God In America, Part One: An Exercise in the Evangelical Whig View of Early American Religious History

 By John Fea

Cross-posted at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

I just got done watching Part 1 of the PBS series "God in America." I know I am behind (Part 2 aired tonight), but such is the life of a blogger, professor, and a new department chair.

The series begins with the Franciscan attempts to convert the Pueblo Indians to Christianity in the 17th century.  This, of course, is a sad chapter in American history.  The Spanish friars were militant.  Their evangelistic zeal led to the destruction of Pueblo sacred sites and all sorts of brutality.  The high point of this story is the Pueblo revolt of 1680, the Indian rebellion that put an end to the Spanish presence in the west and proved that Christianity would not come to America unchanged.

This is a nice way to begin, but it has absolutely no connection to the rest of Part One's narrative.  One gets the impression that this was just tacked on to the beginning of the program because SOMETHING needed to be said about native Americans.  The story line of the native Americans, and the Spanish for that matter, are quickly dropped in favor of what I call in the title of this post the "evangelical Whig view" of American history.  This script could have been written by George Bancroft.

And where is slave religion?  (Let's hope it is discussed later in the series).

The Puritans are next. Steven Prothero of Boston University establishes himself as our guide through this history, but we also hear from a star-studded lineup of historians that include Michael Winship, Frank Lambert, Mary Beth Norton, Stephen Marini

Much time is spent on Anne Hutchinson. Too much time.  Prothero is very good at showing the Protestant individualism of the Puritans and how Hutchinson, in some ways, seemed more Protestant than the Puritans.  Hutchinson is clearly the star.  There is more time spent on her story than on the Puritans who removed her from the colony.  Was the Hutchinson trial really the most important moment in 17th century New England history? Would the people living in Puritan New England have seen it this way?  Absolutely not. The Halfway Covenant, King Philips War, the Salem Witch Trials, and a host of other events would have been more important to the Puritan "city on a hill," but these events do not fit easily into the Whig narrative.

The portrayal of the Hutchinson trial is well-acted and the trial transcript is used as the script.  Winship claims that during this trial Hutchinson "rips him (John Winthrop) to shreds."  Norton celebrates the rebellious spirit of Hutchinson.  Prothero concludes that Hutchinson is the future of America--she represents liberty of conscience and religious freedom.

The documentary then jumps to George Whitefield. Marini stresses the individualism of evangelical religion. (By the way, I would love to take a class with Marini--so much passion and energy!)  Harry Stout mentions Whitefield's appeal to the emotions and the imagination.  Lambert connects Whitefield's evangelical, individualistic Protestantism to that of Hutchinson.  A clear intellectual and spiritual genealogy is developing here.

The discussion of the First Great Awakening does a great job of explaining evangelicalism as a real and powerful religious movement that impacted people's lives.  The documentary uses a host of quotes from the diaries of Whitefield converts to make this point.  Very well done.

But overall the treatment of the Great Awakening is blatantly Whig. One is left with the impression that the Great Awakening was more of a political movement than it was a religious movement. Stout talks about the way Whitefield's evangelicalism challenged "the old aristocratic order" and even suggests that the Great Awakening led to the popular idea that "we are the people."  Then Daniel Driesbach talks about the way that the Great Awakening brought the colonies together.  One clearly gets the impression that these historians are setting us up for the American Revolution.  I tell my students that the Great Awakening created a transatlantic religious network that made the colonies more British and Protestant.  "God in America" would prefer to see it as the seedbed of individual liberty, revolution, and American identity.

And then, in the last three minutes of Part One, we get the triumph of the evangelical Whig narrative or, what Jon Butler has called "Born Again History."

The narrator states that people began to insist that it was their right to worship in the church of their choice.  Evangelical religion is said to have provided the American Revolution with a sense of "moral" urgency. Prothero says that following the First Great Awakening, the Revolution was "inevitable" and "perfectly logical."

In the end, the story of "God in America"--at least early America-- is best told by following a direct line between Hutchinson and Whitefield, culminating in the American Revolution.  At times I thought I was sitting in a lecture at Glenn Beck University.


historianess said…
No discussion of Anne Hutchinson can omit the monstrous birth, which I understand this program did. Evangelical Whiggism indeed!
John Fea said…
Mary Beth Norton did mention the fact that she was a midwife--a fact that does not often make it into survey textbooks. But you are right--no monstrous birth.
Anonymous said…
After the endless praise this has gotten nearly everywhere, I am happy to hear that someone, somewhere has the same concerns I did about this.

G. Adams
historianess said…
I usually have students read John Winthrop's description of dissecting the "monstrous birth"--it's a great way to make the point that the Puritans were NOT LIKE US.

I was interviewed at an early stage of the planning of this program by telephone and I was already disturbed by how strongly they were emphasizing Anne Hutchinson. A well-documented but not critical episode, I think.
Thanks for your thoughtful commentary, John, as I won't get to view this until it is out on DVD.

I'm surprised by your description of the narrative since there has been so much advance praise for this project. I wonder if, as scholars, we won't always be disappointed by these productions. Inevitably, this relatively short series cannot cover the complexity and historical debates that we offer in our own courses (Glenn Beck and David Barton notwithstanding).

Don't get me wrong--it sounds like you've described a troubling example of a debatable (or even misleading) interpretation. But I imagine that the producers would justify omissions and even narrative choices in the name of brevity, simplicity, and (dare I say?) entertainment. Do we expect too much from this series or similar documentaries?
John Fea said…
Brantley: I fully understand the decisions the producers and writers needed to make about what to keep in and what to take out, but I am not sure that this has anything to do with the overarching narrative. Thanks for the comment. Good to chat with you in an another venue other than the TWOILH.
I think one of the questions we're left with here is whether PBS would have run this series if it really were entirely about religious experiences of Americans, and not just about the role of religion in shaping American political and cultural traditions.

Last night our local PBS channel in Champaign-Urbana ran a story about the making of the supreme court case, McCollum v. Board of Education, which began here in town. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCollum_v._Board_of_Education The documentary was a celebration of Hugo Black's push for a "wall of separation" between church and state. I learned very little of exactly what kinds of things went on in the religious education classrooms that were held on school grounds, or the history of how religious education became so secondary to "public education." Should we call this Whig Secular Humanist history?

It's funny to me both that PBS (the most public of all stations) is running this series on religion (bravo to them!), and how the clear focus of attention is really secular American traditions, not the religious experiences themselves. I suppose there's nothing wrong with all this except that it's probably misnamed. Maybe something more fitting would be, "Religious People Have Meddling with Politics From the Beginning." I suppose we shouldn't have expected anything else.
Jon Pahl said…

Thanks for putting into words my unease with Episode One; I also was distressed by the soaring sound track and long landscape (or even worse, cloud, shots) with their evocations of the American sublime. Whiggish and exceptionalist, as I read it; can't recommend to my graduate students, other than as an exercise in critical reading of meta-histories....
zapata said…
I agree with the critique that the Pueblo Revolt seems to be tacked onto the front, because "something had to be said about Native Americans." But, it does connect to the Whig view of history in a certain way. The portrayal perpetuates the old "Resistance/Accomodation" interpretive dichotomy and the "clash of civilizations" model of native/European encounters. This conveniently presents the Pueblo as yet another group that fought for freedom of religion and challenged Old World authoritarian religion right? Let's forget the evidence of Convento Kivas, blended Pueblo christian rituals before and during the revolt, and the hundreds of Pueblo converts who fled with the Spanish to El Paso because that doesn't fit the story.
Also, the idea that the revolt "ended Spanish presence in the west" is another Turneresque myth that I'm not sure if you are mocking or citing, but was thoroughly debunked by Bolton a century ago and the late, great David Weber more recently.
John Fea said…
Zapata: Yes, well-put. I agree with your assessment here.
January said…
Is there an agreed upon concept for referring to Winthrop's issue with Hutchinson? The Protestant principle of an individual's direct relationship to God does not entitle one to claim an epiphany. Surely Winthrop raised the problem of Hutchinson's capacity to distinguish God's message and one from Satan. When Emerson 300 years later insisted that one ought to have an original relationship to the divine, he did not mean that we might expect God to talk to us. Instead, does not the responsibility for and origin of inspiration remain with the individual?
Anonymous said…
Interesting how different the comments are here on this cross-posted item!

I have a post that takes your helpful criticism and proposes a way I might use them in my own courses. Take a look if you would:


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