Born Again History?


Paul's last post on Clifton's book and John Turner's comment about Jon Butler and the "evangelical synthesis" really struck a chord with me since I have been thinking about this historiographical trend for the past several months in light of some of my current work in early America. I had planned to write a series of posts on this in the next few weeks, but I think the time is right to jump in at this juncture.

Back in 1994 Butler gave a paper at the OAH entitled "Born Again History?" (I do not think he ever published the piece--at least not in this form or by this title). In his own provocative way Butler argued that the so-called evangelical sythesis has not only come to be the dominant paradigm for understanding American religious history, but has become the dominant paradigm for understanding much of American history as a whole. He notes how evangelicalism is used by historians to explain the coming of the American Revolution, post-war republicanism, antebellum social reform, the family, abolitionism, 19th century women's culture, foreign policy, race and the South, populism, progressivism, the post-Watergate presidency, conservatism, and the list goes on. (All one has to do is read the archives of this blog to see that this is still a predominant approach to understanding the American past). Butler, as many of our readers know, is highly critical of this approach and has offered what I think is a sometimes helpful corrective to the evangelical synthesis.

In the time frame that I know best--the period between the First Great Awakening (roughly 1740) and the American Revolution (roughly 1789)--this evangelical synthesis dominates the field. Butler argued strongly against the connection between the Great Awakening and the Revolution in Awash in a Sea of Faith and elsewhere, but it almost seems as if historians (and I am talking off the top of my head, correct me if I am wrong) have completely ignored him. (John Murrin's 1983 classic "No Awakening, No Revolution?: More Counterfactual Speculations" is an exception and I could probably think of a few more if I took the time to do so). Over the last decade or so, most of the work in this area continues to embrace a direct connection between the great evangelical Awakening and the Revolution.

I will stop there for now, but I hope to follow up this post with a "part two" that will be more specific on the way the evangelical paradigm has influenced this period. (I will try to name titles). Then, if I find the time, I would like to add a third post on some alternative (and new?) ways of thinking about this period after spending a fruitful spring and early summer in the archives.


Art said…
"Over the last decade or so, most of the work in this area continues to embrace a direct connection between the great evangelical Awakening and the Revolution."

John, I'm going to assume that you don't make this connection in the classroom. Here's why... As I've mentioned to you before, two years ago one of your students came to my conference and gave a very good talk that mentioned the Great Awakening. During the Q&A someone asked him about the link between the Great Awakening and the Revolution--I pressed the issue too. He stood his ground and stated that there wasn't a strong connection.

So if that was your doing, well done. If that was his own doing, well, that's even more impressive.
John Fea said…
Art: I would like to think I had something to do with Chad's response, but he is the kind of student (very bright) who could have certainly come up with this on his own. Thanks for remembering!
Jonathan said…
Heh. You probably already know where I stand, but the fact that so many of the most influential ministers arguing on behalf of the American Revolution -- Charles Chauncy, Jonathan Mayhew, Simeon Howard, and Samuels Cooper and West, to name a few -- were unitarians and explicit theological enemies of the Great Awakening should make one strongly suspect any kind of meaningful relationship between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution.