by Katherine Carte Engel
Apropos of Charles Cohen’s comment that “Even by the capacious definitions of what constitutes early American history, Deseret makes for an unusual place in which to hold an Omohundro meeting,” -- as well as the other sessions of that excellent conference, at which that comment was referenced by those who have noted the hegemony of the east-coast-early-American-establishment -- two recent books have made me run around the circle, once again, of what I consider “American religious history.” My early Americanist self welcomes the publication of Carla Gardina Pestana’s timely and wonderfully readable Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World. My non-academic self finds Erik Reece’s musing and occasionally wrenching An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God intriguing and thought provoking.
Assuming from the title of the former that I would be hearing another foray into the question of a Christian nation that Chris Beneke raised a few days ago, I was quite surprised to find an actual pre-Revolutionary colonist, William Byrd, taking a prominent role as a religious thinker in Reece’s Gospel. Byrd’s patriarchal rage, treated in depth by Kenneth Lockridge, made quite an impact on my vision of early America as a graduate student, but I had never thought of him as a source of spiritual inspiration. Reece, an environmental writer most known for his depiction of strip mining in Kentucky, suggests the adoption of a new American theology more attuned with joy, peace, the natural landscape, and, most likely, locally-grown green leafy vegetables. He argues that Americans (including his own father and grandfather) have been too long dominated by a depressing and Puritanical religion that has accomplished the overwhelming task of dividing Americans from themselves and from all that is inspiring and holy in the world. This process (with some help from Alexander Hamilton) has led inexorably to desiccated cities and (in a wonderfully evocative phrase borrowed from Guy Davenport) the automobile, that “bionic roach.”
Reece’s Manichean jeremiad is heartfelt and his exploration of Walt Whitman is riveting. But his Gospel, rooted in Byrd, elaborated by Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, and verified by modern science, offers an image of “American” religion that is hard to reconcile with Pestana’s detailed account of the early modern British Atlantic. (Pestana’s book provides a full elaboration of themes she began in the excellent collection, The British Atlantic.) She chronicles what early Americanists currently see as the central theme of the early modern era when, in the place of the European’s encounter with a virgin continent, she tells the complex tale of contact, conquest, conversion, and resistance that unfolded when post-Reformation Europeans and enslaved Africans landed in North America and the Caribbean. The dynamic consequences of human interaction and cross-cultural engagement take us from failed missions and lost opportunities to shattering clashes between world views. The overpowering reality of religious diversity in the Atlantic world remains a constant, however, as do people’s resolute desires not to be forced into conformity or to give up their deeply held beliefs.
It’s easy to pick apart Reece’s work from a historical perspective, but in all fairness he wasn’t trying to write a thorough history, even a literary one. His is a contemplation of men’s (and they are largely men) interaction with the land, and (white, privileged) American men’s often unsuccessful efforts to throw off the psychic constraints of generations of their fathers. But even as he decries American culture he feeds the Whiggish narrative that the United States, the political entity that sustains his gospel, offered some quintessential freedom to men who sought to recreate themselves. Pestana’s work reduces the United States to its proper historical context. It elaborates the very real political forces at work in religious history. As history, it is unquestionably more accurate. I am looking forward to using it to introduce my students to the early modern religious past, filling a gap in the literature that has long plagued the field. But Reece’s speaks to the “American” cultural soul in a way we early Americanists, who struggle to incorporate Deseret and demote the United States’ religious freedom to a matter of historical contingency, rarely do.