In an age characterized by deep commitments to individual autonomy and authenticity, the western church has experienced a loss in its vision for both mimesis and household identities. The rise of this age of authenticity, stemming from the romantic expressivists of the late eighteenth century, has resulted in a shift in thinking about Christian formation from mimetic impression to personal expression. Mimesis, or imitation, is largely seen as inauthentic and incompatible with individual autonomy and is largely missing from modern pedagogies of ministerial training, which focus more on information than formation. Moreover, household identities, or fitting into an extended multi-generational family in established and given roles, are often seen as a burden to be cast off in pursuit of a chosen identity. This paper will look to Joseph Bellamy’s pedagogy for ministerial training, representative of eighteenth century “schools of prophets” in New England, as a model for recovering a vision for mimesis within the household identities of a local church as a pathway to wholeness in human formation.
As Rhys Bezzant demonstrates in his Edwards the Mentor, Bellamy received his vision for the mimetic way of ministerial formation from his mentor Jonathan Edwards. He built on his famous mentor’s model through training sixty pastoral apprentices, most of whom lived in his parsonage and were integrated into the life of his family and church. When Samuel Hopkins sent Jonathan Edwards Jr. to study with Bellamy, he wrote to Bellamy, encouraging him to “act the part of a father to him, in freely giving him your best counsel and advice.” Bellamy took Hopkins’ advice, becoming a spiritual father to his trainees and forming a network of pastors relating to one another and their local churches in household identity categories. As Michael Jensen has shown in his “Imitating Paul, Imitating Christ: How does imitation work as a moral concept,” for mimetic practice to retain freedom and agency, identification must precede imitation. Identification within a household creates what anthropologists call fictive kinship, or supportive roles webbed together in a family bound by something more than genetics. The fictive kinship forged in Bellamy’s pastoral habitus helped form and sustain the New Divinity movement, which Douglas Sweeney has described as “the first indigenous school of American Christian thought.”
Bellamy had a genius for theological integration, as Mark Valeri and Joseph Conforti have established, but this paper will further explore the integration of mimetic practices and household identities in Bellamy’s writings and practices. The pastors trained in Bellamy’s house understood their familial identity in the household of God, because Bellamy modeled a mimetic way of discipleship in which spiritual fathers impress a cruciform life upon their sons in the faith.