While much has been written of the influence of Christian Hebraism on early American thought, from the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay through the Founding, a new book by Brian Ogren highlights a heretofore overlooked aspect of the phenomenon: the exposure of colonial theologians to the teachings of Kabbalah. Yisroel Ben-Porat writes in his review:
In his first two chapters, Ogren considers Kabbalah as a point of contact between Quaker and mainstream-Protestant thought. He identifies and analyzes a hitherto unstudied manuscript that he attributes to George Keith, a Scottish missionary who fashioned a unique strand of Christian Quakerism. The text, which draws heavily upon a variety of kabbalistic ideas, made its way from Pennsylvania to the library of the famed Mather family in Massachusetts. Reverend Cotton Mather (1663-1728), son of Reverend Increase Mather (1639-1723) and [a highly influential American Puritan churchman], engaged in an intellectual exchange with Keith. This debate “brings into focus some of the contrasts but also some of the commonalities between Jewish Kabbalah, Keithian Christian Quakerism, and the Puritan Congregationalism represented by Cotton Mather.”
The finer points of this discussion will likely elude most readers who do not have an advanced background in kabbalistic texts; however, the overarching intellectual significance of Kabbalah for these thinkers emerges clearly. While Keith deviated from mainstream Quaker thought, Mather arguably represented the center of New England’s religious culture.
[Another] significant character is Judah Monis (1683-1763), who converted to Christianity in 1722 and subsequently taught Hebrew at Harvard for several decades. . . . Monis’s decision to join the Protestant fold engendered a great deal of excitement among the clergy. Ogren deepens our understanding of this episode . . . by providing a close reading of Monis’s polemical use of Kabbalah.