Tag Archives: American History

Mason, “Brigham Young”

This November, Routledge Press will release “Brigham Young: Sovereign in America” by David Vaughn Mason (Rhodes College, Tennessee).  The publisher’s description follows:

Brigham YoungBrigham Young was one of the most influential—and controversial—Mormon leaders in American history. An early follower of the new religion, he led the cross-continental migration of the Mormon people from Illinois to Utah, where he built a vast religious empire that was both revolutionary and authoritarian, radically different from yet informed by the existing culture of the U.S. With his powerful personality and sometimes paradoxical convictions, Young left an enduring stamp on both his church and the region, and his legacy remains active today.

In a lively, concise narrative bolstered by primary documents, and supplemented by a robust companion website, David Mason tells the dynamic story of Brigham Young, and in the process, illuminates the history of the LDS Church, religion in America, and the development of the American west. This book will be a vital resource for anyone seeking to understand the complex, uniquely American origins of a church that now counts over 15 million members worldwide.

Lynerd, “Republican Theology”

This September, Oxford University Press released “Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals” by Benjamin T. Lynerd (Roosevelt University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Republican TheologyWhite evangelicals occupy strange property on the ideological map in America, exhibiting a pronounced commitment to the principle of limited government, and yet making a significant exception for issues relating to personal morality – an exception many observers take to be paradoxical at best. Explanations of this phenomenon usually point to the knotty political alliance evangelicals built with free-market types in the late twentieth century, but sermonic evidence suggests a deeper and longer intellectual thread, one that has pervaded evangelical thought all the way back to the American founding.

In Republican Theology, Benjamin Lynerd offers an historical and theological account of the hybrid position evangelicals have long affected to hold in American culture – as champions of individual liberty and as guardians of American morality. Lynerd documents the development of a resilient, if problematic, tradition in American political thought, one that sees a free republic, a virtuous people, and an assertive Christianity as mutually dependent. Situating the recent rise of the “New Right” within this larger framework, Republican Theology traces the contentious political journey of evangelicals from its earliest moments, laying bare the conceptual tensions built into their civil religion.

Smith, “Weird John Brown”

This November, Stanford University Press will release “Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics” by Ted A. Smith (Emory University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Weird John BrownConventional wisdom holds that attempts to combine religion and politics will produce unlimited violence. Concepts such as jihad, crusade, and sacrifice need to be rooted out, the story goes, for the sake of more bounded and secular understandings of violence. Ted Smith upends this dominant view, drawing on Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben, and others to trace the ways that seemingly secular politics produce their own forms of violence without limit. He brings this argument to life—and digs deep into the American political imagination—through a string of surprising reflections on John Brown, the nineteenth-century abolitionist who took up arms against the state in the name of a higher law. Smith argues that the key to limiting violence is not its separation from religion, but its connection to richer and more critical modes of religious reflection. Weird John Brown develops a negative political theology that challenges both the ways we remember American history and the ways we think about the nature, meaning, and exercise of violence.

Fisher, Lemons & Mason-Brown, “Decoding Roger Williams”

This month, Baylor University Press releases “Decoding Roger Williams: The Lost Essay of Rhode Island’s Founding Father” by Linford D. Fisher (Brown University), J. Stanley Lemons (Emeritus Professor at Rhode Island College) and Lucas Mason-Brown (Graduate Student at Trinity College, Dublin).  The publisher’s description follows:

Decoding Roger WilliamsNear the end of his life, Roger Williams, Rhode Island founder and father of American religious freedom, scrawled an encrypted essay in the margins of a colonial-era book. For more than 300 years those shorthand notes remained indecipherable…

…until a team of Brown University undergraduates led by Lucas Mason-Brown cracked Williams’ code after the marginalia languished for over a century in the archives of the John Carter Brown Library. At the time of Williams’ writing, a trans-Atlantic debate on infant versus believer’s baptism had taken shape that included London Baptist minister John Norcott and the famous Puritan “Apostle to the Indians,” John Eliot. Amazingly, Williams’ code contained a previously undiscovered essay, which was a point-by-point refutation of Eliot’s book supporting infant baptism.

History professors Linford D. Fisher and J. Stanley Lemons immediately recognized the importance of what turned out to be theologian Roger Williams’ final treatise. Decoding Roger Williams reveals for the first time Williams’ translated and annotated essay, along with a critical essay by Fisher, Lemons, and Mason-Brown and reprints of the original Norcott and Eliot tracts.

Gasaway, “Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice”

This October, University of North Carolina Press will release “Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice” by Brantley W. Gasaway (Bucknell University). The publisher’s description follows:

Progressive EvangelicalsIn this compelling history of progressive evangelicalism, Brantley Gasaway examines a dynamic though often overlooked movement within American Christianity today. Gasaway focuses on left-leaning groups, such as Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action, that emerged in the early 1970s, prior to the rise of the more visible Religious Right. He identifies the distinctive “public theology”–a set of biblical interpretations regarding the responsibility of Christians to promote social justice–that has animated progressive evangelicals’ activism and bound together their unusual combination of political positions.

The book analyzes how prominent leaders, including Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo, responded to key political and social issues over the past four decades. Progressive evangelicals combated racial inequalities, endorsed feminism, promoted economic justice, and denounced American nationalism and militarism. At the same time, most leaders opposed abortion and refused to affirm homosexual behavior, even as they defended gay civil rights. Gasaway demonstrates that, while progressive evangelicals have been caught in the crossfire of partisan conflicts and public debates over the role of religion in politics, they have offered a significant alternative to both the Religious Right and the political left.

Bulthuis, “Four Steeples Over the City Streets”

In October, New York University Press will release “Four Steeples Over the City Streets: Religion and Society in New York’s Early Republic Congregations” by Kyle T. Bulthuis (Utah State University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Four SteeplesIn the fifty years after the Constitution was signed in 1787, New York City grew from a port town of 30,000 to a metropolis of over half a million residents. This rapid development transformed a once tightknit community and its religious experience. These effects were felt by Trinity Episcopal Church, which had presented itself as a uniting influence in New York, that connected all believers in social unity in the late colonial era. As the city grew larger, more impersonal, and socially divided, churches reformed around race and class-based neighborhoods. Trinity’s original vision of uniting the community was no longer possible.

In Four Steeples over the City Streets, Kyle T. Bulthuis examines the histories of four famous church congregations in early Republic New York City—Trinity Episcopal, John Street Methodist, Mother Zion African Methodist, and St. Philip’s (African) Episcopal—to uncover the lived experience of these historical subjects, and just how religious experience and social change connected in the dynamic setting of early Republic New York.
Drawing on a range of primary sources, Four Steeples over the City Streets reveals how these city churches responded to these transformations from colonial times to the mid-nineteenth century. Bulthuis also adds new dynamics to the stories of well-known New Yorkers such as John Jay, James Harper, and Sojourner Truth. More importantly, Four Steeples over the City Streets connects issues of race, class, and gender, urban studies, and religious experience, revealing how the city shaped these churches, and how their respective religious traditions shaped the way they reacted to the city.

Castagna, “A Bridge across the Ocean: The United States and the Holy See Between the Two World Wars”

This month, the Catholic University of America Press released “A Bridge across the Ocean: The United States and the Holy See Between the Two World Wars” by Luca Castagna (University of Salerno). The publisher’s description follows:

A Bridge across the Ocean focuses on the relations between the United States and the Holy See from the First World War to the eve of the Second, through the combination of American, Italian, and Vatican sources. More than an overall picture of the American and Vatican foreign policy during the first half of the twentieth century, the book analyzes the U.S.-Vatican rapprochement in a multifaceted way, considering both the international and the internal sphere. A Bridge across the Ocean discusses the spread of anti-Catholicism in the United States during the first two decades of the twentieth century, and its repercussions on the American administrations’ behavior during and after the Versailles Conference, together with the changes that occurred in the Holy See’s attitude toward the American church and the White House after the election of Pope Pius XI. Luca Castagna explores the convergence of the New Deal legislation with the church’s social thought, and demonstrates how the partial U.S.-Vatican rapprochement in 1939 resulted from Roosevelt and Pacelli’s common aim to cooperate, as two of the most important and global moral powers in the struggle against Nazi-fascism.

A Bridge across the Ocean deepens our understanding of American and church history during the first half of the twentieth Century, from the church-state relations to the identification of diplomatic strategies and priorities.

Hamilton’s Religion, and Ours

A Complicated Man

This past weekend was the 210th anniversary of the death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr. Commemorations took place around New York City–at the Weehawken, New Jersey dueling site; at Hamilton’s home in upper Manhattan, recently restored and relocated in St. Nicholas Park; and at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where Burr, who somehow survived the scandal, later married his wealthy second wife. Commemorations conclude this afternoon with a ceremony at Hamilton’s grave in Trinity Churchyard.

Hamilton was a complicated man–brilliant, handsome, charming, visionary; but also reckless, prideful, and a schemer. He had remarkable achievements. He attended the Constitutional Convention and wrote most of the Federalist Papers, including Number 78, on the judiciary; he established the finances of the United States as first Secretary of the Treasury; he founded a nationalist, commercial conservatism that survives to this day. Although this is somewhat less known, he also wrote one of the most important texts on the place of religion in American public life.

Most people know the story of his duel with Burr, the sitting Vice President, which took place on the morning of July 11, 1804. Burr challenged Hamilton after reading some disparaging remarks Hamilton allegedly had made about him during a gubernatorial election. Hamilton could have avoided the duel, had he wanted. But he chose not to, inflaming the situation with his lawerly, evasive answers to Burr’s questions. He told friends before the duel that he did not intend to shoot Burr, and indeed his bullet that morning drifted harmlessly into the trees. Perhaps he expected Burr to act the same way. Duels often ended with both parties wasting their shots.

Some historians believe, though, that Hamilton no longer cared much about living. He was approaching 50 and his political career was over, largely as a result of his own unsuccessful machinations. “Every day proves to me more and more,” he wrote Gouverneur Morris in 1802, “that this American world was not made for me.” He was heavily in debt. And he was shattered by the death of his son, Philip, in a duel two years before–defending his father’s honor, at that same Weehawken dueling ground, with the very pistols Hamilton selected for his own duel with Burr. Did Hamilton court death that July morning? Who knows? In any event, Burr shot to kill and hit his target. Hamilton lingered for a while in agony and died, back in New York, the next day.

But about Hamilton and American religion. Even after he left the Cabinet in 1795, Hamilton continued to advise President George Washington, who was a father figure to him. As Washington’s retirement neared in 1796, he asked Hamilton for help with his Farewell Address, and Hamilton prepared a draft. The ideas were Washington’s own. But the words were Hamilton’s.

One famous section of the Farewell Address relates to the proper place of religion in public life:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

How very American this is. Note the generic reference to “religion,” as opposed to Christianity. From the beginning, American public religion has had a non-sectarian cast. Most Americans in 1796 were Christians, as most are today. Most would have understood the reference to religion to mean the Christian religion. But our public expression of religion typically avoids expressly Christian imagery. In part this reflects the Deism of many of the Founders. But it also reflects an Evangelical faith that is comfortable with biblical non-sectarianism. In America, religious conservatives demand public display of the Ten Commandments. In Europe, they demand public display of the crucifix.

Note, too, the practicality of Hamilton’s appeal. Why is religion important? Because it’s true? Because people need salvation? No–it’s because of the pragmatic benefits religion provides, benefits even the “mere politician” can understand. To work properly, republicanism requires citizens to be moral; and to be moral, citizens require religion. To be sure, every now and then, one might find an exceptional person who is moral without religion. But that can never be true for most people. And it doesn’t matter what the religion is. This, too, is very American. As a twentieth-century American president famously remarked, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

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Hamilton’s Grave, Trinity Churchyard

Hamilton’s own faith ebbed and flowed. As a young man, he was a pious Christian. His college roommate remembers him praying every morning and evening. But he leaned toward Deism as he matured. Indeed, he appears to have been a bit of a scoffer. When someone asked him why the Constitution failed to mention God, he famously joked, “We forgot.” Later in life, though, he appears to have returned to his boyhood Christianity, dismayed, as many American conservatives were, by the anti-Christianity of the French Revolution. Two years before he died, he proposed a Christian Constitutional Society to counter Jacobinism in the United States. Perhaps he was thinking as a “mere politician.” But on his deathbed, he requested, and received, Communion.

Independence Day, 1821

An Early Vision

“And now, friends and countrymen, if the wise and learned philosophers of the older world, the first observers of mutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to inquire, what has America done for the benefit of mankind?

“Let our answer be this–America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government….

“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

“She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

–  John Quincy Adams, Speech to the US House of Representatives, July 4, 1821

Nelson, “The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding”

Here’s one I will be sure to pick up–Eric Nelson’s (Harvard University) The The Royalist RevolutionRoyalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding published by Harvard University Press later this year. Perhaps not straight down the law and religion fairway, but this fascinating looking book may shed a little ambient light on such issues as the framers’  intent as to the meaning of the religion clauses. The publisher’s description follows.

Generations of students have been taught that the American Revolution was a revolt against royal tyranny. In this revisionist account, Eric Nelson argues that a great many of our “founding fathers” saw themselves as rebels against the British Parliament, not the Crown. The Royalist Revolution interprets the patriot campaign of the 1770s as an insurrection in favor of royal power—driven by the conviction that the Lords and Commons had usurped the just prerogatives of the monarch.

Leading patriots believed that the colonies were the king’s own to govern, and they urged George III to defy Parliament and rule directly. These theorists were proposing to turn back the clock on the English constitution, rejecting the Whig settlement that had secured the supremacy of Parliament after the Glorious Revolution. Instead, they embraced the political theory of those who had waged the last great campaign against Parliament’s “usurpations”: the reviled Stuart monarchs of the seventeenth century.

When it came time to design the state and federal constitutions, the very same figures who had defended this expansive conception of royal authority—John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and their allies—returned to the fray as champions of a single executive vested with sweeping prerogatives. As a result of their labors, the Constitution of 1787 would assign its new president far more power than any British monarch had wielded for almost a hundred years. On one side of the Atlantic, Nelson concludes, there would be kings without monarchy; on the other, monarchy without kings.