could make no better sense of Purrinton's actions than to attribute them to his religious doctrines. Martha Ballard recorded the murders in her diary (as she had earlier recorded the rape of Rebecca Foster, who had confided in her before telling her story in public). She made no written effort to explain either of these horrifying episodes, but James Purrinton's religious perambulations (like Joseph North's ostensible assault) reflected just the kind of cultural instability that Martha Ballard spent her life trying to sew up. She rarely discussed public religion in her diary. She was always in contact with the sacred, but in essentially personal ways: through prayer, and above all by doing what she saw to be her public duty. She remained, perhaps knowingly, a quiet center in the midst of the storm.

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