T.J. Tomlin is Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Colorado. This interview is based on his book, A Divinity for all Persuasions:Almanacs and Early American Religious Life (Oxford University Press, October 2014).
JF: What led you to write A Divinity for all Persuasions?
TT: I wanted to know how early American popular culture reflected or responded to changes in church membership between 1730 and 1820. Of course, much has been written about the causes and consequences of denominational shifts during this period. So I was curious to see if popular culture might add something new to the debate. I turned to almanacs because they were early America’s most widespread genre. I expected to find either critiques of upstart and “unrefined” denominations like the Methodists or populist attacks on Anglicans and other established churches. Instead I found Protestantism everywhere and denominational specifics almost nowhere. It became apparent very quickly that almanacs had much to say about “true religion” but were completely unconcerned with intra-Protestant competition. In fact, they argued that denominational rivalry was antithetical to authentic religion.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Divinity for all Persuasions?
TT: Early American religious life is best characterized by the pan-Protestant sensibility articulated in its most ubiquitous popular genre. Most early Americans defined and organized their religious lives around Protestant “essentials” and “golden rule” morality rather than denominational specifics.
JF: Why do we need to read A Divinity for all Persuasions?
TT: Early American religious history remains largely centered on what was going on in churches. This book fills an important gap in the historiography by using popular print rather than church-based sources to answer core questions about early American religion. I also hope the book generates new interest in and appreciation of almanacs. Their annual sales figures are astonishing. I think they offer unique insight into the everyday concerns of early Americans and religion’s fundamental role in helping people make sense of life and death.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TT: Both of my parents were teachers, so I always assumed I would teach something. I began college as a secondary-education/ English major. Around my sophomore year, I realized I was more interested in the context of the literary works I was reading than the content. About the same time, I began taking history classes with some great professors. I remember reading Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity and thinking: “I want to do this.”
JF: What is your next project?
TT: I am working on a history of chance in early America. While researching A Divinity for All Persuasions, I came across an eighteenth-century lottery ticket at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Intrigued, I learned that state and local governments, Ivy League Universities, and churches relied on lotteries to raise funds. The word chance also shows up quite a bit in almanacs as a critique of Atheism—the argument is that Atheists rely on the foolish notion of “chance” rather than God to explain the created order. Some churches condemned card-playing, dice, and other games of chance as an insult to God’s providential oversight of human affairs. At the same time, Moravians and others were casting lots to decipher God’s will. I want to place changing formulations of chance in the context of eighteenth century intellectual, scientific, and religious debates.
JF: Can’t wait to hear more about it! Thanks TJ.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of the Author’s Corner.