Roundtable Introduction: Past as Prologue: Religion in the Early Republic

Mary Kupiec Cayton

Methodist camp meeting, March 1, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

When The Panorama’s editor, Will Mackintosh, asked me late last spring whether I might be interested in working with him to put together a digital roundtable on Religion in the Early American Republic, I found the idea intriguing. I had long thought that it made sense for religion-related topics to have more visibility among scholars of our period.

We also live in very curious times as far as religion is concerned. Over one-third of younger Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, report that they have no religion. At the same time, religion’s role in the public square has seldom been more consequential. What are the topics of interest that this dissonance generates among scholars of religion in the early American republic? How do contemporary attitudes that we bring to the secular study of religion change, disrupt, or complicate the stories we’ve inherited? I was excited by the opportunity to use the Panorama’s digital platform to try to get a better fix on how scholars who are currently working in this area are answering these questions.

We began by compiling a list of the scholars currently working on religion-related topics in the early American republic. We looked for early- and mid-career and senior scholars, as well as scholars who write about diverse faith traditions and identity positions. We looked for those exploring the connections between religious beliefs, groups, institutions, or values on the one hand, and other aspects of life in our period on the other—politics, foreign affairs, social structures and movements, families, business and economics, gender identities and roles, racial and ethnic identities, regional and class cultures. We asked all who agreed to participate the following questions:

  • How does your most recent scholarship (or current scholarly project) involving religion in the early American republic speak to contemporary questions of religion in the public sphere? OR
  • How does that scholarship speak to important dimensions of the American past that have been overlooked or neglected in mainstream narratives of the period?

Family handing out tracts. Woodcut by Anderson from The American Tract Magazine, August 1825. American Tract Society, Garland, Texas

We are looking forward to sharing with you over the coming weeks and months the responses we received, and we hope that they will spark an active and ongoing discussion in the comments session and on the Panorama’s social media platforms. What, if anything, do you think they add up to? Where are there surprising convergences, and where are there unexpected gaps? What questions do they raise for us, either as students of the early republic or as citizens? I’ll be back at the end of the series to share some reflections. Until then, please enjoy “Past as Prologue: Religion in the Early Republic.”

21 October 2019

About the Author

Mary Kupiec Cayton is Professor Emerita of History at Miami University and Visiting Scholar in History at The Ohio State University.

Recent Contributions to the JER
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