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Faith, History, and Politics: A Transatlantic Conversation about the Role of Religion in the American Story

“Much American (and British) media depiction of faith—sadly, but perhaps inevitably – tends to be primary colored, inadequately nuanced, and at odds with what I have found to be the case from my fifty years’ engagement with the United States.” An interview with the British historian of America, Richard Carwardine.

As Americans commemorate the 400th anniversary of the 1620 Plymouth landing and sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, many are bound to be reminded that “one should not mix religion and politics.” But the most important episodes of American history do not reflect any type of adherence to this oft-repeated, friendly advice. From America’s colonial beginnings to the latest political developments, honest observers will find that religion has played, and continues to play, an active part in establishing and maintaining our experiment with republican government. History professor Richard Carwardine stands as one of the most authoritative scholars on the role of faith in the American story. Carwardine’s impressive career includes being a Rhodes Professor of American History and Institutions at Oxford University, winning the 2004 Lincoln Prize for Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, and serving as president of Oxford’s Corpus Christi College. I recently interviewed the Welsh historian to get a transatlantic view on how faith shaped the American political landscape during the mid-1800s.

Howard Muncy: You have written at length on the importance of religion in American history and particularly how evangelicals shaped reform movements during the antebellum period. How much changed from the Calvinism that dominated the colonial and revolutionary eras to what historians observe in the early and mid-19th century, when moral and human agency take an elevated role?

Richard Carwardine: Eighteenth-century Calvinism did yield ground to a broadly Arminian theology. An understanding of Christian faith shaped by passivity and predestination gave way to one that emphasized individual agency and enterprise. High Calvinists understood that, under a sovereign God, not everybody would be saved, and you could never be sure of your salvation. If you believed you had experienced the grace of Christ, there was reason to hope that you would not be consigned to darkness, but it was presumptuous to conclude that you were indeed one of the elect.

Arminians, by contrast, believed that sinners’ destiny was very much (though not entirely) in their own hands: they could actively seek the grace of Christ. Arminian revivalist preachers emphasized human agency, encouraging seekers to open themselves up to the converting power of Christ. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century witnessed the rapid expansion of Methodism. By the 1830s, the Methodist Episcopal Church—barely in existence in the colonies at the time of the Revolution—had become the biggest denomination in the United States. Its theology was Arminian. Methodists rejected the idea of an elect: Christ’s atonement had been for all people. There was no limit on who could be “born again.”

The Methodists grew exponentially in the early decades of their existence in the United States. Of course, the Methodist church was an import from England. John Wesley, the influential English theologian and evangelist, came to the colonies, to Georgia, in the mid-eighteenth century. After the Revolution, Methodism very quickly established itself as an American denomination. By the 1830s, the chief religious force in the United States was not the Unitarian Church—as Thomas Jefferson had predicted—but two powerful evangelical families: the Methodists and Baptists. Although some Baptists continued to hold strict Calvinist convictions, most moved in an Arminian direction, as did the historically Calvinist Congregationalists and Presbyterians. They developed a New Divinity, as it was called, that made some concessions to human agency and to the Arminian understanding of Christ’s atonement for all.

By the 1830s and 1840s, through this great evangelical surge, most Protestant churchgoers approached questions of conversion, the work of the Spirit, and the work of faith, in a spirit of active participation. That was how the major revivalist preachers of the time justified the “new measures” that they used to encourage conversion. These included emotionally intense meetings that spread over several days, often featuring the so-called “anxious seat” or “penitents’ bench”—a pew reserved for identified seekers after salvation where, under the eyes of the congregation, ministers and their assistants could press these “anxious inquirers” to make a decision for Christ.

HM: Did the rise of mass democracy help facilitate this movement? Or vice versa? Or was mass democracy merely complementary to something already under way with faith?

RC: How does the evangelical surge relate to political democracy? Well, the two intersected and converged very naturally. In the young republic there was a powerful sense that individual and communal lives were open to improvement by personal agency and self-fashioning. Many men and women from Calvinist families began to feel that a theology of passivity and predetermination was simply not consistent with the world they inhabited, where individuals were actively bettering their lives through self-improvement. This faith in individual enterprise was closely linked to a growing egalitarian sensibility: all men deserved to be treated equally (in the eyes of most citizens this did not include non-whites or women). As evangelical religion became more democratic, with believers rejecting the concept of an elect, so too did politics, through the near-universal adoption of white manhood suffrage by the 1830s. These two developments were culturally connected, one reinforcing the other.

 

American politics borrowed a lot from the lessons of mobilization taught by the revival preachers during the evangelical surge. Revivalists saw the world as a cockpit of opposing forces: heaven and hell, sin and grace, Christ and the devil. The evangelical world was one of polarities that fed neatly into the political world of the two-party system, where Whigs—and subsequently Republicans—confronted Democrats. Organizers of political meetings used songs that borrowed from hymnody. Election campaigners spoke of political salvation and redemption; politicians described their opponents as the agents of hell, or as Satan’s friends. The language of the revival fed into democratic discourse, accompanying the shift from Calvinism to Arminianism that I’ve summarized.

HM: Religious attitudes toward slavery may have accelerated the end of the institution as much as any individual’s political efforts. Critics are quick to point out how many southerners used religion to uphold slavery in the South. But this question focuses on the abolitionist side. Who were the major players that harnessed the energy of the religious movement to effectively attack slavery?

RC: Few abolitionists were not resolute Christians. Quakers and the Unitarians contributed disproportionately to the reformers’ numbers, but evangelical Protestants of a radical bent dominated the movement.

There were several centers of abolitionism. I’ll mention just one. A preeminent influence was the premier revivalist of his day, Charles Grandison Finney, a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology at Oberlin College in the Western Reserve of Ohio. During the 1830s the college was energized by abolitionist students who had left Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati over the contentious issue of colonization. Some reformers believed that settling free blacks in West Africa would deal with the issue of emancipation, by providing slaveowners with an incentive to free the enslaved. But anti-slavery radicals, with reason, came to consider this a bromide. A series of debates at Lane split the seminary, and the radicals left for Oberlin. There these rebels created a crucible for anti-slavery ideas and action. Finney’s converts—who included the highly influential Theodore Dwight Weld—and Oberlin activists spread the word of the anti-slavery gospel, modeling themselves on “the seventy” emissaries of Christ described in the Scriptures.

Finney’s theology was radical. Not only did he give expression to the New Divinity but he also voiced a form of perfectionism, a doctrine that he in large part borrowed from Methodism, which as I have already indicated was a major cultural influence. The doctrine of “entire sanctification”—of a “second blessing” after initial conversion—was an element of Wesley’s teaching. Finney, whether or not consciously borrowing from Wesley and his disciples, drew on this stream of thought to encourage Christian converts to strive after individual perfection. Although full perfection was unattainable by humankind, individuals should aspire to it. That, of course, had implications for the social order and for efforts to improve and perfect it.

Perfectionist theology was allied to an optimistic millennialism. The multiplication of revivals in the early decades of the nineteenth century encouraged the belief that—through dedicated evangelism and the reform of social ills—the Millennium would be inaugurated, leading to the second coming of Christ. This shaped the immediatist thrust of abolitionism: to begin the work of emancipation now. As I have said, not all abolitionists would have considered themselves conventional evangelicals. William Lloyd Garrison, perhaps the best-known of abolitionists, was in no way orthodox. But at the heart of the anti-slavery movement were evangelicals whose conversion had led them to understand that “faith without works is dead.” Conversion, Protestants understood, was not secured by good works, but by faith alone. But, these reformers asked, where was the evidence of true conversion if it were not followed by the convert’s social activism? Evangelicals were impelled by their faith into believing that slavery should be condemned as a sin, not simply as a social evil. It was a personal sin: those who held slaves were sinful, as were those who connived at the continuation and spread of slavery.

HM: That turns us toward Abraham Lincoln and God. Abraham Lincoln’s faith has eluded scholars for over a century. Some have contended that he was nonreligious, and skeptics go as far as to label him an atheist. Conversely, others have overstated his connections to particular denominations or have reached for evidence that is difficult to assess. Of course, Lincoln’s reticent nature makes it difficult for the historian; but what are the most credible sources? Why is it even important to wrestle with his faith?

RC: That’s a very good question. So, what are the sources? They include William H. Herndon’s collection of interviews with family, friends, and acquaintances of Lincoln in Indiana, Illinois, and to a much lesser extent in Washington. One of these, the groomsman at Lincoln’s wedding, James Matheny, maintained that Lincoln was no Christian, scoffed at the scriptures, and verged on atheism, and that he “played a sharp trick” on the Illinois electorate during the 1850s by letting it be known that he had become serious about religion. Others, though, were sure he was a man of faith, if not a Trinitarian Christian at least Unitarian. Herndon’s sources offer fractured and diverse voices.

Some claims relate to Lincoln’s young manhood in New Salem when, like many others, he was attracted to the rational religion of the scientific Enlightenment. On this analysis, the Creator was a clockmaker God who set the universe running according to fixed rules and then stood back. What is interesting, however, is to ponder the effect on the more mature Lincoln of the Springfield years, the 1840s and ’50s. As a professional lawyer and married man with a family, he now encountered thoughtful and educated Christian ministers of religion.

For example, Lincoln met and appears to have respected James Smith, a well-read Scottish Presbyterian minister who wrote a substantial work of scholarship, The Christian’s Defense. Smith officiated at the funeral of Eddie, Lincoln’s three-year-old son, who died in 1850. As a result, the Lincolns moved to the First Presbyterian Church, where he and Mary rented a pew. Smith gave Lincoln a copy of The Christian’s Defense. Did Lincoln read it? Was he influenced by it? We can’t say. But he did recognize that ministers of religion should not all be judged by the example of frontier revivalists who appealed to the heart, not the head—like the Reverend Peter Cartwright, the Methodist who had run against Lincoln for election to Congress in 1846, and tried to tar Lincoln with the brush of infidelity.

Lincoln kept no diary or journal. He was, as various acquaintances said, a shut-mouthed man. David Davis said, “Anyone who purported to be able to tell what Lincoln believed was just fooling himself.” He thought it preposterous that anyone could really know what Lincoln believed.

However, during the Civil War Lincoln was far more willing to reflect on the Almighty and Providence. We have Orville Browning’s diary in which he reports Lincoln saying privately, “Browning, suppose God is against us in our view on the subject of slavery in this country, and our method of dealing with it.” Other examples include the diaries of Gideon Welles and Salmon Chase, who recorded their experiences before the cabinet meeting when Lincoln introduced the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Welles and Chase recorded that Lincoln spoke about how he had made a promise to his “Maker.” We have his two letters to Eliza Gurney, which really reflect on the role of the Almighty in human affairs. Historians also have his so-called Meditation on the Divine Will, dating probably from 1863 or 1864, a private document in which Lincoln took an observation (“each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God”) and used it to offer a startling hypothesis: “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”

HM: The shift in tone and content from Lincoln’s first inaugural to his second inaugural is often compared to conclude there was a quick evolution in his faith. Do Lincoln’s reflections during the Civil War indicate a dramatic transformation in theological thinking, or were changes in his moral and spiritual reasoning part of a longer arc?

RC: Initially, during the war, Lincoln’s major speeches paid only limited, some might say formulaic, attention to the Almighty. (I think there’s more to them than that, but let’s concede it for the moment.) With the second inaugural, however, you have a whole sermon in seven hundred or so words, where he dealt with profound questions of faith and God’s involvement in the life of a slaveholding nation.

The claims that Lincoln in the 1830s was a Deist of the Tom Paine stripe are probably true. Lincoln was drawn to the writings of those who explored faith through the lens of Enlightenment reason. But by the 1850s we can see how Lincoln blends the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence with portions of scripture. One thing we can be certain of is that Lincoln knows his Bible—one of his two foundational texts, the other being Shakespeare. To read the Bible is not necessarily to believe it, of course, or to read it literally. Lincoln probably did take some pleasure as a young man in pointing to the Bible’s inherent contradictions.

Still, when it came to his assault on slavery in the 1850s—the focus of his political life from 1854 to 1860, punctuated with a stream of powerful speeches—we can see this fusing of the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, on the one hand, with some select scriptural texts highlighting the injustices of slavery, on the other. Lincoln regularly drew on a text from the book of Genesis, “By the sweat of thy brow, shalt thou eat bread.”

Lincoln’s friends and acquaintances stressed how deeply attached he was to the notion of justice. There may be a non-religious interpretation of this: “justice” may be his way of secularizing “God.” But there’s no doubt that during the 1850s he was able to shake off the charge of infidelity and atheism, to solidify a reputation as a politician of moral integrity.

In 1860 the Republican party drew campaigning energy from northern anti-slavery Protestants and in Lincoln had an appealing candidate. He was not a “born-again Christian,” but he was a church-going Presbyterian with a record of ethical opposition to slavery’s spread. During the war, mainstream Protestants came to see him as one of them: he spoke of the nation’s being answerable to a righteous God, especially with respect to slavery. One commentator said the public regarded him as “a sort of halfway clergyman.” He was more than a politician: he had a moral aura about him.

In sum: over the course of his adult life Lincoln moved from Paineite rational religion toward the God of the second inaugural, one who intervenes in the life of the nation to punish it for its 250 years’ complicity in slavery. Here was a very different God: a much more mysterious, less predictable Almighty, one who intervened with power in human affairs.

HM: New scholarship has started to slowly emerge on matters of faith, history, and politics. But from a transatlantic view, do Americans place enough emphasis on religion’s role in our larger movements, or do we seem eager to divorce our history from the influence of faith? As a prominent British historian who has spent a career researching these matters, does it almost humor you how we shy away from it?

RC: It both frustrates and amuses, but I’ll come to that shortly.

First, as you say, historical scholarship has indeed become more attentive to matters of faith, and I could list a rich seam of recent writing that has helped correct past neglect. The political role of evangelical Christianity in particular in the United States today makes it hard to ignore, of course. But it was not so when I began to study American religion at the outset of my career. A personal example is apt. As a grad student at Oxford, I held a one-year scholarship in 1969–1970 at the University of California, Berkeley. It was, of course, a pretty dramatic period in the life of the United States, not least on its campuses. I studied under the guidance of Charles Sellers, an inspirational political historian of the Jacksonian Age. I wrote a long paper on Charles Grandison Finney and urban revivals, and used the wonderful resources in the various libraries on “Holy Hill,” to the east of campus.

 

Like other British students of that era, I lacked typing skills and took my paper to a professional typist. When she gave the paper back to me, her first words were, “What a bummer!” It took a moment to realize she was not referring to the quality of the paper (which the Journal of American History accepted) but its topic. Why would I want to engage in a subject as off-the-wall as this when everyone knew that the world, particularly the California world, was moving happily into a more secular era, troubled only in Berkeley by the exotic presence of the Hare Krishna people. “Well,” I told her, “these evangelicals I’ve been studying are fundamental elements in the American story.” I felt, at the time, that I was swimming against the tide. Today, however, I wouldn’t have to defend my choice of subject as I did then.

Religion as a force in U.S. history can easily be missed because, like oxygen, it’s present but doesn’t necessarily show. It’s there as a cultural influence that shapes and gives succor to many people. My book Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America aimed to show how religious loyalties shaped issues, partisanship and the coin of politics during decades before the Civil War. For some historians, religion is of marginal interest because it appears to explain nothing; it’s considered a mere rationalization of more fundamental secular notions, material and ideological. My own study of the American past shows that (as in other societies) religion does play a formative role in how at least some people identify themselves, and act in that faith.

I don’t want to set up a straw man, but many popular discussions of “American religion,” both in the U.S. and abroad, seem to focus lazily on conservative, white, fundamentalist evangelicals—people distrustful of science, experts, and cultural change. But there is, naturally, a much more capacious and varied world of American religion: black evangelicalism, liberal Protestantism, Catholicism (both conservative and progressive), Judaism, Mormonism, and more. America is a more secular society than it was half a century ago, but many Americans remain unashamed people of faith. The United Kingdom is a much more secular country. And it’s perverse, isn’t it, that we in the UK still have an established church, headed by a hereditary monarch? As a society, the UK is far less faith-based, faith-oriented, and its people are far less ready to talk seriously about religion, than is true of the U.S.

So that’s why I find it both amusing and frustrating that social commentary and historical analysis often fail to honor the full richness of the religious contribution, for good or ill, to American life. Much American (and British) media depiction of faith—sadly, but perhaps inevitably—tends to be primary-colored, inadequately nuanced, and at odds with what I have found to be the case from my fifty years’ engagement with the United States.

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