American Studies Seminar - 2012

Reason, Revival, and Revolution:
Religion in America's Founding, 1726-1792

The role of religion in the founding of the American Republic is one of the most contentious historical and political issues of our time. As Presidential candidates vie to persuade voters of their religious fervor, religious denominations undertake unprecedented lobbying and electoral action, and the Supreme Court blurs "the separation of church and state," two different historical accounts of religion in Revolutionary society have also emerged in scholarly discourse.

One interprets the Founders as Enlightenment rationalists dedicated to creating a secular republic free of religious entanglement; the other envisions them as men of abiding personal faith, whose belief in the Bible and a divine national purpose carried them through the crisis of revolution and provided the moral underpinnings of the Constitutional order. These views are deeply rooted in national myth and political ideology as well as in substantial historical evidence. To what extent is either of them true, or does a critical understanding of religion in Revolutionary society require a different approach altogether?

The 2012 AAS American Studies Seminar addressed these complex questions by examining the development of religious culture in the eighteenth century and its interaction with Revolutionary politics from the Stamp Act Crisis through the Bill of Rights. The class read and discussed essential primary sources from the Great Awakening, Evangelical and Liberal theologies of the mid-18th century, Patriot and Tory religious propaganda, and the campaign for religious liberty culminating in the First Amendment's Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. Our eighteenth-century authors included Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Chauncy, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Along the way the class considered recent landmark historical interpretations of religion and the Revolution..

The seminar was lead by Stephen A. Marini, Elisabeth Luce Moore Professor of Christian Studies and Professor of American Religion and Ethics Wellesley College.

Professor Marini is author of Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (Harvard University Press, 1982/1988/2000) and numerous articles on colonial and Early American religious culture. He served as Series Advisor and Onscreen Principal for the PBS documentary God in America (October 2010) and is founder of Norumbega Harmony, an internationally acclaimed choral ensemble specializing in New England sacred music of the colonial and Early National periods. He has held appointments as Director of American Studies at Wellesley and Visiting Professor at Harvard and Yale Divinity Schools, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Andover Newton Theological School. He is currently completing a new book on religion, music, and transatlantic culture in colonial South Carolina.

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