God in America
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Interview: Catherine Brekus

Catherine Brekus

Brekus teaches American religious history at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is the author of Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 and editor of The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 23, 2009.

People came to America and gathered into communities. Then came the move West. Why leave?

I think you have to understand the context of the early 19th century. This is the great era of technological development, industrial capitalism. There are these great opportunities that people see, either West or South.

“In the 19th century, you have large numbers of Americans who claim to have had personal encounters with God, where they have actually seen God or they have heard God telling them to preach.”

So they are leaving what in some ways were very nurturing communities, but also very confining communities. I think we have a tendency sometimes to romanticize what the 18th-century world was like, that people lived in these self-sufficient communities where everybody knew each other, and they married the neighbor's daughter or son. In some ways this was a very positive experience, but it could also be very negative. I mean, this is where witchcraft trials came from in the 17th century, these kinds of communal tensions where people are living very close together and know each other very well.

So in some ways, what you're seeing is transportation networks making it possible for people to strike out and forge new communities in search of economic opportunity. But you can also imagine that there are some people who are just tired of the intensity of the face-to-face local communities in which they lived, and they want to reinvent themselves. ...

Reinvention to what?

People who grew up in the 18th century were pretty much determined in who they would be in the future. If you were a farmer's son, you would grow up to be a farmer. If you were a blacksmith's son, you were probably going to grow up to be a blacksmith, or maybe you would be apprenticed to someone in the neighborhood and you would be a tailor instead. But your future was pretty well determined for you based on your family's history.

What the move West allowed people to do was to create new identities. ... This is in some ways very frightening, but it's also very liberating.

In these communities of the East, was the established church part of the problem?

The established church loomed very large in all of these communities. So I think one thing that modern Americans have completely forgotten in all of our celebration of religious liberty is that in colonial America, almost everyone was legally required to go to church and to pay taxes for the support of an established church. ...

Now, by the 18th century, you didn't physically have to be there anymore, but you did have to pay your taxes to its support. And if you didn't, you could be fined, and if you didn't pay your fine, you could be imprisoned.

So there's a certain kind of religious hegemony that exists in these places, where you have to worship a particular way. Now, there are lots of people who don't. There are lots of people who decide that they want to become Baptists or they want to become Quakers, but they do that at a great personal price. They're persecuted by their neighbors. For the Baptists in Connecticut, for example, in the 18th century, many of them go to jail rather than pay taxes to a church that they don't want to support and that they don't attend. ...

I think it's hard, too. for modern Americans ... to understand how important these theological debates were to early Americans, so that actually a Baptist would go to jail over infant baptism; that a Baptist did not believe that infants should be baptized. They thought this was sinful. And they would rather create their own churches, where people were only baptized as adults, rather than go to the established church and support a practice that they thought was unscriptural, and that therefore might endanger their chances of going to heaven.

The First Amendment and the opening of the West -- was this a convergence of things for people who had struggled with religious expression?

The First Amendment is just a remarkable moment. I think it only could have happened in the context of the late 18th century. It could not have happened earlier, and I don't think it could have happened later, after the religious revivals made Christianity so important.

It emerges at a particular moment as a kind of alliance between pietists like the Baptists, who disagree with the established churches, and then the founders, many of whom were deists. They believe in a kind of vague Protestant theology, but they imagine God more as a clockmaker rather than as an intimately involved creator. So the First Amendment is this remarkable watershed that really does free people to imagine other religious possibilities.

Now, it's important to remember that the First Amendment in the beginning really only applies to the federal government, so individual states often still did continue with church establishments. So Connecticut, for example, had the Congregational Church established until 1818, and Massachusetts didn't disestablish the Congregational Church until 1833. ... But still, on the national level, there was the sort of symbolism that you were free to believe or, even more revolutionary, not to believe as you pleased. ...

When people moved West, what was the world they were venturing into like?

... In the 1830s and 1840s, Michigan was the Wild West. Indiana seemed just impossibly far away. So these are people who gather up all their belongings in carts and set off on these journeys that take many, many weeks, in some cases. Sometimes they travel together with other people from a neighborhood.

But when they arrive at their new destination, they have to begin carving out some kind of new world. And one of the reasons that Methodism, for example, becomes so popular and powerful in 19th-century America is that they send out itinerants to those places, who organize churches and who try to impose some kind of religious order on that unruly landscape where nothing really exists, or I should say nothing exists except Native Americans. And these settlers are always in fear of Native attacks. ...

How did people respond to this insecurity? Was society holding together?

I think what's remarkable is how quickly people tried to reorganize towns on the model that they left behind, and churches play an important role in this. Even if it's just a kind of barnlike structure, which often they were, and even if a minister isn't always present -- because often there isn't anybody to lead services except very occasionally -- there's a kind of center to a town.

The old Puritan towns had been built around a common green, which is where the church was built. And a lot of these little Midwestern towns, if you visit them today, have similar kinds of layouts, where there will be a Congregational church or a Methodist church that is probably the most imposing building in town. It's where people poured their money. And they saw this as a kind of mark of civilization. ...

Were there problems with alcohol?

There certainly are problems with people drinking too much. This is one of the things that Methodists are famous for. They want to force people to stop drinking.

Why are they drinking?

People drank a lot in the early republic. There's a wonderful book called The Alcoholic Republic, which is just about the amount of beer and hard cider that people consumed in the early 19th century. Part of this is that people thought it was a way to keep up your strength or to enable you to work. People drank hard cider at breakfast before going out and working in the fields.

But clearly there's a certain degree of alcoholism that goes with this. There's gambling. It depends on the place. Often when whole families migrate, there's more of a sense of order that's imposed on the landscape. ...

But there was a lot of anxiety about what would happen when people left behind the security of these communities and struck out on their own.

Striking out into this unknown world produced a different kind of anxiety?

... On one hand it's a period of great optimism. You have to remember that it seemed impossible in the 19th century that these 13 little measly colonies strung along the Eastern Seaboard would be able to defeat the greatest military empire in the world, the British Empire. ...

But there's also a lot of anxiety about whether the republic will survive and can survive. These are 13 very different colonies, different religious traditions, different ethnic groups. There are huge arguments over slavery as early as the Constitutional Convention. There are talks of secession as early as 1814, when a group of New England states meet at the Hartford Convention and talk about seceding from the Union because they're worried about Federalist political power eroding. George Washington had been very concerned about political parties, which he viewed with suspicion. By 1800, you have one of the nastiest elections in American history, and Federalists and Republicans despise each other. So there are political tensions. ...

In some ways, the religious revivals that start in the 19th century are a response to that sense of crisis, that as people are searching for the glue that will hold the republic together, they think the glue could be, or should be, Protestantism.

But aren't they free?

It depends on who you are talking about as being free. There's a great rhetoric of freedom. There is a spirit of freedom. But if you look at how people are actually living, there are a lot of difficulties that people face in the early 19th century.

This is a boom-and-bust economy, so there are a lot of farmers who are chronically in debt. They are worried about how they're going to pay their bills. There's a panic and then a depression in 1837, where a lot of people lose their businesses, where agricultural prices collapse. ... There are artisans in cities who are now working for wages, and they're working 14 hours a day. So it's not an ideal living situation for a lot of people.

And the rhetoric of freedom, of course, is a kind of masculine rhetoric, and it's a white masculine rhetoric. Women, in some ways, in the wake of the revolution, are more disenfranchised than they were before the revolution. Before the revolution, both men and women had been subjects of the king, and so they were both part of this hierarchical structure. After the revolution, men suddenly are citizens and women are not, so there's a kind of separation that happens between the sexes, so that women feel even more that they are a subordinate class in a way that men are not.

And then of course we have the presence of large numbers of enslaved Africans for whom the rhetoric of freedom means very little. One of the great ironies of the American Revolution is that the Founders were arguing that the British had enslaved them and taken away their liberties, and, in fact, the Founders owned their own slaves, and they, too, were enslaving people. But they didn't really see this as a parallel issue.

But it added to insecurity that freedom was a relative concept.

Yes, I think so. There are degrees of freedom. And certainly the rhetoric of freedom seeps into every aspect of American life.

There's a deeply anti-authoritarian strain in American culture that emerges after the Revolution that I think has never really gone away so that you now have, in the wake of the Revolution, ordinary people on the frontier, for example, saying: "Why do I have to listen to an established minister? I can preach. He's no better than I am. He went to Harvard, but I can read the Bible for myself." ...

What was it about religion that was going help sustain the idea of a new republic?

There were many ministers, especially ministers from the formerly established churches -- so Congregational, Presbyterian, Anglican, which then became Episcopalian. Those ministers believed that Christianity was the root of virtue; that people would not behave virtuously unless they were truly Christian; that morality was really based in an understanding of the Bible, and ideally a conversion experience where you would give up your life to Jesus. So their concern was that if people were not Christian, then the republic wouldn't be able to survive, because there wouldn't be the bedrock of virtue on which it needed to be founded. ...

And by Christian, they really meant Protestant. They're anti-Catholic. They have no interest in anybody being a Catholic Christian. ...

What did they do to capture people's souls?

Revivalism is a multiple phenomenon in the 19th century. There are revivals that take place across the theological spectrum. So the revivals that are led by the formerly established churches tend to be somewhat decorous, somewhat formal. Congregationalists and Presbyterians invite people into churches, and they preach heartfelt sermons asking people to repent.

But there's also a different kind of revivalism that happens outside of these established churches by new sects that are developing because of disestablishment, because of the First Amendment. And these sects tend to be -- in the language of the 19th century -- more enthusiastic. They're experimenting with new techniques to try to get people to convert.

So, for example, when you went to a church, there might be a bench at the front of the church, which is known as the anxious bench. And if you felt during the service as if possibly you were going to convert, you were supposed to come forward to the anxious bench, where then the minister could look directly at you, single you out. People would surround you and pray for you. Often people on anxious benches would be weeping or crying. We have some pictorial representations where people are actually kneeling next to these benches as if they're begging for mercy. So there are various techniques that these ministers use.

What's going on that someone goes to the anxious bench and pleads for forgiveness?

I think we have to remember that these are people who have been raised in a Christian culture where conversion is expected at some point.

The preachers are, from all accounts -- I wish I could hear them -- but from all accounts, they're extremely charismatic. They know what to say. They often will look directly at people and will say: "I think there's someone in the audience who's suffering from alcoholism. I think there's somebody in the audience who feels brokenhearted about relationships with families."

So there was a kind of intimacy in these meetings that often moved people. And there are many stories of people who claim that they went to these meetings just as spectators, maybe to laugh, and who then ended up feeling deeply moved.

Some historians have compared some of the larger meetings, some of the really huge camp meetings, to rock concerts. I think that's a good analogy, because there's a kind of lessening of inhibition, a kind of free-floating emotionalism that happens at a lot of these meetings.

For the camp meetings especially, which often happen in a clearing in the woods, you have meetings going on all hours of the days and night. The preachers are towering above you in preaching stands. There are fires on platforms that are blazing around you. Everything is announced by trumpets blowing. So when it's time for the next sermon, the trumpet blows. There's very emotional singing that happens. And there are ministers circulating through the crowds, talking to people, touching people. There's a lot of physical intimacy at these meetings. So these are just very emotional gatherings where people seem to lose control. ...

The most famous camp meeting, I think, in American history took place in Cane Ridge, [in Bourbon Co., Ky.,] in 1801, where there are huge numbers of ministers there, up on preaching stands. They're preaching day and night. And people actually begin rolling on the ground. There are people fainting, weeping. And then, in the most bizarre manifestations, there are people who are actually barking. And then there's something called the jerking exercise, which is a little hard to imagine, where people seem to lose control of their limbs, and they're actually sort of flailing around.

And these manifestations, instead of being seen as aberrant -- if someone had done this in the 17th century, they would have been accused of being a witch, I think. But in the context of the early 19th century and these revivals, ... this looks like conversion. This kind of very emotional, ecstatic behavior is judged to be the evidence that God is working on your heart.

What's changed between the First Great Awakening and the Second that allows people to not be seen as possessed by demons?

I think part of what happens -- this begins to happen in the First Great Awakening, and it's a somewhat complicated story -- but Protestants become more and more convinced that when God works on your heart, that you can see the change visibly. This is partially the influence of the Enlightenment.

Often historians see the Enlightenment and Protestantism as warring forces, as if they're doing battle in the 18th century. But there are certain aspects of Enlightenment thought that Protestant theologians like Jonathan Edwards adopt. One of the major things that he adopts is the idea that the way that we know about the world around us is through sensory experience. This is John Locke's empiricism. How do we know that something is true? Because we actually feel it; we sense it.

This sort of rhetoric begins in the First Great Awakening, where converts are told, "You know that you've been converted if you can feel it in your heart." By the early 19th century, there are Protestants who believe that not only do you feel it in your heart, but you can actually see it in your body, and that if you've been converted, it should be obvious to others in your actual bodily comportment, in two ways: not only in this sort of loss of control of your body, but then in the way that you dress, the way that you act. One of the signs that someone has been converted is that the next day they will show up, and they have no lace and no ribbons and no jewelry. ... They're trying to strip away all of that finery, all of the excess or indulgence of the world, as they called it, the secular world, in order to show this on their bodies, the simplicity and purity of their hearts.

What was going on in these revivals that was different for people's idea of themselves and their relationship to God? Was there a change?

Yeah. There are a lot of changes between the so-called First and Second Great Awakenings, some having to do with structural changes in American religion. The revivals that take place in the 18th century are happening through these established churches.

In the 19th century, in this free religious marketplace, you now have new groups, like the Methodists, some that have now been forgotten. The Freewill Baptists and the Christian Connection, for example, are two very popular groups in the early 19th century that are deliberately setting themselves apart from the old established churches. They are anti-hierarchical; they are anti-authoritarian. They are much more visionary.

There are some radical evangelicals during the First Great Awakening who begin to say somewhat tentatively that they have seen visions or heard voices. But in the 19th century, you have large numbers of Americans who claim to have had personal encounters with God, where they have actually seen God or they have heard God telling them to preach. ...

The more anxious you feel, the closer you need to feel God's presence?

I think psychologically, conversion is a great release. And the way that people describe it in the 19th century is a kind of sense of letting go; that people realize their own weakness, their dependence. In some ways, it's a response to the emphasis on self-reliance and individualism that you find after the Revolution, that these self-made men who conquered the British Empire are supposed to be able to create their own destinies.

But what happens in camp meetings is that those same people are able to say, "I'm not in control of my life. Someone else is in control of my life," and they're able to admit their feelings of dependence, their feeling of, in some cases, worthlessness. There's a lot of emphasis on sin, where people feel as if a burden comes off them, where they're able to admit that they are not perfect, that they don't fulfill the sort of self-reliance stereotypes that they're supposed to.

And for women, this is also a way of affirming their essential worth and dignity, that they have somehow been singled out by God for some kind of special role in the world.

Are we talking about Christian people converting from Episcopalian to Baptist or Methodist, or are we talking about unchurched people turning to Christianity?

The revivals attract both groups of people. There are some who are not churched at all. But there are also, when we look at church records, when we're able to really trace who's converting, often they have either parents or grandparents who did belong to the church, and they just haven't had their moment of conversion yet. And these revivals are a way of bringing in children who seem to have rejected what their parents had taught them. And what they end up embracing is a different kind of Christianity, a sort of more populist Christianity that's often hierarchical or more visionary.

But there are large numbers of people in the early 19th century who don't belong to any particular church at all, and this causes a lot of anxiety for some ministers, who again feel as if, if they can't Christianize ordinary people, then the republic isn't going to survive.

So there are lots of Americans in the West unchurched, un-Christian?

There are lots of people wandering around, not only on the frontier in the West but in old Puritan communities, who are not very interested in religion or have rejected the religion of their parents.

I think a good example for this is Joseph Smith, who becomes the founder of the Mormons. When he tells his story, he says, "All these different churches in the early 19th century said that they had the truth, and I didn't know which one to believe, so therefore I believed none of them." So I think for many people, there's this sort of confusion. They don't want to belong to the church that their parents or grandparents belonged to.

There's also a fair degree of skepticism. This is an unusual period in American religion. It's probably the most skeptical period in the late 18th century. There are large numbers of people who are influenced by deism, who still believe that the world was created by God, but they don't have in mind the same sort of God as evangelicals do. Their God is not a God who's intimately involved in the world. God is a kind of distant figure who created the world according to natural laws and is now standing back and watching it run. But this is not a God that you pray to. This is not a God who intervenes in the world.

So I think historians have sometimes underestimated -- because there aren't any deist churches, we don't really have a way of counting who believed these things. But there's evidence, even from people who end up converting to Methodism or who become Baptist, [who] will talk about their skepticism in their youth. So it does seem as if the late 18th century is a time of skeptical ferment, where a lot of people wonder whether the old Christian orthodoxy can survive.

So these skeptical people walk into Cane Ridge in 1801, and suddenly they see God.

Not everybody who goes to these revivals ends up converting. And in fact, there's always a crowd of people standing on the periphery who are just watching. And in fact, these camp meetings do become the scene of a lot of drinking, carousing, fighting, because there are a lot of people who just show up to watch, and it's like a party.

When I was reading some church records once, I just thought it was so funny. The selectman in a town in New Hampshire passed a last-minute law forbidding the sale of alcohol in the streets before a camp meeting arrived in their town, because they knew that there would be a lot of people who showed up just to drink and to watch. ...

But the surprising thing is that there are a number of men and women who claim that they came to scoff, or they claim they were just curious, who hear something or see something, or who are so influenced by the behavior of people around them. Imagine if you walked into a clearing and people all around you were crying, and people all around you were on their knees, and they were begging for God's forgiveness. I think it would be very hard not to be affected by that at all, not to start thinking about your own life.

And apparently this is what happens, that people come, and when they're surrounded by other people who are praying out loud, who are talking about their sins, who are weeping, who seem to be suffering and then who have this experience of joy and redemption, so that people who have been converted begin crying out in joy or shouting or saying that they feel as if a burden has rolled off them. ...

Conversions increase. Why does this matter for America at that moment?

The revivals, in some ways, end up being what the ministers want them to be, which is a kind of glue that links people together at a time where huge numbers of immigrants are arriving, where people are going out West. I think it's [Notre Dame professor] Mark Noll who has argued that there are more ministers in the early republic than there are postal workers. There are huge numbers of ministers who are knitting the nation together in some ways.

Now, this fabric, it's going to turn out not to be enduring. Ministers can't seem to stitch together the North and the South, so they aren't able to create a coherent national culture that really endures. But for a period of time, up until the Civil War, there's a kind of Protestant ethic that shapes American culture.

I think we're all familiar in the United States today with ideas of America as a kind of redeemer nation or a "city on a hill." These are ideas that are really fomented by evangelicals in the 19th century. They stretch back all the way to the Puritans, but evangelicals in the 19th century feel strongly that America has a special Protestant destiny. And in fact, when some of the early historians in the 19th century write about the founding of America, they claim that it was no coincidence that America is discovered around the same time as the Reformation takes place. So Robert Baird, who is a historian writing in 1844, claims that God had destined America to be a Protestant nation and to be an example for the rest of the world.

Was the politics less important than the religion in how America felt about itself?

I think all of these things are intertwined. Religion and politics are certainly linked. A lot of the political ideas about America as a nation-state had Protestant foundations. You can trace, for example, later-19th-century imperialism to some of these ideas about America's chosenness and America's identity as a city on a hill, as a model for other nations. You could trace that all the way into the 20th century, with the conflicts that have erupted more recently. So there's certainly a political dimension to these revivals.

The revivals really reshape American life in a lot of ways. They also give a great impetus to social reform movements. There are temperance organizations that are founded out of the revivals. Also there is a lot of anti-slavery activism that's linked to this kind of religious fervor. Some historians, I think, have exaggerated the connection between evangelicalism and anti-slavery. There are many liberal Protestants -- for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe -- who grew up in an evangelical family but ended up rejecting that faith. There are liberals who are strongly committed to anti-slavery, and they're much more radical than evangelicals. So the link between the revivals and social reform is there, but there are also social reformers who are not involved in the revivals.

What is special about Methodism?

Methodism is the great success story of the 19th century. In fact, if Methodism had not existed before the American Revolution, you would have thought that it was invented specifically for the early American republic. It's remarkable how well attuned it is to the needs of people in the wake of the American Revolution.

Methodists seemed quite radical in America before the Revolution. They preached a gospel of free will. They argued that people could choose whether or not to be saved or damned. This completely flew in the face of the old Calvinist orthodoxy. Congregationalists and Presbyterians argued that humans don't have that sort of freedom; they can't choose whether or not to be saved; they're elected by God, and there's nothing they can do to affect their own salvation.

In the wake of the Revolution, there is this great surge of optimism where people feel as if they have a greater sense of agency that they have managed to defeat the British Empire. It's very hard for people living in the early 19th century to believe that they were capable of winning the Revolution but they're not capable of influencing whether or not they're going to go to heaven. So Methodists offer a kind of gospel of free will that makes a lot of sense to people in this context.

It's not only political. There are also economic changes going on that I think pave the way for Methodism. This is the era of the market revolution. There are many consumer goods now for sale. People can go to the marketplace and make a greater variety of choices about what to buy and, by extension, how they want to portray themselves, how they want to fashion their identities. In that sort of economic environment, it's, again, very hard for Americans to believe that there's nothing they can do, that there are no choices they can make about their ultimate fate.

So Methodists ask people to change their relationship with God.

Methodists are suggesting that people have the power to make choices about who they ultimately want to be; that a human being has the power to decide whether or not to be saved. ... You have the power to make the most important choice in your life.

Now, the frightening thing about Methodism, for people raised in the Calvinist tradition, is they also argue that not only can you choose to be saved, but you can fall away from grace. Calvinists said, once you feel as if you've been saved, there's no doubt; you are going to be saved. Methodists argue that God can withdraw God's grace, and it's possible that you will have gone through a conversion experience and then you backslide so badly that you've lost your grace, and you might still go to hell.

Did people's relationship with their God change?

... People had a greater sense of being able to do something to please God. Calvinists had said that humans are so depraved and sinful that there's nothing that we do, no matter how many virtuous behaviors, no matter how many good things you do, nothing you do can please God, because we are separated by such a vast gulf. God is sovereign, and humans are very small and insignificant and worthless. And the only reason that humans have any value at all is because God chooses, out of God's grace, to save some.

For Methodists, Methodists imagine a God who is closer to humans, who can be pleased by what humans do, who looks favorably on them when they're acting virtuously. So I think there's a less distant God and a somewhat less forbidding God. This is a God who certainly can be wrathful but who has extended the possibility of salvation to everybody. ...

Sounds singularly American, the deal making between an individual and God.

I think that's absolutely right. I think the reason that Methodism becomes the largest Protestant denomination in America before the Civil War is that it is uniquely adapted to the needs of Americans in those early years. And the sort of emphasis on free will, the ability to remake yourself, these have become very American traits.

At the same time, I think we need to be careful. Methodists were trying to maintain some separation between themselves and American culture. So, for example, even though they're protocapitalist in many ways, they argue that the greatest virtue in a person is self-denial and not self-interest. This really flies in the face of a capitalist economy that's built on self-interest. All of these Protestant denominations -- and these include the Calvinist as well as the so-called Arminian, the Methodist as well -- all preached that the way to go to heaven was to pick up the cross of self-denial.

People's relationships to self -- man, wife, slave, master -- change with Methodism?

Evangelicalism represents -- and especially in its early years, in the early 19th century -- a real challenge to dominant American understandings of both gender and race. This does not last very long, unfortunately.

But in the early 19th century, the Methodists, for example, are opposed to slavery. They also allow some women to preach. ... There are more than 100 women who are preaching in early America.

They also allow enslaved men to preach. In fact, the Methodists and the Baptists license some of these men to serve as exhorters. So they actually raise them into a position of authority on their plantations. ...

There's a camp meeting in New Hampshire in 1817, where Clarissa Danforth, who is a very popular female preacher, shared the pulpit with Charles Bowles, who was a black Freewill Baptist preacher. When I think about that event and what it was like for people in the audience -- in New Hampshire, of all places, a white audience -- to see a white woman and a black man standing together in the pulpit and preaching, this is a really remarkable moment where what the Freewill Baptists are doing in that instant is to symbolize that they're different from everybody else. And there's no way to symbolize that better than to put a woman and an African American in the pulpit.

And that had traction with people's consciences at that time?

There were many people who really supported these women and also African American preachers, partially because they see them as not only a witness against a kind of fading establishment, but also a sign that God was doing something extraordinary in the world. These people think that the revivals are a work of God, and all the normal rules of life have been suspended. ...

Everyone is supposed to be together, the glue for this new republic, and yet [there's] this Methodist need to stand apart. There's a tension there.

Early evangelicals, or some early evangelicals, the new sectarian groups that emerge after the American Revolution -- so the Methodists, the Freewill Baptists, a group called the Christian Connection -- these are groups that in their early years are trying to be countercultural. This doesn't last very long. Historians and sociologists have often noticed that sectarian groups, if they're going to survive, have to make some accommodation to the dominant culture. So these groups that start off as being critics of the Congregationalists and Presbyterian orthodoxy end up becoming very popular. And as they become popular, they're trying to pass on their faith to the next generation, and they end up creating some of the kinds of institutions that they had originally protested against.

The Methodists, I think, are the most dramatic example of this, where they're extremely small in the wake of the American Revolution. By 1844, they have more than a million members, and they are no longer the counterculture. They are the establishment.

Along the way, they have changed many of their foundational beliefs. Many early Methodists had been anti-slavery. By the 1820s, that has disappeared. Many of the early Methodists allowed women to preach. Again, by the 1820s and 1830s, that had disappeared.

There's a famous trial -- or famous among Methodists -- in the 19th century, where a woman named Sally Thompson, who'd been preaching for more than 10 years, was actually put on trial because she refused to stop preaching, and was excommunicated from the church for insubordination.


This is a woman who had been very popular, but as the Methodists grew more powerful, they wanted to be as respectable as the denominations that they had once criticized. The very early Methodist ministers, many of them had been uneducated. They had not gone to seminary. They justified their right to preach on the grounds that they had heard a call or maybe seen a vision; that they didn't need to be educated because God himself had educated them.

By the 1820s and 1830s, they're starting to build seminaries to train men for the ministry. The socioeconomic profile of the denomination changes. ... Methodists in the 1790s had been worshiping in barns, and by the 1840s they're worshiping in cathedrals. They're well off; they have an educated ministry; and frankly, they're embarrassed by some of what they permitted in their early years in this kind of flush of revival enthusiasm.

What made women and blacks suddenly become acceptable to stand at a pulpit and preach?

If you think about early Methodism, for example, and the fact that most Methodist ministers were not educated, most of them claim that their authority to preach came from some kind of direct experience of God, they're really not in a position to say that a woman or a slave, who claim to have also had a direct experience of God, was not qualified somehow to stand up and speak about it. ...

But there are also limitations. I don't want to overstate the kind of radicalism of these early sectarian evangelicals. They never suggested, for example, that women should be ordained or that African American men should be ordained. They were allowed to speak because male ministers believed that they had an urgent message from God. A lot of these women and slave preachers also claimed that they were speaking God's words. ... They're not actually speaking their own words; they're speaking as God's instrument.

Was there a macho quality to the uneducated Methodist preacher? Religious pluralism allowed a different kind of person to come to the fore.

This is partially the American Revolution, where there's an anti-authoritarian rhetoric, and it extends not only from politics to religion. There are many people now who claim that the old established churches are too formal, that they care more about education than actual spirit, the Holy Spirit or divine inspiration, and they go back to this old Protestant idea that anybody can read the Bible for himself or herself, and they turn that into a justification for allowing anybody who claims to have had a kind of religious experience into the pulpit. ...

This beating heart versus intellectual pulse that takes over American religion, is this the dialectic that continues? Is this where its roots come from?

Yes. Evangelicals in the early 19th century are picking up on some ideas from the First Great Awakening, but they really elaborate these ideas, and they take them in more radical directions. They argue that heartfelt religious experience is much more important than religious education. In fact, they criticize some of the established ministers for preaching a kind of formal religion that lacks the real spirit, that lacks the real heart. And they claim that what's important is that you yourself have been converted, that you have experienced divine grace, and that therefore you can share it with others. You can talk about what it feels like.

Do you think this has to do with the disestablishment of religion, the peculiarly American idea that the heart starts to rule the head?

The established churches that are so powerful in the 18th century are really undermined by the First Amendment. ... What happens with disestablishment is that these churches have to rely on persuasion rather than coercion to attract new members, and this opens up a whole field for other ministers to start competing. They have no formal recourse now, ... so that churches become part of what we now call civil society instead of the formal space of the government. They're like any other voluntary institution that exists in the 19th century -- temperance organizations, anti-slavery groups. They're kind of mediating structures between the family and the government. And once churches lose that privileged place, I think it's easier for people to imagine leaders as being drawn from the whole spectrum of the American public rather than from the elite, which is still, in fact, what they expect their politicians to be.

So social groups are linked to an evangelical movement. Why this linkage?

I think most of the people who were involved in the radical sectarian wing of evangelicalism were drawn mostly from the lower to lower-middling classes. What they were trying to do was to create churches that accorded with their own experiences, where they could lead themselves. ... And what they originally create looks very different from the Congregational and Presbyterian establishment.

Having created this, why did they move into the world of social reform?

... In the beginning, Methodists see themselves as standing apart from the world. They are a witness against American culture. They decry slavery, for example.

As they become larger and more powerful, they become more mainstream. They give up their opposition to slavery. They start thinking about Christianizing the social order instead of standing apart from it. And this is where they become then involved in temperance. They now think the world can be saved. They're not standing as critics denouncing the world in the way that the old biblical prophets had, prophesying destruction to a corrupt regime. They are now trying to work within the structures of American culture to change it.

What was wrong with American culture, and why change it in that particular way?

There's a lot of concern in the early 19th century, during these revivals, that many people are not touched by revivalism at all. One of the great concerns has to do with the rise of industrial capitalism and the new kinds of wage-earning relationships that are developed. There are many employers who, frankly, exploit their workers, who work them very long hours. This is before any kind of minimum-wage legislation or maximum-hour legislation. ...

They're also worried about intemperance, which I think, in the wake of Prohibition, Americans laugh about, but actually in the 19th century the way that intemperance was understood was as a problem of domestic violence. And this is at a time when women did not have control over the family money. The first Married Women's Property Act wasn't passed until 1848. So if you were a woman and you were married to a man who was a drunkard, ... your husband could spend all the money that you had. If you were a woman and working, your husband could take your wages and spend them on alcohol. And according to a lot of reformers, what this alcoholism was driving was domestic violence and domestic abuse. So the way that intemperance was understood in the 19th century was as a kind of family problem; that it was harming marriages, harming children and harming women.

Isn't that what government is for? Why did religious evangelicals decide to start these social groups? Shouldn't they all be lobbying their congressmen?

The government was on a much smaller scale in the early 19th century than what we have today, and there were a lot of arguments between Federalists and Republicans about the scope of government power. Should power be centralized in the government, or should it be dispersed to the states? The kinds of social welfare mechanisms that we have in the government today did not exist then.

So, for example, if you were very poor, the best place to go for help would be a church. You could get some relief from the state, but you'd probably end up in an almshouse or an institution, which really would have been brutal. ...

So we're not just talking about glue. We're talking about filling a gap.

Churches provided a lot of social services in the 19th century. ... This is especially true in African American communities, where on slave plantations there is no institutional structure for slaves at all. What they create instead are these kind of informal churches on plantations, where they've chosen somebody to be a minister or a leader, or perhaps there's a man who's been licensed by the Methodists or Baptists to serve as an exhorter, so that these spaces become very important as the backbone of the community. ...

This role of social reform in connection with religion, did this help in the democratization of America, the sense of citizenship?

I think that citizenship and Protestantism are closely associated for most people in the early 19th century. This is part of the reason that there's so much anti-Catholicism and that Catholic immigrants face such persecution when they come.

The schools, for example, are based on a Protestant curriculum. They're reading the King James version of the Bible. Protestants actually don't see this as being a problem. They argue that it's not sectarian because it's not any particular denomination's views that are being promulgated. It's not the Baptist view or the Methodist view. It's sort of just the religious view. ...

This is religious imperialism. Why does America need to be Protestant? That's not what the First Amendment says.

The First Amendment made it possible for people to either believe or not believe as they pleased. But ministers in the early 19th century were very ambivalent about that and very nervous about that. What they were able to do was to create a culture, through these revivals, that was highly Protestant, that then tried to rewrite the intention of the Founders.

We have these arguments today about what did the Founders intend with the First Amendment or with the Constitution. These arguments began even in the 1830s and 1840s. Before the Civil War, there were Protestants who wanted an amendment to declare that America was a Christian nation. This shows you, I think, some of the anxiety about the Protestant identity of the nation, that ministers wanted to achieve it by fiat as well as by holding these revivals. In many ways, of course, they're very successful, but it's never enough for them. They want some sort of declaration in the founding documents that America is Protestant.

What's the fear? What are they worried about?

They're worried about a number of things. They're worried that if Protestantism is not the kind of official religion that there will be no incentive for people to behave morally. Even in the 20th century, you have arguments about the reading of the Bible in public schools, where people are afraid that if you stop reading the Bible, people are going to lose any sense of right or wrong; that you need to teach children the Ten Commandments in school, or else they're going to grow up to be immoral, and they won't be good citizens.

But I think we also have to remember that in the early 19th century we have the beginnings of this large wave of Catholic immigration. And part of what unites these various evangelicals -- who are often warring among themselves about what the revivals mean, or who should be able to preach -- what unites them is a deep anxiety and distrust of this growing Catholic population. They identify America as a reformed country, but now it seems as if the pope has come to visit them. They have not escaped this. And they seem to honestly believe that there's a kind of Roman Catholic conspiracy to take over the country. It seems illogical, but when you read their memoirs, they have a real fear that Catholics are trying to destroy Protestantism.

The evidence of which is?

There really is no firm evidence, given the fact that most of the Catholic immigrants are rather poor and not exactly well organized to mount a coup on the American government.

But these are deep issues that go back to the Protestant Reformation; that from the time of the Reformation, Protestants identify the Catholic Church as the enemy, as the Antichrist. These attitudes come with them when they arrive in America. And when Catholic immigrants begin appearing, they are afraid that Catholics are obedient, first and foremost, to the pope, and that they cannot be good citizens, because if they have to choose between allegiance to the government and allegiance to the Catholic Church, they will choose allegiance to the Catholic Church. ...

What are the Protestants saying to persuade Catholics to change their faith?

Protestants are going to Catholics and saying, "You have been forbidden to think for yourself." This was the common argument, that Catholics were not allowed to make their own decisions or to think for themselves. And so Protestant missionaries would go and say to a Catholic: "You're an American now. You can be free. You don't have to take orders from your priest. You don't have to take orders from the pope. You are a free citizen, and you can make your own decisions about how to read the Bible and what you believe." So they cloak this all in a rhetoric of freedom, but of course what they're trying to do is to deprive Catholics of their freedom to worship as they please.

It sounds unbelievably arrogant and disingenuous to talk about freedom.

Protestant missionaries have a deep sense that they are inspired by God and that they are right. There are very few examples of Protestants having any sort of qualms about what they're doing as they try to convert Catholics, because they honestly believe that they are the chosen ones, that America is the redeemer nation, and that -- it is actually quite arrogant -- that they have been called to Christianize first America and then the nation and then the world.

You notice I use the word "Christianize," which is a word that they use. But of course when they say "Christianize," they really mean "Protestantize." But they claim the word "Christian" for themselves. Catholics are something else. Protestants are Christians.

American exceptionalism: Our way is right, and you'll see the error of your ways and get onboard the bus.

Protestants in the 19th century create this very strong sense of themselves as the guardians of American culture, and they really keep that through the 20th century. Now, in the 20th century, there are arguments about which Protestants are going to take on that role that used to be the main line, sort of who the Methodists became. Since the 1970s, it's been evangelicals who have claimed that role as the guardians of American culture. But there have always been groups of Protestants who have claimed that they know what's best for the country and that they need to be involved, even on the level of politics, in shaping America's role in the world.

What does that do to the question of liberty, freedom of conscience, to have this contradiction running through American political-religious history?

... Freedom can be quite dangerous, and I think Americans are both wedded to freedom and nervous about where it might lead. ...

So because America has always been dominated by Christians -- even today, it's still a huge percentage of the population, something akin to 90 percent who, when asked, identify themselves as being Christian. In theory, they want to extend freedom to other religious groups, but in practice, they want certain kinds of accommodations or special recognition for the faith that's their own.

They've tried various ways to make this argument. Evangelicals of late have tried to argue that the Founders actually intended America to be a Christian country, which is a very hard argument, in fact, to make on the basis of the actual documents, but it hasn't actually stopped right-wing evangelicals from trying to make this argument. There are websites, like there's one called Christian America where, when you go, they have quotes from people like Benjamin Franklin that are assembled to try to show you that these Founders actually had a deep belief in God.

But it will be a quote like Benjamin Franklin invoking the "father of lights" or the "divine creator," not your typically evangelical language for discussing God. But evangelicals have tried to erase that inconvenient part of American history to suggest that America has always had this deep Christian identity. ...

More generally, what are Americans frightened of with this idea of liberty?

Just as in the early 19th century, [when] Americans were afraid about whether the republic would survive, I think there are people who are worried that there's nothing that holds Americans together; that there's no sort of common identity, common sense of purposes; and that it could all just splinter in a million different directions.

This is part of the reason, I think, that some evangelicals were so concerned about the culture wars: What are we teaching in schools? What's the university curriculum? They want some kind of core that says, "This is who we are; this is who we always have been," instead of allowing people to decide who we've been or who we want to be. So there's a lot of anxiety about what it means to be an American. Is that a coherent identity? Is there a one amid the many? Or is it just pluralism for its own sake, with no core there?

And that's why religion and Protestantism play such a powerful part?

I would say, until the election of John F. Kennedy, Protestantism was seen as the glue. In the wake of Kennedy's election, and then especially in the wake of Vatican II, which really profoundly changed the Catholic Church, there was then room made for Catholics as well.

And then you get this very odd term, ... "Judeo-Christian." What this exactly means is not clear, but it's an attempt to be tolerant. I mean, the term is positive in the sense that people use it because they don't want to sound discriminatory. So we now have this sense that America is a Judeo-Christian country, which then excludes others, like Muslims.

So there have been attempts to widen America's religious identity, but today it seems very important for people to point to this Judeo-Christian identity, which includes Catholics.

One of the most remarkable features of the modern world is the way that evangelicals and Catholics have mostly made peace. Now, there still are evangelicals like John Hagee who are virulently anti-Catholic. He got into a lot of trouble for endorsing John McCain, and when some of his statements about Catholics came out, he got a lot of press. But for the most part, evangelicals have embraced Catholics as allies in particular causes, like the movement to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Isn't America always anxious at this time? Isn't this just a condition of people living in difficult times, dealing with difficult issues?

I think the Revolution contributes to this sense of instability. There are all different kinds of phases of this. There's the personal issues about mortality and disease, which I think it's very hard for us to imagine. People lost a lot of children back then. This was just a normal part of life. So when you're trying to make sense of losing children, I think you can understand why people would go searching for religious reasons.

Perhaps the greatest symbol of the kind of anxiety in the early republic is the growth of the Millerite movement in the 1840s. William Miller was a farmer who had fought in the Revolutionary War, and like other evangelicals, he believed that he could read and interpret the Bible for himself. When he started doing that, he was adding up dates from some of the prophetic books of the Bible, and he decided that the world was going to end in 1843, and he actually managed to convince hundreds of thousands of Americans, from what we can tell, that in fact the world was going to end in 1843.

To imagine how people could have thought that, you have to go back and think, they really felt as if they were living in a time of great change, of dramatic change, and that this was actually the end of history. This was not just like another bumpy period, but this in fact was going to be the culmination of the entire world and that the Messiah was going to appear, and that there was going to be this conflagration after some people were raptured up into the heavens. Now of course the world didn't end in 1843, but Miller went back to his prophetic books, and he made some more calculations and decided the world would end in 1844. And supposedly there were huge numbers of people who settled up their debts, who stopped plowing their fields and who were standing out waiting on that date in October in 1944 for Christ to come from the heavens.

So we've had these sorts of premillennial movements in American history before, but I think never one that was as strong or as popular as that one. And I think that shows you the extent to which people thought that they were living in an extraordinary time, a time that could possibly mark the very end of the world.

What happened to Miller?

... Some of the Millerites fell away, but a lot of them regrouped, and Seventh-day Adventism traces its roots back to Ellen White, who was a Millerite, who then came up with another explanation [that] Christ had actually come spiritually. He had not come literally to earth, but there had been something that had happened in the high heavens on that date.

The American Bible Society [said] the only copies in English to be circulated by the Society shall be the [King James] version now in common use. What did this mean?

Protestants were very concerned that only the King James version of the Bible be read. The Catholic version of the Bible included some material that Protestants had decided was extrabiblical, that did not belong in the canon, and they wanted only the King James version to be read in the schools.

Part of this is that they wanted to have the opportunity to introduce Catholic as well as Protestant children to the King James version so that they could convince them the Protestant understanding of the Gospel was the true one.

By saying only, what were the consequences of reading another kind of Bible?

... One of the common accusations that Protestants made against Catholics is that they were not allowed to read the Bible. This was not true. But it was true, in fact, that for the way a Catholic worship service worked, this was not a major part of the service. But there were rumors that priests were burning Bibles.

One of the most salacious anti-Catholic tales published in the 19th century was called The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. This was a story that, as far as we can tell, was completely fabricated by, in fact, a group of Protestant ministers and reformers with a rather unstable, unhappy woman named Maria Monk, whose only contact, as far as we know, with a Catholic institution had been a home for unwed mothers when she gave birth to a child.

But she published, with their help, a tale about her imprisonment actually in a convent in Canada. She claimed that when she became a nun, she thought she was becoming part of this wonderful religious institution, but that as soon as she took her vows, she found out all kinds of terrible things about the Catholic Church. One of the first things she finds out is that she's not allowed to read the Bible. Anything that she's going to know about religion will be told to her by the priests. And the priests tell her some things that are not in the Bible, like how all the Catholic sisters are going to become sexual slaves to the priests, and how in fact in the basement there's a huge pit of lime where the infants that are born of these liaisons are murdered and buried.

This was one of the most popular books in America before the Civil War. It was second only to Uncle Tom's Cabin in terms of the numbers of copies it sold. It was widely read. ...

There were some newspapers in New York that raised doubts about Maria Monk's credibility. She had had some kind of accident as a child where she had been stabbed with a lead pencil and had lead poisoning, had had a child out of wedlock, was living with various men at different times. But the story hit so well on all the anti-Catholic themes in Protestant culture in the 19th century that many people insisted that it was true.

And it's a little bit today like reading The Protocols for the Elders of Zion. It's a very specific document. Maria Monk gives you a lot of very specific information about priests, about what they were wearing, about what happened. So it's a very compelling read and a very convincing read. And frankly, even when I teach it to my graduate students, they have trouble sometimes treating it as a fictional portrait rather than as the truth.

[Anglican preacher] George Whitefield, a curious anomaly. What was he like?

... He had a kind of charisma that is difficult to understand. Sociologists have tried to explain what is it that makes some people have this kind of power when they speak, and it's very hard to put your finger on. But Whitefield, in public anyway, clearly had this incredible drawing power. In private, he seems actually to have been sometimes rather cold. His letters to his wife are not exactly warm and intimate. He seems to have thrived more on the stage, in interaction with other people, than in the intimate spaces, one on one. ...

It's almost as though he were a born actor. That was a conflict for him?

Whitefield had been very attracted to actors when he was younger. But Protestants were very uneasy about acting as a profession. They thought it was blasphemous, for example, to stand on stage and to invoke God's name if you didn't really mean it. There were also a lot of criticisms that acting was effeminate. ...

Yet that's what he did. He got up on stage, put on a costume and performed.

Whitefield was probably one of the greatest actors of the 18th century. He probably could have rivaled David Garrick on stage. He had a remarkable voice, apparently, that you could hear from very far away.

There's a famous story from Benjamin Franklin, where Franklin supposedly came to see Whitefield preach on the Philadelphia Common, and was just curious. But he actually claimed to be standing far on the outskirts of the crowd, but he could hear every single word that Whitefield said -- Whitefield's articulation was that clear -- and that also, that even Franklin, who was a skeptic, was moved by what Whitefield was saying, so that when Whitefield started asking for charitable donations for his orphanage in Georgia, he found it impossible not to put money in the plate. In fact, he claims that he first put one coin and then he put two coins, and finally he emptied his entire pocket, because he just couldn't hear Whitefield speak without being moved in that way.

Why did Americans respond to Whitefield and to this idea of rebirth?

... He was a sensation. ... He was incredibly good at publicizing himself. He often sent pieces of his journals ahead so that they would be published in the newspaper. So before he got to Boston, for example, people there had read about his travels elsewhere, and they wanted to see the man in person.

But on a deeper level, the 18th century is a time of great transformation. There, of course, are local issues going on in particular communities. For example, there are epidemics in some of these New England communities where the revivals start. There's a lot of anxiety about war with France. But there are also larger economic and social changes happening at the time, and intellectual changes, where it seems as if there's a new kind of Christianity that is needed to help people make sense of the changes reshaping their lives.

For example, this is the time that historians identify -- almost the exact same window of time -- with the so-called consumer revolution, when you have huge numbers of new goods flooding into American ports. And so people have all these economic choices that they didn't have before.

This is also a time of intellectual ferment, where historians tend to see the Enlightenment as more of a radical or European phenomenon, but in fact there are colonists who are reading British Enlightenment writers, the so-called moderate Enlightenment figures like John Locke, or Scottish Enlightenment figures like the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury [Anthony Ashley Cooper] and Francis Hutchinson. So there are new ideas as well about how we experience the world, how we know things. And in some ways you can see the revivals as an attempt to bring Christianity up to date with these new economic and intellectual realities. ...

What was it like for a hardscrabble farmer, connecting with God in this new way?

We have a wonderful document from a farmer named Nathan Cole, which I think is one of the most valuable documents from the Great Awakening, where he tells us numerous things. First he tells us about what it was like to know that George Whitefield was coming to preach. And the way he describes it, he's out in his fields -- he's a farmer -- and he hears the news from a neighbor, and he literally drops his farm implement, he gets his wife, they get the horse, and they start riding as fast as they can to the place where Whitefield's going to be holding this meeting. The horse gets tired, so sometimes both of them are running alongside of the horse; sometimes only one is on the horse. But they are so eager to get there that they literally drop everything. ...

But then on the personal level, Cole tells us about his anguish, that he has been afraid that perhaps he wasn't one of the elect. These are Calvinist revivals. Even though Whitefield seems to be calling people to make a free choice to repent, in some ways he's denying that people have that possibility. He portrays himself as a kind of instrument of God, that God has chosen him to be the instrument of awakening to others. But if God hasn't ordained that a particular person in the congregation be converted, that person won't be converted. So these are Calvinist revivals, and they involve a deep sense of helplessness.

So Nathan Cole has to confront the fact that he is very small and vulnerable and alone, and completely dependent on God's grace. And unless God has chosen him, he is nothing, and he will spend eternity in hell. So there's a real stripping away of everything else in a kind of existential confrontation with God, where the sinner is just so small and helpless, and God is so powerful and huge and frightening. So that these conversion experiences tend to be extremely intense, because the individual has to recognize how completely worthless and useless he or she is, without the help of God.

Some call it romantic, but that doesn't sound romantic. ...

It's a very personal, intimate experience. ... The imagery is usually of a smaller something being swallowed by something larger. This is a very powerful image of God. God is very loving in this theology, but God is also very wrathful and angry, and there are, in fact, people who will be going to hell.

Jonathan Edwards writes some of the most lyrical passages about God's beauty and his love for God, but he also penned one of the most frightening sermons in all of American history, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in which he imagines the sinner hanging by a tiny little thread over the pit of hell, and God is standing by with a pair of scissors. And the question is whether God is going to reach down and save that sinner, pluck that sinner into heaven, or whether God is going to use his scissors to send that sinner plunging into an abyss of eternal agony.

We read a young girl's description of a bull charging at her -- obviously God. It's not clear whether the bull stops or whether she's rescued or trampled.

For people who have come out the other side, for people who have had the experience of conversion, what happens is that they have refashioned God in a new image, so God is still wrathful, God is still angry, but God is not angry at them. So they're replacing a more forbidding image of God with a more gentle, compassionate image of Jesus as a savior.

But for many people, this experience takes a long time. And there can be weeks of agony of wondering whether or not one has been saved or not. And it can be a very painful experience.

It's not uncommon -- this is a sort of convention of these narratives -- for people to claim that they were in such despair that they considered suicide. This is both a sort of narrative convention, but I think there's some real emotion behind it. ... This woman, Sarah Osborn, whose diaries I've been reading, goes on for pages and pages about how she's vile, corrupt, filthy; she's no better than a dog's vomit. This is the sort of state of mind that she thinks God wants her to be in. ... The smaller you make yourself, in this theology, the larger you make God. This seems to be the appeal of it.

It's extremely painful to read some of these narratives, and does not at all seem like contemporary evangelicalism, which is much more focused on God as the loving savior. ...


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Published October 11, 2010

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