Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Noll on Evangelicalism & The American Founding

One of Mark Noll's articles on the American Revolution and evangelical Protestantism is available in its entirely here. It's always a treat to read his work. A taste:

Finally, the rise of a culturally influential evangelicalism conjoined with republicanism and commonsense ethics is a surprise because of the religious views of the American founding fathers. Not only do the best demographic surveys record a declining evangelical presence in the 1770s; and not only did the publication of religious works decline dramatically during the War for Independence; but the religious dispositions of the new country's most visible leaders were anything but evangelical. A few of them, like Sam Adams of Massachusetts, John Jay of New York, Patrick Henry of Virginia, John Witherspoon and Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, were more or less evangelical, but the founders who mattered most—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John [sic] Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin—were not. Whereas the faith of these founders did lean in a generally Christian direction, the unitarian, deistical, moralistic, and antienthusiastic religions they practiced hardly anticipated an evangelical surge. And although it is possible to find in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution echoes of more traditional Christian attitudes toward human nature, government, and the ends of society, these crucial documents depended much more directly on secular sources, whether from the classics, John Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment, or the pragmatic circumstances of the period. These founders may have preserved some of the Puritans' moral earnestness and may have borrowed rhetorical strategies from the mid-century revivals, but otherwise their politics were secular.
That Noll writes "John" Madison shows that even the great ones aren't immune from typos.


King of Ireland said...

Ever read a book called "Defending the Declaration" by Gary Amos? He bypasses the whole Barton strategy and just looks where the ideas of the Declaration come from. He has some compelling information that many of the saying used in the Declaration came right from Canon Law into Common law to Locke and the more rational Puritians and to Jefferson. He does not argue that Jefferson, Adams, or Franklin were Christians but does state that they used ideas that were part of a long Christian tradition. The best part of the book was when he traced the "laws of nature and nature's God all the way back to Christian teaching from the Middle Ages.

I was thinking about doing a series of post on his ideas in the book but do not want to do it if it is ground already covered. His thesis is much like Tom's but he gives some theological insight into reason and revelation that I have not even heard Tom expound on. At least not in any of the old posts I have gone back and read on that subject.

As I read some real scholars like Dreisbach and Amos I see the Ed's point about Barton and others needing to really get History, Law, or broad Theology doctorate. These guys are really in a different league. It was almost embarrassing to compare the typical arguments with real scholarship on the issue.

I bring this up in this post because Noll was one of the people he was attempting to refute. More later....

By the way, on a personal note, I got hired to teach where I moved in Florida. I was about to give it up. It was the last few weeks engaging in enlightened discussion with you, Tom, and others that made me realize we need good History teachers in schools. You guys have helped renew my love of the subject and thirst to learn more. I am truly humbled that guys as smart as you all allow me in on your conversations.

That goes for Frazer as well even though I disagree with him a lot. Watching how you guys go about all this shows me how far I need to go to be the teacher I want to be. You all challenge and inspire me and I do not give out compliments like this easy. So be encouraged in your endeavors.

You deserve my sincere and heart felt thanks.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I've never read his book, though I've heard his name and had the book cited against me.

I can't judge him based on the folks who referenced his authority; but I wasn't too impressed. But again, this shouldn't speak bad of him. Randall Terry once cited it in an email to me.

Amos also wrote a book with a history PhD named Richard Gardiner with whom Ray Soller and I have had run ins.

James Stripes said...

Ideas are rooted in texts. The texts of the Founders reveal strong influence of Christianity and Christian ideas combined with strong impulses to mitigate the excess of enthusiasm of evangelicals and other religious zealots. Mark Noll does a masterful job of negotiating between his own biases and the evidence of primary sources. That's why you can find his articles in credible academic sources like the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. From what I've gathered from cursory glances at the writings of Gary Amos, he is more polemicist than historian.

susana said...
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