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.
|Not the cover of the current issue
The Paradox of Sagadahoc: The Popham Colony, 1607–1608
Christopher J . Bilodeau
‘‘Bring them what they lack’’: Spanish-Creek Exchange and Alliance Making in a Maritime Borderland, 1763–1783
James L. Hill
Enlightenment and Revolution: The Case of Louisiana, 1768
With a Song in Their Hands: Incendiary Décimas from the Texas and Louisiana Borderlands during a Revolutionary Age
Rods and Reels: Social Clubs and Political Culture in Early Pennsylvania
Rus-Urban Imaginings: Literature of the American Park Movement and Representations of Social Space in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
“Consider the Source”
‘‘Exactly as they appear’’: Another Look at the Notes of a 1766 Treason Trial in Poughkeepsie, New York, with Some Musings on the Documentary Foundations of Early American History
James H. Merrell
|Ben Franklin: 1st President of the College of Philadelphia
I was doing some reading last night in the eighteenth-century trustee minutes of the College of Philadelphia (which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania). On March 19, 1761, the trustees unanimously approved its “Rules for the Discipline & Good Government of the Students and Scholars.” Here is a taste:
If any Student or Scholar, without a reasonable Excuse, shall on the Lord’s day neglect attending divine worship in some one or other of the religious Societies in this City, he shall on proper Conviction thereof pay six Pence and moreover, if he perseveres in such Neglect after due admonition, he shall be chastised if under fourteen Years of Age, and if above that age be brought to publick Confession, degraded, subjected to some Exercise or presented to the Trustees as the Faculty shall think proper…
If any Students or Scholars shall be found guilty of fighting or quarreling both Parties shall be chastised for the first Offence, & if found to be notoriously quarrelsome or troublesome after due Admonition, they shall be presented to the Trustees...
In every School belonging to this Institution, there shall be a Monitor or Monitors appointed weekly at the Direction of the Professor or Master who has the Care of such School & it shall be the Business of such Monitors to note down and deliver into the Faculty after Prayers every Evening & before the Dismission of the Schools, the Names of the Delinquents, as oft as ny of them shall be guilty of talking, whispering or behaving any wan indecently in the time of Prayer, reading the holy Scriptures, or calling the Roll; which Delinquents shall be immediately punished or fined as above directed, agreeable to the Nature of the Crime…
“If any Student or Scholar shall saunter about the College or College Yard or go out without Leave, or make Use of another Book or Books without his Permission; he shall be subject to corporal Punishment, or a Fine not exceeding four pence for every such Transgression.”
Stay tuned for some possible posts and/or links on individual articles.
From the editors:
The Spring 2013 issue of Common-place takes readers from seventeenth-century Northampton, MA, to the borderlands of New Mexico in the 1870s. Marion Rust compares the stories of girls in the throes of religious enthusiasm in Great Awakening-era New England to a 2012 outbreak of inexplicable fits among high school girls in western New York. Amanda Taylor-Montoya maps the shifting boundaries of interracial marriage in the southwestern borderlands in the nineteenth century. Common-place is also honored to be able to publish a piece by the late Jack Larkin, growing out of the work he was doing at the time of his death earlier this spring on the Boston illustrator David Claypoole Johnston. These features, plus Megan Walsh on slave narratives, the introduction of “Just Teach One,” and two different looks at grave stones in early Newport, Rhode Island, can be found at http://www.common-place.org/
Over at Past is Present, the blog of the American Antiquarian Society, Vincent Golden calls our attention to a few early American periodicals that did not make it past the first issue. For example, I am guessing that none of you have ever heard of The Gambler’s Mirror (1845), The White Man’s Newspaper (1851), or Smith & Barrow’s Monthly Magazine (1864).
Here is Golden’s description of The White Man’s Newspaper:
Issue no. 1 is dated May 1851. No other issue has been found of this anti-abolitionist newspaper. In the first issue, it boasted as having $50,000 of capital backing the publication of this radical newspaper. Apparently that was not enough as it disappeared as suddenly as it made its debut. AAS and Harvard have the only recorded copies of the first issue.
And here are a few musical “one-hit wonders” from the 1970s for your consideration:
About four weeks, according to this map from Mother Nature Network.
Check out the post “How fast could you travel across the U.S. in the 1800s“?
Looking to beef up your blogroll? I recommend Al Zambone’s “Notanda.” I especially like Zambone’s “commonplace book” in which he posts short quotes from the founders and other characters from early America. Here is today’s entry, entitled “Thomas Jefferson Finds Marylanders to Be Without Manners.”
…The [Maryland] assembly happens to be sitting at this time…I was surprised on approaching it to hear as great a noise and hubbub as you will usually observe at a publick meeting of the planters in Virginia. The first object which struck me after my entrance was the figure of a little old man dressed but indifferently, with a yellow queüe wig on, and mounted in the judge’s chair. This the gentleman who walked with me informed me was the speaker, a man of a very fair character, but who by the bye, has very little the air of a speaker. At one end of the justices’ bench stood a man whom in another place I should from his dress and phis have taken for Goodall the lawyer in Williamsburgh, reading a bill then before the house with a schoolboy tone and an abrupt pause at every half dozen words. This I found to be the clerk of the assembly. The mob (for such was their appearance) sat covered on the justices’ and lawyers’ benches, and were divided into little clubs amusing themselves in the common chit chat way. I was surprised to see them address the speaker without rising from their seats, and three, four, and five at a time without being checked. when a motion was made, the speaker instead of putting the question in the usual form, only asked the gentlemen whether they chose that such or such a thing should be done, and was answered by a yes sir, or no sir: and tho’ the voices appeared frequently to be divided, they never would go to the trouble of dividing the house, but the clerk entered the resolutions, I supposed, as he thought proper. In short everything seems to be carried without the house in general’s knowing what was proposed.
Thomas Jefferson, To John Page, May 25, 1766
I might also add that Al is a “cattleblogger.” I am not sure what this means, but I think I am becoming a fan.
The new issue of The Journal of Southern Religion is out. In addition to its wonderful collection of book reviews, it also contains a roundtable, edited by Rebecca Goetz, on religion in the early South. Here is the table of contents with links to the articles:
- Religious Diversity and the Coming of Christianity in the Prerevolutionary South
- Rebecca Goetz
- Catholicism in the Early South
- Maura Jane Farrelly
- Protestantism in the Early South
- Travis Glasson
- Native American Religions in the Early South
- Tracy Neal Leavelle
- Protestant Dissenters in the Early South
- Jewel L. Spangler
- African Religions in the Early South
- Jason Young
During the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History this past weekend I got the chance to hear T.J. Tomlin, University of Northern Colorado history professor and shedworker extraordinaire, present a paper on his current book project on almanacs and popular religion in eighteenth-century America. The paper was entitled “Popular Culture and Religious Authority in Early America.”
While I was listening to T.J. deliver his talk, I sent off the following tweet: @johnfea1
After listening to TJ Tomlin’s talk on almanacs in the 18th c., I think we need a good book on weather and religion in early America.
Well, lo and behold, it looks as if someone is already working on this topic. “The Beehive,” the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society, reports on the work of Lauri Coleman, a graduate student at the College of William and Mary. Here is a taste:
On Wednesday, 3 October, research fellow Lauri Coleman from The College of William and Mary, gave her brown-bag lunch talk, “ ‘Some are Weatherwise, Some are Otherwise’: Popular Almanacs and Weather Cosmology in Mid-eighteenth Century America.” Coleman’s dissertation research explores how mid eighteenth-century New Englanders, from the 1740s to the 1780s, experienced and made sense of the weather generally and natural disasters such as draughts and earthquakes in particular. New Englanders during this period experienced the weather in two distinct yet interconnected ways: “providentially” (as a sign of God intervening in human affairs) and through the discourse of natural philosophy, scientific observation through which divine laws might be discerned. Coleman argues that these two frameworks for understanding weather – one through which God is understood to act disruptively and violently, the other through which God is seen to act benevolently and in an orderly fashion – exist together in collective consciousness throughout the period. In the face of natural disasters, these two interpretations were often pitted against one another in public discussion (in newspapers and sermons, for example) as citizens attempted to make sense of the event.
Sounds like a great project. Maybe Lauri and T.J. can get together for a panel on almanacs at the next major historical conference. I would attend that session.