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Flesh Redeemed: Religious Materialism in Early Enlightenment Britain, 1640-1715


This dissertation examines how early modern Britons came to deem the material world as worthy of attention, care, and redemption. It traces a broad current of philosophical and theological speculation regarding material bodies that began in the 1640s. In a series of case studies, I chart how a range of formulations regarding the nature of corporeal bodies and matter increasingly served as a resource for theological discourse, philosophical debate, and popular belief in the late seventeenth century. I argue that heterodox religious ideas in the mid-seventeenth century served as an engine of change, driving early modern Britons to rethink how divinity, the soul, and the material world interacted. By focusing on the relationship between divinity and earthbound corporeality, this dissertation reframes heterodox religious ideas, often relegated to the historical margins, as in fact generative of modern conceptions of the human body and the material world.

In the following study, I trace the material linkages that connected religious belief and early modern philosophies of embodied substance. The project follows changing early modern interest in the material world as a range of thinkers reconfigured the perceived interaction and interpellation of spiritual, corporeal, and divine substances. Redeeming the flesh—discovering the nature of the body and the means to God’s sanctifying grace—continually motivated a variety of investigations into the nature of body, soul, and spirit. But the Christian project of corporeal redemption drove early modern interests beyond the specific human body to engage with questions of cosmology, vitalism, and the nature of knowledge. This was part of a new willingness of early moderns to probe into scriptural mysteries to better understand the human body, but also to extend these questions to wider material processes and entities.

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