But It Rhymes: Reflection on the Roundtable on Religion in the Early Republic

Mary Kupiec Cayton

The Brazen Serpent, hand-colored lithograph, James Queen, artist, P.S. Duval, lithographer, Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, ca. 1845. Courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia.

Nothing could be clearer, it has seemed, than to see the major religious movements in the United States following the achievement of nationhood as a natural outgrowth of the disestablishment and pluralization of American religion. The expansion of religious groups—by which was meant mainly white Christian evangelical Protestants—became the first efflorescence of an American tendency to rely on voluntary organizations to get things done. Or they were the religious adaptation to industrialization. They were manifestations of a democratizing impulse. Everything else was more or less a footnote to the through line of the story of the rise of one group to religious prominence in the United States in the period before the Civil War.

“Has recent scholarship changed this story?” I wondered, as Panorama editor Will Mackintosh and I worked out some questions for contributors to this roundtable on Religion in the Early Republic. If so, how? Have the concerns of our own time given rise to new questions and new narratives? If we were to ask SHEAR members working on religion-oriented projects to connect their own work to these questions, what would be the result?

Contributors ranged in career stage from graduate students to senior scholars. We invited people based on recent SHEAR programs, articles, and books. We found ourselves a bit surprised about some types of contributions we had hoped to get but that eluded us—on African American religion (either slave or free), on Mormonism, on the white South, on free thought, Unitarianism or Universalism, Quakerism, Transcendentalism, or spiritualism. There are no Lutherans, Episcopalians, Mennonites, or Brethren here, nor will you find any practitioners of Native American religions or of voodoo, no Muslims or Hindus. Nevertheless, the contributions we did receive were intriguing.

A number of our contributors tell us more about white Protestant evangelical Christians during the early years of nationhood. Spencer McBride, in “The Clergy in American Political Culture,” shows us that contention over clerical involvement in politics is nothing new, having been with us since the beginning earliest days of the republic. Emily Conroy-Krutz, in “Ironclad Commitments: Religious Freedom and Missionary Diplomacy,” helps us to see more clearly the tensions between the American commitment toward religious freedom at home and its celebration of and commitment to protect the white Protestant evangelical Christian Americans who proselytized elsewhere in the world. Joseph P. Slaughter, in “The Deep Roots of Religious Business in America,” tells a story of the rise of Christian Business Enterprise (CBE) that begins not with Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby, but with businesses like the Sabbatarian Pioneer Stage Coach Line. Ben Wright, in “Christianity and Abolitionism, Then and Now,” asks us to look to the past for a better understanding of the relationship between antislavery (largely an evangelical offshoot) and global capitalism, a topic as important two hundred years ago as it is now. And in “ʻWe Shall Meet the Same Lord Together’: Native Women and Christianity in the Early Republic,” Jessica Criales gives us an instance of how the cultural imperialism of white Protestant evangelical Christianity could empower some Native women.

Some of the stories here help us to appreciate that the white Protestant evangelical Christian narrative was not the only one available. Catherine O’Donnell’s “Beyond Christians and Lions” challenges us to modify the notions we have about the pervasiveness of anti-Catholicism in the early American republic prior to 1820, at least in New York, as Elizabeth Seton’s conversion is experienced by her Protestant cosmopolitan contemporaries as a bit odd but not a threat to the good order of the republic. Shari Rubin’s Jewish Americans find a high degree of toleration—but only until white Protestant evangelical Christianity becomes strong enough to affect attitudes toward Jewish cultural practice (such as Saturday observance of the Sabbath). In other words, differences of belief do not begin to rankle until attention shifts differences of cultural practice arising from those beliefs.

Two pieces fit, though not quite, into the larger story of evangelical Christianity as normative religious practice, and they are intriguing for just that reason. Both Douglas Winiarski’s “Joseph Brown’s Adventures with the Jerks” and Christine Heyrman’s “The Sexual Politics of Antebellum Evangelicals” concern white Protestant evangelical Christians, but they take the form of microhistories. Winiarski, most recently the historian of eighteenth-century New England evangelicalism, turns now to examine a man of varied pursuits in the Old Southwest who throughout his life experienced uncontrollable physical convulsions as evidence of possession of the spirit. Heyrman, whose most recent work dealt with American evangelical attitudes toward Muslims, decides to trade “the company of high-minded people” for “low gossip” as she recounts (some of) the story of New England evangelical Martha Parker. At the center of a romantic triangle in the 1820s, Parker’s past comes back to haunt her as she threatens sexual boundaries with her aspirations to intervene in a public world beyond the sphere allocated to her.

When we tell the stories of individual historical actors, these actors have their own complicated lives, and they are under no obligation to stand for any larger denomination, movement, or confession. Religion as it is lived, by people and not by institutions, means seeing that people have multiple overlapping social identities, and no religious tag can define them in their entirety. One is not simply an evangelical or a Catholic or a Quaker or a Muslim except to those who can only see the category as one that identifies outsiders to one’s own world. Within the worlds of those whom the labels encompass is a diversity of experience and opinion often invisible to those who define themselves as something else. Winiarski’s and Heyrman’s contributions help move us toward a more complicated story of the ways in which, for ordinary people, religious identity overlapped with the other aspects of life. Sometimes the abstraction white Christian evangelical Protestant obscures as much as it explains.

How does all this research speak to our own times? On the most obvious level, it often does so by exploring the relations between church and state and what that separation meant historically. Evangelical voices and values never remained cordoned off in any private sphere. To the contrary, they were apparent in the willingness of clergy to speak out on public issues; in the operation of businesses designed to turn a profit in a way worthy of the kingdom of God; and in conflating (to some extent, at least) the interests of the United States with the interests of American evangelical missionaries sent abroad.

At the same time, the aspirations of white Protestant evangelical Christians to determine the moral values of a national culture, very much under construction during this era, never made the United States the “Christian nation” they hoped for. Both Catholics and Jews in the early days of the Republic enjoyed the full rights of citizens. Neither apparently suffered undue discrimination—until a time well into the period when a culture developed on an extended scale based on numbers, a rising tide of print, the development of organizations of national scope, and a common religious vocabulary. That consensus came to exercise considerable sway in a civic sphere between the public realm of the state and the private domain of the family. In this in-between place lay economic, educational, and civic organizations that could—and did—make life difficult for those who saw the world in other ways. It is worth remembering (as Rabin suggests) that Jews were not condemned on the basis of belief but of observance, nor (as O’Donnell reminds us) were Catholics convents and schools torched until the 1830s.

There is an important narrative about nineteenth-century culture wars lurking in these accounts, and they don’t involve North and South only. During the last half century in the United States, we have seen culture wars in which religion is sometimes deployed as resistance and sometimes weaponized, in which most political issues seem to have some religious dimension, and in which differences of culture that are hard to articulate otherwise become concretized as religious and moral differences. Values voters existed then as now. How might we put these together into a synthetic account?

Today, as cultural and political divides rend the United States more severely than at any time since the 1850s, it may be time to look more closely at questions of how such cultural rifts develop over time, and in the realm of feelings as well as thought. What does religion have to do with the process? As roundtable contributor Kyle Bulthuis remarks on his own classroom experiments in historical analogy in “Does History Rhyme?”, “I realized, not for the first time, that moral clarity often feels stronger in the moment, but looks clearer in hindsight.”


25 February 2020

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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