Peter S. Field. The Crisis of the Standing Order: Clerical Intellectuals and Cultural Authority in Massachusetts, 1780-1833. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998 (cloth $39.95)
In this refreshing account, Peter Field provides a new perspective upon the familiar story of the Unitarian/Trinitarian schism in Massachusetts, with the concurrent termination of the established church. Field places his emphasis upon the material condition of his subjects, rather than theological debates. Although many readers may have reservations about this emphasis, the work will be a welcome addition to our understanding of the breakdown of the standing order in Massachusetts.
In Field's analysis the Boston intellectual elite, whom he terms "Brahmins," were among the first to move away from New England Calvinism. Allied with the wealthy merchants, these men led the move toward a liberal Congregationalism, and eventually to Unitarianism. Field suggests that liberal theology was only a part of the Brahmin world, which also included literary high culture and philanthropic endeavors. The peculiar nature of the Boston churches nabled ministers in this city to receive their support from the merchant class, thus providing a measure of independence from the more conservative Calvinist church members.
In response to the rise of Brahmin culture, the Trinitarian Calvinists, led by such stalwarts as Jedidiah Morse, questioned their orthodoxy in a series of well publicized controversies. The end result of this schism was to make the Massachusetts system of tax supported churches unworkable, thus ending the last legally established church in the United States.
Field tells this story with elegance and clarity. He brings many of these perspectives into focus. Although many historians may wish that he had place more emphasis upon religious ideas, as well as their context, his work is an important contribution to our understanding of the topic.
Leo Hirrel, U.S. Army Center of Military History
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