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


American Antiquarian Society
185 Salisbury Street
Worcester, MA 01609
United States

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 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 following research papers were written by students in the 2012 seminar, under the supervision of Professor Stephen A. Marini, the Elisabeth Luce Moore Professor of Christian Studies and Professor of American Religion and Ethics Wellesley College

  • "The Life and Works of Samuel Langdon: An Illustration of the Congregationalist-Federalist Affiliation in 1790s New England," by Daniel Boudreau
  • "Extra! Extra! Read All About Him! Rev. George Whitefield and His Portrayal in the Pro and Anti-Revivalist Newspapers in Boston," by Bridget Bowman
  • "Let Freedom Ring: Baptists and Their Fight for Religious Freedom in Massachusetts," by Colleen Bowman
  • "The Boston Tea Party," by Kathryn Buckley
  • "Action and Philosophy: Revealing the Theology of Ethan Allen," by James Cavanagh
  • "A Comparative Study of the Deism of Three Founding Fathers," by Kate Davis
  • "Revival narratives: The Development of a Standard Model of Literary Genre," by Elena Despotopulos
  • "To React or Resist: Reasoning Through Charles Chauncy's 'Seasonable Mind'," by Kulani Dias
  • "Influencing Childhood Conversions in the Awakening: Isaac Watt's Children's Poetry and Jonathan Edward's Narrative," by Gianna Gugliotti
  • "New Light Missionaries: The Effects of the Great Awakening upon Missions to Native Peoples," by John Hanebuth
  • "What was New England's Baptist Political Persuasion during the Revolutionary Period? What Influenced their Political Opinion and How was it Altered by the Religious Oppression They Faced by Congregationalists?" by Colleen Murphy
  • "Patriot Ministers of South Carolina," by Samuel Nye
  • "The Religious Views of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson," by Miranda Raine
Seminar Leader