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An Age of Infidels

The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States

By Eric R. Schlereth

Publication Year: 2013

Historian Eric R. Schlereth places religious conflict at the center of early American political culture. He shows ordinary Americans—both faithful believers and Christianity's staunchest critics—struggling with questions about the meaning of tolerance and the limits of religious freedom. In doing so, he casts new light on the ways Americans reconciled their varied religious beliefs with political change at a formative moment in the nation's cultural life.

After the American Revolution, citizens of the new nation felt no guarantee that they would avoid the mire of religious and political conflict that had gripped much of Europe for three centuries. Debates thus erupted in the new United States about how or even if long-standing religious beliefs, institutions, and traditions could be accommodated within a new republican political order that encouraged suspicion of inherited traditions. Public life in the period included contentious arguments over the best way to ensure a compatible relationship between diverse religious beliefs and the nation's recent political developments.

In the process, religion and politics in the early United States were remade to fit each other. From the 1770s onward, Americans created a political rather than legal boundary between acceptable and unacceptable religious expression, one defined in reference to infidelity. Conflicts occurred most commonly between deists and their opponents who perceived deists' anti-Christian opinions as increasingly influential in American culture and politics. Exploring these controversies, Schlereth explains how Americans navigated questions of religious truth and difference in an age of emerging religious liberty.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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pp. 4-4


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pp. 5-5


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pp. v-7

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Introduction: Remaking Religion

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pp. 1-17

James Ross thought Christianity was for the dogs. After all, he had mockingly administered the Lord’s Supper to several furry, four-legged communicants. At least these were the rumors about the Federalist candidate for governor of Pennsylvania in 1808. The state’s Republicans spread this story throughout Pennsylvania...

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1. Boundaries

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pp. 18-44

Writing constitutions and creating governments were among the most important political acts of independence undertaken by citizens in the new United States. Ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 wrought fundamental changes to the scope and power of the country’s federal government, and by the early 1790s, many states had...

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2. America's Deist Future

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pp. 45-76

Throughout the late eighteenth century, believers in the Anglo-Protestant world wrote and thought about Christianity’s future with renewed urgency. The era’s political changes inspired broad speculation about religious events yet to come. Ministers and theologians prophesied Christ’s return with scholarly precision...

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3. Citizen Deists

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pp. 77-109

Throughout the 1790s, questions surrounding national citizenship in the United States were addressed in several settings. This occurred in the courts, in state and federal governments, and in the larger society. When Americans expressed basic understandings of national citizenship, they often did so in relationship...

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4. Partisan Religious Truths

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pp. 110-141

Autumn 1800 was a season of severe partisanship in the United States. The looming presidential election spurred Republican attacks on the monarchical ambitions of John Adams and his Federalist administration. Federalists responded by defending themselves as the true protectors of American republicanism against Jacobin...

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5. America's Deist Past

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pp. 142-170

In 1860 George Peck, a Methodist minister in Scranton, Pennsylvania, recounted his denomination’s growth in the Genesee Conference, which encompassed northern Pennsylvania, central and western New York, and neighboring areas of Canada. Peck committed several pages of his confidently titled chapter...

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6. Free Enquiry

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pp. 171-201

In 1830, a tract titled Prossimo’s Experience appeared in New York City. Similar to countless tracts that circulated in the early republic, Prossimo’s Experience was a small, twelve-page, patently ephemeral pamphlet intended for cheap distribution. Although it looked like a product of America’s evangelical publishers, it contained...

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7. Political Religion, Political Irreligion

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pp. 202-236

Of the many July Fourth orations delivered in the summer of 1827, two expressed in clear detail how free enquirers and evangelical polemicists understood their civic duties and their political challenges. Robert L. Jennings delivered an oration before an audience of roughly sixty self-proclaimed deists and free...

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Epilogue: The Origins of American Cultural Politics

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pp. 237-241

Hubbard Winslow was pastor at Boston’s Bowdoin Street Church and a committed Whig in politics. Massachusetts ended its state religious establishment in 1833. Judging by Winslow’s 1835 treatise, Christianity Applied to our Civil and Social Relations, disestablishment was entirely for the better. Winslow had clearly absorbed...


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pp. 243-282


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pp. 283-291

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pp. 293-295

Writing this book, much like its subject, has involved belief and confidence but also doubts and skepticism. I’ll take the liberty of leaving the latter two mostly unacknowledged. The idea for this book originated in conversations with Jeff Pasley and John Wigger that sparked...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208252
E-ISBN-10: 0812208250
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244939
Print-ISBN-10: 0812244931

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 10 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Early American Studies
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Daniel K. Richter, Kathleen M. Brown, Max Cavitch, and David Waldstreicher See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 859160762
MUSE Marc Record: Download for An Age of Infidels

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Christianity and politics -- United States -- History.
  • Christianity and culture -- United States -- History.
  • Christianity and other religions -- United States -- History.
  • Church and state -- United States -- History
  • Deism -- United States -- History.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865.
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