Religious rhetoric, rituals, and themes are woven into the story of the American Revolution and early national era. Religious personalities—including pious political leaders and clergymen—also feature in this story. And, yet, standard academic accounts of the founding era have “frequently relegated clergymen to the margins” (1), thus minimizing a significant aspect of the story. Protestant clergymen were key actors in translating the patriots’ case into language understood and embraced by ordinary people, disseminating that case through the auspices of their sacred offices, and mobilizing communities in support of the patriots. In Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America, Spencer W. McBride examines the often overlooked roles of the clergy class and the pulpit in the political culture of the founding and early national eras. This study examines “the alliances American political leaders forged with politicized clergymen during the Revolution” and the establishment of a new nation following independence (1). Religion played an important role in shaping early American nationalism, but religion alone, McBride is careful to emphasize, did not shape the national identity. Much of the scholarly literature on this topic, he argues, has been more attentive to how Christianity and patriot preachers shaped politics than to how politics used religion and, indeed, altered Christianity. A recurring theme of this study is that religious actions and “utterances of men waging fierce political battles” should not always be taken “at face value” (8). Political leaders routinely requisitioned and manipulated religious symbols and language to serve political objectives, such as legitimizing Congress and its agenda and mobilizing political support in divided communities. McBride concludes that religion was largely an instrument used by ambitious men for political mobilization, making little allowance for the possibility that religion contributed substantively to the political thought of the times. In six clearly written, well-constructed chapters, McBride profiles the manifold contributions of Protestant ministers to the political culture. He begins with a discussion of the Continental Congress’s political uses of proclamations setting aside days in the public calendar for prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving. The themes of divine Providence, “chosen nation,” and liberation (often employing the biblical imagery of the Israelite exodus from Egypt) figured prominently in the Congress’s religious expressions. He then turns his attention to how clergymen were used in military and legislative chaplaincies. Protestant chaplains on the patriots’ side, McBride contends, were transformed into “political missionaries” (39). In addition to their traditional duties of attending to the spiritual needs of soldiers facing the extraordinary dangers of military service, chaplains in the Continental Army were called on to promote professionalism, moral behavior, and the patriot cause. This discussion is followed by a chapter contrasting the revolutionary experiences and careers of Bishop Samuel Seabury of Connecticut, Bishop James Madison of Virginia, and the Reverend John Joachim Zubly of Georgia, three clergymen from different regions of British North America, religious cultures, and political camps whose lives illustrate the political pressures brought to bear on the clergy class. The final three chapters focus on issues following the war. McBride reviews the significant impact of the clergy on the ratification debates of 1787–1788, giving special attention to the views of ministers on both sides of the debate regarding the proposed Constitution’s Article VI, section 3 ban on religious tests for federal officeholders. This sets the stage for an examination of the involvement of politicized clergymen in building the party system in the decade that followed. The final chapter considers religion’s role in the rancorous presidential contests of 1796 and, more importantly, 1800, and the rise of the public’s extraconstitutional expectation that political leaders, especially presidents, must be Christians. Pulpit and Nation presents a nuanced, richly documented assessment of religion’s role in the tumultuous political culture of the revolutionary and early national eras. McBride’s focus on politics’ transformative effect on religion and religious culture usefully challenges works emphasizing religion’s influence on political culture. There are, however, surprisingly neglected topics and missed opportunities. There is little mention, for example, of New England’s “election sermons” delivered at the annual opening of a colony’s or, later, a state’s legislative session. The sermons preached on these and other similar public occasions were among the most important political expressions of ministers in New England. This book is a welcomed addition to the literature on the role of the clergy in the founding era and should be read alongside Alice M. Baldwin’s The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (1928) and the handful of more recent studies on the clergy in late-eighteenth-century America and the printed collections of political sermons of this time. It is indispensable reading for students of the complex and often ambiguous interplay between religion and politics during the conflict with Great Britain and its aftermath. Pulpit and Nation reminds us, if we need reminding, that an ongoing, energetic debate on the prudential and constitutional place of religion in national politics is among the enduring legacies of the founding era. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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