Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Historical Theology

First Advisor

David Schmitt

Scripture References in this Resource

Psalm 15; Matthew 25; Psalm 16:12; Jeremiah 25:3-5; Luke 16:31; Acts 25:7; Romans 8:16; Hebrews 4:16


The North American Puritans introduced a concept that has shaped American theology: a test of subjective assurance as a predicate to communing church membership. While previous Reformed communities had tested would-be communicants in their knowledge of church teaching and their adherence to that teaching in their lives. The New England colonists added a relation of the individual’s experiential conversion. This was intended to protect the purity of the church while also ministering to the individual by encouraging them in their faith by their inclusion in church membership. The results of the test led immediately to declining numbers of adults becoming communing members, which produced tensions for the interconnected systems of the Puritan society. Scholars have disagreed over whether the test represented a change in ecclesiology, whether later adaptations improved or worsened the situation, and whether these later adaptations were even more significant breaks with the Reformed tradition.

This study argues that the initial test introduced a fundamental instability into the New England Way. The test was not a change in ecclesiology, but in soteriology, and flowed out of the ongoing evolution of the doctrine of assurance in the Reformed tradition. The policy adaptation of the second generation in the half-way covenant continued to hold the presupposition that experiential conversion was normative to subjective assurance. Consequently, it failed to address the issues that created the problem in the first place. The decline in membership was corrected over the course of the last quarter of the seventeenth century because the traumas of this tumultuous time creating experiential conditions like those of the first generation from which individuals were able to draw subjective assurance sufficient to pursue church membership. The sacramental renaissance of this period led to sacramental innovation in Stoddardianism, though it was not as extreme as scholars have often understood it. While faulting the founders test itself, Stoddardianism continued to share the presupposition of the normativity of experiential conversion, and so it was unable to correct the instability inherent in the New England Way.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.