Reviewing Schlereth's An Age of Infidels


Jonathan Den Hartog

Back in June on this blog, the incomparable Lincoln Mullen asked "Where are the Histories of American Irreligion?" Not only was the post outstanding, but it generated some great discussion (check out the comments thread!). Recently published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Eric Schlereth's An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States offers a significant answer to Lincoln's query. An Age of Infidels has been part of my summertime academic reading, and it well deserves a review on this blog.

An Age of InfidelsSchlereth's work fits within a percolating academic study of unbelief in American history, even--perhaps especially--in early American history. The topic was really opened up with James Turner's Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. In the past decade, several scholars have begun to explore this area in detail. J. Rixey Ruffin's A Paradise of Reason: William Bentley and Enlightenment Christianity in the Early Republic traced how rationalism might alter belief even among clergy. Christopher Grasso's "Deist Monster" article in the Journal of American History, which looked at the perceived threat of deism in the 1780s, has quickly become an oft-cited piece on this topic. Further, other scholars such as Kirsten Fischer have been doing significant research into this area. Thus, Schlereth's contribution is both timely and significant.

In defining infidelity, Schlereth notes that by the later 18th century, the concept of infidelity expanded out of an attack on deism to conflate it "with all forms of religious disbelief, doubt and anti-Christian sentiment." (5) Infidelity became shorthand for its opponents, while the religious skeptics admitted to being deists or claimed such mantles as "Theophilanthropists" or "Free Enquirers." They stressed their Rationalist credentials and questioned received religious truths.

Chronologically, the book stretches from 1770 to 1840, although the bulk of the text is devoted to two periods of especially intense debate over religious infidelity--the 1790s and the 1820s-1830s. In passing, I have to say I appreciated this chronological scope, since it demonstrated that debates over unbelief in American public life were of long standing and possessed sustained urgency. 

Early on, Schlereth introduces two concepts to describe his approaches to infidelity: "ambient infidelity" and "lived deism." The first, "ambient infidelity," references the attitude to infidelity deployed by the Christians who opposed its growth in the early republic. The presence of infidelity seemed dangerous as both a theological error and a threat to social order. To their opponents, infidels lacked the beliefs that could inculcate the morality and virtue upon which the republic depended, and indeed, their professed beliefs undermined those public virtues.The perceived threat of ambient infidelity thus propelled the public religious controversies over unbelief.

Schlereth uses "lived deism" as a category to describe the experiences and activities of the Rationalists themselves. He thus traces individual leaders who helped articulate Rationalist beliefs. Not surprisingly, Tom Paine and his Age of Reason features prominently in the early phases, as do the writings of the Frenchman Volney. The blind Deist Elihu Palmer gained a significant hearing during the decade on either side of 1800. By the 1830s, Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright had become prominent in articulating Free Thought. Schlereth also has found a number of lesser-known Rationalists who operated at local levels, encouraging religious skepticism through clubs and debating societies. Schlereth even listens carefully to hear the concerns of skeptics that we know only through letters to newspapers or who identified themselves by their first names.

For Schlereth, "lived deism" took on significant force through the activities of publication and association. He thus reads carefully the several skeptical newspapers that were published during this period, such as the Temple of Reason. I was impressed that Deists also published Rationalist tracts. Although their output fell far below that of the American Tract Society, the intent was identical. Further, Schlereth uncovers the circles of Free Enquirers that coalesced, usually in the urban North, and he pays special attention to how this worked out in New York City. In a fascinating section, Schlereth reads how Free Enquirers used celebrations of Tom Paine's birthday as opportunities to make their public presence felt.

Of the two concepts, Schlereth is more interested in "ambient infidelity" and the public debates that surrounded religious skepticism. Schlereth thus argues that infidelity was an important concept for religion in the early republic. The presence of infidels provided an "Other" against which Christian denominations could define themselves. Ironically, the presence of infidelity encouraged Protestant cooperation. Further, infidels and their influence--whether real or perceived--pointed to questions about the character of the republic and the relationship of belief to republicanism.

Further, Schlereth's study helps illuminate the contours which shaped all religious--and irreligious--groups in the Early Republic. Some of the appeal of religious Skepticism came specifically from drawing on the common sense rationalism, the democratic/populist empiricism, and the individualist judgments about truth that were also a large part of burgeoning evangelicalism. Further, Free Enquirers found value in forming their own voluntary societies--a possibility which had only opened up as a possibility in the wake of the American Revolution and the state governments allowing for the chartering of such organizations.

Schlereth's largest claim is that the debates between Christian apologists and Infidels changed the character of religious belief in American society. To Schlereth, because religious faith was debated, individual faith lost its authoritative stature and its claim to a truth that could be argued. Instead, the religious arguments were politicized as they were pushed into the public arena. The effects and context of the beliefs came to matter more than their content. I'm still digesting this claim. Although I'm not ready to reject it, I'm not convinced by how it was presented in the text, either. Although there was a definite public element in debates of whether a belief was good for society or not, it seems that for the Protestants of the period, there was always the component of theology--belief mattered because the eternal destiny of souls was at stake. That was undoubtedly a subtext even in public debates.

Speaking of skepticism, my criticisms of the book would center mostly on matters of emphasis. For instance, the book could have done even more with "lived deism."  More still needs to be said about the experiences, not only of adopting a Rationalist position, but of how this functioned as a religious component to life. Schlereth documents the existence of Free Enquiry circles, but I would like to know more about what went on and how they constructed meaning through those events. Second, without taking away from the very real significance that Infidels possessed in the early republic--which Schlereth amply demonstrated--I would have liked greater recognition that their numbers vis a vis the Protestant mainstream was pretty small. If I read this correctly, Infidel organization was non-existent in the South and large swaths of the West. Finally, Schlereth gestures to the impact of the public debates of infidelity feeding into the Second Party System. These connections--with the Whigs supporting the more evangelical position while the Democrats proved a safe harbor for Infidels--are likely present, but I would have liked a few more direct lines of connection to be drawn.

Still, this is a very well-done book. It nicely speaks to all historians of early America while directly addressing a religious topic. Readers of this blog would do well to pick it up and consider how, in the era of the American Revolution and Early Republic, the character of public Christianity shaped the presentation of unbelief, just as the presence of unbelief shaped the character of Protestant apologetics and evangelism. For these reasons, An Age of Infidels makes a strong contribution to American Religious History.


Lincoln Mullen at: August 8, 2013 at 8:11 AM said...

Thanks for the very helpful review, Jonathan. This book sounds like a very important contribution which I'll read soon. In searching the Brandeis catalog for the book I learned that this book was a 2008 dissertation out of my own department!

Jonathan at: August 9, 2013 at 12:59 PM said...

Thanks, Lincoln. I really do think it will dovetail with your work.

Also, I've always been impressed at the research that has come out of the Brandeis program. Thanks for continuing the tradition.

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