God's Kingdom in the American Republic: New Studies in Region, Religion, and Revolution

AHA Session 277
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Governor's Square 15 (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Sam Haselby, Columbia University
Sam Haselby, Columbia University

Session Abstract

For America’s first full citizens, the Revolution and the birth of the republic was a religious event, sparking regional shifts in Protestant thought, organization, and practice. As the country took shape, what was the cultural ratio of influence between denomination and nation? How did local churches support the godly republicanism needed to sustain a fragile union while modifying older, English ways of worship? This panel interrogates diverse sources (prayer books, parish records, state constitutions), thereby recapturing the small-scale debates over liturgical changes, institutional incorporation, and political leadership that infused early federal growth. The crusade to independence heralded a firm national identity, but the boundaries between religion and politics remained particularly porous at the local level. Between the 1770s and 1790s, America’s Christian communities formed a busy contact zone of new ideas, realities, and rites. Working as microhistorical mirrors, our three case studies of regional faith yield candid views of a “chosen nation” in transition. Taken together, these portraits of northern and southern print culture, political economy, and theological invention reflect key clashes in the arena of church and state.

Our panel reconsiders these interactions through a set of case studies that stretches from Boston Anglicans to Chesapeake evangelicals. Moving from the “lived religion” of edited prayer books to the thorny incorporation of church authority, we end with a fuller analysis of the Christian “vision” imprinted in constitutional law and contested by clergy. First, Sara Georgini explores the evolving role and content of prayer books in the years leading up to separation from Britain, by showing how colonists (literally) marginalized the king and deleted most communal rites celebrating the principle of “divine” monarchy. Next, Roy Rogers parses the local consequences of the new republic’s political economy, by outlining the complex and understudied process of parishes’ incorporation in Virginia and Maryland. Finally, Benjamin Park examines the political theologies underpinning the main arguments launched in favor of central, federal authority and how they played out in local and transatlantic contexts. We hope to continue the conversation on how citizens chose to embed their “Christianities” in letters and law, once the Revolution’s fervor passed. We reconsider how their new prayers, business models, and constitutional drafts served to reshape religious identity within widening frameworks of local and national experience. Sam Haselby, whose scholarship on the origins and outcomes of American Christianity and nationalism has guided our work, will serve as commentator and chair.

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