The Origins of American Religious Nationalism

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Sam Haselby
Religion in America
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2015.
     352 pages.
     $74.00.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9780199329571.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, Sam Haselby, senior editor of Aeon digital magazine, has written an ambitious and thought-provoking book that challenges common understandings of the earliest stages of American nationalism. Rather than rooting American nationalism in the ideals of republicanism fostered by the War of Independence, Haselby argues that disputes among Protestants gave birth to a unique form of religious nationalism that crystallized during the 1830s. Haselby’s best work appears in chapters that examine the various factions of Protestantism at play during the early republic period: conservative intellectuals, frontier revivalists, and liberal missionaries. Undoubtedly, though, some readers will be frustrated with his slightly ambiguous conception of American religious nationalism (one would be hard-pressed to identify a single statement or passage that outlines precisely what Haselby means by “American religious nationalism”). That said, Haselby seems less interested in establishing a concrete definition and more concerned with exploring the dynamic processes that led to its development. In regards to the latter, he succeeds admirably.

Haselby notes in the introduction that The Origins of American Religious Nationalism “makes two revisionist claims. The first is that the War of Independence posed rather than answered the question on American nationality”; the second claim is that the “fight between frontier revivalism and national evangelism … reshaped American nationality” (1–3). Haselby’s first assertion addresses a conversation that has been ongoing over the last decades in the field of early US history. Few scholars would consider this a novel intervention; instead, his work adds to the already vibrant body of scholarship on nationalism in the wake of the American Revolution.

Haselby’s second claim, however, constitutes an important and original historiographic contribution. His examination of the rivalries among Protestants—which pivoted more on social and geographic differences than denominational ties—places westward expansion at the forefront of debates shaping notions of American nationalism during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Indeed, as Hasebly explains, the “primary conflict in American religion during the early republic”—one that pitted a “popular, anti-elitist frontier revivalism” against “a bourgeois and nationalist metropolitan missionary”—centered on the control of lands and indigenous peoples west of the Appalachian Mountains (3, 22).

Hasebly builds his argument across seven engaging and thoroughly researched chapters. The first chapter covers disestablishment in Virginia, paving the way for what Hasebly calls the “political theology of American secularism” (6). An analysis of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison figures prominently in the opening pages of the book, as Haselby considers how the founders hoped to solve “the problem of religion in the early republic” by promoting secularism (49). Despite their efforts, the Jeffersonian conception of secular nationalism ultimately failed, due in large part to the growth of popular Protestantism. Chapters 2 through 6, then, examine the Protestants who set in motion the religious nationalism that developed over the course of the early republic.

Haselby’s second chapter remains one of the—if not the—best historical assessments of the Connecticut Wits, a group of literary scholars and intellectuals established at Yale College. Led by Timothy Dwight and John Trumbull, the Wits “imagined an America that was hierarchical, theological, and anti-racist”—the antithesis of Jefferson’s view of an “evangelical, egalitarian, and racist” nation (6–7). Haselby not only places the Wits in conversion with Jefferson but also juxtaposes their view of America with the one held by frontier revivalists, best represented by Francis Asbury’s Methodists in chapter 3 and an examination of Richard McNemar, a “schismatic Presbyterian turned Shaker,” in chapter 4 (163). Overall, members of popular Protestant movements believed that “Christianity was a greater and more radical force than the revolutionary republicanism of secular intellectuals,” leading many frontier revivalists to avoid politics and eschew notions of the American nation (165). As Asbury reminded Methodist leaders in 1813: “Our kingdom is not of this world” (155–56).

Distrust of frontier revivalists and apprehension about the fate of the American West drove liberal Protestants to embrace “missionary nation-building work” (12). An illuminating examination of the relationship between religion and capitalism, Haselby’s fifth chapter details the alliance that formed between the northeastern Protestant establishment and the region’s bourgeoisie to create missionary and moral-improvement organizations. Although they shared some of the same apprehensions as the Connecticut Wits about frontier revivalism, northeastern evangelists diverged from their conservative counterparts by shifting the focus “away from serious theology and toward Protestantism as ethics and maxims” (236). This transition represented a momentous development in the history of American Protestantism, as the missions movement constituted a more ecumenical and democratic approach to nation building.

Still, by the 1820s, competing visions of how to Christianize and civilize the West continued to divide Protestants. Popular Protestants wanted to rely on the spread of revivalism, while the national evangelists put their faith in the American Bible Society, American Home Missionary Society, and similar organizations. Haselby’s final chapter, then, resolves the conflict that he builds throughout the first six chapters. In the end, he suggests that Andrew Jackson emerged as a national figure that united the factions in the context of white settler colonialism. The “crisis of ‘Indian removal,’ and its rationalizations,” Haselby explains, “brought together and illuminated a mixture of voluntarism, theologizing, anti-elitism, constitutionalism, and racism that remain familiar components of American nationality” (315). Perhaps it is those defining and long-lasting components—drawn from the legacies of both the frontier revivalists and national evangelists—that make Haselby’s argument about American religious nationalism so consequential and profound.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carl C. Creason is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sam Haselby is a historian of religion and American political culture. He earned his PhD at Columbia University, was a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and has been a faculty member at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo. His writings on US politics and religion in historical perspective have appeared in The International Herald TribuneThe Boston Globe, and The Guardian. He is working on a book about the opium trade. Currently, he is a visiting faculty member at Columbia University.

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