Deg's Dispatches, Part IV

Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part IV
by Darren Grem

In my experience, if students know anything about American religious history, they “know” about colonial religious history. “Anything,” of course, is a relative term because much of what they know tends to be incomplete, off base, or downright mythic. As such, I think teaching colonial religious history is one of the hardest tasks of the term. How do you enliven discussions about the Puritans they’ve been hearing about since sixth grade? How do you complicate the dualism that presumes all colonists were either for “religious freedom” or for “religious intolerance?” How do you discuss how politics and religion mixed during the Revolutionary War? How do you get students – who are post-establishment to the core – to understand why certain colonists accepted certain sources of religious authority, such as the state? How do you make the First Amendment make sense, according to the logic of the 18th century?

To meet these challenges, I had the students look at how and where colonists worshipped (and didn’t), why they accepted certain members into their religious communities (and didn’t), and why they advocated colonial independence (or didn’t). I wanted them to understand that notions of religious authority informed notions of social and political authority in the 1600s and 1700s in ways completely foreign to us today. For instance, by looking at the interior and exterior of an Anglican church from low country South Carolina, they could make certain inferences about how Anglicanism supported a certain social order. By the same token, a Congregationalist church in Boston or a Baptist church in Virginia sent similar messages, albeit with different theological and religious emphases. After introducing them to questions about religious authority through this visual tour of colonial “houses of God,” we tackled the Puritans by reading a number of Puritan documents.

Of course, ideological treatises like John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity” were examined, but I wanted them to compare such high-minded statements about Puritan society to documents that detailed how Puritans lived and worked. They were surprised to find what historians have found – that Puritans lived in a complicated and changing religious and political world. The “other witch hunt” that Richard Godbeer has detailed at Stamford revealed these complexities, but I think the students had difficulty removing themselves from accepted stereotypes of Puritans to take these complexities seriously. Despite evidence to the contrary, the mythic Puritan – continually pious, unthinkingly devoted – retained its hold, and I’m not sure that my assignments and instruction changed these impressions much. The fact that Puritans drank, danced, courted, and even consorted on occasion with “cunning folk” was missed by more than a few of my students. Of course, the Puritans were, as they rightly noted, distinctly opposed to religious infiltrators, but few considered why they were intolerant when they were. Rather, most concluded that the Puritans merely had intolerance written into their DNA.

I unfortunately caught a bad head cold for the next section, so they had to read about the middle and southern colonies on their own. We returned to questions about religious authority, however, via our study of the Revolutionary era. How did religion inform the politics of pacifism, loyalism, and revolution? I presumed that most students have heard, to some extent, about the influence of religious ideas on revolutionist supporters. As their papers on the topic showed, some of them had likewise internalized the revolutionists’ arguments (no doubt a byproduct of the very “civil religion” that the era birthed). The perspectives of religious pacifists and loyalists, however, complicated such impressions and set us up for another set of questions: How do people who believe God is on their side deal with military victory and defeat? In turn, if one’s notion of religious authority determines which side you’re on in a military conflict, how might you fiddle with such notions once the military situation turns for or against your favor? The students seemed most interested in the various negotiations that Anglicans, Mennonites, and Quakers were forced into making with the coming and going of the revolution. And, I think exposure to their accounts helped make the reading of revolutionist sermons – such as Jacob Cushing’s “Divine Judgments Upon Tyrants” – more contextualized.

At the end of these sections, I wanted students to have a firmer grasp on how and why notions of religious authority informed (or didn’t inform) life in colonial America. In turn, I wanted them to rethink how religion shaped the conflicts of the Revolutionary era and why the First Amendment both alleviated and amplified some of these religious conflicts. For the most part, I believe that my students learned from these lessons. Yet, as products of the very “religious marketplace” that the First Amendment legalized, these concepts were the most foreign to them and the most difficult for them to grasp. No less difficult, I believe, is the idea that “religious freedom” doesn’t necessarily mean full-tilt “religious tolerance,” something that we’re going to explore more fully during our sections on the religious worlds of the early Republic. More on that later…


John Fea said…
Darren: Great course. Thanks for the update. I do not teach American religious history, but I do struggle with how to deal with the Puritans in my colonial America course. It is tempting for me to let Perry Miller lead the way: errand, city on a hill, declension. But the scholarly literature over the past two decades has challenged these ideas at every turn. Miller is helpful for letting my students see the difference between New England and other colonial regions (Chesapeake, mid-Atlantic) and, frankly, he is easier for students to swallow. (If offered in distilled lectures--I do not give my students too much of Miller to read). But history is complicated and I want my students to see the way historians work as revisionists.

Time, of course, is the problem. The history of early New England has become so messy of late (in a good way) that I just cannot cover everything (popular religion, Puritan theology, Indian relations, gender, Salem, etc...) and still have time to explore other aspects and regions of colonial American life that I often find to be more representative of the entire 17th and 18th century provincial experience. Thanks for the post.
mauritius said…
I teach American religious history ... and quite frankly, I would be delighted if, at the beginning of the semester, my undergraduates could come up with "Puritans" when asked about early New England. I don't see the problem as the students having "too many preconceptions," alas.

That said, I discovered a few years ago that my students, in fairly large numbers, were familiar with The Scarlet Letter and/or The Crucible ... presumably because of some nationwide trend in high school literature curricula.

Now I do try to use that as a jumping-off point for the class -- what do these fictional accounts, written from later vantage points, obscure? What do they get right? Why do they emphasize what they do? And it's a good excuse to talk about the ritual function of the Puritans in American history.