U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Religious History is Intellectual History, No Qualifications Needed.

Historians of early America seem increasingly willing to incorporate religious history into the story of the founding of the republic. And as intellectual historians more generally have—quite reluctantly—admitted that religion is part and parcel of their subject matter over the years, so too has the intellectual history of early America conceded ground to scholarship of religion in early America. Some even would go as far as suggesting the appellation of ‘religious turn’ to explain the hold religious history has had over our discipline in recent years.

I’m not so sure, however, that such a sanguine view of our treatment of religious history is warranted. Certainly, recent contemporary indications that religion is not waning as an ideology have sent scholars in search of revisionary accounts of the modern period. And today even the most positivist scholars of the enlightenment and the coming of modernity resort to some degree to religion as a factor in their studies of the modern period. Nevertheless, in early American intellectual history—traditionally an influential subgenre in the area of ‘modernity studies’—religion still occupies a segregated space, at least to some degree. Far from being the first person promoting the notion that we still have not afforded religion its due place in the intellectual history of early America—it has been a talking point for many boosters of religious history and with good reason—I would nonetheless like to add some perspectives I have recently come across to the mix.

Take for instance the way we relate the consolidation of the American ‘nation.’ In most canonical intellectual accounts that trace the process of American nation building we engage with the writings of Jefferson, the debates over the Constitution, and legal discussions regarding the authority of the Federal government vis-a-vis state sovereignty. Together these help us unfold a narrative that links the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the political struggles of the early republic era with the convulsions that eventually led to the Civil War. Additionally, debates in intellectual history since the 1960s incorporated into this narrative a more nuanced understanding of republican and liberal intellectual traditions and how these plugged into the debates over the creation of the American nation. According to these renditions of our intellectual history we regard the concept of a sovereign political unit—the American nation—as deriving its meaning in American history first and foremost from its classical origins in the Greek and Roman polities that Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and others visited as they imagined and helped establish a republican polity.

Traditionally historians of the period have noted that Americans tended to use the word ‘nation’ when referring to their own polity less than other nations had, preferring the concepts of ‘union,’ ‘people, and ‘republic’ and the more territorially abstract terms ‘America’ and ‘Columbia.’(1) While I have not conducted an exhaustive examination of this, a short perusal of two of the most commonly consulted texts seems to suggest as much. In Notes on the State of Virginia, for example, Jefferson uses the word nation most often when referencing ‘Indian nations,’ while in the Federalist Papers—to use another commonly consulted text—the word commonly refers to European nations or nations in general. Both texts deploy the concept but usually not when alluding to the American nation.
Yet if we revisit texts on a larger scale from this period, we will find the word nation appearing very often—even when regarding the American republic. However, they do not appear in the context we might most expect them to—not necessarily in our most cherished canonical texts produced by the likes of Madison and Jefferson. Indeed, the word nation makes a much more common appearance in this period in tandem with religious vocabulary—less so in the context of discussions over legal and operative frameworks for the American republic or in dialogue with classical vocabulary. Many religious sermons leveraged for nationalist purposes and other invocations of the providential role of America from the period furnished Americans with the imagery of the nation. In fact when discussing the nation Americans seemed to conjure the biblical imagery associated with what they regarded as the Jewish nation of old, and its special covenant with god, quite consistently. And while historians have long recognized the significance of biblical symbolism for New England Puritans, they have been much slower to come around when considering the parts of our history of highest significance to our national mythologies—the creation of the nation. Books like Eran Shalev’s American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War have to some degree repaired this impression, but not quite enough.

As with most uncomfortable historical evidence, religion receives the ‘yes, but’ treatment—much like the treatment of histories of slavery and disenfranchisement in our shared understanding of America’s founding. ‘Yes,’ religion is important, ‘but’ let’s get back to the main storyline of early American intellectual history that relies on the earth-shattering intellectual achievements of enlightenment and humanist intellectuals. ‘Yes,’ attempts to place religion at the center of American ideology are well received, ‘but’ Mark Noll—for all his fantastic work on religion as the beating pulse of American history—is still viewed first and foremost as a historian of religion, not intellectual history. For all the breadth of research about the first and second great awakenings, we still view them as curious episodes in American history and regard the periodic revival of religious zeal in a country supposedly founded on very different intellectual principles as mysterious.

Aside from the general tendency towards American mythological structures intrinsic to any national history, there seems to be one other—more contemporary—agenda involved in subduing the role of religion in American history. The trenches dug during the last several decades of culture wars are to some degree, I think, to blame for this treatment of religion. The last thing most historians want to do is give more material to the right-wing gristmill to exploit in its insistence that Thomas Jefferson was a Christian zealot. The agenda shared by many historians towards a more historicist—and therefore purportedly more secular—account of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution leads many to view the work of the likes of Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll with suspicion. I know I shared those concerns, and still do.

The problem however is that they are right. Religion is no less central to American history and its ideas than the enlightenment, humanism, and classicism. The Bible has influenced ideas in America no less and probably much more than classical or even enlightenment texts. Furthermore, scholarship of religion in early American history cannot and should not be primarily a study of Puritans and Quakers as formative of an American habitus. And it certainly cannot employ a primarily Weberian approach that understands religion in America as a preparatory stage that laid the ground for later non-religious ideologies.

Indeed, if we really want to contend with the meaning of such key concepts as the nation, the people, or the Union in American history we must examine their meaning in the context of American Christianity, perhaps even before we evaluate them in light of enlightenment ideas. Even more importantly, we might also find that other, relatively marginalized, concepts and ideas occupied the minds of early Americans no less so than the well known concepts listed above. Religion was a more influential locus of ideas than the enlightenment or humanism in early America, and I, for one, know about it much less and have been taught about it much less.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting here that we must regard religion more favorably. On the contrary, as we continue to demystify the founding era of American history we must contend with the strong hold religious vocabulary and ideas have had over American ideology. Much of it might in fact reveal a quite questionable national and religious impetus. Sam Haselby’s recent book, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism—which is next on my secondary literature reading list—seems to point in that very direction.

[1] See for example Peter Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. No argument from me. You are singing my song Eran. Theological ideas are embedded in just about every idea American intellectual historians deal with. Religious thought shows up in Pragmatism, social theory, cultural criticism, economics and all the social sciences, feminism, racism, the political left and the right and it goes on and on. Religion is not everything but its every where. Yet there is hardly any training in theology and biblical literature that would give historians the vocabulary to recognize it when they encounter it. Outside of historians who specialize in religion or among those who grew up in religious homes, it’s not so much ignored as not seen in the first place. Thanks for the post.

  2. “‘Yes,’ attempts to place religion at the center of American ideology are well received, ‘but’ Mark Knoll—for all his fantastic work on religion as the beating pulse of American history—is still viewed first and foremost as a historian of religion, not intellectual history.“

    Could you expand on this part? Do you mean that intellectual historians view Noll as an historian primarily of “religion,” or that this image is shared by certain subsets in more general historical communities (Colonial- or Early-American historians, e.g. )?

    I’m wondering if Noll’s (and others, such as George Marsden) disclosure about his religious affiliations and beliefs leads one to use that label. It seems like the publications of Ann Taves and Robert Fuller can be seen as histories of “religious experience,” broadly conceived.

    Does the content, in your opinion, help determine the form from which they operate under (bodily experiences versus institutions and political or social manifestations)?

    • I guess what I really mean is that Noll did not yet achieve the kind of paradigmatic change that Bailyn had in the 1960s; I did not encounter him in any reading list I saw for the qualification exams; and most historians do not think of him first when we talk about the leading intellectual historians of this generation.
      I certainly think that these confessions have something to do with it, but I’m just now becoming more familiar with this historiography and don’t yet know enough about the subtext, which again is part of the problem.

      • It seems like Perry Miller is definitely seen as an “intellectual” historian.

        Whether that is due to his significance as a pioneer in that field or to his having had no prior, emotional attachment to Puritanism is, I guess, part of the answer?

  3. The turn to “lived religion” and material/visual culture by historians of American religion in the 1990s and early 2000s may also be a part of this story. The strand of intellectual/religious history represented by something like Norman Fiering’s Moral Philosophy at 17thc Harvard started to draw less interest. (Though it has recently been taken up in interesting ways among lit scholars – Sarah Rivett, Abram Van Engen, etc.)

  4. This is quite fascinating, though one could do the opposite following some of your conclusions: U.S. intellectual history is religious history!

    One way to get around some of these issues is stop reproducing the old binarisms: religion / secularism, or religion / humanism, or religion / enlightenment. One thing that secular studies has shown is that there is often not a clear divide in terms of these ideas and sentiments; there is more overlap and crossfertilization than secularist approaches to modernity would have us think.

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