Review: Sam Haselby, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2015)
Some of the most interesting and vibrant work in American religious history/studies has analyzed the constructions and intersections of religion, politics, sectarianism, nationalism, and secularism in the early national period. At the same time, many of these conversations are stale—or, at least, the paradigms are. It’s a strange problem. Talented scholars have written great articles and books on these topics, fostering a rich conversation that includes Paul Johnson, Nathan Hatch, Amanda Porterfield, Eric Schlereth, Christine Heyrman, and many others. And yet, many of the characters, frameworks, and questions remain the same. Was the Second Great Awakening about “individualism” or “social control”? Were Methodists and Baptists really egalitarian? What, exactly, is Jeffersonianism? And what did Protestantism have to do with the “frontier” and American expansion?
Alongside this literature, and sometimes overlapping with it, many scholars have taken interest in the creation of the American nation and the advent of nationalism, national identity, and American exceptionalism. In expanding out from Perry Miller—and Sacvan Bercovitch and Richard Slotkin after him—many American studies scholars moved away from questions of nationalism and “the nation” in favor of analyses of material culture, racialization, gender, popular culture, and a host of other topics and lenses. However, a newer group of scholars, building from these insights and combining them with political theory and analytical frameworks like imperialism and settler colonialism, have argued again for the centrality of the nation(al) to nineteenth-century American life. These scholars, including Susan Schulten, Jason Frank, Thomas Allen, and Eric Slauter, have written outstanding (and some of my favorite) works, though religion is often absent from their discussions. Another group of scholars, understanding the United States as an empire, have resituated the nation as a category of analysis by focusing on its global engagements. Some of these scholars have focused on religion and the early national period. Heyrman and Emily Conroy-Krutz (both forthcoming), for example, have demonstrated how Protestant missions globalized America’s “civilizing” imperialism. These histories occasionally intersect with work on religion, politics, and the “Second Great Awakening” (sometimes under the framework of the “Benevolent Empire,” as discussed recently on this blog), though the work discussed in this second paragraph rarely is in sustained historiographical conversation with the first.
That was a long, scattered historiographical introduction. But I bring up all these issues only to highlight how impressive—and invaluable—a contribution Sam Haselby has made with The Origins of American Religious Nationalism. The historical people, movements, and ideas, as well as the historiographical questions and frameworks, certainly are all related. But the threads are in a tangle. Haselby picks apart the knots and weaves together a lucid narrative while remaining disciplined, focused, and clear. What results is a story about American religion, politics, and nationalism that is sweeping and expansive and, at the same time, clear and coherent.
Reading The Origins of American Religious Nationalism was a pleasure. Haselby’s prose is smooth, his word choice precise, and his phrasing memorable and occasionally funny without being too cute. He states strong arguments clearly. The main reason I had fun with the book, though, was its scope and argument. It’s a genealogical study, largely about conceptual environments and the material and ideological preconditions in which a certain proposition, American religious nationalism, not only made sense but felt moral and even natural. For the most part, though, methodological comments are absent or contained in footnotes (yes, footnotes, not endnotes; another selling point.) In the first pages Haselby describes this method, without scholarly jargon and with a poignant and precise Melville reference. The text otherwise remains uncluttered by explicitly theoretical or historiographical discussions. Even the footnotes, though, are devoted largely to primary sources. Some readers might hope for more theory and/or historiography (or, say, reflections about the implications or legacy of American religious nationalism), but I think these omissions help keep a rangy book focused.
Haselby takes many familiar characters—frontier Methodists, Federalist Congregationalists, ABCFM missionaries, Andrew Jackson—and reads them against and in conversation with each other in fresh ways. To discover and narrate American religious nationalism, Haselby starts by setting aside stale and/or unrelated frameworks. This isn’t a church-state story. It’s not about “social control” versus “democratization.” It isn’t about the “Second Great Awakening,” either, since that framework is an argument in itself. He argues, in a sentence that deserves to be quoted in many future books’ introductions, “Calling the extreme religious situation of the early republic the ‘Second Great Awakening’ is to naturalize both religion and nationalism” (23). In Haselby’s narrative, religious nationalism is anything but inevitable, and its key categories—America, religion, nation, empire—had to be crafted by interested people vying for various sorts of capital. This acknowledgment is refreshing. In a subfield that often spins its own wheels, Haselby is able to forge new tracks while still addressing extant historiographical concerns. His main question is this: Why and how was the question of American nationality answered by the creation of an imperialistic religious nationalism?
American religious nationalism, Haselby argues, was forged through a conflict between frontier revivalists and New England nationalist evangelicals. This latter group had a grand vision, steeped in New England literary and theological tradition, for a godly American global “empire” (their term.) God had a special imperial assignment for America. But there was a problem: they failed politically. Virginia secularists, the topic of Haselby’s first chapter, took a greater role in national politics and advanced a secularist agenda. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison championed disestablishment and free exercise, but they “had intended them as simply creating the conditions of possibility, as the first steps, toward a secular society” (45). However, the necessary next steps, such as secular schooling, could not take root in Virginia or the nation, and the secularists “failed to build institutions that offered alternatives to Christian social, political, and personal morality” (46). The frontier revivalists and New England nationalists both provided systems of Christian morality, although of two very different kinds. One key difference was their idea of and relation to the nation.
Haselby’s second chapter is a fascinating and lengthy consideration of the Connecticut Wits, “America’s first nationalist movement” (53). A group of well-off and highly educated white men, the Wits “expected that in the new nation, they would assume the role of a kind of republican elect, smith of American culture. They did not dream of shaping school curriculums in the Sandwich Islands, but of guiding a global US empire.” (54). Before their sons’ and daughters’ missionizing project (which included a good deal of Sandwich Islands curriculum-writing) could make sense, the Wits had to fashion a national identity as a Christian empire. To do so, they wrote tracts, sermons, stories, and lots of bad poetry. The goal of this literature was to develop and inculcate “the right kind of Protestantism,” one marked by “manners” and “taste” as well as theology (82). Here, Haselby provides a rich and specific set of examples of what we might call the “Protestant secular.”
Far from New England (though sometimes not too far), a different strain of evangelical religion developed. This group of frontier revivalists, especially the Methodists, successfully proliferated, extending their networks into regions ahead of expanding national boundaries. But they didn’t really care about the nation. They wanted to save souls and promote morality and order, just as the New Englanders did, but their vision had basically nothing to do with the nation. Haselby contends, correctly I think, “there is almost no chance whatsoever, to my mind, that the absence of national consciousness among the Methodist leadership was either confined to the Church leadership or, in popular frontier religion, unique to Methodism” (160). There was no monolithic “frontier evangelicalism,” though, and the relative dearth of institutions allowed a range of possible orientations and conceptions of freedom. The church, not the state, was the arbiter of morality and good order. Echoing William Warren Sweet’s “The Churches as Moral Courts of the Frontier” (Church History, 1933), Haselby argues that “it was ministers who offered governance, a language for speaking and thinking about order and morality and bonds of mutual obligation” (190). These frontier groups disagreed widely on the character of those bonds, though, and points of rupture included, in addition to theological debates about dunking—racial ideology, relations with Native Americans, and nationalism.
At the same time, the sons of daughters of the Connecticut Wits began to build the empire their fathers had planned. Just as Elias Boudinot had placed the United States into “geopolitical, even theological and cosmic” scales in the early republic, a new generation of “New England Protestants embraced as natural and even holy join Anglo-American missionary enterprises” (216, 221). Haselby offers a nice reception history of Claudius Buchanan’s A Star in the East (1809), arguing that it “provided a way for Anglo-American Protestants to embrace colonialism as part of the Protestant cause, even when it brought developments that ran counter to centuries of Protestant doctrine” (221). Rhetoric about missionizing to foreign lands and “heathens” implicitly connected religion, race, and nation. Once the inferiority of others had been established on such terms, it was not too far a stretch for the missions movement “to sanction various kinds of inequality, including slavery, for their own, nationalist reasons, well before Southern planters developed a systematic and self-conscious proslavery argument” (268). Haselby illustrates this point with close readings of nationalist pamphlets, such as the American Tract Society’s The Happy Negro (1814), that developed a mini-genre around the trope of the converted slave’s “simple,” “childlike,” “authentic” faith. Frontier revivalists, while they shared the missionizing zeal and predilection for circulation, “found the missionary movement an affront and the missionaries imperious, and un-Christian, agents of Yankee capitalism” (281). This iteration of intra-Protestant conflict, Haselby argues, had national political implications and supplied the creative energy that would create the dominant strain of American religious nationalism.
Quintessential Indian-hater Andrew Jackson, a personification of this ideological blend, made “two original contributions to the ideals of American nationality” with his 1830 State of the Union Address: “It was the first explicitly racist statement on the political community from a sitting US president, and it was also the first time a US president turned to a theological justification for an imperial act” (312). If the US is a racial state, its origins lay at least partially in religious nationalism. By 1833, it made sense to one anonymous donor to the American Home Missionary Society to write, “I have no reason to hope that I am a Christian, and should feel I was assuming, to pretend to aid this object as a Christian, but I think it commends itself to the patriot as well as to the Christian, and as a patriot I will cheerfully give” (234). Religio-politics were nationalized, a hodge-podge of affiliations and projects stitched together, forming an apparently coherent ideology, and people couldn’t see the seams.
Like the works of Miller, Bercovitch, and others in their tradition, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism traces the geneses of a set of ideas, a way of thinking. Unlike those authors, Haselby writes in a precise and restrained scope, and his thoughts on the “essence” of America are absent here. Further, Haselby recognizes that discourse about “origins” itself is a particular sort of political strategy and, indeed, at the same time a component of the ideology he is tracing. But, despite Haselby’s restraint, this history clearly has larger implications. He traced the story to Andrew Jackson, but where does it go from there? As I read, I thought often about tolerance discourse and the War on Terror. I wondered if Haselby ever had a moment like Perry Miller’s famous (and fabricated) epiphany, “disconsolate on the edge of a jungle of central Africa,” about “the innermost propulsion of the United States.” Opportunities to glimpse religious nationalism are not rare. For this reason, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism resonates generatively with our historiographical and historical consciousness.
I’ve tried to write this review in careful, measured tones, but it’s probably clear that I love this book. Permit me to conclude with a clear if not particularly artful endorsement. There are lots of books about religion, politics, missions, and nationalism in the early American republic. Haselby’s is the best one.