God in America
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Interview: Stephen Marini

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 the imperative of Ferdinand and Isabella to come the New World?

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.

What did Spain want from the New World that they were prepared to do this?

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.

Why?

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. …

Winthrop is on this piece of rocky land, trying to make it work. [What was he like?]

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." …

What is it about this Baptist cry [that appeals] to Jefferson?

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