Archive for May, 2011

Jon Butler. Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

When I was writing a review of Jon Butler’s Awash in the Sea of Faith in graduate school in the winter of 2009, I went through several drafts. At one point, I had an opening sentence that went something like this: “If revisionism were a religion, Jon Butler would be the chief priest.” I eventually settled on something else (I recycled that review for my latest classic review in case you are interested in reading it), but Awash in a Sea of Faith really left an impression on me and I most admired Butler’s in-your-face style of revisionism that took no prisoners and challenged the reader to seriously reconsider the past. With that in mind, I started reading Becoming America with certain expectations. In this later book, Butler argued that changes in British North America between 1680 and 1770 constituted a revolution and thus “shaped the Revolution of 1776, including the social and political upheaval unleashed by independence.” Butler was quick to point out that these changes did not cause the American Revolution, but asserted that changes “created a new society with a distinctive economy, politics, secular life, and religion.” Moreover, other “more subtle and more difficult to elicit” historical changes “created a new public and even private culture, simultaneously willful, materialistic as well as idealistic, driven toward authority and mastery.” Butler cites five broad areas of American life that experienced change and thus rendered the society of the British mainland “modern”: ethnic and national diversity, the emergence of a dynamic domestic and international economy, a political system that foreshadowed modern participatory democracy, the development of a materialistic culture, and religious pluralism. Butler provided a chapter on each of these topics and then a final chapter where he summed things up. There is a lot of useful information in this book that is mercifully short – just under 250 pages. If you are looking for revisionism on the scale of Butler’s other work, you will be sorely disappointed. While I cannot speak for the author, I think that Butler’s goals were less revisionist and more synthetic – that is gathering up decades worth of historical writing and synthesizing it all in one narrative to therefore give historians a jumping off point for future inquiry. Butler does a heroic job of sorting through years of research and writing from scholarly journals, monographs, dissertations, and essay collections and presenting the information in a cogent and readable format. Gordon Wood called this book a tour de force. I, on the other hand, found the book rather bland and disappointing – sort of like going to a fancy restaurant and ordering an expensive steak that turns out to overcooked and underseasoned.

I think much of the problem lies with Butler’s synthetic approach. It is clear to me that the book was intended to pull together a vast array of historical research. While I am by no means an expert on the era in question, I have read a number of the very articles and books that Butler drew from. Take, for example, Butler’s first chapter entitled “Peoples.” Here Butler gives a broad overview (too broad in my opinion) of the various groups in America in 1680 and those that arrived over the course of the next 90 years. Historians have written a great deal about this very subject. Scholars have also endlessly debated what effect economic changes had on the colonies and if they were indeed signs of an emerging capitalist economy. Likewise, academics have produced volumes of material on colonial politics and religion. Material culture analysis has emerged over the past few decades and become an interesting field of inquiry for historians with have anthropological impulses. In short, what Butler’s chapters have in common is that they are all synthetic historiographic overviews that find their origins in the research of other historians (let me clear – there is nothing necessarily wrong with doing this). The problem I find here is that Butler did not put forth any section of the book (save his conclusion) that was uniquely “his,” methodologically or conceptually. Or, put another way, Butler did not set his own research agenda and so the whole book feels forced to me. I don’t feel the passion from Butler that I felt when I read Awash in a Sea of Faith. Instead, what we have here is a sometimes dry and tedious monograph that helps iron out a few historiographic wrinkles, but doesn’t open up any new or exciting doors for the field. Moreover, Butler’s thesis hinges on the five elements that went into making Colonial America “modern.” The author did not actually define what he meant by the term modern (if this book had been a doctoral dissertation, he would have been made to define that important word if he wanted to graduate). Are these five elements – ethnic diversity, dynamic economies, materialism, religious pluralism, and participatory politics – the only indicators of a “modern” society? Or are they even recognized as such by some kind of historiographic consensus? Modernity means many different things to many different scholars – Butler’s modernity is not the same thing that a scholar of the industrial revolution would write about. Overall, I think Butler is convincing that in the 90 years between 1680 and 1770 British North America was transformed by the factors he described, but I think he simultaneously oversells and undersells his hand at the same time. There are five generally well-argued chapters that do seem forced and yet at the same time I wanted new evaluation of evidence that offered something groundbreaking like Butler’s earlier book. The result is that Becoming America is both heavy-handed and sadly disjointed.

There are still more objections to raise to some of Butler’s specific points. I’ll discuss one of them. In Chapter One, Butler takes time to discuss different European immigrants to North America in all of their ethnic diversity: Germans, English, Scots, Irish, French, and Jews. He discusses various Indian tribes broadly and, if nothing else, acknowledges their great diversity even if he doesn’t really give them the treatment they deserve. And Butler discusses people who were forced to immigrate from Africa to be slaves in North America. He contends that “after 1700 and down to the American Revolution, Africans constituted the largest group of arrivals in the colonies and outstripped all European immigrants combined.” To discuss a half-dozen or so groups of various European immigrants and then to lump all Africans into one group is absolutely infuriating because Butler knows better. While he does mention a few of different African tribes in one sentence, he mostly talks about African immigrants so monolithically that you would think they were all basically the same if you didn’t know any better. The continent of  Africa was (and is) extraordinarily diverse. Furthermore, the regions of Africa that supplied slaves to North America were ethnically diverse. There was an emerging historical literature on this subject when Butler published Becoming America eleven years ago. Later, in the chapter on religion, Butler finally acknowledges the diversity of African in a sort of off-handed way when describing an African “spiritual holocaust.” In a way, this acknowledgement of African diversity came so quickly, I wondered if he wasn’t throwing it in there because of negative comments from peer-reviewers. More clearly acknowledging the diversity of African slaves in America would allow Butler to explain that underlying the experience of slavery were conditions that made human bondage even more difficult because of uniquely African cultural considerations. For example, slaves were often grouped in slave ships or on plantations with people from other ethnic groups. It’s one thing to be a black slave in the South in 1750 – quite another if you consider some of the people on the plantation where you are forced to work might not even speak the same language you do or, worse yet, might come from a tribe that was recently at war with your own. In addition to African political hatred, cultural and religious differences abounded among slaves. When you consider that, it understandable that a pan-black identity took at least a hundred years to develop among slaves in the South and the forced mingling of these often hostile groups could help explain why blacks experienced Butler’s spiritual “holocaust.” Little cohesion would certainly not lend to the survival of religious systems. If you are interested in this topic, the best book on the subject that I’ve read is Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill, 1998). Be warned that this is a good book, but it is very difficult reading in places (especially the introduction).

I have to remind myself to be very cautious to not be overly critical towards Butler – I always try to be even-handed when I write these things. Butler is a really great historian and much of what we know about American religious history has dramatically changed because of his research and writing. I was hoping that Butler could catch lightning in a bottle and do that the same with Becoming America that he did with Awash in a Sea of Faith, but he fell short. Nevertheless, I have to admit that Butler’s efforts simply to synthesize and potentially redirect a vast array of research is something that few historians could have accomplished much better. Perhaps  my misgivings with Becoming America have more to do with the business of synthesis than with this book specifically. I certainly hope so and I will remember Butler for his brilliant revisionism in Awash in a Sea of Faith rather than this courageous but otherwise disappointing effort.


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Normally I post my “classic” reviews randomly. I usually just want to post something on my blog and I go through my old files until I hit on one that I feel like sharing. There is actually a specific reason I’m posting my old (and upon rereading it, rather uninspired) review of Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith. I am currently reading Butler’s Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 (2000) and I can’t help but be astonished at stark differences of the two books – Awash in a Sea of Faith is in-your-face revisionism that makes the reader reconsider everything they think they know about America’s religious origins. It is truly a masterpiece and is on most comprehensive exam reading lists throughout the country. Becoming America, which I will likely review for this blog in the next week or so, is very readable and broadly appealing, but quite dull when compared to the other book. I’m not done with Becoming America just yet, so I had better hold off judgment for now. But so far, I think I’m going to be disappointed with Becoming America if I choose to tease out these comparisons.

You’ll have a few days to wait to see what I end up doing with my review of Becoming America, but until then I hope you enjoy this review of Awash in a Sea of Faith that I wrote for Richard Starnes’ course on Nineteenth Century America. I highly recommend the book to anybody interested in America’s religious origins – a topic that always seems relevant to 21st century political and social discourse in the USA.

Jon Butler. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith is nothing if not provocative. In a carefully framed study, Butler effectively lays to rest any historiographical assumptions that American religious history has been a story of declension. Where historians and laymen have seen Puritan New England as the high point of American religiosity that later declined after 1700, Butler finds that between the founding of British North America and the Civil War, American religious history is a story of ascension. Although Awash in a Sea of Faith is perhaps designed as a wake-up call to those who suggest that American was founded as a ‘Christian nation’ and call for a return to a mythic past, the book is also a historiographic revelation. Perhaps the most important piece of Butler’s work is his definition of religion: “[a] belief in and resort to superhuman powers, sometimes beings, that determine the course of natural and human events” (pg. 3). For Butler, religion transcends organized religious bodies and their various theologies. Religion can include witchcraft, the occult, astrology, and a host of other ideas. These various religious beliefs, as Butler defines them, had deep roots in Europe and still remain with us today. This definition allows him to seriously look at links between the occult and Christianity in a meaningful way.

Butler finds that by 1700, the survival of American Christianity was in grave danger. There were simply too many different religious beliefs and groups in British North America. Declension seemed inevitable. There were some early religious successes, the most important being a systematic “spiritual holocaust” (pp. 129-30) that quashed religious systems from Africa. While minimizing the importance of the Great Awakening, Butler stresses that the successful establishment of Anglican and Congregational denominations before 1776 proved critical in maintaining Christianity in the colonies. This success, Butler insists rested on the coercive power of religion, a theme he frequently returns to throughout the text. While the Revolution threatened religions, they would thrive in the antebellum period. Various religions such as Methodism, Mormonism, slave belief systems, and spiritualism displayed syncretic tendencies that made their radical elements more mainstream but still ensured religious heterogeneity. Finally, disestablishment of state religion, the ratification of the First Amendment, and the increasingly bureaucratization of various denominations, led to and protected the polyglot of voluntary religious organizations that typified the nation on the eve of the Civil War. 

Butler’s definition of religion is sufficiently inclusive enough to allow him to undertake such a vast study. Discussions of the occult, dreams, magic, and Dissenters make it clear that early America was extraordinarily diverse beyond innumerable Christian sects. The title of the book perfectly captures the religious reality of early America: turbulent, incredibly vast, and seemingly headed for disaster. Furthermore, the subtitle indicates the outcome of this turbulent diversity: America ultimately became Christianized, but never in a homogenous or monolithic sense. Butler’s definition, while it allows spectacular analytical possibilities, also presents problems because of its inclusiveness. Any omissions of important groups or religions become glaring. For example, the role of Native American belief systems in shaping American religion, as Butler defines it, is almost entirely neglected. Any work dealing with the period before 1815 must give due perspective to the Amerindian influence on both white and black society.

All reservations aside, Awash in a Sea of Faith succeeds in posing as many questions as it answers. Butler’s book, unlike any other recent monograph, sets an agenda for the study of American religion. On a fundamental level, Butler forces historians rethink just what constitutes ‘religion.’ No less important, by turning out focus away from Puritan New England in favor of the complex religious diversity in early America, historians will find that Butler’s ascension thesis offers a great amount of opportunity for further historical inquiry.

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John Wigger. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

If Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury, who has been dead for almost 200 years, knew that the definitive biography of him would contain the world “saint” in the title in reference to him, he’d roll over in his grave. For a man who devoted his life fully (and I mean absolutely 100% from early adulthood until his death) to a thoroughly protestant religion, it is difficult for me to understand why the author, John Wigger, would tag Asbury with a Roman Catholic title. Nothing against Catholics, you understand, but the title of this biography seems wildly inappropriate for the subject considered. American Saint is doubly ironic when you consider that Asbury was born in England and didn’t come to America until he was in his 20s. On this point, Wigger is on firmer ground. While there is no evidence that Asbury ever really thought of himself as an American, Wigger’s account recovers Asbury from a certain and, in my opinion, inexplicable obscurity he did not deserve and historically placed the bishop where he rightfully belongs – as one of the most important religious leaders in American history. Here Asbury, who Wigger argued was “more recognized face-to-face than any other American of his day, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington,” is a person who played a remarkable role in shaping American culture during the Early National period. I’ve always thought that historians have blandly passed Asbury over as a simpleton who did not warrant too much special attention. Jon Butler’s path-breaking Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Mass., 1990) nodded briefly in Asbury’s direction, but failed to reclaim the importance of a crucially important figure. College classrooms are doing no better. In a course I took on American Religious History under a professor I absolutely adore, there was no mention whatsoever of Asbury (and there was only a brief detour to the subject of Methodism to discuss the schism of 1844). And then there are denominational biographies and histories produced by various denominations over the past 200 years that are now (mostly) under the umbrella of the United Methodist Church. While there are good histories in this category that warrant the attention of serious historians, such as A. V. Huff’s history of the South Carolina United Methodism, it is understandable that these accounts of Asbury or the Asburyan church are shrouded in hagiography and thus are of limited use within the academy. Somewhere along in 2008, I told a colleague of mine that historians desperately needed an Asbury biography. Little did I know that John Wigger had spent the preceeding decade completing such a project. Aside from a misplaced title that sounds as hagiographic as the celebratory stuff the Methodist press has issued, I think that this is an important book for American historians to read and Wigger’s sensitivity to his subject not only redefines what we know about Asbury, but also enhances what we know about American history. Aside from the historiographic importance of the book, this is an elegantly written volume that anybody who has an interest in religion or history (or in my case, both) should read, if for no other reason, to enjoy Wigger’s natural flair for storytelling.

While I always felt that Asbury’s importance was never fully understood by historians, I never asked why. Wigger posits a very good explanation. He writes that “[k]ey figures in American religious history are generally lumped into three camps: charismatic communicators, such as George Whitefield, Charles Finney, or Billy Graham; intellectuals, such as Jonathan Edwards or Reinhold Niebuhr; and domineering autocrats – the way in which Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, is often depicted.” The problem with Asbury, Wigger suggests, is that the bishop doesn’t fall neatly into one of these categories. He was not a particularly good preacher and sometimes he was downright awful in the pulpit. He never published any famous sermons or books that appealed to intellectuals. And while many good historians, including Huff, described Asbury as a domineering figure within the movement, Asbury never fit that mold either because Methodism was a very democratically-oriented demonination (despite its episcopal structure). Wigger convincingly argues that Asbury’s importance lied in his ability to connect with people. “His legacy is not in books and sermons, but in the thousands of preachers whose career he shaped one conversation at a time, and in the tens and thousands of ordinary believers who saw him up close and took him…as their guide. He was…an ordinary person who chose to do extraordinary things.” Asbury’s ability to connect with average Americans came at a time when people were disaffected with established churches and thus Methodism allowed him to make the Gospel relevant to commonfolk. Furthermore, Asbury’s administrative abilities and his keen human insight made him a great leader and organizer. So instead traditional episocpal-style leadership, Asbury led a central organization that did grassroots work – that is sending preachers to the people to evangelize. This leads us to Wigger’s thesis, what I’ll call the ripple thesis. Asbury himself led a very simple and impoverished life, but “his life sent ripples through the Methodist movement to its most distant reaches.” It has been estimated that Asbury traveled more than 130,000 miles in his 45-year ministry in North America. Keep in mind that this was rough traveling  on bad roads (where they even existed) that would test the faith of even the most zealous Christian. Asbury was almost everywhere in America it seemed – so much so that later in his life, strangers recognized him and shouted his name from the street. This was a man who touched countless Americans one at a time. And those Americans in turn touched others and thus the American Methodist movement (which it was really was in the early years) was born and spread like wildfire. This is how countless Americans first received truly evangelical Christianity.

In most graduate-level seminars on historical theory and methods, there is a week devoted to the biography, which is sometimes the black sheep of serious historical inquiry. Many historians are dubious of biographies because, they assert, how much can the life of one person tell us about history. Thus, biographies have sometimes been pigeon-holded as vapid and self-indulgent exercises by the author. I’ve never really agreed with this. There are some people – presidents, kings, or revolutionaries, for example – who are simply important to history and the story of their life is germane to understanding their actions and thus the events in the broader era in which they lived. I think the resentment that academic historians feel towards biographers has less to do with historiography and more to do with professional jealousy. Look at some of the past few winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography: Jon Meacham (journalist), John Matteson (English professor), Kai Bird (columnist), William Taubman (political scientist), Robert Caro (journalist and biographer), David McCullough (a biographer with no formal training in history), Stacy Schiff (columnist). What do these people have in common? They aren’t trained as historians and have made a boatload of money from selling biographies, which are far more popular than your typical academic tome. This is because the subjects of inquiry, usually presidents or other prominent figures, strike a chord with the educated but non-academic reading public. And yet academics spend years of their lives in graduate school sacrificing financially, socially, and perhaps enduring something like a divorce as a result of their devotion to education. When they finish, they are clear thinkers and polished writers who often write important books that change the way history is understood and taught in college and high schools. And they get no credit and no money for their efforts and have to be satisfied with whatever prestige and treasure academic tenure brings (which ain’t much). In swoops David McCullough with presidential biographies that, while notable contributions to the historical literature and really good page-turners, that sell like wildfire (for non-fiction) and now the guy is wearing expensive blazers with shiny gold buttons and he has a literary agent who wears a cape or something (ok, I’m making the last part up). You get the picture – academics want the praise and money that biographers get for subjects that aren’t as glamorous as presidents and potentates. American Saint was probably never seriously considered for any of the big prizes that biographies get because the subject just isn’t sexy enough. Nevertheless, the writing and storytelling was on par with any of the heavyweights from the world of fast-selling biographies. While thoroughly academic, Wigger transcends the boundaries of boring academic tomes to bring readers a book that I think a lot of people would want to read, if only they knew just a little more about the tireless Asbury. Thankfully, this is the kind of book that I think a lot of public libraries will purchase, so Wigger might get a halfway decent readership for his heroic efforts to bring us an account of Asbury that actually does rise well above hagiography.

Academics who do like biographies will say that biographies can use one figure to illuminate how the times can effect one person and this has tremendous historical value. Asbury, however, is important enough to study simply on his own terms. Because he was the central figure in early American Methodism, had a great deal of authority, and devoted his life totally to the church, the story of Asbury’s life parallels the story of the growth and eventual explosion of Methodism (especially after 1800). Perhaps because Asbury had no personal or romantic life to delve into for dramatic effect (he almost certainly died a virgin), his life was well-suited to be transformed into a solid academic biography that both entertains and educates because there are no unimportant diversions. Although I always thought historians needed a piece on Asbury, I was surprised at how interesting the book turned out to be. The typical view of Asbury from either from a cursory scanning of some of his journal entries or from historical protrayals of him is of a rather stern and humorless man who ruled the church with an iron first. To be sure, his authority was derived from his own piety – here was a man who practiced what he preached in all things and never asked his preachers to do something he wouldn’t himself do. The traditional account of Asbury has him either deeply suspicious of women or bluntly accuses him of chauvinism. Wigger’s Asbury is a very engaging and funny person who was a great conversationalist, understood human nature, loved all people (black and white, male and female), had to deal with preachers who constantly complained about their jobs, and understood the emerging democratic strains of American culture and allowed these impulses to be incorporated into church governance more than anybody has ever given him credit for. And Wigger is convincing. While Asbury has been described as an autocrat, Wigger found that the reason for this portrayal was that the bishop had total authority over where to send the preachers every year – and this is a lot of power to hold over individual lives. If a preacher wasn’t happy with his appointment, there was no recourse. But Asbury excelled particularly at this job and knew the talents of each preacher (several hundred individuals) and knew the circuits, the hardships there, and the people in those geographic areas. He had a knack for placing the right preacher in the right place. Nobody travelled as much as Asbury did or interacted with as many different kind of people in America. His knowledge and expertise were simply unparalleled. And this might explain how Asbury became one of the most important figures in American religious history through administrative work. While it is overstatement to give Asbury credit for the wave of camp meetings and revivals that struck the United States in the first decade of the 19th century, it would be equally dangerous to assert that he was a nominal figure in that phenomenon because he laid a lot of the groundwork by making sure the right people were in the right places.

There is one flaw in this book, and it’s a big one. It’s not that Wigger really gets anything wrong and I think assessment of Asbury’s importance is fresh, accurate, and long overdue.  The problem is that Wigger fell into the great trap for biographers. When you devote ten years of your life to studying one individual, as Wigger did Asbury, two outcomes are possible. One, the biographer will absolutely detest the subject and it will show on every page. Or, you can fully adore your subject and it will show on every page. Wigger falls into the latter category. He is so enomored with Asbury that I became a little uncomfortable. He calls Asbury a saint in the title and reinterates that point at several points throughout the book. At a certain level, it’s a little hard to take Wigger seriously as an academic because of this kind of langauge and idolization. While no other preacher or religious leader in American history can surpass Asbury in piety, zeal, or constitution, I think that calling him a saint (consider the definition of that word aside from its ironic Catholic overtones) is a bit disconcerting when considering that Wigger is an academic historian who teaches at a state university and was not comissioned to write this book by the church. Nobody is that perfect, and Wigger acknowledges that Asbury had his faults. He criticizes Asbury (who was known for being against slavery) for failing to really stand up to southerners on the issue of slavery. Wigger is understably sympathetic to the idea that Asbury had a choice to either completely sacrifice the movement in the South or work within the existing social system. I get this and I probably would have argued something very similar if I were in his shoes, but I just wish he would have used stronger language that wouldn’t have come across as almost apologetic. I’ve felt this pressure of biographers in my own research before (my master’s thesis was a semi-biographical account of southern Methodist bishop Holland N. McTyeire) and so I can understand what Wigger dealt with when trying to writer about a guy like Asbury (Wigger clearly comes across as a man of faith and he has a master’s degree from a seminary, which probably made the tension worse than what most biographers deal with). After reading the book, I liked Asbury a lot more than I did when I started the book. The problem is, I don’t know if it’s me or Wigger’s emotional attachment to the bishop that is making me feel that way.

The fact that Bishop Asbury would never approve of being called a saint makes Wigger’s adoration of him ironic and a little funny. Irony and humour are good things and make any shortcomings the book has more digestable.

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