Saturday, May 8, 2010

Historians on America's Christian Roots

A Religious History of the American People, Sydney E Ahlstrom, David D. Hall, Yale University Press, 1992.

Ahlstrom explains that Christianity and religion factored heavily the development of both Tory and Patriot sentiment, but increasingly aligned with the Patriots and "powerfully" engendered that sentiment:

"The years of mounting crisis found the churches implicated on both sides of every issue under debate, but in general they became increasingly identified with the Patriot tide of opinion and contributed powerfully to its rise." (p. 361).

"In the South, however, the Anglican laity joined the Patriot cause and furnished much of its leadership.  All in all, the Protestant disposition of the American people, regardless of how secularized their Puritanism had become, involved their viewing the king and English rule with suspicion."  (ibid.)

"Enlightenment motifs continued to prevail [after the military phase of the Revolution] but more than ever these motifs were modified by a realistic hardheartedness and absence of illusion about the sinfulness of men.  The Federalist Papers, published in 1787-88, as well as John Adam's defenses of the American constitutions, can be read as Puritan contributions to Enlightenment political theory" (p. 363).

An example of how Christianity influenced John Adams and guided those Enlightenment theories, according to Hall (p. 366), can be found in his Diary, 14 August, 1796:

"One great Advantage of the Christian Religion is that it brings the great Principle of the Law of Nature and Nations, Love you Neighbor as yourself, and do to others as you would that others should do to you,--to the Knowledge, Belief and Veneration of the whole People.  Children, Servants, Women and Men are all Professors in the science of public as well as private Morality.  No other Institution for Education, no kind of political Discipline, could diffuse this kind of necessary Information, so universally among all Ranks and Descriptions of Citizens."

The Christian Religion, Adams says, is the most effective way to "diffuse" the mind set that lead to the Revolution for American freedom.

Wilderness Lost:  The Religious Origins of the American Mind, David Ross Williams, 1987, Associated University Press, Inc., Cranbury, NJ.

"American hostility towards Great Britain had existed long before the imperial administrators began to tighten their control over their colonial subjects.  The roots of that hostility were cultural, and because the roots of American culture were religious, this cultural animosity was at heart religious" (p. 128).

"The populace of New England was not about to allow an unconverted ministry and a mercantile elite to lead them away from the "popular culture" of "Puritanism."  Instead, they struggled in the face of vast historical changes to preserve the vision that had first inspired the saints.  They fought invisible forces...but they believed that one central sinister force was responsible for all the changes that threatened them.  They believed that theirs was a struggle between Satan and Christ" (p. 128).

"The enlightened John Adams may have articulated the grievances of the lawyers and merchants, but it was the Calvinist Samuel Adams, converted in the Great Awakening in 1741, who stirred the people to rebellion" (p. 129).

"In the woodcuts of the period, the figure of Satan whispering in the ears of the British and their allies was more than just a symbol of evil" (p. 129).

"Evidence of motivations is difficult to obtain," Williams explains.  "It is far easier to figure the cash value of a trading route than the psychological value of a beleaguered identity.  But evidence does exist that Americans at the time of the Revolution did view their struggle as a defense of Canaan against the encroachments of Egypt.  Both Evangelicals and rationalists carried in their heads images of themselves as warriors defending Israel from the Satan hordes" (p. 129).

Williams sites Joel T Headly's 1861 historical evaluation:

"In our Revloution, the religious element was not paramount, and hence did not give shape and character to the whole physical structure and organization [i.e., pastors weren't made commanders or troops organized by parish].  It kept more within is appropriate sphere, and stood behind and sustained the political and military organizations of the land, rather than formed a part of them.  But it is not on that account to be overlooked.  He who forgets or underestimates the moral forces that uphold or bear on a great struggle, lacks the chief qualities of a historian" (p. 129).

Williams goes on to quote Headly, that religion was 'the deep, solid substratum that underlaid the Revolution'" (p. 130).

Williams points out that, while trade and other issues might have been the motivation for what Francis Kinloch (delegate to the Continental Congress from South Carolina) called disappointed "smugglers in New England" yet  "Popular participation in the Revolution owed more to the example of the Old Testament that to John Locke" (p. 130).

Williams notes: "Perry Miller concluded that 'among the masses the Hebraic analogy was at least as powerful an incentive a the declaration of inalienable right.' And "As evidence, he quoted a 'typical communication' in the Boston Gazette for May 6, 1782.  'My dear countrymen,' it read, 'my sincere wish and prayer to God is, that our Israel may be saved from he rapacious jaws of a tyrant'" (p. 130).

Williams takes to task those who dismiss such analogies as "mere rhetoric":

"Such references to America as Israel abound in the literature of the Revolution.  To try to dismiss them as 'mere rhetoric' is to overlook the importance of 'mere rhetoric'  as a historical force.  It is by just such rhetoric, repeated until it becomes an unquestionable part of consciousness, that collective identity is created and reinforced....the people by their language revealed just how important their religious identity was" (p. 130).

Williams also importantly notes that common letters of the people from the period, such as those quoted by Perry Miller, "are among the few means historians have to generalize about the motivations of people who were not engaged in the public debate.  Some letters to friends and relatives in England have been collected and published, and these reveal just how important religion was in the revolutionary mind."  Williams goes on to cite one letter from 1774:  "The inhabitants of New England are the descendants of Cromwell's elect...the New Englanders and Congregationalists, and the Presbyterians everywhere..."

Williams cites other examples and concludes, "Clearly, these British sympathizers recognized that it was a religious sympathy that lay at the heart of the antagonism of the Americans to England" (p. 131).

Williams notes the popular use of Old Testament imagery to identify the cause of Liberty in the Liberty Riot of June 10, 1768.  Anne Holton, the daughter of a British Commissioner, witnessed the Riot and wrote this account:

"All was ended with a speech from one of the leaders concluding thus, 'We will defend our Liberties and property by the strength of our arm and the help of our God.  To your tens, O Israel" (p. 131).

The Literary History of the American Revolution 1763-1783, Moses Coit Tyler (professor of American History, Cornell University), Vol. II, 1776-1783, New York, GP Putnam's Sons, copyright 1897.

Coit was professor of American History at Cornell and his assessment of the role of the pulpit (chapter XXXV and on of his work) opens with this telling summation:

"'In America, as in the Grand Rebellion in England,' said a Loyalist writer of our Revolutionary time, 'much execution was done by sermons'" Had it been otherwise, there would now be cause for wonder.  Indeed, the preachers were then in full possession of that immense leadership, intellectual and moral, which had belonged to their order in America ever since its settlement, in England ever since the middle of the sixteenth century" (Coit, p. 278).

Coit notes that when July 20, 1775--during the tense time after the battles of Lexington and Concord--had been appointed by the Continental Congress as the first ever day "for all the English colonies on this continent as a day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer' and that it was observed in at least thirteen of those colonies, it was both the first general fast ever kept since the day of settlement of the country and also a "notable proof that these same American colonies had finally passed from the stage of local separatism into the stage of incipient national unity" (Coit, p. 284).

In other words, Coit says it was Congress' 1775 "day of humiliation, fasting and prayer" that was the first act that demonstrated a unified nation emerging!

Coit goes on to say, "On that day, therefore, from new Hampshire to Georgia, the pulpit became the organ of this new national consciousness--of this universal alarm and pain and hate and aspiration; it then spoke out in every tone natural to Englishmen, to freemen, and to Christians" (p. 284).

Coit catalogs a number of more prominent preachers' personal histories and sermon topics that intertwined with the Revolution:  Jacob Duché (Congress' first chaplain who later turned coat when Philadelphia fell to the British), Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and others.  These are just a few of the prominent preacher who reflected what was being said in nearly all pulpits of the day, according to Coit.  Their sermon topics hit matters head on.  Here are some of Brackenridge's titles:
  • The Bloody Vestiges of Tyranny
  • The Nature and Artifice of Toryism
  • The Fate of Tyranny and Toryism
  • The Agency of Heaven in the Cause of Liberty
  • The Blasphemy of Gasonade and the Self-Dependence in a Certain General
  • The Great Wrath of the Tyrant and the Cause of it
Each of these sermon topics, published for general consumption as well, were announced as "founded on the Scriptures."  (Coit, p. 299)

The point is that "radical" preachers were a very significant part of our own American Revolution.

The Tories in America (loyalists) were quick to use religious and Christian sentiment in their counter revolutionary literature and verse.   The Literary History of the American Revolution catalogs several chapters worth.  Among them is this popular poem, "The Congress" (spring 1776) meant to mock the Continental Congress and Revolution (Coit, p. 60):


"With freemen's rights they wanton play;
At their command, we fast and pray;
With worhless paper they us pay,
A fine device of Congress.
Good Lord!  disperse this venal tribe;
Their doctrine let no fools imbibe--
Let Balaam no more asses ride,
    Nor burdens bear to Congress."
 
While the poem also cites Greek and Roman mythology, yet the stanzas above appeal to the Christian culture they all shared in common.  And the reference to "fasting and praying" indicates what a major part this played in the foundation of the Nation under the Continental Congress and it's national days of prayer and fasting.  The Tory writer is likening the Congress' appeal to prayer in this cause to be equivalent to Balaam's dubious ministry.  The point, however, should not be missed that so noteworthy was the appeal to religious principles by the Congress that it is a handy point to try to turn on them by this Tory poet.

Critical Issues in American Religious History, Robert R. Mathisen

Mathisen cites one of the most prominent American historians, Henry F. May (professor emeritus of history, UC Berkley):

"'For the study and understanding of American culture, the recover of the American religious history may well be the most important achievement of the last thirty years.'  Writing these words in 1964, the eminent historian Henry F. May recognized that 'even for those students of American culture who do not find religious thought and practice intrinsically interesting, knowledge of religious history has become a necessity.'  May asserted that 'the recovery of American religious history has restored a knowledge of the mode, even the language, in which most Americans, during most of American history, did their thinking about human nature and destiny.'" (p. 1)

May's essay in Mathisen's compendium states the reason for talking about a "recovery" of American religious history--a topic parallel to today's early 21st century post-modern philosophical climate where radical secularists dominate the Internet blogs and popular media outlets as well as many University chairs:

"The recovery of religious history began in the 1930's...."  [Prior to that] "Puritanism," and the larger religious tradition loosely associated with it, was under heavy attack inside and outside historical circles" (Mathisen, p. 5)

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