Secularism in Antebellum America

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John Lardas Modern
Religion and Post Modernism
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , December
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


 “What do you think of John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America?” This question is not always innocent. Scholars of American religion, like dogs sniffing one another at the park, have taken to asking this question as a way to extract more information. Often the unspoken question is a more baldly partisan one: are you a real historian? Or, if you are a dog of a different breed: have you neglected to read any cultural theory since the nineties? Secularism is a conceptually challenging and stylish book that critiques established narratives. It is bound to be divisive. Both defenders and detractors, however, miss an opportunity when they too quickly turn Secularism into a symbol. The book is better read for its subtle arguments and impressive archival spadework than in terms of its polarizing effects on readers. Now available in paperback four years after its first publication, we have another chance to digest those arguments and assess their contributions.  

Modern directs his arguments to two subfields, both pursued within and around religious studies. The first is the interdisciplinary formation of secularism studies, where his work has been received enthusiastically. Modern begins with a premise familiar to scholars in this area, namely, that the secular—which we often imagine to connote the retreat of religion in Western modernity or the rise of reason freed from religion’s influence—has normative dimensions that derive at least partially from a Protestant genealogy. In Secularism, Modern analyzes an overlooked but key American episode in that genealogy, that dynamic brand of evangelicalism that surged to cultural dominance by the mid-nineteenth century. Characteristic among antebellum evangelicals was the premium they put on human agency (thrown in especially high relief when compared to, say, the less optimistic views of colonial-era Calvinists). With breathless confidence, evangelicals vaunted the freedom to think for themselves and make meaningful choices in religious matters, newly emboldened to choose faith or no faith, to adhere to one sect over another, and to exercise what they saw as their innate moral capacities to make changes in the world. Religion was no longer suffered as an obligation to an external authority but felt as “grounded deep within the self” (5). Modern identifies the popular adaptation of this evangelical obsession with religious choice as the tipping point into our secular age, which Charles Taylor famously defined as the emergence of options in religious matters, the result of the move from “a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others” (A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, 2007, 3). Today, the idea of an autonomous self that makes meaningful choices out of a surfeit of options has become so foundational to American subjectivity that alternatives are nearly unthinkable, even as the freedoms of our secular age, Modern warns, “carry with them their own coercions and their own madness” (xxxiv).

American religious history is the second subfield implicated by Secularism. Here the book has met a more ambivalent reception. Critics maintain that Modern prioritizes theory before history, exceeding his archives with flights of interpretation piloted by theorists including Taylor, Foucault, and Benjamin. As Leigh Schmidt predicted in his Church History review, “whether historians will want to engage Modern’s work will have a lot to do with how much they think they gain from participating in those larger theoretical discussions” (82/1, 2013, 230). Several historians dismiss Secularism on precisely these grounds. This is unfortunate, because for all its efforts towards those “larger” aims (or even, one could argue, because of them), Secularism is a grounded work of history that directly speaks to matters of enduring concern in American religious historiography. These include conversations regarding the agency of religious subjects, the so-called free market of religion in the wake of disestablishment, and whether American religious history comprises a story of difference or coherence.

Take the latter problem: was antebellum American religion a pluralistic phenomenon or was it characterized by continuities stretching across religious and denominational identities? In response to the abundance of scholarship that emphasizes centrifugal variety, Modern engages an historiographical counter-tradition associated with Mark Noll. The “Protestant consensus” is what Noll termed the mutually-reinforcing synthesis of evangelicalism, liberal republicanism, and commonsense moral reasoning that subsumed sectarian differences to become the prevailing American way of thinking. Modern’s boldest argument is buoyed by Noll’s conceptual background: evangelical-secular ideas and sensibilities, Modern claims, were so viral that they rapidly infected other realms of antebellum American life, including politics, subjectivity, and epistemology. Modern includes republican and commonsense discourses as examples of the myriad evangelical-secular assemblages that became so ubiquitous as to constitute what Modern calls the “conceptual atmosphere” (113, 293) or “metaphysical solvent” (54, 91) of antebellum America, the spontaneous and taken-for-granted relationship antebellum Americans had with their world. Where Modern departs from Noll is in taking that atmosphere not so much as a “consensus” but as something more like the Foucauldian concept of episteme or what many marxist theorists call ideology.

This thick atmosphere, Modern argues, did not discriminate with regard to nominal religious affiliation. The power of secularism, though derived from evangelicalism, was in extending beyond it to shape the ways in which religious liberals, spiritualists, freethinkers, and others came to experience the world as well. In four extended case studies across four chapters, Modern demonstrates the remarkable range of the secular. The first and strongest chapter treats mass media practices, including the tract and Bible societies that sent a shockwave of evangelical print through the country. The efforts of their traveling colporteurs were part of the process by which the concepts of secularism “assumed a degree of physicality” through their “capillary effects on the lives of the populace” (76). Subsequent chapters examine that secular atmosphere as materialized in the experiences of phrenologists and mental scientists like Orson Fowler; the early anthropological scholarship of Lewis Henry Morgan; and the spiritualist experiments among prison reformers at Sing Sing. The book ends with a memorably uncanny epilogue that visits a Universalist minister named John Murray Spear copulating with a machine. Modern is interested throughout in showing how secularism took hold “at the level of affect and practice” (11) and “at the level of intuitive reason” (74) in the lives of everyday Americans, which he demonstrates through rich descriptive accounts, in ways inspired by the best of lived religion scholarship. With admirable archival depth, Modern brings together textual sources including popular periodicals, manuals, tracts, sermons, novels, and sundry manuscript material, as well as visual evidence such as phrenological illustrations, bureaucratic charts, and photographs.

Secularism in Antebellum America is a capacious intellectual achievement by one of the most original thinkers in religious studies today. It is a model for boldly conceptual and historically compelling scholarship. Its engagement with the field of American religious history, though not always gentle or loving, is best seen as an immanent critique, waged by a scholar trained in the field and eager to move forward its most important conversations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sonia Hazard is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
July 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Lardas Modern is associate professor and chair of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College. He is the author of The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.


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