William Harrison Taylor is Associate Professor of History at Alabama State University. This interview is based on his new book Unity in Christ and Country: Presbyterians in the Revolutionary Era, 1758-1801 (University of Alabama Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Unity in Christ and Country
WHT: This project had its origins during my time in graduate school. I was hoping to make my small contribution to our understanding of the American Revolution and I had decided that the best way for me to do so was by exploring the emerging religious marketplace. Presbyterians were still my primary focal point, but I was determined to examine the dimensions of how they were competing for membership against the myriad of democratically inspired churches. After a year or so of research I couldn’t overlook the obvious any longer. The more I read, the more it became clear that the loudest cry from the Presbyterian church was not one of competition, but rather for cooperation. Having decided to let the sources speak for themselves (wasn’t that kind of me?) I realized that by pursing their goal of Christian unity, the Presbyterians had a much broader influence than I originally envisioned and it was a story, I thought, that needed to be told.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Unity in Christ and Country?
WHT: In Unity in Christ and Country I argue that during the revolutionary era, as the American Presbyterians began to actively pursue the elusive dream of Christian unity, they not only helped to shape the period, but they also unintentionally planted the seeds that kept unity beyond their grasp, split their church, and helped to divide the nation.
JF: Why do we need to read Unity in Christ and Country?
WHT: From what I have read, reading is thought to be a great exercise for the prevention of Alzheimer’s, so there’s that. However, if you already have your Alzheimer’s preventative reading regimen in place, you may still find this book helpful if you are interested in learning more about the dynamics and influence of people’s faith during the American Revolution. Included are stories where belief transformed the understanding of who should hear the good news, encouraged people to struggle and fight against tyrannies (real and perceived), and fostered desires for temporal and spiritual unity where once animosity and self-interest prevailed. Granted, these stories don’t all have pleasant endings, but that is partly why they can be useful.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
WHT: I had some excellent story-tellers for professors as an undergraduate—Kit Carter and Allen Dennis standout in particular—who had a big impact on my decision to primarily study American history. Yet, while they helped steer me to graduate study in American history, their work was aided by a foundation laid much earlier. During most summers while I was growing up my family would trek to various places around the country as part of my dad’s job. We drove everywhere and along the way we were forced to visit (at least at first) to what felt like every historical landmark within a hundred miles of our route. I might not have admitted it then (what self-respecting and properly annoying teenager would give their parents the pleasure?) but I came to enjoy those side trips. Being so often immersed in an historical environment such as Colonial Williamsburg or Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal, Missouri sparked an appreciation of the American past that not yet run its course.
JF: What is your next project?
WHT: Currently, I am exploring the depths of American anti-Catholic sentiment in the years leading up to the War for American Independence. Whether this will turn out to be anything more than my previous attempt to study the competitive nature of the Presbyterians in the religious marketplace remains to be seen. Still, my early reading suggests that there is much more to this relationship than has yet been revealed. Hopefully, the more I read, the more I will find to support this early optimism.
JF: Thanks, Harrison!