Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America

Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America

Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America

Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America

Synopsis

In this pathbreaking study, colonial historian Patricia Bonomi argues that religion was as instrumental as either politics or the economy in shaping early American life and values. Looking at the middle and southern colonies as well as at Puritan New England, Bonomi finds an abundance of religious vitality throughout the colonial years among clergy and churchgoers of diverse religious backgrounds. The book focuses on 18th-century religious activity, when churches stabilized and extended their influence to all parts of the colonies, and examines the everyday life of the clergy, the tension between religious competition and religious toleration, and the attitudes and practices of churchgoers from every rank and region. The book also explores the tightening relationship between religion and politics--especially evident in the schisms of the Great Awakening, the growth of denominational factions, and the emergence of an "ideology of dissent"--and illuminates the vital role religion played in the American Revolution. Written with grace and style, Under the Cope of Heaven presents a stimulating new perspective on the formative era of American religious culture.

Excerpt

In a sense this book began during an informal conversation I had with Richard Hofstadter a year or so before his death. At the time I was working on politics in colonial New York, whose factions, I then supposed, were strongly influenced by ethnic sensibilities. Professor Hofstadter was skeptical, and he suggested instead that if there was a single determinant of the colonists' political responses more important than any other, it might have been religion. Once this notion was implanted in my mind it continued to grow, in part because so much of what I read thereafter seemed to bear it out. Whereas ethnic identity was actually a somewhat abstract notion to most colonials-- except as it operated in certain specific local controversies--religious loyalties were well developed in all sections by the 1730s, and were continuously reinforced from the 1740s onward as intensifying denominational rivalries expressed themselves in provincial politics.

Soon I was launched on a new undertaking whose initial purpose was to test Professor Hofstadter's idea by exploring the connections between religion and politics in early America. But how could religion exert real influence on an aspect of colonial life so central as politics when, according to almost every book I read, some 80 to 90 percent of the provincials were "unchurched" and anticlericalism was a visible influence throughout the colonies? Even the church historians, whose specialized denominational studies contained much evidence of an active congregational life and clergymen of considerable accomplishment and dedication, almost invariably observed in passing that the great majority of colonials were not churchgoers at all.

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