Head and Heart

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Puritans saw America as a “city upon a hill,” where the Gospel could be preached and lived, but it has been said that they fled England to escape religious tolerance. Haunted by the fear of hell, they opposed the paganism of African and Asian religions, the denial of Jesus in Judaism and Islam, and (in what would become a recurring theme in American thought) the Roman Catholicism their founders had only recently broken from. For all their extremism, the Puritans were not unintelligent. They founded Harvard College (now University), and their emphasis on the individual remains central to American thought. They were not alone in America, however, and Garry Wills describes the 1660 execution of Mary Dyer, a Quaker who insisted on preaching her version of Christianity. Within Puritanism there were dissenters, such as Samuel Sewall, who came to repent of his role as judge in the Salem witchcraft trials and wrote The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial (1700), an early attack on the institution of slavery, and Roger Williams, whose extreme devoutness led him to wonder if religion properly had any public aspects.

The Enlightenment began to influence America in the eighteenth century. John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (published anonymously in 1695) led the way to Unitarianism, a version of Christianity that accepted the Bible but denied the divinity of Jesus. Quakers such as John Woolman and Anthony Benezet (to whom Wills dedicates the book) used Christian and humanist arguments to oppose slavery.

The religious approach most favored by the Enlightenment was Deism, the belief in a “watchmaker” God who created the universe and set it in motion but then left it alone. Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, were Deists. Jefferson went so far as to create a Deist Bible, eliminating the parts of the original Bible he could not accept and treating Jesus as merely a great teacher.

The Enlightenment worldview of the Founding Fathers led them to one of the most radical results of the American Revolution: the disestablishment of religion. Here again, Locke was a major influence, with Epistola de Tolerantia (1689; a letter concerning toleration). Locke’s approach was moderate, seeing religious tolerance as a Christian virtue and setting somewhat narrow limits on it. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, however, radicalized Locke’s view, writing into the Constitution as complete a separation of church and state as they could manage. Wills traces the development of disestablishment through careful analyses of Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” (1779) and Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785) and refutes the most common arguments that try to limit the neutrality of the First Amendment not only among religions but also between religion and absence of religion.

With the nineteenth century came Romanticism, which affected both the Enlightened and Evangelical aspects of American Christianity. The debate between Unitarian and Trinitarian versions led William Ellery Channing to publish “Unitarian Christianity” in 1819 and to establish Unitarianism as a separate sect within Christendom. However, the Transcendentalists, influenced by the Romantic emphasis on intuition and inspiration, found more and more of Christianity unacceptable. In his Harvard Divinity School address (1838), Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed that Unitarianism should have jettisoned the belief in miracles along with the Trinity. The Transcendentalists imported an element of nature mysticism, derived from Hinduism; influenced writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman; and helped popularize abolitionism, but as Wills notes, they resembled their Puritan forebears in seeing themselves as individualists, yet joined by a mission from God, leading a mission into the wilderness.

Meanwhile, the same Romantic emphasis on feeling led to the Second Great Awakening, a revival of religious fervor, particularly among Methodists. Francis Asbury, the first American Methodist bishop, had been a Loyalist during the American Revolution, and he refused to take an oath to the revolutionary...

(The entire section is 1760 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 104, no. 1 (September 1, 2007): 4.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 15 (August 1, 2007): 781.

Library Journal 132, no. 15 (September 15, 2007): 66.

The New Republic 237, no. 7 (October 8, 2007): 57-60.

The New York Times Book Review 157 (December 9, 2007): 10.