Kate Carté Engel is an associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University. She is the author of Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), and she is currently writing a history of international protestantism and the American Revolution.
On May 17, 1773, an advertisement appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette for a new book by English dissenting minister Micaiah Towgood (misidentified in the advertisement as Michael Twogood). The ad is interesting because it is one of only 67 items in that come up in a search of Readex’s American Historical Newspapers database for the period between 1764 and 1789 containing a particular trifecta of terms: “Jesus Christ,” “liberty”, and (to get both religion and cognates like religious and religiously) “religio*”.
Here are a few other searches for comparison, all for the period between 1764 and 1789.
Religio*, liberty, “Jesus Christ” – 67
“Jesus Christ” – 414
Jesus Christ – 997
Religio*, liberty – 8,209
Religio* – 28,362
Liberty – 71,881
Based on this little exercise, religion was a lot less discussed than liberty in the founding era press, and connections between the kind of religion that might be associated with the name “Jesus Christ” and “liberty” were comparatively rare. On the other hand more than a quarter of the times “religio*” occurred, liberty did too—suggesting (unsurprisingly) there might have been a strong link between the concepts in the newspapers.
We’re increasingly familiar with such research strategies, their OCR-based limitations, and the structural problems with access to performing them. My students and I did a lot of these searches this past semester, because we did a six-week exercise investigating how religion, as a term and as a concept, appeared in the newspapers, and then we created a website with the results. My goal was to have the students find, collectively, how religion wove through the era.
The rationale for this assignment had to do with the nature of the subject under investigation. Religion is remarkably slippery as a concept, and what precisely “religion” meant in the founding era is a matter of ongoing political import in our own day. Christian nationalists regularly claim that the dominant Protestantism of the Founding era was, in fact, akin to today’s evangelicalism. Others muster quotations from deist Founders to argue that “religion” in the late eighteenth century was something far tamer, akin to public order. By searching for religion, rather than assuming it took any particular shape, our goal in class was to push beyond such assumptions and to find how religion connected with various aspects of Revolutionary culture.
The students’ projects broke down into two groups: those whose authors found the religion they looked for and those whose authors did not. The students in the first group usually started with the word “religion,” simplifying their task considerably. Their attention then focused on the contexts surrounding “religion,” rather than its content. Students explored the importance of the spiritual geopolitics of Protestantism to the colonists and the prevalence of foreign news and legislative matters in mentions of religion in the papers. They had to familiarize themselves with the word “episcopacy” and its various cognates, as the bishop controversy made regular appearances. Collectively, they found that when “religion” was discussed, it was in the context of public affairs, a point one student linked to the nature of both newspapers and revolutions. The search then perhaps becomes a self-fulfilling mechanism. Working from “religion” in the newspapers perhaps reveals more about the newspapers than it does about eighteenth-century religion.
The second group of students did not find what they were looking for. Rather than looking for the word “religion,” these students looked for the kinds of communications they assumed would characterize a religious society, or where moral harm seemed to demand a religious response. These searches were generated, therefore, by students’ Quixotic belief that religion is the realm of society that cares for and defines morality. Wondering about the voice of religion in war, for example, one student looked for religious leaders in the newspapers. Another looked for sermons. Others looked at the moral problems that are evident to us today, slavery and the treatment of Native Americans, and hoped that clergy would have spoken truth to power on those subjects. The absence of religion in these settings was as meaningful as its presence in other places, because it led to the same conclusion, although in a very different way. The silences of “religion” on key moral issues reflected, we concluded, the interweaving of religion with other social, economic, and political forces.
Religion, in other words, kept vanishing before us, only apparent when viewed in relation to something else. This brings us back to the question of search terms: what mechanisms are we using to access what we think of as religion in the revolutionary era? Digital methods make this question more apparent, but it is relevant in all historical work. One particular student highlighted this question. She investigated revivals around 1790, and when she did not find the kinds of content in her articles that she expected, she put her secondary sources through the same text-analysis process as her primary sources. She put both word clouds into her blog, and what she demonstrated was the significant distance between how we analyze the past and how it existed for those who lived through it.
It makes sense that as historians we use concepts and terms that are not native to the period, but choosing terms we believe perform the important task of translating history to the present. But the field of religion and the American Revolution has long been dominated by many versions of a single question – how did religion influence politics – and I wonder if we couldn’t find some new territory by attempting to shorten the distance between the terms we use and the terms that were native to the era.
There is something very freeing, historiographically, about building religion (whether starting with that particular word or somewhere else) from the ground up and in relation to myriad other historical contexts. (Now I become a bit Quixotic myself.) It would allow us to both de-center and contextualize organized Protestantism. It would make the faith of the Framers merely one set of data points in a much larger chain. It would embed the history of religion more fully in cultural history. Our class did not even remotely scratch the surface of the 28,362 times the term “religio*” appeared in the newspapers, and these hits find only one kind of source. There are 18,566 references to “truth,” a term both just as important and just as complicated as “religion” for getting at what early Americans might have grouped under what we might call religion . There’s a lot of territory left to be mined.
 James Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) sets an excellent model for fresh scholarship on the subject. Thomas Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2012) provides an accessible synthesis of the overall field.