J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Founders and Faiths

Apropos of yesterday's post about George Washington's religious beliefs, I've seen a flurry of books about the religious views of Revolutionary leaders. Publishers Weekly says that more are on the way. Here's a sampling, along with the magazine's evaluations:

  • Michael and Jana Novak, Washington's God (Basic Books, 2006). Authors: "well-known conservative thinker" and daughter. PW: "At times, the Novaks' starry-eyed admiration of the man pushes this book over the bounds of biography into hagiography."
  • Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Random House, 2006). Author: "Newsweek editor." PW: "Meacham's remarkable grasp of the intricacies and achievements of a nascent nation is well worth the cover price, though his consideration of Reagan feels like that of an apologist."
  • David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2006). Author: "religion scholar." PW: "Despite its strong points..., the desiccating tone is one of technical scholarship that may turn off casual readers looking for a narrative history of this hot-button issue."
  • Brooke Allen, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Ivan R. Dee, 2006). Author: contributor to The Nation. PW: "Allen's sparring partners are, of course, those representatives of the religious right who claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. Unfortunately, they are not likely to read this book, and those readers already generally inclined to agree with Allen—including most serious students of American history—won't learn anything new."
  • Newt Gingrich, Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation's History and Future (Integrity, 2006). Author: ousted Speaker of the House. PW: "He trots out quotations from founding fathers that suggest their allegiance to Christianity, or at least to theism, but conveniently ignores evidence that some of these men—particularly Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson—believed religion should have little, if any, role in the nation's government."
As the reviews indicate, most of these books aren't really about the religious beliefs of America's founding generation. They're about claiming the stars of that generation for one side or the other in the modern "culture war." One problem with that approach is Revolutionary America had its own "culture wars" before, during, and after the real war. It's hard to believe now, but the question of whether the Anglican Church would appoint bishops for America was a major concern for Bostonians in the 1760s, as the now virtually uninterpretable political cartoon above shows. Religion and social issues got caught up in the political conflict, and both Patriots and Loyalists had clerical voices declaring that God was on their side.

The founders of the U.S. of A. didn't have a single view of faith, or even (given their ethnic similarity) a tight knot of views. They had various religious ideas. One trend that's struck me in studying the Revolution is how the conflict forced New England Congregationalists to open their minds to other views. In 1823 William Tudor, Jr., son of one of John Adams's law clerks, described Samuel Adams this way:
There was some tinge of bigotry and narrowness, both in his religion and politics. He was a strict calvinist; and probably, no individual of his day had so much of the feelings of the ancient puritans, as he possessed. . . . His religious tenets…made him loath the very name of the English church.
During the debate over the Boston Massacre verdicts, Adams tried to discount the dying words of victim Patrick Carr because the man had probably been a Catholic. Adams didn't write them, but the Suffolk Resolves drafted by Dr. Joseph Warren show the same prejudice against Catholics. So did New England's Pope Night processions, of course. In the 1770s, Boston had no Catholic church, and no doubt supported Britain's restrictions on Catholics' political rights.

Yet Adams and his Congregationalist colleagues learned to work with local Anglican Whigs and with Dr. Thomas Young, an outspoken deist. (Young in fact wrote most of Reason the Only Oracle of Man, which his old friend Ethan Allen published after the Revolution, and which then became known as "Ethan Allen's Bible.") Adams knew that his and his region's reputation for religious bigotry would be a drawback at the First Continental Congress. He therefore nominated an Anglican minister, Jacob Duché, to open the Congress with prayer—a political move to show that he could practice religious tolerance (by the strandards of the time). But that wasn't enough to reassure religious minorities. On 14 October 1774, his second cousin John remembered, the Massachusetts delegates were confronted by:
a great Number of Quakers seated at the long Table with their broad brimmed Beavers on their Heads. We were invited to Seats among them: and informed that they had received Complaints from some Anabaptists and some Friends in Massachusetts against certain Laws of that Province, restrictive of the Liberty of Conscience.
Samuel Adams tried to mollify those Quakers, but the "certain Laws" they spoke had become a liability. When John Adams drafted a constitution for Massachusetts, he included freedom of worship.

Soon, of course, the French allies arrived in America, and anti-Catholicism became anti-patriotic. By the end of the war, Boston was a more religiously tolerant place (though still bigoted and theocratic by modern standards). Pope Night celebrations had disappeared. The Episcopal Church was constituted. Catholics and Jews moved into town and maintained their faiths. A Catholic congregation had taken over the abandoned Huguenot meeting-house on School Street. New England's pro-Congregationalism laws survived to become a political issue in the Jefferson administration and beyond, but the establishment was dwindling. The founding generation had realized that, in order to accomplish things in a large, diverse, democratic society, they needed to accept many views of the universe.

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