Awash in a Sea of Faith

by Jon Butler
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2026

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.”

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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 systems and voluntary societies (centralizing church authority as well as community worship and public service). Second, establishment aided dissenting churches as well by spurring the development of denominational institutions designed to hold diverse congregations to a common measure of discipline and doctrine without benefit of state coercion. The results of these developments were a new infusion of public life with religious ceremony and symbol, as well as a blossoming of stabilized religious options in an increasingly pluralistic society.

Historians may find controversial Butler’s thesis that the third feature—revivalism—ranked less in importance for American religious history than state church and denominational revitalization. What usually passes under the term “the Great Awakening,” Butler argues, is better understood as an episodic and disconnected series of attempts at religious renewal characterized more by expressive, doctrinal, and local diversity than by cohesiveness or limitation to any specific time frame. Far from loosening, individualizing, or laicizing Christianity, attempts at revival aimed to tighten authority and discipline, enhanced institutionalization, and heightened the standing of the clergy over the laity. Perhaps more important is the emergence of two distinctive and enduring revivalistic styles, symbolized by the Tennents on one side and George Whitefield on the other. The former presented themselves as charismatic vessels supernaturally overflowing into the denominational and institutional channels within which they worked, while the latter pursued converts as a personally popular vehicle of a message spread outside of the usual institutional loyalties, and without claims to supernatural gifts.

A fourth component of eighteenth century development centers on the matter of slavery. In the ongoing debate between the adherents of Edward Franklin Frazier’s thesis (slavery utterly stripped the Africans of any African religious heritage) and adherents of Melville I Herskovits’ view (slave religion was essentially African religion, even when wearing Christian veneer), Butler argues for an “African spiritual holocaust.” What the Africans were stripped of was their religioussystem, though without question discrete beliefs and practices survived. Hence, African degradation was compounded by the forcible imposition of a religious vacuum in their lives. Though other denominations joined in, Butler credits the Anglican clergy with “solving” the thorny question of Christianizing both planter and slave. Under the guise of Christianizing the slaves (few Africans bought the message before 1760), Anglicans assured uneasy slaveholders that converting slaves did not imply freeing slaves. Bishops Fleetwood and Berkeley in England, along with American clergy such as Thomas Bacon, lent their weight to the view that the ethic appropriate to the Christian slave was absolute obedience, regardless of the master’s command. It was a lesson learned best, however, by the Christian master who bore the burden of slavery with violent force made all the more brutal when joined with a good conscience, sentimentality, and paternalism. To be sure, when Africans did begin converting to Christianity after 1760, it was to a Protestant Christianity largely European in style, augmented with African religious survivals. But its God was a thoroughly non-European liberator of slaves, hardly the God of Fleetwood, Berkeley, or Bacon.

If the surge of Christian effectiveness between 1680 and 1760 brought assurance to churchmen, that assurance vanished in the Revolutionary War period. According to Butler, most ministers viewed the war effort with deep misgivings, fearing the consequences of national upheaval on what religious regularity they had instilled in the laity. Military chaplains felt these misgivings most deeply as they faced the indifference and even outright hostility of the beleaguered militiamen. Many were reduced to the kind of desperation which led Reverend Samuel Spring to the morale-building expedient of passing among the soldiers articles of clothing removed from the body of the late revivalist George Whitefield. Even so, his charges were delighted when he returned home, Butler records, “because they were tired of his harangues.”

In itself, says Butler, the American War of Independence was a purely secular war, with religious factors playing a secondary role. In the decades following independence, however, American clergy renewed their efforts to train the new nation in Christian values. With the exception of the Anglicans, Protestant Christians succeeded in initiating an incline in the Christianization process, an incline which continues to this day. The Christian clergy sacralized the Revolutionary War, attacked skepticism and deism on the popular front, and strengthened their institutional vitality. They argued persuasively for Christianity’s effectiveness in supplying the republic with a virtuous citizenry. In the “antebellum spiritual hothouse,” diverse Christian groups succeeded in syncretistically absorbing or matching enduringly popular features of the occult. Christian reform societies agitated influentially for their own vision of American society. There was also the myth of the American Christian past. Clergy often pointed to this past when lamenting the present spiritual state of the nation. Yet the myth obscured more than the past. Butler argues that in fact popular adherence to Christianity was on the rise. Though never free of an ongoing and pervasive undercurrent of religious ambivalence, Americans nevertheless were learning their religious lessons relatively well, especially compared with their European cousins.

The irony is that all these advances occurred in a new nation which opted for disestablishment, seeking to render state and religion impotent in each other’s spheres. Historically, the political progression was from state church to state Christianity (with multiple establishment) to a withdrawal of the state from any religious establishment. From Virginia spread the American political obsession with walls and lines which relegates Christianity to the general category of “religion,” as one religion among others. Especially from the political perspective of James Madison, a constitutionally guaranteed and perpetual religious vacuum in the civil authority was to be a guarantee of the right of perpetual individual choice. The Christianizing of America would never rest upon necessity, at least as far as the state is concerned. Butler closes his book with a fascinating vignette of Abraham Lincoln as the symbol of this paradox, a man whose character manifests the religious vacuum of American political life even as it bears the marks of Christianity’s tutoring of the nation.

Butler’s book masterfully illuminates this paradox in American religious life, leaving us in even deeper wonderment as to its “why.” It is the contingency of American religious life which emerges here, made all the more perplexing in light of the fate of Christianity in modern Europe (60 percent church attendance in the United States today, 10 percent in Europe). Perhaps one of the book’s primary effects is that it forces readers to become observers astonished at the enduring power of Christianity in America and the unflagging enterprise of Christian institutions in attracting the choices of American people. Butler’s analysis also takes some of the edge off the shrill contemporary rhetoric of American religious decline. Yet, in an era of increasing religious diversity (not merely Christian pluralism) in American life, the theme of selection, variety, and contingency is a welcome corrective to the ever- recurring myth of a necessity rooted in primitive American homogeneity.

The book is heavily documented and full of valuable statistical and biographical detail. Perhaps the most riveting chapters are the final four, dealing with developments during the Revolutionary War and the antebellum period. Some readers may find the book tough going, largely as a result of Butler’s grudging use of summary and thematic review, but the insight gained is essential for anyone seeking to understand the course of Christianity in America.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. February 22, 1990, p.73.

Choice. XXVII, May, 1990, p.1520.

The Christian Century. CVII, July 25, 1990, p.709.

Library Journal. CXIV, December, 1989, p. 128.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 7, 1990, p.9.

The New Republic. CCII, May 7, 1990, p.39.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, April 1, 1990, p.33.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 21, 1990, p.1003.

University Press Book News. II, June, 1990, p.3.

Wilson Quarterly. XIV, February, 1990, p. 101.

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