Exploring Religious Disestablishment: State by State

DissentI am glad to see the release of Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833. Carl Esbeck of the University of Missouri and Jonathan Den Hartog of Samford University have edited a very useful book for anyone interested in the relationship between church and state in early America.  Authors include Evan Haefeli, James Kabala, Shelby Balik Kyle Bulthuis, Brian Franklin, and John Witte.  By the way, some guy from Messiah College who has a blog wrote the essay on New Jersey.

Over at the Age of Revolution blog, Den Hartog introduces us to the themes of the book.  Here is a taste:

The American Revolution came about through a sequence of fractures in the ties between the colonies and Great Britain. One of those fractures arose from an important call from the Continental Congress. On May 15, 1776, Congress approved a resolution urging each of the colonies “to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.”[1] This invitation immediately called into question the charters and habits under which the colonies had been operating in a British constitutional and legal regime. It thereby forced the new states to question and modify long-standing arrangements, potentially transforming many aspects of American life.

One key element of those reconsiderations was the public place of religion for the states. In 1776, various forms of church establishment stretched from Georgia and South Carolina to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Although “establishment” has often been used to mean financial support for the official church, in reality, these establishments often connected with many other aspects of colonial life, property holding, and governance.[2] It was in the states that Americans experienced the most issues around “church and state.” The states thus provide the best location in which to examine how Americans pursued religious liberty in a revolutionary moment. Although much ink has been spilled about the First Amendment, even more significant change occurred at the state level.

The process of religious disestablishment in the states provides a fascinating story in political and legal innovation. It transformed conceptions of ties between religion and politics, religion and the law, and the citizen’s relationships and duties. It produced a unique American model of religious liberty for all, voluntary support of the churches, and non-sectarianisn (non-preferentialism) in governmental approaches to denominations. It’s a story that needs to be told.

In order to examine religious disestablishment at the state level, Carl Esbeck and I recently co-edited a volume entitled Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the American States, 1776-1833(University of Missouri Press, forthcoming November 2019). We recruited twenty-one scholars to analyze how establishment and disestablishment operated at the state level. These scholars—historians, political scientists, and legal experts—brought their distinctive insights, as they each took up one specific state. The range of investigation took in the original thirteen states, along with other early-admitted states such as Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Contributors also examined the special cases of Ohio (admitted from the Northwest Territory), Louisiana and Missouri (additions from the Louisiana Purchase), Maine (carved out of Massachusetts), and Florida (gained from Catholic Spain).

Read the entire piece here and then buy this book for your personal and university library.

Thank You “Otter”

RevisedI recently read this Amazon review of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation”: A Historical IntroductionIt is written by someone who goes by the name “Otter.” He or she titled the review “Equal Opportunity Disorientation.” I have no idea who this is, but I think “Otter” captures well what I was trying to do in this book:

If you’re anxious to score debating points in the debate about whether America was founded as a Christian nation, avoid this masterful book.

If you want to appreciate the complexity of the issue, and if you prefer the truth to zinging your opponents, this is your one-stop shop.

With terrific scholarship, Fea makes sure that neither side of the debate comes out without rethinking itself.

Most helpfully, Fea surveys the abuse of the historical evidence by those who would seek to either return America to its “Christian roots” or to minimize America’s religious heritage. The book aims at a thorough and meticulous understanding of America’s relationship with religion, especially in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods: what did the early European-Americans think about religion and the state? What did they see as religion’s relationship to Revolution, or to civil law? What’s the best understanding between religious rhetoric and institutional commitments? Fea draws on a wide range of sources to paint a picture of enormous depth and complexity.

Secularists will be satisfied to learn that Fea, an evangelical, is by no means convinced by Dominionist arguments; evangelicals will be delighted to know that Fea refuses the axiom that religion in early America was an accidental and unimportant feature of the 18th century, irrelevant to our understanding of the past. Neither side will be entirely happy to find that he calls them to a higher level of discussion than is usual.

For those who read Fea, this whole thing is going to take a lot more work.

Thanks!

Why John Wesley Opposed the American Revolution

John_Wesley_preaching_outside_a_church._Engraving._Wellcome_V0006868

During last weekend’s #ChristianAmerica? tweetstorm I wrote:

Of course it is difficult to capture the nuance of Wesley’s view in 140 characters.  I wrote about his opposition to the American Revolution briefly in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Today at The Anxious Bench, David Swartz does an even better job of explaining why Wesley was not a big fan of the Revolution.  He boils down Wesley’s opposition to four points:

  1. The colonies enjoyed the same liberties as the rest of the British empire.  Rebellion was not necessary.
  2. The colonial opposition to the British was too passionate and angry.
  3. The colonists did not allow “liberty of conscience” to those in America who did not support the Revolution.
  4. The colonists were hypocrites.  They said they were “enslaved” by the British, yet they owned African slaves.

See how Swartz develops these points here.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Fourth of July Weekend Experiment

Jersey

What does a historian do on a holiday weekend when the archives are closed, he can’t get around well due to an injured leg, and his family is out of town?  He hangs out with his dog Jersey and does this:

Check out #ChristianAmerica? Twitter (don’t forget the question mark) or follow along @johnfea1.  We will be tweeting every 30 minutes during the weekend.  Tell your friends to join us for a 4th of July weekend history lesson on religion and the American founding!

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!

Romans 13 in American History

Romans-13I wrote a little bit about Romans 13 and the American Revolution in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  Over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz notes that this New Testament passage was also used frequently in the 1840s and 1850s during the debates over slavery.

Here is a taste:

Even at its peak of popularity in the early 1840s, Romans 13:2 still appears only half as often as the single most popular verse for that time period (Luke 18:16, which generally is 5-20 times as common in the corpus as the two verses from Romans 13).

Not surprisingly, when Romans 13 did enter American public discourse at this time, it was usually as part of the national debate over slavery. In 1839, for example, a Congregationalist minister named William Mitchell quoted that passage in support of his argument that “Civil government, however corrupt, is an institution of God.” Orson S. Murray, the abolitionist editor of The Vermont Telegraph, was appalled:

“No matter then how corrupt the government—from the corrupt, hypocritical republic that establishes by law and holds in existence a most abhorrent and diabolical system of robbery, and lust, and murder, down through all the grades of aristocracy and monarchy, originating in, or originating—as a large proportion of them do—popery, Mahomedanism, and idolatry, in all their degrading, dehumanizing, man-destroying, God-dishonoring forms—all, all these corrupt and corrupting institutions are the workmanship of an all-wise, and holy, and just God!!! The consummate absurdity—not to say the involved shocking impiety and blasphemy—of deliberately and intelligently holding to such sentiments, lies out on the face of the declaration. To expose them, it needs no argument or comment. I would not be understood as denouncing, outright, friend Mitchell, as a blasphemer. I am altogether willing to attribute the monstrous heresy to ‘blindness of mind’—the habit of taking upon trust long received opinions—rather than to perverseness of heart.”

Read the rest here.

Immanent Frame Forum on Islam and the Founding Fathers

TJ-Quran-195x300The other day I was Skyping with a colonial America class at another college.  One of the students asked me what the founding fathers would have thought about Islam.  I answered the question, but after I got done with the class I realized I should have also recommended Denise Spellberg’s 2013 book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.

Check out the recently announced forum at Immanent Frame on Spellberg’s book.

Here is what you can expect:

Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an was released in 2013, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term as president of the United States. As we were reminded during the 2016 election season, both of President Obama’s campaigns for presidency were marked by accusations that he was a practicing Muslim and debates as to the legitimacy of a president with such a religious identity. Spellberg’s book was published as a timely history of the religious freedom debates during the founding of the United States, emphasizing the choice that the Founding Fathers made to create a new nation open to all religions. As Spellberg describes in her historical account, Thomas Jefferson argued for the inclusion of Muslims without knowing a Muslim individual; his theoretical sense of welcome toward them extended hospitality and legal protection to other religious minority groups at the time, including Jews and Catholics.

Detailing these debates around religious pluralism, Spellberg contributed to the defense against Islamophobia championed by those such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in response to questions of Obama’s Muslimness asked, “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country?” Now, in 2017, Powell’s question back to his interviewers is more potent, as support for Muslim Americans as fully American citizens seems to be up for debate. Though similar conflicts are happening in other countries as well, the history of American religious pluralism as a founding principle shapes the conversation in a certain way in the United States.

In this short series, four scholars reflect on re-reading Spellberg’s text in 2017.

Follow along here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Gideon Mailer

John Witherspoon.jpgGideon Mailer is Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. This interview is based on his new book, John Witherspooon’s American Revolution:  Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States  (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write John Witherspoon’s American Revolution

GM: Since my undergraduate days, I have always been interested in the links between Anglo-Scottish unionism and the formation of American religious, intellectual, and constitutional identity. I first came across Witherspoon in undergraduate work on religion in colonial America. I had just been working on New England religious foundations for a previous module. I had read much about the “Puritan Origins of the American Self” (I was a big Bercovitch fan!). Yet I found out that the only clergyman to sign the American Declaration of Independence was a Scottish Presbyterian; not a New England Congregationalist or a Virginia Anglican.

Fast-forward a decade, to a four-year postdoctoral research fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and an Assistant Professorship at University of Minnesota, Duluth: Witherspoon continued to provide a rich case study to explore the wider intellectual, religious, and constitutional framework of the American Revolution. After all, he fought on behalf of Britain against Jacobite rebels in 1745, yet only a few decades later supported the American revolutionary cause against that same British state.

As I soon realized, a lot of what we have come to call “The American Enlightenment” – the consolidation of rational thought and a growing trust in individual moral perception – has been linked to Witherspoon’s influence after his arrival in America. Having left Scotland, he is said to have brought aspects of the Scottish Enlightenment to America. Yet I was intrigued by the associated paradox: how could an evangelical theologian, focused on sin and damnation, have inspired Enlightenment ideals in America? And how could a religious proponent of Anglo-Scottish unionism help to inspire American revolutionary ideology?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

GM: The book questions whether the United States could have been founded according to Enlightenment principles – notions of innate sympathy, rationality, and ethical discernment – even while those principles accompanied the onset of rebellion and the chaotic disintegration of an empire. Tracing the wider meaning of Witherspoon’s move from Scotland to America, the book uncovers the broader constitutional and civic contexts that framed Witherspoon’s use of moral sense reasoning, but which also afforded him an opportunity to critique its role in religious and political discourse.

JF: Why do we need to read John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

The book is useful, I hope, in its attempt to integrate the political and religious influences of the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England on subsequent American history. It traces the tension between the Scottish Enlightenment and Protestant evangelicalism and the place of that tension in the developing philosophies of American independence and American constitutionalism. That America’s founding incorporated potentially contradictory philosophical ideas is important to note – and perhaps explains a lot about subsequent history! More broadly, the book contributes to an expanding field on the role of Presbyterianism in the political theology of the American Revolution and the subsequent founding.

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

GM: I was one of the last cohort to study for the old style “A-Levels” at school in the UK. By sheer luck, one of our teachers was able to offer a module in colonial American history. Most A-Level history students in the UK, at that time, studied the Tudors and Stuarts, Victorian Britain, and 20th century World History. I was lucky to study American history. I was attracted to the field, thinking it would provide an escape from kings, queens, and capricious European dynastic alliances. I was a little naïve, therefore; but wanted to become an Americanist since then.

JF: What is your next project?

GM: The project is tentatively titled The Character of Freedom: Slavery and the Scottish Enlightenment. It builds on research I have begun to synthesize. It assesses the relationship between American moral philosophy (particularly as inspired by Scottish Enlightenment and Scottish Presbyterian thought) and slavery from the colonial era, through the American Revolution, and into the antebellum period.

JF: Thanks, Gideon! 

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 8

Rittenhouse

David Rittenhouse

OK.  This is my last post in what turned out to be a rather long series on the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution.  Read the entire series here.

In this post I am sharing some of my ongoing research on the religious affiliations of the signers of the Constitution.  As you can see, I still have work to do. If you know anything about the religious affiliation of these guys please shoot me an e-mail or comment below.

So far my research has revealed a very large number of Presbyterians and German Reformed signers. (By the way, why aren’t more people writing about the German Reformed population in Pennsylvania?  We haven’t had a book on them in years!)

What do the religious affiliations of the signers have to do with the religious dimensions of the Constitution discussed in the previous seven posts? I don’t know.  Maybe nothing. But I do think that it is a question worth asking.

Here are the signers:

Philadelphia City

Timothy Matlack: Free Quaker

Frederick Kuhl: Anglican

James Cannon: Probably Presbyterian

George Schlosser: Probably Lutheran

David Rittenhouse: Presbyterian

 

Philadelphia County

Robert Loller: Presbyterian (Abington)

Joseph Blewer: Probably Anglican (Southwark)

John Bull: ? (Providence Township)

William Coates ? (Northern Liberties)

 

Bucks County

John Wilkinson: Free Quaker (Wrightstown)

Samuel Smith: ? (Buckingham)

John Keller: Probably Lutheran (Haycock Township)

William Van Horne: Baptist (Southampton)

John Grier: Presbyterian (Plumstead)

Abraham Van Middleswarts: ?

Joseph Kirkbride: Free Quaker (New Britain)

 

Chester County

Benjamin Bartholomew: Baptist (Devon)

Thomas Strawbridge: ? (Londonderry)

Robert Smith: Presbyterian (Uwchlan)

Samuel Cunningham: Probably Presbyterian (Nantmeal)

John Mackey: Presbyterian (New London)

John Flemming: Presbyterian (Valley Township)

 

Lancaster County

Philip Marsteller ?  (Lebanon)

Thomas Porter: ? (Drumore)

Bartram Galbreath: Presbyterian (Donegal)

John Hubley: ? (Lancaster)

Alexander Lowrey: Presbyterian (Donegal)

 

York County

James Edgar: Presbyterian (York)

James Smith: Probably Presbyterian (Susquehanna)

 

Cumberland County

John Harris Jr.: Presbyterian (Paxton)

Jonathan Hoge: Presbyterian (East Pennsboro)

William Clarke: ? (Middletown)

Robert Whitehill: Presbyterian (Paxton)

William Duffield: Probably Presbyterian (Mercersburg)

James Brown: Probably Presbyterian (Carlisle)

Hugh Alexander: Probably Presbyterian (?)

James McLain: Probably Presbtyerian (Antrim)

 

Berks County

Jacob Morgan: Anglican (Carnarvon)

Gabriel Hiester: Probably German Reformed (Bern)

Benjamin Spyker: German Reformed (Tulpehocken)

Valentine Ecker: German Reformed (Wolmesdorf)

Charles Shoemaker: Lutheran (Windsor)

Thomas Jones Jr.: ? (Heidelberg)

 

Northampton County

Simon Driesbach: German Reformed (Lehigh)

Jacob Arndt: German Reformed (Forks)

Peter Burkholder: ? (Whitehall)

Jacob Stroud: ? (Stroudsburg)

Neigal Gray: Presbyterian (Allen Township)

Abraham Miller (?)

John Ralston: Presbyterian (Allen Township)

 

Bedford County

Benjamin Elliott: Presbyterian (Huntingdon)

Thomas Coulter: ? (Cumberland Valley)

Rev. Joseph Powell: Baptist (Southampton)

John Burd: ? (Bedford)

John Cessna: ? (Friend’s Cove)

John Wilkin: ? (Bedford)

Thomas Smith: Anglican (Bedford)

 

Northumberland County

William Cooke: ? (Northumberland)

James Potter: Probably Presbyterian (Northumberland)

Robert Martin: ? (Wyoming)

Matthew Brown: Presbyterian (White Deer Hole Valley)

Walter Clark: Presbyterian (Buffalo Valley)

John Kelley: Presbyterian (Buffalo Valley)

James Crawford: Probably Presbyterian (Pine Creek)

John Weitzel: ? (Sunbury)

 

Westmoreland County

James Barr: Presbyterian (Ft. Barr)

Edward Cook: Presbyterian (Fayette City)

James Smith: Presbyterian (Bedford)

John Moore: Presbyterian (New Alexandria)

John Carmichael: Presbyterian (Franklin)

John McClelland: Presbyterian (Franklin)

Christopher Lobingier: German Reformed (Mount Pleasant)

 

Ben Franklin: President

John Morris: Secretary

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series

pa-consEarlier this week C-SPAN was at Messiah College to film a lecture in my “Pennsylvania History” course for its “Lectures in History Program.”  I was scheduled to teach the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 on Monday. I probably could have picked another, perhaps more exciting, topic for C-SPAN, but I have been spending time thinking about this state constitution lately and thought I could use it to make some larger points about Carl Becker’s famous statement about the Revolution as a debate over “home rule” and “who would rule at home.”

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was the most democratic state constitution in the newly established United States.  It had a unicameral legislature and a plural executive.  Power rested in the legislature. While there were other states (Vermont and Georgia) that had unicameral legislatures, the Pennsylvania government was unique because it gave the right to vote and the right to hold office to all males, regardless of wealth or land ownership.  This meant that the one-house legislature was virtually unchecked by a governor or an upper-house.  Members of the legislature had to swear an oath of loyalty to this new government.  Proceedings were open to the public and published in newspapers in both English and German.  This was democracy at work.  Several historians and political scientists have pointed to the influence of Thomas Paine on its framers.

My intention in this post and others that follow is not to provide a full history of the Pennsylvania Constitution. (Paul Selsam’s 1935 The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 is still the best book on the subject).  Rather, I am particularly interested in some of the religious dimensions of the constitution and the religious context that may or may not have shaped some of it. Stay tuned for more posts over the next several days.

The Author’s Corner with Spencer McBride

pulpitandnationSpencer W. McBride is a historian and documentary editor at the Joseph Smith Papers. This interview is based on his new book, Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Pulpit and Nation?

SM: Pulpit and Nation grew out of my doctoral dissertation. In graduate school, I set out to discover the actual role of religion in the American Revolution and the process of state and national formation that followed. Through my research—which included reading numerous diaries of early American clergymen and the lay men and women who sat in their congregations—I became fascinated with the curious interrelationship that I encountered: the political utility of religion and the religious utility of politics. I wrote this book that enabled readers to understand the power, limitations, and lasting implications of early national leaders using religion as a tool for political mobilization.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Pulpit and Nation?

SM: In the founding of the United States of America, early national political leaders deliberately created an alliance with the country’s religious leaders, an alliance designed to forge a collective national identity among Americans. Accordingly, while religious expression was common in the political culture of the founding era, it was as much the calculated design of ambitious men seeking power as it was the natural outgrowth of a devoutly religious people.

JF: Why do we need to read Pulpit and Nation?

SM: Religion mattered in the founding of the United States, but not in the way many Americans think that it did. There is certainly no shortage of controversy surrounding the role of religion in politics, particularly where the founding era is concerned. Talk of America’s founding as either a “Christian” or “secular” nation remains a common theme among politicians, pundits, and certain segments of the general public despite scholars’ warnings against such overly-simplistic constructs (warnings that include your own timely Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?). I present Pulpit and Nation as an example of how the history of religion in early American politics appears when viewed in all of its complexity, an elucidation of how its relationship to power structures looks when we delve into the motives behind the religious utterances of men seeking to mobilize the public to one cause or another. My book demonstrates that by eschewing the “Christian Nation” question altogether and engaging broader themes and narrower questions, religion’s significant in the politics of the Revolutionary era is more apparent, albeit more complex.

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

SM: I actually decided that I wanted to be a historian at age 13. My father majored in history in college and, as a result, our house was filled with history books and historical discussion for as long as I can remember. This means that I was exposed to the study of the past from a young age. Then, in 8th grade, I had a phenomenal United States history teacher named Ron Benovitz who taught the subject in such an engaging way that I was absolutely hooked from that point on. I knew that I wanted to be a historian, although I had no clue what such a career would actually look like. As I progressed in my education and the details and options of working as a historian became increasingly clear, my passion for the discipline continued to grow. I consider myself quite fortunate to be doing as an adult what I dreamed of doing as a teenager.

JF: What is your next project?

SM: I am currently working on two projects that I am particularly excited about. The first is a documentary history of New York’s Burned-over District. The book will feature primary source documents that illuminate the cultural and social transformation of western New York amid the waves of religious revivals that swept through the region during the Second Great Awakening. The second project is a book about Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign, and how the controversial Mormon leader’s little-known run for the White House illustrates the political obstacles to universal religious liberty in nineteenth-century America.

JF: Thanks, Spencer!

Was the United States Born as a Result of a Religious Revival?

On June 11, 2012 I appeared on Jerry Newcombe’s radio program when it aired on a local Fort Lauderdale station.  David Barton was scheduled to follow me on the show that evening, but at the last minute he backed out.  I don’t know why he backed out.  Maybe he had a schedule conflict. Maybe he was sick.

Jerry Newcombe promotes the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation and should continue to be a Christian nation.  His website is called “Jerry Newcombe: For God and Country.” During our conversation in 2012 we had our disagreements, but I appreciated his civility.  I even chided the powers-that-be at the Right Wing Watch blog for not presenting a full picture of my interaction with Newcombe. 
Newcombe and Mark Beliles of the Providence Foundation have a new book out.  It is called Doubting Thomas: The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson.  I have not read this book, but if the Amazon description is any indication it sounds like something similar to David Barton’s discredited The Jefferson Lies.  Perhaps Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter should look into this.
But I have read Newcombe’s latest post at his website.  It is titled, “How Is Participating in a National Call for Revival Service ‘Controversial’?” Newcombe starts by defending Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindall’s recent prayer rally.
Here is a taste:

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal did something supposedly “controversial.” He called for a national revival.
As a Washington Post article by Rosalind S. Helderman (1/24/15) noted: “Skipping an Iowa event that drew a number of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls in favor of a controversial Louisiana prayer rally, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) called for a national spiritual revival and urged event attendees to proselytize on behalf of their Christian beliefs.”
According to Helderman, Jindal insisted this was a religious event, not a political one. The rally was founded by American Family Association.
Jindal said: “Let’s all go plant those seeds of the gospel….Share the good news with all whom we encounter.”
He added: “We can’t just elect a candidate to fix what ails our country. We can’t just pass a law and fix what ails our country….We need a spiritual revival to fix what ails our country.”
I am more than willing to defend Jindal’s right to have such a rally.  I think praying for our country and our leaders is a good idea.  As a Christian I have prayed (and will continue to pray) for spiritual revival in this country.  “Hallelujah thine the glory, Hallelujah Amen/Hallelujah thine the glory, revive us again!”

But I would hesitate to say that Jindal’s event was not “political” in nature.  The fact that Jindal may be seeking the GOP nomination for president in 2016 hovered over this event.  Any future historian studying this event would be irresponsible if they did not discuss the rally’s close connection to politics.

Most of the speakers and prayers at Jindal’s rally were politically conservative.  Where were the moderate Christians?  The liberal Christians? I seem to recall Billy Graham, during the heyday of his evangelistic rallies, inviting all kinds of Christians to sit on his platform and pray.

In the end, the entire Jindal’s event felt rather unseemly.  I watched some of the rally online and heard a lot of speakers come close to equating the kingdom of God with the kingdom of the United States.   I also heard a lot of talk about the United States being a Christian nation.  Check out this Jindal video for a really strange mix of evangelical revivalism, the American Dream, and the success of the American economy.  In other words, a spiritual revival will make Americans more comfortable and happy.  Joel Osteen couldn’t have put it any better.

(I felt the same way about a similar rally staged a few years ago in Texas by then governor Rick Perry. So did my friend Thomas Kidd, the esteemed conservative and evangelical historian at Baylor University).

As I have said many times before, when church and state mix, the church loses its ability to speak truth to power. Or as my Baptist friends like to say, when you mix horse crap with ice cream it doesn’t really change the horse crap but it sure ruins the ice cream.

My real gripe with Newcombe’s post is his use of history.  He defends Jindal’s prayer rally by stating: “So, what makes the rally so “controversial”? Is it the liberal protesters outside the rally? For those aware of America’s history, there should be nothing controversial about Governor Jindal’s appearance at the rally.  America was born as a result of a national revival, known as the First Great Awakening.

Was America “born as the result of…the First Great Awakening?”  The relationship between the religious revival known as the Great Awakening and the American Revolution is a complicated and contested one.  I have gone on record saying that there is very little connection between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution.  But even those historians who do claim that the Great Awakening had some connection to the birth of the United States would never claim that America “was born as the result” of this revival.  

Newcombe makes a fair case about the Great Awakening’s impact on American culture during the years in which the revival fires flamed, but the claim he makes about the relationship between the Awakening and the Revolution is not supported by any evidence apart from the fact that the founding fathers wanted people to be “virtuous.”

I am assuming that Newcombe is trying to make a connection between the founders’ call for a virtuous citizenry and the spiritual interest that stemmed from the Great Awakening.  This is a stretch.  The Awakening was separated from the Revolution by almost two generations.  Nearly all historians agree that Christianity was very weak during the Revolution.  Whatever spiritual vitality the Great Awakening brought to the colonies had largely subsided by 1776.  Moreover, the founders’ thought that Christianity was merely one source of the kind of virtue necessary to make a republic work.  I tried to make this argument in both The Way of Improvement Leads Home and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  

We really need to move beyond these simplistic views of the relationship between religion and the founding era that lead us to manipulate the past to serve our own cultural, religious, and political agendas.

I will stop now.  Thanks for reading.