Earlier this year Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry published The Flag + the Cross, a sociological expose on what they identified as the threat to American democracy from what they called white Christian nationalism. It’s a work of sociology more than a work of history, so I’ll grant that I approach the subject in a methodologically different way than Professors Gorski and Perry. I’m not particularly convinced the term is helpful, but I’ve written about that already. The Flag + the Cross is a worthwhile book in as much as they statistically identify very real changes in the relationship between significant segments of what is often termed Evangelical Christianity and politics since Donald Trump appeared on the political scene. Gorski and Perry argue that white Christians have perpetuated a myth of a Christian founding. They are correct, in as much as the documents that created the statutory framework of the American republic did not provide for a state national religious establishment. Nor were their European-style religious requirements foisted on American society in the era. If the nation was created by the “Founding,” there isn’t much to disagree on.

Where the tension emerges is the historical and perhaps interpretive question over whether there was, in American society of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a definable Christian civilizing impulse and society in the United States. The authors for example, use D. James Kennedy’s claims that the American “nation was founded by the Pilgrims and the Puritans” and that 98% percent of the thirteen colonies’ 1770 population was “Evangelical” as examples of white Evangelical perpetuation of a myth of a Christian founding. On its face, Kennedy’s claim is an obvious overstatement; the American republic created in 1787-89 was not a polity designed to sacralize what early 21st century Americans would identify as Evangelical religiosity.[1]

But therein lies the problem. Kennedy, who died in 2007, and more importantly Protestants of the early republic, did not use terms the way early 21st century historians and sociologists do. For much of the United States’ history, the term “Evangelical” has generally been synonymous with the term “Protestant.” Only at the end of the 20th century did the term connotate a specific subset of conservative Protestants with a separate socio-theological identity from so-called Mainline Protestants. In the 19th century, for example, prominent Protestants identified nearly all Protestant denominations as “Evangelical.” Robert Baird — one-time Princeton lecturer, member of the American Philosophical Society, and agent of the American Bible Society and American Sunday School Union — published a well-received work in 1844 titled Religion in America. Baird identified every single major Protestant group, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Quakers, and certain anabaptist sects, as “Evangelical churches in America.”[2]

Baird’s book and its taxonomy were well within the mainstream of American intellectual and religious life in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. His book was well-regarded as late as the early 21st century. Mark Noll called Baird a pioneering church historian, and E. Brooks Holifield regarded his work as an accurate portrait of religious life in the era. Early republic Protestants — most of whom identified themselves on some level as Evangelicals — believed they were part of a great civilizing mission to perpetuate Christian society across the North American continent. They also claimed that the civilization mission — and the religious foundation that birthed that mission — was created by the Pilgrims and Puritans. [3]

In 1851, former Union Theological Seminary professor Absolom Peters addressed a meeting of the aptly named Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education at the West. Peters and most of the attendees believed it was the duty of Protestants —in most of their cases Congregationalists or Presbyterians — to found colleges in the American West and the modern Midwest to perpetuate the Christian Gospel and to sustain and further the Christian civilization they believed America represented. Dartmouth-educated Peters claimed that colleges and education in general were “a means to an end in the kingdom of God. It looks to the consummation of all things. The system of education, which it proposes to advance, is a religious system.” Education made “its appeal, primarily and principally, to enlightened and religious men who “have respect unto the recompense of an eternal reward.” [4]

Peters proposed that the educational mission of Christians in the United States was an extension of the medieval and early modern Christian educational apparatus, but of a distinctly Protestant character befitting the American republic. “Colleges,” he argued, “at the time of the planting of this country, were everywhere regarded as religious institutions. Our fathers” — and given his geography and later statements, we can safely assume he meant the Pilgrim fathers — “well understood, both from history and the nature of the case, that the advancement of religion in any form, in the new world, would require the existence of Colleges for the education of the ministry of the Church.” The obvious “advantages of these institutions in preparing young men for the other professions, were by no means lost sight of, or undervalued. The religious character of colonial colleges “was considered scarcely less essential for the right education of those designed for civil office and employment, than for the appropriate training of candidates for the ministry.” In a Protestant college, and especially in a Puritan college, noted Peters, “all other objects, great though they might be, were held to be secondary to that of a competent supply of able and faithful ministers of the gospel.” Peter offered that “our Puritan fathers were earnest men in their religion. For themselves and their country they sought first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Our earliest colleges, therefore, were adapted to this end.” America’s colonial colleges “were founded…’ that the Church might never want a learned and pious ministry.’ This was the great idea of the men of New England in forming their educational system.”[5]

The charge Peters gave to his listeners served as just one rallying cry to Christianize the American midwest and far west along distinctly Protestant and even particularly Puritan terms. Lyman Beecher issued his impassioned Plea for the West sixteen years earlier, and New England Calvinists heeded his call. New England Calvinism’s socio-cultural impact influenced the midwest profoundly. Gregory S. Rose noted this, as did Don H. Doyle who said that New England gave its unique socio-moral energy to reformist movements in the midwest and “and in many ways shaped the community itself.” [6]

For nearly a century, the midwest exported its educational and civilizational mission to the rest of the United States, with the possible exception of the south. In the middle of the 19th century New England Calvinists and allied Presbyterians founded dozens of colleges in the Midwest. As late as 1950, four of the ten largest cities in the United States were in the midwest. Presbyterian ministers served as presidents of what became the region’s state universities. A Presbyterian and a Dutch Reformed minister served as the first two presidents of the University of Michigan. The first two presidents of Indiana University were Presbyterians.

All of this points to the very real influence of Christianity and specifically Puritan Christianity on cultural, intellectual, and social life in the United States well into the 20th century. Given all of this, it suggests that the United States really did have a historical Christian socio-moral foundation. Kennedy might be clumsy and non-scholarly, but he did not claim anything that someone with understanding of historical taxonomies would see as beyond the pale, and he certainly was not claiming something readily falsifiable through statistical analysis. As for Kennedy’s claim about the religion in colonial America, the 13 colonies were — for better or worse — overwhelmingly Protestant. Clumsy, yes. Nefariously inaccurate? Probably not.

There are plenty of other political actors in Gorski and Perry’s work that undoubtedly made wildly inaccurate and false claims for patently political purposes, and the authors very openly note that they are doing sociology, not history. My caution, however, stems from the potential for their work’s thesis to ultimately imply that the Protestant socio-intellectual foundation for the United States is a myth when it is in fact well-documented. Indeed, it is often held up by some scholars and progressive observers as a primary source for America’s social and religious ills.

It seems in this case the cart — understandable concerns over Trumpist politics — is leading the horse, understanding the religious foundations of American society. Gorski works for Yale, founded by Connecticut Congregationalists in 1701. Perry works at the University of Oklahoma, founded in 1890 and about as far from New England culturally and socially as possible.

Interestingly enough, the first president of Oklahoma — David Ross Boyd — was born and reared in Ohio and educated at the College of Wooster, founded by New England Presbyterians. His Wikipedia page reports that he “brought his religion with him to the university where he held chapel services each morning, which included Scripture readings and a brief three-minute sermon.” He was “a devout Presbyterian.”[7]

So though both of these scholars dispute Kennedy’s thesis, it would seem their very institutions demonstrate its plausibility.

Footnotes

  1. Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry, The Flag + the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy (New York and Oxford University Press, 2022), 23.
  2. Robert Baird, Religion in America (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1844), xii.
  3. E. Brooks Holifield, God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), 112; Mark Noll, America’s God (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 33.
  4. Absolom Peters, Colleges Religious Institutions: A Discourse Delivered in the Park Presbyterian Church, Newark, N. J. , Oct 29 , 1851 (New York: John F. Trow, 1851), 8-9.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gregory S. Rose, American and European Immigrant Groups in the Midwest by the Mid-Nineteenth Century in Jon K. Lauck, Gleaves Whitney, Joseph Hogan eds. Finding a New Midwestern History (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 78; Don H. Doyle, The Social Order of a Frontier Community: Jacksonville, Illinois, 1825-70 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 24
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Ross_Boyd
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Posted by Miles Smith

Dr. Miles Smith IV is a historian of the American South and native Carolinian. Follow him on Twitter @ivmiles.

4 Comments

  1. […] Open the full article on the mereorthodoxy.com site […]

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  2. As a religiously conservative Christian, the problem I have with claiming Christian roots or influence over our nation is not found in the extent to which that was true or how well we can document our claimt. Rather, the problem I have is in owning up to all of the history that goes with those claims.

    Whether we are talking about white supremacy as it was exhibited in slavery, other forms of racially-based labor exploitation, ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the land, Jim Crow, today’s systemic racism, to economic classism as seen in violence used against labor movements as well as many of the judicial injustices labor leaders faced, to the foreign military conflicts from military skirmishes to participation in coups, the installment of proxy leaders, and outright invasions, to our nation’s current treatment of immigrants and the foreign policies that have contributed to our immigration policies, and let’s not forget the history of our nation’s treatment of the LGBT community.

    The more that we want to claim Christianity’s influence over our nation, the more we have to own up to its atrocities. Or in other words, we religiously conservative Christians should be careful in what we ask for.

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  3. This is a helpful point to make, but I’m not so willing to let white evangelical leaders off so easily.

    I grew up within white evangelicalism (mainly PCA). That world was saturated with the notion that people like us—white fundamentalist Christians—had founded and built the US and were the rightful owners of the country and its cultural and political heritage. But our country was stolen away from us in the 1960s. Since then, we “real Americans” have been forced to live as a dispossessed people in the country we built. That explains why white evangelicals overwhelmingly assert that Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election. If the franchise ere limited to “real Americans,” Trump would have won in a landslide.

    Of course, as you note, the civic Christianity that permeated our culture for much of our country’s first two centuries was a far more heterodox and tepid than that professed by white evangelicals. It was a kind of deism that borrowed Christian vocabulary. It’s not vastly different from our culture’s prevailing ethic today, except that the Christian vocabulary has been dropped. The loss of that Christian vocabulary isn’t insubstantial. But that’s a far cry from the self-serving myth of dispossession that undergird white evangelical identity. For that reason, I have a hard time accepting that the those who promote the dispossession myth do so in good faith.

    Lastly, I agree with your Puritan analysis. But we should keep two things in mind. There is no direct line between the Puritans and white evangelicalism. In fact, the Protestant mainline probably has a better claim as the progeny of the Puritans than white evangelicals do. The white evangelical movement mainly grew out of the rise of dispensationalism and agrarian reactions to the social changes in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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