Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

By James H. Hutson | Go to book overview

TWO
RELIGION IN EIGHTEENTH- CENTURY AMERICA

For a long time, scholars argued that the salt of religion lost its savor in America after 1700. Religion, it was held, became cold and formal in the towns and all but disappeared along the expanding frontiers. The country's first major religious revival, the Great Awakening of the 1740s, is represented as giving Christianity a temporary boost, but, after the Awakening spent its force, religion is pictured as sinking back into a rut. By the time of the American Revolution, an indifferent population is seen as acquiescing in the program of leaders, nominally Christian, but committed to the agenda of the Enlightenment, who proceeded to send religion to the sidelines of American life.

This view is wrong, say recent authorities: according to one expert, religion in the eighteenth century was actually in the "ascension rather than the declension"; another sees a "rising vitality in religious life" from 1700 onward; a third goes even further and finds religion in many parts of the colonies in a state of "feverish growth."1

How did earlier scholars miss these positive trends in eighteenth-century religion? It appears that they were too credulous in accepting at face value pessimistic assessments of the colonial religious environment by clergymen, who inflated their own importance by picturing themselves as struggling to save a society that was settling into infidelity.

Reports of Anglican missionaries of the SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts) have been particularly susceptible to misinterpretation. In dispatches to superiors in London, often swallowed whole by historians, these emissaries of the Church of England frequently claimed that America was a spiritual wasteland, overrun by "unruly, Beasts" such as "St. Paul [had] to encounter." "Heathens and heretics," they continued, "superabound in these parts. Africa has not more monsters than America."2 If the missionaries' reports are read in full, however, the truth emerges: the "monstrous heretics" of America were no more than zealous Quakers and Presbyterians, "stiff Dis

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