It is a common feature of American evangelicalism for people to share a personal testimony of the Lord’s work in one’s life. Often, this is presented in a standardized form of personal narration of religious experience—more or less in the form of a dramatic punctiliar experience of regeneration. Reading Sydney E. Ahlstrom’s classic A Religious History of the American People, I was interested to see how New England Puritanism incorporated this type of testimony into its membership requirements.
The one crucial characteristic of “classic” New England Puritan thought that is not revealed by the famous Salem events was the conviction that particular churches should be formed only by men and women who could give credible evidence that they had inwardly experienced God’s effectual call. On this point they had not arrived at consensus by 1630, though years of private introspection and collective searching of hearts led in that direction. By 1635, however, with John Cotton probably leading the way, the leaders of the Bay Colony reached this significant corporate decision. They made a narration of the experience of regenerating grace a requirement of adult church membership. Seen in full perspective, this was a radical demand. For the first time in Christendom, a state church with vigorous conceptions of enforced uniformity in belief and practice was requiring an internal, experiential test of church membership. Many future problems of the New England churches stemmed from this decision. It would appear, moreover, that its influence beyond New England was proportionate to its revolutionary character. (p. 146)