Providence and the Invention of the United States


Last June thousands of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists gathered together in Virginia for an event called the Jamestown Quadricentennial: A Celebration of America’s Providential History, 1607-2007, sponsored by an organization called Vision Forum Ministries. The eight day celebration included “Faith and Freedom Tours” of Williamsburg and Jamestown, seminars on America’s providential history, worship services, children’s programs, and a host of other patriotic commemorations. It was a showcase of the 400th anniversary of the first English colony in America--Christian Right style.

I am assuming that most of the readers of this blog would agree that this event is disturbing on so many levels. I have blogged on topics like this before and will probably blog on topics like this again. But one cannot deny that the folks at Vision Forum Ministries, in their promotion of the providence of God in history, have tapped into a longstanding tradition in American politics and intellectual life. This is the theme of Nicholas Guyatt’s great new book, Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1865 (Cambridge UP, 2007).

In historicizing the notion of providence, Guyatt shows that this idea “played a leading role in the invention of an American national identity before 1865." The depth of his research and the breadth of his scope are quite impressive. He packs this book with so much information that at times it became a burden to work through it all. But Guyatt writes well, and as a result this will be the standard text on the topic for many years to come. Even if you never get around to reading all 300+ pages it is a book worth having on your shelf as a reference tool for when one of David Barton's young and eager disciples takes that front row seat in your lecture hall.

For Guyatt, providentialism is more than just a “belief that God intervenes in human history.” It is a rather complex system of theological ideas that have manifested themselves in a variety of different ways in our nation's past. Throughout American history providence has been promoted in terms of the covenantal belief that nations rise and fall based upon their obedience to God, the idea that some nations—like the United States-- are chosen to play a special role in human history, and the practice of interpreting current events through the grid of biblical prophecy. Throughout the period between Jamestown and the Civil War, providence was used over and over again as a tool to achieve political ends. Guyatt explores the role that providence played in European colonization, the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the British response to the American Revolution, early national historiography, anti-slavery movements, pro-slavery ideology, Indian removal, the rise of nationalism in the early republic, the American Civil War, and Reconstruction.

Guyatt does not have an axe to grind. As tempting as it might be to draw contemporary lessons from the history of providentialism in early America, he remains a true historian, leaving it up to us to tease out the implications of his work. Yet the implications are there, and they are easily discovered. One cannot read this book without seeing the serious problems that providentialism has caused in America. With this in mind, the argument of Guyatt’s entire study is probably best summed by a quote he uses from Ambrose Bierce’s 1911 satire, The Devil’s Dictionary. Bierce defines “providence” as an idea that is “unexpectedly and conspicuously beneficial to the person so describing it.” At least that is how it has usually played out in United States history.


Brian Franklin said…
Believing in providentialism of some kind does not necessarily mean that a historian today must belive in it the same way Americans have historically believed in it. A belief in providence does not necessarily require a blind patriotism. Also, for example, a Muslim al Queda member might have a providential view of the United States - one that sees a god slowly preparing the United States for a great catastrophe some day. Any thoughts?
Randall said…
Enjoyed your post. Guyatt's romp through America's apocalyptic subculture, _Have a Nice Doomsday_ (2007), is a scream. He's written an essay for Historically Speaking on the subject. Will be out in a couple months.
Anonymous said…
I'm fascinated by the defensive language right at the top of the "Jamestown Quadrennial" link--and also pretty appalled that anyone can find anything to celebrate about Jamestowne. What exactly does Vision Forum celebrate about Jamestowne--the cannibalism? Martial law? Oh--I know: the sodomy laws!

What a scurvy bunch. But, thanks for letting us know about Guyatt's book.
John Fea said…
Brian: Thanks for the comment. The answer to your question seems to be more theological than historical, but let me try to give a quick reponse. (Although I fear I just may be opening a can of worms). It seems to me that it is possible to believe in providentialism without the kind of "blind patriotism" that you mention. But can believers know the mind of God or his purposes in human events? A Christian could believe that God is providentially ordering the universe, but this does not necessarily mean one can pinpoint that providence in human affairs. This is the problem I have with "providential history." This is a topic of interest to me. Let's talk more about

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