A Throw-back Review (Cold and Snow Edition)


Jonathan Den Hartog

I hope this finds its readers well, in whatever circumstances they find themselves. I know some people are returning (or recovering) from the AHA. People on the East Coast and in the Great Lakes region are dealing with large amounts of snow. Here in Minnesota, we're bearing up under arctic cold. As I write this, the air temperature is -20, with a windchill of -43. Those are great conditions to stay inside and think about American Religious History.

Over the past weeks, I've been making final revisions on a book manuscript (about which, I hope to have much more to say in 2014). For these revisions, a colleague suggested I take a look at Liam Riordan's Many Identities, One Nation: The Revolution and Its Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic. I somehow missed the book when it came out in 2007, but I'm glad I finally was able to take some time with it. So, consider this a "throw-back review" for something that should have been noted awhile ago.

I was really glad that although the book doesn't bill itself as "religious history," it uses the religious experiences of many groups to understand group formation and national identity in the early republic.

Riordan (University of Maine) grounds his study by doing close examinations of three communities in the Delaware River Valley: New Castle, Delaware; Burlington, New Jersey; and Easton, Pennsylvania. Each town was oriented toward Philadelphia, but they also witnessed much activity and development of their own, which Riordan believes speaks to larger developments in America as it tried to craft a post-revolutionary settlement. The problem facing Americans after the Revolution, which Riordan takes up, was how to create a national identity and a functioning society from a wide array of particular (and particularistic) cultures. Riordan describes the Delaware Valley as indicative of America's multi-cultural society even in the early republic.

Many Identities, One Nation
And here's where religion comes into play. Riordan believes that nationalist outlooks were advanced in two directions in his communities: a political route and a religious route. Politically, the national parties that developed in the 1790s vied for allegiances from the different groups and sought to create a national political identity.

More interesting, however, is Riordan's reading of religious cultures in his communities. He is really deft in tracing how religious cultures helped to structure group and even ethnic identities. In examining his communities, he pays close attention to the presence and practice of such diverse traditions as Quakers, German Reformed, German Lutherans, Black Methodists, and Anglo Presbyterians. He reads religious sources ethnographically and is able to draw conclusions from a wide array of sources. For instance, he pays close attention to German Baptismal Certificates, done in Fractur Writing, as a folk art that spoke to both religious identity and cultural identities. Similarly, he reads African-American Methodist Hymnals to tease out cultural concerns in the newly-independent churches. Throughout, he demonstrates that religious practices really do help to understand the larger cultural visions of those involved.

These religious groups very much debated how to relate to the nation and to national structures, arguing on what grounds Christian Unity might be attained. Riordan sees a split between populist and particularist groups (German Lutherans, Baptists, and Methodists) and "Cosmopolitans" (often Presbyterians and Episcopalians) who attempted to draw the churches of the area into wider, national networks. Many of these debates centered around the voluntary societies growing up after 1800, especially the Bible Societies. Riordan is able to draw a fortunate connection, as the first president of the American Bible Society, Elias Boudinot, was then residing in Burlington, New Jersey, and actively working to build a national structure. Although the "Cosmopolitans" made progress, many particularists remained opposed to larger involvements.

In his reading of the organizations such as the Bible Societies, Riordan offers some very strong analysis of women in the movement. He observes how the local auxiliaries functioned and in so doing sees important contributions to the formation of female identity for the participants and the possibility of women's public involvement.

If I were to offer a few comments on this presentation, I first would ask that the local perspective be balanced with the national perspective. That is, local societies--Bible societies or other reforming groups--received much input about structure and function from the national bodies with which they were affiliated. As the political scientist Theda Skocpol has observed (in her book Diminished Democracy), the national and the local worked together, and each gained energy from the other. Secondly, I would assert that the building of local societies affiliated with a national organization was essentially a Federalist insight. It's no surprise that many of the "Cosmopolitans" Riordan mentions--including Elias Boudinot himself--were also Federalists. They possessed the imagination, the theory, and the resources to create both national structures and local auxiliaries, whereby national religious goals could be accomplished through local activity.

Still, the book did a lot well, and I appreciated that it used insights from the religious cultures it studies to speak to larger issues. That's a strategy that I can hope will be used more widely, as religious history need not be used solely for religious history.


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