Secularism and Antebellum America

Michael Warner, the Seymour H. Knox Professor of English at Yale, reviews John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America.  The review is long and complex, but here is a taste:

Modern’s most compelling chapter, titled “Evangelical Secularism,” lays out the paradox; even its title to most readers will seem oxymoronic. Modern beautifully analyzes one side of the semiotic ideology of antebellum evangelicals : its imagination of media and the social field. (I say “one side” because he does not take up the language of sincerity, conversion, and experience, as Webb Keane does so well in Christian Moderns.) Modern examines the tract and Bible societies, with their massive projects of publication and colportage, as well as the tracts themselves and such statements of evangelical theory as Robert Baird’s Religion in America (1842). Following such scholars as David Nord and Candy Brown, but giving their work a new critical analysis, he examines the imagination of the social behind the evangelical obsession with networks, technology, and communication. Evangelicals of the period equated true religion with a conversionist public discourse, which of its own logic required mass dissemination at the same time that it pointed to its own omnipresence as a sign of its spontaneous authenticity. Evangelical religiosity was fused with a modern semiotic ideology of connectivity and circulation as progressive forces capable of establishing a broad social and religious order by the unfolding of their own immanent dynamic principles. (Here Modern intersects with, but does not discuss, important recent analyses of evangelicalism as modern social movement; see Craig Calhoun’s The Roots of Radicalism or Michael Young’s Bearing Witness Against Sin.) If America was in many important ways secular by the antebellum period, he concludes, it was so largely because of evangelicals themselves. 

In making this argument, Modern amplifies a theme of Charles Taylor, who has argued in A Secular Age that the long history of secularity consists more of unintended consequences to reform movements within Christianity than to a hostile campaign of suppression or emancipation from without. In the American case my own current research has led me to go further and say that the evangelical normalization of conversionist discourse as a criterion of religiosity directly construed society as secular even before there were any secularists in the modern sense of that term. Evangelical conceptions of conscience and conversion, together with evangelical practices of the public sphere and the voluntary system, are not only the markers of evangelical modernity but the very conditions from which the default secularity of the social is projected.

2 thoughts on “Secularism and Antebellum America

  1. Did you catch Leigh Eric Schmidt's decidedly ambiguous review of Modern's book in the recent issue of Church History? As reviews go, it was extremely fun to read and seemed to get at both the style and the substance of the book.


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