Book Review: The Apologia Of Robert Keayne

The Apologia Of Robert Keayne:  The Self-Portrait Of A Puritan Merchant, edited by Bernard Bailyn

One finds Nathanish people in the strangest places.  This particular short book is the very long will one of one Puritan minister named Robert Keayne, who wrote his last will and testament in 1653 less than a year before his death.  This will would end up having a somewhat complicated and fascinating afterlife, as the bequests made to Harvard University by this merchant were still being used to fund impoverished scholars at that university when Bailyn was editing this book more than three hundred years later. In addition, the book itself is interesting for the complicated way it would involve the unhappiness of his somewhat romantic granddaughter in the following decades and in the way that it shows the immense capabilities for self-justification in a Puritan merchant who was not as wealthy as he thought he was, even if the wealth that his neighbors thought he had made him a very unpopular figure accused of usury and worse things.  Bailyn, as usual [1], does a fantastic job at bringing an obscure source to the attention of readers and demonstrating some of the tensions felt by Puritan merchants who wanted to do well in both this world and the world to come.

This book is organized in a simple matter, although the text is somewhat complicated.  Bailyn includes an opening discussion of the will and its historical context, giving the reader an idea of who Robert Keayne was in the first place, a wealthy and controversial merchant dogged by the envy of his Puritan neighbors, with a son who had married badly and was separated, and a large group of family members who wanted to carve up his wealth.  The will includes a great deal of discussion about the author’s faith and his understanding of divine judgment.  There are gifts to family members (like Shakespeare, he bequeaths his second-best bed to his wife) and gifts to the public (including the local volunteer artillery company and Harvard University).  The author, moreover, seems aware that his legacy gifts may not be used for the best or most noble purposes, and so he seeks to ensure as best as he can that either his son or church officials preserve the gifts for noble and upright purposes.  Since he was not as wealthy as he thought, he promised more than could ultimately be given, and the book runs for nearly 100 pages, which must be extremely long if one considers that it was handwritten in the 17th century by a neurotic but deeply interesting writer.

And it is really the context of this work that makes it so fascinating.  Keayne shows himself to be a shrewd judge of character and possessed of a burning desire to clear his own good name in the minds of his less-than enthusiastic neighbors.  Indeed, in a quite Nathanish fashion, he uses his discussion of his prolific reading and writing to forestall accusations of his being idle or wasting time or dissipating his life in worthless pursuits.  Moreover, the author shows himself to be a good Puritan of the time in his expressions that material blessings are to be used for the benefit of the community as a whole, something the author shows himself to be deeply, even neurotically, concerned about.  Of course, Bailyn does a great job dealing with a somewhat rambling and at times nearly incoherent account of self-justification and turning it into a compelling work that shows the mindset of a person during the 17th century that can shape our understanding of the early days of the Plymouth colony as well as the Calvinist self-image of successful people of the time.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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12 Responses to Book Review: The Apologia Of Robert Keayne

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    • This book was a joy to read, and it’s a short book as well if you’re fond of American colonial history or the tension between Calvinism and capitalism, both of which are definitely of personal interest.

      • jamesbradfordpate says:

        I’ve long had an interest in the Puritans. On Calvinism and capitalism, I wrote a paper a long time ago for a class in which I drew from Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

      • This is an obscure primary document, no less, which makes it all the more compelling. That does sound like an excellent paper 🙂

      • jamesbradfordpate says:

        Yeah, my professor was actually impressed with it. It was pretty chaotic when I was preparing for it, but things came together the night before it was due. I wish it worked that way for all projects!

        BTW, you may like this site. It has a lot of free classic e-books, including a lot of Puritan ones. I know Calvinism is not entirely your cup of tea, but you may like some of the books:

      • I will take a look at that. I am certainly very critical of a great deal of Calvinism (and I’m working my way through a book by Calvin himself right now), but I am sure there will be at least some books to enjoy 🙂

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