The Authority of Conscience in Early Modern England and New England: A Reconsideration

  • David D. Hall
Part of the Boston Studies in Philosophy, Religion and Public Life book series (BSPR, volume 6)


Turn over a stone, and surprises unfold. The stone I turn over in this essay concerns the word “conscience” and how it was employed in Tudor-Stuart England and early America. Underneath this initial stone lies another, the rethinking in recent historical scholarship of a powerful figure of speech, early modern societies as “persecuting” in their relationship to religious dissent or nonconformity. Taking stock of each of these topics, I begin by reflecting on a cluster of studies that replace the duality of persecution/liberty with a much more contextualized narrative of persecution and liberty as conditional or circumstantial. For the most part, I rely on Alexandra Walsham’s CharitableHatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500–1700 (2006), supplementing her narrative with a brief review of the “two kingdom” theory of church and state as it was practiced among the colonists in New England. Thereafter, I describe one of the meanings of “conscience” within Anglo-American Puritanism, an interpretation focused on its role as an instrument of ordained truth or, as writers in the early modern period would have said, conscience as “well-ordered.” The point of view I describe may be contrasted with Enlightenment or liberal theorizing about the rights of the free individual. Not that liberty but something quite different—in effect, a liberty to acknowledge duly constituted authority—is how conscience was supposed to function: conscience as “con scientia,” “with wisdom,” i.e., aligned with a wisdom that was collectively maintained.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Harvard Divinity SchoolCambridgeUSA

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