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Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the…
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Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (1990)

by Jon Butler

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Introduction

Paints a picture of early American religion that was every bit as "bumptious and complex" as the latter day manifestations at the time of his writing this book. To show this, he takes us beyond "familiar themes of New England Calvinism, evangelicalism, voluntarism and declining religious adherence." (p.1) Butler's themes are complexity, diversity and process. Magic and Occult practice are certainly not off bounds, nor are the many other ways in which common people expressed their spiritual existence. Americans have always been "awash in a sea of faith." By looking at lay as well as church religion, he is able to include "real people in real places across real centuries." (p. 4) Looking first at the European roots of religious belief in America, Butler then hopes to show us how the choices made in the American setting led to a unique process of Christianization.

1. The European Religious Heritage

Religious practice in the Early American colonies was extremely lax. Much rhetoric to the contrary, the religious beliefs of the colonists ranged widely from orthodoxy to the magic and occult. "Christianization - meaning a regular if not vigorous attachment to Christian institutions, theologies, and norms - was in a crisis that continued unabated as Europeans poured out of the Old World into the New." (p. 8) The colonists came from a European world where religion was steeped in a multivalent supernaturalism, a supernaturalism they brought with them to the colonies and which manifested itself in magic, astrology and divination as much orthodox Christianity. Europeans who stayed in Europe, as well as those who made the journey to the new world, were presented with a wide range of supernatural beliefs with extraordinary explanatory powers.

Butler points to the ironic result of the Reformation in 16th C Europe that the movement that unleashed the move toward personal Christianity and the priesthood of all believers actually strengthened the hand of official state-sponsored Christianity. The values of protestant Christianity were given the force of law, thousands of people worked for official churches and the state sacralized the landscape with "churches, chapels, shrines and other symbols of Christianity's claim to the religious allegiance of the early modern laity." (p. 13) The social impact of Reformation Christianity was also to reinforce the differences between the middling sorts and the poor, as the marginalization of the latter continued in new the new Protestant churches. And the impact of local traditions also continued unabated, with localisms often trumping national religious practice. In this landscape, Christianization was hardly a given.

Pointing to the work of David Hall, Butler points out that the boundaries between Christian spirituality and occult practice were highly porous in Early Modern society. Across social boundaries people practiced astrology, alchemy, fortune telling and other occult practices - often doing so alongside more orthodox Christian observance. By the 1680s, historians point to a folklorization of occult belief as the learned dislodged magic from their midst. Unwilling to point to the old fashioned explanation of "Enlightenment" for this process, Butler notes that the process none the less did take place. As Natalie Z. Davis has pointed out, by the 18th Century, magic and the occult had retreated to the world of the "little people".

Along with the rise and fall of Dissent during the 17thC, this marginalization of magic and the occult from learned society complicated the religious world even further. As Dissent went into eclipse in England, Anglicans became more forceful, founding the SPCK and SPG around 1700. Where the Anglicans were not always successful, there were often not Dissenters to fill the void as religious adherence developed in many complex ways in the Old World. The religious complex which made its way across the ocean to the New World.

2. The Crisis of Christian Practice in America

Despite the high goals of the colonies' founders, the story of American Christianity was (from the start) one of complexity and confusion. The Virginia colony provides a good example of this pattern. The religious purposes of the Virginia Company not withstanding, "[b]y mid-century, however, Virginia was better known for irreligion and indifference than piety. Its religious difficulties were rooted in traditional European spiritual lethargy." (p. 40) Even after the crown took over the colony in 1724, the official government support to Christianity continued and continued to fail. Butler sees the reasons for these failure in the inability of Anglican Christianity to provide strong leadership in the colony. Few church buildings were built and few ministers served in Virginia. In contrast to Cotton Mather's New England, there arose no cult of divines to spur on institutional tradition. There was no impactful institutional support until the later 17th C when, as Bernard Bailyn has pointed out, the new aristocracy of Virginia constituted itself as the result of a process of political and social maturation. Even then, the church-state alliance in Virginia was never fully successful in its Christianizing mission.

Butler then recounts the story of religious devolution in Maryland. The catholic colony of Maryland was even less Christianized than Virginia, as the priests there feared too open a practice least they anger the powers that be in Europe and end up revoking the MD charter. So the colonists there saw even less sacralization of the landscape and fewer public observances of Christian ritual. The 1649 "Act concerning Religion," which was the first act for religious toleration in the colonies, appears in this light to be more a of a plea for religion -- any Christian religion -- to be allowed to make some progress in the colony. In a land of withered religious practice, drunken funeral parties typified the lack of Christianization in Maryland.

In stark contrast to Anglican Virginia and Catholic Maryland was Puritan New England. In New England, Christianization was early and thorough -- far outstripping levels in the Old Country at its very outset. The anxiety over declension in the later 17th C can be understood as a concern to maintain this abnormally high level (by standards of the 17thC) of Christianization. The social history of the New England colonies is instructive in contrast to that of Virginia. Massachusetts Bay attracted families of the "middling sort" rather than poor single males. They were also highly literate and schooled quickly in the ways of Christian faith. In the latter half of the 17th C, however the strains of dissent began to show with Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson being only two of the more vocal and well known individuals. Church membership did in fact decline, and the half way covenant of 1662 made it possible for the unbaptized to take a more prominent role in the church. Cotton Mather was right, but for the wrong reasons. It wasn't the Baptists, Quakers and Anglicans that led the people astray. It was, rather, the changing social patterns where new immigrants were not included within the church. The inability for the Puritan Divines to develop an inclusive approach to Christianization doomed them to increasing marginalization and eventual irrelevance.

All in all the landscape of the colonies at 1690 betrays the lack of sacralization and is revelatory of the status of a lassitude in Christian practice. Christianization was not automatic, it had to be learned and for various and sundry reasons organized religions did a poor job of it in the 17th C. Although colonies like Pennsylvania's Quaker community were successful in Christianization, they descended into tribalism just as did the Puritan New Englanders and the Catholics of Maryland.

3. Magic and the Occult

It is at first surprising the magic and the occult, so obviously prevalent in the Old World had a delayed appearance in the new. Not until the later 17th Century did the new world see a proliferation of occult practice. This, according to Butter, was due to the social structure of migration. The common folk among whom magic and occult practice was prevalent only came later to the colonies. With a broadening of the social pool from which immigration drew came a broadening of the religious milieu as well.

To show that witchcraft extended far beyond Essex County in Massachusetts Bay Colony, he draws on the work of John Demos, Carol Karlsen, Perry Miller and David D. Hall, Butler tours the 17th C landscape of magic and links it to the pursuit of the medicinal amongst the common folk. "Cunning folk" could see death in a child's eyes, make chickens die if you failed to sell them, even make people fall ill. Learned Occultism probed the natural world and sought the secrets of alchemy. John Winthrop, Jr. was a noted alchemist. Learned practitioners of the occult, like Johannes Kelpius in Pennsylvania, mixed the occult with Christianity. The emerging aristocratic elite of Virginia collected (and read) works of occult and magic.

Astrology, as practiced in colonial almanacs, was amongst the most prominent of occult practices in the colonies. Almanacs even outsold the Bible in the colonies. "Using the almanac, even semiliterate colonists could plant, bleed, marry or bleed on correct days and, by following its guide to the stars, predict the future." (p. 80) As the 17th C progressed, however, the learned moved increasingly away from magic and the occult. At the same time, magic and the occult persisted in the New World as in the Old as these practices entered the folk practice. Indeed, after the mixed results of the witchcraft trials of the late 17th C, the law left people to deal with the occult themselves. Though people still believed they were plagued by witches, there was seldom a legal remedy.

Though recent scholarship has destroyed our comfortable narrative of "Enlightenment" and "Scientific Revolution" sweeping aside superstition and magic, we are still left with the difficult work of explaining exactly how magic was folklorized in America, as we are in Europe. Rather than pointing to a single simple rationale of causation, Butler prefers to give us the many ways in which the occult was under attack from the learned and the Christian. Individual almanac printers view amongst each other for circulation, marginalizing some. Protestant laity marginalized the occult by increasingly associating it with Catholicism. Christian ministers also saw the "world of wonders" increasingly as a threat to their authority. Government statutes in the 17th and 18th C began to outlaw occult practice, to make blasphemy a crime and to require professions of Christian faith in order to assume office. And too, Christian rituals began to increasingly resemble the occult (see evangelical conversion rituals of the Great Awakening). "As in England, intellectual change, increasing Christian opposition, and government coercion all worked to suppress occult and magical practice in the advancing social elite and to contain it within the rougher segments of early society." (p. 96)

4. The Renewal of Christian Authority

Points to changes in American religion between 1680 and 1760, changes which included the enlargement of the state religion tradition in VA and NE, sacralization of the landscape, and the creation of coercive denominational institutions. As the colonies approached the break with England they were pursuing the European past in "vibrant and complex ways." Beginning with VA, Butler traces the establishment acts in each of the colonies. As the prototypical Anglican colony, VA's establishment was tightly bound up with the rise of a new planter gentry. Parish life was part and parcel of the political landscape and by sacralizing the VA landscape the new elite extended its power and control over the politics of the colony. Anglican establishment proceeded apace in the Carolinas as well. Similar developments occurred in Congregational NE and Quaker PA, were the Anglican church increasing sought to protect itself. In all of the colonies the trend was toward landscape sacralization that increased the power and authority of new elites.

During the period of 1680 to 1760, Dissenters also embraced authoritarian denominational structures which disciplined, reshaped and ultimately strengthened them -- leading to a greater Christianization of the American colonies. Focusing in particular on the Quakers and Baptists of PA, Butler finds that

It was the Delaware Valley that became the citadel of denominational authority in prerevolutionary America ... By 1740 -- indeed, as early as 1710 -- Boston could claim little that rivaled the authority, prestige, and institutional sophistication of the Quaker's Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the Presbytery and, later, Synod of Philadelphia Baptist Association. (p. 118)

The world of early Quakerism with its inner piety and outward peacefulness gave way increasingly to a political and powerfully hierarchical system based upon a centralized institutional structure. It was, indeed, over the power of this central organization that the controversy surrounding George Keith arose with the ultimate result that he left the Society of Friends for the Anglican Church. Even the fiercely independent Baptists of the middle colonies came increasingly under the denominational authority of the Philadelphia Baptist Association (founded in Sept. 1707). The Presbytery of Philadelphia originated in 1706 as a ministerial organization in which the ministers were permanent members and lay elders were transitory. By guaranteeing the work of their fellow ministers and settling disputes within individual congregations, the Presbytery exercised increasing authority. Even German Lutherans were successful in establishing denominational structures and control. Ultimately it was the Anglicans who failed to establish their authority and thereby take a major part in the Christianization of America.

The result was the supreme irony of early American denominational development: the failure of the Anglican church in Britain's American colonies, a failure caused not by its inability to adjust to American individualism but by its inability to transplant its institutional authority in the ways the Dissenters did so successfully. (pp. 127-8)

5. Slavery and the African Spiritual Holocaust

Led by Anglicans and then later powerfully reinforced by Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodist leaders, clergymen articulated a planter ethic of absolute slave obedience that ran thoroughly counter to contemporary English political and social theory and became a principal foundation of American slavery's distinctive paternalism in late colonial and antebellum society. (p. 129)

It was during the same period that American denominationalism took off that slavery came to replace indentured servitude and the labor of black slaves became the foundation upon which the economic prosperity of the colonies rested. In this process, Butler argues that the destruction of African traditions and religious culture amounted to an "African Spiritual Holocaust."

Despite the fact that Caribbean slavery was much more deadly for slaves than mainland slavery, and the numbers of slaves as percentage of the total population was much greater in the Caribbean, mainland slavery's growth in this period lead to tremendous anxiety on the part of slave holders. Fearing slave rebellions, they resisted the Christianization of slaves. Slave owning society chose to grant greater coercive powers to masters as the institution grew. NYC slave rebellions in 1712 and 1741, and especially the Stono Rebellion in 1739 (SC), gave even greater force to the slaver owners' fears and lead to more restrictive slave codes.

In Virginia the Anglican church was the first to reconcile Christianity with slavery, and they did so by developing a theology of degrees of obedience in which slave obedience was absolute. The work of Bishop William Fleetwood is a particularly fruitful example of this theology to which Butler points. As Winthrop Jordon argued, the emerging slave codes were aimed at whites every bit as much as blacks, their aim was to solidify white racial bonds at the expense of any empathy the "mud sills" might have with slaves. Through the doctrine of absolute obedience, Anglican ministry supported the emergent paternalism of slave owners. Less successful in shaping denominational structures of authority, the Anglican ministries were highly successful in shaping the emergent slave holding culture in ways that re-enforced its violence and brutality. Marginalizing abolitionist Baptists, Anglicans formed an ever deeper bond with the slave holding aristocracy.

Lastly in this chapter, Butler turns to the issues of continuities and discontinuities in African religion. Setting up the discursive field by recounting the impact of Melville Herskovitz and Eugene Genovese, both of whom stressed continuities with an African past across the divide of slavery, he argues that African religious belief did not survive as a "system" but that individual practices did. This fits with Butler's larger point about the significance of institutions in Christianizing America. By destroying African institutions, slavery paved the way for the Christianization of African slaves.

6. The Plural Origins of American Revivalism

Starting with commentary to the effect that the term "Great Awakening" is less than useful, Butler proceeds to describe first Anglican and then Congregationalist life in the early 18th C. Anglican religious observance centered around ritual, was often oriented toward material external observance, and was intimately bound with the social structure of Virginia in particular. In NE, unlike in Virginia where Anglican observance was on the rise, church membership did stagnate as the late 17th C progressed and go into decline in the early 18th. At the same time, there was a withdrawal from disciplinary functions of the Church in Puritan NE (see C Dayton Taking the Trade on the gender implications).

To the assemblage of state-sponsored churches of the 17thC were added a wide range of other denominations in the 18thC. Institutional proliferation marked the 18thC as an increasingly pluralistic religious landscape. Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers all gained in strength by the early 18th C in NE. In the Middle and Southern colonies the pattern was even more exaggerated. Increased immigration brought with it greater ethnic and religious diversity. German Memmonites and Lutherans and Scots-Irish Presbyterians were joined by upstart Baptists challenging the Anglican hegemony in the South.

It was in this context of increasing religious diversity that religious renewal occurred. Religious doctrines imported from Europe fuelled the fires of revivalism throughout the colonies. Revivalism arose from a "peculiar, seemingly contradictory, mix of provincialism, regionalism and internationalism" (p. 179) The career of George Whitefield typifies this mix.

Revivalists were more paternalist than proto-populist. Though they fed factionalism, with more than 200 congregations splitting away in New England in the 1740s, revivals did not increase the status of the humble amongst the laity, instead they fed the power of the ministry. Even Gilbert Tennent's The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry, often taken as an attack on ministerial authority, was actually a contest amongst ministerial powers for preeminence. Delving deeper into the Tennents' ministry in New York and New Jersey, Butler finds them evangelical and charismatic (prefiguring Oral Roberts). More radical than other revivalists, willing to demonstrate God's power in healing their very bodies. They preached for long periods of time in single locations and focused on regeneration as opposed to original sin, as was the case with George Whitefield. Whitefield was more "modern" in the sense that he used the power of the press and appealed to popularity to spread his message. He was, arguably, America's first celebrity (prefiguring Billy Graham and Robert Schuller).

7. A Revolutionary Millennium?

At its heart, the Revolution was a profoundly secular event. The causes that brought it into being and the ideologies that shaped it placed religious concerns more at its margins than at its center. Yet organized religion not only survived the revolutionary era but probably prospered from it, both because of the crisis and because of the deft way the denominations handled it. Despite their early hesitation and continuing anxiety about the process, the churches lent their weight to the American cause in a way that paid immense dividends in coming decades. Later, as new tensions arose in the new configuration of politics, society and religion, the denominations moved to sacralize the revolution as they had earlier sacralized the landscape. (p. 195)

From Gary Nash (port cities), to Reese Isaac (Virginia), to Harry Stout (New England) and Patricia Bonomi (on anti-authoritarian strains in the denominations) all stress the importance of evangelical "style" to the American Revolution. What they miss, so Butler, is the broader interplay between the denominations and the Revolution. The position of religion was more ambiguous than this narrative of evangelicals fueling the revolutionary flame. Returning to the earlier views of David Ramsay and George Bancroft, Butler points to the Declaration of Independence to argue that religion was not the primary concern of the rebellious colonies. Yet, in secondary issues religion was very important.

The debate over the Anglican Bishop is an excellent place to see the way religious issues played in the revolution. Jonathan Mayhew consistently linked the desire of the Anglicans to bring a Bishop to America to British tyranny. The SPG was painted as a secret, conspiratorial society, seeking to clandestinely foist a Bishop on Americans. Anti-Catholicism was indeed tied to the "country Whig ideology" which Bernard Bailyn has shown to be at the heart of the discourse on Revolution. Protestant Christianity lent support for the ideology of virtuous republicanism, as preachers reinforced the linkage between political liberty and a virtuous citizenry.

Yet the dynamic was more complicated than it may appear at first glance. Many religious denominations, particularly Presbyterianism, were reticent to support revolution and only hesitantly abandoned loyalism. Due to this respect for authority, loyalist clergy could be found in every denomination -- not just Anglicans. Also, local factors played a role in back country areas where long standing antagonisms with local colonial elites drove them to the loyalist camp (German Lutheran & Reformed Sects in PA and Anglicans in the North)

The impact of the revolution was also felt on religious denominations as well. As many at 75% of all Anglican clergy fled to England. Much of the gains of other religious denominations were also whipped out in the turmoil of war. The experience of revolutionary chaplains provides interesting insights into the impact of the war on religion. While serving with the troops, they were appalled and dismayed by the degeneracy of the common soldiers. Life as a chaplain was dangerous, hard and often unrewarding as the soldiers came to prefer a secular patriotism to their ministrations.

With the end of the Revolution, Christian denominations moved quickly to shape the new republic. They sought first to sacralize the Revolution, to claim it for Christianity; they also attacked irreligion and deism; and they established new institutions to shore of the Christianization of the new republic. Melding Christian millenarianism with revolutionary millenarianism, the clergy found new ways to link the health of the republic to the virtue of its citizenry -- and for them this virtue was distinctly Christian. When chaplains returned to their pulpits from the war, they wrote thousands of sermons linking the American struggle to God's mission. As belief in American exceptionalism ballooned, the clergy was there to lend optimistic appraisals to the millenarian rhetoric of the period. Moving away from the gloom and doom of pre-revolutionary clergy, "[t]he Revolution was an event whose character and outcome seemed to have signaled the beginning of Christ's thousand year reign, thus making the apocalypse wither history or irrelevant." (p. 217) Pointing to Deism as the cause of post-revolutionary failings denominations drew on popular sentiment to rally adherents to their cause. Yet the Unitarian persuasion functioned to keep a crucial elite in the Christian fold at a crucial juncture. Moving into the next round of religious revivals (Butler doesn't want to call it the Second Great Awakening), more and more uniquely American religious expressions appeared (Butler points to Shakers).

8. Toward the Antebellum Spiritual Hothouse

Takes as his starting point the 1798 novel Wieland, one which is often seen as a Puritan novel or as one written to decry the Illuminati. Instead he sees it as indicative of the coming spiritual hot house of the 19th Century. The character of Wieland, who murders his family in a fit of spiritual possession was modeled on the spiritual leader Johannes Kelpius and pointed to the "dramatic American religious syncretism that wedded popular supernaturalism with Christianity and found expression in antebellum Methodism, Mormonism, Afro-American Christianity, and spiritualism." (p. 228) It signaled a more general turning to things spiritual in the early republic.

Belief in magic, the occult and other supernatural forces persisted well beyond the Revolution. The spiritual hothouse of the early republic was awash with faith in the power of witches, astrology, divining rods, "peep stones" and dreams. Pointing to the work of Alan Taylor on treasure seeking, Butler points out that the society of rising material expectations was not shy in recruiting spiritual forces to better their material position. Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism and Freemasonry also flourished. Mesmerism, in particular, was part of the environment of Romantic inclinations to harmonize the individual forces with the universal in an increasingly materialistic world. After setting up the general hothouse environment, Butler turns to Methodism, Mormonism, Afro-American Christianity, and spiritualism.

Early 19thC Methodism rested upon the foundation of celibate itinerancy laid by Francis Asbury. Young single men roamed the countryside, preaching the gospel in ways that "redirected" volatile elements in the popular culture into a more contained middle class movement. Using theatrical preaching, they restaged the Revolution and claimed it for Christianity. In similar ways they used evocations of the dream world liberally and harnessed the power of popular spiritual yearning for the Christian cause. Preaching to audiences openly and enthusiastically of their dream world experience, Methodist itinerates tapped into popular spiritual beliefs as they proclaimed the gospel at "love feasts." Religious enthusiasm also allowed the Methodists to recreate the experience of the Revolution for those who had never experienced combat. By the 1840s, however, the generation of "crazy Lorenzo Dow" was replaced by ministers who began to "locate," giving up their travels to marry and raise families as the spiritual leaders of an increasingly prosperous and middle class Methodism.

Mormonism began as a movement of religious syncretism which tapped into the popular wellspring of spiritual beliefs. The Book of Mormon, given to Joseph Smith on gold plates by the Angel Moroni in 1827 were steeped in American religious culture. Urging a return to pure spiritual practice and ancient traditions, Mormonism was a call to end the factionalism in this spiritual hothouse. The "peep stone" or seer stone used by Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon was of the same sort used for treasure seeking. Miraculous healings were central to early Mormonism. Fighting an ongoing war against astrology and Mesmerism, Brigham Young sought to purge Mormonism of much of its religious syncretism. By the 1870s, Mormonism had become more conservative and has since tried to hide the occult background of much of its early history.

Afro-American Christianity evolved in the spiritual hothouse as well. Modeling much of its early foundations on a European model, early African-American Christianity emulated white practice. Even with the founding of the AME Church in 1816 Philadelphia, the black congregants chose a white spiritual to close their meeting. Because of white paternalism and the destruction of African religious systems, the early Afro-American Christianity was only later infused with African elements as more slaves were imported into the country. Africanization thus occurred gradually as the century progressed.

Viewed in the context of Methodism, Mormonism and African-American Christianity, the spiritualism of the Fox sisters (1848) seems far less anomalous. Though it was somewhat "progressive" in according greater roles to women in religious leadership, the spiritualist movement maintained much of its middle class white "former Protestant" character throughout. Its syncretism pales in comparison to that of early Mormonism.

9. Christian Power in the American Republic

Another myth attacked in this chapter is that of an uncomplicated break with pre-Revolutionary authoritarian religion in favor a individualistic and romantic expressions of personalized faith. The truth was much more complicated, argues Butler. I wonder, though, if this is not a straw man without substance. Does anyone really believe (any historian) in that myth? Isn't history always marked by both continuity and change?

Though the Federal Constitution eliminated the possibility of federal church-state support, the states retained their state support traditions well past the adoption of the Federal Constitution. The debate over Congregational and Anglican disestablishment shifted the state level contest to the terrain of state government support for the Christian religion more generally. The larger concern for the state protection of Christianity lead to legal restraints being put on incorporation that gave preference to Christian over other religions, blasphemy was outlawed in many states and the institution of Christian oaths of office were common.

Initial debates over multiple establishment in Virginia helped formulate the way forward for the nation. Patrick Henry's multiple establishment bill died in the Virginia legislature, loosing out to the Madisonian position. Virginia's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was passed instead, forbidding state support for any religion. This debate fed into the discussion around the First Amendment and moved the nation toward opposition to multiple establishment. Establishment lasted longest in Massachusetts, interestingly enough it lasted until 1833.

As official government support evaporated, the denominations rushed in to fill the gap. Though Catholic and Mormon denominations were slow to expand, this was not so of a myriad of Protestant Denominations. As Protestant congregations proliferated in the 19th C, the landscape underwent yet another sacralization, building as many as 40,000 new churches between 1820 and 1860! As they built new buildings they also established new hierarchies of power within their denominations. Whereas the economic system of antebellum America struggled with the issue of internal commercial development, the denominations were more successful in developing regional and even national spiritual economies. The work of early itinerates were directed by denominational authorities, and as they worked their territories they increasingly laid the foundations for a regional and then national spiritual economy. The book trade also fueled the rise of this spiritual economy and helped stoke the engine of moral reform until in 1850 the country was veritably overrun by reform societies.

The rise of the new moral economy also empowered blacks and women. By forming their own institutions, African Americans took advantage of denominational power to gain status for themselves. Separate churches were not so much a mark of inferior status as one of separate sphere of activity which empowered black congregants. Women were "empowered" by the new spiritual economy as well. Moral reform movements were often lead by women and the soldiers of the reform armies were more often than not female. The ultimate expression of empowerment in this period perhaps being the female reform societies.

Butler concludes with a consideration of the ugly underside of Christianization, that of Nativism, intolerance and violence. As immigration diversified the population further over the course of the first part of the 19th C, protestant Christians like Stephen Colwell demanded that the government protect true Christianity from these immigrants. Along with the evangelical Presbyterian Robert Baird, Colwell and others developed a myth of an American Christian past. This myth arose to bring order to the chaos of and evoke history to shape the present.

Butler wraps up with a criticism of Hatch's Democratization, stating that the evangelicals did not bring with them a greater democratic faith and also by taking issue with T. Dublin over the issue of how much the revivals were directed at social control. For Butler the revivals were denominational efforts to effect Christianization in a land awash in faith.

Conclusion: Lincoln and the Almost Chosen People

Butler ends the book by appropriating Lincoln as symbol of the ambiguity of American religious belief and practice in its first three centuries. It is impossible, so Butler, to understand Lincoln outside of his religious faith. Yet it was a faith neither denominational nor explicitly Christian. Indeed, Lincoln had little to say about Jesus and much to say of "The Maker". Almost Judaic in character, Lincoln's faith is best understood as ambiguous in the way that American Christianization was ambiguous in its first three centuries. As America would become the Christian Nation of the 20th Century, it would loose the ambiguity of Lincoln's faith.
  mdobe | Jul 24, 2011 |
Butler's book is almost 15 years old, but it remains unsurpassed, particularly as an account of the revivalist spirit of the mid-nineteenth century. He places that spirit in the context of its (mostly) English background, filled with lively detail, anecdotes and hard data.The early years of religious practice in Virginia and Massachusetts are fascinating; there were more than 200 witch episodes in the colonies that preceded the Salem witch trials, for example, and Butler explores the fixation with magic and the occult in both seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The African spiritual holocaust is the topic of another extensive exploration, and we see its effects even in this age.He examines the sources of what he calls "the myth of the American Christian past—one of the most powerful myths to inform the history of both American religion and American society." Later churchmen, he says, sought to sacralize the American revolution, in spite of the deist and enlightenment views of most of the founders, in order to harness the religious authority being abandoned by the state. An interesting explanation with considerable relevance today. This is a rich, thoughtfully considered work of historical scholarship and interpretation. ( )
  sweetFrank | Mar 6, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674056019, Paperback)

Challenging the formidable tradition that places early New England Puritanism at the center of the American religious experience. Yale historian Jon Butler offers a new interpretation of three hundred years of religious and cultural development. Butler stresses the instability of religion in Europe where state churches battled dissenters, magic, and astonishingly low church participation. He charts the transfer of these difficulties to America, including the failure of Puritan religious models, and describes the surprising advance of religious commitment there between 1700 and 1865. Through the assertion of authority and coercion, a remarkable sacralization of the prerevolutionary countryside, advancing religious pluralism, the folklorization of magic, and an eclectic, syncretistic emphasis on supernatural interventionism, including miracles, America emerged after 1800 as an extraordinary spiritual hothouse that far eclipsed the Puritan achievement--even as secularism triumphed in Europe.

Awash in a Sea of Faith ranges from popular piety to magic, from anxious revolutionary war chaplains to the cool rationalism of James Madison, from divining rods and seer stones to Anglican and Unitarian elites, and from Virginia Anglican occultists and Presbyterians raised from the dead to Jonathan Edwards, Joseph Smith, and Abraham Lincoln. Butler deftly comes to terms with conventional themes such as Puritanism, witchcraft, religion and revolution, revivalism, millenarianism, and Mormonism. His elucidation of Christianity's powerful role in shaping slavery and of a subsequent African spiritual "holocaust," with its ironic result in African Christianization, is an especially fresh and incisive account.

Awash in a Sea of Faith reveals the proliferation of American religious expression -not its decline-and stresses the creative tensions between pulpit and pew across three hundred years of social maturation. Striking in its breadth and deeply rooted in primary sources, this seminal book recasts the landscape of American religious and cultural history.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:25:31 -0400)

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