“Religion and Politics in Early America” Conference Recap

Yes–there was a conference in Saint Louis this weekend.  And yes, I was there.

I arrived early on Thursday morning (the first day of the conference) and got hit with food poisoning that kept me in my hotel room most of the day.  My plan was to attend sessions and catch-up with friends and colleagues on Thursday, give a paper on religious disestablishment in New Jersey on Friday morning, and chair another session on Friday at 2:30.  I was scheduled to fly out of St. Louis in the early evening on Friday and get back to Pennsylvania late Friday night so I could help preside over the PA District 8 National History Day competition at Messiah College on Saturday.

Then the Nor’easter hit the East Coast.

My Friday night flight was cancelled and American Airlines could not book me on another flight that would get me back to Harrisburg in time for History Day.  In the end, I gave my 9:00am presentation on New Jersey, caught a taxi to the airport where I rented a car, and made the 12-hour drive back to Pennsylvania.  It was the only way.  (I did shell-out the $6.00 for Sirius/XM radio so I had company on the drive).

I got home around 2am, caught a few hours of sleep, and was at Messiah College by 8am.


With NHD PA Region 8 Coordinator Cathay Snyder at the awards ceremony at Messiah College

History Day

The students, teachers, and parents awaiting the start of the NHD awards ceremony

I was only able to do this because my friend Jonathan Den Hartog agreed to take my 2:30pm chair duties in St. Louis on Friday.  Thanks again, Jonathan!

And speaking of Jonathan, check out his post on the conference at Religion in American History blog.  Here is a taste:

On a related note, the conference was successful in bringing together both historians and literary scholars. Although disciplinary differences were on display–in one panel: unpacking one sermon vs. treating a long genealogy of ideas vs. considering both physical and written evidence–still good efforts were made to talk across borders and gain greater insights.  Further, presenters showed how different methodologies could illuminate a shared topic.

These two pieces–the critical mass and the conversation across disciplines–point to the energy in the field. These conversations are not only important in 2018, but they point to questions of enduring concern. Those digging into the topic are making great contributions, and I expect we will continue to see great results growing from this conference into the future.

Read his entire report here.

The Erie Canal: Religion and America’s “First Great Social Space”


Lockport, NY on the Erie Canal, 1839 (Wikipedia Commons)

In The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society I wrote about the way the ABS used water as a metaphor to describe its work during the early 19th century:

The ABS owed owed much of its distribution success to burgeoning American infrastructure.  The construction of the Erie Canal and other canals reduced by months the time it took to send Bibles from New York to growing river and lake cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis.  ABS packages traveled down the Ohio or Mississippi and along the tributaries extending from these mighty rivers.  A representative from the Pittsburgh Bible Society described ABS packages as floating “messengers of salvation,” making visits to the “huts of the poor and destitute” on the frontier.  Fitting with a nation committed to building itself through travel across rivers, lakes, and canals, the ABS and its auxiliaries often used water metaphors to describe the distribution process.  The Bible traveled along “little streams” that flowed into the “mighty river” of the Christian nation that the ABS hoped to forge.  The distribution of the Bible was like the opening of a great “flood gate” that poured through the “arid regions” of the country, serving as a “streamlet to water every plant.”  The managers of the Indiana Bible Society, using a passage from the Book of Ezekiel, described the process of distribution as “Holy Water” issued from the “Sanctuary” that “spread wide and flowed deep, and all things lived wheresoever the waters came.” Both literally and figuratively, the ABS was using water to link remote and scattered settlements into a Bible nation.

A few years before I started working on The Bible Cause, I was asked to appear on a radio show to talk about the relationship between early American religion and the Erie Canal. I declined the offer.  I was busy at the time and I did not think I had much to say on the subject.  When they asked me if I knew of anyone else who might be qualified to appear on the program I wish I knew about the work of S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate.

Check out the Hamilton College religious studies professor’s recent piece at Religion News Service, “The Eric Canal and the birth of American Religion.”

Here is a taste:

The first great social space in the United States was not Boston Common, William Penn’s Philadelphia squares or L’Enfant’s great avenues of Washington, D.C.

It was an artificial river, 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, cutting across New York state.

Like the Silk Road in Asia, the Erie Canal not only established physical links across geographic regions, it also remade the social and religious lives of everyone it touched.

Albany newspapers, Genesee flour, Syracuse salt and Western timber traveled on the canal alongside theater groups, former slaves, tourists, industrialists and religious revivalists. This “one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne phrased it, exceeded its transportation uses to become an empire builder, a political-economic superpower that was inextricable from a spiritual empire.

Physical work on the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, when upstate New York was one vast wilderness in the eye of the young nation. Within three decades of its opening this “psychic highway” cultivated experimental spiritual groups, including the Mormons, the Adventists, spiritualists, followers of a revived apocalypticism and utopian communal societies such as the Oneida Community, with the Amana Colony and the Shakers passing through. The emotion-laden revivals of the Second Great Awakening also ignited along the way, giving rise to the evangelicalism that we know today.

Read the entire piece here.

Early American Religion at the Smithsonian

Aerial_view_of_National_Museum_of_American_History (1)

Are you looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not head to Washington D.C. to see the new “Religion in Early America” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History?  The exhibit, which is curated by historian Peter Manseau, is part of a larger exhibit on American identity titled “The Nation We Build Together.” It opened this week.

Over at Religion News Service, Adelle Banks reports on the new exhibit:

Enter the “Religion in Early America” exhibit and there are objects you expect to find: Bibles, a hymnal and christening items.

But on closer inspection, a broader picture of faith in the Colonial era emerges: a Bible translated into the language of the Wampanoag people, the Torah scroll of the first synagogue in North America and a text written by a slave who wanted to pass on the essentials of his Muslim heritage.

“Religion in early America was not just Puritans and the Pilgrims, and then the Anglicans and the negotiation of Christian diversity,” said Peter Manseau, curator of the exhibit that opens Wednesday (June 28) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“It was a much bigger picture. It was a story of many different communities with conflicting, competing beliefs, coexisting over time with greater and lesser degrees of engagement with each other.”

Read the rest here.

“The Nation We Build Together”

Aerial_view_of_National_Museum_of_American_History (1)

Erin Blasco, the social media manager at Smithsonian National Museum of American History, calls our attention to “The Nation We Build Together,” a new theme-centered floor scheduled to open on June 28, 2017.

Here is a taste of her interview with John Gray, the Elizabeth MacMillan Director at the museum:

The museum’s new floor unites several different exhibitions under the unified theme of “The Nation We Build Together.” Can you talk about what that theme means to you?

We really want our visitors to have the opportunity to explore the largest ideals and ideas in America. And the name, “The Nation We Build Together,” says we are a people and a nation that works collectively through our democracy to forge our nation. This is an ongoing and complicated process—but we are always working toward our national motto: E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One). It is so important that, as Americans, we view ourselves as part of the body of America, working together, being together, and building this nation together.

We know “The Nation We Build Together” has been in development for many years. But why is that theme an important one to explore in 2017?

“The Nation We Build Together” is an important theme that resonates across our history, one that’s fundamental to understanding America, ourselves, and the larger political process—not limited to party politics, but how we learn, make, and determine how we are governed together.

That said, there’s never a better time than the present to understand America. Every election turns out to be different than some people expected. That was true last year, four years ago, four years before that, all the way back to our founding—it’s the nature of democracy as we practice it in America! Our new exhibition American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith will help our visitors understand and contextualize the inherent changes we see over time in America. It’s both reassuring and inspirational.

What are we trying to inspire visitors to think or do differently after visiting “The Nation We Build Together”?

The whole floor is about inspiring engagement—understanding that you are part of the process in a bigger way. Many Voices, One Nation inspires all of us to participate in building American communities—really build them! American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith reminds all of us that we must play an active role in our democracy to keep our nation vital and responsive. And Religion in Early America helps us understand the historical underpinnings of how we practice and celebrate the diversity of religious experience in America.

Read the rest here.

I wonder if there will be anything in the exhibition on the history of philanthropy? Check out Episode 23 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast (“Giving in America”) with Amanda Moniz, the David Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy at the museum.

I am also eager to see Peter Manseau‘s “Religion in Early America” exhibit.  I played a very small consulting role on the companion volume.

The Author’s Corner With William Harrison Taylor

HarrisonWilliam 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!

Friendship in Early America

JSHI just learned that the theme of the recent issue of the Journal of Social History is “Friendship in Early America.”

Here is the table of contents:

Janet Moore Lindman, “Histories of Friendship in Early America: An Introduction”

Gregory Smithers, “‘Our Hands and Hearts are Joined Together’: Friendship, Colonialism, and the Cherokee People in Early America”

Shelby Balik, “‘Dear Christian Friends’: Charity Bryant, Sylvia Drake, and the Making of a Spiritual Network”

Thomas Balcerski, “‘A Work of Friendship’: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Franklin Pierce, and the Politics of Enmity in the Civil War Era”

Janet Moore Lindman, “‘This Union of the Soul’: Spiritual Friendship among Early American Protestants”

Nik Ribianszky, “‘Tell Them that My Dayly Thoughts are with Them as Though I was Amidst Them All”: Friendship among Property-Owning Free People of Color in Nineteenth-Century Natchez, Mississippi.

Who Cares About the Weather?

eacac-fithian2bbookYesterday I read Sarah Grossman‘s interesting post at Process blog about the Smithsonian Meteorological Project (1849-1870).  According to Grossman, the project “was the first weather data collection effort in the United States that brought together a national coalition of volunteer observers based around the pursuit of citizen science.”

Learn more here.

Grossman’s piece reminded me of what I said about the weather in my first book.  While I was working on The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I had to make a decision about what to do with the many, many references to the weather in Fithian’s diaries.  Anyone who reads early American diaries knows that it was a common practice to say something about the weather at the beginning of each entry.   Sometimes a reference to the weather (“clear” or “cold”) is the only thing mentioned in a given diary entry.

One option was to just ignore these references and treat them as unimportant trivia.  But the more I read the diary the more I became convinced that I could not do this.  Fithian’s references to the weather told me something about his world and the way understood his place within it.

This is what eventually made it into the book:

As Philip moved through the agricultural seasons his thoughts were often preoccupied with the weather.  This was yet another sign of his intimate knowledge of the Cohansey landscape he called home.  It is common for people to begin their farm diaries with references to current weather conditions.  It is even more common for historians who study diaries to ignore these references, skimming over such apparently unimportant jottings on their way to the “real lives” of their subjects.  This is unfortunate for it misses a vital dimension of what actually defined “real life” in places such as eighteenth-century Cohansey.  Philip obsessed about the weather.  He did not start his journal entries with notes on the weather because such remarks represented proper form or provided an adequate preamble to the day’s more important events.  Philip wrote about the weather because his family and neighbors were at its mercy: “We know not what a Day may bring forth.”  The weather, more than anything else, provides our best insight into the limits of an eighteenth-century agricultural life.  No degree of human initiative could tame it.  Few technological improvements could ease the anxiety that it brought to farmers.

When winter refused to yield to spring, the cold weather could lay waste to the Fithian’s orchard.  Philip described consecutive days of frost in late April 1766 and thought they would certainly “kill all our peaches.”  The summer’s tempests “of rain, wind and thunder,” arriving to Cohansey from the southwest, wreaked havoc on the Fithian’s fields, “blowing down the Flax, Wheat, & Corn very much.”  At other times the rain inundated the fields to such an extent that Philip was able to “track an Ox or a Cow” across them.  Cohansey farmers never watched the weather more closely than during the harvest season.  Philip often devoted an entire journal entry to an hour-by-hour chronicling of a particular day’s weather patterns: ‘cloudy this morning”; about nine or ten o’clock it broke away so that the sun shone”; about noon it rained again in showers”; at 3’oclock there came a thunder gust from the west, and rained excessively hard”; a while in the evening it cleared very pleasant.”  The unpredictable weather during the 1766 harvest season brought great anxiety to Cohansey farmers.  When the rains came as consistently as they did during this particular summer, the Fithians were given only a small window of time to harvest their crops.  Philip had never seen Cohansey farmers so apprehensive.  “From this time to next Wednesday,” he wrote, “will be the most hurrying and engaging time for harvest Men that perhaps ever was known; on account of the later rains.”

While these concerns were certainly real, they were made less frightening by the power of the Presbyterian God.  During times like the summer of 1766, Philip placed his hope for a successful harvest in the hands of a God who knew what was best for the farmers of Cohansey and worked all things together for the good of those who loved Him.  During times of uncertainty Philip did not turn to superstitions or the wisdom of man-made almanacs but instead did his best to rest in God’s care for his family.  In 1766 the God who controlled the weather looked favorably on the people of Cohansey.  “When the descending rains seemed to threaten us with entire desolation,” Philip reflected, “God is pleased to withhold the Showers.”  Though God could have chosen not to save the Cohansey harvest, this time around He elected to answer the prayers of His people.  The only response was thankfulness, a virtue that was not lost on any of God’s creation in Cohansey.  Even the “beasts & birds,” Philip proclaimed with appreciation, “express a sense of their joy and gratitude, for the plentiful provision, by their chearfulness and merryment.”

At other times, however, unfavorable weather patterns could be interpreted as signs of God’s judgment.  In the summer of 1769 Coahsney suffered through a particularly difficult drought…

If you have read this far, you can find out what happened on p.31. 🙂

Happy 321st Birthday Esther Wheelwright!

LittleMy favorite early American history book of 2016 was Ann Little’s The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright.  Over at Historiann, Little informs us that the subject of her book was born 321 years ago today.  Happy Birthday Esther!

I highly recommend The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, but don’t take my word for it.  Listen to Little talk about Esther, women’s history, and biography in Episode 11 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

It looks like we are not the only historians who like the book.  Here is a taste of Little’s post:

It’s Esther Wheelwright’s 321st birthday! She was born March 31, 1696 (Old Style).*  Since Esther has been dead for 237 years, I was thrilled to accept a birthday present on her behalf in the form of a rave review of my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, at the Christian Century!  (H/t to friend and blog reader Susan for passing it along.)  In “Women Who Do Things,” Margaret Bendroth, the executive director of the Congregational Library and author of The Last Puritans:  Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (among many other titles), gets my book exactly right.  

Read the rest here.

A Guide to the Bible in Early America?


Over at The Junto, Joseph Adelman calls for the creation of a “Guide to the Bible in Early America.”

With the flourishing of digital projects, at this point I could foresee something online. The problem I want to solve is to understand particular passages in historical context, so I want to be able to look up a passage from the Bible that was used frequently by a group in early America and find an explanation of the Biblical passage as generally understood, some notion of how the group or groups read this passage, how understandings of the passage changed across time and space within early America, and possibly links to other resources. It wouldn’t have to cover the entirety of both the Old and New Testaments, but instead could focus on the most frequently used books, chapters, and verses.

Let me sketch out a quick example with a verse that I used in a lecture last week on the Puritans as an introduction to Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. When Puritans came to Massachusetts, they thought they were founding a new holy city in accordance with Revelation 21:10:[1]

10 And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and an high mountain, and he showed me that great city, that holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,

With a passage like this, I would want to know something about the consensus exegesis (am I allowed to do that to the English language?) of Revelation 21—a little primer on the chapter within the context of the entirety of the book for those of use not familiar with it. I would want to know a little something about John Winthrop and his “A Model of Christian Charity” sermon he delivered aboard the Arabella, and perhaps other examples of Puritan figures using the verse in order to support their arguments about the settlement of Massachusetts. Were there other groups in early America that drew inspiration from the same verse? I don’t know that well, but somebody does, and it would be interesting to be able to access that. And in this particular case, there could be an extension to discuss the resonances of the idea of a “city on a hill” in modern American politics.

What a great idea!  This sounds a lot like a cross between a Bible Encyclopedia and an Oxford English Dictionary for Bible verses instead of individual words.

And then Adelman delivers the part of the post that hit me right between the eyes:

In my mind’s eye, this kind of project would build on something like Lincoln Mullen’s fantastic America’s Public Bible project, which tracks the use of Biblical quotations in American newspapers. What I’m looking for would be a bit more interpretive, and take advantage of the expertise of a range of scholars. (Usually when I imagine it, John Fea plays a role overseeing the project. John, you’re not busy, right?) In fairness, it’s a massive undertaking, and might not even be feasible. But the Puritans didn’t get across the Atlantic by thinking small.

If someone would provide me with a multi-million dollar grant and a team of researchers I would happily consider “overseeing the project.”  🙂


Scale and Religious Geography in Early America

ChurchI only made it to one session today at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  I spent the morning in the book exhibit and then attended a meeting of the OAH Committee on Communication and Marketing.

In the afternoon I was torn between a session on podcasting and a session titled “Scale and Religious Geography in Early America.”  In the end I decided that I had attended to too many podcasting sessions in the last couple of years.  I opted for the religious geography session and got to hear some excellent papers by three young[er] historians of early American religion: Shelby Balik, Christopher Jones, and Kyle Bulthuis. (Heather Miyano Kopelson commented and Aaron Fogelman chaired the session).

It looks like I was the only one in the room who was live-tweeting the session.  The OAH has storified the tweets.  You can see my thoughts there.

Mark Noll Visits “Ben Franklin’s World”

Noll BibleLiz Covart, the host of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast, talks with Notre Dame University historian Mark Noll about his most recent book  In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life,  1492-1783.

Here is a taste of what you will discover in this episode:

  • The role the Bible played in the lives of American colonists
  • How Americans in different regions interpreted and used the Bible
  • The bibles European immigrants brought to and used in North America
  • Details about the Geneva Bible
  • The separation of church and state and why it happened in the United States
  • Religious pluralism of the thirteen British American colonies
  • How colonists adapted biblical scripture to fit their North American environment
  • The role the Bible played in the public lives of Puritans and Pilgrims
  • How American Protestants’ reliance on the Bible affected American literacy rates
  • How historians measure literacy rates in early America
  • Protestant groups that settled in North America
  • How religious pluralism affected how colonial Americans interpreted scripture
  • The First Great Awakening
  • Participation in the Great Awakening by African Americans and Native Americans
  • African American interpretations of scripture
  • Women and scripture
  • How early American men incorporated the Bible and scripture into their lives
  • How the Bible fit within Americans’ conceptions of the British Empire
  • The American bishop controversy

It’s Always a Good Idea to Let Them Know You are Coming

livingston_williamHere is a March 1, 1777 letter written by New Jersey’s  revolutionary-era governor William Livingston (or one of his assistants) to Robert Blackwell, a patriotic Anglican minister serving New Jersey churches (in this specific case, Coles Church in Coles-Town, Gloucester County) with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel:

Thursday next being appointed to be observed as a day of fasting & Prayer the Governor & Council propose to attend Divine Service at your Church, which it is thought proper to give you this Notice…

And here is Blackwell’s March 2, 1777 response:

According to the directions of your Proclamation I have appointed to preach at Coles Church on Thursday next, at half past eleven in the morning.  If your Excellency & the Council think proper to attend, we shall be glad to see you there.

I love this stuff!

Source: The Papers of William Livingston, ed. Carl Prince (Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1979), Vol. 1: 264

NOTE:  Prince’s footnote on p.264 is wrong.  He says that the church in question here is in Colesville, Sussex County.  When I read this I found it odd that Livingston, who was living at the time in Haddonfield, would travel all the way of up to Sussex County to attend service on a day of fasting and prayer.  Upon further investigation, I learned that this it is more likely that this is a reference to Coles Church (St. Mary’s) in Colestown, Gloucester County (today Camden County), New Jersey.  This makes more sense.  Colestown is only about four miles from Haddonfield.

Spotted In Oxford: T.J. Tomlin, *A Divinity For All Persuasions*

One of the most popular features of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog is our Author’s Corner series in which we interview authors of new books.

Over the course of the next several days I will be posting pics of books we have featured in the Author’s Corner and that I spotted last week at the Oxford University Press bookstore in Oxford, England.

Here is T.J. Tomlin, A Divinity for all Persuasions: Almanacs and Early American Religious Life.   Read his Author’s Corner interview here.



Spotted in Oxford: Douglas Sweeney, *Edwards the Exegete*

One of the most popular features of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog is our Author’s Corner series in which we interview authors of new books.

Over the course of the next several days I will be posting pics of books we have featured in the Author’s Corner and that I spotted last week at the Oxford University Press bookstore in Oxford, England.

Here is Douglas Sweeney’s Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment.   Read his Author’s Corner interview here.




The Author’s Corner with Francis Bremer

Francis Bremer is Professor Emeritus of History at Millersville University. This interview is based on his new book, Lay Empowerment and the Development of Puritanism (Palgrave Macmillan, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write Lay Empowerment and the Development of Puritanism?

FB: When I began studying early New England and puritanism, I examined broad themes that tended to focus on clergymen and their role in shaping the region’s culture and its engagement with English history. Typical of this work was Congregational Communion: Clerical Friendship in the Anglo-American Puritan Community, 1610-1690 (1994). Starting with my study of John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father (2003) I have been focusing more on individuals, and this biographical approach heightened my awareness of the variations within what one might call the orthodox consensus of New England. During my research for Building a New Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds (2012) I came to question whether the New Haven church required a narrative of personal conversion for admission. Further investigation led me to doubt how widespread that “requirement” was, but also to realize that aside from their possible use as membership criteria, shared experiences were a tool of evangelization. This led me to explore other ways in which lay puritans helped to shape each other’s faith, an investigation that led to this book.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Lay Empowerment and the Development of Puritanism?

FB: Because of a commitment to the idea that grace enabled ordinary believers to understand the message they read in Scripture, and because they drew little support from the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, puritanism began as a movement that was rooted in lay activities such as sermon gadding, conferencing, and lay prophesying. The role of the laity in shaping belief and practice eventually found expression in congregationalism and was an important force until the latter seventeenth century, when clergy gradually came to hold greater influence in the churches and in the way the puritan past was remembered.

JF: Why do we need to read Lay Empowerment and the Development of Puritanism?

FB: Much of our understanding of puritanism is rooted in the accounts of early historians such as William Hubbard, Cotton Mather, Samuel Clarke, and Daniel Neal. As clergymen these writers emphasized the role of the clergy in shaping the movement and downplayed the vitality of lay religious activity in its formative years. Subsequent scholars relied largely on the writings of these authors and on the vast corpus of writings published by puritan clergy. This has contributed to a paradigm in puritan studies which emphasizes the role of the ministers, overstates the uniformity in puritan orthodoxy, and – in the case of New England – tends to treat New England as Boston writ large.

In his recent book on Silence: A Christian History (2013) the English historian Diarmaid MacCulloch observed that religious institutions “create their own silences, by exclusions and shared assumptions, which … silences are often at the expense of many of the people who could be thought of as actually constituting the Church.” Among those rendered silent in the early history of puritanism are the lay believers who gathered in private homes to pray, read and discuss scripture, and share their own religious experiences. During the late sixteenth century it was often lay pressure that was responsible for the refusal of parish clergy to wear vestments or perform what were seen as papist ceremonies. Where a sympathetic clergyman was not available to preach lay believers often filled the gap – Oliver Cromwell preached in private homes around St. Ives in the 1630s; John Winthrop often preached by way of prophesying in early New England. The religious life of the Plymouth colony for most of its first decade was directed by the lay elder William Brewster. Lay men and women noted for piety drew groups of fellow believers to listen to their views – Brigit Cooke in Kersey, Suffolk and Anne Hutchinson in Boston, Massachusetts are examples. Religious discussions occupied soldiers around the campfires of the New Model Army in the 1640s. The sharing of religious experiences were means whereby lay men and women could help others to understand their own spiritual struggles. These and other similar activities are removed from under the veil of silence by this book.

In exploring such themes I became more aware of some of the broad continuities that connected mainline puritans and some that we have become accustomed to dismissing as radicals. As noted years ago by Geoffrey Nuttall, the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding believers to religious truth was a key element in puritanism as broadly conceived – including the Quakers as well as those who persecuted them. In his “Christian Charity” lay sermon, John Winthrop expressed the hope that if the colonists faithfully sought God, they might come to “see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness and truth than formerly we have known.” Many, though not all puritans were open in this way to the hope that further light might lead them closer to their God, though the debate among them on where to erect the perimeter fence delineating acceptable belief and behavior from that which was not was often fierce. It is my hope that this book will not only focus deserved attention on the laity, but encourage readers to think of puritanism as a broad spectrum of beliefs rather than one or two “orthodoxies” struggling to impose a uniform system of belief. And the diversity within the mainstream of that spectrum becomes much more evident as we look beyond Massachusetts to the way puritanism emerged outside of Boston and to the debates to define a new religious order in England in the 1640s and 1650s.

The latter part of my book looks at how the clergy and their allies in the civil government sought to regulate and control lay power and influence. Key to this effort was placing a primary emphasis on education rather than inspiration as a requirement for religious leadership. There was a substantial movement in New England in the latter seventeenth century to carve out greater authority for ministers within their congregations and for councils of churches over individual congregations. The movement was not uniformly successful and, suggested but not explored in the final chapter, the debate would break out with new intensity during the revivals of the eighteenth century.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

FB: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the past, but it was during my college years at Fordham University that I became to think of history as a career. My focus on seventeenth century puritanism came about through a confluence of circumstances. Having spent many summers vacationing in New England I had an interest in that region of the country. And a series of theology courses at Fordham stimulated what has become a life-long interest in religious thought. This was a period when intellectual history and religious history were dynamic fields in the study of American history. Merle Curti and John Higham were prominent historians. New England studies were still shaped by the work of Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan. The new social histories of New England by John Demos, Kenneth Lockridge, Darett Rutman, and Philip Greven pointed to new ways to look at the region, but accepted its basic puritan character. I did my M. A. thesis at Columbia working under Alden Vaughan, and focused on New England’s reactions to the English Civil Wars, questioning Miller’s views as expressed in “Errand into the Wilderness.” I have been toiling in the same vineyard ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

FB: I’m still vacillating, but am considering a new biography of Roger Williams. Two questions intrigue me: Can we establish with greater precision the ways in which his relationship with Sir Edward Coke shaped his ideas? How did Williams express his spirituality after he came to renounce the possibility of there being a true church and a true ministry in his times? The latter question was posed more sharply as I worked on my study of lay empowerment. Though we think of him as a clergyman, Williams never served a parish in England and was never ordained for a post in a New England church. His abandonment of the search for a true church presumably meant that he never had his children baptized and never received the Lord’s Supper during the last decades of his life. Did he actually pray with others? It strikes me that in answering these two large questions may very well lead to a substantially different understanding of Williams.
JF: Very interesting. Thanks Frank!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Sam Haselby

Sam Haselby is Visiting Assistant Professor of American Religion and Political Culture at Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (Oxford University Press, February 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Origins of American Religious Nationalism?

SH: I was reading the European literature on nationalism, Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchman, Linda Colley’s Britons, George Mosse’s The Nationalization of the Masses, and others. I found them fascinating, and asked Eric Foner who wrote the version for the United States. He said, no one, that’s a good idea. An argument I had with Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity focused my interest in nationalism and changing class relations on religion in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Origins of American Religious Nationalism?

SH: The American Revolution posed, rather than answered, the question of American nationality. The answer came with the colonization of continent, more specifically from the resulting crisis of governance on the frontier. Both the birth of popular American Protestantism and the advent of systematic Anglo-American missionary must be understood as responses to this crisis, and each had deep and enduring effects on American political culture.

JF: Why do we need to read The Origins of American Religious Nationalism​?

SH: It gives a more historical understanding of the role of religion in forming American nationalism, and vice versa.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SH: As an undergraduate at Macalester College, reading The Education of Henry Adams. It provided me with a way of coming to terms with a certain ambivalence about the U.S.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: It’s about Anglo-American missionaries and the opium trade as an important chapter in the history of globalization.
JF: Can’t wait to hear about it! Thanks Sam.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Jessica Parr

Jessica Parr is a historian of the Early Modern Atlantic World and adjunct professor of history at University of New Hampshire. This interview is based on her new book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism and the Making of a Religious Icon (University Press of Mississippi, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism and the Making of a Religion Icon?

JP: This book began as an exploration of the rather abstruse relationship between slavery and baptism in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. As I dug further into the archival research, Whitefield’s name keep popping up. It soon occurred to me that despite his considerable missionary work among enslaved and free Africans, there had been relatively little scholarly attention to Whitefield’s views on slavery since the 1970s. The research did not ultimately support a book that focused exclusively on Whitefield and slavery. However, his views on slavery (notably, his infamous 1739 castigation of southern planters) were part of a bigger question that historians have been asking; that is, who was George Whitefield? My book builds on the conversation by Frank Lambert, Harry Stout, and others.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inventing George Whitfield?

JP: I argue that Whitefield became a religious icon shaped in the complexities of revivalism, the context over religious toleration, and the conflicting role of Christianity for enslaved people. I also argue that his death in 1770 was the start of a complex legacy that, in many ways, rendered him more powerful as a symbol in death than he was in life.

JF: Why do we need to read Inventing George Whitefield​​​?

JP: I think and hope that it will shed further light on who Whitefield was. A number of treatments of Whitefield have focused primarily on his missionaries activities in the British American colonies. Obviously, this is important, but I think to really understand who he was, it’s important to frame him in a broader Atlantic context (as Lambert has done).

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JP: Well, I am more of an Atlanticist, in that my research tends to consider the social and cultural exchanges between the British American colonies, Great Britain, and the Caribbean. I have been fascinated with history since I was a child, but my path to becoming a professional historian probably began when I was a junior in college. I had started at Simmons College (Boston) as an art and graphic design major. I took a couple of history classes purely for enjoyment. Then, one day, one of my professors was giving a talk at a time when I was supposed to be in a design class. I wound up playing hooky to attend her talk. I realized that if it was so easy to ditch a class in my major, then perhaps I was in the wrong major. I did take some time after I finished my BA to consider my options, even getting an MLS in archives management along the way, but ultimately, it was clear that I’d caught “the bug.”

JF: What is your next project?

JP: I have a couple of projects in the pipeline. The one that’s currently the furthest along is on religion, repentant language, and self-making in the Black Atlantic. In the eighteenth-century Atlantic World, Christianity often contrasted with “heathenism” as a proto-racial language. I noted that several catechized black writers, including Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano, contrasted their converted state against the “pagan-ness” of Africa. I am looking at the writings of Black Christians, including Wheatley, to determine whether religiously based proto-racial language informed social structures in the African Diaspora, and to what extent.

JF: Sounds exciting, thanks Jessica!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Messiah College First Year Humanities Scholars Take Colonial Philadelphia

Flag at the Betsy Ross house

Last Saturday I led nine members of the inaugural class of the Messiah College Humanities Scholars Program on a day-long journey through colonial and revolutionary-era Philadelphia.

I am privileged to get to work at a place that takes the humanities seriously.  Messiah College is a comprehensive college.  That means that we have both liberal arts and professional programs (think nursing and engineering). While many comprehensive colleges and universities are investing in the development of professional programs at the expense of the humanities, the leadership of Messiah College–President Kim Phipps, Provost Randy Basinger, and Dean Peter Powers, the architect of the Humanities Scholars Program–have decided to counter declining enrollments in the humanities with an all out effort to recruit more students in history, foreign languages, philosophy, religion, English, etc… (And this is only the start of our effort to revive the humanities on campus–stay tuned).

The Humanities Scholars Program offers modest scholarships to students interested in majoring in a humanities discipline. These students also participate in a host of programs on campus related to the humanities over the course of their four years at Messiah College..  One of those perks is a free tour of early Philadelphia with yours truly. The students also received a free copy of my Was American Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  The book served as the foundation of the Philadelphia tour.

We had a fun and educational day. I have given a lot of tours of colonial and revolutionary-era Philadelphia.  Some of them are pretty basic, others more academic.  I warned the students in advance that I wanted to challenge them intellectually throughout the course of the tour.  I spent a lot of time offering mini-lectures and reading from primary sources.  For example, when we arrived at the corner of Second and Market Street, the site of the old City Hall, I read to them Benjamin Franklin’s account of George Whitefield preaching and the former’s attempt to estimate how many people could hear the evangelical preacher’s booming voice.  At Christ Church I read the story of Rector James Ambercrombie’s attempt to publicly rebuke President George Washington for not participating in the sacrament of communion.

At the end of the day we walked into Society Hill and had a great meal at Pizzeria Stella on Second and Lombard.  I highly recommend it.

Here were the places we visited:

  • Welcome Park: Where the students walked the grid of Penn’s city painted on the park grounds
  • City Tavern: Where the members of the Continental Congress drank and ate.
  • The First Bank of the United States:  Where we discussed Alexander Hamilton
  • Carpenter’s Hall: Where the First Continental Congress met in 1774.  Also learned a bit about flemish bond and the artisan culture of Philadelphia
  • The site of Anthony Benezet’s Quaker school for African children
  • The site of Benjamin Franklin’s house and print shop
  • The Second National Bank: Which is now an amazing Founding Fathers portrait gallery
  • The American Philosophical Society
  • Independence Hall
  • The Liberty Bell
  • The President’s House (and the slave quarters below)
  • The Free Quaker Meeting House
  • Benjamin Franklin’s grave:  Where I gave a brief lecture on the limits of the Enlightenment
  • The Arch Street Quaker Meetinghouse: 
  • The Betsy Ross House
  • The site of the Second Presbyterian Church and the location of the first Presbyterian General Assembly
  • Elfreth’s Alley: The oldest still inhabited residential neighborhood in America
  • Christ Church

I hope to do more of these tours on the future.  If you have a group that is interested please drop me an e-mail.

Here are some pics from the day:

Hanging out in George and Martha Washington’s pew at Christ Church
I found the John Witherspoon portrait
I also found this photo of Elias Boudinot, founder of the American Bible Society
Carpenter’s Hall
We ended the day with pizza and gelato (including Olive Oil-flavored gelato) at Pizzeria Stella in Society Hill

What is a trip to historical Philadelphia without a visit to the Liberty Bell
Elfreth’s Alley (photo by Brianna Keene