The "Beecherite Synthesis" and the Fabric of American Religious History



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Charles McCrary

In his new book, Missionaries of Republicanism, John Pinheiro identifies what he calls the “Beecherite Synthesis”: “In the early 1830s [Lyman] Beecher synthesized into one argument American anxieties about westward settlement, economic uncertainty, and immigration by joining them to a theological commentary on what Divine Providence had in store for the future of liberty” (6). This thesis, laid out most clearly and thoroughly in A Plea for the West (1835), was systematically anti-Catholic. Pinheiro demonstrates persuasively how anti-Catholicism informed arguments both for and against the Mexican-American War, and how its rhetoric and logic permeated Protestant and Catholic Americans’ experiences of the War, from policy-makers to foot soldiers. The term “Beecherite Synthesis” is useful because it emphasizes how, in the mind of nineteenth-century Americans, categories (especially categories of otherness) reinforced each other and melded together. We should see, then, for example, “the connection between religion and race, and the degree to which they are indelibly tied together in American history” (9), Pinheiro writes, with a nod to Ed Blum and Tracy Fessenden. We could write similarly of other pairings—religion and gender, religion and politics, politics and region, region and economics, and so on and so on. Given the, well, synthetic nature of the Beecherite Synthesis, should we find it odd that Pinheiro's book is subtitled “A Religious History of the Mexican-American War”? Isn’t it also a political, racial, diplomatic, military, cultural history? Yes—and, even better, it’s a book that doesn’t seem to be very interested in the unnecessary lines demarcating these sub(sub)genres. This is not really a criticism of Pinheiro or his book, and for all I know it could have been the publishers’ decision and not his anyway. But the label “religious history” on this book, combined with the idea of a "synthesis," prompts historical and historiographical reflection.

Pinheiro’s Beecherite Synthesis, like David Sehat’s Protestant Moral Establishment or Fessenden’s secularism, relied upon and even created a definition of “religion” in a particular context. In Beecher’s case, that context was the American frontier, during a time of immigration, national expansion, and financial uncertainty, written for a primarily white (Anglo) Protestant audience. We could call Lyman Beecher a religious figure; we could call A Plea for the West a religious book; we could call the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown an act of religious intolerance. But their very religious-ness is entirely dependent on what “religion” meant in that historical context, and that meaning was synthetic. However, whereas historians readily acknowledge the constructedness of race or gender, religion often is treated differently. Thus, a primary task for historians of American religion ought to be to show how religious discourse is wrapped up with—constituting and constituted by, reinforcing and reinforced by, legitimating and contradicting—“other” discourses and knowledges. Otherwise, what exactly is to be gained by conceiving of one’s project as a "religious history"?

The Beecherite Synthesis demonstrates that an attempt to isolate “religion” as an object of study or causal explanation in American history is a dubious errand. I like Pinheiro’s term because a “synthetic” history implies not just that these various knowledges and discourses were weaved together in way that appears and feels natural, but that the strands themselves were synthetically spun. Each one, from race to nation to religion, was a fabrication, manufactured in a historically contingent environment. We might focus on the role of “religion” in this synthesis, but as soon as we’ve extracted it, or tried to study religion “itself” instead of its modes of production, we’ve made a mistake. Religion is not some silver bullet, as if we can figure out what was really going on if we look at religious motivations. It’s one of a number of categories, all synthetic, that is intelligible only through its relations to other categories.

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