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Words, Works, and Ways of Knowing

The Breakdown of Moral Philosophy in New England before the Civil War

With a Preface by the Author and an Afterword by Amanda Porterfield
Crime writer Sara Paretsky is known the world over for her acclaimed series of mysteries starring Chicago private investigator V. I. Warshawski, now in its seventeenth installment. Paretsky’s work has long been inflected with history—for her characters the past looms large in the present—and in her decades-long career, she has been recognized for transforming the role of women in contemporary crime fiction.
What’s less well-known is that before Paretsky began her writing career, she earned a PhD in history from the University of Chicago with a dissertation on moral philosophy and religion in New England in the early and mid-nineteenth century. Now, for the first time, fans of Paretsky can read that earliest work, Words, Works, and Ways of Knowing.

Paretsky here analyzes attempts by theologians at Andover Seminary, near Boston, to square and secure Calvinist religious beliefs with emerging knowledge from history and the sciences. She carefully shows how the open-minded scholasticism of these theologians paradoxically led to the weakening of their intellectual credibility as conventional religious belief structures became discredited, and how this failure then incited reactionary forces within Calvinism. That conflict between science and religion in the American past is of interest on its face, but it also sheds light on contemporary intellectual battles.

Rounding out the book, leading religious scholar Amanda Porterfield provides an afterword discussing where Paretsky’s work fits into the contemporary study of religion. And in a sobering—sometimes shocking—preface, Paretsky paints a picture of what it was like to be a female graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1970s. A treat for Paretsky’s many fans, this book offers a glimpse of the development of the mind behind the mysteries.

176 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2016

History: American History

Religion: American Religions, Christianity


“Though some years in coming, Paretsky’s scholarship is surprisingly apt for today. The New England Calvinists she describes with such graceful clarity speak to an earlier time, before we began to assume that religious belief and intellectual rigor were mutually exclusive. Paretsky  introduces us to the world of the nineteenth-century ‘Christian scholar,’ using her narrative gift to explore the developing alliance—and deepening tensions—between the life of the mind and the life of faith.”

Margaret Bendroth, executive director, Congregational Library & Archives

“Paretsky has produced a meticulously plotted excursion onto the rugged terrain of American religious history. Her regular readers will discover another side to her many talents: recreation of a remarkable nineteenth-century effort to reconcile reason and revelation, recent scholarship and theological discourse. To illuminate these intellectual wrestling matches and displays of erudition, Paretsky brings intelligence, sympathy, and her impressive literary skills.”

Neil Harris, University of Chicago

Table of Contents



Chapter I
The Background of the Christian Scholar

Chapter II
Reason, Revelation, and the Rise of Biblical Criticism

Chapter III
The Christian Scholar Comes of Age

Chapter IV
The Knowledge Explosion at Andover

Chapter V
The Narration of the Creation in Genesis

Chapter VI
The Breakdown of Moral Philosophy at Andover


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