Q&A with Christopher Grasso, author of Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War

Christopher Grasso earned his PhD from Yale in 1992, taught at St. Olaf College, and came to William and Mary in 1999.  From 2000 to 2013 he served as the Editor of the William and Mary Quarterly.  He is the author of A Speaking Aristocracy: Transforming Public Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut (OIEAHC/UNC Press, 1999) and the editor of Bloody Engagements: John R. Kelso’s Civil War (Yale University Press, 2017). His most recent book, Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War, was just published by Oxford University Press earlier this month. Dr. Grasso generously agreed to answer a few questions about the book. 

JUNTO: You started this book nearly two decades ago, at a time when there was little to no research on the subject of religious skepticism in early America. In the meantime, the subject has been taken up by a number of historians, including books by Amanda Porterfield, Eric Schlereth, and Leigh Eric Schmidt. How has the project changed from its inception to its publication, and how does it differ from the other books on the subject?

CHRISTOPHER GRASSO: There have been ambitious attempts to chart the hegemony of American Christianity in the nineteenth century. (Prominent studies that do this in very different ways include those by Nathan Hatch, Jon Butler, Rodney Stark and Roger Fink, Mark Noll, and David Sehat.) Some scholars have recently refashioned the old secularization thesis and see the nineteenth century, even with the constant churn of religious dispute, as the emergence of a “secular age” produced by the structural changes of modernity operating, as it were, behind people’s backs (see Talal Asad, Charles Taylor, John Lardas Modern, and collections edited, with others, by Craig Calhoun and Michael Warner). My book examines a more contested and fraught dynamic by highlighting the important dialogue of skepticism and faith.  I do pay attention to specific skeptics, people who publicly challenged the truth claims of traditional religion—deists, freethinkers, and even atheists such as Ethan Allen, Frances Wright, and Ernestine Rose. But I’m equally interested in skepticism as a position and an experience of people who were also, sometimes, even mostly, faithful.  I show how skepticism was so important not because of the numbers of publicly self-proclaimed skeptics, but because many recognized that the private struggle with doubt was a common experience, and worried about it as a central challenge to a nation of faith. The book doesn’t posit either “secularization” or “Christianization” as the driving force of historical change. Skepticism and faith, too, are not binary opposites in a dialectic producing some neat synthesis at the end of the story—presumably something in the late nineteenth century closer to the world we have now than to the eighteenth-century world we have lost. Skepticism and faith are in an on-going dialogue with important personal, social, and political ramifications—a dialogue that has conceptual similarities but often different cultural functions as we move across time and across the American landscape.

My views on recent scholarship can be found in “The Religious and the Secular in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic, 36, 2 (July, 2016): 359-88. I’ve engaged with and learned from the books you mention, but their projects are different from mine. Amanda Porterfield’s Conceived in Doubt (2012) is a provocative rejoinder to Nathan Hatch’s influential Democratization of American Christianity (1989). Rather than carrying the revolutionary ethos into the churches, Porterfield’s Americans doubt all authority in the turbulent 1790s and then rush back to church, nostalgic for the lost Father King, to reestablish patriarchal authority. Both Hatch’s thesis and Porterfield’s inversion of it are plausible, with several caveats, for some people in some places, but I find neither convincing as an over-arching interpretive argument. Both are good books to think with, however. Schlereth’s Age of Infidels (2013) and my book share some of the same characters in the 1775-1830 period. His study focuses more exclusively on the place of religious “infidels” in public political debate, and is more sanguine than I am about how much challenges to Christianity became normalized by the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Schmidt’s fine Village Atheists (2016) concentrates mostly on the later nineteenth century.

JUNTO: In the book’s introduction, you argue that “the problem of skepticism and faith in the United States … needs to be seen not just as a contest of opposing ideas but as a lived experience: lived religion, and lived irreligion, too.” What do you mean by lived irreligion?

GRASSO: Scholars used to call for studies of “lived religion”—that is, historical inquiries that looked beyond the doctrines promulgated by churches to religion as embedded in the fabric of people’s daily lives, to the experience of religious faith through practice. Doubts about religion—and the indifference or animosity towards it that doubt can help produce—need to be similarly embedded. So do the practices—socialization, education, politics, and just daily being-in-the-world—that can arise as alternatives to those grounded in religious faith. This aim has produced a book with a lot of what I hope are compelling case studies and mini-biographies of people wrestling with faith and doubt in their everyday lives.

JUNTO: Skepticism and American Faith is organized into four thematic parts, arranged chronologically: “Revolutions, 1775-1815,” “Enlightenments, 1790-1840,” “Reforms, 1820-1850,” and “Sacred Causes, 1830-1865.” What does attention to religious skepticism and faith tell us about revolution, enlightenment(s), reform, and the Civil War?

GRASSO: Debates over the meaning of the American and French Revolutions prominently featured arguments about the role that religious faith ought to have in public life and patriotic citizenship. Was America a Christian nation? Did religious liberty include the freedom to be irreligious? With the separation of church and state, how could a Christian majority legitimately exert its power over non-believers in a democracy? Believing and doubting were rarely just matters of private predilection. From the founding, these issues linked the personal to the political.
Americans in this period did not talk about “The Enlightenment” (a later historiographical construct), but they did argue about what it meant for a person or a society to become “enlightened,” and the role of skeptical reasoning and religious faith in that process. The dialogue of skepticism and faith, therefore, echoed through the effort to produce and disseminate knowledge in the early republic. American Protestants in particular anointed themselves as the vanguard of Western civilization, claiming all the “enlightened” values and practices previously championed by the eighteenth-century philosophes: free inquiry, open debate, the broad dissemination of print, and the triumph over superstition. But they always supplemented and corrected worldly learning with divine revelation. More radical champions of enlightenment argued that the truth claims of the churches and the Bible needed to be investigated, debated, and rationally evaluated just like any others, and rejected if found wanting.

Similarly, the reform projects that sprang up in the second quarter of the nineteenth were an application of the dialogue of skepticism and faith to the profound social and economic changes of the era. Some argued that families and communities, the relations of capital and labor, and the institutions wielding political and cultural power needed to be remade. For some reformers this meant re-rooting all these things in the ethos of the Christian gospel. For other religious believers, worldly reform seemed to be a dangerous distraction to the message of salvation. For a smaller group, religion itself—especially in how it cultivated an irrational faith in supernatural powers and a deferential obedience to self-interested ecclesiastical authorities—was a central institution that had to be replaced in any effective project for social and moral reform.

As American nationalism broke in half during the sectional crisis, Northerners and Southerners alike rallied around God and country. In the South, proslavery politics had been thoroughly Christianized, and public skepticism effectively silenced, in the two decades before the Civil War; criticizing the Bible came to be seen as an attack on the slave regime. In the North, too, speakers and writers articulated a religious nationalism that erased skepticism from the nation’s history and either blurred Protestant evangelicalism and patriotism or fashioned the Union itself into a sacred idol. None of these things “just happened.” They did not emerge as the natural consequence of the colonial past, or out of a reaction to the Revolution, or as a byproduct of the denominational competition ushered in by the separation of church and state. They were hammered out by nearly continuous dialogue, debate, and struggle over skepticism and faith—argued in print, whispered in fireside conversations, and sometimes shouted on city streets and village lanes.

JUNTO: In addition to the expected cast of historical figures featured in a book on this subject (Elihu Palmer, Robert Dale Owen, etc), your book investigates lesser known individual and incidents in early America, including free and enslaved African American skeptics, freethinker and feminist Frances Wright, and the failed Presbyterian experimental society in Marion, Missouri. Is there a favorite story, source, or anecdote you discovered that you’d like to tell readers more about?

GRASSO: Hard to choose! It’s quite a cast of characters. The project began when I was reading in the papers of Ezra Stiles, watching him squirm uncomfortably as a closeted religious skeptic in the 1750s and then preaching about the political threat of deism and skepticism at the end of the Revolutionary War. I became fascinated, too, by a story involving Stiles: the reaction to William Beadle, the self-proclaimed deist in the 1780s who murdered his family and then killed himself. He became an object lesson of the danger of straying from orthodox Christianity, even as others who strayed, like the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, were becoming more visible and prominent. My graduate student Chad Sandford introduced me to the nearly unknown journal of the Methodist mystic Sarah Jones, and I explored her relationship with the remarkable itinerant Jeremiah Minter, who had himself castrated for Christ. The skeptical, irascible polymath Thomas Cooper took me through thousands of pages of obscure texts as he battled with both Federalists and Democratic-Republicans in Pennsylvania and then Presbyterians and politicians in South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis. The story about the dramatic failure of a model college and city in Marion, Missouri–an experiment in Christian enlightenment headed by Ezra Stiles Ely, promoter of a Christian party in politics, and David Nelson, crusader against religious infidelity–was a complete surprise from the archives. Historians had written about the prolific health reformer William Alcott, but they had missed the anonymously published memoir of his struggle with religious skepticism, which explains so much about him and his reform project.

Of all of these, I confess that I’m partial to characters who change their minds—who move to different points on the spectrum of skepticism and faith rather than living their whole lives on one spot: the skeptics who become believers, and the believers who become skeptics; or George Bethune English, a Christian who became a skeptic and then was thought to have converted to Judaism and then to Islam; or Orestes Brownson, who progressed from Presbyterianism to Universalism to freethinking socialism to quasi-Transcendentalism to Roman Catholicism. It’s not hard to admire honest conviction, though, wherever you find it: in the shoemaker John Scarlett, finding faith on the streets of New Jersey, or in the feminist atheist Ernestine Rose, attacking the biblical roots of patriarchy. For my very favorite source, character, and story, however, I have to tip my hat to John R. Kelso.

JUNTO: I agree that John Kelso — the Methodist preacher and Missouri schoolteacher-turned-Union Army spy, guerilla fighter, and religious skeptic — is one of the more fascinating figures in your book. Earlier this year, Yale University Press published his Civil War memoirs, which you edited, and you are actively at work on a fuller biography of him. What can you tell us about that project, and when can readers expect to see it on bookshelves?

GRASSO: I came upon the papers of John R. Kelso (1831-1891) soon after the Huntington Library had purchased them: 800 manuscript pages of poems, speeches, lectures and a partial autobiography. He is the focus of the last half of the last chapter of Skepticism and American Faith. Drawn into his story, I published, as you mention, an edited and annotated version of the twelve Civil War chapters of his memoir as Bloody Engagements: John R. Kelso’s Civil War for Yale University Press in 2017. When that book was in page proofs, as I was working on a full biography of Kelso, I was contacted by a direct descendant of his who had the missing second half of Kelso’s autobiography—another 80,000 words, taking the story from 1863 to 1885. This remarkable nineteenth-century figure offers an extraordinary vantage upon important dimensions of American culture. Kelso was many things: teacher, preacher, soldier, spy; congressman, scholar, lecturer, author; Methodist, atheist, spiritualist, anarchist. He was also a strong-willed son, a passionate husband, and a loving and grieving father. In the center of his life was what he depicted as the thrill and the trauma of the Civil War, which challenged his notions of manhood and honor, his ideals of liberty and equality, and his beliefs about politics, religion, morality, and human nature. Throughout his life, too, he fought his own private civil wars—against former friends and alienated family members, rebellious students and disaffected church congregations, political opponents and religious critics, but also against the warring impulses in his own complex character. My biography for Yale University Press, Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso, will not take nearly two decades, like Skepticism and American Faith. I have about half the chapters drafted; it will be out in a couple years.

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