That to make sure of life eternal is the one necessary business that we sons of death have to do in this world, and without which all our time here is worse than lost, every enlightened mind will easily acknowledge.3

JONATHAN MITCHELL, a Harvard graduate and the successor whom Thomas Shepard chose for his Cambridge pulpit, penned these words; but every New England minister in the seventeenth century believed and preached this concept. “Converting work,” after all, was the “main Design” of the Reformed ministry, a view held by all of New England’s first- and second-generation pastors despite their differences on other subjects.4 Ministers might have preached differing theologies of conversion, but they never haggled over the fundamental point that if men were to be redeemed they had to experience a new birth.5 Conversion was, as Alan Simpson rightly concluded, the very “essence of Puritanism,” an experience that separated “the Puritan from the mass of mankind” and endowed him with “the privileges and duties of the elect.”6

For Shepard’s people and other Puritans, however, grace came in no momentary Pauline wrenching of the will during an inspiring sermon or while “taking a pipe of tobacco,” but rather emerged from a prepared-for conclusion to a lengthy regenerative process.7 Viewing conversion in this way, Cambridge parishioners had no immediate assurance of their salvation; only after a long period of intensive and prolonged introspection could they be certain of grace.8 Such acute inward searching, stemming from their knowledge of preparationist theology, came from hearing sermons, taking and reviewing sermon notes, conferring with pastors, and talking with converted laymen.

First- and second-generation ministers, because of this pronounced emphasis on preparing for conversion, required almost all candidates for church membership to recite publicly a confession of their progressive steps to saving grace. Only some women—for certain ministers used 1 Corinthians 34:14 and 1 Timothy 2:12 to forbid women in their congregation to speak before the entire church—and timid men related their confessions in private before the church’s elders. Thomas Shepard approved of public confessions and asked everyone (man or woman) seeking membership in the Cambridge church to recount before the congregation the way in which he or she came to grace. Between about 1638 and 1645, Shepard recorded in a small leather notebook the confessions of fifty-one persons applying for church membership at Cambridge. One of the few Puritans to transcribe such relations, or at least to have them survive, Shepard furnished posterity with an unusual opportunity to examine in depth the “essence of Puritanism.”9

The people who gave these confessions, although they willingly bared their innermost feelings before an assembly of their peers, were mostly unassuming laymen. In England, where many of the families resided in Suffolk, Essex, or Northumberland, almost all the men were either yeomen, tradesmen (carpenters, coopers, weavers, or glovers), or mariners. Only a little more than one-third of the people could read and write.10 After they migrated to Cambridge, their chief concern was husbandry and the improvement of their homesteads, though several of the men supplemented their agricultural income by practicing their former trades. While the exact wealth of most of these people at the time of their confession cannot be calculated, a great majority of them had sufficient means to marry. Moreover, scattered information reveals that some of them eventually attained comfortable lives and a few even acquired great riches. Those with the title “Mr.” or “Mrs.” at the time of their confession had already achieved a place among the local gentry, and others subsequently joined their rank. Of the four servants who made a relation of faith, two were obscure women, now untraceable. But the two male servants, Richard Eccles and John Stedman, quickly achieved social, economic, and political independence. Of course, church membership brought only the promise of heavenly reward and earthly propriety, but such economic successes came from secular endeavors. Elder Francis Moore, for example, was one of the less prosperous citizens in the town but held an exalted lay position in the Cambridge congregation.11

The confessors were largely a youthful group in the process of starting their own families and seeking a respectable niche in Cambridge society. Thus, none was under eighteen, but six men and eight women were younger than twenty-five. The majority—sixteen men and eleven women—were between twenty-five and thirty-five. And only five men and two women were over thirty-five at the time of their relation of faith. Therefore, as John Demos and others have shown, in New England towns the age at which people attained the privileges and responsibilities of adult citizenship, which required church membership as a prerequisite, ranged from “twenty-five to forty, with some tendency to cluster in the early thirties.”12

Nearly half of the confessions were given by women.13 Even more than the men, they led commonplace lives, devoting themselves to cooking, marketing, gardening, and raising children. Two of the women, unnamed by Shepard, performed such duties as maids. In contrast, widows Joanna Sill and Mrs. Greene both managed their own estates. But the majority were housewives, and their lot in life was not an easy one. The epitaph of the wife of a Gloucestershire yeoman might well have been written by any of the Cambridge women:

From my sad cradle to my sable chest,

Poor Pilgrim, I did find few months of rest.14

Moreover, seventeenth-century women were generally subservient to their husbands and fathers in most matters. Anne Errington was too timid to discuss her spiritual condition with her mate, “fearing he would loathe me if he knew me,” while Mary Sparrowhawk was afraid to “speak to anybody and thought also that they would not be plain with her.” Despite these extreme cases, Puritan women usually functioned independently from their men in the matter of receiving grace, and hence many of the confessions by women were as long or longer than those by men.15

These men and women lived at Newtown, Massachusetts, known as Cambridge after 2 May 1638, a town situated on the Charles River about midway between Charlestown and Watertown. Its founders selected the site about six months after the arrival of the Winthrop fleet in 1630. Deputy-governor Thomas Dudley, in a letter written in 1631 to Lady Bridget, the Countess of Lincoln, reported that “upon leaving all thoughts of a fort, because upon any invasion we were necessarily to lose our houses, when we should retire thereinto,” all the assistants resolved to “build houses at a place a mile east from Watertown . . . and by removing the ordnance and munition thither, and such as shall come to us hereafter . . . if God would, a fortified town might there grow up.”16 Although the assistants agreed to build at Newtown in the spring of 1631, only Dudley and Simon Bradstreet fulfilled the compact.17 Governor John Winthrop, having built a house at Newtown, almost moved there. However, Bostonians implored him to remain with them; and Winthrop, who was never overly fond of the Newtown location, decided not to move. Therefore, in the fall, without consulting Dudley or the other assistants, he had his servants dismantle the house and reassemble it in Boston, an action that destroyed Dudley’s hopes of making Newtown the capital of the colony and led to an acrimonious dispute between Dudley and Winthrop.18

Life in this small, compact village in the early years was calm. The eight to ten families there, who came into contact daily, devoted themselves to the distribution of land (both from the colony to the town and from the town to individuals), to defense, to the construction of roads, and to the establishment of local government. Soon the population of Cambridge increased, eventually bringing discontent into the infant community. In 1632, immigrants from Braintree, Essex—former parishioners of Thomas Hooker, an English minister silenced for his Puritanism—left Mount Wollaston, their first and temporary Massachusetts residence, and settled at Cambridge. Because colonists from neighboring towns also moved to a more attractive Cambridge, by the end of 1633 nearly a hundred families lived there. Such expansion, according to the Cambridge freemen, brought overcrowding. “Those of Newtown,” Winthrop recorded, “complained of straitness for want of land, especially meadow, and desired leave of the court to look out either for enlargement or removal.”19 Therefore, on 31 May 1636, a full two years after their first complaint to the General Court, many in the town opted for removal.20 It was their departure to Connecticut that placed Shepard, who arrived with a “company” of immigrants in the fall of 1635, in his Cambridge pulpit and many of his future parishioners in their Cambridge homes. “Myself and those that came with me,” Shepard recalled, “found many homes empty and many persons willing to sell.”21

By 1652, about a decade after Shepard’s parishioners narrated their confessions, Cambridge was fast becoming a comfortable middle-class town. Based on the Shawshine land grants of 1652, the average worth at death of the sixty (of 115) patentees for whom there are extant inventories was at least £317.22 Also reflecting a middle-class community, between 1635 and 1653 a full twenty-two persons rotated in and out of the elected positions of selectmen. Moreover, these “town fathers” were generally middle-aged and economically successful. When first elected to office, seven of them were between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five, and thirteen more were at least thirty-five years old. However, none was over fifty-two.23 As to their wealth, only four had less than middle-class assets. By far the greater part of these elected officials held considerable substance and constituted the local gentry. In fact, no person of wealth on the 1652 Shawshine list for whom economic position can be assessed failed to achieve elected office. Thus, between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five, men in this middle-class community attained full rights of belonging, that is, marriage and children, church membership, freemanship, town grants, and office-holding. And the wealthiest from among them eventually came to bear the greatest role in local government.24

As residents of Cambridge, Shepard’s parishioners delivered their relations in the local Congregational or Independent church. If they had arrived a few years earlier, however, they would have found no church or meetinghouse in the town. Perhaps because of its meager population, Cambridge did not construct a place of worship until after the arrival of Hooker’s company in 1632. In that year, according to Thomas Prince, an early eighteenth-century historian and preacher, the town “built the 1st House for publick Worship” a church with “a Bell upon it.”25 The townsmen still had no minister and had to travel to neighboring towns in order to worship on the Sabbath. Regular services began at Cambridge only when Thomas Hooker, who came a year after his Braintree company, became their first pastor in 1633.26

A full four months before Hooker and most of his congregation left for Connecticut in 1635, Shepard and “divers other good Christians,” probably including those of Hooker’s band who remained behind, organized a new congregation at Cambridge. Wisely following the Bay Colony practices in such a matter, Shepard first sought the approval of the colony magistrates. Once given, he “sent to all the neighboring churches for their elders to give their assistance, at a certain day, at Newtown, when they should constitute their body.” , “a great assembly” gathered on the appointed day. Shepard and two others sat before the congregation on the elders’ bench. The oldest of the three led in prayer. Then Shepard prayed “with deep confession of sin” and also “opened the cause of their meeting.” After a brief ministerial discussion over how many people “were needful to make a church,” the ministers decided that seven would be a “fit number” and requested at least that many to “make confession of their faith, and declare what work of grace the Lord had wrought in them.” Shepard testified first and was followed by seven others. Then, having heard the church covenant read, they all gave their “solemn assent” to it. At the request of an elder, John Cotton, teacher of the Boston church, extended the “right hand of fellowship” to the members of the newly formed congregation. Shepard followed up with an exhortation to the “rest of his body, about the nature of their covenant, and to stand firm to it, and commended them to the Lord in a most heavenly prayer.” An elder then informed the assembly of the intention of the congregation to select Shepard for their pastor and requested that all objections to his candidacy be submitted before his ordination. Concluding the formal ceremony, the elder thanked the churches for their participation and left the Cambridge church “to the Lord.” Henceforth, Shepard’s congregation enjoyed both the official sanction of the civil government and the informal approval of neighboring ministers.27 Thomas Shepard, of course, prepared each of the confessors to make their relations of faith before this fledgling congregation, for his preaching and pastoral care brought the Cambridge parishioners to spiritual maturity.

Shepard was born on 5 November 1605, on the “very hour” at which a few extremist Roman Catholics attempted to assassinate James I and all the members of his Parliament. Shepard’s father, William, like most Englishmen, was horrified by the Gunpowder Plot and “would hardly believe that ever any such wickedness should be attempted by men against so religious and good Parliament.” Shepard cherished few fond memories of his English homeland. As a child, he was shuffled by his parents from relative to relative because of the plague in their hometown of Towcester, Northamptonshire. When he finally returned home, the boy found that his “dear mother” had died. Still worse, perhaps even before Thomas’s return, his father married “another woman”—a stepmother, Shepard recalled, who “did seem not to love me but incensed my father often against me.” Not even the Towcester Free School offered him asylum; there Shepard suffered under the tutelage of a crusty and cruel schoolmaster. Moreover, by the age of ten he was an orphan. Though “fatherless and motherless,” he seemed to enjoy living under the custody of his eldest brother, John, who sent him at “about fifteen years of age” to Emmanuel College, Cambridge.28

Six months before taking his Master of Arts degree in 1627, Shepard began a ministerial career destined to be a stormy one. During the first three years of his ministry, Shepard held a lectureship at Earles-Colne, Essex. Those early years were tranquil. But when he accepted a second post at Towcester, William Laud, Bishop of London and the director of a campaign for uniformity within the English church, barred him from the post for making Earles-Colne and Towcester “seditious, factious Bedlams.” Shepard remembered Laud’s words of suspension this way: “I charge you that you neither preach, read, marry, bury, or exercise any ministerial function in any part of my diocese, for if you do, and I hear of it, I will be upon your back and follow you wherever you go, in any part of the kingdom, and so everlastingly disenable you.”

Roger Harlakenden, an affluent Nonconformist, befriended his former pastor, sheltering him for six months in the Harlakenden home. It was there that the young preacher, probably while reflecting on his ostracism, first saw “into the evil of the English ceremonies, cross, surplice, and kneeling.” In 1631 Shepard became a chaplain in the family of Sir Richard Darley, of Buttercrambe, Yorkshire, a “remote and strange place” where Shepard hoped to be “far from the hearing of the malicious Bishop Laud.” After living at the Darley residence about a year, Shepard married Margaret Touteville, a relative of Sir Richard and a woman “endued with a very sweet spirit of prayer.” Shortly thereafter Richard Neile, a prominent Laudean and the Archbishop of York, forced Shepard to resign his chaplaincy at Buttercrambe. Moving to Heddon, Northumberland, Shepard preached to the “saints” of that village and to “others about and in Newcastle,” a nearby town. Shepard’s preparation of such sermons led him even deeper into Nonconformity, for while in northern England he learned “more of the ceremonies, church government and estate, and the unlawful standing of bishops than in any other place.” Consequently, Thomas Morton, the Bishop of Durham but a man of low-church sympathies, reluctantly silenced Shepard for his outspoken Puritanism. “He durst not give me liberty,” Shepard recalled, “because Laud had taken notice of me.” Undaunted, Shepard continued to preach “up and down in the country and at last privately in Mr. Fenwick’s house,” and during these trying days, the Shepards’ first child, Thomas, was born. Finally, in 1633 the harried Cambridge graduate realized that he “had been tossed from the south to the north of England and now could go no farther” and then began to hear “a call to New England.”29

After two years and one aborted voyage, Shepard, his wife, Margaret, and son, Thomas, sailed into Boston harbor in the fall of 1635. Henceforth Shepard’s life would be different. He would work as the esteemed pastor of the Cambridge church, raise three of his four surviving sons to become ministers, serve as an overseer and the unofficial chaplain of Harvard College, defend in print the Congregationalism of New England against criticism by English Presbyterians, publish several of his sermons, and, though once persecuted himself, suppress Antinomians and other Bay Colony dissidents. In short, Shepard exchanged his underground ministry in England for a position of authority and responsibility in Massachusetts. It is not surprising, therefore, that he described New England as “a land of peace, though a place of trial.”30

To understand the Confessions, it must be remembered that the most important aspect of Shepard’s life was the work he performed as a “soul searching minister of the gospel.” “Pastor Evangelicus,” Cotton Mather called him, and rightly so, because Shepard’s evangelical preaching truly aroused many of his hearers. The Cambridge pastor “awakened” Jonathan Mitchell, who later said of Shepard’s ministry: “Unless it had been four years living in heaven, I know not how I could have more cause to bless God with wonder” Nor was Mitchell’s case exceptional; “many a hundred soul,” wrote Edward Johnson, were “saved” under the ministry of Thomas Shepard. At least fifty-one such people publicly testified, while living under Shepard’s ministry, to having experienced the grace of God. But for those less certain of their salvation, or perhaps insincere about it, his fervent preaching was often disturbing. According to a tradition preserved by Thomas Prince, Shepard “scarce ever preached a sermon, but some or other of his congregation . . . cried out in agony, What shall I do to be saved? Though his voice was low, yet so searching was his preaching, and so great a power attending, as a hypocrite could not easily bear it, and it seemed almost irresistible.” The action of “one Turner of Charlestown, a man of about 50 years of age,” lends some credibility to an obviously exaggerated legend. Turner, having “led a loose and disorderly life,” heard one of Shepard’s sermons and, being “wounded in conscience,” committed suicide by drowning himself in “a little pit where was not above two feet water.” Many in Shepard’s congregation outlived their pastor, who died prematurely at the age of forty-three. “After his death,” wrote one parishioner, “I thought God might just speak to me now no more.”31

Because Shepard devoted himself to helping laymen find salvation and enter the kingdom of heaven—heaven for him being the visible church—he eschewed preaching a systematic doctrine of conversion. This subject was perhaps beyond the comprehension of some parishioners and at best provided men only with a “literal” rather than a “saving” knowledge of Christ. Only in The Sound Believer, his most systematic analysis of conversion, did he deal extensively with the theological nuances of the process. Even in that sermon, after minutely explaining the fine points of vocation, justification, and sanctification, he felt compelled to apologize to his hearers, expressing his apprehension about being “thus large in less practical matters.”32

Despite Shepard’s reluctance to expound systematically the theological basis of conversion, one can still detect such an ideological framework in his writings, circumscribing at every point his practical understanding and explanation of conversion. As shown in Figures 1 and 2, Shepard designated “several stadia or towns,” through which the “poor passenger” passed if he was to experience God’s “manner and order of working.”33

Even if a parishioner mastered Shepard’s intricate ideas on conversion, he knew only how God saved a man and not whether God had redeemed him in particular. The scrupulous person, of course, wanted more than a knowledge of God’s saving acts. Indeed, he desired a personal assurance of his own salvation. Eager to comfort and guide such ardent seekers, Shepard devoted most of his sermons on conversion to resolving two practical questions: What can I do to achieve union with Christ and thereby be truly saved? How do I know my efforts will result in genuine conversion? Accordingly, he exhorted believers to pursue diligently the divinely appointed “means” for salvation and assurance and, for further proof, introspectively search for the “signs” or “evidences” that God had performed a work of grace in their lives. Although Shepard nowhere elaborated a systematic doctrine of means, it is scattered throughout his most voluminous book, The Parable of Ten Virgins, a series of weekly sermons that Shepard preached from June of 1636 until May of 1640 on the practical side of conversion. Likewise, Shepard never systematically outlined a series of signs for identifying true grace; the signs, like the means, appeared randomly as subpoints to broader considerations in his works. In addition, because of Shepard’s pastoral commitment neither to “damp the faith of the elect” nor to “patronize the sloth of the wicked,” he often presented the signs negatively in order to expose the alleged widespread hypocrisy among New Englanders. The spiritual life of a believer—with its quest for salvation including the use of many means and signs—was obviously not an easy one. Indeed, Shepard informed his parishioners that they must live at a “high pitch,” ever seeking Christ. Hypocrites fell by the wayside, but the saints, because the Lord tied their “souls with a knot of faith and love,” persevered to the end.34

Figure 1: The First Stages of Shepard’s Theology of Conversion35

Figure 2: Shepard’s Theology of Conversion

Except for the seven founders of the church, Shepard’s parishioners had to clear an elaborate series of ecclesiastical hurdles in order to relate their confessions and join the Cambridge congregation. According to one generalized description of admission procedures in the Bay Colony, a candidate for church membership first arranged for a semiprivate interview at the home of one of the elders of the congregation. At that informal meeting the candidate declared his desire to join the church and, at the elder’s request, made “known unto them [the congregation] the worke of grace” upon his soul. If the testimony satisfied the elders and others at the assembly—for “divers of the Church, both men and women,” normally met there—one of the ruling elders formally notified the congregation of the applicant’s intention to “enter into Church-fellowship with them.” The elder made such a public announcement in order to provide an opportunity for any church member either to inform the elders of the candidate’s “unfitnesse to joyne” the church or to testify favorably on his behalf.36

Having rectified all private and all public “offences,” if any were brought to an elder’s attention, the candidate appeared in “the midst of the Assembly” with the ruling elder, who announced: “Brethren of this congregation, this man, or woman A.B. hath beene heretofore propounded to you, desiring to enter into Church-fellowship with us, and we have not, since that, heard any thing from any of you to the contrary, of the parties admittance, but that we may goe on to receive him: Therefore now, if any of you know any thing against him, why he may not be admitted, you may yet speak.” If, as sometimes happened, someone objected to a candidate’s admission, the “new offence” had to be heard before the elders. Thomas Lechford, a hostile observer of New England Congregationalism from 1638 until 1641, claimed such a practice often made joining a Congregational church a painful, see-saw procedure, which occasionally lasted a “space of divers months between a parties first propounding and receiving.” However, if nobody spoke out against the prospective member, the elder solicited the parishioners “to speak for his receiving.” Lechford again: “But when none speaketh to the contrary, then some one, two, or three, or more of the Brethren speak their opinions of the party, giving instances in some godlinesse and good conversation of his, or some other recommendation is made, and that they are willing (if the Church thereto consent) for their part, to given him the right hand of fellowship.”37

Once the members finished their character references, the elder asked the candidate to “make knowne to the congregation the work of grace upon his soule.” This confession of faith was an anxious “quarter of an houre, shorter or longer,” for many laymen.38 Sometimes relations could be terrifying. Consider the case of brother Hinsdell’s wife, a candidate seeking admittance to John Allin’s Dedham congregation. She, “being fearfull & not able to speake in publike,” fainted at the sound of her own voice. Nevertheless, after careful deliberation, the church permitted her to narrate her confession in private and simply confirm it on the following Sunday morning. Eventually, such private sessions for the timid became the standard procedure in some New England churches. Lechford reported in Plain Dealings that women often gave their relations “before the Elders, in private,” which the pastor (in the Boston church) subsequently read to the congregation.39 In fact, a provision in the Cambridge Platform of 1648 established that in “case any through excessive fear, or other infirmity, be unable to make their personal relation of their spiritual estate in publick, it is sufficient that the Elders having received private satisfaction, make relation therof in publick before the church.”40

Ministerial compassion inspired such an accommodation, but there was also a deeper motivation. Some English clergymen, especially Presbyterians, vigorously attacked the rigorous standards set by the Bay Colony for church membership. Richard Baxter, an English Presbyterian, criticized the practice as “taking a very few that can talk more than the rest, and making them the Church.” Similarly, Robert Baillie, one of the most persuasive of the Presbyterian polemicists, asserted in his A Dissuasive from the Errours of our Time (1645) that because of the relation of faith “many thousands of people, who in former time have been reputed in Old England very good Christians,” were denied membership in New England churches. Yet John Cotton vehemently denied that charge in his rejoinder to Baillie’s pamphlet.41

Regardless of how exclusive the relation of faith actually made church membership, there was one more requirement the candidate had to meet. Having given his relation either in public or private, the person next delivered a “profession of his faith,” one that demonstrated his knowledge of Reformed doctrine and church polity. If the party was “weake,” the elders might draw out his knowledge by “questions and answers.” Then the church voted by their “usuall signe,” which was the “erection and extention of the right hand” on the candidate’s admission. If accepted into the congregation, the candidate pledged to fulfill all the obligations required in the church covenant, and with that he or she became a full-fledged member.42

Because the Confessions are the only extant records (except for two volumes of financial memoranda) for the earliest years of the Cambridge church, it is impossible to determine exactly the extent to which Shepard instituted the admission practices reported by Lechford and others.43 Shepard did staunchly defend the New England Way against English Presbyterians, coauthoring with John Allin, of Dedham, A Defence of the Answer (1644), and therefore shared the theoretical basis from which his Massachusetts colleagues derived their admissions procedures. Furthermore, the Confessions reveal that the Cambridge church followed at least three of the practices described by chroniclers of New England history. Shepard required the candidates to “declare what work of grace the Lord had wrought in them”; parishioners sometimes testified in behalf of the applicant, as in the case of Mrs. Greene; elders, and, surprisingly, other church members, probed the candidate’s knowledge with questions.44

But the Confessions also reveal that Shepard’s procedures differed somewhat from those of other Bay ministers. First, the Cambridge pastor, unlike John Cotton, permitted or perhaps required women to recite their confessions before the congregation.45 Second, Shepard did not compel candidates to relate two separate confessions (one of grace and one of faith), but allowed them to merge the two narrations into one speech. Only Henry Dunster, a theologian given to making fine distinctions, narrated in two distinct sections his formal knowledge of theology and “the Lord’s personal dealing” with him. Third, Shepard was lax in his admissions standards, a laxity which is startling in view of the alleged severity of the Bay Colony admission practices. One of the reasons Thomas Hooker supposedly moved to Connecticut was his disapproval of that strictness; for according to R. Stansby, the minister at Little Waldingfield, Suffolk, a rumor circulated in England that “you are so strict in admission of members to your church, that more then one halfe are out of your church in all your congregations, & that Mr. Hoker before he went away preached against yt (as one report who hard hym).”46

It is true that Hooker required a candidate only to give “a reason of his hope towards God” and answer “certain probatory questions” in order to qualify for membership in the Hartford church. Yet Shepard often demanded no more. Indeed, Shepard simply did not force prospective members to demonstrate that they had closed with Christ, that is, to demonstrate a personal certainty about their salvation. For example, John Trumbull could say only: “I thought yet there might be mercy,” and Shepard admitted him to the Cambridge congregation. And Mrs. Greene qualified for church membership on even flimsier grounds than Trumbull. Probably fearful and bashful, she muttered only a few sentences and concluded her relation. Shepard simply recorded that the “testimony carried it.” Hence, the congregation voted to admit Mrs. Greene because they knew from the testimony of her friends that she was deeply religious and, therefore, probably saved. Moreover, many other candidates, though they gave a longer confession or revealed a greater knowledge of the morphology of conversion than either Trumbull or Mrs. Greene, never professed to having actually closed with Christ. Shepard even warned his congregation against “extravagant, enlarged discourses of the set time of their conversion, and their revelations, and ill application of Scripture,” which he charged made “long doings, and are wearisome and uncomely.” Thus the conclusion that judgments of faith were far milder than the rigid concepts in Puritan sermons and that proof of faith might be contained in “a ‘weak’ faith, or the ‘endeavor to apprehend,’ the ‘will to believe with an honest heart,’” is borne out by the requirements at Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge. The only real difference in practice between Hooker and Shepard, and perhaps some of the other ministers of the Bay, was procedural. Hooker examined his Hartford candidates in the privacy of his study. Shepard required his parishioners to relate their confessions before the entire Cambridge congregation, expecting their didactic qualities to “be of special use unto the people of God.”47

Some Puritan scholars argue that Thomas Shepard’s standards for church admissions were strict because of an incident involving Richard Mather and the founding of the second church at Dorchester. As part of a council appointed by the General Court to oversee the gathering of new churches, Shepard interviewed the would-be members of the Dorchester congregation, found them wanting, and refused to approve the church’s formation. Although contrary to Shepard’s charitability, this particular case was a special matter. The founders of a church, Shepard believed, had to be of highest merit. In a letter to Richard Mather, Shepard warned his colleague of the many false-hearted professors already discovered that spring of 1636 and cautioned him to be “wary and very sharp in looking into the hearts and spirits of those you sign yourself unto, especially at first.” Regardless of Shepard’s willingness “with a spirit of love” to “cover and pass by” many weaknesses, he could not allow persons without proper preparation to establish a new church.48

All these similarities and differences between Shepard and the New England Way over ecclesiastical procedures again point to the value of the Confessions. But not only do these spiritual autobiographies shed new light on the practical workings of church polity, they offer fresh insights into other aspects of American Puritanism. One of the few documents from colonial New England that reveals the layman’s knowledge of theology, the Confessions provide a view of Puritanism “from the bottom up.”49 The laity’s view of Shepard’s theology, the role of parental piety in their lives, and their quotation of the Bible, as shown in Appendix I, are all documented in their relations of faith.50 Details relevant to their daily lives—such as sea voyages, conditions at Cambridge, and their “sins”—are also to be found there. Finally, from the standpoint of understanding human behavior, the many personal revelations made in the Confessions yield enough information to formulate conclusions about the psychological make-up of Puritans. And if such studies are to be made, the data in the Confessions provide an unusually rich source.


Shepard’s manuscript of his Confessions is in a leather-bound volume measuring 5¾ by 3⅞ inches and ¾ inch thick, of ninety-eight leaves, which is in the possession of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Thirty leaves of the volume consist of sermon notes, which have not been transcribed because they have nothing to do with the Confessions. Three of the fifty-one relations preserved in manuscript have been previously printed: Edward Hall’s confession is in Lucius R. Paige’s History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630–1877, with a Genealogical Register (Boston, 1877), 252–254; Henry Dunster’s confession is in Jeremiah Chaplin’s Life of Henry Dunster, First President of Harvard College (Boston, 1872), 257–265; and William Manning’s confession is in William H. Manning’s The Genealogical and Biographical History of the Manning Families of New England and Descendants (Salem, Mass., 1902), 92–95. But what follows is the first edition of the entire set of Confessions.

We have transcribed the Confessions from photocopies of an enlarged reproduction of the manuscript owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society and from the same magnified copy held at Harvard’s Houghton Library. However, the original manuscript has been regularly consulted, because there were several either minutely written or scribbled passages that could be transcribed only from the original. Moreover, the reproductions owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society and Houghton Library do not have one of the confessions (number 50), an omission probably made because the first part of the confession was lost. Samuel A. Tannenbaum’s The Handwriting of the Renaissance (New York, 1930) served as one paleographic guide to deciphering Shepard’s crabbed handwriting, an example of a hand in transition from the Gothic secretary to the Roman italic style.

There are almost as many editorial policies as there are editors. We have adopted the practice of Samuel Eliot Morison, in his 1952 edition of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, and of Michael McGiffert, in his 1972 edition of Thomas Shepard’s Autobiography and Journal, in completely modernizing the capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. Thus euil became evil, woorke became work, and honour became honor. Shepard’s many abbreviations—such as h: for hence, hr for heart, nr for nature, rec: for received, Xt for Christ, engh, for enough, or Jer: for Jeremiah—have been spelled out. Only names, because of the possibility of editorial error, have been bracketed with a suggested full-length spelling, Mr. S., for example, becoming Mr. S[hepard]. Paragraphing follows Shepard’s, although often an editorial judgment has had to be made in order to determine whether several slash marks were Shepard’s period or paragraph indicator; in such cases determinations were made on the basis of the context. Illegible words, damaged pages, or editorial interpolations have been noted with brackets; a question mark within the brackets indicates a suggested transcription of a poorly formed word. Crossed out words, phrases, or passages have been omitted.

Only the first few confessions were numbered by Shepard. To make for easier identification, we have numbered all fifty-one, putting numbers not written by Shepard in brackets. To enable scholars more easily to locate passages in the original document, the pages in the manuscript have been indicated by bracketed arabic old-style numerals throughout the text. Each confession has been given a separate set of footnotes, in each case starting with the number “1.” For the many references to biblical passages that appear in the footnotes, the abbreviations for the books of the Bible listed in the Chicago Manual of Style have been followed. In many cases Shepard inserted arabic numerals in his text to indicate a series of points. But he often omitted some of the numbers in the series. We generally have not attempted to determine where the missing numbers belong, but have let the text stand as written.

Shorthand was well developed in the seventeenth century. (See William Matthew’s introduction to Thomas Shelton’s A Tutor to Tachygraphy, or Short-writing [1642] and his Tachygraphy [1647], published [Los Angeles, 1970] by the Augustan Reprint Society.) But Shepard did not use it; hence the Confessions confronted its editors with at least one special problem. In a few instances, distracting redundancies appear, probably a result of the speed at which Shepard had to take down the relations. In John Sill’s confession, for example, Shepard wrote:

Now going on in the vse of meanes he thought

yt wn any duty was pformed, he thought

someth. in the duty was a misse.

We dropped the second “he thought” in an attempt to make the text more intelligible without, in our opinion, impairing its accuracy. Most of the other redundancies were simple repetitions, such as I I or wc wc.

All of our editorial revisions might suggest that much of the so-called “flavor” of the documents has been lost. But the true flavor is in the manuscript itself; no trick printing could capture it. And few people, including Puritan scholars (even those trained in paleography), have the time to travel to Boston and absorb that true flavor. A facsimile edition might do, but because of the problems involved with Shepard’s handwriting, punctuation, and abbreviation, few could read it. It has seemed wisest, therefore, to render the Confessions into their most readable form, attracting thereby the widest possible audience.