The Origins of American Religious Nationalism by Sam Haselby (review)
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Religion, Christianity, Religious history, Evangelism, Cultural nationalism, Methodism

The Origins of American Religious Nationalism. By Sam Haselby. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 336. Cloth, $74.00.)

Connecticut minister Horace Bushnell believed westward migration imperiled the nation. On a desolate frontier, education and religion would deteriorate. Slouching toward barbarism, settlers would mistake emotion for religion, chase revelation through visions, and practice divination through the dead—or so the reformer told Bostonians and New Yorkers in 1847. The solution was home missions, the complex of preachers, colporteurs, tracts, and Bibles flowing from the northeastern cities. If the frontier threatened the nation, efficient, evangelical management promised to save it. Some westerners disagreed.

Sam Haselby returns us to this cultural contest and places it centrally in the development of the United States as an imagined national community. Much literature on religion and American nationalism has a different focus. Understanding evangelicalism as akin to mass communication, many historians describe American Protestantism as a unifying force, a system of shared values and voluntary associations whose strength rivaled political parties as the cords of union, until being cleft by the slavery issue in the 1830s and 1840s. Haselby also stresses communications, particularly print culture, but discovers sectional and class conflict throughout. Caught between early-modern anxiety about unsettled regions (unsettled by Euro Americans, of course) and the nineteenth-century celebration of pioneers, Americans contended over competing Christian visions of the nation. In Haselby’s rendition, those conflicts occurred between “national evangelism” and “frontier revivalism” (2, 24). Rather than framing his problem in republican political discourse, Haselby argues the key concept was American religious nationalism. Redolent of civil religion, American religious nationalism displays a “simplified civil theology, a premium placed on religious toleration, the sacralization of the American Revolution, and the dominance of the jeremiad in American political discourse” (20).

Haselby develops these themes through seven chapters. Readers first receive a reassessment of Virginia disestablishment as an achievement of secularism. James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” takes the fore as Haselby argues that Madisonian disestablishment was a political campaign against Patrick Henry and his [End Page 176] evangelical allies. A close reading of “Memorial and Remonstrance” reveals not a clean logic of separation of church and state, but rather the tensions of coalition building. Fittingly, Haselby declares Thomas Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation” likewise to be unrepresentative of the politics of disestablishment. That messy but effective reality, Haselby argues, should supplant Jefferson’s “wall of separation.” Nationalism would be marked by ambiguity, which was foreshadowed in Jefferson’s use of language, as Haselby reads it, that relied on faith and mysticism to bond people and nation.

Haselby’s book is at its best when examining cultural nationalists. Prominent among them were the people out-of-office, those post-Hartford Convention Federalists of New England. Haselby provides an engaging study of the Connecticut Wits. At Yale the Wits developed their elite New England understanding of the nation. Most important was Timothy Dwight, accompanied by Joel Barlow, Noah Webster, and others. Haselby offers close readings of their early writings (mostly poetry) to describe their nationalist vision. The Wits critiqued southern slaveholders, European aristocrats, and the bourgeoisie. They carried these views into their later years of influence and provided much of the moral and intellectual perspective that would couple with northeastern bourgeois capital to create the Benevolent Empire. Conservatives like Dwight also saw enough commonality with northeastern religious liberals to cooperate in reforming the frontier. Haselby also investigates the work of Elias Boudinot. Like Dwight, Boudinot failed as a literary artist and succeeded as an organizer. He vied against “backsliding citizens and a degenerating national spirit” (224). As president of the New Jersey and American Bible Societies, he capitalized on mid-Atlantic managerial expertise and advances in printing. Boudinot teamed with Samuel J. Mills, whose travelogues convinced northeasterners of the urgent need for attention to the character of citizens on the nation’s western reaches. One result of this partnership of religious and capitalist elites was a watering-down of New England reformers’ previous critiques of inequality and racial subordination.

In contrast to the analysis of “national evangelism,” the...