Title: Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People
Author: Jon Butler
Categories: Religion, Culture, Slavery
Place: Colonial America/United States
Time Period: 1550-1865
Jon Butler rewrites the history of religion in colonial America and the early Republic by emphasizing the importance of 1680-1820 in crafting an American religious character. Instead of seeing the formative years as being the earlier Puritanism, Butler argues that the 18th century was when American religion solidified into an extraordinarily heterogeneous, energetic force marked by syncretism/pluralism. Butler takes a revisionist stance and many of his arguments are controversial reworkings of traditional narratives.
Before 1680, Butler argues that American religion was marked by spiritual lethargy, low levels of adherence, and sectarian discord. Between 1680-1760, church figures solidified their authority over American society through a number of ways. First, they "sacralized" the landscape by building new buildings and steeples and providing books and ministers along with aural sacralization through church bells. Second, and more controversially, he argues that the southern clergy ushered in an "African spiritual holocaust" that effectively wiped out African religious systems and crafted a slaveowner plantation ethic that emphasized paternalism and absolute obedience through violent enforcement. Butler argues that around 1760, Afro-Christian religion re-emerged in a form that was as close to European Christianity as it would ever be again. Third, Butler argues that there was no such thing as the Great Awakening (he terms it an "interpretive fiction") and that instead, the early 18th century was notable for its tremendous religious pluralism and diversity rather than its cohesive revivalism under the Great Awakening. He notes that during this period churches were also marked by efforts to establish more authority, rather than anti-authority revivalism, and that the state church tradition remained far stronger than evangelicalism.
After 1760, Butler describes how church leaders worked to co-opt the secular tradition of the American Revolution and recast it in more religious terms (sacralization). In the antebellum period he describes a "spiritual hothouse" of spiritual creativity exemplified by Methodism, Mormonism, Afro-American religion, and spiritualism. Butler argues, however, that during this period the American religious landscape was marked as much by church authority and power as it was by the traditional narrative of individualism and anti-hierarchical sentiment. A diverse range of competing groups all sought to consolidate their power within various sects and groups in a dynamic scramble for influence and authority.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Landscape Sacralization - religious symbols and buildings begin to populate the landscape - ex. church steeples
- Religious Holocaust
- Pluralism (and "Interpretive Fiction" of the Great Awakening)
- Antebellum spiritual hothouse
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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