During the past six years or so Sam Haselby has taught history at both the University of Beirut and the University of Cairo. Perhaps the experience of teaching at these two Middle Eastern universities convinced him that religion tends to trump politics every time. For that is a major theme of his impressive and powerfully argued book—that in the decades following the American Revolution it was American Protestantism and not any sort of classical republicanism that was most important in shaping the development of American nationalism.
The break with Great Britain, says Haselby, who is currently a visiting professor at Columbia, freed Americans from the restraints imposed by British imperial considerations. In the half-century following the Declaration of Independence, tens of thousands of the rapidly growing population of Americans swarmed over the mountains into the trans-Appalachian West (the region west of the Appalachians and east of the Mississippi River). In 1790 the trans-Appalachian population was about a hundred thousand; by 1820 it had swelled to two and a quarter million. By 1821, nine new western states—Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Illinois, Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri—had entered the Union. By 1825, Kentucky and Tennessee alone had more people than Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont combined. This extraordinary movement of people, Haselby says, “produced a new mode of nationalism, one more enduring than revolutionary-era civic republicanism, and more unruly.”
This western territory became the battleground of a momentous struggle over what kind of country the new United States would become. Would it emerge as a replica of the small, religiously conservative farming communities of New England? Or would it come to resemble the Jeffersonian society of the South, dominated by deistic-minded slaveholding planters? As it turned out neither the religiously conservative society of New England nor the secular Jeffersonian South came to dominate the West. Instead, the West experienced a struggle within Protestantism between what Haselby labels “frontier revivalism and national evangelism.”
By “frontier revivalism” Haselby means the religion of the migrants, mostly small farmers, who became members of the dynamic Protestant sects that dominated the frontier. And by “national evangelism” he means the northeastern elites, mostly gentry and capitalists, who organized the nationalist Protestant missions program that sought to save the West from the barbarism of the revivalists. The religious conflict between these large movements within Protestantism fundamentally shaped America’s sense of itself as a nation. The ultimate resolution of this conflict, Haselby contends, was expressed in the rise of Andrew Jackson.
The post-revolutionary decades in America may have seen the greatest explosion of Christian religiosity since the seventeenth century or even the Reformation. The entire religious landscape of America was transformed. In 1760 the dominant denominations in colonial America had been the Anglicans and the Congregationalists—traditional state churches with Old World connections. By the end of the eighteenth century the dominant denominations had become the Baptists and Methodists—revivalist sects that had no connection with any state whatever. And the West was where these revivalist sects especially flourished. Not only were the traditional Old World churches fragmented but the fragments themselves shattered in what seemed at times to be an endless process of fission, ultimately creating sects that no one had ever heard of. “All Christendom has been decomposed, broken in pieces” in a “fiery furnace of democracy,” said a bewildered New England Federalist, Harrison Gray Otis.
Haselby is at pains to emphasize that this explosion of religiosity in the West was not shaped by American nationalism. Despite what Tocqueville claimed in his Democracy in America, he says, “popular religious movements on the frontier flourished independently of nationalist ideals and influences.” In the absence of a strong state and an established church, popular Protestantism “offered alternative forms of sovereignty” and “invented new forms of authority.” For the people in the trans-Appalachian West it was “a greater and more radical force than the revolutionary republicanism of secular intellectuals.” Protestantism created its own religious nationalism.
At the outset of his book Haselby correctly assumes “that the War of Independence posed rather than answered the question of American nationality.” There was very little sense of Americanism in 1776. In fact, it was British officials who first called the colonists “Americans.” In 1776 when Jefferson or John Adams talked about “my country” he meant Virginia or Massachusetts, each of which had a century and a half of history to sustain its inhabitants’ loyalty. Against that loyalty the new United States could scarcely compete. The Declaration of Independence drawn up by the Continental Congress was actually a declaration not by the American people but by “thirteen united States of America.”
At first these thirteen independent states formed a treaty, a “league of friendship,” the so-called Articles of Confederation. This treaty, ratified in 1781, was not an early version of the federal Constitution; instead, the Articles were an alliance of the thirteen separate states that resembles the present-day European Union. At the outset leaders faced the problem of creating a sense of American nationalism that is similar to the problem of the various European nations today trying to create a sense of Europeanism.
Even the creation of the federal government in 1788–1789 did not solve the problem of unifying the nation. The new federal government, says Haselby, “faced two formidable nation-building challenges, the future of the Native Americans (and their land claims) and the establishment of US sovereignty over the frontier. The state was unable to address either crisis.” Certainly the federal government was weak by European standards, but Haselby ignores the role the United States Army played in defeating the Indians, freeing up land for settlers and speculators, and bringing some order to at least the northwestern portion of the frontier. Still, he is essentially correct in stating that “the United States began a vast and unique continental colonization project” without the traditional instruments of a strong state or church. Those who crossed over the Appalachians into the West had very little sense of Americanism, and eastern leaders were constantly fearful that they would separate and go their own way.
This is the setting for Haselby’s argument that a major conflict between two distinct forces of Protestantism in the West contributed to a new sense of religious nationalism. He builds his argument slowly, and the reader is not always sure where it is going. He devotes his first chapter to the separation of church and state embodied in Thomas Jefferson’s famous bill for religious liberty passed in Virginia in 1786. Although Jefferson naively believed that passage of his bill showed that Virginians were becoming more enlightened and rational like himself, James Madison, a fellow secularist who shepherded the bill through the Virginia legislature, shrewdly realized that it was the multiplicity of sects in Virginia and their fear of Anglicanism and jealousy of one another that actually made possible the destruction of any religious establishment in Virginia. “In essence,” writes Haselby, “Madison had seized upon sectarianism to further secularism.”
By the early nineteenth century, the secular or deistic vision of Jefferson and Madison was totally out of touch with American reality, especially in the West. Methodism had come to dominate the settlements on the frontier. There had been no Methodists in America in 1760, but by the early nineteenth century they had become the largest denomination in the country—despite the fact that the founder of English Methodism, John Wesley, had publicly opposed the American Revolution. The Methodists benefited from having uneducated itinerant ministers who were willing to preach anywhere—on town greens, before county courthouses, on potters’ fields, and even in the churches of other denominations. By offering an anti-Calvinist message of free will and earned grace, the Methodist preachers essentially told people that they could bring about their own salvation.
But these preachers, says Haselby, were not much interested in the fate of the United States. “Methodism,” he emphasizes, “was not a nationalist movement. It pioneered the settlement of the frontier for religious reasons. Its goals were spiritual and social, not political.” It took no part in the War of 1812, and had no notion of “a mythical or sacred American nation.”
If the secular or deistic vision of Jefferson was overwhelmed by frontier revivalism, what about the Federalist vision of the West created by New England intellectuals? In an extraordinarily insightful chapter, Haselby analyzes the writings of the Connecticut Wits—literary figures such as David Humphreys, Joel Barlow, Noah Webster, Timothy Dwight, and John Trumbull—who starting in the mid-1760s produced an idealized image of America that was Protestant New England writ large. The Wits imagined an American empire that was aggressive, hierarchical, and theological, but also antislavery and antiracist. The United States would become an imperialistic society of devoutly Christian farmers, artisans, and tradesmen led by a virtuous elite, bent on conquering not just the American West but the entire world.
This Federalist vision of America, Puritan in its origins, was not much more relevant to the realities of American society than Jefferson’s deistic vision. The election of Jefferson as president in 1800 frightened the New England Federalists. By the time of the War of 1812 they were convinced that the country had become completely dominated by Virginian slaveholders and was heading entirely in the wrong direction. In despair over the war and wondering whether they had made a mistake in 1776 in breaking from England, the Federalist leaders met in a convention in Hartford in December 1814 and proposed a series of amendments to the Constitution designed to reduce the power of the southern planters in the nation. Unfortunately they brought their proposals to Washington in January 1815 just as news reached the public of the peace treaty ending the war and Andrew Jackson’s overwhelming victory over the British at New Orleans. The Federalists, some of whom had threatened secession, were discredited, and their political party disintegrated.
The political failure of the Federalists led upper-class New Englanders to throw their energy and money into quite different projects. If the Federalists could not win political elections, they could at least save the country in other ways. Liberal northeastern intellectuals and conservative New England clerics came together to create Protestant missionary and moral improvement societies that reached not just to the American West but to the farthest corners of the globe. Realizing that their revulsion against Jeffersonian democracy allied them with their cousins across the Atlantic, the Federalists collaborated with the English and turned the mission movement into an Anglo-American phenomenon. The most famous of them, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), formed in 1810, Haselby says, was “probably…the greatest transnational enterprise of nineteenth-century America.”
Although Haselby realizes that the mission movement was international, he concentrates on the saving of the American West from the chaos of frontier revivalism. Protestantism was still crucial, but less as a means of personal salvation and more as an instrument of nation-building. Unlike the revivalists, the various Christian mission associations were intended to make citizens rather than to save souls. William Ellery Channing, the Harvard Unitarian, and Elias Boudinot, “the most influential Christian layman in America,” became important leaders of this national ecumenical movement that was designed to build institutions and civilize the West. Missionaries would bring Bibles, tracts, and Christian enlightenment to the people of the West bewildered by the chaos and competition among the revivalists.
In order to personalize the struggle between the contesting classes of Protestants, Haselby focuses on the conflict in Kentucky between the renegade Presbyterian revivalist preacher Richard McNemar, who became a Shaker, and the Revolutionary War hero and famous author Colonel James Smith. The contest in the 1810s between these two men, involving, at first, exchanges of pamphlets and then violence,
captured the essence of the conflict between frontier revivalism and the intensely Protestant patriotism, the nationalist evangelism, which, riding high from victory in the Revolution, had turned to the mission of continental colonization.
In effect, it was a fight between the two principal Protestant forces that Haselby had described as opposed at the beginning of his book. For McNemar, Christianity and the Bible were more important than the United States and its Constitution. What aggravated the conflict were the connections that McNemar and the Shakers had with the Shawnee Indians. To Colonel Smith, McNemar’s ignoring of the Constitution and the Shakers’ sympathy for the Indians meant that the revivalists and the Shakers were anti-American and a threat to civil order. The fact that both Smith and McNemar were evangelical Protestants, writes Haselby, complicates any easy understanding of evangelical Protestantism on the frontier.
From this analysis of personal conflict on the frontier, Haselby moves to a much more detailed description of the ways in which the Protestant missionary and moral improvement societies sought to level religious diversity and homogenize Americans, and thus contributed to the religious nationalism of America. The ABCFM, for example, declared that it was committed to ensuring that “the same Gospel which is preached in the Middle and Southern and Western States, is also preached in the Eastern States.”
Eager to avoid religious distinctions that might disrupt their larger goals, these missionary associations turned away from serious theology and concentrated on a Protestantism of ethics and maxims. In the thinking of the mission movement the various religious groups now became less “sects” and more “denominations,” which better fit their enhanced relationship to the nation; they were now all parts of the project of becoming Americans. The consensus in theological matters that these missionary associations created, of course, did not exist among the various frontier revivalists who were fighting among themselves for souls.
In important ways, writes Haselby, the eastern elite–dominated mission organizations “marked a rupture with both revolutionary republicanism and the history of Protestantism.” Secular-minded leaders like James Madison considered these powerful chartered missionary corporations to be anti-republican, and they became alarmed by their growth. These “Ecclesiastical Bodies,” said Madison, were an “evil lurking under plausible disguises.” At the same time, under the corporate leadership of the mission movement, Protestantism in America became stronger, more dynamic, and more homogeneously nationalist than it had ever been. The American Bible Society, for example, declared that its goals were best attained by its being a “national society” of “undisputed magnitude.”
The amounts of money raised by these benevolent organizations were enormous, and their outreach to the remotest parts of the world was astonishing. Hundreds of thousands of Bibles and tracts were printed and distributed. By 1825 the American Bible Society was dispensing Bibles in 140 different languages. “It was not popular literature,” says Haselby, “because there was no popular demand; rather it was the first instance of American mass media: media produced with the strategic goal of mass distribution.” Although the missionary movements had been initiated by New England clerics, well-to-do northeastern businessmen soon came to finance and dominate them. “By 1830, the ABCFM was spending $100,000 a year, almost twice Harvard University’s 1830 total annual income, to support a missionary force of 224 ordained ministers, 600 native teachers, and 50,000 students.” Given such expenses, control of the missionary movement inevitably shifted from Boston to New York, where the money was. In fact, the constitution of the America Bible Society required that two thirds of its board of managers reside in New York City.
In his conclusion Haselby seeks to resolve the tension between the two principal Protestant contestants of frontier revivalism and national evangelism by making Andrew Jackson the crucial mediating figure. Jackson’s tough rustic manners made him a natural representative of the frontier; but at the same time he was a dedicated patriot and nationalist. Jackson’s anti-elitism and his attacks on the Bank of the United States, the symbol of big business, resonated with small farmers and working people, especially those on the frontier. “Jackson,” says Haselby, “was the natural choice of those small Western farmers and settlers aggrieved by the missionaries and the Bank.” He stood with the westerners against a corrupt eastern elite. He also stood with them against the Indians who were supported by the eastern mission movement.
The missionary societies had begun by trying to incorporate the native peoples into the American nation. They had learned from earlier efforts in the colonial period that it was impossible to Christianize the heathen Indians before they were civilized. Hence they wanted the Indians to own property, learn to read and write, and become small farmers like other Americans. But most ordinary white Americans just wanted the Indians out of the way. Jackson’s hostility toward the Indians and his decision to remove them to territory beyond the Mississippi forced the mission movement to choose sides: to decide between their dream of incorporating the Indians into the nation or their loyalty to the Union. Were they justice-minded Protestants or were they patriotic nationalists? “The missions movement,” says Haselby, “chose the latter.”
The state of Georgia had wanted the Indians removed, and since Christian missionaries were the most effective opponents of Indian removal, the Georgia government ordered them to leave Cherokee lands. When Samuel Worcester and a colleague working on behalf of the ABCFM refused to leave, the Georgia government in 1831 arrested them and sentenced them to four years of hard labor. Worcester appealed to the Supreme Court, which decided in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) that Georgia had no constitutional right to Indian lands and no right to convict the missionaries. But President Jackson was not about to enforce this decision.
Finally, at the behest of the ABCFM, Worcester and his colleague, after seventeen months of harsh imprisonment, gave up the struggle to get the government to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in support of Indian rights. In light of the Nullification Crisis in 1832, in which the state of South Carolina threatened the Union by declaring an act of the federal government null and void, Worcester chose to save the Union instead of continuing to fight the state of Georgia. He explained that he would have persisted, but he feared that further attempts to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision on behalf of the rights of the Cherokees would “be attended with consequences injurious to our beloved country.”
The success of Jackson’s policies and rhetoric, Haselby contends, was influenced by the Protestant contest between frontier revivalism and national evangelism. “This fight within Anglo-American Protestantism helps explain why ‘Indian removal’ happened, when and how it did.” Jackson’s actions appealed in different ways to the three basic parts of America’s political society—southern planters, the northeastern elite, and small farmers and producers—and fundamentally reshaped that society. “The crisis of ‘Indian removal,’ and its rationalizations,” Haselby says in his final sentence, “brought together and illuminated a mixture of voluntarism, theologizing, anti-elitism, constitutionalism, and racism that remain familiar components of American nationality.”
What are we to make of this unusual book, a book that tries to fit rough and disparate elements into a smooth and comprehensive whole? An enormous historical literature exists for each of the parts Haselby writes about. We know a great deal about the evangelical mission and benevolent movements in the early Republic. We also know a great deal about frontier revivalism in the decades following the Revolution, especially from Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity (1989).
Haselby mentions Hatch’s book but casually dismisses it because it challenges his thesis that revivalist religion owed little to the political ideas of the Revolution. It’s true that most of the revivalists on the frontier were much more concerned with saving Christian souls than making republican citizens. Nevertheless, the political ideas of the American Revolution directly affected some of the revivalism that flourished on the frontier. In order to justify his breaking away from Francis Asbury and the mainstream Methodists and establishing his Republican Methodists in 1794, James O’Kelly, for example, proudly invoked the Revolution and “the sweets of liberty” it brought.
Likewise, the renegade Baptist Elias Smith sought to make religion as republican as the American government had become. By 1815 his newspaper had fourteen hundred subscribers and over fifty agents around the country. The maverick Presbyterian Barton Stone of Kentucky, cofounder of the Disciples of Christ, said that from the beginning he had drunk “deeply into the spirit of liberty and was so warmed by the soul-inspiring draughts, that I could not hear the name of British, or Tories, without feeling a rush of blood through the whole system.” It’s inconceivable that the explosion of popular religiosity in the early Republic could have taken place without the Revolution and its wholesale defiance of traditional authority.
Still, Haselby’s argument, overly schematic as it sometimes is, has a convincing power. He brings together so many loose ends and ties them up in such a neat package that the reader cannot help being persuaded to accept it whole. His research is extensive, and his style is colloquial (“When it came to culture and ideas, New England punched above its weight”). Despite the sometimes contrived character of its categories and classifications, he has written a book to be reckoned with.