Q&A: Spencer McBride, author of Pulpit and Nation

Following up on Jonathan Wilson’s review of Spencer McBride’s Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017), we’re pleased today to post this Q&A with Spencer about his book and his future research. McBride is a historian and documentary editor at The Joseph Smith Papers. He earned a Ph.D. in History at Louisiana State University, and is currently working on several book projects, which you can read about more here

JUNTO: Can you tell readers a bit more about the origins of this project and how you came to write it?

McBRIDE: Like the first books of so many other historians, Pulpit and Nation grew out of my doctoral dissertation. In graduate school I became keenly interested in the religious utility of politics and the political utility of religion. The project evolved over several years of research, but one of the most influential moments in the process was a paper I wrote for a graduate seminar in which I examined debates occurring simultaneously in the American colonies and in England over the propriety of observing days of fasting and prayer in support of one side or the other in the War for Independence. This paper really got me thinking about the potential—as well as the limitations—of religion to mobilize men and women to action in support of political causes. It had me thinking deeply about how the revolutionary leadership used religious language and symbolism to get common men to face bullets in the name of enlightenment ideals that we most commonly associate with elites. And so I pursued this vein of thinking and examined the role of religious language and biblical symbolism in some of the key moments in the process of national formation that began during the Revolution, demonstrating the power of such language and symbolism to unite—and to divide—Americans.

JUNTO: Your book is part of a larger recent outpouring of scholarship arguing that religion—or more specifically, Christianityplayed a crucial role (or roles) in revolutionary America (Scott Rohrer, James ByrdJohn Fea, and Kate Engel‘s forthcoming work, among others). What do you think has sparked and driven that resurgence?

McBRIDE: I’m clearly biased on the subject, but I think that it is a very exciting time to be studying the roles of religion in Revolutionary America! It’s hard to offer a single explanation for this recent resurgence, but I think the political division and ongoing culture wars in the United States are at least partially responsible for it. Numerous politicians and political pundits are as adamant as ever in their public declarations that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” Accordingly, their followers act with a distorted understanding of their country’s past. Even though the majority of historians recognize that the “Christian Nation” construct does not hold up under serious scholarly inquiry, we have previously seen many of them respond—consciously or otherwise—by writing histories that either over-emphasize the secular elements of the Revolution in their relation to the religious elements or ignore the role of religion altogether. I think that we are now seeing more and more historians delving into the roles of religion in this formative era of American history in ways that move past this problematic separation of the religious and the secular. The picture that emerges in messy, but it is illuminating. We see that in the revolution, and the process of national formation that followed, the secular and the religious were not isolated from each other, but rather worked hand in hand.

JUNTO: At the same time, you take some historians to task for overemphasizing the influence of religion during the revolution and seek to stake out something of a middle ground. Can you speak a bit more to that historiographical tension and how your book addresses it?

McBRIDE: One of the things I noticed very quickly once I started reading extensively about the place of religion in the politics of Revolutionary America is that, in an effort to demonstrate that religion mattered in the political developments of that era, many historians were content to take the religious expressions of early American political leaders at face value. The logic behind this practice seems to be that if they could demonstrate that Americans participated in fast days, quoted scripture, made biblical allusions in their patriotic addresses, and so forth, then they can prove that religion mattered. Of course, such acts do signify that religion mattered to some extent. Yet, by presenting these actions and utterances as genuine religious expressions without deeper interrogation, the result is an overly-simplistic and often disproportionate representation of religion’s importance in the American Revolution. Religion did matter in the American Revolution, but it meant different things to different people. In order to understand this, we need to go further in our inquiry. We need to understand why some Americans mixed the religious and the political in the ways that they did and what different individuals and groups had to gain from such strategic combinations. This does not mean that we should automatically dismiss as disingenuous instances of religious language and symbolism entering the political sphere. Rather, it means that we need to look at the full context in which Americans made and interpreted such expressions.

JUNTO: What historians or books were most influential as you researched and wrote this book?

McBRIDE: This book builds off the research and writing of some really outstanding scholars. It’s in moments such as this that I am glad that the book features a full bibliography because I couldn’t possibly give credit to all of them here. I will say that particularly influential works include Charles Royster’s classic A Revolutionary People at War, David Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, Benjamin Irvin’s Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty, Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg’s Madison and Jefferson, Nicholas Guyatt’s Providence and the Invention of the United States, Eric Schlereth’sAn Age of Infidels, and John Ragosta’s Wellspring of Liberty. I also found John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation to be particularly helpful as I considered how to present my arguments in ways that could appeal to as wide of an audience as possible.

JUNTO: Do you have a favorite source you discovered and/or used in your research?

McBRIDE: This is a tough question! High on that list would certainly be the letters of Thomas Jefferson in 1816-17 concerning rumors that had spread throughout the country that he had converted to Christianity. A would-be Jefferson biographer named Joseph Delaplaine sought more information on the subject, and Jefferson responded by flatly denying the rumors and insisting that Delaplaine say nothing about his religion. Jefferson then vented to John Adams about the whole affair. Of course, I did not discover these sources, but I find them fascinating and particularly helpful where the major themes of Pulpit and Nation are concerned. I see these letters as encapsulating an early manifestation of a problem that persists in the present: the desire of some to Christianize the founding of the United States in ways that are overly-simplistic and often inaccurate. Jefferson’s response reveals his frustration in not being able to control his legacy and foreshadows the frustration of historians over the penchant of many Americans for the formation and perpetuation of historical myths.

JUNTO: You now work as a documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers. How has your experience in that capacity shaped your approach to historical research?

McBRIDE: I have thoroughly enjoyed my work on the Joseph Smith Papers. While I did not focus on Joseph Smith and the Mormons during my doctoral research, the project has provided me an opportunity to explore in a slightly later era of the American past the aforementioned themes that fascinate me: the political utility of religion and the religious utility of politics. Furthermore, embracing the practice of documentary editing has made me more aware than ever before of the significant discoveries that are made when we interrogate sources to the extent that we examine every aspect of a document’s creation. This is just one of many ways that working in documentary editing has made me a better historian.

JUNTO: In addition to your ongoing work at the Joseph Smith Papers, what are you working on next?

McBRIDE: I have a few really exciting projects in the works. I am researching and writing a book about the ill-fated—and little-known—presidential campaign of Joseph Smith in 1844, and how that campaign illuminates the political obstacles to universal religious liberty in nineteenth-century America. In addition to this, I am working with Jennifer Dorsey on creating a documentary history of New York’s Burned-over District. Lastly, I am co-editing a collection of essays (with Brent Rogers and Keith Erekson) written by some really terrific scholars in a book under contract with Cornell University Press. We have tentatively titled the volume, Somewhere Between Citizens and Foreigners: Perceptions of Mormons in American Political Culture. These projects are keeping me pretty busy, but I am really excited about each of them!

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