19 January 2012

The Question of Christian Influence at America's Beginning

I just completed reading Jerome Dean Mahaffey's The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America (Baylor Press, 2011).  First I want to say it was a good read.  Mahaffey has a pleasing style and keeps the book moving at a nice pace.  It's a quick read (192 pages), but long enough to get you well acquainted with Whitefield.

Whitefield is one of my favorite characters from colonial American history.  He was the first American celebrity, known throughout the colonies via his preaching and newspapers.  He attracted massive crowds, introduced innovations in preaching that we take for granted today, was controversial, interdenominational before there was such a thing, and has to be the most odd Anglican preacher in history.  He is truly a fascinating character.  If you know little of Whitefield, you need to read this book.

What most interests me about this book is the thesis that Mahaffey picks up.  His argument is not a new one.  Alan Heimert first argued for a causative relationship between the Great Awakening (in which Whitefield was a primary leader) and the American Revolution in his 1966 book Religion and the American Mind, from the Great Awakening to the Revolution.  Mahaffey essentially repackages this idea in his treatment of Whitefield and I think he makes some points worth consideration. 

An interesting yet elusive question for historians is this: How much did religious ideas inform and shape the dissent among American colonists from 1760-1776 and the eventual push for separation from England?  Mahaffey wants to ascribe considerable influence to revivalistic evangelical Christianity in general, and to George Whitefield in particular.  It's an intriguing connection, but is this the historical reality?

If you read Mahaffey you may be convinced that he and Heimert are on to something.  With the evidence he gives from Whitefield's preaching, you may easily draw the conclusion that religious ideas in his preaching ultimately translated into political ideas that motivated the colonists to revolution.  However, I think this may be just an appearance and not a cause.  Another possibility is that philosophical and political ideas were invading and shaping Christianity in subtle and progressive ways.  So, that by the time we arrive at the Revolution many religious figures and political figures have a great deal of vocabulary and ideas in common.  One influence that Mahaffey does not, in my opinion, give sufficient credit to is the influence of Enlightenment thinkers of the post-Reformation period.  Protestant Christianity still dominated the English-speaking world, but it was a Christianity under the influence of the Enlightenment or at least in engagement with it.  Some Christians rejected many aspects of the Enlightenment and some allowed its ideas to transform traditional views into new categories (e.g. Deism and Unitarianism).  Many more I believe found something new in a kind of fusion of Enlightenment and Christian ideas that seemed compatible.

I believe that there can be no doubt about the presence and influence of Protestant Christianity during the founding period of the United States.  However, the question I continue to wrestle with is to what degree that influence may have been.  The more I look into it, the more I see Enlightenment influence as well, especially on many of those who were primary political shapers.  I certainly don't think it is an either/or choice.  It's a matter of figuring out which influence was primary and which one was secondary.  It's a matter of discerning which had a greater shaping influence on the other.  

Let me also invite you to read Christian America? Perspectives on Our Religious Heritage.  I had the privilege to conceive, edit and contribute to this work.  The contributors offer different interpretations about the influence of Christianity during America's founding.  I think its an important and interesting discussion.  Seeing our past more clearly, helps us understand why things are the way they are now.  And, I believe helps us chart a more intelligent and faithful approach to impacting our culture now.  I hope you'll give it a read.  You won't agree with much of it guaranteed, but that is sort of the point.  It's a conversation of different voices on the subject interacting with one another.  I invite you to make your own evaluation and join the conversation. 


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