Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism

Article excerpt

American Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism. By Chris Beneke. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2006. Pp. xii, 305.)

In this, Professor Beneke's first book, Americans of the colonial and early republic eras come to embrace diversity in religion as a means of transforming their discrete societies into a unified republic rooted in majority rule. In describing this progression, the author consistently recognizes the importance of belief to early Americans. Homogeneity of religious belief, values, and practices within localities or regions served as the basis of community in colonial America. Diversity threatened not only American communitarianism, but also the possibility of united colonies. Therefore, the growth of toleration was a significant development, and served as the basis upon which to establish a new and larger community during the Revolutionary era.

Beneke's text is exceptionally well written, exhaustively researched, and modestly argued. It begins with a concise, yet rich depiction of the religious absolutism present in Colonial America. Intolerance was rooted in an absolute belief in one truth and in the acceptance of God's directive to spread that truth. Colonies were formed as enclaves of like believers protected by civic and church laws. "Within such a context, dissent was more than wrong. It was seditious" (p. 22). However, as the seventeenth century passed, Americans found that an increasingly diverse population compelled changes in behavior and attitudes. Toleration, as "an instrument of prudent statecraft," was reinforced by a "radical political ideology known as liberalism that asserted 'liberty of conscience' as an individual right" (p. 32). Later in the eighteenth century Americans came to "the radical conviction that true liberty of conscience could only be experienced through public discussion" (p. 43). The growth of printed materials disseminating dissenting views, "irreverence for authority and disdain for formal distinctions" explain the rapid rise of tolerant perspectives prior to the Revolution (p. 51). Beneke sees the Great Awakening as fostering the growth of ecumenism by challenging traditional religious authorities and accepting all expressions of genuine faith rooted in Christian concepts as ultimately different forms of the same truth. …