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.