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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Sunday, July 06, 2014

Digging for “Heretical” Roots

Matthew Stewart’s new book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic is getting a lot of attention now. Here are interviews with Stewart in:
And here are reviews of the book in:
As one should expect, the Christianity Review piece by a professor at a Christian college is much more critical than the piece in Church & State, which is the newsletter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Stewart is clearly arguing against claims of our modern religious right that the U.S. of A. was founded on and for Christian beliefs—almost always the beliefs of the people making those claims. As Stewart points out, people of a particular faith tend to assume that when historical figures they admire mention “God,” that means the same God they themselves believe in. But even when people of the past specifically allude to Christianity or Jesus, they may not share the same understanding of those terms and ideas as their modern readers.

That can cut in all directions. “Presbyterian“ was often used as a general derogatory term by eighteenth-century non-Presbyterians. John Adams’s understanding of “Unitarianism” doesn’t map directly onto the modern Unitarian-Universalist creed. And so on.

The interviews and reviews indicate that Stewart has focused his work on certain Revolutionary figures: Young, his friend and coauthor Ethan Allen, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine. But those men were only a narrow slice of a mass movement toward independence and repuhlicanism.

Samuel Adams, for example, appears in those articles above only in the Globe interview as “Sam Adams,” comrade of Young’s. Yet Adams clearly had more influence on the course of the Revolution than Young, who never served in public office and died in 1777. Adams was also a devout Calvinist, and therefore less helpful to Stewart’s thesis.

As much as I’m pleased to see the name of Dr. Young in a Boston newspaper again, I thought the Globe interview didn’t offer an accurate picture of the man. Stewart twice calls him a “street warrior” but doesn’t identify him as a physician. While Young’s free thinking allowed him to imagine political change (he was a true democrat as early as the late 1760s), his deism was a liability to the local Whig movement; friends of the royal government used Young’s unorthodox beliefs to discredit him in heavily Calvinist Boston. Young and Allen were clearly outliers in the spectrum of American religious thought during his lifetime.

Stewart’s academic background is in philosophy, not history, and he’s shining a spotlight on the classical roots of Enlightenment deism. I hope Nature’s God does better at putting those ideas in the full context of Revolutionary history than the short interviews and reviews allow.

1 comment:

Jerri Pries said...

I read the book over the past week and it is the best attempt I can think of to explain what exactly our founders meant when they said things like "according to Nature and Nature's God," "self-evident truths," and "the pursuit of happiness."

The book is no beach read, that is for sure, but I highly recommend it to anyone willing to make the effort to understand just how differently people thought in the late 18th-c. about these things and how facile efforts in our time to capture the founders' support for one political agenda or another can run aground.

Couple of asides:

Stewart uses Young and Ethan Allen not as epitomes but rather as examples demonstrating how deeply specific cosmopolitan ideas about nature and nature's god permeated late colonial and revolutionary society. If these guys were repeating these ideas then …

Not only does Stewart clearly identify Young as a physician, that role plays a significant part in Stewart's argument, especially in the chapter on self-evident truths.

Again, I highly recommend this book.