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Earnestly Contending

Religious Freedom and Pluralism in Antebellum America

Dickson D. Bruce, Jr.

Publication Year: 2013

In Earnestly Contending, Dickson Bruce examines the ways in which religious denominations and movements in antebellum America coped with the ideals of freedom and pluralism that exerted such a strong influence on the larger, national culture. Despite their enormous normative power, these still-evolving ideals—themselves partly religious in origin—ran up against deeply entrenched concerns about the integrity of religious faith and commitment and the role of religion in society. The resulting tensions between these ideals and desires for religious consensus and coherence would remain unresolved throughout the period.

Focusing on that era’s interdenominational competition, Bruce explores the possibilities for and barriers to realizing ideals of freedom and pluralism in antebellum America. He examines the nature of religion from the perspectives of anthropology and cognitive sciences, as well as history, and uses this interdisciplinary approach to organize and understand specific tendencies in the antebellum period while revealing properties inherent in religion as a social and cultural phenomenon. He goes on to show how issues from that era have continued to play a role in American religious thinking, and how they might shed light on the controversies of our own time.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-8


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. 1-8

The study that follows may require a word of explanation. It is an effort to explore, using antebellum American history as its focus, both the possibilities for and barriers to realizing ideas and ideals of religious toleration and religious freedom. It grows out of my own conviction that dominant approaches to many of the dilemmas having to do with issues of religion...

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1. “Divisions among You”

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pp. 9-31

To a great extent, the dilemmas and difficulties that characterized the conflict between a normative discourse of freedom and toleration and the realities of religious diversity in the antebellum period grew out of significant elements in the discourse itself, including both its historical sources and its course of development from colonial times through the first half of...

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2. “And They Shall Contend One with Another”

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pp. 32-54

As one examines antebellum efforts to reconcile faith, freedom, and toleration, the degree to which the era’s religious concerns were shaped by more general properties of religion—especially its transcendent power for explanation, prediction, and control—becomes readily apparent. The relevance of such properties becomes especially clear as religion is seen to...

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3. “And the Truth of the Lord Endureth Forever”

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pp. 55-75

To the extent that religion represents, for a community, a statement of ultimate reality, of transcendent forces and purposes, then, clearly, diversity in belief and practice represents a real challenge to the character of that truth and gives a profundity to questions of limits that goes beyond matters of simple consensus and cooperation. How much variation can there...

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4. “With One Spirit, with One Mind”

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pp. 76-93

It was because of the confrontation with boundary concerns—defined in ways consistent with an understanding of the singularity of religious truth—that, with increasing urgency in the antebellum religious explosion, two issues came up almost endlessly in religious writings, sermons, and even theological debates trying to come to terms with ideals of freedom...

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5. “The Keeper of Her Laws”

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pp. 94-119

The normative discourse of religious freedom and toleration described in the preceding chapter posed some of its most significant problems as antebellum Americans sought to define religion’s role in regard to problems of morality and moral consensus. Morality, in the dominant view, was inseparable from religion, and religion was, for its part, inseparable...

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6. “That This Land Be a Land of Liberty”

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pp. 120-139

In antebellum America, one of the issues that gave great urgency to problems of moral community and moral consensus had to do with the ways in which religious faith was connected to notions of national identity, a connection succinctly summarized by the prosecutor in Abner Kneeland’s blasphemy trial, in an assertion that “the happiness of the people, and...

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7. “The Knowledge of the Holy”

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pp. 140-168

Exacerbating dilemmas spawned by ideals of freedom and facts of diversity in the antebellum religious world were significant intellectual developments that, while antedating the nineteenth century, were to have great impact on antebellum religious thought. These intellectual and cultural...

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pp. 169-174

This exploration of antebellum American approaches to ideals of religious freedom and to religious diversity has looked in two directions. On the one hand, it has sought to delineate the demands of what I have called a “normative discourse” of freedom and toleration made on those who felt compelled to maintain strong religious foundations for American life and...


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pp. 175-204


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pp. 205-210

E-ISBN-13: 9780813933641
E-ISBN-10: 0813933641
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813933634
Print-ISBN-10: 0813933633

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 828869769
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Earnestly Contending

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Freedom of religion -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Religious pluralism -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Church history -- 19th century.
  • Church and state -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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