Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Christopher Grasso's "Skepticism and American Faith"

Christopher Grasso is professor of history at the College of William and Mary and was the editor of the William and Mary Quarterly. He is the author of A Speaking Aristocracy: Transforming Public Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut and the editor of Bloody Engagements: John R. Kelso's Civil War.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War, and reported the following:
Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution and the Civil War argues that the dialogue of religious skepticism and faith shaped struggles over the place of religion in politics; it produced different visions of knowledge and education in an "enlightened" society; it fueled social reform in an era of economic transformation, territorial expansion, and social change; and it molded the making and eventual unmaking of American nationalism. It has four thematic sections, arranged chronologically: “Revolutions, 1775-1815,” “Enlightenments, 1790-1840,” “Reforms, 1820-1850,” and “Sacred Causes, 1830-1865.” The chapters examine the lives of believers who come to doubt and doubters who come to believe; of faithful Christians who battle skepticism and freethinkers who battle the hegemony of faith. Page 99 is at the beginning of the third chapter, “Instituting Skepticism: The Emergence of Organized Deism,” focusing on 1790 to about 1815, when Elihu Palmer, Thomas Paine and others tried to establish organizations criticizing Christianity as superstitious and anti-democratic and promoting deism as an enlightened religion of reason and nature.

From page 99 (with sentences beginning on page 98 and ending on page 100; footnotes omitted):
Together [some liberal, more enlightened forms of Christianity] applied ‘a purifying hand of reason, pruning and lopping off the decayed branches of the old theological tree, approaching still nearer to the source and principles of nature, till at length, by regular progression, the human mind discovered, that moral principle was placed upon a more solid foundation than the reveries of sectarian fanaticism.” At the same time, “the philosophical investigations of French, English, and German philanthropists” helped produce “a new era in the intellectual history of man.” Newton, Locke, d’Holbach, Rousseau, Voltaire, Hume, Bolingbroke, Paine, and many others “swept away the rubbish of ancient superstition.”

Writing at the commencement of the nineteenth century, Palmer knew that much work remained to be done. The virtuous needed to continue to spread enlightened philosophy through print, encouraging people to use their reason, become skeptical about the claims of revealed religion, and place faith, politics, and knowledge on natural, rational foundations. They needed to continue to fight for republican liberty and equality, at the ballot box or with a sword if necessary. And they needed to associate, organize, and institutionalize, replacing the old systems and institutions with new ones. Palmer and his fellow deistic reformers fought their political battles and spread their good news about the dawning Age of Reason with their printing presses. They made considerable efforts, but devoted less systematic thinking to the shape and function of the new religious institutions that would need to replace the old churches. Palmer called for scrutinizing and analyzing “the complicated association and application of the ideas of former institutions,” and of “disorganizing the system” of antiquated religious, political, literary, and moral establishments. But he seemed to think that once oppression, ignorance, and error were removed, new cultural institutions would emerge naturally, and then inevitably “harmonize and form one grand system.”

Deist reformers in the age of the American and French revolutions like Palmer and his friend Thomas Paine tried to combine a skeptical critique of revealed religion (especially Christianity) with a program for a simplified, liberated religion of reason and nature. Their ideas had a lasting legacy, but their institutions—their deist clubs, periodicals, and proposals for Temples of Reason—had a short life. Explanations for the fate of organized deism have tended to emphasize the limited popular appeal of reasoned religion in an era of evangelical enthusiasm. Organized deism, however, like other voluntary associations that sprouted up in the early republic, was a complex cultural formation with its own particular social make-up, political profile, internal structure, and precarious place in the evolving relations of early national cultural power. These facets can best be seen by comparing it to other groups that also worked to perpetuate themselves in stable institutions outside the Christian mainstream—in particular, the Universalists, the Freemasons, the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgian) Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Organized deism, like these other groups, was fashioned by the ideas, attitudes, and desires of its leaders and members, but also by the power of the state, the constraints and authorizations of the law, and the bitterly contested politics of religious and political association in the 1790s.
I think the “Page 99 Test” gives a fair representation of the book.
Learn more about Skepticism and American Faith at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue