Pulpit and Nation

Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America

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Spencer W. McBride
Jeffersonian America
  • Charlottesville, VA: 
    University of Virginia Press
    , January
     2017.
     272 pages.
     $39.50.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780813939568.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Heated debates concerning the role of religion in politics, and the presence—or absence of—the Christian beliefs of America’s founders are not merely recent developments but have been a part of the discussion from the colonial to the present time. The issues emerging from such deliberations are not as cut-and-dried as one would hope, and these issues are astutely examined by Spencer McBride in Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America.

McBride’s purpose with this work is to demonstrate the extent of Protestant religion in politics during the Revolutionary and Early Republic periods. Chapter one explains the purpose and outcome of the National Fast Day tradition, employed by the Continental Congress during the Revolution, along with their use of American providentialist language to encourage “public participation in shaping a national sense of belonging” (37). Chapter two focuses on Protestant chaplains of the Revolution and their importance—not only for members of the army, working to keep men from deserting, but also for Congress—striving to promote unity among members of different denominations. The third chapter evaluates three clergymen, Samuel Seabury, James Madison (cousin of America’s fourth president), and John Joachim Zubly—two Anglicans and a Lutheran, respectively—and their experiences as politicized clergymen. Chapter four works towards remedying a gap in knowledge concerning the influence of the Protestant clergy upon the Constitution ratification debates and religious life of America. The fifth chapter moves to the development of the first party system towards the end of the eighteenth century and the involvement of the clergy in this process. In the sixth chapter, McBride discusses the myth of Thomas Jefferson’s conversion to Christianity. The conclusion demonstrates why this study is important to twenty-first-century Americans.

Pulpit and Nation is an impeccably researched book, and likewise, a well-written one. McBride works to strike a balance between apparent religious involvement in early American politics and its definite limitations. This book does not examine the differences in denominational distinctives or any specific theological influence of these politicized clergymen in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although it would have lengthened the book, perhaps beyond the author’s intended scope, a more in-depth look at all denominational clergymen would have been appreciated. For example, in chapter three, McBride evaluates only two Anglicans and a Lutheran, making one wonder if there was not sufficient evidence for including other representative figures from different Protestant-sect clergy.  And it would have been satisfying to see where the quotes came from which McBride used as his subheading titles in the chapters.

Overall, this book will be an interesting read for the scholar as well as the general reader. McBride’s evidence shared in his work sheds much needed light on the founding of our American political culture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Terry L. Christian is a doctoral candidate in church history/historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
May 10, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Spencer W. McBride is a historian and documentary editor at the Joseph Smith Papers.

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