J.L. Tomlin on the Bible in 19th-Century America at the AHA16

BibleWe are happy to have J. L. Tomlin writing us for this week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home from the annual meeting of American Historical Association in Atlanta.  

Tomlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in early American religious history at the University of Tennessee. He has presented research on religious fears and anti-Catholicism in early America at a number of conferences including the Omohundro Institute and the Society for Military History. His dissertation now in progress examines the links between early American religious fears and democratic sensibilities, focusing on the links between symbolic religious language and political meaning.

Here is his first dispatch –JF: 

One of the most exciting aspects from 2016’s AHA is the large amount of scholarship covering various aspects of biblical interpretation and the diffuse effects of an ever-evolving, specifically American Christianity. Perhaps the most compelling session on the topic on Thursday was the panel “19th Century American Scriptural Imagination: Three Case Studies.”

Professor Mark Noll opened the panel with his study of American scriptural interpretations of the death of national leaders titled “Presidential Death and the Bible: 1799, 1865, 1881, 1901.” This paper, a portion of the larger book in progress from Dr. Noll, makes the argument that at times of national mourning over the loss of Presidents the nation clung to Biblical allegory to make sense of larger events. In the process, however, the tone and nature of that biblical understanding evolved. At the death of Washington, for instance, Noll explains that many saw Washington as Moses; a selfless leader who led his people out of immediate destruction toward a promised land and providential future sanctioned by the almighty. Not surprisingly, most saw the loss of the nation’s greatest son as a turning point in the nation’s trajectory. True to the form of most Biblical interpretation of the 18th century, the jeremiad factored large in religious leader’s interpretation of events and calls for mourning were only surpassed by warnings of the nation’s latent sinfulness. Repentance and humility before God were necessary prerequisites to remove God’s disfavor and regain providential protection over the nation.

Lincoln’s assassination, quite different from Washington’s natural death outside of office, demanded even greater interpretive imagination. Was Booth an agent of God? Perhaps Lincoln was the martyr that God required of a nation destined to “pay in blood that which is owed on the altar of Liberty.”Much like interpretations of Washington’s death, eulogies and sermons focused on the sins of the country and demanded penance. Unlike Washington, however, most understood Lincoln’s demise, however unpleasant, as the appropriate and timely exit of a divinely ordained figure who had completed his earthly task.

For Noll, the larger trend regarding scriptural interpretation of Presidential death over the 19th century demonstrated first and foremost the changing complexion of American Christianity. Over this period the emphasis on the jeremiad declined and the life of Jesus factored ever larger in national thinking. Rather than subservience to God and the atonement of sins, the nation turned more and more to a cooperative view of God; a turn in tone that looked increasingly nationalistic and exceptionalist.

There were, however, important strands of continuity. Throughout the period, the United States figured into scriptural interpretations as divinely administered, if not directly ordained. The notion of a providential existence first expounded by the Puritans and their Congregationalist successors appeared more and more in the diverse belief systems that flourished in 19th century America. This assumption of providential governance also led believers to view the natural experiences of America as indicators of God’s power and judgement. Peter Thuesen of Indiana University examines the link between violent weather events and Divine power in “A Rushing Mighty Wind: Tornadic Pentecosts and Apocalypses in 19th Century America.” Tornados, barely understood and incredibly lethal in the 19th century, were paradoxically seen as both signs of the chaotic, destructive power of nature and a visible manifestation of God’s wrath on Earth. Like Noll, Thuesen tracks evolutionary change in the interpretation of tornados over time. Earlier events were seen as signs of God’s displeasure, but as the nation shifted toward the New Testament and away from the often arbitrary God of the Old Testament, meaning came to be increasingly found in the the presumed protection God offered to those spared by the storm. The storm was not defined by its destructive quality, but by providential mercy extended to those who escaped it unharmed.

The third presentation of the panel, and by far the most densely doctrinal in nature, is the study offered by Kathleen Flake of the University of Virginia in “The Abraham Mythos and Mormon Marriage, Early and Late.” Flake examines the Mormon retranslation of the book of Abraham, looking for the expanded meaning the Joseph Smith and his followers found in the great promise extended from God to Abraham. According to Flake, Smith found that Abraham’s seed was to be innumerable not just through procreation, but also through missionary work and conversion. Additionally, Flake expertly outlines Smith’s ability to make sense of the Abrahamic story as a part of the larger cosmology constructed by Smith’s gospel narrative. Family, procreation, and eternal marriage were but larger parts of a covenantal relationship with God that, although not bestowing sovereignty on humanity, did allow for human agency and a recognition that humanity formed an important part of God’s larger plan for salvation and, ultimately, the exaltation of his elect.

What pulls the disparate threads together from this panel was the extent to which American Christianity was evolving during the 19th century. Reimagining the meaning of the Old Testament, an increasing emphasis on the New Testament and the narrative of Jesus’s life, and an ever closer union between the nation’s identity and providential custodianship marked recurring themes. These were not, however, changes in doctrinal tone or mere trends the larger culture. Their evolution was, as it is now, a peculiarly American desire to continuously reexamine the relationship of the nation to the divine that continues to shape the way American thought and identity, political or religious, is expressed.