- The Origins of American Religious Nationalism by Sam Haselby
“The War of Independence,” Sam Haselby explains in The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, “posed rather than answered the question of American nationality” (1). The solution, according to Haselby, came through colonization and the cultural politics that were associated with settlement on the early frontier. Haselby highlights the extensive growth of the western territories following the ratification of the Constitution, especially in areas such as Ohio, and argues that, though there were political activities that shaped much of this development, it was through religious disagreements that westward expansion was understood, which in turn transformed broader conceptualizations of the nation itself. The battle between what he calls “frontier revivalism” (2), the democratic forces evident in the growth of sects such as the Methodists and Baptists, and the nationalist “missions movement” (3), which was spearheaded by groups such as the New England Congregationalists and elite Federalists such as Timothy Dwight, “reshaped American nationality, resolving itself into an enduring religious nationalism” (3).
Many scholars have previously addressed the question of nationality in the early Republic. Leading the way were David Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes and Len Travers’s Celebrating the Fourth, both published in 1997. More recent examples include Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s This Violent Empire and Kariann Akemi Yokota’s Unbecoming British.1 Given the richness and success of these works, some might think that these nationalist revisions are no longer in need of revising. Yet Haselby adds two important dimensions to this literature: the role of religion and the ideological and geographic influence of westward expansion.
Historians have long noted the impact of American nationalist thought on both religion and colonization. Both the democratization of American Christianity and the sway of Thomas Jefferson’s “empire of liberty” are common refrains in the scholarship of the early Republic. Yet most historians still work under the assumption that the influence only moved in one direction: from the nationalist ideas of the elites to the grassroots activities [End Page 700] of religious practitioners and westward settlers. Haselby challenges this notion by showing that these influences went both ways and that religion and expansion were not only the byproducts of a new political age but also drove much of the change. Indeed, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism is framed in a way that highlights this dialogic relationship between nationalist thought, religious foment, and geographic expansion. As a result, the book ably captures the diversity and ambiguity of nationalist thought during the period.
In tracing this argument, Haselby seeks to put to rest other key interpretive frameworks that fail to capture the heterogeneity and anxiety of the early Republic, each of which has been quite influential in the field’s literature: “church-state” (22), “awakening” (23), and “evangelicalism” (24). These terms, he explains, mask the fact that though most citizens, east and west, agreed with those principles in theory, their different social conditions, religious beliefs, political allegiances, and interpretations make the use of these framing devices both difficult and of little value. To explain the broader religious and cultural movements, Haselby urges, we must look elsewhere.
After a brief discussion of the debates over the influence of religion at the nation’s founding, in which he argues that the secular political body the founders established in turn laid the groundwork for competing nationalist visions among its inhabitants, Haselby turns his attention to the Connecticut Wits and their quest for an American empire. These New England Federalists cultivated a vision for what they termed an “American society” (52) and they were anxious to see that vision extended westward. Their aims led to an ecumenism that allowed similarly minded religious groups to converge while constructing nationalist missions. The discussion then moves to the frontier and traces Methodist Francis Asbury and Shaker Richard McNemar, men who respectively represent organized and mystic democratic forces, and their extension of Jeffersonian principles.
Haselby’s focus on frontier Methodists and Baptists, who mostly eschewed party politics, may seem an...