- Two-and-a-Half Men: Religion and Revolution in British America
Jon Butler argued in 1990 that, “at its heart, the [American] Revolution was a profoundly secular event,” echoing historians such as Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood, who attempted to diminish the role of religion in the Revolution.1 Since then other historians have been divided on the issue. Some follow Butler in pointing to a decline in the numbers of religious sermons and treatises published after 1760 and to a decline in church membership after the Seven Years’ War as indicating the steady secularization of American society. In their works, ordinary people’s thinking is depicted as having fundamentally shifted away from religious concerns and into politico-economic ones as prosperity and relative autonomy were threatened by changes in royal and parliamentary fiscal policy in the 1760s and ‘70s. Other scholars are less inclined to deny religion’s presence in the Revolution, yet most still assign it little or no significant influence on the thinking of the revolutionaries in Boston, Williamsburg, and Philadelphia.2 However, a significant new wave of historians has successfully challenged this reading of early American society and the relationship between religion and politics, finding new merit in Alan Heimert’s connecting the populism and egalitarianism of the First Great Awakening to the forces that propelled the Revolution. Some of those historians have done so from a strongly evangelical Christian perspective, well represented by the works reviewed here.
Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University has been waging a campaign to prove that a profoundly religious Anglo-American society, galvanized by Protestant evangelicalism in the First Great Awakening, launched a revolution to establish a nation founded more on evangelical Calvinist theology than on Lockean political philosophy. He introduced this grand, overarching theme [End Page 63] in The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (2007), and he pursued it with greater vigor in God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (2010) and Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (2011). While careful never to argue that the Founders set out specifically to establish a Christian republic, he does argue across these books that colonial Anglo-America forged a coherent identity in the Awakening that was defended and reinforced in the Revolution, and that Patrick Henry—the most ardently religious of the “Founding Fathers”—was the Revolution’s quintessential and greatest exponent. George Whitefield is an attempt to continue his interpretative arc by positioning the preeminent First Great Awakening evangelist alongside George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry as a Founding Father—in this case, “America’s Spiritual Founding Father.”
Kidd readily admits that historians cannot purge personal biases from their work entirely and avers that “personal perspectives matter” (p. 4), pointing out that the biographer in particular is vulnerable to being seduced by a subject into crafting a hagiographic study that Whitefield himself dismissed as “‘a kind of pious fraud’” that carefully omits a “‘person’s faults’” (p. 4). Consequently, Kidd promises to give us a fully three-dimensional Whitefield that accounts for his faults as a man and as a clergyman. To his credit, he admits at the outset that he is an evangelical Christian (p. 2) who has “a high regard for Whitefield” and that he “identif[ies] personally with the religious movement he helped start” (p. 4). While he states that his concern is to better situate Whitefield within the context of the beginnings of Protestant evangelicalism in America, he promises that he does not approach his subject “with a historical axe to grind” (p. 2) and that it is not his “primary aim to edify readers spiritually” (p. 4). I believe him. However, I do think that he has an ideological axe to grind, and that spiritual edification is a close secondary aim of George Whitefield.
What follows is otherwise a...