William and Mary Quarterly "Doubles"

Jonathan Den Hartog

With the baseball post-season upon us, I think there's still time to work in a line to lead off--readers may enjoy the religious history "double" in the July issue of the William and Mary Quarterly (paywalled, but abstracts here). Although this might seemed delayed analysis, it's still worth taking stock of.

Keeping up the theme from last month of finding religion in the era of the American Revolution, the WMQ had two very interesting, religious history articles that deserve notice. Further, applause is deserved for WMQ publishing two fine pieces of scholarship.

The first article comes from Michael Breidenbach (Ave Maria University) and is entitled "Conciliarism and the American Founding." Breidenbach reexamines Catholic political thought in America in the era of the American Revolution. This is useful for consideration, since many American patriots nourished a Protestant-inspired anti-Catholicism that viewed Catholicism as hostile to liberty. Yet, alongside that rhetorical reality, actual Catholic leaders like John and Charles Carroll of Maryland functioned quite well, supported the Revolution, and were accepted as full American patriots. How might this occur?

Breidenbach's answer is to recover the conciliarist theory as undergirding the Carrolls' efforts. Breidenbach reaches back into early modern European theological debates to trace Catholic voices that questioned papal infallibility and denied the popes had any temporal power outside of Rome. In the later 18th century, these positions were defended by English Jesuits and people like Rev. Joseph Berington at the Jesuit college in Liege. When the Carrolls advocated for these ideas, they took a transatlantic journey to root themselves in revolutionary America. By advocating against the temporal power of the pope, American conciliarists defused the chief suspicion held by many republicans.

In telling this story, Breidenbach sheds light on American Catholicism in the revolutionary era. He demonstrates a path for American Catholics to make their way in an independent, Protestant-dominated America. To further that, the Carrolls also came to advocate full religious liberty in Maryland, the better to guarantee the full exercise of their faith. Breidenbach sees those two points as related: that conciliarist principles fully supported full religious liberty.

Finally, Breidenbach helpfully brings in yet another stream of thought informing the American Revolution. In contrast to reductionistic accounts of the Revolution that privilege one viewpoint over all others (say, Lockean liberalism), Breidenbach is right to point out how revolutionaries drew on multiple intellectual and even religious streams to pull for independence. And that, it seems to me, is a helpful reminder for our general understanding of the Revolution.

As if that weren't enough, turning one more page gives us yet another religious history article, this time by Kirsten Fischer (University of Minnesota). Fischer's article is on "Vitalism in America: Elihu Palmer's Radical Religion in the Early Republic." Fischer makes an interesting investigation into Palmer, who was regarded as one of the chief free-thinkers ("infidels") in the early republic--he was occasionally named as their "high priest." Palmer was thus, from one perspective, in the same camp as Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, and other Deists and Skeptics. Yet, Fischer wants to suggest that Palmer was more radical still for his advocacy of "Vitalism."

Vitalism argued against the personal-if-aloof god of the Deists (at least most of the time: Palmer seemed to hedge his bets). Instead, it saw a divine life-force inhabiting every part of matter, at the atomic level. Palmer thus rejected the necessity of traditional religion in favor of awe at the immanent universe.

Further, Palmer then preached for a significant change in human action, as his outlook demanded respect for all living things. He took this a step farther by believing that this vital force retained memory at the atomic level and that these vital particles could randomly jump from one creature to another. Thus, humans should avoid causing pain anywhere, because they might be receiving the very pain they inflicted. Palmer claimed this was a strong reason for universal benevolence--although it's worth noting his is a benevolence far removed from the benevolence of Jonathan Edwards or Timothy Dwight.

Fischer's contribution, it seems to me, sits alongside the expansion of interest in other free-thinkers from such historians as Christopher Grasso, Eric Schlereth, Amanda Porterfield, and most recently Leigh Eric Schmidt. Fischer would portray Palmer as the most radical option, and she rightfully acknowledges that his was a path decidedly not taken. One reason for this was the great debate and struggle for religious leadership in the early republic. As democratic as Palmer or Paine claimed to be, both New Divinity Calvinists and free-will Methodists seemed more appealing to the vast body of American citizens.

In any case, cheers for Breidenbach's and Fischer's contributions, and thanks to the WMQ for publishing some significant work in American Religious History.


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