Godbeer, Richard 1961-
GODBEER, Richard 1961-
PERSONAL: Born December 28, 1961 in Essex, England. Education: Magdalen College, Oxford, B.A. (modern history), 1984; Brandeis University, Ph.D. (American history), 1989.
CAREER: Historian. University of California, Riverside, professor of history.
AWARDS, HONORS: American Philosophical Society research grant, 1992; National Endowment for the Humanities travel-to-collections grant, 1992; Pacific Coast Branch Book Award, American Historical Association, 1993; Mellon Foundation fellowship, Huntington Library, 1994; Davis fellowship, North Carolinian Society, 1994; Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Walter Muir Whitehill Prize in Colonial History, 1994; American Philosophical Society research grant, 1996; University of California president's research fellowship in the humanities, 1999-2000.
Sexual Revolution in Early America, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 2002.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live: The Other Witch-Hunt of 1692 and The Overflowing of Friendship: Love between Men in Eighteenth-Century America.
SIDELIGHTS: British-born historian Richard Godbeer is the author of two studies combining his interests in the religious and cultural history of early America, and gender and sexuality. The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, Godbeer's first book, grew out of his Ph.D research. Published in 1992 by Cambridge University Press, it offers a close examination of the role of magic in early New England.
English folk magic was imported to New England along with the Puritan faith, and Godbeer's study focuses on the uses to which people put magic in their everyday lives and how it co-existed with formal religious life. Through the examination of the accounts of the witchcraft trials of the seventeenth century, Godbeer identifies a conflict operating within the society of that time: a conflict between the world view of the Puritan religious establishment and the popular element who believed in the effectiveness of magic. Two opposing viewpoints are identified: the Puritan stance which was supplicative, and which stood in contrast to the essentially manipulative popularly held view. Although most of the population were professed Puritans, they appeared to be relatively untroubled by the contradiction embodied in being Puritans, and at the same time users and practitioners of magic. The practice of magic was so firmly rooted in the culture, that its role seemed beyond question.
In a review of the book in the English Historical Review, Robert M. Bliss noted that Godbeer argues that Puritanism itself drove many people to the use of magic. The unquestioning commitment of the Puritans to the uncertainty of salvation, the importance of sin, and the existence of the devil, are the factors, considered by the author, which led people to the use of magic as a practical means of negotiating their way through a menacing and uncertain world.
The book ends with an account of the Salem witchcraft trials. The point is made that the convictions that resulted from the Salem trials were really an anomaly. The legal requirements of that time demanded a high level of evidence of demonic involvement. Because this was difficult to establish, convictions were relatively rare. The general populace did not have the exacting standards of evidence that the courts had. The popular view was focused on the practical results of malefic magic, while the courts insisted on irrefutable proof of the presence of Satan as a party to the action. From the point of view of the general public, the crime was not that magic had been employed, but rather that harm had come to someone as a result of malefic practice. The Devil's Dominion gathered praise for its insights into the culture of seventeenth-century New England, and reviewers favorably appraised Godbeer's scholarship and accessible writing style.
Sexual Revolution in Early America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2002, examines the history of the regulation of sexual behavior in the early years of the United States. In this study Godbeer looks at the South, the frontier lands, and New England to form his picture. The southern plantations and western frontier retained few records from which to gather data. Documentation is sporadic: court records and the diary entries of only a few people provide the bulk of the information. New England, however, was home to a heavily documented society which provided the author with a wealth of information. The relatively sparse populations of the South and frontier, where law enforcement was more difficult, were places of more lightly regulated sexual activity. Godbeer notes that although there were rules against miscegenation in the South, they were selectively enforced; the wealthy plantation owners were seldom prosecuted for initiating sexual relations with slaves. Along the frontier, liaisons between fur traders and Indian women were also common, and traders often found themselves absorbed into Native American culture, which recognized marriage, but not necessarily sexual exclusivity.
In the Puritan society of New England, Godbeer found several surprises, according to Edmund S. Morgan in his review in the New York Review of Books. The conventional twentieth-century perspective on seventeenth-century sexual expression in New England has been shaped by the grim depictions of Nathaniel Hawthorne and playwright Arthur Miller. In fact, Godbeer argues, the Puritans advocated the enjoyment of an active sexual life to the extent that a wife dissatisfied with her husband was entitled to a divorce. The Puritans firmly advocated sex within the structure of marriage; couples who strayed were punished, but the desired result was re-integration into the community rather than ostracism. By law, some sexual practices outside the mainstream were punishable by death, but this was rarely enforced because the general populace was reluctant to bear witness against the accused when the stakes were so high.
The eighteenth century saw an increase in sexual freedom. In Sexual Revolution in Early America Godbeer indicates that the law supported popular standards, and he suggests that this freedom was the result of an increase in personal privacy, more permissive community regulations and the freedom brought about by the success of the American Revolution.
The eighteenth century brought another large shift in sexual attitudes in the United States. The role of women changed from that of the wanton to the upright protector of virtue. Men, formerly seen as victims of women, switched roles with women, and came to be seen as lustful and uncontrollable. The author also noted that the power to regulate sexual behavior and morality in general became a secular concern rather than a religious one. While the rule of the state and the church were virtually indistinguishable in England, the leaders of the colonies were insistent on the separation of church and state, the state being the exclusive legislative body. Critics have responded warmly to Sexual Revolution in Early America which has been cited for its broad appeal.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
English Historical Review, November, 1995, Robert M. Bliss, review of The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, p. 1272.
Historian, spring, 1993, H. Larry Ingle, review of TheDevil's Dominion, p. 582.
History Today, December, 1993, David Armitage, review of The Devil's Dominion, p. 52.
Journal of Ecclesiastical History, October, 1995, Francis J. Bremer, review of The Devil's Dominion, p. 732.
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, autumn, 1994, Walter W. Woodward, review of The Devil's Dominion, p. 324.
Journal of the American Medical Association, September 11, 2002, Robert A. Nye, review of Sexual Revolution in Early America, p. 1294-1295.
Library Journal, May 15, 2002, Antoinette Brinkman, review of Sexual Revolution in Early America, p. 108.
New York Review of Books, June 27, 2002, Edmund S. Morgan, review of Sexual Revolution in Early America, p. 15.
Reviews in American History, March, 1993, Carla Gardina Pestana, review of The Devil's Dominion, p. 13.
Powell's Books,http://www.powells.com (December 13, 2002), Alan Taylor, review of Sexual Revolution in Early America.
University of California, Riverside Faculty Web site,http://www.facultydirectory.ucr.edu/ (December 13, 2002), Richard Godbeer biography.