Friday, April 23, 2010

John A. Ragosta's "Wellspring of Liberty"

John A. Ragosta is a lecturer at the University of Virginia School of Law; he received his PhD in history from the University of Virginia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia's Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Wellspring of Liberty: “Why hear the heart-affecting shrieks of the wounded, and the awful scene of garments enrolled in blood, together with the entire loss of many of our relations, friends, acquaintances and fellow citizens—and after all this, to be exposed to religious oppression…?”

William Fristoe, a revolutionary era Baptist minister who was attacked for preaching before the war, asked this of his countryman. Page 99 goes on to explain that, given the pre-war persecution of religious dissenters, their willingness to participate effectively in the war was the result of intense negotiations between dissenters and the religious and political establishment. In essence, support for wartime mobilization was provided in return for religious liberty.

While having serious doubts about the “Page 99 Test,” this does, perhaps, provide as good a summary of the book as any single page might.

Does it indicate the quality of the book? I think not. Page 99 goes on to address statistical evidence testing the proposition that religious dissenters mobilized in support of the war as part of the “payment” due from the negotiations. This statistical analysis is a small part of the book and is not indicative of the overall quality.

Rather, Wellspring of Liberty engages an interesting history of human challenges and disputes; it demonstrates that religious dissenters faced far more extensive and serious persecution than had previously been suggested. This, then, led to a rather pointed negotiation in which mobilization was contingent upon support for liberalization of religious freedom. Interestingly, there was some intentional effort at historic forgetfulness after the war as supporters of the former establishment sought to minimize any suggestion that religious liberty was not freely offered and former dissenters sought to minimize any suggestion that their support for the war was anything less than disinterested patriotism.

Finally, the book engages the question of what Virginia’s religious dissenters meant by religious freedom. In fact, they had a remarkably robust sense of what they were negotiating for, rejecting any notion of a “Christian nation” and insisting upon a strict separation of church and state to protect the church from the corrupting influence of government. Their views were based both on their theology and their experience.

I am afraid that page 99 might not provide much color to what is, in fact, a fascinating human story of contingency, revolution, and freedom.
Read more about Wellspring of Liberty at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue