Christopher Grasso is Professor of History at the College of William & Mary. This interview is based on his recent book Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Skepticism and American Faith?
CG: An archival question. In about 1990, when working on my dissertation, I was reading the Ezra Stiles papers at Yale. A young college tutor in mid-eighteenth-century New England intending to become a minister, Stiles began to doubt Christianity. He passed through the valley of religious skepticism and stood on the precipice of deism, as he later put it. But he was afraid to confess these doubts to anyone, even when sick on what he thought might be his deathbed. He eventually recovered his faith. But in the wake of the American Revolution, in his most famous publication, he worried about the broader social and political implications of other closeted deists and skeptics, such as the war hero Ethan Allen, who were suddenly coming out of the closet. Skeptical unbelief was the “other” against which Christian America defined itself. He got me asking questions about the personal and political dimensions of the relation between religious skepticism and faith.
JF: What is the argument of Skepticism and American Faith?
CG: Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, the dialogue of religious skepticism and faith shaped struggles over the place of religion in politics; it produced different visions of knowledge and education in an “enlightened” society; it fueled social reform in an era of economic transformation, territorial expansion, and social change; and it molded the making and eventual unmaking of American nationalism.
JF: Why do we need to read Skepticism and American Faith?
CG: Most histories of the period, if they pay attention to religion at all, sweep away most of the doubters with the so-called “Second Great Awakening” in the early nineteenth century. Or they posit some version of “secularization” happening behind people’s backs. This book looks at American religion not as an inheritance from the Puritan past, or as the product of the a “democratization” of Christianity, or as the outcome of denominational competition in a religious “free market” after the separation of church and state, but as a form of cultural power that is produced and reproduced in ways both intimate and structural.
Many Americans wrestled with the questions and the answers that religion, loudly and persistently, offered to them. They struggled to believe, against the whispered scoffing they heard in taverns or the arguments they read in books like Tom Paine’s Age of Reason. Or they struggled to doubt, against the powerful authorities promoting a patriotic Christian common sense that stigmatized and tried to silence skepticism. But this book isn’t just about a contest of ideas. It looks at the “lived religion,” and “lived irreligion,” of people—ministers, merchants, and mystics; physicians, schoolteachers, and feminists; self-help writers, slaveholders, shoemakers, and soldiers—trying to make sense of their world. They lived in a different era, though as appeals to “Christian America” continue to reverberate, their experience could be instructive as we try to make sense of our own.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CG: The key insight was about how history shapes texts and texts shape history. But my story has a rather tangled plot, from phys. ed. major to political cartoonist to journalist to writing teacher as an undergraduate and then from English to American Studies to History in grad school. Key scenes would include a young guy mowing lawns being invited by an elderly woman to borrow books from her extensive library; the gym-rat-turned-political-cartoonist stumbling into an astonishing class on biblical hermeneutics; and a grad student somehow getting two terrific mentors, historians of early American religious history who had come to very different conclusions about the same material.
JF: What is your next project?
CG: John R. Kelso (1831-1891) is character featured in the last half of the last chapter of Skepticism and American Faith. He’s a former Methodist minister who lost his faith and became a local hero fighting Confederate guerillas in Missouri during the Civil War. I came upon his papers soon after the Huntington Library had purchased them: 800 manuscript pages of poems, speeches, lectures and a partial autobiography. So drawn into his story, I published an edited and annotated version of the twelve Civil War chapters of his memoir as Bloody Engagements: John R. Kelso’s Civil War for Yale University Press in 2017. When that book was in page proofs, I was contacted by a direct descendant of Kelso’s who had the missing second half of Kelso’s autobiography—another 80,000 words. This remarkable nineteenth-century figure offers an extraordinary vantage upon important dimensions of American culture. Kelso was many things: teacher, preacher, soldier, spy; congressman, scholar, lecturer, author; Methodist, atheist, spiritualist, anarchist. He was also a strong-willed son, a passionate husband, and a loving and grieving father. In the center of his life was the thrill and the trauma of the Civil War, which challenged his notions of manhood and honor, his ideals of liberty and equality, and his beliefs about politics, religion, morality, and human nature. Throughout his life, too, he fought his own private civil wars—against former friends and alienated family members, rebellious students and disaffected church congregations, political opponents and religious critics, but also against the warring impulses in his own complex character. Based on the rich archive of little-known and unknown material, my biography for Yale University Press, Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso, will bring together people and subjects–essential to the iconic nineteenth century but usually treated separately—that become more significant and explicable when treated together: religious revivalism and political anarchism; freethinking and the Wild West; sex, divorce, and Civil War battles.
JF: Sounds fascinating. Thanks, Chris.