Three weeks ago, I attended “The American Revolution Reborn: Perspective for the 21st Century,” a conference sponsored by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Intended to “identify new directions and new trends in scholarship on the American Revolution,” it featured four panels of pre-circulated papers, prepared comments to each paper by several experts in the field, and a Q&A with audience members. Each panel was centered on one of four unifying themes: “Global Perspectives, Power, Violence, and Civil War.” In his concluding comments at the conference’s end, Michael Zuckerman noted that the original CFP solicited papers on “Religion and Revolution,” but only two papers fitting that theme were submitted, and the organizers quickly scrapped the planned panel on religion and interchanged it for one on global perspectives.
It has now been nearly 50 years since the publication of Alan Heimert’s Religion and the American Mind, an ambitious attempt to draw a direct connection between the “Great Awakening” of the mid eighteenth century and the American Revolution that followed thereafter. Heimert’s book was widely met with not only skepticism but also sharp criticism. Twenty-seven years later, Jon Butler would proclaim the American Revolution, “at its heart … a profoundly secular event.” As scholarly interest in the Revolution has shifted in recent years and decades from the ideological origins of the conflict to wartime experience, comparative analysis, and a more explicitly “Atlantic world” framework, it appears that we are now in the midst of a renaissance of scholarship on religion and the American Revolution.
Building on several smart monographs (Dee Andrews’s The Methodists and Revolutionary America is a personal favorite) and insightful articles (Harry Stout’s 1977 WMQ piece on religion, communication networks, and the ideological origins of the Revolution comes to mind) published over the years, scholars today are working toward understanding the reciprocal relationship between religion and revolution in the eighteenth century. Thomas Kidd’s Religion and the American Revolution (OUP, 2010) is perhaps the most notable contribution to date. RiAH blogger John Fea is busily at work on a project examining the Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic colonies as a Presbyterian rebellion and Kate Carté Engel (whose paper was one of the two on religion at the MCEAS conference) is doing fascinating work on the Revolution’s impact on transatlantic Protestant networks.