Study Guide

Awash in a Sea of Faith

by Jon Butler

Awash in a Sea of Faith Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In a plea for the continuation of religious establishmentarianism in Germany, Ernst Troeltsch, one of Heidelberg’s leading intellectuals, argued in 1912 that American-style separation would lead to the death of continuing Christian influence in German culture. In America, he observed, one finds “a domination of religion in social life which is astonishing to us Germans, and a removal of religion from all political carryings-on which is even more unfamiliar to us. For us, on the contrary, religion is virtually without significance in society, but yet, through union with certain parties, it is decisive in politics.”

Jon Butler’s book, winner of the Albert C. Outler Prize for 1989 from the American Society of Church History, attempts to account for this seeming reversal in American religious life which so astonished Troeltsch. Butler’s thesis is relatively simple: Given the ambivalent and diverse character of the colonists’ European religious heritage, there was no inherent, implicit, or inevitable necessity for America to emerge as in some sense a “Christian nation.” Both the New World and its settlers presented to Christian authorities an unsacralized wilderness upon which Christianity would have to be imposed. The struggle for the Christianizing of America from the Colonial beginnings to 1865 is Butler’s focus. Under Butler’s thesis rests a substantive definition of the term “religion” as “belief in and resort to superhuman powers, sometimes beings, that determine the course of natural and human events.” Using such a definition, Butler means to reject the functionalist distinction between religious systems on the one side, and magical and occult beliefs on the other. His assumption is not the cultural necessity of a religious system, but rather a kind of vacuum which humans fill by selecting from a continuum of disparate possibilities, including irreligion. How Christians sought to fill the vacuum in the American wilderness—and what Americans chose to believe—is the story Butler wants to tell.

Indeed, according to Butler, that there was no vacuum, that America is and was and must continue to be Christian emerged as a powerful piece of nativist propaganda in the mid-nineteenth century. Taking aim at this “myth of the Christian America past,” Butler begins with the European religious legacy. What Europe unleashed upon its colonies was a coercive state church tradition, a disparate coterie of dissenting groups, a defensive minority of Roman Catholics, thriving occultism, and above all, an ineradicable and pervasive lay ambivalence concerning the tenets and practices of Christianity. State coercion and sponsorship appeared to be Christianity’s best hope for the ongoing but elusive Christianization of Europe. In other words, a Christian Europe had been no more inevitable than would be a Christian America.

Observers focusing primarily upon New England Puritanism might be tempted by the myth, but Butler’s colony-by-colony survey of religious life in the seventeenth century presents a different picture: Virginia, New York, the Carolinas, and Maryland virtually bereft of Christian institutional expression, settled comfortably into a woefully unsacralized landscape, inhabited by a laity largely indifferent and even contemptuous in religious matters; New England and Pennsylvania clinging desperately and tribalistically to founding principles as their religious achievements crumbled around them. The seventeenth century saw an America which had not even attained the meager levels of European Christianization. And what bits and pieces of Christian belief and practice survived were soon joined by another segment of the European religious legacy, namely, an ongoing fascination with the occult, astrology, and magic. By the eighteenth century, the occult had largely lost its legal relevance—governments no longer prosecuted witches—but through “folklorization” supernaturalism of this kind continued its hold on vast numbers of the populace. The church might make its distinctions between acceptable “wonders” and suspicious “miracles,” but such theological subtleties amounted to little in the lives of the powerless.

Butler closes his account of the primitive Colonial period with one of his central historical themes: As far as the Christianizing of America is concerned, the seventeenth century must be judged a wash-out. As a formative age, the eighteenth century is of far greater significance, for only then did Christianity make headway in the New World. Its relative successes built the foundation for the even more successful wave of antebellum efforts. Four blocks in that foundation can be cited here.

First, after 1680, Anglicans and New England Congregationalists revitalized their coercive state church traditions. Religious establishment now meant legislative decrees (generating public recognition and funds), massive church building programs (sacralizing the landscape), and well-oiled parish...

(The entire section is 2026 words.)