On the Joseph Smith Papers, Documentary Editing Projects, and the Public

img_9068On September 19, a team of editors introduced the latest volume from the Joseph Smith Papers Project to a small group of scholars and bloggers gathered both in person and via skype. I readily agreed to participate when invited because of the excitement surrounding this particular volume. The first and only volume in the Project’s Administrative Series, it makes available the complete 1844-1846 record of the Council of Fifty, a secretive religio-political organization founded by Joseph Smith just months before his June 1844 death. The editors informed me that they wanted a representative from The Junto to attend because they anticipate that the volume’s content will be of interest to many early Americanists.  Continue reading

The Sacred and the Secular in Early National Virginia

Is revolutionary Virginia the birthplace of American secularism?

My attention was returned to this critical question by a recent twitter exchange between Annette Gordon-Reed and Sam Haselby (and others) along side a recent piece by Haselby in Aeon.[1] The scuffle between Gordon-Reed and Haselby focuses on the time-is-a-flat-circle question of Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs. Was he a secularist? Some variant of Christian? A Unitarian? An atheist? Haselby’s Aeon piece takes a different tack, arguing that the American founding represented a “rogue wave of rationality in a centuries-long sea of Protestant evangelising, sectarianism and God-talk.” Haselby marks out the Founders—particularly Jefferson and James Madison—as “visionary secularists” who created a secular republic, which was eventually co-opt by decidedly non-secular political and cultural forces. He singles out late eighteenth-century Virginia as the primary canvas upon which the great artists of American secularism worked.[2] Continue reading

Maryland’s Protestant Revolution and the Problem of Religious Freedom

Maryland’s religious history is unique in colonial British North America. We largely remember Maryland as the Catholic colony that embraced religious toleration and religious freedom, in contrast to New England’s stodgily Puritan establishment or Virginia’s scattered Anglican church. Scholars and commentators looking for sources or influences on the First Amendment are consistently drawn to the colony’s justifiably famous 1649 “Act concerning Religion.” This act made it a crime to “declare call or denominate any pson or psons whatsoever inhabiting” Maryland “an heritick, Scismatick, Idolater, puritan, Independant, Prespiterian popish prest, Jesuite, Jesuited papist, Lutheran, Calvenist, Anabaptist, Brownist, Antinomian, Barro-wist, Roundhead, Sepatist, or any other name or terme in a reproachfull manner relating to matter of Religion.” “[T]he free exercise” of Christian religion was explicitly protected by the act, with repeat violators of their fellow colonialists’ conscience were to be “severely punished by publick whipping & imprisonmt.”[1] The “Act concerning Religion” places Maryland next to Rhode Island and Pennsylvania as one of the colonial regimes committed, for European Christians at least, to religious freedom in the seventeenth century.

The problem, and what makes the colony unique, is that Maryland’s experiment in religious freedom failed.

Continue reading

Just How Free Was Religious Life in the Early American Republic?

Religious liberty, perhaps, is the key legacy of the Revolutionary generation. The new United States was a society where slavery was a growing economic force, gender inequality was becoming entrenched, and the new nation’s expansion relied on the exploitation and expropriation of Native Americans. If there was one freedom, however, on the march in the early republic it was religious freedom. The progress of religious freedom in the United States was also the progress of religion itself. “[T]he number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the state” noted James Madison, that famous advocate of religious liberty, in an 1819 letter.[1] Religious freedom, then, is the American freedom. This has been the animating assumption behind most scholarship on the religious development of late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Continue reading

The Problem of Virginia’s Colonial Establishment

I’ve been reading, writing, and thinking about Virginia’s colonial Anglican establishment since I entered graduate school (back when the Galactica had just uncovered the fate of Earth and Lehman Brothers was still short-selling subprime mortgages).  This work led me to decide to write a dissertation on the religious politics and fate of the colonial establishments in the post-Revolutionary Chesapeake.  Beginning the real work on my dissertation, however, has hammered home one important insight: despite all that reading I still don’t have a real sense of what the hell was going with Virginia’s colonial establishment. Continue reading