Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Providence in America

Like Lindsey, I too have greatly enjoyed the fact that summer vacation means that I am now able to read material of my own choosing. Not to belittle the WONDERFUL books I was assigned last semester – a disclaimer in case my professor stumbles upon this blog - but it really is a breath of fresh air to read at my own pace.

One of the books that I planned to read over summer break was Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876 by Nicholas Guyatt, which was published in 2007 by the Cambridge University Press. Guyatt is an assistant professor of history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C.

Guyatt defines the purpose of this book as:

An attempt to recover the story of American providentialism and to answer two important questions about providential thinking that seem both obvious and elusive: Who did Americans come to think that God had a special plan for their nation? And what did they do with this conviction in the 250 years between the founding of Virginia and the American Civil War?
Guyatt further defines the argument of his book by pointing out its uniqueness to American religious historiography:

This book offers three fresh insights about the idea of divine involvement in American history. First, I reject the idea that providentialism was an American invention. The providential thinking of the colonial period originated in England rather than America, and we can best understand the emergence of American ideas about God's role in history by exploring their English and British analogues...The book's second innovation concerns the kinds of providentialism that prevailed in Britain and America during this period...Finally, I contend that providentialism was not only a component of American identity but also a strategy for achieving concrete political goals.

I find Guyatt's assertion that American providentialism originated in the "motherland" of England to be exactly right. For too long Americans have insisted on the belief that our earliest settlers were driven purely by the motivation to establish a land of religious liberty. Guyatt effectively rebuts such claims by pointing out the fact that America's earliest colonists placed their providential stock in the divinity of England and in the quest for wealth. For example, Guyatt quotes Robert Cushman, a friend of the Puritan leader William Bradford, who stated that there was no "calling" by which the Puritans had settled in America. The infamous John Smith of the Jamestown settlement even went as far as to state, "I am not so simple to thinke that ever any other motive that wealthe will erect a Commonweale."

Despite these claims, Guyatt is not ignorant of the numerous claims made by America's first settlers, who claimed to have been guided to America by the hand of God. Guyatt points to the declarations of John Winthrop, who called Massachusetts Bay "a shining city on a hill," and Sir Robert Gates who stated of Jamestown that, "God himselfe is the founder and favourere of this Plantation."

Instead of confronting such declarations, Guyatt chooses to explain their English origins. For most modern Americans, the proclamations of divine providence made by men like Winthrop, Bradford, Roger Williams, etc. serve to promote the divine purpose behind America's founding. Guyatt, however, suggests that these feelings of Providentialism actually caused the first settlers to put more stock into the divine destiny of England.

To help prove his argument, Guyatt points to three specific types of providentialism that defined how the first colonists understood God's role in their lives: Judicial Providentialism, Historical Providentialism and Apocalyptic Providentialism. Guyatt defines Judicial Providentialism as the notion that God judges nations "solely of the virtues of their people and leaders and then rewards or punishes them without reference to any grand plan for humanity." Historical Providentialism is defined as, "The belief that God imagined a special role for certain nations in improving the world and tailored their history to prepare them for the achievement of this mission." And finally, Apocalyptic Providentialism is defined as, "God literally working out the narrative of Revelation in current events and that he casts various nations in the leading roles of this drama."

For Guyatt, the evolution of American providentialism follows these three stages. The earliest settlers to the "New World" had no concept of Historical or Apocalyptic Providentialism, but instead embraced the notion that God awarded and punished based on behavior. As time went on, the colonists developed a sense of Historical Providentialism, which helped them to define the "heavenly" destiny that God had prepared for their nation. Once the United States was established, Apocalyptic Providentialism caused American citizens to view their nation as playing the leading role in a divine drama, which was rapidly usher in Christ’s return to Earth.

Though a little repetitive in his prose, Nicholas Guyatt's Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876 is a must-read for the American religious history buff. As Professor John Fea of the Religion in U.S. History Blog states:

"In historicizing the notion of providence, Guyatt shows that this idea “played a leading role in the invention of an American national identity before 1865." The depth of his research and the breadth of his scope are quite impressive. He packs this book with so much information that at times it became a burden to work through it all. But Guyatt writes well, and as a result this will be the standard text on the topic for many years to come. Even if you never get around to reading all 300+ pages it is a book worth having on your shelf as a reference tool for when one of David Barton's young and eager disciples takes that front row seat in your lecture hall."


Jonathan Rowe said...

Heh. We should also tell Mr. Fea to send Barton's students over here.

Brad Hart said...

Amen! I miss hearing from the Barton disciples. I know that Lindsey has been trying to recruit a few. Maybe we are scaring them off!