Skepticism and the American Faith

From the Revolution to the Civil War

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Christopher Grasso
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     2018.
     688 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190494377.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War, historian Christopher Grasso contends that a persistent dialogue between skepticism and Christianity indelibly shaped the antebellum United States. With an eye for colorful characters—mechanics, preachers, housewives, reformers, slaveholders, soldiers, and many more—Grasso makes his case in admirable if sometimes excruciating detail. Readers will learn of Methodist preachers whose private doubts mushroomed into publicly scandalous unbelief, of self-proclaimed infidels lurching into Christian faith, of competing churches that painted each other as engines of infidelity, of pro-slavery clergymen who linked infidelity and abolitionism to form the dominant (white) Christianity of the South, and of abolitionist preachers who shaped US nationalism by warning against the “national” sins of slavery and unbelief. 

Grasso rightly criticizes historians of American religion for downplaying the presence of religious skepticism in the United States. Whether in the pulpit, the pews, the press, or the halls of power, antebellum Christians of every persuasion contended against the subversive presence of infidelity and its less brazen cousin, skepticism. This dialogue, he argues, shaped countless lives and, on a broader stage, the very contours of American nationalism. Much like Jon Butler, who famously called on US historians to see religion as more than a “pop-up” phenomenon, visible only at historiographically convenient points, Grasso subtly challenges standard narratives that see skeptics and infidels only in the Revolutionary period (think Thomas Paine) and the Gilded Age (as in Robert Ingersoll). We need a much deeper and broader history of skepticism, he contends, to understand the ever-present controversies around religion and national identity in the United States. 

Unfortunately, however, Grasso’s textured descriptions miss some important analytical opportunities. While most of his major characters are white men, he does include key female freethinkers like Frances Wright and Ernestine Rose and attends reasonably well to themes of race and gender. An anecdote from black evangelist Jarena Lee, for example, introduces his account of religious skepticism among African Americans who, faced with racism and slavery, had reason to doubt the truth claims of Christianity (144-51). But Grasso does not adequately attend to the historical links between whiteness and the freethought movement, or unpack his characters’ loaded references to slavery, race, and “barbarism.” For example, a paragraph on the notorious infidel Abner Kneeland concludes with this quote: “If people only knew what it is to be free, they would no longer be slaves—slaves to the opinions of others, the worst kind of slavery” (336-37). Grasso’s overwhelmingly white freethinkers regularly deployed this binary between slavery and freedom, which rested on the reality of racial bondage in American life even as it minimized the embodied suffering of African American slaves. Critical attention to this trope would have significantly deepened the level of racial analysis in this book. 

Grasso manages to entirely avoid another key context for American nationalism: the settler colonial dispossession of Native peoples that enabled the nation’s very existence. His characters repeatedly claimed the values and virtues of freedom, reason, and progress for themselves in contrast to the “superstitions” of their opponents. Christians as well as skeptics joined this chorus, as in Lyman Beecher’s account of skepticism as “the epidemic of the world, as superstition was in the dark ages” (338). The spectral presence of Native Americans—then the objects of benevolent hand-wringing, mob violence, and coerced removals—inevitably informed these claims. Christians like Beecher simultaneously celebrated the (white settler) freedoms of the West as a source of national virility and feared the West as a cesspool of savagery and infidelity. In either case, Indians figured as the ultimate “savage” backdrop that had to be either civilized or removed.

Anti-Indian violence lingers just below the surface of this book. Grasso describes Marion College, founded in the mid-1830s on the banks of the Mississippi, as an experiment in “Christian Enlightenment” poised quite deliberately against the peril of infidelity in the US West. The noted Presbyterian divine Ezra Stiles Ely invested all his resources in this experiment, became “nearly intoxicated with land speculation” (232), and convinced himself that he could be a benevolent slaveholder. The college fell apart after a devastating flood, a financial crisis, and a violent conflict over slavery. But Grasso does not explain that land in Missouri was both available and affordable for such experiments—attracting floods of settlers, both skeptics and Christians—because, less than a decade before Ely arrived, the Osage, Sauk and Meskwaki, and other Native people of the region had been forcibly removed. As in the case of Marion College, Grasso’s dialogues played out on a settler colonial as well as a slaveholding stage. 

Grasso also unfortunately avoids any real engagement with the burgeoning field of secularism studies. The labels of the “religious” and the “secular,” he writes, present a false dichotomy that “risk distorting the meaning of historical evidence” and cannot adequately account for the interplay of faith and skepticism that he finds on the ground (6). He is right to be suspicious of such categorical impositions and to resist older secularization narratives that, not incidentally, began as turn-of-the-century efforts to put “religion” in humanity’s past, a later stage of the dialogue Grasso describes. Recent scholarship on secularism, however, upends these very dichotomies and progress narratives by asking what categories were at use on the ground and how the very notion of the secular emerged. 

I am in no way calling for Grasso to pin the label of “secular” on his skeptics. But I for one would wish for a book that could also think with scholars like John Lardas Modern (Secularism in Antebellum America, University of Chicago Press, 2011) about the play between views of secularism imagined alternately as irreligion, as an institutionalized separation between religion and not-religion, and as a mode of disciplining and governing the religious; or with Jason Josephson-Storm (The Myth of Disenchantment, University of Chicago Press, 2017) and Emily Ogden (Credulity, University of Chicago Press, 2018) about how the conceits of secular modernity—and its claims to triumph over the primitive and the religious—developed in and through the dialogue of faith and skepticism that Grasso so exhaustively describes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tisa Wenger is Associate Professor of Amrican Religious History at Yale Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Grasso is Professor of History at the College of William and Mary and was the editor of the William and Mary Quarterly. He is the author of A Speaking Aristocracy: Transforming Public Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut and the editor of Bloody Engagements: John R. Kelso's Civil War.

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