- Early America in Transatlantic Context(s)
The four books reviewed here offer a rich and varied history of the factors that shaped the founding of the United States. From the issues surrounding religious liberty and the ways in which the American past impacts upon the political present, to the lives and writings of model individuals, each volume offers a unique perspective on the American experiment and its deep roots in English and European thought.
The First Prejudice offers an invaluable exploration of the complicated development of religious tolerance in Early American culture. Beneke and Grenda draw extensively from America’s relation to its English and European roots, avoiding simplistic formulations in favor of a multifaceted analysis of Early American religious culture. As Grenda writes, religion in the New World “was multi-dimensional and . . . flattened understandings of this complex picture distort the dynamic roles [End Page 299] of religious commitments and sacred arguments in the formative development of American culture and politics” (52). Grenda explains that the volume analyzes the “cultural transitions” toward religious liberty and the doctrine of the separation of church and state, which “are enormously difficult, usually sporadic, often circuitous, and certainly prolonged in their development” (51).
The volume’s contributors offer important and engaging work on the history of religious tolerance. One of this book’s key concerns is the development of the law, and culture, around the vexed notion of liberty of conscience in England, Europe, and America. Grenda’s essay “Faith, Reason, and Enlightenment” offers a useful overview of arguments for religious toleration and religious liberty (or liberty of conscience) that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He concludes rightly that “Revolutionary Americans debated religious toleration and religious liberty in terms less innovative than imitative, rendering the Revolution in this context more conventional than transformative in the realm of ideas” (51). In “Slaves to Intolerance,” Jon Sensbach examines the legal framework that governed African Americans’ Christianization; his deft analysis extends to the problems facing colonialists in the West Indies. He notes the empowering acts of “spiritual reimagination and reinvention” that African Americans enacted as they dealt with the legacies of slavery and second-class citizenship (211). Andrew R. Murphy offers a cogent definition of the idea of conscience, arguing that the term implied “a degree of knowledge . . . and not simply whim or opinion . . . one could not claim liberty of conscience to participate in manifestly ungodly behavior; and ‘erroneous conscience’ was a standard contained in the orthodox formulation.” Additionally, conscience as used in legal theory pointed toward a “subjective” aspect that indicated that belief “could not be forced into assent to any particular proposition” (155–56). This development points toward a greater codifying of the personal, which several of the essayists trace.
Beneke takes up the challenge of this deeper understanding of the separation of the public and private spheres; he traces the ramifications of the end of religious tests for public office in the new American Republic, arguing that this developing “vigorous distinction between civic and religious identities” is the “obscured . . . other significant new form of separation” (272). In the process, Beneke also usefully reframes the arguments concerning George Washington and religion, moving them away from their use in determining whether “the nation was, or was not, Christian at its founding” and thus “mak[ing] a larger statement about the separation of church and state,” to a consideration of “Washington’s cultural style,” from which “we can learn something about the emerging pattern of tolerance in the new nation” (275). He concludes that “For Washington, public statements and...