Commentary Magazine


Religion in the Development of American Culture 1765-1840, by William Warren Sweet

Old-Time Religion
Religion in the Development of American Culture 1765-1840.
by William Warren Sweet.
Scribner’s. 338 pp. $3-50.

 

Religion is a neglected area of American historiography. The point of view expressed by the late J. Franklin Jameson before the 1907 meeting of the American Historical Association—“He who would understand the American of past and present times . . . may find in the history of American religion the closest approach to the continuous record he desires”—has encountered few takers among American historians.

One of the more important scholars who did follow this lead is Professor William Warren Sweet, for many years professor of the history of American Christianity at the University of Chicago and more recently associated with Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Professor Sweet is in the process of writing a four-volume history of religion in America of which Religion in Colonial America, published in 1942, was the first. The present volume covers the years 1765 to 1840.

In this period, Sweet reminds us, American churches were controlled by laymen to whom religion was more than the passive acceptance of a formal creed. Rather was the theology of the American one “that could be preached, that would influence everyday life and get things done.” In fact, asserts Professor Sweet, “the American theologians until very recent years have been preachers, not scholars who dwelt in ivory towers.” And he might also have added concerning the current scene that clerical control of our churches has increased enormously since the period covered by this book; that dogma has crystallized; and that the sects are increasingly inclined to organize into monoliths like the National Council of Churches.

With the layman pretty much in the driver’s seat, the churches tended to follow and not lead the dominant secular movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: the American Revolution, the establishment of a separate nationality in a cultural sense, and the continuous push westward of the American people. During the Revolutionary crisis, the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians were staunch supporters of the Patriot cause because of their long-standing quarrel with the Church of England. But the Methodists, too, were strong advocates of independence despite the pro-Tory pronouncements of their founder, John Wesley, in England. Colonial Anglicans contributed the largest proportion of Loyalists, mainly because of the fact that the Church of England had not established a separate organization in colonial America and American Anglicans were dependent upon the mother country for ministers. Even so, the Anglicans contributed the largest number of signers of the Declaration of Independence and more than their share of Patriot leaders. And once the war was over, an independent American Anglican church was established which, like the churches of other denominations, had severed all significant formal ties with England.

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A tremendous task confronted the newly organized national churches. The Revolutionary War produced, as one religious leader observed, “a lamentable decay of vital piety,” a prevalence of “vice and degeneracy of manners” that called for repentance and reformation. There was also a steady flow of settlers westward and both in the older and newer communities the churches had to expand their role. Professor Sweet strongly emphasizes—to my mind, overemphasizes—the role of religion in bringing “culture” to the benighted hinterlands. While he makes clear his disagreement with Timothy Flint, the Eastern missionary who described the West as a “sink of iniquity” and the Westerners as “little more than heathen,” at the same time he follows Horace Bushnell, who declared barbarism to be the West’s first danger, in titling a chapter “Barbarism vs. Revivalism.” Its generous quotations of frontier religious songs (“The Devil, Calvin and Tom Paine/ May hate the Methodists in vain;/ Their doctrines shall be downward hurled/ The Methodists shall take the world”) make it the most interesting chapter in the book. But it is questionable whether it was only—or primarily—“revivalism” that fought the West’s “barbarism.”

As Professor Sweet describes the mushroom growth of religious sects in this period and tells of their dogmas and adherents, his book gains in interest. The glimpses he affords of Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, preaching openly against marriage and sexual intercourse and hailed by her followers as the reincarnation of Christ; of John Humphrey Noyes, who founded at Oneida, New York, in 1848 a community dedicated to Christian perfectionism to be achieved in part by integrating “sexual love with the life of the spirit,” and by making physical love the “outward sign of inward spiritual grace”; of Joseph Smith, to whom the angel Moroni revealed golden plates inscribed in “the reformed Egyptian tongue” from which the tenets of Mormonism were revealed—make us wish that the author had lingered longer in the company of these interesting people and that his gifts of character analysis were sharper. One wishes, too, that the author had dug deeper into his subject matter and had not relied on such obvious sources as the Dictionary of American Biography.

However, one’s main objection to the book must be to its larger conception. This is, plainly, a narrative of the history of American religion and not an account of religion in American culture, as the author intended. Professor Sweet has made no real effort to reveal the impact of religion upon the larger pattern of American civilization. For example, he has no account of the role of Western religion in so significant a movement as Jacksonian democracy. Part of this difficulty arises out of the fact that religion is not the key to American history that Sweet, following Jameson, contends it is. And it is plain that Professor Sweet is a little too dogmatic in his easy rejection of the frontier hypothesis and economic determinism—approaches which are indeed not without fault—in favor of his own religious view of American history.

Nevertheless, while the book is neither philosophical nor deeply penetrative, Sweet is a good narrative historian. He is, moreover, a man of deep and enduring religious faith, some of which he communicates to the reader.

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