Monday, July 06, 2009

Which Christianity?

Those who talk about the United States as a Christian nation fail to answer one essential question: Which form of Christianity?
As David Hackett Fischer describes in his exhaustively documented Albion's Seed, four major strains of Christianity took root the colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries: Puritans in New England, Anglicans in Virginia and Maryland, Quakers in Pennsylvania and borderland Protestants in the Appalachian highlands.
Each came because of religious and civil conflicts in England, and brought those conflicts with them. The Puritans and Anglicans, who migrated following the English Civil War, had very different ideas of how church and society should be organized. Both shunned the Quakers. The Protestants from the borderlands between England and Scotland, endured centuries or war and disorder, and brought with them a deep distrust of authority.
The religious conflicts that drove them all to America shaped their views of church and state. The only way they could agree on a single government was to limit the role of religion in civil life. These people fought each other in England and in the new world, and recognized that their new government could not be used to impose one version of Christianity on another.
When we sing, "Give me that old time religion," we aren't clear as to which old time religion. There were many of course, which we tend to forget in our yearning for a purer, simpler version of faith. But history shows us that religion in America at the founding of the United States was neither pure nor simple.


Blogger Steven H. Newton said...

Where are the Irish in this mix? If I recall correctly, one of the perceived weaknesses of Fisher's book when it was published was a lack of distinction between the different flavors of "borderland" Protestants, indifferent handling of the Irish, and an over-estimation of the influence of the Quakers.

None of which influences your main point, except that I think any serious scholar of American religion would point out that both the First and Second Great Awakenings pretty much establised protestant evangelism and all of its offshoots as "that old time religion," and that by the 1850s there was a distinctly American flavor to most Protestant denominations that had both European and American branches, as well as a pretty developed American Catholicism by the 1890s.

OK yes I do have too much time on my hands.

12:32 AM, July 09, 2009  
Blogger Tom Noyes said...

American cultural patterns were not fixed at the end of the 18th century. I agree that the Great Awakenings created a distinctly American brand of protestant evangelism.

As for glossing over the differences among borderlands peoples, it may be that these differences were accentuated by later waves of immigration.

As for overestimating the influence of the Quakers, Philadelphia was the biggest city in the colonies. However, Fisher tosses German pietism into the Quaker culture.

I also agree that further cultural folkways stirred the melting pot in the 19th and 20th centuries, including Catholism, Latino and Asian cultures.

And of course, the African American experience is unique. Seymour Martin Lipset describes it as the great exception to American exceptionalism.

8:47 AM, July 09, 2009  

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