Historicizing religion in U.S. history

Christianity, as all religions, must be taken into account in historical scholarship.

AAs historians, we want to respond to Bryan Freeman’s Nov. 29 opinion, “Remember our Christian roots.” Freeman argues that teaching history should reflect the important role religion plays in the construction and operations of human society. We agree and affirm that it already does.

But Freeman presents a singular, and unchanging line of religious heritage extending from the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth in 1620. This is incorrect and misleading.

To begin, the Pilgrims were not the same people as the Puritans. As separatists from the Church of England, Pilgrims espoused a very different concept of Christianity than Puritans, nonseparatists who arrived in New England 10 years after the Pilgrims. The Puritans did not view Christianity as a unified religion, nor were they tolerant of competing versions inside or outside their community. They banished those who disagreed with them and hung two missionaries for heresy in 1659.

Christianity in the revolutionary period further substantiates this variety of religious practices. The Founding Fathers’ religion was not the same as that of 17th-century Puritans. In the early 18th century, the colonies witnessed a religious revival known as the first Great Awakening. This religious fervor engendered the formation and growth of many new Protestant denominations. Though Freeman is correct in that the Founding Fathers were mostly Christian, they in no way shared a unified set of religious beliefs or common interpretations of Christianity. Quakers even used Christian doctrine to oppose the American Revolution.

The Founding Fathers’ opinion of Christianity was as varied as their response to the Constitution. Former President Thomas Jefferson refused to publicly endorse the Constitution. Thomas Paine, who famously used Christianity to support the Revolution, opposed the Constitution and publicly condemned former President George Washington. The Anti-federalists used their more evangelical Christianity in an attempt to defeat the Constitution.

The Constitution reflects these various and frequently divisive versions of Christianity. It does not reflect a uniform Christian heritage, as no such unified mindset existed. Rather, the Constitution’s framers sought to protect people’s right to choose their form of religious expression. The Constitution thus reflects this 18th-century historical context – a society undeniably influenced by the Great Awakening as well as the philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment. The framers drew from experiences of religious intolerance and persecution in Europe and in the colonies. They sought to prevent a singular version of Christianity from dictating religious practices.

The varied role of Christianity in our culture continued beyond the Constitution as well. In one of the most over examples, 19th century slave owners and abolitionists used Christianity to argue their respective positions for and against slavery. Many denominations, such as Baptists and Methodists, split over the ways their churches would respond to this crisis of religion and politics.

Freeman has expressed a concern felt by many: Scholars and teachers of U.S. history have minimized or even overlooked Christianity’s role in U.S. society. As members of the profession, we have not observed our colleagues to be generally neglectful of the role of religion in their work.

The best practices of our profession mandate that Christianity, as all religions, be taken into account in historical scholarship. Further, it must be understood not as an immutable influence on the development of U.S. society and government, but rather in all its variety and complexity.

The writers are graduate students in the history department. Please send comments to [email protected]