Faith and Skepticism in the New Common-Place

Paul Harvey

Don't miss Christopher Grasso, "Skepticism and Faith: The Early Republic," in the new Common-Place. Earlier we blogged about his piece "Deist Monster: On Religious Common Sense in the Wake of the American Revolution," Journal of American History 95:1 (June 2008): 43-68. The Common-Place piece is a more personal reflection on what forces shape one's historical questions, how they are related to present questions but not bound by them, and indeed often start long before current preoccupations became preoccupations. He writes:

I'm reminded of a colleague who recently published a book on warfare and American history from the colonial period to the late twentieth century. Reviews discussed the study as if it had been inspired by the Iraq war. The author certainly did not claim to live in a cultural vacuum, unaffected by the current state of affairs; still, his project began two decades ago and is based on exhaustive research. Histories, though written in a particular time and place and from a particular point of view, may inspire op-ed pieces but shouldn't be confused with them.

His project came out of exploring the papers of Ezra Stiles (Congregationalist minister and president of Yale College in the late eighteenth century), including Stiles's own very secretive and closeted struggles with doubt and skepticism.

By retracing my steps to my encounter with Ezra Stiles in the library, I don't mean to suggest that the project was incubated entirely in the archives. No research is completely unconnected to personal experience. That doesn't mean religious history, any more than other kinds of history, entails one of those confessional prefaces in which the author discloses his or her personal relationship to the faith tradition being examined. Perry Miller's atheism and George Marsden's evangelicalism no doubt influenced each man's studies of the Protestant theologian Jonathan Edwards, but the evaluation of their books should aim at the cogency of their interpretive arguments in relation to the available evidence rather than at the scholars' biographies. The historian's own religious belief or doubt is one of many factors shaping his or her particular perspective, a point of view that provides moments of both blindness and insight when trying to imagine the past.

Grasso's story focuses on a period usually characterized by the triumph of evangelicalism, moral movements inspired by it, and the demise of the skeptical Enlightened tradition. My own work (and that of many others) questions this story from the "underside of that millennium" [sorry, a little self-quotation], focusing on Native peoples, African Americans, and others. The focus here is different, for Grasso has dug into the archives of white Americans whose skepticism engaged in a constant dialogue with the rise of "America's God." As he explains,

But the story of the relation of skepticism and faith is more than the tale of a few marginalized freethinkers and artificially induced moral panics. Religious skepticism touched—and in some cases transformed—more lives than we might expect in the early American republic.

This is really an affecting, and an effective, piece, both for its history, its historiography, and its personal reflections on how we come to the topics we do, and how we think about those topics within our own personal and institutional contexts.

UPDATE: John Fea and Brad Hart have blogged further on this piece.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the heads up on this. I've quite like Grasso's work on this subject, and enjoyed the personal essay approach in the Commonplace article
Brad Hart said…
This is great stuff! Thanks for posting it here, Dr. Harvey.

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