Eric R. Schlereth places religious conflicts between deists and their opponents at the center of early American public life. This history recasts the origins of cultural politics in the United States by exploring how everyday Americans navigated questions of religious truth and difference in an age of emerging religious liberty.
2013 | 304 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History | Religion
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Remaking Religion
Chapter 1. Boundaries
Chapter 2. America's Deist Future
Chapter 3. Citizen Deists
Chapter 4. Partisan Religious Truths
Chapter 5. America's Deist Past
Chapter 6. Free Enquiry
Chapter 7. Political Religion, Political Irreligion
Epilogue. The Origins of American Cultural Politics
James Ross thought Christianity was for the dogs. After all, he had mockingly administered the Lord's Supper to several furry, four-legged communicants. At least these were the rumors about the Federalist candidate for governor of Pennsylvania in 1808. The state's Republicans spread this story throughout Pennsylvania and beyond. Ross's supposed irreligion had been a political issue for nearly a decade. This latest irreverent act, his opponents warned, was another example of why Ross's unchristian sentiments left him morally bereft, thus unfit for political office. Ross's supporters agreed, for if the accusations were true they indicted Ross of "a crime that must excite horror and detestation in every virtuous heart, and must exclude the perpetrators of it, not only from public confidence, but from private friendship and society." Both sides in 1808 found it difficult to ignore rumors about Ross because they raised vexing questions about how best to reconcile religious belief and political life. Indeed, concerns about the relationship between religion and politics proved urgent to many Americans in the generations following the Revolution.
History allowed no sure guarantees that the new United States would avoid the mire of religious and political conflict that gripped much of the European world for three centuries. Religious disputes had fractured Christian Europe along sectarian lines. More recently, the French Revolution amplified perceptions that atheism and violence were often grim companions to political change. From the mid-1770s onward, broad-ranging debates erupted in the United States about how or even if long-standing religious beliefs, institutions, and traditions could be accommodated within a new republican political order that encouraged suspicion of inherited traditions, institutions, and ideas. Things sacred did not seem automatically or entirely compatible with America's new political culture. Public life in the early United States thus included contentious arguments over how best to ensure a compatible relationship between diverse religious beliefs and the nation's recent political changes. In the process, religion and politics in the early United States were remade to fit each other. Specifically, religious conflict became safe for American politics.
Explaining how early national Americans remade religion and politics in such ways is the central focus of this book. Doing so elucidates interconnections between debates over religious knowledge and developments within American political culture. The history of religious knowledge in the early national United States is, in important respects, a political history. I define religious knowledge in broad terms to include historical definitions of religious truth; the standards by which individuals determined what was or was not a true religious belief; and the means by which individuals expressed and circulated, thus communicated, the religious beliefs they held as true. The rough-and-tumble world of early national politics offers great insight into the changing public authority of religious knowledge in the decades following the American and French Revolutions. The advent of partisan institutions including parties and elections; an increase in political communication, especially through newspapers; and the expansion of political spaces such as voluntary associations within civil society each expanded opportunities for Americans who held competing notions of religious truth to pursue their beliefs in ways that would hopefully avoid the sectarian controversies of recent historical memory.
As a result, the context in which people expressed religious opinions and the implications of these expressions became more controversial than the beliefs themselves. Thomas Jefferson recognized this shift from content to context as the source of religious controversy when, in the 1780s, he wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that "it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." This shift had lasting influence. Decades later, the author of an 1834 article in the New Hampshire Gazette smeared a Boston politician for his supposed acquaintance with the infamous freethinker Abner Kneeland. "In stating these facts," he clarified, "we wish to be understood as casting no reproach upon any man for his belief or want of belief—for we regard men's actions more than their faith."
Attention to context over content had intellectual and political implications. Intellectually, it marked a growing acceptance that notions of religious truth were ultimately matters of opinion, thereby open to public debate. Moreover, it allowed people of various beliefs to argue politically with each other about religion's influence in American public life while avoiding debates over the relative truth of private religious opinions, debates that had become politically and culturally untenable in the revolutionary age. Both developments were evident in actions taken by citizens in Ithaca, New York. There, in the winter of 1830, some of the town's residents met to debate faith's influence in American politics. This was an urgent topic, made especially so by recent calls for Congress to end Sunday mail delivery. In a resolution submitted to their congressman, the people of Ithaca deemed efforts to suspend Sunday mail an organized plan by a "religious sect in the United States to coerce the government into measures tending to establish their peculiar construction of the law of God, and ultimately to establish a particular religion as the religion of the State." The language of the resolution adopted in Ithaca exemplifies how religion and politics were remade to fit one another, and the contentious nature of this change. The petitioners did not challenge religious truth per se, or the rights of others to believe as they pleased. What troubled them was how apparent religious truths, now reduced to debatable propositions, were used politically. The residents thus disagreed with the "peculiar construction of the law of God" held by the opponents of Sunday mail delivery.
James Ross's experience provides an even more provocative lens on debates over the context of religious expression rather than the content of belief. Republican Simon Snyder defeated Ross in Pennsylvania's 1808 gubernatorial election by nearly twenty-eight thousand votes. Like many Federalist politicians of the era, Ross stopped pursuing public office. He spent the rest of his life practicing law in western Pennsylvania. Although Ross was not defeated only because of his purported disdain for Christianity, Pennsylvania Federalists exerted considerable energy defending him. Rumors such as those surrounding dogs, James Ross, and the Christian sacraments thus suggest more than a heated partisan political culture.
The accusation against Ross in 1808 was but one episode in the early republic's larger history of infidel controversies. In a strict sense, infidels were non-Christians, specifically Muslims and Jews, according to traditional Christian usage of the term. Attacks on Ross intimate a more capacious and protean view that an infidel was any person whose religious expressions seemed politically or culturally subversive. Infidel controversies in the early United States are illuminating because they raised questions about the political and cultural consequences of religious opinions more generally as well as the meaning of religious difference in a republic. During infidel controversies, Americans performed the heavy intellectual lifting necessary to render deep differences of religious belief politically tolerable and even useful, but not dangerous.
A broader historical overview is necessary to fully understand the origins of infidel controversies in the political and religious life of the early United States. Within Christian Europe, orthodox authorities of various confessional backgrounds distinguished infidels from heretics. Christian authorities and the general populace often found Muslim and Jewish beliefs repulsive, but the threats to Christian society posed by infidel Muslims and Jews seemed relatively evident and manageable to the Christian authorities who devised ways to keep these groups physically separated from the Christian populace among whom they often lived. The advent of the Jewish ghetto in sixteenth-century Venice was one such solution. Heresy posed a different problem. Heretics were disbelievers within Christian communities. Heretics had received the sacrament of Christian baptism only to reject Christian truths that they once accepted. Heretics were traitors to their faith. Of course charges of heresy or "unorthodoxy" were always subjective despite the clarity or force with which "orthodox" authorities issued them. A heretic to one person is a devotee of true religion to another. Nevertheless, societies throughout the early modern Christian world, including British North America, had laws to punish heresy. Although infidels and heretics were viewed as threats to Christian community, heresy often seemed more subversive because it operated in presumably clandestine ways. By the eighteenth century, especially in England, these two forms of disbelief had merged in larger cultural discourses.
This fusion of infidelity and heresy occurred largely in response to the advent of deism. English writers beginning with Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury in the early seventeenth century but including others such as John Toland, Anthony Collins, Thomas Woolston, and Matthew Tindal articulated the most influential forms of a deist philosophy. Like all religious systems, individual proponents of deism stressed different principles, although nearly all deists agreed on two basic points. They accepted the existence of a God in one form or another, but they rejected Trinitarian theology. Jesus, in their view, was only a human, not the son of God. Second, all deists denied that the Christian Bible contained a special, divine revelation of God's will. At its core, deism was a complete rejection of supernatural revelation in favor of reason as the only source of true religious knowledge. Some deists used these positions to offer moderate calls for the reformation of Christianity. Yet others hoped that deism would entirely overturn Christianity; indeed they believed that deism would destroy all religious systems that included supernatural or metaphysical teachings. Deism's cultural and intellectual profile grew in England, as did its perceived threat to Protestant orthodoxy, at the same time that English society was becoming more tolerant of Christian dissenters. Together, these developments rendered heresy as a theological concept increasingly redundant. Within this context, deism's opponents increasingly labeled it as a form of "infidelity." Yet they attributed the traditional characteristics of heresy to deism—specifically a tendency toward internal religious and political subversion.
English antideists thus responded to deism in part by developing a more protean concept of infidelity. In their hands, infidelity was an umbrella term to denigrate deism by conflating it with all forms of religious disbelief, doubt, and anti-Christian sentiment. So, for example, infidelity might describe a spectrum of opinions from unabashed atheism—outright denials of God's existence—to the most moderate deistic views. Moreover, infidelity still contained elements of its earlier identification with Muslims and Jews, an association that certainly amplified the term's polemic power in a society with a Protestant establishment. Of course deists opposed such acts of intellectual conflation by arguing why their respective position was distinct, especially from atheism. Such protestations usually availed little. By the mid-eighteenth century in England, and in its North American colonies as well, infidelity was a well-established polemic shorthand used in diverse contexts by defenders of majority religious opinions.
Infidelity had a similar meaning and usage in the early national United States. The term was part of the republic's colonial inheritance. It was used for various reasons—both principled and opportunistic—by writers who understood their own beliefs as broadly Christian but viewed their opponents' beliefs as decidedly anti-Christian. This certainly describes the actions of the Pennsylvania Republicans who attacked James Ross in 1808. Such accusations of irreligion were controversial in their own right, however. Newspaper editor Denis Driscol noted that the term "Infidel, means many things." When those who used the word were queried about its meaning "they will answer in the true conjurer's style, it means this, it means that," it is "an unbeliever, a Pagan, a miscreant, one who rejects Christianity." In every instance, Driscol maintained, such charges reflected "the taste, or zeal, or rancor, or bigotry, or ignorance, or superstition of a Christian." Driscol was not a neutral observer, but a vocal Irish deist living in the United States during the early 1800s. In his experience, avoiding "the odious name of infidel" required an unwavering belief "with one sect, that a piece of thin bread, is a substantial and real God! And with all; that three Gods, and one God, are one and the same thing!" Driscol's deist views aside, he characterized usage of the term "infidelity" in ways that would have certainly seemed familiar to English readers several decades earlier. Moreover, he responded to accusations of infidelity in ways long familiar to deists.
As suggested by the Ross incident and Driscol's commentary, infidel controversies in post-Revolutionary America were, at their most common, published and public disputes between deists and antideists. Such conflicts were waged using terms and methods that originated in early modern Europe. However, they unfolded in specific ways shaped by unique legal and cultural changes that affected religion's place in public life after independence. Recounting the story of America's infidel controversies requires constant attention to developments in the early modern Atlantic world that preceded them as well as the unique course they followed as the nation changed politically and culturally.
Understanding infidel controversies also requires an explanation of the reasons and assumptions that drove conflicts between deists and their opponents. Ross's opponents attacked him by stoking fears of what I label "ambient infidelity." Driscol's actions as a deist editor are examples of what I term "lived deism." The former captures a largely cultural product deployed by individuals or groups of broadly Christian beliefs, typically one of the nation's dominant Protestant denominations. Conversely, the latter encompasses the activities of individuals or groups who opposed Christianity on deistic grounds. The two terms describe phenomena that were deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing. "Ambient infidelity" and "lived deism" are thus conceptual devices intended to provide greater specificity and deeper analytical reach to the history of early national infidel controversies. Because these concepts play a central role in this history, they deserve fuller explication.
"Ambient infidelity" describes a prevalent assumption in the early republic that anti-Christian opinions had strong appeal and growing influence even in the absence of large numbers of identifiable infidels. Congregationalist minister John Foster of Cambridge, Massachusetts, expressed a relatively mild version of this view in an 1802 sermon titled Infidelity Exposed, and Christianity Recommended. According to Foster, "I do not believe that very considerable portion of my countrymen have any disposition to discredit or discard the religion of their fathers: but I do verily believe, that they are in great hazard of being unwarily seduced and led astray." As a cultural sense or concern, fears of ambient infidelity had erupted periodically in the Anglo-American world since the late seventeenth century. It was especially evident in the English deist controversies of the 1600s. Worries about ambient infidelity also shared a logic similar to that of anti-Catholicism in the Anglo-Protestant world, which was raucously expressed during Pope's Day celebrations. Such concerns also reflected persistent suspicions of conversos in the Iberio-Atlantic world. In response to this latter preoccupation the papacy authorized Inquisition tribunals to prosecute heresies such as crypto-Judaism. Fears of individuals or groups undermining Christian societies from within were thus embedded in popular culture as well as state and church policy throughout the early modern world.
Much like anti-Catholicism or suspicion of conversos, concerns about ambient infidelity underpinned the conceptual vocabulary early moderns used when debating larger questions about the limits of religious tolerance, about civil society's finite capacity to accommodate conflicting religious ideas, and about the sources of religious truth. Yet ambient infidelity, like its corollaries, was not a generic or stable cultural framework for use in similar ways across time and place. Context gave ambient infidelity its resonance. Concerns over ambient infidelity ignited passionate debates and stirred deep fears in American culture of an altogether different scale following the Revolution. Not without cause. By all accounts, infidelity was on the rise. Specifically, more, not fewer, Americans publicly announced their deism between the 1770s and 1830s.
Thomas Thompson was one such deist. He was born in 1775 on the eve of American independence and by 1829 had abandoned Christianity. Perhaps he embraced deism after reading Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, published in 1794 when Thompson was nineteen. Or maybe Thompson reacted to Federalist attacks on Thomas Jefferson's piety during the contentious election of 1800 by committing himself to the very opinions that the Federalists feared. Thompson may have even found the emotional highs of evangelical revivals and their demands for new birth experiences too psychologically taxing. Regardless, by 1829 he was moderator at the Hall of Science, a prominent two-story building with Greek columns on Broome Street in New York. Located in a former church, the Hall of Science was a venue for critics of Christianity to debate their ideas and a site where Sunday morning gatherings were held as alternatives to church services. The hall's proprietors adorned its windows with pictures of Thomas Paine and William Godwin in order to taunt visitors and employees of the Bible repository located directly across the street. Before Thompson died in Brooklyn in 1852, he had attended "infidel conventions" in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1836 and much larger ones in New York City in 1845 and 1846, where he was appointed manager of the organization that hosted the meetings. Thompson also served as treasurer of the Paine Monument Fund, and as trustee and treasurer of the Free Enquirer's Library Association. The latter organization formed to counter Christian tract societies by publishing and circulating inexpensive editions of writings critical of Christianity, including The Age of Reason and atheistic works by eighteenth-century French philosophes.
Thompson's life offers a window into the larger world of "lived deism," or the circles of deist writers, readers, and observers who figure prominently in the story I tell. These individuals often identified themselves with a host of different titles including "free enquirers," "moral philanthropists," and, depending on their relish for conflict, sometimes even infidels. Members of these circles shared basic deist opinions, so I will refer to them collectively as "deists." Clearly these deists held strong beliefs on religious matters, but they also disbelieved in Christianity. Thus deists are described as "disbelievers" and deism is described as form of "disbelief" at various points in this study. Historian James Turner has argued that atheism and other forms of disbelief became intellectually conceivable in America during the late 1700s but gained real power only in the next century. However, the growing public profile of American deists after the Revolution demonstrates that the intellectual resources to disbelieve in Christianity and the opportunities for individuals to publicly proclaim their disbelief expanded well before the late nineteenth century. From the late 1700s onward, American deists formed voluntary associations and debate clubs, and they issued a flow of orations, pamphlets, and periodicals. The advent of institutions to support deist circles—the infrastructure of lived deism—thus marked a shifting center of acceptable belief and expression in American public life.
This shift was evident in, but also brought about by, the new opportunities to publish and associate in early national life. As Americans in general printed and joined more frequently, so too did deists. In 1800 there was one deistic newspaper in the United States, Temple of Reason. By 1830 New York City alone had two, and others were published in Boston, Philadelphia, Poughkeepsie, and St. Louis over the course of the decade. Some of these newspapers circulated widely. The Free Enquirer, for example, had subscribers in over one-half of the states and in Canada. The same held true for societies. In the 1790s a handful of deistic clubs and societies were established. By the 1830s most cities with deist newspapers also hosted associations whose members organized debates and celebrated Thomas Paine's birthday.
Though relatively few in number, these deists profoundly influenced how Americans viewed the relationship between religious belief and political actions. Deist involvement in public life inspired a large literature by their opponents. These texts compose a body of religious polemic concerned with infidelity's presence, real and imagined, in American culture. In these texts, and through the public controversies they engendered, the realm of "lived deism" fueled ever-widening concerns about "ambient infidelity" and how best to combat it. Deists often responded by seeking ways to expand their public power. Conflicts between deists and their opponents, or over the larger implications of deism's presence in American life, occurred in an array of settings. These included the formal political realms of constitutional deliberation, legislative enactments, and electoral competition, but also in civil society: specifically in the press, associations, and public celebrations central to the nation's civic life. Mapping the world of lived deism and its relationship to ambient infidelity thus illuminates the implications of abstract changes in religious epistemology by anchoring them firmly in the early republic's political culture.
For participants and observers, infidel controversies in the early republic ultimately registered both optimism and anxiety about Christianity's prospects in the new United States. Contemporaries clearly believed that the implications of deism reached broadly throughout American society. For this reason alone, infidel controversies deserve to have their story told. Yet the history of these controversies also provides opportunities to reconsider larger developments in early national religion and politics.
Evangelical Protestantism has dominated the attention of scholars who explore the relationship between religion and politics in the revolutionary era. Historians have argued for dissenting evangelicalism's contribution to the development of opposition ideas and republican ideology before the Revolution. Others have extended these arguments into the nineteenth century by identifying the influence of republicanism and the Revolution's broader intellectual and political legacy on American religion—including theology and ecclesiology, but also popular religious experience.
The activities of a Thomas Thompson or the rumors about James Ross are largely unaccountable in religious histories that emphasize democratization. This, however, largely reflects an assumed narrative within much of this scholarship about the relationship between political developments and religious change. Arguments for the democratization of early national religious life take for granted that over time religious disestablishment—at both federal and state levels—led fairly seamlessly to expansions of religious liberty for all. With these legal and political changes as the backdrop, popular evangelical movements propelled by expanding opportunities for the faithful to organize and believe can easily be viewed as the driving force behind early national religious change. The Thompson and Ross examples thus seem largely anomalous or distinctly marginal when viewed from this interpretive perspective.
The history of public and published infidel controversies suggests an alternative understanding of religious change in the early republic. By highlighting the presence of disbelievers in Christianity, these conflicts cast the history of American religion along a spectrum of belief and disbelief. Recognizing this, historians should not view deism as a minor exception to larger religious trends, but as constitutive of these developments in key ways. Specifically, the actions of early national deists and the larger discourse surrounding infidelity helped create a sturdy cultural boundary between acceptable and unacceptable religious expression in a largely Protestant culture. Against this boundary, virtually any set of Christian beliefs or practices could gain the protection of religious liberty, even those that may have seemed radical in earlier periods. Individual denominations or believers who set themselves apart from or against infidelity's spread, and the deists who contributed to it, found a crucial way of achieving public legitimacy and acceptance. In an era of expanding religious liberty, infidelity was a political liability. Opponents challenged infidelity in order to police the moral content of public life. Infidel controversies thus highlight how the expansion of religious freedom created its own forms of religious intolerance.
In developing this central theme, An Age of Infidels incorporates insights from several recent studies of religion in early modern Europe that distinguish between religious "tolerance" and religious "toleration." As this scholarship demonstrates, tolerance describes the ways that people of differing religious opinions behaved toward each other. Cultural sentiments often guided tolerance in practice. Religious tolerance was related to but fundamentally different from religious "toleration," which was a state policy of indulgence toward religious dissenters from the established church in a given nation. Recent scholarship on early American religion has benefited from this capacious definition of religious tolerance. Historians of religion during the colonial and early national periods have demonstrated that the faithful of various denominations often prioritized civil order over limitless religious expression. Legal historians have developed this interpretation even further by demonstrating that understandings of religious liberty in the early republic were fully compatible with means for coercing religious conformity and practicing religious intolerance.
An Age of Infidels expands but also qualifies this basic insight. Deists and their opponents were equally willing to take action in order to limit the ability, if not the right, of their opponents to publicly express their religious opinions. I see early national politics as the arena in which Americans deployed arguments and utilized institutions in efforts to enhance the public power of their respective religious opinions. Because infidel controversies often involved participants seeking ways to expand or limit religious tolerance on cultural and social terms, they erupted in states with very different religious histories. So, for example, infidelity proved equally troublesome in Massachusetts, where established religion existed until 1833, as it did in North Carolina, which ended its religious establishment without controversy in 1776. However, arguments for a "moral" or an "informal" establishment largely assume that Americans of dominant faiths reached fairly easy agreement about what "Christianity," a "Christian" moral code, or "Protestantism" meant. This too was a product of historical circumstances in need of explanation.
Such agreement was difficult to achieve during the colonial period and only relatively less so as the nineteenth century progressed. The early republic's infidel controversies often forced agreement on matters of faith. Infidelity—as a limit to tolerable expression, as the periphery of the acceptable—helped believers of various denominations define themselves in more general or generically "Christian" terms. Belief and disbelief were symbiotic in this way. Through opposition to infidelity, general concepts of "Protestantism" or even "Christianity" provided the faithful a meaningful identity and an effective source of public engagement amid rapid social and religious changes. Even notions of a "Christian nation" seemed desirable to the pious of many denominational backgrounds, despite centuries of sectarian divisions within Christianity, if the alternative might be an "infidel nation." Rather than understanding changing ideas about religious tolerance and intolerance as primarily legal developments, infidel controversies show these changes under way in the larger culture as shaped and experienced by people who might never directly encounter the legal system. In these more popular settings, Americans put their varied ideas about religious tolerance into practice. New latitude for religious freedom thus amplified Americans' commitments to using political means—especially the republic's expanding webs of print and associations—to publicly bolster and promote their particular version of religious truth. Understanding infidel controversies as a mode of politics thus illuminates how competing notions of religious truth and acceptability were invented, redefined, and pursued in public life.
Two interconnected developments worked to push infidel controversies firmly into the political arena. The first concerned a broad intellectual change: the redefinition of religion as a concept in the early modern West whereby faith became a matter of opinion. The second involved the relationship between a redefined concept of religion and changes within American political culture. Contemporaries clearly recognized that both developments transformed religious knowledge into a product of early national politics. "Religion," Pennsylvania editor George Kline quipped in 1808, "seems to be made up of the whole soul and body of Proteus, who could change himself into any shape as need required." Religion could be whatever belief or necessity demanded. Religion as a concept stripped of common principles, absolute truths, sacred texts, doctrines, or shared beliefs seemingly had the greatest political purchase in the early republic. Kline issued his observations during the same gubernatorial campaign in which James Ross's deism was a central issue. However, Kline's reference to the protean nature of religion reflected monumental epistemological changes that originated in early modern Europe.
With the advent of Protestantism, religion was increasingly defined in terms of propositions as well as piety or practices. In this view, religious knowledge was equivalent to all other forms of knowledge in that it was open to discussion, exploration, and either personal acceptance or rejection. This change occurred through Protestants' attempts to defend their faith against deist critiques, but also as an outgrowth of Protestantism's spiritual emphasis on personal salvation. From the seventeenth century onward, Christian apologists and theologians, especially in England, viewed deism as a threat and defended their faith accordingly. In particular, deist opponents pushed Christians to defend the Bible's veracity and Christian revelation on rational grounds. Empiricism, inductive reasoning, and an aversion to metaphysical speculation defined Christian attempts to assert the reasonableness of their faith in light of deist critiques. The rising appeal of Arminianism in the Anglo-Protestant world also changed religious knowledge. As a doctrinal alternative to predestination, Arminianism posited that people could work effectively toward salvation. American understandings of religion were affected by this change because Arminianism became a dominant influence on Protestant theology and religious experience as the nineteenth century progressed.
These developments in Christian thinking overlapped with and were influenced by broader intellectual changes in the early national United States. In various settings, individual judgment and public opinion became the arbiters of personal truths. The origins of this cultural theme were already evident by the mid-1700s. During this period, provincial Americans were dazzled, bemused, amused, and challenged by a succession of charismatic figures who traveled throughout North America offering public demonstrations of scientific and technological devices. Ebenezer Kinnersely was an eighteenth-century Baptist minister and scientific experimenter originally from England who entertained and educated colonials by demonstrating the workings of electrical power. His exhibitions famously sacrificed the lives of unfortunate hounds for the sake of science. In the early 1800s, entertainer John Rannie traveled the United States using ventriloquism to amuse his audience, but also to undermine Christian teachings by demonstrating that signs of demons and the supernatural were easily re-created by humans, often as a form of trickery. Ordinary Americans thus encountered public critiques of knowledge, including religious knowledge, in a context that encouraged participation and questioned traditional intellectual authorities. As general knowledge claims became products of public debate and spectacle, so too did religious beliefs.
This development was both liberating and highly disconcerting. In terms of religion, this change allowed new possibilities for religious association and new latitude for religious belief; but it also caused a dizzying proliferation of religious sects and opened new conceptual spaces for religious doubt. New levels of religious uncertainty accompanied religious freedom. People became freer to determine their own religious truths, but this increased the demand to engage public life in defense of one's beliefs. Americans developed their politics of religious controversy in order to accommodate personal religious opinions to a culture in which the meaning of religion was not fixed.
Uncertainty over the meaning of religion forced individuals of all opinions to pursue their religious beliefs differently in the public sphere. As Robert Dale Owen—editor of the deist weekly Free Enquirer and future congressman from Indiana—expressed in 1829, "When I speak of the times being more liberal, I do not mean that men differ less in opinion, but that they are learning how to differ." Many Christians of various denominational backgrounds also adopted the view that private beliefs, or even disbelief, were sacrosanct. As Americans in the early republic distinguished personal religious opinions, and the individuals who held them, from religion as a social or political phenomenon, religion became less personal. A commentator in Western Examiner, a deist weekly published in St. Louis, acknowledged as much. Expanding Owen's general observation, "It is with Christianity and not with Christians, we would war,—with the system, and, further than fair discussion may go, not with its supporters." Religious controversy therefore lost much of its potential for violence as religious knowledge became a political commodity open to debate according to the prevailing standards of civil discourse. Of course religious conflict did not subside, yet those engaged in such disputes were forced to do so in ways compatible with the era's larger political changes.
New standards of political legitimacy also influenced early national religious conflicts. In the postrevolutionary United States, public deliberation replaced sacred authority as the measure of legitimate government and politics. In a public sphere premised on persuasion, absolute religious truth lacked the moral or political sway that had existed in a political system premised on the authority of divine right or sacred texts. Persuasion was the public sphere's dominant value, exercised in its core institutions—newspapers and voluntary associations. Religious knowledge thus also became subject to persuasion and popular opinion in a public sphere where appeals to metaphysical authority increasingly rang hollow. Deists and their opponents alike sought ways to convince the majority of their fellow citizens not involved in their disputes that their respective religious opinions were both true and consequential. The protagonists in the republic's infidel controversies also hoped to persuade enough Americans that their opponents' religious views could not be tolerated, or at least denied popular approbation. As Boston minister Hubbard Winslow recognized in 1835, "[I]t is public opinion, that is to elevate our civil institutions to the throne of God, or to sink them and us into heathenism."
Winslow's observation highlights how the history of infidel controversies contributes to a better understanding of religion's fit within a concept of the public sphere. Religion is noticeably absent in Jürgen Habermas's initial theorization of the public sphere. Scholars have recently sought to correct this oversight, especially by focusing on the history of religious controversy. David Zaret and James Van Horn Melton have demonstrated that post-Reformation religious controversies in Europe not only mirrored but also advanced the values and institutions around which Habermas described the emergence of a critical public sphere within civil society. Reason, critical investigation, and public opinion as a political and cultural arbiter articulated within associations and the press were all crucial components of Habermas's public sphere. Writing about religious controversy in early modern England, Zaret argues that "[p]opular developments in Protestantism created a public sphere in religion that cultivated nearly the same critical, rational habits of thought that Habermas locates in the public spheres of politics and letters." Moreover, Van Horn Melton describes theological controversies over Pietism in eighteenth-century Germany in which protagonists increasingly attempted to persuade and convert their opponents rather than judge or condemn them. This, Van Horn Melton argues, shows a fusion of religious belief with largely secular ideals of public deliberation.
Of course the early American republic was markedly different from either Reformation-era England or eighteenth-century Germany, but these scholars offer suggestive insights for understanding the relationship between religious controversy and developing civic life in the early United States. This is especially relevant considering E. Brooks Holifield's detailed argument for deism's role in pushing Christian writers to publicly defend their beliefs through stronger appeals to reason and persuasion. Deist attacks on Christianity proceeded in much the same way. Early national controversies between deists and their opponents thus provide an ideal window into the ways Americans pursued their religious opinions within an expanding public realm of newspapers and associations. As John L. Brooke has demonstrated in exhaustive detail, civil society in the early republic differed most significantly from its European counterparts by the degree to which it developed in cooperation with the state rather than in opposition to it. In its cooperative potential, civil society was an important site of political reform and self-governance. Indeed civil society was largely a creation of the state through laws passed by national and local governments. Religious controversies within civil society thus often involved efforts by individuals or groups to impress their moral views on the exercise of state power at the local and national levels. As a result, religious controversies within civil society were pursued on behalf of larger moral aims that could turn coercive and intolerant as each side used the press, associations, and appeals to public opinion on behalf of their combined understanding of religious truth and national destiny. As An Age of Infidels demonstrates, infidel controversies reveal moments when religious power and religious intolerance were especially evident and operative in early national public life.
This study explores infidel controversies from the 1770s to the 1840s. The first four chapters cover the period from 1770 to 1810. Together they address the federal Constitution's relative silence on matters of religion, a silence that transformed philosophical questions about sources of religious knowledge into contentious political questions about the social and cultural limits of acceptable religious expression. The remaining three chapters cover the years from 1810 to 1840 and explain how and why Americans promoted and enforced notions of religious truth by engaging civil society.
Due to the public and published nature of the infidel controversies studied during this period, many of the events discussed in An Age of Infidels took place in northern towns and cities where population densities were higher and print networks more developed. Moreover, the forms of Christianity that deists most opposed were often those that were strongest in the North, such as institutional moral reform. Despite the local nature of many infidel controversies, those involved on all sides often attached national importance to the issues at stake.
One additional caveat is necessary about the scope of An Age of Infidels. I have decided not to address early national religious controversies surrounding Catholicism or Mormonism in any sustained way. There is already a voluminous literature on these relatively well-known subjects. Far less has been written on the subject of infidel controversies. However, the early republic's infidel controversies do reveal larger themes relevant to both. Two of the era's most infamous acts of religious violence suggest why. In August 1834, two days of anti-Catholic rioting in Boston resulted in a Protestant mob burning down the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. A decade later and farther west, a mob in Carthage, Illinois, pulled Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, from his jail cell and murdered him. Part of the animus toward Smith stemmed from fears about his political ambitions and the perceived public power of Mormonism from its base in Nauvoo, Illinois. The shift from content to context as source of early national religious controversy is evident in both of these events. Participants in the Charlestown and Carthage events did not use violence to change the minds of individual believers. In both instances intolerance for unpopular religious opinions generated action against the highly public, physical manifestations of these opinions. By the 1830s, America's infidel controversies had already demonstrated the efficacy of, and need for, such reactions.
Religious controversy, as a constellation of ideas and practices, allowed Americans to maintain the public authority of religious belief within early national civic life. Important changes in the relationship between religion and the public sphere in the early United States thus did not occur only or even largely through legislation or in the courts. Rather, these changes occurred in the less rarefied realm of popular politics and civil society. Although church and state were legally separated by 1840, religion and politics were recombined in powerful and lasting ways.