Tag Archives: American Religious History

Jefferson and Christianity

In recent days the space not taken up by discussions of, say, the Cincinnati gorilla, has been taken up online by  a vibrant discussion about Thomas Jefferson and Christianity. Jefferson claimed to be a Christian, even as his beliefs in “Christianity” diverged strongly from orthodox Christianity. How should we evaluate this?

The conversation was kicked off by a presentation by Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed on C-Span. It played out on twitter. Recent posts by John Fea and Ben Park have also addressed this.

Rather than rehash the issues raised, in my brief time I want to raise one other historical point. We could also ask: how did Jefferson’s contemporaries view his faith?

It’s worth noting that some of Jefferson’s contemporaries were quite suspicious. Due to his writings in places like Notes on the State of Virginia and various correspondence, many of Jefferson’s opponents questioned his faith.

I see this most clearly in a political editorial in 1800 that asked its readers if they wanted to vote for “God and a Religious President” [i.e., John Adams] or “Jefferson…and NO GOD.”

A more sustained statement of this idea came from two New York ministers, John Mitchell Mason and William Linn. After parsing Jefferson’s public utterances, they asserted that Jefferson was an infidel (one who maliciously rejected Christian truth) and so not to be trusted.

Or, as they claimed in a second pamphlet:

Christians! Lay these things together: compare them; examine them separately, and collectively: ponder; pause; lay your hands upon your hearts; lift up your hearts to heaven, and pronounce on Mr. Jefferson’s Christianity. You cannot stifle the emotions; nor forebear uttering your indignant sentence–infidel!!

(“The Voice of Warning to Christians,” 1800)

Now, Linn and Mason didn’t speak for everyone, and you could suggest that their claims were at least partially politically motivated. Still, as ministers, they claimed their duties forced them to point out Jefferson’s heterodoxy. To some believers of his day, Jefferson’s beliefs seemed suspicious.

Politics, you say? Would there be a book out there that talked about religious and political conflicts in the early republic? Maybe one involving the Federalists? Oh, that’s right: this one.




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Jacob Green and the Fourth of July

I hope my US readers had a pleasant 4th of July holiday. Mine involved a picnic with friends, being ambushed by water balloons, and reading the Declaration of Independence to friends and family. (I hope international readers had a pleasant 4th, too–I’m just guessing there wasn’t the same volume as fireworks involved.)

Before we leave our Independence-Day thoughts, let me link you to my monthly post at the Religion in American History blog.

I remember Independence Day by reflecting on a recent book that connects the lives of 3 men caught up in the American Revolution–Presbyterian minister Jacob Green, his son Ashbel Green, and the counterpoint Anglican priest Thomas Bradbury Chandler.

I enjoyed the book and thought many other people might enjoy it. Apparently Penn State press has moved it to paperback.

Anyway, do check out the piece.

And, to quote my children’s favorite expression of the week-end, “Happy Birthday, America!”

Rohrer Cover

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Principled Pluralism and the 1950s

Yesterday, I had my review of George Marsden’s book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment published on the Web/Email Forum Public DiscoursePublic Discourse is concerned about many things, but one of them is religion in public life. This review gave me a chance to reflect on this topic.

Also, publishing with Public Discourse was fun, for two reasons. First, George was my graduate school advisor, so I was happy to promote his book, as well as ask some probing questions of it–and about American life. Second, during my time in Princeton I had a chance to get to know the folks at Public Discourse. It seemed a natural fit to send this piece their way.

Read the whole piece, but the nutshell is that this is an interesting book both as a history of the “middlebrow” ideas and religious sensibilities of the 1950s and as a reflection on how American culture today should deal with religious differences. Marsden is inspired by Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper and the vision of “principled pluralism.” Generally, I think this could be promising, but it would also require lots of people to buy in–something I don’t see happening at this time.

Anyway, read the whole thing here.

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The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

Just released this week, I wanted to give a quick comment on George Marsden’s new book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.

The nutshell version is: Run, don’t walk, to buy this book. Or, if that’s too “last century” for your taste, drop it immediately into your Amazon cart.

Marsden is one of the leading historians of American religion–and, for purposes of disclosure, my graduate advisor. He has previously published award-winning books on Fundamentalism, religion and the university, and most recently, Jonathan Edwards.

In this new book he jumps back to the twentieth century to examine, as the subtitle has it, “The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.”

In Marsden’s account, “liberal” in the 1950s was used as a centrist term, for the rational, open-minded approach to the world favored by the cultural mainstream. This liberal outlook, Marsden contends, continued to embrace the empirical, rationalist values of the American Enlightenment, which dated back to the eighteenth century. Such an approach favored a unified cultural outlook that had little room for diversity. Religiously, it embraced a liberal Protestantism, which remained institutionally close to the levers of cultural influence.

Although culturally confident in the 1950s, this dominant approach was actually on its last legs. It was maintaining its optimism and intellectual categories, while the under-girding belief system was dissipating. It was thus set for a rapid decline with the cultural and intellectual upheavals of the later 1960s. That era would produce approaches that would undermine easy confidence in rationality, the authority of science, individualism, and cultural consensus–all factors of the cultural confidence of the ’50s. As consensus culture shattered, it produced many subgroups, but with no coherent ideal to keep them together. The end result was to set intellectual trends that remain to this day.

Another result was secularism. The shattered coherence sidelined liberal Protestantism, replacing it not with another set of beliefs but with no religious belief. The end result was a dominant form of secularism. As Marsden had, in the Soul of the American University, chronicled this secularization in higher education (from established Protestantism to established non-belief), so now he traces it on a broader cultural level.

In his conclusion, Marsden echoes a strategy that has become a trademark: he steps back from his subject to consider how the historical account can help us (collectively) think about contemporary issues. He argues for the need for a principled pluralism. He criticizes how both evangelicals and secularists seem unable to come to terms with pluralism, to make a place for genuine difference in the pursuit of the common good. Instead, he offers a helpful contrast to the work of Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands at the turn of the twentieth century. Kuyper, although deeply Reformed in his thought, made an intentional place for cultural and religious differences. That the Kuyperian option never really appealed to American thinkers is also a legacy of American interpretations of enlightenment.

Throughout, the writing is done gracefully, and complex issues are treated clearly. This is an engaging and accessible book for anyone willing to think through important issues.

Finally, I can’t resist one historiographic note. There’s been much recent discussion of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason, which highlights the problem of authority among neo-evangelicals who claimed authority from Biblical sources but still needed interpreters or organizational leaders. On the other hand, Marsden suggests that there was simultaneously a crisis of authority among liberals and modernist Protestants. Put together, the two books could highlight a very real theme about issues of authority in democratic America. I definitely think the two could be read profitably alongside each other.

In any case, the homework for each reader of this post should be to buy and then read Marsden’s Twilight of the American Enlightenment.


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