On The Origins of American Religious Nationalism

triflesRight after I agreed to review Sam Haselby’s The Origins of American Religious Nationalism for the Journal of Religion, Gordon Wood’s review of it appeared in the New York Review of Books. When one of our number gets that kind of exposure with their first book, we should all applaud, but there I was, feeling out-classed before I even opened the book. Now that I’m done with my review, everything about Wood’s makes sense to me—it was big exposure on a big stage for a big book. And I learned something from Wood there, which was to have enough patience with a big book’s faults to appreciate what it’s trying to do. Wood called Origins an “unusual book” with a meandering argument, but nevertheless “a book to be reckoned with.” I have to agree, and (spoiler alert) said as much in my forthcoming JR review. In writing that, though, I realized that if I hadn’t been primed for indulgence by Wood’s review I would have judged Origins more harshly. I think Origins is a good book that’s in too much of a hurry. Without repeating what I’ve written in JR for a religious-studies audience, I want to use this space for something of an historian’s rant about the hurried use of sources in this book.

Origins is about early-national intra-Protestant conflict and its effect on the development of American nationalism. Haselby locates this conflict along lines of geography, class, and, in a way, style, pitting “a popular, anti-elitist frontier revivalism” against “a bourgeois and nationalist metropolitan missionary” (22). He rejects the conventional terms for talking about religion in this era, eschewing (awkwardly, I think) “awakenings” and (to really excellent effect) “evangelical.” Haselby argues that the ruggedly populist side of this conversation was not an avatar of Revolutionary republicanism, but of fundamentally religious goals. The payoff comes, as in many stories of the early-national period, with Andrew Jackson, who in this telling combined the religiously-formed ideology of the frontier with the “providential nationalism of the missions movement” (3) in a sort of hypostatic union that resolved the conflict and gave us “American religious nationalism.”

In any case—Patrick Lacroix’s review over at H-Amrel is a much better run-through of the book’s chapters than I can offer here; The Junto’s own Ben Park reviewed it with precision in The William and Mary Quarterly. I think Haselby has made a real contribution to the study of religion in the early national period. I am going to teach chapter four, which is a thick, careful, innovative study of the some of the players involved in the Cane Ridge revival.

Much of the book, though, sacrifices that kind of care for rapid-fire associations and vague gestures in a rush to make a huge, expansive argument. There’s a carelessness to some of the language Haselby uses: the word “anti-racist,” for example, applied to late-18th-century thinkers, is an albatross of anachronism. It’s the breezy carelessness with respect to sources that really got me, though. In chapter three, for example, Haselby attempts to depict the social environment wrought by frontier Methodist preachers by reaching for a fifteen-page essay published in 1949 by social critic Lillian Smith (famous for the novel Strange Fruit). Haselby finds Smith’s description of her childhood in “late nineteenth-century Georgia” a literary source for talking about the place of Methodist itinerants “in the rural society of nineteenth-century America” (131), despite the fact that Smith was born in 1897. That essay—“Trembling Earth”—is an evocative part of Smith’s impassioned polemic against Jim Crow, but its relationship to antebellum frontier itineracy is questionable at best. At worst, that relationship is wholly imaginary. Smith wrote about her childhood memories of traveling revivalists, men who did, I guess, travel around preaching like the first Methodist itinerants had, just a full century later. Haselby smoothly conflates the two historical moments, mixing descriptions of traveling preachers in both eras until they become indistinguishable on the page.

Why take twentieth-century reminiscences as a source for nineteenth-century environments? To be fair, Haselby does cite other, better primary sources for talking about frontier Methodism: mid-century hagiographies, Francis Asbury’s published journal, and the Discipline, the official rule book issued by the Society. These have necessarily complicated relationships with what Haselby says he wants to depict, though, which is how “Ministers governed the frontier of the early American republic” (117). He acknowledges that there are on-the-ground primary sources for those earlier itinerants, but dismisses the bulk of this material—the entire archive of early-national Methodist itineracy as it was lived and experienced—in a couple of sentences. Missionaries’ own accounts, he writes, “typically lack introspection, erudition, or style.” Beyond that, the reminiscences of those that heard those itinerants—analogues, by Haselby’s own terms, of Smith’s account—well, they bore Haselby. “The itinerants’ many followers left numerous accounts of camp-meetings, sermons, and conversions, but they tend toward clichéd exclamation and require a sympathetic, interested reader” (130). To state the obvious: Haselby isn’t one. “[I]n brief,” he writes, “the itinerants’ status as legendary social figures is not intelligible from their own writings or those of their followers” (130). This seems an upside-down way of approaching sources: if they aren’t “legendary social figures” in the most-relevant primary sources, maybe they are better described as some other sort of social figures. Haselby certainly isn’t wrong that the relevant sources can be boring, but they’re also indispensable to understanding the moment and the people he is claiming to chronicle.

Ultimately, I think this attitude toward sources arose in part from a rush toward a big argument. Wood pointed to this problem with respect to Haselby’s similarly blithe attitude toward much relevant secondary literature, politely noting that, “An enormous historical literature exists for each of the parts Haselby writes about.” Classics as well as relevant recent works are skimmed over lightly or ignored: Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity (1989) gets a quick treatment; Christine Heyrman’s Southern Cross (1998) is cited but not discussed; and this book that talks at length about secularism in antebellum America does not mention Secularism in Antebellum America (2011) at all, near as I can tell (neither when talking about bureaucratized tract societies nor when quoting Melville).

It’s a problem to be in such a hurry to make sweeping arguments as to rhetorically undermine key sources to justify ignoring them. The expansiveness and urgency of Origins makes it interesting, makes it worth reviewing in the NYRB. But those features come at a price. I think it’s good and useful and important to swing for the fences, though, and I find Haselby’s drawing of the key conflict within early-national Protestantism compelling. Origins pays off. Haselby’s willingness to define his own terms and go big will serve this book’s legacy well, but this impatiently-written book will require patience to read.

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6 comments on “On The Origins of American Religious Nationalism

  1. Marie says:

    I do wonder what inspired such haste. I normally attribute it to the desire of junior faculty to publish quickly or risk not getting tenure (a huge problem). But Haselby’s peripatetic professional career suggests something different.

    • Seth says:

      Thanks for reading! I think I would want to distinguish between writing a book in a hurry (which can be motivated by all kinds of pressures) and making an argument in a hurry; I’m only talking about the latter here.

  2. Nicolas says:

    Thank you for this very interesting review, pointing out what seems to be only one extreme example of a larger trend in historical scholarship. I do have a question, though. To my mind, this disregard for sources and previous scholarship should be akin to a fatal flaw. If we do scholarship and not essays for the NYRB, it means that what amounts to careful evidence-building should not be seen as an impediment to a large argument, but as the very foundation of it. If the NYRB is better willing to cast its light on poorly-evidenced large arguments (simply because the argument is thrilling or puzzling or…) rather than carefully argued scholarship, then what makes a difference between a historian and an opinion columnist?
    I must disclose, though, that I have not read the book, nor Wood’s review. I do worry, though, of our collective willingness to sympathize with big, provocative argument, without regard for the soundness of the scholarship behind it.
    In any case, many thanks for this great post!

  3. […] Perry did an incisive review of Origins of American Religious Nationalism, a book I also reviewed in W&MQ, and he makes […]

  4. […] recent volumes—Haselby’s Origins of American Religious Nationalism (reviewed by us here) or Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf’s latest biography of […]

  5. This was very interesting to read. Quick too!

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