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Interview: Stephen Marini
A professor of religion at Wellesley College, Marini specializes in religion in Revolutionary America. This is the edited transcript of interviews conducted Sept. 18, 2009 and Jan. 22, 2010.
What was here was land, and then therefore potential wealth. … This was important to them. They had just unified Spain. First time ever since the Romans that Spain had been united. There was an aggressive sense that there was some sort of divine imperative, and especially national imperative behind this.
“You're getting your individual identity empowered, you're building your own institutions, you're claiming the right to do it, and you are also joining an intercolonial mass movement. That's how you get from the Great Awakening to the American Revolution.”
At the same time, there was the religious imperative, which was on top. Isabella was a Third Order Franciscan. … She lived a religiously disciplined life under the tutorship of a Franciscan mentor. The Franciscans were very, very big on getting laypeople to live lives of purity and spirituality, and she was one of those. She was very serious about her Catholicism. It's 1492. … In Europe, calls for reform are everywhere.
Reform from what?
The sorts of reforms that [Martin] Luther would eventually be associated with. Corruption of the papacy is one large one, and the dabbling in nationalism of the popes as landowners, as political leaders. The rising new nation-states thought politics should be theirs and spirituality should be the pope's, so there was that tussle.
In short, a lot of the reformers felt that doctrine had become too scholastic and too abstruse. People couldn't understand it. And they were philosophically and theologically losing confidence in the efficacy of the sacraments and of the church as a whole. So one would say broadly, it's a crisis of spiritual and intellectual authority coming from Rome on the one hand, and the Renaissance popes acting more like princes [than] popes should on the other.
So a new monarch can say: "We're not with the reformers. We're orthodox, but we want to expand. And therefore we want to expand in the name of the church as it is. … We want to convert, and we want to govern, and we want to benefit."
What drove the desire for governance and conversion to be together? Why is that so important?
What we think of as religion and politics, as two separate realms conceptually, were not for them. They simply didn't think that way. Instead, it was one unified realm of church and state, usually understood as the two swords. It's the language they use: the sword of the spirit and the sword of political power. And these were both vested in the monarchs so that a colonization effort carried both spiritual and material agendas with it.
Now, you had to check off with Rome to make sure that you were doing the spiritual thing right. So you turned it over to the religious orders: the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Jesuits. It's exactly what Isabella and Ferdinand did. … The international orders, headquartered in Rome, are going to coordinate this mission effort.
So the religious orders are the agents of the nation-state as they go out. They're kind of the pope's people, and they're going with the explorers and the army. And they go out together with the two swords in hand, so if they encounter anything, they use both of them.
What were these Franciscans like?
They really vary. Many of them are very serious intellectuals. You think of them as Francis' humility. Francis was a very smart guy. The Franciscans were the big educators of Europe. By the time you get to Ferdinand and Isabella, a lot has happened since Francis. They go through all of this business of the Spirituals and the Conventuals and the Observants, and they're all fighting about how poor -- should we be beggars? Should we just be purely possessed by the spirit? The church says, why don't you institutionalize? … Why don't you set up schools? You can teach piety. … You can keep your mission to the poor. So they were preachers to the poor and educators at the same time.
And therefore they're able to conceive strategies. What kind of strategies will we use once we find these new, indigenous people? Some of them are very imaginative about this, and they perform them for the indigenous people to try to get them to convert. This is smart. They write music. They take these self-conscious cultural strategies. That's what you get in New Mexico as well.
So they're trying to seduce the locals into this new religion?
They would like to persuade them. If they're really loyal to Francis' vision, they want to do this peaceably. Now remember, Francis was not trying to convert people. He wanted people to live apostolic lives of poverty and faith. This colonial thing is a new agenda for everybody, and they're all experimenting. But they would rather do it peaceably.
But the regime, the state, had a different idea, and once the Vatican turned over the mission to the Spanish Crown and the Portuguese Crown, then there was a new mission.
The mission was a combination of a Franciscan community, often just one priest, but maybe priests and brothers, depending on how big the parish and the population they had to deal with, a military garrison and a governor.
So you have the church-state --
They're not distinguished in their mind. This is how encomienda and repartimiento were designed. That's what the legislation says. Encomienda is tribute; it's a tribute system. The indigenous people have to give food and gold and stuff to the conquistadores. And repartimiento is labor slavery, in essence. They sign away their labor for life. This is done contractually. There's big litigation about this in Spain and in Rome, big controversy about this. That's what the indigenous people have to do. They're subject. What can they do? So they give tribute, they give labor, in return for which the Spanish regime gives them protection and the true faith. That's the deal.
What sort of deal is that?
It's a conqueror's deal with a subject people. But there are supposedly rules. And in 1537, [Pope] Paul III actually says that the indigenous people have rights; they have human rights. They are full humans, and therefore are -- at least in principle -- full parties, equal parties in some sense or other. The church takes a relatively progressive stand for these oppressed folks. But on the ground, it's a one-way street. That's the trouble.
What do you mean, a one-way street?
The conquerors do what they want, and they have a free hand. So the question of resistance becomes kind of an issue. It's by conquest, after all, or it's by military occupation in New Mexico. …
And resistance is not easy because of the Mexico model, which is, disassemble the Aztec regime. Break it up. Literally tear it down, disperse the people, reaggregate them in the missions. So you don't have the old urban center, you eliminate the priestly class, you eliminate the warrior clans, and you have a new kind of social world that is completely disoriented, and it's breaking the cultural bonds of the people. Then you start intermarrying. The Spanish and the Indios begin intermarrying, and suddenly you get a mestizo culture within a few generations of mixed people who no longer really have a cultural way back to their indigenous identities. And if you're out on the hustings, you still have these missions doing what we said before, doing it by force and doing it by persuasion both.
Because everybody got in the game eventually. Maybe a different question is, why were the Spanish and the Portuguese first? That has to do with their encounter with Islam. Their Christianity was the most militant in Europe because they had fought for 500 years against the occupying Muslim conquerors who had set up on Andalusia. So the way the Spanish took back what they thought of as their homeland was by military orders, Crusader orders of the same ones who had fought in the holy lands. Those same orders spearheaded the Reconquista of Iberia. That didn't finish until 1492, with the conquest of Granada. They haven't changed their headset toward alien peoples and conquest of alien peoples, and if a new world of alien peoples beckon, they knew exactly what to do with it: Conquer it and convert it. …
[Hernando] Cortés comes to Tenochtitlan, and he writes back to the king and queen and says, "They have mosques here." … He doesn't know who these people are. He knows that they're idolaters. He may never have met a Muslim in his life, but he calls them mosques because they are holy places of alien people. He knows what to do if he's faced with warriors from another religious tradition that cannot be Christian. They must be infidels.
So the warriors, the military and wannabes in the Spanish military, this is wonderful for them. They're all set. They know exactly what to do. The Franciscans, the Jesuits and the Dominicans are the teachers and evangelizers of Europe. They know what to do. And it's as if they get this news from [Christopher] Columbus: "Wow, it's enormous. There doesn't seem to be anybody else here except the indigenous people. I don't know how big it is, but we'd better find out. They seem to be relatively pacific. They're malleable. They're tribal. Let's find out."
Now, it takes a while for them really to lock in, get onto the mainland and find something essentially worth conquering. But the system gets locked in in Hispaniola and Cuba early on, in the islands. Then comes the notion where the news or the rumor that there really is a great capital, there really is Cibola; there really is the golden city. If there's a great fortified city, you need to conquer it. Lo and behold, there is one, and it is magnificent. It's huge. It's bigger than anything in Spain. And they take it.
And then there's the outlying empire. Then they find out that there's further provinces, and they get the news from Mesoamerica that there's another one down there, and they take that, and all of a sudden they're conquering empires. [Francisco] Pizarro goes, and they take Inca.
So they're thinking, our chosen nation has been given this divine opportunity because we are orthodox. We've been tested and tried. We are the warriors of God. We are authorized, spiritually and politically, to conquer infidel empires.
How they evangelized and converted people became a problem?
Well, it did and it didn't.
You've got to think about Spain. Spain's hot; Spain's dry; Spain is mountainous. Mexico is hot; Mexico is dry; Mexico is mountainous. It's not as though the environment they encountered was alien to them. It was drier, but not a heck of a lot more. Yes, they're out in the wilds, and yes, it's the desert and all, but they were tough folks. They understood that. So I don't think the environmental shock is as great.
The cultural shock is great. These people have languages they never heard of, and they have gods that are not really quite like the Muslim or Jewish ones that they were facing in Spain. This is polytheism.
So [there is] the question of how do you do this. The best of them tried to do it by persuasion, because they felt that this is a religion of love and brotherhood and peace. This is Francis, and this is the Gospel, and they're living lives that are dedicated to that. … They think they have the truth. And before these people die -- because they're dying like flies. They're dying from the Spanish diseases; [they] have no immunities. We're talking millions of people are dying from disease and from conquest and from abuse in the mines and in the fields, so have their immortal souls saved any old way we can do it.
In Mexico, I think there is the realization that they're going to have to come halfway toward the indigenous culture, at least in terms of media and in terms of preaching it. You've got to go to the native language. If you have images, miracles, palpable sacredness that you can show to people and then talk about and say, "See, it's really here. We've brought it. We've got it. We've really got the true gods," then it will work.
And eventually that figure turns into Our Lady of Guadalupe. … The Franciscans have learned that if you say the Virgin Mary, the goddess lady, appeared to an Aztec and promised to hear the prayers and help the sufferings of people like you, and here's what she said -- all of this is written down, and there's legends and stories about all this -- that's a more direct way into where the people are than to talk about this Jesus guy and the prophets and Israel. …
One of the things that happens is that when they go to the Pueblos, their religion isn't that way.
What is their religion?
… It's simpler, it's smaller, and there's more focus on survival on the land. … They've been urbanized for 1,000 years. That's not easy to break up. So you're already confronting a closely interwoven social and religious system.
At the same time, it's a subsistence religion. It's about being in balance with nature. And it's very harsh nature. So the universe is animate, as the Aztecs said, but there isn't just one high God. Yes, maybe there sort of is a great spirit, maybe, but what's more important is that there's the sun, and there's the moon, and there are the winds, and there's the rain. There's water; there's corn; there's beans. This is how you survive. So it's an agricultural, tribal society, whose sacred beings embody, represent and animate this world you live in. And what about the humans? Well, the humans couldn't survive on the surface, could they, without help of the gods? They must come from a cold place that's out of the sun, the underworld. This is the underworld, and the underworld is not a bad place. It's a good place. It's where we come from.
So the religion consists of various festivals and celebrations and offerings of things like corn pollen, which is the vital substance of the primary crop. Without this, we all die. So you give it back to the gods. You take a risk. But it means [if] you're loyal to the spirit beings, the Corn Woman and Corn Man make corn grow next year. It's that kind of religion.
Meanwhile, the humans are in relation to the underworld. So they build these underground, roofed-over kivas in which the boys are initiated into all of these mysteries and lore by the elders and the shamans, those who know, represent and can make connections to these spirit beings. So at various calendric times, groups of boys are initiated, and they're terrorized, and they're afraid, and they go out and do vision quests and all that stuff. In these kiva ceremonies, which everybody participates in at some point or other, the spirit beings are personified in figures known as kachinas. The kachinas are dressed elaborately, and this is resonant of Aztec religion. There's mimetic festival dancing on the surface, but when the initiation happens, these kachinas emerge in the kiva and do their ritual gestures, and some of the information about who they are, the way the world really is, the myths and stories about them and how we relate to them are shared, at least at a basic level, with the initiates. So the tribal worldview is passed on in the kiva, the kachina dancing, the elders and the initiation of young men.
So it's the kind of religion that reinforces their social and cultural positions. Some of them are gifted, and they become the next generation of spiritual leaders. Others become the political and warrior or military leaders, if they need them. A lot of them are very pacific people. And it also reinforces the whole worldview of staying in balance and doing what we need to do to be in balance both with the natural world and the world of the spirits.
[So the conquerors say,] "Have your worldview, but we want to share. Welcome to the Virgin Mary."
Right. They did try to say, "Welcome to the Virgin Mary," and they were prepared -- for a while, it seems -- to share, because they really didn't have much other choice. I think an important part of this is the dependency of the Spanish colonials on the labor force of the Pueblo, because there weren't very many people there, and it's a very harsh environment. … So they are going to present the Gospel and the stories, and they're going to try to shape it as they learn where these folks are coming from.
What seems to have happened is that for the third generation or so, around 1675 or so, the Franciscan leadership says, "We haven't gotten far enough. We don't want to coexist with this," because the flashpoint in the Pueblo revolt is the kachina dancing.
Why [is this the] moment that the Spanish decide not to share but have full conversion?
There are all kinds of things going on in Europe that might explain part of it. This is the moment when Catholic monarchs withdraw their collaboration or cooperation with Protestants. This is when Louis XIV revokes the Edict of Nantes and overnight says to all the Protestants -- and there are a bunch of them in France: "Convert or leave. Those are your choices. You've got six months." This is 1681. And that same kind of OK, we're really drawing up the wagons around absolutism. All that 17th- and early-18th-century religious ideology of monarchy, divine right of kings -- all of that is reaching its height right at this moment. Therefore it's more intolerant. So call it militancy; call it nationalism, Catholic nationalism. Whatever you want to call it, it's there in France and in Spain. That's crossing transatlantic and informing leadership, religious and political.
But I think there's also the leaders who were also coming out of this environment, saying, "They're not going to convert unless we eliminate the initiation rites and the worship, the ritual practice of these people."
You have to remember, these aren't hunting-gathering migrant bands. These are aggregated communities. They're rooted in the ground, literally in the ground, and they're not about to give up centuries-old traditions for anybody. In other words, the military occupation and the spiritual evangelism hadn't worked.
So then you have to decide whether you're going to use the sword to move it forward. The Franciscan point of view is that they don't want to. It's against their spiritual tradition to do it. But if you've got to do it, you've got to do it.
So they round up these holy men and say: "You're sorcerers. You're witches. Just to show you what we do with witches, we'll execute a few of you." And presumably the message would go out, and the leaders would say to the people: "Well, we can't do this anymore. Sorry. Let's pack up." …
But it doesn't work, because [the Pueblo Indian medicine man] Po'pay says: "Not on my watch you don't. You mean to exterminate our religion and therefore our culture and therefore us." He makes that connection and starts laying plans for resistance.
In a certain sense, you see that if the Spanish had executed all 47 [religious leaders tried in 1675 for witchcraft and sorcery, four of whom were hanged, and the rest of whom, including Po'pay, were flogged publicly], they might have cut the head off of Pueblo culture, at least religious culture. They wouldn't necessarily have gotten what they imagined. I think they would have had all kinds of trouble on their hands. But they didn't do that. They tried to do a demonstration, and it boomeranged on them. So I think that says that there's still some reluctance to just go and blow the thing up, because they were all in this together.
Was it a religious revolt?
It was certainly a religious revolt. The burning of the mission churches tells you that there is antagonism lodged in the colonial religious culture that's being imposed. So you burn the sacred places. Whether it's in retribution of the Spanish destroying the kivas, whether it's revenge or simply a religious counterattack, that certainly is in place.
But it is also a cultural campaign. The clue to that is the order to stop growing Spanish crops. This is a root-and-branch campaign. They want to extirpate Spanishness -- religion prominently, but of course they also are expelling the military. And then [Po'pay] says: "We need to go back to growing corn and squash, because that restores the world. And that in turn restores the spirit beings, who will come back to us, because we need them to come back to us."
So cultural is a better category because it's bigger than just religion. But religion is one of the main adherents of that culture. It's held together by religion. So if you restore the physical culture and the agrarian traditions, that will also help restore the religious traditions, and the spirit beings will return, and you will prosper. And now you've expelled the foreigners and their religion, which was holding their culture together.
Did we learn something from the idea of a unified church-state in this 1680 event?
The historian will say that whether we in the 21st century like it or not, this model of military conquest, racial mixing and capstone Catholicism worked. Latin America is the most Catholic place on earth today. …
On the other hand, when that model was imposed on the Pueblo, it didn't work. One could ask why. And it has to do with all the things we've been talking about: with isolation, with not enough manpower on the Spanish side, with the cultural tradition and density of Pueblo culture, of Pueblo lifestyle. …
So what we learn from that episode in that context is that that model didn't work. What did the Spanish then do when they finally took it over again in 1692? They first of all were invited back, because times had changed, and there were all kinds of reasons why the intervening period was not successful. But the invitation to come back is entirely different than marching on horseback into these pueblos and saying, "We're in charge now." First of all, the native peoples, the First Nations said, "We'll welcome you in." That's a whole different thing. That hardly ever happens in a colonial situation. And then the Spanish said: "OK, we understand. We're not going to interfere with kachina dancing, with kiva initiation, with your religious culture. But we do want to rebuild the missions, because we're going to try persuasion."
So from 1692 on, religious tolerance was the key to survival in the New World?
Yes, something approaching it anyway. Now, the Franciscans are going to do their best to persuade them, and they're also going to try to negotiate out this labor/slavery/tribute system. The notion that colonialism might still work if you're less disruptive of indigenous societies and cultures does have an experimental moment here. …
The old mission system continues in California, continues in other places in New Spain and in South America as well. But would they call it toleration? Not really. But in the sense that we now have of tolerating, letting it exist, knowing from their point of view that it is not a true religion but not feeling threatened enough by it to destroy it -- if that's what toleration is, then yes, coexistence. Benign neglect may be a little closer.
With the Puritans in New England, at what point do people from the Old World decide that a closed, uniform orthodoxy is not worth the fight?
There's at least three processes going on. One is, if you start with a model of religious homogeneity, which already wasn't true even on the Arabella, but [Puritan leader and Massachusetts Governor John] Winthrop says, "We're all bound together as Christian brothers and sisters. Therefore Christian charity, mutual aid, even if you have to sacrifice to help a poorer person, is the norm. It's what we must do. And that's what makes us the 'city on a hill," he's still presuming religious homogeneity there, and then the regime they construct certainly assumes it.
Three problems, internal dissent, external religious dissent, and imperial intervention, all three of them are at work. Anne Hutchinson is internal dissent. She's challenging religious norms, spiritual norms, and eventually civil authority, based on that reformed model of the church-state. Their response to that is repulsion, exile: "Go. Get out of here. And if you stay here, we'll kill you. Please leave." They'd much rather they leave. So she does. And there are others like her along the way.
The Quakers come as an outside religious dissenting group. The Puritans say, "Please leave or we'll kill you," and the Quakers say, "No, martyrdom is perfectly OK with us." "You've got to get the right religion," the Puritans say. "Please, please leave." And the Quakers say, "No." And the Puritans say, "OK," and they hang them. And so there are groups on the perimeter, Quakers and Baptists, that just won't leave. They keep throwing them in jail, trying to push them to the edge. And by the 1650s, '60s, you're starting to waver.
Because they just won't go away and because of the religious passion of those dissenters. They have more zeal than the resident Puritans. ... Parents want to get their children baptized, but folks aren't going to church, and so the church authorities say, "Look, if you come to church and agree to raise your children through Christian morality, but you don't have to claim to be born again or saved or feel elect, we'll baptize your children." That's already back-pedaling on their model of everyone discerning their divine election to salvation in order to get everybody in the big tent.
So there is spiritual decline inside, and then these folks are still pushing from the outside. They're starting to make inroads, enclaves, literally. They're on the border of Rhode Island, and then they're in the metropole. So they keep executing and whipping and expelling, exiling all these dissenters, but it's beginning to not work as well.
This goes all the way through until the third factor kicks in, which is the end of the charter. Their original charter gave them essentially carte blanche to set up whatever regime they wanted, and they wisely took the document with them. It's in the State House. Then the Glorious Revolution comes along, and everything is reassessed. And even though William and Mary are reformed Protestants, they also, like James I, opt for Anglicanism because it is the state religion of England. So they want to impose an imperial order with a place for Anglicanism on those exclusive colonies in New England, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire.
The new charter arrives in 1692, just when the Salem witches are being tried, and the new regime gets set up. Now, all of a sudden you can say you can still have your laws, the Half-Way Covenant, catechesis and all of that, but now you've got, by law, an Anglican church in Boston and a de facto toleration regime. You've got the Act of Toleration going through at exactly the same time. So constitutionally now, the old model cannot be sustained in law.
So what you've done is move from internal controversy to external dissent, to imperial change, changing the ground rules.
Why did the Reformation fuel people's desire to come to this country?
The Puritans remain very controversial and very elusive. We first of all have to understand that even by 1630, and certainly by the '40s and the '50s, under the commonwealth, there were many different strands of Protestant militancy in England, everything from Archbishop Laud and a high-church orthodoxy that he wanted to impose on everybody, all the way to the Separatists, who are living in Holland, the Pilgrims, who want to have nothing to do with government and nothing to do with secular regimes; they just want to be these holy separated communities. The Puritans are in the middle in this multi-hued array, and new ones are getting invented every minute.
What do they want?
It is usually said that what the Puritans wanted to do is reform the Church of England itself, and therefore they were, as [historian] Perry Miller famously said, non-separating Congregationalists. They believed that church authority should be vested in local communities, which is where the true church really was. Face to face, I know whether you're one of the elect; you know whether I'm one of the elect, because you can watch me behave, and you can see whether grace is enabling me to obey God's law or not. These are covenanted communities. They wanted the church to be made up of covenanted local communities.
What does that mean?
This gets to your question of Reformation. The distinctive English contribution to reform theology is the idea of the covenant, and it comes out of Calvin, to be sure. Calvin was a lawyer. Calvin understood God as a sovereign who gave the divine law for humans to obey, no matter who they were. And the church's job is to obey God's law, and that is conceived in terms of mutual agreements. What today we would call contracts, they called covenants between humans and God.
If Adam and Eve don't eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they will live forever. And if they do, on that day, they shall surely die. Contract. He tells them, and they presumably go, "Yes, sir," and that's the deal. They break it. He says: "I said you die. Out you go."
So what is the deal that's going on?
This covenant model then gets applied to all of the transactions between the divine and the human in terms of salvation. There's a Covenant of Grace, which God gives freely to the elect because God chooses who will be saved and who doesn't. There's the Covenant of Works, which says you can be saved if you behave properly. And that is understood by these folks to have been the covenant given to Adam and then to Israel. The Christian covenant is a Covenant of Grace. So that's all Bible and theology.
But then the church and the family itself are also governed by this master concept of covenant. Everyone has agreed-to relationships with one another. So the covenanted congregation is a congregation that is made up only of the elect, who are discerned by the members of the church. So if I want to submit myself for membership, I have to give an account of God's grace in my life, and I have to submit my entire life, as it is known by the community, to their judgment. And if anyone says, "No, he charged me an unfair price on a cow; therefore he is not moral; therefore he doesn't have grace in him," you're out. Winthrop himself did this. He blackballed folks from getting into the First Church.
So if I then get through, I sign a written constitutional contract of my obligations. I will support the ministry; I will tend; I will be faithful; I will raise my children; and I will obey the teachings of the ministry and of the godly magistrates. Sometimes that's there, sometimes that's not there, but the magistrate bit is understood as part of the system.
Is the deal between minister and godly magistrate important for this new utopia?
Absolutely. It comes out of the same doctrine of the two swords, the church and the state, the Gospel and the law. Calvin's argument is that the rightly run society must have godly magistrates and godly ministers, godly citizens and godly church members, just to make sure we're all obeying God's law. The Puritans would like to do that in England. They never got that far, but that would be their model. And when they finally say, "Let's get out of here; let's go and set one up for ourselves," that's exactly what they do. …
For example, at the convening of every session of the Great and General Court in Massachusetts, they all gather after the election, and a minister is elected among the clergy to deliver the election sermon. The job of that preacher is to instruct the representatives, the governor and the council on the right understanding of God's law and the responsibilities of magistrates. The clergy teaches the state, in return for which the state enforces both tables of the Ten Commandments, the divine law.
Why was it important for both sides to be so in bed together?
In part because of the threat of people who turned out to be Anne Hutchinson. Religious dissent could lead to civil disorder, they thought. And they had every reason to think so, because we're in 1630, 1635. We've been fighting for a century already over the Reformation -- a century, 100 years. And the worst is still to come, because the English civil war and the Thirty Years' War are going to ruin Europe.
So they want government to maintain the peace, and they know that religious dissent can disturb the body politic as well as it can disturb the church itself. They don't need to be told this. So they're bolting it together to make sure that there is order and homogeneity. They will not brook a challenge either way. And so notice that antinomianism takes a political form.
The followers of Anne Hutchinson were not just the folks who gathered in her living room to have tea and chat about the sermons. They went out and stuffed the ballot boxes. They elected Henry Vane governor [of Massachusetts]. They threw out Winthrop and put in this noble English guy who believed the way they did, whom the Spirit spoke to, too. This is political change. They took over the government. Winthrop and his friends were horrified when the next election came around. They moved the election at the last minute across the river to Cambridge, [Mass.,] so they'd get more votes, and they won.
So Hutchinson was presenting a spirituality that had a political outcome?
Exactly. She was presenting a spirituality that had political implications as well as ecclesiastical implications. Her spirituality was, as she revealed at her trial, that the Spirit was available individually; that the elect individual does have immediate communication with the Holy Spirit, with the divine. Puritans were very careful to deny this, because this was the extreme sectarian, Anabaptist, radical claim. So when she says, "I know that I'll be preserved and you'll be thrown into the ocean before I get harmed," Winthrop says, "How do you know?" She says, "God told me." He says: "Well, she's a heretic. That's why she says this now."
If the most important thing in the universe, the will of God, is known directly to me and to you, on demand, or at least it comes to us so that we know that's what it is, and we don't need the church and the discipline of the church to hedge it about, we are empowered to judge whether it's authentic or not, then why should I obey a magistrate with whom I disagree? And why should I listen to a minister with whom I disagree? I've got the real thing inside. And my discernment enables me to identify the ones who are telling the truth from the ones who aren't, [ministers] John Cotton and John Wilson.
What kind of woman was Hutchinson, to have this confidence?
There are many Anne Hutchinsons. From what I know of her, she is, for one thing, learned. You can tell that from her testimony. You can tell it from the authority that she had convening these conversations. And we should remember that lay folks were very, very sophisticated about the Bible. New England had the highest literacy rate of any transatlantic society. She was capable of reading theology, which she clearly did. She was related by marriage to ministers, and she's like this with John Cotton, whom the Puritans acknowledged as the most learned among them. She was right there with him, every step of the way.
She came from a wealthy mercantile family, so she had the means and the cultural background to be just like John Winthrop. Think Winthrop, think Anne Hutchinson. There's peerage there, and she treats him that way, and he doesn't like it.
And then there's the X factor on spirituality. But this goes back to the question of strands of Puritanism and how it can bleed over into Separatism or into Quakerism, which hasn't quite gotten invented but is going to be within a decade. It's right there. So no, she's not a full-blown Quaker, but the inner light, the voice within, the "I know," the "To hell with any intermediates," that's where we have to start.
I think she takes John Cotton's teachings seriously about the primacy of the witness within, of spirituality. Yes, works are important, but only as a fruit of the Spirit. The gathered community, however, must be spiritually pure. The covenanted church must be spiritually animated by the third person of the Trinity. And that is what Christianity is all about. [Cotton] hedges it about, and he's got the most elaborate tests for knowing this. And the Puritans were deathly afraid of saying they had this, lest they bear false witness against their own souls, commit the unpardonable sin and are damned forever.
That's the issue, the idea of salvation. An orthodox Puritan needed to wrestle for salvation. Why was Hutchinson's direct line to God therefore a threat?
In a very important sense, Anne Hutchinson's problem was her certainty, because Puritanism was about paradox and about discerning where one stood in a world that ultimately must remain mysterious, because of the condition of human nature. This is how it works: In principle, human beings are fallen and finite. According to Puritanism, we are subject to original sin. That means in ourselves we cannot truly know God and we cannot willfully obey God's law, because as sinners we are rebels against God. And as finite, fallen human minds, we are ignorant of the divine, categorically. So the only way we can come to true knowledge of God and true obedience to God's law is if God helps us. Puritan theology says that the only medium of God's aid is through God's election or choosing of some humans to go to heaven and others not to.
So if you are one of the chosen, you search for signs of God's grace. If you hope to be one of the chosen, you search for God's grace. And that discernment can never lead you to certainty, because only God knows whom God has chosen.
This is a nightmare.
It is a nightmare. So what you do is, you inspect every temptation, every relationship, every social and moral decision that you make, every idea that you have, and try to discipline it as best you can by God's law as you understand it. And you pray for God's help to enable you to do that every day, every minute, if possible. And it's a nightmare in the sense of what that discipline takes, maintaining it, not getting tired of it and not throwing in the towel…
Now, it is relentless, difficult, arduous on the individual level. But it is fantastic social glue if everyone is doing this. Everyone notices everything. Everyone has an opinion and a moral judgment on everybody else. And if you can keep the whole gang together on the criteria of what God's law says, and how that works out in the covenanted community -- church, family, state -- it will hold together. …
So their gamble is, if we start off with a state in which we think everyone is elect, then we will be able to identify the ungodly among us and expel them. And we'll be able to stand up and be a city on a hill, a beacon that cannot be hidden. And that's the Puritan wager.
Broadly, why does Hutchinson's direct communication threaten this?
From the Puritan perspective, what Anne Hutchinson says is, my personal discernment trumps your collective discernment, because in the end -- in Puritanism -- you try to come to some settled place on whether you're elect or not, but the best you can do is hope.
So she's in open court with all the good Puritan worthies: ministers attending and the council there and the governor. After fencing for three days, with not only Winthrop the governor but with Wilson and the other ministers, and succeeding, when it finally comes around to, "Well, how do you know this anyway?," she says, "Because God told me." They immediately know that she is, among other things, saying: "I have escaped your authority. Whoever you are and whatever you try to do, nothing that you impose on me can shape my confidence that I know God and God knows me." And that's the last thing she's supposed to say if she's part of the regime.
And they can't tolerate that?
No, because then somebody else gets up and says, "I know, but I don't agree with Mistress Hutchinson." And somebody else [says], "I know, too, but I don't agree with either of you or with you Puritans." And the thing crumbles. …
Why, after her successful first day in court, did she change her tune?
A couple of things. One is that all of the fencing has been successful: She's stymied their legalism and directly challenged their authority, not straight up but in stopping their arguments, so they're back on their heels. But I always have gotten the sense that that very exercise was not only tedious, but it wasn't true. It wasn't about what mattered. It was trivial, and it kind of demonstrated just how bad things really were from her point of view.
The second thing is, when they put Cotton on the stand, he did not go to bat. This was her main man. This was her inside ace. And although he said some things that were supportive -- "Let's treat her charitably," and "She's a good woman; she's smart, and she's faithful. Can't we make the tent just a little bigger?" -- in the end, he did not say what she thought he would. He was not her pastor from the old Boston, where he had that authority to say: "Welcome, Anne. All is well." He was sitting in this little metropolis, and in my reading -- and this is controversial; everybody has different opinions -- opted to stay with his brethren in the clergy, and did recognize the potential threat, civil and ecclesiastical, that she and her party represented. …
She sleeps on it. I think she has the sense that without Cotton, she's not going to win, and that the fix is in with Wilson and Winthrop. It really doesn't matter. Somewhere down the line, they're going to find something, either in what she has said or what she will say, and they will pounce, and it will be bogus, and this is a done deal. So why not do what a generation of radical Protestants have already done and witness to the truth, testify?
Because it doesn't seem to me to be directly continuous with what's immediately preceding it. Something snapped. Something changed. It was like: "OK, I've had it. You want to really know? Here it is." She was still ahead on points, but their game was too important actually for her to win. She didn't want to win their game. She wanted to win her game, the big game, what is true religion, what is the truth. And I think she stood up and took a shot at it.
What do we learn from the trial in terms of having a closely knit church-state?
One of the things we learn about the trial of Anne Hutchinson is that Protestantism generically continues to generate protest. There's kind of an infinite regress to the very logic of Protestantism, as proposed by Luther. Luther does say that the locus of salvation is the individual soul in its relationship to God, mediated through Scripture and grace. It is our faith, through Scripture, aided by the grace of God, that saves us.
Luther himself, to a significant degree, put the entire church institutionally out of business. It took about five minutes for other folks to figure out the implications that the church should be abandoned and that we should go off and follow our own spirituality. Sectarians show up within months. And it's what H. Richard Niebuhr, the great theologian and sociologist, called the Protestant protest that is always there at the heart of any form of Protestantism. If your experience is intense enough, it will discount institutional authority and theological systems, because your own internal witness, your own experience of God is more important and is more convincing to you. And you make the call.
So the Puritans are finding out that even the most pious and observant among them is subject to this renewal of the protest. And what we learn therefore is that religious homogeneity of Protestant communities is almost impossible to maintain, because no matter how learned and how insistent the ministers are, no matter how draconian the laws are, and no matter how diligent your neighbors are in inspecting you, you finally are the authority. Theologically, in the end, you can opt out. So she did. …
It's important to try to get behind who Winthrop is and what he was doing here. He's very easy to tar with a very broad brush. To our eyes, [Anne Hutchinson is] innocent, female, pregnant, just lost a kid, a true believer also, and he's just coming down. He's breaking her chops. That's one Winthrop. And there are all kinds of good reasons for him to do that.
But you can measure the trajectory that this leader has had to follow by thinking about the "Model of Christian Charity." This is an organic, bonded, loving society that he is proposing and instructing the settlers to undertake. And he says some very unmercantile, unlawyerly things. He knows he's not talking to poor folks, wretched refuse. He's talking to middle-class people. And he says: "It's God's order of the world that there are rich and poor. But we are coming to this new place, and we must figure out how to be a society. The poor we will have always with us, and here is what you rich folks need to do. You need to recognize that we are all brothers and sisters, and when there is need, when someone comes to you and says, 'I need a loan,' you say yes. You give the loan. And then, if they can't pay, you say: 'OK, don't worry. I forgive the debt.'" Free credit. That's what he tells them. And he says why we're supposed to do this is because there's a loving bond between us. We must embody in our social relations the first and primary Christian virtue of charity. That's what we have to do.
Now, if you think Winthrop truly believed this -- and it's hard to imagine that he didn't, because this project is finally, actually happening, and he thinks divine Providence has shown upon it, ... then it takes a lot for him to risk rending the fabric that he has worked so hard to raise in this trial. …
But when it comes down to it, he's prepared to be tough, to be ruthless.
Because of the danger to his holy experiment, he's prepared to be ruthless. But this is Puritanism, after all, and he must have justifications. His reason, I think, has bothered modern interpreters of this a lot. In the end, she is accused of not honoring her fathers, violating the Ten Commandments: Honor your father and mother. According to the evidence in court, trumped up as it might have been, ... she's done that by impugning the teachers of a godly minister.
Now, you violate one of the Ten Commandments, you are going to the heart of the Puritan social, political and religious order. This is a big violation. This is not just personal. This is calling into question the veracity of a godly minister's teaching. If she is right, then John Wilson must go, because John Wilson is leading his flock to damnation by teaching false doctrine. This is huge. The credibility of the spiritual sword is at risk.
And here's Winthrop, who's busted his chops trying to assemble a very impressive stable of top Puritan ministers, who indeed don't get along with each other and agree on everything, and he's saying: "Fine. ... [Thomas] Shepard is different in Cambridge than Cotton is over across the river. Wilson and Cotton are different, but they're all inside this tent, which is big enough, thank you." And she says: "No, one of you is teaching a Covenant of Works." This is tantamount to saying that he's a heretic or a false teacher, one or the other. Or even worse, he's Catholic.
So if she's right, he has to dismantle this whole thing he's set up. And the consensus among the ministers, which is the ground for being the covenanted, loving society that he envisions, is now undermined. And if she's wrong, she's guilty of violating one of the commandments, which is the more pragmatic and also morally more tenable way for him to go, because he believes Wilson. He agrees with Wilson. He's the one who blackballs applicants to the church. He's the main man in Cotton's congregation; he also knows how to judge souls, and knows how to judge citizens.
So his discernment is that she's not right about Wilson. Therefore she must be wrong about him, and that helps explain her deviant behavior and, in the end, her wild personal claims. So he repairs back to the orthodoxy that brought this whole thing into being in the first place, and the guardians of it that he trusts. He's got to go a very, very long way to buy what she's selling, and doesn't, can't, won't.
Why did 18th-century America find [Anglican preacher George] Whitefield and his message so appealing?
I think that George Whitefield is, to a very significant extent, the right man at the right time. It's that kind of career which becomes precedent for so many important figures in American popular cultural history.
There were a lot of forces working on the colonies before he arrived that help explain why he got the reaction that he got. A very important one was Pietism, this movement originally from Central Europe, that became popular in Britain with the accession of the Hanoverians in the early 18th century, a spiritual renewal movement within Lutheranism [where] pastors [like] Philip Jacob Spener decided to convene Bible study groups. "We're going to read the Scripture, we're going to talk about what it means to you, and then we're going to talk about your religious experience this week in light of this passage." That was it. Seems harmless. People love it. It spread all the way through, around Lutheran Germany. The reform picked it up. So all the German Protestants started to do this.
And what it does is kindle personal introspection about the religious and spiritual life again, which it's fair to say had declined. And we're in exactly that same period of the late 17th century where Protestantism and Catholicism were contracting, becoming scholastic, rational, rationalistic. It's early Enlightenment. It's all about what you believe and what the philosophical arguments are, and it's losing that spiritual depth that Luther and Calvin and the radicals gave it initially. So there's a moment, an opportunity for renewal.
That same circumstance is happening in the colonies as well. They're colonial. They don't have the greatest ministers. All the churches in all the colonies have a shortage of ministers, which means you don't have good teaching in the first place. You don't have very sharp understanding of what these arcane doctrines are. And people are saying: "Is this it? Is this what it's all about?" They're stagnant.
Pietism … becomes an agenda. This jumps to Britain. Scottish and English ministers begin picking it up, Presbyterians, Congregational dissenters and Anglicans. This is the latest hot theological stuff.
[John] Wesley picks up on it. He gathers friends, including his brother and young George [Whitefield], who's a teenager at the time, at Oxford and says: "Why don't we live this way? Why don't we have this quickening?" So they do it. Whitefield buys into it, and they start searching for signs of grace and experience of grace, and start living this incredibly disciplined moral life. His neighbors at Lincoln College call them the Holy Club and laugh at them. Whitefield gets so involved with it that he fasts for three days and asks God to show him a sign, and he gets born again.
Not everybody in the colonies is going that route, but there is evidence of a receptivity to this kind of spiritual quickening. It's in the air. And suddenly on the scene comes a guy with star quality in the primary public medium of discourse, which is preaching. This is what everybody goes to, everybody's interested in. … People read sermons as popular literature. This guy comes and just invents, out of his own genius, a style of dramatic popular preaching that they respond to in the same way that those good German folk responded to the discussion of Scripture. It reaches them somehow.
Why does it require rebirth?
George Whitefield's principal doctrine, the thing he grounds his entire message on, is the necessity of the new birth. That's what he called it. Where it comes from theologically comes directly out of the Gospels, because Jesus says to an inquirer, "What must I do to go to heaven?," and thought Jesus was going to say, "Obey God's law and go to the temple, be a good religious guy." Jesus says, "You must be born again." And the guy says, "What, I have to re-enter my mother's womb?" And he says: "No. That which is born of Spirit is born of Spirit. That which is born of the flesh is born of the flesh." It's another one of these wonderful "What did Jesus just say?" sayings.
What Jesus therefore commands, if you're a Christian theologian, you've got to deal with the fact that Jesus commands spiritual rebirth. Whoa. Not everybody bought that. It was one of those kind of dangerous sayings, kind of gets set aside at various points. But the Reformation radicals and these Pietists zoomed right in on it.
Whitefield has experienced something he wants to call spiritual rebirth, which he defines as the transformation of the soul by the Holy Spirit of God. Boom, we're back to this perennial radical Protestant idea of immediate connection between God and the individual human soul. And he says: "That's it. It really happens. It happened to me." And he can give you time and place. And he believes that what happens is that the Spirit literally comes in, purges the finite, originally and committedly sinful soul, and dwells there, creates a new habitation in the soul. Now, it doesn't purge out all of your human finitude. You have to be dead for that to happen. But it comes in and, so to speak, then battles with your sinful nature and constantly overcomes it, if you pay attention to it.
Now, this is something he can present as a divine command, a demand from Jesus himself in his preaching. He's got the authority. He's an ordained Anglican. He's got ecclesiastical authority. He's a Calvinist, so he thinks this happens to the elect. He can preach to Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Anglicans. He can talk to almost anybody in the colonies. He preaches it as a divine command, and he says: "It's available. All of you should seek it, and if God wishes, God will give it to you."
Everybody goes, "Wow, I never thought religion was like that." So people start asking God for it, and what do you know? It happens to them following exactly the models that are presented in the literature and in the preaching. And off it goes. People say: "Have you heard about Whitefield? He's God's messenger." Well, God's messenger in the New World -- that's pretty good. And they turn out to hear him.
Plus, he's a great show. This guy is the greatest preacher maybe ever. In my opinion, that's because he grew up in a bar in Gloucester, [England], the fishing town. He's dealing with "matey" types off the boats. They're rough-and-tumble. And he's met all kinds of characters. And he just has this gift of dramatizing Scripture and reaching a very broad audience that he imagines and presents in his sermons. So [it's] a kind of a democratic pitch he's got here, and a very popularly agreeable style, with this flame-throwing message. He just challenges people.
That democratic pitch is important. What was the objection [from Anglican ministers in the colonies]?
The Anglican ministers objected to Whitefield for a number of reasons. One is, you can't be ordained an Anglican unless you've gone to Oxford or Cambridge. It's a requirement of the Church of England. You have to have a university degree, and there are only two universities. They learned their Greek; they learned their Hebrew; they learned their philosophy; they learned their theology. This is a very learned clerical community who are all about Anglican orthodoxy as manifested in The Book of Common Prayer, the proper execution of liturgy and the proper teaching of doctrine. …
Whitefield comes along with his ordination that he got somewhere, somehow, and they're all ruing the day it ever happened. And he says, "May I speak in your churches?" And he goes, and he preaches in the churches a few times. They say: "This is disorderly. You're inviting people to have this charismatic religious experience on their own, and who knows where it's going to lead them? And we're not sure that you're orthodox. There's not an article about you must be born again. You're saying it's necessary to be a true Christian. We actually don't believe that. We think if you conform and lead a morally good life, you're in. It's a national social religion." He says: "Oh, no. That's not right." They say, "OK, you're not welcome here." [He] says: "Fine. They did that to me in England. I'll go out and preach in the field. We'll send some flyers around, and people will come." And they did!
So he's doing an end run around ecclesiastical authority as well as doctrinal orthodoxy. Now he's really a threat. Now he's defying church order and defying the authority of Alexander Garden, the commissary, which is the chief officer of the Carolina clergy, by refusing the prohibition on his preaching. …
Now, Garden is at this point presiding over an Anglican regime that, although it's not exactly brilliantly successful, is doing OK. He's got the right people going to church. He's got the planters all sewn up. They're giving lots of money, they're building churches, they're hiring ministers, they're recruiting from the universities. Carolina is a relatively orderly society that has successfully defended itself against Native Americans and the Spanish. Charleston is booming. It's a very sophisticated place. And the dissenters have not grown so large or so ornery that they're making trouble. They're actually clustered in Charleston getting along, so he doesn't need disruption. He doesn't need this guy to come in and mess up the Anglican order. Nor does he need an evangelical Calvinist to start getting the Baptists and the Presbyterians all hot and bothered, which is exactly what he does, because when he closes the Anglican pulpits to Whitefield, the Baptists and the Presbyterians invite him over to preach, and he does! This is scandal! The place is packed.
How did Whitefield's anti-authoritarianism feed into religions that weren't part of the established order, their feelings about their position in that colony?
The first thing to say is that this message of the necessity of the new birth is very disruptive, not only for the Anglicans but also for Congregationalists and Presbyterians, because they, too, are running governments. In New England, the Congregationalists are. The Presbyterians are not quite yet in Pennsylvania, but they are in Scotland. So all three of those traditions have establishmentarian political theology. They all think of themselves as the true religion that ought to have the state as its partner, and the dissenters either shouldn't be here, or we have to make some kind of punitive special arrangements for them, keep them under control. …
How did the language of revivalism feed into the idea of freedom of conscience?
Well, I think this is a classically unsolved problem in our interpretation of all of this. ... If it's just me or you saying, "I have liberty of conscience," religious establishments are going to say no. They're going to treat you like Anne Hutchinson. But if you organize a counterinstitutional order that itself acknowledges religious plurality, then you can say everybody ought to have the same right, including me.
So the Baptists organize these covenanted religious communities, and they go into what amounts to competition with the others. The revival creates competition between different denominations, as well as sweeping large numbers of folks into evangelicalism, broadly conceived. What's usually lost sight of is that these denominational groups are also knocking heads. One revivalist comes into town, another one comes into town. What do the people do? They choose.
Competition feeds the idea of liberty of conscience?
Yes, because if I'm being presented with multiple options, surely I must have the right to choose among them. It's not self-evident which one of these is true. And if God's Spirit speaks to me through one of them, the state has no standing in telling me I shouldn't or I couldn't. The Spirit is the absolute empowerment of my individuality. So my individual choice is not just an option; it is a divinely mandated course of action. …
Do we link the Great Awakening and revivalism to the Revolution?
Well, I think you do, but in ways that still don't amount to a categorical one to one, which is what interpreters of a certain disposition want to hear. It is emphatically not the case that this is just a secular political thing, the Revolution.
You have a kind of coalescence of "rights" talk. Once you get Separate Baptists and especially New Side evangelical Presbyterians talking about rights, rights to conscience against religious establishments with whom they disagree, you get a large and militant constituency buying into the whole rights ideology. Now, when political leaders start saying, "Our issues with Britain involve rights, and the doctrine of passive obedience and unlimited submission does not entail the giving up of rights of Englishmen, which we have by birth," the talk is now getting to be in the same frame. But that is on the intellectual level, and that isn't the only aspect of this.
I also think that there is a much more concrete, pragmatic, existential dimension of this, and that is that evangelical dissenters, wherever they are, of whatever stripe they are -- Separate Congregationalists, Separate Baptists, some New Side Presbyterians, even some Anglicans -- what they do after they get saved is build their own institutions. …
So at the same time this institutional fabrication -- build it for yourself -- is creating religious diversity, it is also creating a common experience of autonomy, of cultural autonomy, and an overarching consensus on evangelicalism as a basic way of life. These guys collaborate with each other on issues of public morality, especially at the local level.
So you're getting your individual identity empowered, you're building your own institutions, you're claiming the right to do it, and you are also joining an intercolonial mass movement. That's how you get from the Great Awakening to the American Revolution. You've had a religious revolution.
What was all that about?
The relationship of religion to the American Revolution is, like everything else about the Revolution, very complex, multiplex, all kinds of religious constituencies, so no one single factor can explain it…
But there's a blending or melding in the American colonial mind of several different factors. A very, very important one was the Puritan idea of chosenness. Chosenness is sort of everywhere in colonial culture, in the Puritan background. And the notion that the American colonies were virtuous came to the fore quite early in Revolutionary discourse. Now, where they got it from, I think, is their sense that they're actually being put upon by the British government, that the British government had changed the rules of colonial prosperity and autonomy. This is debatable. It was debated then; it can be debated now. But [there was] the sense of "We Americans helped you British win the Seven Years' War" -- which they indisputably did, as it was fought out in North America against the French. … In general, there was this sense that if God is involved in the history of nations, well, they were on the right side.
In any case, the Americans felt that they were owed acknowledgement, more privileges, more room, maybe more representation as a result of that service. They didn't get that. They got new taxes instead. And they started saying: "Wait a minute. This isn't right." ...
So the Americans looked for a position of moral high ground in this debate. And in the act of defending their rights and their good service to the empire, they characterized themselves as innocent and virtuous against a political power that was not virtuous and [was] guilty of violating their rights, and even the British Constitution itself. The logic then implies that there is corruption at the source of this change. There must be moral decadence, ill will, revenge, corruption of wealth, misguided, and ultimately the reach for tyranny as the defining category.
Tyranny is constituted classically by a political ruler violating God's law. That justifies the right of resistance. Once you can characterize the British Crown as violating a moral principle that is backed up by some kind of religious justification, that invites the characterization of even the monarch as a tyrant.
Then there's the straight geopolitical factor that is more important than we usually say in these interpretations of the dramatic reversal of British policy toward French Canada, having invaded it and having sent off the Acadians and done all kinds of very activist stuff to extirpate the French threat from Canada. As part of the punitive legislation that came later in the game, in the 1770s, against the colonies, the British Crown created a new provincial regime in Canada to which it assigned all of the trans-Appalachian West. …
What's wrong with that?
Because the legislation granted religious liberty to Catholics, who were the majority in Canada, and that allowed American ideologues to say that the British were turning loose the Catholics to recapitulate the very strategy they had fought the Seven Years' War on, which was to cut off the British beyond the Appalachians with their allies, the Indians.
These are Catholics who are now under British control. What's wrong with that?
They're Catholics. In the Protestant imagination, Catholicism is aligned with Antichrist. This is not just political or even religious difference. It's one thing if a Baptist quarrels with a Methodist. It's quite another if what the Protestants thought was the Whore of Babylon has suddenly been legitimized on your western and northern borders. And the call on this, the alarm about it, is in no way couched in realpolitik or what really might be the likelihood of this. It's symbolic play; it's symbolic discourse. … This was enough to trigger a lot of popular religious hostility, mostly as a marker of, "Will this British ministry stop at nothing?" ...
Were these symbols? Was religion being used to formalize the idea of opposition over freedom of conscience?
Well, it was opposition to Britain. It was being used as a very explicit, overt exercise in religious propaganda. But in New England, the people believed this. They really were afraid. They had lived for centuries with fear of the North, fear of aboriginal peoples and fear of the French Catholics. And it didn't end until 1763. So you just sort of say, "Well, it's back again." That's all you have to do, rhetorically, and the whole array of symbolic antipathy can be wheeled in, which it was.
Practically speaking, no one really knew, but this was about the imagination, because that's how you get revolutionary movements to gain adherents, especially among those who are either wavering or not directly engaged in terms of personal self-interest.
So you have a religious ideology of godly, virtuous, vulnerable, faithful America arrayed against this dragon of corruption and not being ruled by law, and even willing to trot with the Catholic Church in some ways, that account for these bad laws. And now the God of nations will surely look on our cause and see that it is just. And sermons, dozens of them, begin articulating just this scenario from about 1770 on. And as the Intolerable Acts get more and more intolerable, the rhetoric goes up and up.
Did this infuse itself in the war itself? Did soldiers think God was on their side?
The battle flag at Bunker Hill for the Patriots read, "God has honored our undertaking." ... There were chaplains for every unit. These were overwhelmingly reformed and evangelical ministers from New England and the middle states and Virginia Presbyterians, Carolina Presbyterians, vigorously engaged in all this. The Anglican clergy, which was the largest clerical group outside New England, mostly fled. Some of them stayed and were Patriots. They served as chaplains. They preached in the army.
There were revivals in the army. It wasn't quite like Cromwell's New Model Army, nor was it religiously neutral. It was very suffused with evangelical piety and very much the "God is aiming the bullets." … Preachers are preaching a God who is determining the result. "God gave us the victory." They all say that after Yorktown.
How does that square with the secular view that the Revolution was a moment where Enlightenment prevailed against the perfidy of unjust rulers? Is this an evangelical story?
The answer is both. It is both a reformed and evangelical theological story, which accounts for these sermons and images and that whole response; but at the very same time, you also have what is a secularizing elite political class. But it's not secular enough yet to just be an atheist or nonreligious person.
So you have all these deists, who are, by the way, very sincere about their deism. If you're a secular liberal today and you say, "They're all just like me," I don't think that that quite flies. It's very clear that Jefferson was very engaged in studying the Bible and in trying to get at Truth [with a] capital T. He and all the rest of them, like [Benjamin] Franklin, believed in an eternal state, another world. He believed in eternal rewards and punishments, believes there was a Creator God, and believed that the way you lived on earth would have an impact on how you lived in the other world. They dropped most of the rest of the formal theology, and Jesus isn't much involved there. Till the day he died, Jefferson was an Anglican. So was Washington.
And Franklin is very interesting, because Franklin sort of went to all of them and sampled all of them and wouldn't let on. He has Presbyterian background and wasn't at all chary about invoking God when he needed to. He was also very fond of the French philosophes and the Enlightenment deism. [John] Adams was a liberal Protestant from New England. He was a proto-Unitarian, They have not given up all the formal theology yet.
So almost all the Founders that we think of as deists or secular are locatable actually in the colonial religious spectrum. They are taking a philosophical spin on all this, as opposed to the evangelicals, who are taking a Pietist spin on it. But they prove to be bedfellows, just as Jefferson was with the Baptists in Virginia.
Why are they bedfellows? What brings them together?
I think the thing that brings them together is -- it sounds simple -- the common predicament of being American. That is to say, you have an imperial order that is challenging you carte blanche. Doesn't matter what kind of American you are. ... We're going to try to get maximal support for this. And in terms of numbers, it's certainly the folks on the Pietist and evangelical side that provide the cannon fodder. You get the liberals among the officers and the political elite.
When you say "Pietist," are you saying they're evangelical?
Broadly speaking, I think people would be surprised to learn that the army was as evangelical as it was. These tend to be militiamen, young men, young fathers, unmarrieds, from towns around the cities and out further in the backcountry, which is evangelical territory -- not all of it, but most of it. And then there's large numbers from the cities as well … but there's also evangelicals in the city.
So the point really is, they're out there. They want and expect preaching from chaplains, who are very engaged. You read the biographies of the chaplains, and they're often written by appreciative soldiers for the now dead. These are 20 to 30 years later. And it's all about inspiring them and being moral paragons and giving them courage and strengthening their faith in God. So it's very strong there.
And you're at war. You're at war, and it's face-to-face war. You can see the gun aimed right at you that's going to either kill you or miss you. You really do think divine Providence has a hand in who gets hit and who doesn't. You did in the Civil War. You did in the First World War. There's nothing different about this. …
To discourse about a God over sort of watching over the whole thing isn't going to do much for an army. It's going to do a lot for a political thinker who is thinking in terms of abstractions, categories like rights, constitutions, countervailing mechanisms, contrivance, political contrivance to constrain, human passions -- Madison, Jefferson, [Alexander] Hamilton. That will do very well for them. But for the folks on the hustings, you need a God who is with them, and it's even better if that God is in them…
The Baptists that arrived in Virginia, what are they coming for?
First of all, there's two kinds of Baptists in Virginia. The story is very complicated. There were Regular Baptists. They're coming from Philadelphia, from Pennsylvania. They are looking, primarily, to expand. They're growing. They don't want to be in secular, worldly, pluralistic society. They want to be separatists.
Why do they want to be separatists?
They want to be the people of God, and they want their entire lives to be circumscribed by what you might call biblical culture, by a religious world that animates not only their beliefs and worship practices, but their everyday life, their family structure, their economics. They tend to be communal; they want to do business with each other. They do not want to go to the state for any reason. They don't want to pay taxes, especially for religion, but they also don't want to go sue each other in courts, because the Gospel order of these congregations is presumed by them to be adequate to deal with any kind of problem or conflict that they have.
This is a kind of spiritual arrogance going on here, isn't it?
Of course, because these are Calvinists, and they think they have been chosen by God, as the King James goes, "before the [foundation] of the world," that their souls have been individually selected by God for salvation, and that God has individually rejected other souls for salvation. So they were among the elect, and they have the obligation as the elect to be God's people on earth.
They sound annoying.
They're annoying. They are troublesome. And what they said was -- they said this in England before, in the Civil Wars -- they said, "Leave us alone, and everything will be fine."
But this is a country that's forming; you can't just be left aside.
Right. So the problem is when they're small, the state can say, yeah, we'll leave them alone. But as they begin to grow, they become more invested in public affairs because now, even though they're trying to do business among themselves and so on, they're simply growing. They're approaching, politically, majority status, and they're certainly approaching, locally, factional status. They're big enough to be a swing vote or a decisive faction in a political election or contest.
Sometimes they're in legal controversies with nonbelievers. That happens. If you're a merchant, you do business with everybody. So sometimes you get into suits, you go to court. All of a sudden, you're interested in who the judge is, you're interested in who's appointing the judge. You're beginning to get involved in the public culture. ...
What does that mean for an Anglican then?
… When these groups begin coming in on the margins, [the Virginia Anglicans are] going, OK, that's all right, because we have a buffer zone. Our buffer zone is the Presbyterians. The Presbyterians are out on the Piedmont. "We've made a deal with them," which they did after the Great Awakening. They said, "We'll give you licenses; we'll make you incorporated if you promise to uphold the laws of the commonwealth of Virginia. You cooperate with us, we'll cooperate with you as long as there's no civil disobedience or seditious talk."
In fact, the Anglicans hope that the Presbyterians will absorb these Baptists. … The Baptists say: "Nope, we don't want to be Presbyterians. We want to be us." And this is the thing about sectarianism. Sectarianism has two sides. One side is: "We're not like anybody else, and we want to be on our own. Leave us alone, or maybe we'll make trouble." And sometimes they can. The other side of sectarianism is: "We have the true religion and you don't, so we want to be hegemonic. We want to control, if we can, if we get big enough or there's opportunity, we know what to do with power and we want to exercise it, because we're God's people!"
Did the Anglicans genuinely feel threatened by this kind of certainty?
They didn't feel threatened until the Baptists proved that they were big enough and good enough at what they did, which is evangelize, to create disorder.
When you say evangelize, you're talking about how they went out and converted?
That's right. They went out and preached. And the Separates in particular will preach anywhere, anytime. The Regulars were that way, too. Both of them didn't shrink from the potential of martyrdom because they thought that the roots of the church were nourished by the blood of martyrs. They were ready to go. And in fact, either they knew or they found out right away that the more trouble they got into with the government, the more appealing they were to the rank and file out there on the Piedmont who are unchurched, who are kind of looking around for a religious alternative. They said: "Well, at least these people are convinced. At least these people are committed to what they believe. They're willing to put it on the line; they're willing to risk."
So when you start getting preachers like Jeremiah Moore and John Waller and Samuel Harris, they started preaching outdoors. They started getting arrested and tried and thrown into prison. Everybody knew who these people were, and they said: "Wow. They're willing to give up a life of comfort and ease and influence to hang out with these poor, despised, separatist, marginalized folks. That has a certain credibility." So you go and hear them preach, and somehow the spirit moves you -- which is what happened! They're revivalists. They're singing, and they're preaching the terrors of hell and the glories of the Gospel of Christ. Everybody's praying for them, and they're crying.
If you're moved somehow, your defenses are down. These people will embrace you; they will love you; they will support you; and they will call on you to separate, just like their leaders had. The way has been blazed for you, and you do it. And the next day, you're telling your neighbor and you're inviting your neighbor to the next meeting. And it goes like that.
So prison for people like Jeremiah Moore meant what?
Prison for Moore meant things like revealing the iron hand of the oppressive government. They had forced their hand. "See! They're not observing the Toleration Act. They are violating the laws of England, and they are not treating us according to the rights of Englishmen that we possess."
In the most powerful way, he was able to make a public testimony and witness to his own beliefs and proclaim it through public institutions -- the courts and the prisons -- to the general public. So he's not just preaching to the converted; he's making news. And he's in the public sphere contesting what the understanding of the law and the public institutions ought to be. And so people go to the prisons to hear them preach.
So when he shouts from the prison, he's not shouting to the prison guards; he's shouting out the window.
Absolutely. And some of the guards and some of the prison keepers let him do this. They let him preach from the prisons. And this is huge! This is spectacular!
Remember, these are Baptists. They're doing things very differently from the Anglicans or even the Presbyterians. They are charismatic; they have the charismatic gifts. They have prophecy. They speak in tongues. Sometimes they get slain in the spirit. Their religious behavior is of a different vocabulary already. Then they have this gift for the dramatic gesture. They got this in part from Whitefield, who cried when he preached and made all of his actorly gestures
But they also had the master ritual gesture of baptism. For these folks, there's nothing more dramatic than gathering in public, defying constituted authority, wading into a stream, saying prayers, everyone singing, putting on white robes and dunking folks, praising. This is a very dramatic act of defiance.
What does that do? Does that tweak the tail of Anglicans even more?
Yeah, it does. And they don't quite know what to do with it. And so, as so often happens in these kinds of situations -- it happened with the Quakers and the Baptists in the Restoration -- the government comes down harder.
In what way? What do they do?
Just more of it. You look at the lists of people who were arrested, and it starts in a couple of places in 1768, 1769, and then all of a sudden, in almost every county, militiamen and captains are arresting these folks. JPs [justices of the peace] are sending them to jail. And it spreads all the way across the commonwealth. …
The whole state is blanketed by these itinerants, because once you get saved, the next question is, do you have a calling to preach? And since neither of these folks, especially the Separates -- the Separates did not require training, biblical scholarship, Greek and Hebrew. They said: "If you can preach and people get saved, God has certified that you are a preacher. Go out there." Basically within weeks, some of these converts were preachers.
How brutal do they get, the Anglicans? Does it become violent?
Can be. … It was not difficult at all for local leaders, either a militia captain or a justice of the peace or a leading planter or an assemblyman even, to raise a gang and try to go break up these services. That happened time and time again. And some of them were very badly beaten indeed. Some of them were laid up for a considerable amount of time. And it was a lot of them. It was not just one or two. It was quite significant that way.
Once they were held in the court they were smacked around, and then being in jail, they were deprived. So it was abusive. I think it's a judgment call, but certainly in American terms, it comes pretty close to persecution. That's how the Baptists saw it anyway.
And absolutely counterproductive.
Yeah, completely counterproductive. It boomeranged on them completely. The converts just poured in. So in the [almost] eight years between the beginning of this and the Revolution -- 1768 to 1776 -- the Separate Baptists tripled, quadrupled. The Regular Baptists doubled. They're spreading. They're organizing churches everywhere. …
Now, an important part of that reason was that neither the Presbyterians nor the Anglicans were on the ground out in the Piedmont to countervail. The Baptists came into something of an ecclesiastical vacuum, a geographical vacuum, so there was nobody there to say, "Now wait a minute." …
Jefferson really is a libertarian, not exactly in our contemporary, quite political sense of that word, but he really thinks that liberties entail rights and rights entail duties of government, which is to protect rights. That's Jefferson's theory of government.
And he is more than a Tolerationist, which is the way it was in the British Empire. Toleration was the rule of the law of the empire. He doesn't believe that certain religions are true and others should be tolerated and allowed. He believes that we are made, constituted by God, with our own individual competency to decide what religious beliefs and worship practices we wish to pursue, that that is an inalienable right that is lodged in our very created constitution, in our very human nature, and therefore immune from any political or governmental rule or constraint. …
So you're saying that freedom of religion, more than freedom of property or anything else, is the key thing that's driving Jefferson down this road to embrace the Baptists.
I think it's coming from a broader understanding of the nature of government and the nature of human beings. It's Lockeian; it's [Baron de] Montesquieu; it's [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau. It's all the usual suspects with Jefferson. It's a broader rights-based, inalienable-rights, liberties-based theory that is driving him.
But again, these are English colonials. They all know the story of the English Civil War and Restoration, Glorious Revolution, Toleration. And Enlightenment liberals like him are especially dissatisfied with Toleration. It doesn't go far enough. They want freedom of conscience, what he called freedom of religion in the Virginia statute. That's where he wants to go, because this one is obvious to him. This one is very obvious to him. It's kind of the clearest example. And here now, suddenly in his backyard is an example of the worst kind of abuse that government can do, and, in his view, harmless, sincere people. Madison says, "As far as I can tell, these people are mostly orthodox," by which he meant Calvinist, actually. Jefferson was no Calvinist, but Madison had gone to Princeton; he was trained by Calvinists. But even Jefferson said: "I don't really care what they believe, but they look harmless to me. They are not a threat to the state, so you can't oppress them this way."
So in his hierarchy of freedoms and rights, I think Jefferson put religion very high, if not at the top. After all, on his tombstone, on his own epitaph that he wrote, he listed the Virginia Statute for [Establishing] Religious Freedom as one of the three achievements of his life.
What did Jefferson think of the Baptists? Did he have anything in common with them at all?
He did have some things in common with them, and it's a bit surprising. Now, with the Separate ministers, they're wild and woolly. He doesn't have a lot in common with the original, the early leaders, or these lay exhorters.
But with the Regulars, they're a little different. The Regulars Baptists were trained. They could not go to universities in England; they were forbidden by the Toleration Act. In America, though, they had just barely begun starting to go to the College of Rhode Island, which is now Brown University. Some of them went to Princeton. And after they went to Princeton, they converted, became Baptists. So there were some learned ministers with whom he could certainly sit down and have a conversation, and he would probably respect where they were coming from, if not what they actually thought. He'd acknowledge their learning, so there was something of that.
I think much more important was the peerage that he enjoyed with some of these planter converts. That's the social-cultural bridge. People like Samuel Harris and John Waller, these are well-known, well-established Virginia planters, just like him, maybe not quite as well-off, but they're from that class. And they're making this huge cultural, religious and spiritual jump. …
What did the Baptists think of him?
Any port in a storm. They were getting clobbered. They were happy enough, I think, to have this persecution -- call it what you will, abuse -- happen to them because it was working in terms of their evangelism, in terms of their preaching. They were getting converts. But on the other hand, they were also looking for redress of grievances, and they were claiming the civil liberty to freedom of conscience, and they were looking for an advocate to go into the courts and at least make their case, if not win.
This is the beginning of the politicization of the Baptists. You move from separatism -- we don't have anything to do with you, you have nothing to do with us -- to being hauled into prison. So can the laws help us? And they say, "All right, the laws ought to help us." So you look for people like Jefferson or the young Madison to help you in the next phase of your struggle, which is now in the courts. And when Jefferson gives them rhetorical help -- writing letters, petitions, newspapers -- and even in court, and Madison does the same thing, these elite, Enlightenment planters from the Piedmont become their champions.
But these men don't believe that Jesus rose into heaven. Doesn't this stick in the craw of the average Baptist, that they're getting into bed with someone with whom they don't share the same view of God?
They don't share the same view of God at all. It might bother the rank and file, but the burden of proof is on the other side. Jefferson is not that different from dozens and dozens of planters who are sitting in Williamsburg, owning and operating this oppressive government. So what's notable about Jefferson is that he's stepping out from that role and saying, in a kind of Voltairian way, "I couldn't disagree with you more about the substance of all of this, but I will defend your right to say it." And that's exactly what he does. And they give him credit for actually pursuing the cause of liberty.
And when Jefferson then comes back and says, "Well, how about joining us in the pursuit of political liberty?," they say, "He pursued our religious liberty, he defended our religious liberty; we ought to listen to his proposal to join up in the cause of political liberty." It took a long time, but in the end, Baptist voters, and evangelical voters broadly, supported Jefferson politically in the election of 1800 and the whole Virginia dynasty, even though they couldn't have disagreed more theologically with every one of those elite Enlightenment planters who governed the country.
Everyone talks about this strange alliance between Jefferson and the Baptists, but the way you just described it, it's not strange at all, but a marriage made in heaven. So why is it characterized by historians as this rather peculiar marriage?
I think it's because many historians and political scientists in the 20th century, especially early to mid-, wanted to separate out politics from religion. They wanted the Founders to be the paragons of, as the phrase goes, "Scienza nuova." The "New Science of Politics" is an Enlightenment discipline pioneered by Montesquieu. They were these Enlightenment philosophers who brought us the idea of liberty, balanced government and who were deists. That's who the Founders are, according to this theory. And so this little unfortunate historical detail of the electoral muscle for the Jeffersonians being all these Evangelicals, well, we'll just worry about that some other time, and then we'll talk about it in terms of the argument between Adams and Jefferson.
So how would you define Jefferson's Christianity?
Jefferson's religion is Enlightenment in the sense that he is very skeptical. He rejects, in essence, the doctrinal formulations, many of them, of traditional Christianity, chief of which are the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. He's convinced, along with generations by now of liberal theologians, that these doctrines will not stand the test of rational scrutiny.
Can you explain what that Trinity is?
The Trinity says Christianity says there is one God. We're monotheists. There's only one God, one and only God. That's the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That's the God of Isaiah and Jeremiah. That's the God of Jesus, James and John and the Apostles and of us. One God, amen. Oh, and by the way, there's three of them: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Why? Well, once you have Jesus being divine, then you have to have a person who is a human also being divine in addition to the Creator. And then, of course, the human who is divine is not here either. Yet we're being inspired by and guided by some kind of divine presence in our own lives, and that's got to be God, too. So that's the Spirit of God. So now we've got the Spirit of God, the God man and the Creator God. And these are all three of them God, but there's one God.
What's wrong with that? What is Jefferson's problem with that?
Jefferson is relying on everyone going back to the Aryans in the patristic centuries -- the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th centuries -- who say Jesus isn't divine because Jesus doesn't say he's God, and they're not convinced that Jesus is God. He's important, he's a big deal, he's inspired by God, he speaks the truth, he knows God like no other created being, but he's not God. He doesn't have, in the technical language of the day, the divine substance.
The orthodox position is that Jesus does have the divine substances. He has both human and divine natures. And the Enlightenment is saying this simply doesn't make logical sense; it doesn't make Newtonian sense. One and one is two. Two is not one! Three is not one! It's one, or it's three. And they just throw up their hands. Jefferson says: "This is nonsense! This is ridiculous! If you want me to believe in something, give me a moral teaching that stands rational scrutiny." …
Why did it agitate him so much that he felt he needed to cut up Bibles? If he was so rational, why did he bother with all that? Didn't he have other things to do?
Jefferson was not secular. Neither was Franklin. There's a big difference between being secular -- staying home in the old plantation and playing tennis on Sunday, which he did not do, and Franklin didn't either. They went to church. Jefferson himself was a vestryman. He was a card-carrying Anglican. He wasn't an observant Anglican, but he was a card-carrying Anglican. And Franklin, instead of going to no church, went to all the churches. This doesn't mean you're irreligious. What it means is that you're nonsectarian.
So instead, Jefferson looked for what everyone without exception in the 18th century insisted on, which is a morality that they could take as absolute, as a categorical, inherently good standard of behavior. Everyone without exception among the Founders, or pretty much anybody -- there's hardly an atheist in the 18th century. It's literally unimaginable to most of them. And so certainly, for them, the closest thing to a reliable, on-the-ground, what we would call religiousness was moral in character rather than metaphysical. They felt traditional Christian metaphysics was nonsense, was rational nonsense, but when Jesus says, "Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemy," this is the sum of the law in the Prophets. He could say: "OK, I know what that means. That's not easy. That's sublime. And only God could have inspired Jesus to have said that. That is counterintuitive. That is more than finite imagination, human imagination could come up with. He must have been inspired in some sense."
So what you get with Jefferson is a morality that he believes Jesus articulates better than anyone else, and that the source of that morality is the Creator.
Now, the interesting thing about Jefferson is that Jefferson, the supposed secularist, begins every major writing for which he is celebrated with reference to God. Now, you can say, as some interpreters try to say, that that's a flourish, a popular flourish that will gain adherence. Wrong! You get it in his correspondence; you get it in his arguments with Adams. This man believed in God the Creator. He celebrated the natural order. The divine infusion of nature with characteristics that reveal the divine. Notes on [the State of] Virginia -- it's filled with it. And so he says, "Almighty God has made the mind free." It's the first sentence. It's the opening of the Virginia Statute [for Establishing Religious Freedom]. And he appeals to God as the source of inalienable rights, the violation of which provoked the Declaration of Independence.
So he's a believer in this kind of liberal, almost Unitarian kind of way. For him, Jesus is superior to Socrates and a few others as the divinely inspired spokesman. So he goes to the New Testament, and he looks at the New Testament, and he says, "Now, what part of this is inspired, and what part of this is human and fallen and silly and metaphysically confused?" And he takes away all the narrative, all the miracles, all of that stuff that just won't stand rational inspection. "No, Jesus didn't raise Lazarus, because there is no exemption to death, but Jesus says: 'Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers.' This is divine wisdom." So he snips out what a lot of folks know as the "red letter edition" -- the Bibles that have all of Jesus' words in red letters instead of black -- he snips out his own little red letter edition, and he pastes it into a notebook, and he says, "This is truth."
Is it truth that the country needs to hear, that the country needs to be underpinned by as it moves into a post-Revolutionary world? When people talk about religion being important to the Founding Fathers, what was it as far as he was concerned that was important?
Jefferson is the hardest case, because I think he was the most radical. Jefferson, because he was such an extreme individualist about liberty of conscience, about how you reach a conclusion, about what for you is ultimate truth, that's entirely individual; it's categorically individual. No institution can mediate it for you, including a church, let alone a government. That's where he stands.
He also, at the same time, does believe that there are inherently true moral principles, like love your neighbor, that are self-evident to the mind, rationally as well as spiritually.
This is why he can get along with certain kinds of Christians who also agree with those teachings. He would agree with some of what everybody else was saying, but not all. They in turn would agree with probably almost everything that he was saying, at least about Jesus, but not with some of his criticisms of the theology. So again, morality becomes the key category, morality, especially some sort of generically Christian morality and a few truths -- like there is a Creator; there is an afterlife; what you do in this life, if you observe these teachings, will be rewarded or punished in the afterlife -- something very stripped down, but still inside that larger Christian framework. Something like that he could share, and he thought people did share, and that that would be the necessary glue, the necessary moral foundation upon which to build what amounts to trust, collaboration, citizenship. You could build a state based on certain fundamental principles and rights, and then, where you would have difference, the moral principle of love or at least respect your neighbor, your enemies, that would get us far enough to make a republic, to have self-governance.
Now, he was the most minimal on the content of that moral foundation. Everyone else, even Franklin I think, was more substantive in terms of the content. But then it's a spectrum of saying, "Two or three beliefs, if we all share them, we're fine, and you and I share them, so we're OK," to "We all have to be Christian; the government has to inculcate this, and the government has to have Christian laws." Among the Founders, you get that spectrum, especially among the lesser-known ones and the more local and regional ones, but everybody assumes that moral principles, moral assent, the agreement to principles that all of us will share and treat each other by are foundational for government, and that religion, broadly defined and assumed to be Christian in some form or other, is the source of that morality…
Why did Jefferson have difficulty getting an act for religious freedom passed in Virginia in 1779 when he first presented it?
In 1779 the war is still on. … By 1785 the Revolution was over. The Articles of Confederation were in. The Virginia Constitution was in. And the question of what was going to happen with the Church of England was up. It was not clear what was going to happen. There were calls for confiscating the property because the government was deeply in debt, and this is the whole debate with Hamilton and the Treasury, and how do you fund the debt? ... And Virginia has got the same problem locally, and the church is sitting there as this very prime, very prime land and sites and buildings.
So it's at that moment that, of all people, Patrick Henry intervenes on behalf of his kinsman James, who had first proposed a bill that would address the vexed question of the role of religion in the new Virginia government. And they proposed what was called the general assessment bill, [Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion]. ...
What they say is: "Here's what we'll do: We'll tax everybody for religion. We'll keep very close accounts. The state will do this. The religious communities will certify that they are licit by agreeing to do nothing seditious. They will agree that they will teach four or five basic principles of Christianity. We'll count up who belongs to what congregation. They will file those. We will divide up the money proportionally. We will fund all religious communities that agree to be loyal to the state and basically teach basic Christian beliefs."
What's wrong with this is that it privileges the Anglicans because they have the organization, if not the clergy; they've got the churches; they've got everything on the ground. The Presbyterians are on the ground. …
The Baptists didn't want Henry's bill, so they said: "This is wrong. It's toleration and it's incorporation of existing religious communities, but it nowhere authorizes or ratifies, or even references, the claim in the Virginia Bill of Rights that there's an absolute right to freedom of conscience. That's what we want. This is still state control or state funding or state monitoring of religious institutions, and we want hands off. We want absolutely no tax collector, no sheriff, no penalty. We want no taxation of religious activity or institutions. We want no entanglement with government." ...
So they used their ever-increasing numbers and clout to enlist their champions. Unfortunately, their champion number one, Jefferson, was in France. He was the ambassador. So champion number two, who was hardly a problem, was Madison.
Madison led the charge against Henry over the assessment bill and wrote, justly famous, the "Memorial and Remonstrance" against Henry's bill. This contained many of our classic arguments about what we call separation of church and state. It was drawing an absolute distinction between the realm of government, which is all about dealing with preservation of property, preservation of rights and its proper arena, and the claim that religion is something entirely separate: Freedom of conscience is something inalienable, irreducible, and government should have nothing to do with it. In other words, it's a prototype to the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The arguments are -- and there's 15 of them, all kinds, all shapes and sizes. In essence, government, according to Madison, is by its nature, its purpose and its very finite human executives, incapable of making appropriate decisions about religion for any citizen, either individually or collectively.
So he lays out the whole argument, top to bottom, and the Baptists put pressure. Petitions come in again, and they are acting in the swing-vote constituency even bigger than previously. They're starting to get representation and many sympathetic representatives in the Virginia Legislature. And the Henry bill fails. So it's one of those legislative situations in which the failure of one bill implies to everyone the approval of another.
As a counter to the assessment bill, Jefferson and Madison had agreed to refile the Virginia statute. So in the aftermath of the general assessment bill, they turned around and, with all that enthusiasm and all that momentum, by a similar majority now, approved the Virginia statute. So the failure of one model is what triggers the approval of this more radical declaration.
And yet a year later, we see a Constitution that has none of this. So what's going on there?
In Virginia, Madison knew who the players were. He knew that the Baptists had become politicized in these petitionings for religious liberty and that during the debate over the assessment bill and the Virginia statute, they had effectively entered the political arena, and he thought they would be trustworthy partners, because he'd been working with them for years. Jefferson thought the same thing. That kind of dynamic can work within a state rather well. The problem is, can it work in a confederation? Can it work in an alliance of 13 different states that have a rather different religious character and mixture and many perceived differences? Would it be more uniting than dividing to include it?
His judgment, and Hamilton's, was that it would be more divisive if you tried to formulate this. And even if you chose Jefferson's language, there might be resistance just because it's Jefferson. You could be stirring up a hornet's nest.
Meanwhile, each of the states had made some kind of arrangement about religion coming out of the Revolution in their state constitutions. ...
But doesn't that encourage the Baptists to say, "See what happens if you leave it to the states?" Wasn't that their objection?
The Baptists didn't like the Constitution for a lot of reasons. They weren't too happy about civil government in the first place. They thought their separated communities could do very well on their own. They thought the more distant the government was, the worse it was. So centralized government was not a big, exciting thing for them. They'd just now gotten used to government in Virginia and some of the other states. There was a price to pay among those radical evangelical Protestants on the question of the federal Constitution if you said nothing about it or if you said too much about it, if you said anything except "religious liberty" or "disestablishment."
Now, the Constitution does say, "There shall be no religious tests," and that was important. That was an inclusionary move that made everybody, anybody who was an out group -- we're using Baptists as stalking horses here, but there were Methodists who were even further beyond the pale, and they were growing even faster. All these folks are not happy with the old way.
But you've also got Virginia stuck in the middle, which isn't going to ratify either.
Well, and you have New York.
And what's at stake, though, for Madison and those that support the Constitution if you have a state as large as Virginia suggesting that they may not ratify the Constitution?
If any of the big four -- Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia -- don't ratify, you'll have disunion. It won't go. Now, they had agreed that if you have two-thirds of 13, however you parse that, that that would be enough. But everyone was sitting there with their fingers crossed, because if any one of the big four doesn't ratify, you will have some form of disunion. …
Is it possible to fathom that the idea that the Constitution in this country, at this particular moment in history, was going to come down to a bunch of Baptists in Virginia?
It's not that simple. First of all, the Baptists disagreed among themselves on all kinds of theological issues, and therefore on, as well, political theological issues. Most of the Baptists, no matter what stripe they are, distrust centralized government. They distrust centralized government because it's always been a source of persecution for them, and absent a bill of rights, they're not happy about the draft of the federal Constitution.
Because there's no guarantee of religious liberty, which the federal government would guarantee. ... So in the end, they opted for their confidence in Madison's credibility, his trustworthiness, over their own, more traditional suspicions. And in fact, [they] were talking about electing delegates, and the delegates went Federalist majority by 10 votes out of 165. It was close.
How powerful did the Baptists feel they were that they could exercise this kind of politic?
I think it may be too much to say the Baptists ratified the Constitution because of the way Virginia went, but this combination of the Virginia statute and ratification coming less than two and a half years apart is the key moment in including them in the political process as a political faction, as an organized interest group we would say, and the maturation of its leadership into political brokers. And gradually, over the next 10 to 15 years, they begin electing those leaders -- most of them lay rather than ordained because that's the custom -- to actual positions of leadership, in the assembly and elsewhere. Meanwhile, they're having astronomical growth rates, so they're getting bigger all the time. …
What is Jefferson's view as the Constitution has emerged and there's no mention of freedom of religion?
Jefferson's not happy at all about the Constitution, the contents of the Philadelphia Convention. It doesn't have a Bill of Rights. Regardless of content, it doesn't have this kind of dictum that articulates rights as prior to constitutional, institutional, governmental arrangements. Remember, Jefferson's whole theory is that government proceeds from inalienable rights and exists to guarantee them. That's what government is. That's what it's for. It's not for anything else. So if you don't articulate the rights first in order to then show how the Constitution is going to preserve them, it's a faulty document in the first place. …
And he really is a governmental minimalist in the first place. He really does believe that government that governs least governs best. So this looks too big to him, looks too centralized to him. So that's another place where he and the Baptists tend to agree again: philosophy of government -- minimalism, maximum local representation, as close to popular opinion as possible. [Jefferson] is on the opposite end that Hamilton is with the energetic government.
He believes that fundamental law ought to articulate fundamental rights as well as basic governmental institutions. His example is Magna Carta, where in some form or fashion you've got a statement of rights, privileges, claims against the Crown that even the Crown itself is obligated to honor. And since virtually all of the states did the same thing when they established the Revolutionary governments, why not have the federal government do it? And when they don't, this is an issue in principle for him. It's a problem.
So he writes back to Madison saying, "I'm not so happy about this." And it's not a detailed criticism or critique, because Madison was meanwhile being a double agent and helping fabricate the Constitution, but he wanted to keep his mentor and his friend informed, and Jefferson had other sources of information as well. ...
Why did Madison say, "OK, we'll write a Bill of Rights"?
Madison agreed to the Bill of Rights and the proposal for a Bill of Rights because he agreed with it. ... The proposal to have a Bill of Rights was very attractive to religious dissenters and to political opponents who were uncomfortable with centralization and needed that countervailing declaration, assurance, statement in principle that there were things the government couldn't touch. Why you needed a Bill of Rights is because the Bill of Rights would limit the government. And they had gone rather far in centralizing it and energizing it, as Hamilton would have said, so you needed that extra protection, is how people saw it, of enumerating the rights that are inalienable.
What did it mean to the common man to suddenly have the First Amendment in place?
I think it was more a matter of principle than practice, because no matter how energetic this government might be, no one envisioned it as being anything but secondary to local state governments. ... So it was, I think, more at the level of principle, of what had we fought the Revolution for, of invoking a language of rights that had been the originary language in the Declaration of Independence. This is the spirit of 1776 now coming into our Constitution rather than some mechanism to broker power. ...
What effect did that theory of rebellion have on those nonestablished religions? What effect does the First Amendment have in terms of how they view themselves in this New World?
I think the First Amendment tells traditionally disempowered and marginalized religious groups that they are in the playing field. They're now included in the new political arrangement, the new state. They're legitimized as members because they will not be excluded. They're going to be granted full liberty of conscience, which means that this new government has not only acknowledged their existence, it has invited their participation because it's the same government now that will protect their free exercise that also wants them to participate in and in the making of the very laws that they are now going to be subject to. … When the federal government includes freedom of conscience, they engage in the democratic process full bore, full blast.
What does full blast mean at that time? What's going on in the country?
It takes them a little while, as it would. It's a transition period. You go from the old colonial elites still electing most of the representatives at every level, certainly at the congressional level. You don't have Methodists and Baptists in the Congress, very many at all, in the first few years.
Furthermore, George Washington is simply unique as a consensus leader. Virginians were happy because he's a Virginian and he understands. He writes these letters to the Baptists and to Jewish synagogues saying: "Welcome to America. We're glad to have you. Don't worry -- we're going to protect it." This is after the First Amendment goes through. He endorses all that rhetorically, so you have stability. They're franchised. They're voting in the elections and the constituencies. Their constituency is ratcheting up where they're getting more and more powerful.
When you get, however, to Adams, and you get to the Alien and Sedition Acts, XYZ [Affair], that helps activate Baptists and other marginal and sectarian groups politically, because as soon as they see a draconian law that is all of a sudden monitoring the press and free speech and invoking treason and sedition as a capital crime and are out looking for troublemakers, they see the signs of religious oppression. They say: "We've been here before. We know what this is all about, and we don't like it." That drives them back toward Jefferson, who doesn't like it either.
He and Madison start what eventually winds up to be developing this renewed movement that finally issues in the Jefferson candidacy against Adams in 1800. All of a sudden red flags are going up all over evangelical America, wherever the evangelicals are still a minority political faction. They're going: "Wow, we would be next. We might be next. The Federalists are really going to come down with an oligarchic, elite hammer on those of us who don't agree with them." That shores up their allegiance to Jefferson, to minimalist government, to maximal liberty, which is his appeal to them. And it lets them paint Adams as the bad guy. And Adams, of course, retaliates by painting Jefferson as an atheist. …
Then you go forward 50 years; a bunch of Catholics turn up in this country, and that's just gone out the window. How could it possibly be the case that in barely two generations those nurtured laws and bills of rights [can] be found so lacking, or so no longer a part of the political vernacular, that you can have educated, intelligent men coming up with this bigotry?
A couple of reasons. One reason is the Second Great Awakening, which alters the political landscape and creates an evangelical majority politically and therefore, in terms of the instrumentalities of power, law and so on, a political culture that becomes dominated by evangelical theological and moral assumptions that are related to the earlier ones of someone like Jefferson or Madison or Franklin, but are more explicitly Protestant Christian. …
So what that means is that that consensual, majoritarian attitude toward religious difference is less tolerant. ...Why would you tolerate someone who you don't think is Christian if you've built a Christian republic? Now, the word "Christian" is then contested here, of course, because the Catholics think they're Christians and they really don't think the Protestants are. So both sides have categorically mirror images of each other that are exclusionary. That's true. That shows up in the New York school fight.
As Catholics begin to increase, several different things happen. One is that there's an ethnic change. The Revolutionary-era Catholics, most of whom collaborated with the Revolutionaries, with the Patriots, were colonials. They had been here for several generations. ... So they collaborated. Their political interest and their religious toleration interests were with the Patriots. They were ethnically English, or they were Anglo-Irish, not ethnically Irish. Comes the famine and the Irish immigration, these people are perceived as "other" by the Protestant establishment.
Something needs to be said about that Protestant establishment, too. New York is not what we think New York is today. New York was the center of evangelical public moral reform activity in the whole nation. Philadelphia was the headquarters for the churches. New York was the place where all of these moral reform societies gathered every year for what was called Anniversary Week. Anniversary Week would bring together all of the leaders from across the nation who were supporting Sunday schools; who were supporting the [American] Tract Society -- get a Bible in every American household, especially the unchurched, and make sure it's King James; they were supporting education, like the New York public school system, which was what they called nondenominational, but was in fact this evangelical, public morality-based education; missions, foreign and domestic -- spread the word abroad, and spread it everywhere in the new republic. These were interlocking board of directorates -- all the same people, all the same families. Their headquarters were in New York.
So when the Irish minority, Catholic minority, begins to appear, and a figure like [Bishop John] Hughes says, "What about these schools?," they are not in the mood to be tolerant because they have been running an establishment. They've built it carefully, they've built it well, and it's been there at least since 1815.
Did the Public School Society see themselves as Protestant, or was it just inculcated in who they were?
No. This is the trick. They saw themselves as Protestant, which meant American and which nonsectarian, because they said: "These aren't Presbyterian schools. These aren't Dutch Reform schools. These aren't Baptist schools. These are American schools. The American common school exists to perpetuate the Protestant" -- read: evangelical Protestant -- "moral consensus upon which the republic is built." ...
And this is the fruition of the American experiment with morality and government as it had gotten through the 1830s and into the 1840s.
So American values meant Protestant values?
For these people it did. And for that broadly speaking evangelical Protestant majority that governed really from Jackson on, one way or the other, this was axiomatic.
What do you mean?
... You have denominational competition that is increasing the presence of religion in the republic and in public culture, and at the same time, you have moral consensus about what is right and wrong in the public sphere: temperance, Protestant-based public school education, property and capital and a few other axioms of public morality that we then translate into law.
Catholics come along, and they put this together a completely different way. They are perceived as alien, as not us, and furthermore, they are either the great beast or the lesser beast from the apocalypse! This is the Whore of Babylon! This is Antichrist. In other words, those Protestants had not given up the old Reformation ideas about the papacy as the oppressor and persecutor of Protestantism. So they could all align along a pan-Protestant, what we would call, bias against Catholics. And it's fueled by an apocalyptic fear of these people. Now, these are poor, devastated Irish folk. It doesn't matter. The beast has got its nose under the tent of our godly Christian republic. We have fought for two generations to Christianize this thing, get rid of that nasty Jeffersonian liberalism and get it right, and all of a sudden Satan has been set loose in our Garden of Eden, and we will not have it.
So how are they going to react to the Catholic --?
What do you think? But what's interesting about how they react is at first they're gentlemanly about it. At first, it's noblesse oblige. At first, it's "OK," the Catholics say, "can we have a Catholic school?," and they say: "Why, no. That would be violating the separation of church and state. We give a nonsectarian, American cultural education, and it behooves Your Grace's people to learn this. This is what everyone else learns. It's not really religious in any sense; it's just American values. But if, on the other hand, we gave a particular benefit to a particular religious community, like the Catholics, that would be government money going to a religion, and that violates the First Amendment of our glorious Constitution." That's the first move.
But there's the Bible, says John Hughes.
That's right. And they say: "America is built on the Bible. American public morality, America's sense of itself and its mission -- indeed, our very democracy is built on biblical religion, and we have all kinds of different forms of biblical religion in our republic. That's its genius, but we all agree on what the Bible means for education and the public sphere, and that's what we teach in our schools."
What happens, of course, is that the Catholics say, "That's sectarian." The Catholics say the public schools, or the common schools, are actually religious. The Public School Society says, "They're American, and your Catholic schools are religious." Both sides say they are violating the separation of church and state. …
I think this was the sort of forum that Hughes relished. This was a full-bore public debate with mass coverage in the press. Packed house. People outside. So there he is, appearing probably for the first time in a Protestant public venue, all in his robes and his vestments. So he is emblematically, iconically representing this constituency of the city that is growing every day. He's there, for good or ill, from Tammany Hall's point of view, as a leader of what is construed as a Democratic political faction, but he's already doing business with the Whigs.
So he's a political operator. In his own mind he knows this; he's doing this; he's succeeding in doing this. And most of all, he is relishing, he's positively enjoying the fact that he is making an American constitutional religious liberty case on behalf of the Catholics against the Public School Society of the City of New York, and he is undermining their own assumptions. He's making a back-door argument, because the same religious liberty that enabled them to create an evangelical majority and gradually co-opt the public school system of New York so that they've got a monopoly on it, the same provision that enables them freedom of political participation as a faction, he is now going to use to challenge the legitimacy of the education they are delivering and to challenge their political control of the public sphere.
How did they react to this challenge on the grounds of the First Amendment from a Catholic bishop in full regalia?
They weren't happy, to say the least. They weren't happy, and they had very able representation.
Were they not happy because they didn't like to be lectured by a Catholic, or were they not happy because he had an argument?
I think it's both. They never thought it would get this far. They thought the Catholics would defer, that the Catholics would be happy with expurgating the textbooks and maybe even making some adjustments on the Bible reading and the "We could pull the hymns; we could negotiate this out." They were very confident that they had the clout, politically, so that no new faction like this could actually turn it over. They didn't know what was going on in Albany, [N.Y.,] it seems.
They also really believed their own argument that the public schools were nonsectarian because their view of sectarianism was evangelical Protestant spectrum. ... So by invoking First Amendment rights, Hughes is expanding the universe of religious liberty outside of the Protestant consensus. He is demanding inclusion in the public sphere of religion and morality, and he is using an argument for religious liberty that they had found so successful as to almost be able to discard, because they'd been running it so long. ...
One thing that is clear is that the Public School Society stuck with the nonsectarian argument for a rather long time. They really thought that they'd get cooperation from the Catholic leaders and that this essentially would go away with enough negotiation.
You sound very rational in terms of their response, but there was a lot of vehemence. Reading it, it feels personal. These are educated men in a public forum, but it doesn't smack as that kind of debate.
Right. There's a very heated context, after all. You're in the middle of riots; you're in the middle of gang hostility. The drums are still beating from the burning of [the Ursuline] Convent in Boston, [Second Great Awakening leader and minister Lyman] Beecher's "Plea for the West" -- this is all resonating. ... Nativism is on the rise and will continue to rise for the next 10 years. So it is very contested that way.
There's no gainsaying the drama of the public confrontation. This had not happened before. This was an unprecedented moment. It was a New York moment par excellence. The facts on the ground in New York, in Manhattan, were trumping the institutional arrangements that the evangelicals had worked so hard to put in place. No, of course they didn't like it.
And they especially didn't like a Catholic bishop making their trump card argument against them. ... The anger and discomfort may well have been personal. It may well have been, "Who is this Catholic guy [who is] going to tell me what to do?" Surely there was some of that. ...
Can you understand why Hughes decides to get political, to put pressure on the council by calling on his flock to vote a certain way?
In the debate, you see Hughes' political genius already manifested. ... You don't make that argument unless you have already figured out that you're a political faction, in Madisonian terms. Then the next move, to figure out what to do, comes from that realization.
Now, there were already overtures or signals coming from Albany before the debate that there was a potential political ally in all of this for Hughes. There was already correspondence between Hughes and William Seward, the governor, the Whig governor.
So Hughes went into the debate knowing that the governor of New York wanted to have Catholic entrée into the public schools of the city in some way, that he was on that side, not because the Whigs were more on the nativists' side than the Democrats were, but Seward himself was a liberal. He was just personally a liberal. He was an anti-slavery liberal. He was a reformer. …
When the aldermen vote down the second petition after the debate, Hughes knows that he has exhausted the instrumentalities of civic government. Is he going to take to the streets? Is he going to do what they want him to do and negotiate it out? Or is he going to go political? The answer is that he goes political, and he uses the leverage that he has in Albany with Seward to begin to calculate what might be done by using Catholics as a political faction rather than as a kind of cultural entity in the New York City pluralistic scene. ...
What's going on is that there's an election going on for state Senate and 10 assemblymen in New York. ... Democrats have usually been winning, but the Whigs have taken over. The Democrats are very eager to win it back, and Hughes' natural allies are the Democrats, Tammany Hall, because they stand for workingmen and the whole Jacksonian political program that fits with poor folks, and so Hughes is on the bus. But how is he going to show the Democrats that they need the Catholic vote? That's what he needs to do to get the Democrats to align with the public school program.
So days before the election, he declares that there's going to be a Catholic slate. Wow. There's going to be a Catholic slate that's going to run independent of Democrats or Whigs; it's going to be a three-way election. They're well enough organized to get a few thousand votes; it's not a lot, but it is the swing vote for three seats. The Whigs win those three seats, not the Democrats. Ironically, the Democrats sweep the elections statewide, but they lose those three seats. If you're sitting in Tammany Hall, you say, "Why did we lose those three seats?" The answer is, the Catholics blocked it.
So Hughes demonstrates, on a relatively small scale but an important scale, that almost overnight he can deliver enough third-party votes to compromise the Democratic Party, and if it's a tight election, they need those three seats.
Is he allowed to do that in the sense of the framework of how church-state are separated, but religion and politics are not?
That seems to be the issue, that everyone finds it so objectionable that Hughes puts up a political fight because he's a bishop. But it's all fair game, isn't it?
It's all fair game. The objections are completely bogus, especially if you construct the [Whigs or Democrats] as essentially representing a majoritarian religious faction, which they do. Now, evangelicalism is so big in the early republic that both major parties represent it in some sense. But there's a lot of agreement one way or the other, and so the evangelical elite -- the folks who are running things like public schools -- can count on either one of them for support going into this. It's very cozy. And the religious interest, the evangelical religious factional interest, is able to play the one off the other, and they've been doing that now for decades.
So why can't Catholics do that? Again, there's nothing in the constitutional arrangement that in any way prohibits the organization of a religious political party. It's just that given denominational pluralism in America, the minute that you run a Baptist party, you're not going to win, because everyone else is going to say, "Oh, those Baptists, we can't trust them." So unless you make it a broad, moral interdenominational interest, in terms of religious politics, then you've got something, but nonetheless you can play that card. …
Does that mean that what we're seeing is people starting to have to understand that American values didn't have to mean Protestant values?
Yes. What's happened is that pluralism has shifted from being infra-Protestant to being more than Protestant alone. It's one thing to have different varieties of Protestantism; it's quite another to have it being Protestant and Catholic, and then Protestant and Catholic and Jewish, and then Protestant and Catholic, Jewish and Muslim and where we are today. The campaign makes that happen.
Conversely, this is the other side of the coin. Catholics will have to play the game the American way. They cannot say, "We don't like democracy," because we have to remember that democracy was still viewed by Rome as everything from false forms of government to worse. Monarchy was the authorized form of government in the Vatican. ...
So for an American Catholic to try to function politically required an embrace of republican government that was in tension with the church's own political theology, and Hughes unhesitatingly took that choice. ... That had a very deep impact, because it politicized the Catholic faction. And it worked, because from then on, the church and Tammany Hall collaborated as the two primary constituencies of New York City's Democratic Party, from thenceforth until the mid-20th century anyway. So something is happening to the Catholic constituency as well as to the Protestant majority.
Eventually, over the course of the next 100 years, America takes Protestant instruction out of the classroom. Why does that happen?
The reason why it happens is the Supreme Court of the United States. It does not happen because of electoral process or legislative process, and for that very reason it is still extremely controversial as a political issue in our country today. The Bible reading and school prayer are still very high on the agenda of conservatives in America. …
The religious movement that Whitefield triggered, that he dominated for the next 30, 40 years, from the Great Awakening on, never stopped. It began in the late '30s and early '40s, and it spiked in the movement we call the Great Awakening, but from then on, there is a constant episodic continuity of revivalism, conversion, evangelical growth, sectarian formation everywhere in the country, everywhere in the country. ...
There is a slowdown in the mid-90s. There is a bit of a jam-up there, and it's at that time, possibly because of XYZ and Alien and Sedition, possibly because of Whiskey Rebellion -- there's a lot of things that are very unstable in the mid-90s.
Coming out of that is the call for the Second Great Awakening, not because evangelicalism has forgotten how to have revivals, but because there's a perception of radical French atheists' influence, and there's a sense that the project that they're already embarked upon, of a Christian America and a great revival sweeping the land, is slowing down. It's losing momentum; it's losing its purchase.
[Evangelical denominations] feared the influence of the French Revolution and its secularizing tendencies, and other sorts of radical European ideas and movements would subvert the America Revolution just at the moment when they were beginning to be convinced that they were part of it. The scary thing about the French Revolution was that it was anti-religious. And even though the religion in question was Catholic, the specter was that these French radicals -- with whom Jefferson was very friendly, after all, and he was the ambassador to their government -- would bring ideas of atheism, rationalism, science without God, and also the specter of oppressive government -- after all, it's the French Revolution, [with its] guillotines, [Thermidorian] Reaction, the [Reign of] Terror -- and then eventually of tyranny, of autocracy with Napoleon. ... And there's a call for: "Let's renew it. Let's go." And that leads to the official episodes that are the beginning of the Second Great Awakening.
What were they like, these revivals? What was Cane Ridge like?
So there's Barton Stone sitting in his cabin in the middle of Kentucky, and he had announced that there would be communion service for all the Presbyterians round about in Kentucky. There were a lot of Scots-Irish in Kentucky, and they all liked to come together, and they would have communion once every quarter. That's how they did it. Over the previous few years, these had gotten to become pretty big, hundreds of people. It was already an occasion where the local minister, like Stone, and maybe some of his neighbors that he would invite would do special preaching, and maybe even revival preaching, to the brothers and sisters. You'd do that for a day or two, and then you'd have the communion, which would take all day Sunday because you'd have hundreds of people, and everyone would go home spiritually renewed and nourished by communion. Great.
Well, what happened is that one-quarter of the population of Kentucky turned out in Barton W. Stone's backyard -- 20,000 people, because the revival was peaking. It was interdenominational; it was all over the place. What Stone didn't know is that when he announced to the Presbyterian ministers in Kentucky that he was going to have quarterly communion at his place, they all planned to come, all of them, and the Baptists and the Methodists, who were also out on the hustings, also decided to show up, and their friends and their neighbors. It was a little bit like Woodstock. Everybody just came, and they jammed up the throughway. All of a sudden, there are not hundreds, but thousands.
He had set up a preaching station, which is what they would do. They would build a little platform so that people could be heard. The idea would be that one person ought to be able to maybe reach that whole crowd. These guys had serious pipes. They could talk. They had the Whitefield-style recapitulating and carrying on, so when they got wound up, they could be heard -- Whitefield could reach 15,000 to 20,00, according to Benjamin Franklin. These guys could reach, even in the open air, plenty of folks.
Well, when you have 15,000 to 20,000 people, they're just spread out over acres. What happens is people just set up campfires, tents or under their wagons or whatever they're doing, and wherever there's a natural spot to either cut down a tree or build a platform or stand on a stump, they would. And they started to preach because it's a revival. You have Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians.
Was that significant that they were all there.
It's very significant that they're all there, because revivals had both before and after actually tended to be denominationally sponsored and carried out, so everyone knew the rules of the game, and there was a kind of consensus on belief and practice and hymnity and ritual and so on, because everybody does those things a little bit differently. One of the things that was important about Cane Ridge -- and [it] did happen elsewhere, but Cane Ridge is a great example -- is that all the varieties were there.
Now, the preaching tended to be straight-from-the-shoulder, Whitefieldian, new-birth preaching: the terrors of hell; the glories of the Gospel; the signs of the new birth; the necessity of the new birth -- the meat and potatoes. But then what happens when folks want to sing? These are evangelicals; they always sing. They sing all the time. So what do they sing? There's different music; there's different tunes; there's whatever's going on. And then there may well be spontaneous music, call and response, people just getting something going, or a mixture. They know this lyric and that tune, and they put them together. There's some experiment going on.
But what was most unpredictable and most noted at the time by participants and commentators was that somehow the scale of the thing -- the multiple interdenominational character of it -- raised the whole pitch up to a higher level than had been the case in any of the prior revivals of this sort. And what that seems to have done is it snowballed. The preaching gets more and more extreme, the urgency, the emotional level, the singing, the praying, the exhorting. Exhorting means any brother or sister who just feels moved by the Spirit -- especially the Baptists and the Methodists, because they don't have educated clergy -- they just get up and start going. They think they're preaching in the Spirit; you're one step away from preaching in tongues, and that's exactly what happens. They start speaking in tongues.
What does this symbolize, this event?
One of the things that it symbolizes to evangelicals is that from the theological viewpoint, God is releasing the full measure of charismatic blessing on the American people, because this is hundreds of conversions. This is all of the spiritual gifts -- not just tongues, but being slain in the Spirit, and dancing and singing in the Spirit, and prophesying and interpreting. It's all happening, and it's happening at this massive level, heavily concentrated.
So to them, it's a millennial sign. The kingdom of God is coming. It's a sign of blessing, of renewal. It says: "Let's keep doing this. Let's pursue this further. Let's carry this on. Let's institutionalize this. We have turned the corner. The future is ours." It's got that kind of optimistic construction that you would put on it, especially as reports come in that this almost immediately comes back over the mountains, and they have the same kind of thing happening in Virginia and the Carolinas within weeks.
A couple of different things. The Great Awakening, to a very great extent, is improvised. It just sort of happens. …Whitefield just starts preaching, and there's something in the air, and there's certainly an intellectual and theological and spiritual background to it, but it detonates in this form that Whitefield kind of develops as they come to town and preach and then move on. It has all kinds of divisive consequences, and then it produces new sectarian movements. But the awakening itself, the real First Great Awakening, is more of a religious quickening that goes across various denominations within them. The emphasis is very much on the new birth and renewal of traditional spirituality.
What you get with the Second Great Awakening is the perfection of revivalism as a ritual form. Whitefield himself was a one-man band. So was Wesley; so was Edwards. This, with Cane Ridge and even before and certainly afterward, becomes a cultural form. It becomes the camp meeting revival, which is an institutionalized thing. Once people saw it happen at Cane Ridge, they tried to replicate it. So they said: "OK, we need benches, and we need preaching stations, and we need singers. And we want to be in the outdoors, and we're going to have to be in a place that's prepared." As a ritual difference, one of them is spontaneous, the other is really designed, and it's become its own integrated form with its own kind of music and its own style of preaching. All this has become routinized and packaged. That makes a difference.
The extent makes a difference. As big as the original awakening was, this was bigger. This was very deep. And this goes on and on and on, and then it takes pause for the War of 1812, and then it goes on and on and on. It just keeps generating wave after wave after wave. That continuity does not happen in the Great Awakening in quite the same way.
I think what's especially important is that in the West and in the East, new forms of religion are produced that are, for lack of a better term, really American: Seventh-day Adventists, Latter-day Saints -- recognizable, still with us. Large denominations come out.
The interrogation and renewal of the whole range of religious belief is very intense in the Second Great Awakening. There is no doctrine that isn't contested and argued about by all these different revivalists so that what you get are layers of renewal, conflict, religious engagement, upset, concern, that at the same time is producing and cementing a truly national evangelical synthesis of fundamental beliefs and moral dispositions and overarching religious and moral organizations, like the Temperance Society or the Bible and Tract Society. So it's more national.
Of course the other part of that nationalism is that it's taking place in an already extant United States. One could argue that the principal difference is the Revolution, that in fact now it's taking place in a country, ... the expectations for which has begun to become contested between Enlightenment Jeffersonian types and evangelicals who really want to see a full-bore Christian America by their lights. And this Great Awakening ratifies their vision for the new republic. There was no political vision like that, not really, coming out of the Great Awakening.
Is that why the desire to go out there and reform the country happened at the same time as well?
Yes. It comes directly from it. And there's a lot of different interpretations of this sort of thing, but I think if you take it from a point of view of an individual, you say, "OK, it's the Second Great Awakening, and maybe I'm a new convert, I don't know. And I'm looking. I'm seeking." It's a generation of seekers; it's the first generation after the Revolution. They don't know what's going on. They're all new men and women.
What then becomes the object of religious concern begins to shift from me to my community and to my nation. How are we going to make society Christian? How are we going to take the imperatives of love your neighbor, love your enemy, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, all the other blesseds, and embody them, if this really is God's country, not just you and me, not just my community, but the country at large? It's this psychology, this ambition, this hope, this inspiration, this agenda that the next generation follows in the moral reform societies, but they really take off in the 1820s, right around 1820 and then on. And the urgent political and cultural questions of the day -- everything from slavery to literacy -- is addressed by interdenominational, evangelical agencies that are trying to persuade people to behave morally and to support public legislation that will alleviate these problems.
Isn't that government's job? Why are they taking the lead role on those?
It's limited government. You're going to have a very hard time getting a government to pass any law about alcohol unless you have a massive petition drive with the Baptists. … What the evangelicals say is it's the church's job: It's the church's job to Christianize the country, and we can Christianize the country by putting a Bible in every home, by teaching every kid who's not literate -- and public schools are not necessarily doing their job -- to learn how to read, even before they go to school, and to teach them the Bible, read the Bible. So now you've got Sunday schools; you've got Bible societies. Then we're going to flood the country with Christian literature that can be read at the elementary school level. We do tracts.
Now our problem is the Christian home. The Christian home's greatest threat is alcoholism, so we will pass temperance laws. We will try to persuade people to give up booze, and if we can't persuade them to stop drinking, we will cut off the supply if we possibly can by restricting sales on the Sabbath and then seeing if we can move forward further. We're going to advocate women's rights against male abuse.
And all the early women's rights -- the Seneca Falls -- they're all evangelical women. And they're rolling along. This is a cultural campaign as opposed to governmental. Government is narrow; government is restricted in the classical American formulation. This is a cultural campaign. It's a culture war.
The circuit riders who were going out into these towns, were they thinking, "I'm going to convert Brother Smith and then his family, and then we're going to get the whole town"?
There's a geographical difference. If you're really on the frontier, way out there, and the churches haven't gotten there yet -- which is unusual -- then you could ride into a settlement and you don't know what you're going to get. You may get some radicals; you may get some completely unreligious types. Or you'll find folks from some kind of background who are interested and in need, but maybe they don't agree with you. So then you're going to be preaching not only your straight conversion, but you're also going to be pressed by them on the particulars of "Well, what kind are you? I'm this kind," or, "My mom was this kind, but what kind are you?" …
The way the Methodists -- and really everybody, but especially the Methodists -- perfected this, they would have their class meetings. You would be in a group of 12 people with a local lay leader. You would meet every week, and you would talk over what has the Spirit of God done for you this week, and what have you done with the Spirit of God this week? Have you fallen back? Did you move forward? Did you have any insight? Did you pray? You're interrogated, and you're supposed to answer candidly, because if you say, "Well, I've kind of fallen back," then they'll kneel down and pray for you. You'll sing some hymns, and you'll be exhorted, and you'll go back out, and you come back next week: "How'd you do?" "I did better this week. Thank you. Thank you for your prayers. But Sister So-and-so is having trouble, so let's pray for her." This is remarkable building of community density and community affiliation. This is the strongest form of community there is in these frontier and rural regions. …
You talked about the new denominations. Why this need to create new denominations? What's the need?
There's a lot of different reasons historically why sectarian movements happen, but in America, especially once you get to the Second Great Awakening specifically -- and this is another aspect of what's different about the Awakening -- you've gotten to a place, culturally speaking, thanks to pluralism and religious competition, primarily, when there is no authoritative voice institutionally about religion in your society anymore. …
So you have the Bible, and you have doctrine. And doctrine is contested. It's the Second Great Awakening: Are you morally perfectible, yes or no? Does original sin take precedence over human freedom? Which one? Did Jesus die for everyone or only for the elect? Big one. What exactly are the signs of the Holy Spirit that are necessary to know that you're saved? Everybody is contesting these things like crazy.
So the archetypal model here is Joseph Smith, because Joseph Smith leaves Vermont, where this is going on like gangbusters, and he goes to upstate New York, where the so-called Burned-Over District in the Mohawk Valley is even more conflicted. Everybody and their brother is there disagreeing about doctrine and yet saying: "But you can be saved. We can help save you." And he looks out on this religious chaos, and he says, "There's only one way I can go to solve this, and that's the Bible." And he, like other sectarian founders, reads messages in the biblical Scripture, or in his case, had a religious experience that leads him to discover or recover another Scripture that puts it all straight, that answers all those questions.
What tends to come out of the larger debate in which Smith is involved is that different aspects of the common evangelical generic belief system are under such intense contestation that they pop out as religious identifiers. So if you believe that you can be morally perfected by the Holy Spirit, you'll tend to be a Methodist. So, in inspecting the Scriptures, with this intense revivalism and renewal going on, certain charismatic leaders identify new themes that they begin to preach, and they get adherence, and they cluster, and they tend to precipitate out of this broth of evangelicalism.
So William Miller says in 1836: "I think I've figured it out. I think I figured out when Jesus is coming." Now, everybody believes Jesus is coming. Everybody thinks Jesus is coming soon. Joseph Smith thinks Jesus is coming soon. But Miller gives you a date! So if you're concerned enough about that, you'll go and become a Millerite. …
So you have apostolic sects; you have millennial sects; you have restoration sects. And it's all coming out of this conflicted discourse about the text of Scripture and the collision of doctrinal traditions that is so intense that they reach for some other hook to orient themselves in this sea of argument and in this biblical world that they've all internalized.
What's created this realm of possibility, of so many ways of interpreting these fundamental questions? What's the plug that has gone into the socket?
The plug is the neutralization of government as an agent of religious culture. So the government really is neutral. There is not an established religion in any of the old colonies or any of the new states. Therefore, the opportunity, the cultural opportunity to say anything you want and be embraced by anybody who chooses to opt with you is maximized. It is a market. It is a spiritual marketplace, and it is created, as Madison predicted in Memorial and Remonstrance, it is an arrangement that actually increases the chances for religion to flourish rather than constrain it. The old establishmentarian argument said that: "Gosh, if government pulls out, nobody will come. They need to be coerced it's the true religion." Madison said: "If you let them out there and compete, they will grow. They will have to learn how to adapt and gain adherence on their own. They will sink, or they will swim." And Madison said, "I think they will swim, and in fact, we will get more of that moral foundation for the government, because good Christian people are good, law-abiding people." That's what he said. He was right. …
The juice is coming from the revival, from the renewal of the great debate about what is true religion that began in the 1730s and '40s and just keeps happening. … Everybody is chopping up the Bible into every fragment they can think of to make every argument they can possibly think of. And at the very same time, instead of collapsing, because what it really is doing is that everyone is getting more and more engaged in it. So even as religious diversity and religious conflict increase in revival, at the very same time, the saliency of religion per se in the culture increases. It's another one of those American paradoxes.
And this cultural connection, this energy, this drive is the juice that is going into the plug of no constraint, no prior political constraint. And the result is bzzzt! It just lights up! So every kind of evangelical religion you can imagine, and some that would be hard to imagine, flourish. And that's never stopped either.
Published October 11, 2010