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Since its publication in 1989, Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity has dominated the religious historiography of the early republican and antebellum periods. Despite scholarly efforts to broaden and complicate his contention that American Christianity became imbued with liberating notions of democracy, Amanda Porterfield laments that Hatch’s “work continues to set the framework” for how historians teach and write about the religion and politics of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries (p. 11). Recent works by Porterfield and Eric R. Schlereth seek to correct Hatch’s narrow focus on the relationship between Christianity and American politics by positing the growth of evangelicalism alongside the bitter partisan struggles of the 1790s and beyond, as well as the influence of widespread societal doubt, disbelief, and deism in the decades following the Revolutionary War. In so doing, each tap into larger epistemological shifts concerning the basis of religious knowledge and the role of religion in the new political order of the early republic.
In Conceived in Doubt, Porterfield effectively demonstrates the existence of ubiquitous doubt throughout the young nation in the decades after the Revolutionary War. The breakdown of traditional networks of authority, increased social mobility, demographic transformations, geographic expansion, partisan animosity, and, for many, the popularity of deistic beliefs—exemplified by Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason—all “fed the reservoirs of mistrust” in American life (p. 60). Whereas Christianity and deism as theological stances had co-existed in the immediate-post-Revolutionary period, each was politicized by the partisan skirmishes of the 1790s. During that decade, new levels [End Page 663] and modes of political participation gave rise to a political culture rife with tension as Federalists and Jeffersonians squared off over the structure of American governance and the future of the republic.
Alongside and often entangled with these political transformations, “the meaning of religion” and its place in the public order shifted, from the obvious “codependence of religion and civil government” in the colonial setting, to a more “voluntary and individualistic” practice by the turn of the nineteenth century (pp. 6–7). Aligned with Federalist policies, New England religious clerics, especially, derided the radicalism of the French Revolution, insisting that the moral order of the nation should rest upon a firm connection between church and state. Evangelical groups—first the Baptists and later the Methodists—increasingly joined the ranks of the Jeffersonians, embracing libertarian ideology and democratic politics while calling for the complete separation of church and state. Both sides of the religious spectrum, however, waged war upon skepticism, equating it with immorality and licentiousness. Evangelicals grew more adept at “managing and manipulating doubt,” they provided crucial associations between evangelical religion and American identity, “linking idealism about America to evangelical religion” (p. 13). In the end, Porterfield argues that despite its prevalence and influence in American politics, religion was “too complex and inconsistent in its effects to operate as a unifying cultural force” (p. 177). Instead, a culture attuned to national honor “provided cover” for “materialists” like Henry Clay and evangelicals to organize politically.
Although dealing with many of the same issues as Porterfield, Schlereth focuses more on infidelity controversies during the early republican era. There was no guarantee, he reminds us in An Age of Infidels, that long-held religious customs would be compatible with a “new republican political order that encouraged suspicion of inherited traditions, institutions, and ideas” (pp. 1–2). Indeed, the deists Schlereth examines encouraged freeing oneself and society from institutions of the past, particularly Christianity. Only in this way could the young nation survive, nurture good citizens, and continue to [End Page 664] prosper. Their opponents, of course, did not agree. The ensuing controversy “helped create a sturdy cultural boundary between acceptable and unacceptable religious expression in a largely Protestant...