Colonial sermons laid groundwork for the Revolution
FOR a hundred years, American students have been taught that the Fourth of July and the American Revolution were mainly political and economic events - triumphs of the secular forces of rationalism in human history. But don't expect to be given that view in Harry Stout's class.Skip to next paragraph
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Dr. Stout is a professor at Yale University and one of the leaders of a quietly growing number of scholars who, using a new blend of intellectual and social history, have begun to find a religious consciousness and motive at the center of the American Revolution.
For Stout - whose nine-year study of some 2,000 scattered, unpublished colonial sermons gained him a Pulitzer Prize nomination this year - the new scholarship is a restorative enterprise. It rejects the standard idea that the Revolution was primarily a product of the Enlightenment, and that religion had died as an active force in the Colonies by the 1700s.
Instead, the ``new religious history'' - as one scholar calls it - sees the colonial revolt as an outflow of fervent religious debate that had been bubbling in colonial churches for decades. If the Revolution ``began in the minds of the people,'' as founder John Adams put it, then those minds were imbued with a complex understanding of biblical history and metaphor, and of the struggle of oppressed peoples for liberty, these scholars say.
Stout's work is not based on a literary survey. He visited old churches in New England - digging up early sermon notes, ministers' diaries, handwritten manuscripts of church meetings, and other documents never before studied as a group.
He also studied the communication of ideas in the Colonies. In the 17th and 18th centuries, America was a wilderness. There were few roads, no national postal system. Most of the population lived in villages untouched by newspapers or print media. The only books most colonists owned were the Bible and a few almanacs, Stout found.
``Yet these were the most literate people in the history of the world,'' he said in a recent interview. ``You wonder: `Where do they get their ideas of self, of society, of corporate purpose - of what they are placed in the world to do?'''
His answer: the sermon. In colonial America, Stout says, the sermon was a message of extraordinary power. The average New Englander heard 7,000 sermons in a lifetime, about 15,000 hours of concentrated listening. There were no competing voices. It was a medium more influential than TV is today, he says.
Nor, Stout adds, had the tough-minded piety of Calvinism relaxed into a pallid outward morality in the sermons and religious life of the 18th century - currently, the accepted view. In the villages, ministers continued to preach the need for deep self-examination, redemption, rebirth, and freedom from sin.
Further, the colonial ministers - the grass-roots leaders of the Revolution, according to Stout - closely identified the events leading to 1776 with the ongoing drama of God's church and the fulfillment of a mission going back to the declaration of Puritan founder William Bradford: ``We are the Lord's free people.''
In this drama, Stout says, constitutional rights and political liberties were of secondary importance in the revolt against England. Of prime importance was the issue of spiritual destiny.
``In revolutionary New England,'' Stout writes, ``ministers continued to monopolize public communications, and the terms they most often employed to justify resistance and to instill hope emanated from the Scriptures and from New England's enduring identity as an embattled people of the Word who were commissioned to uphold a sacred and exclusive covenant between themselves and God.''
Stout's book is titled ``The New England Soul.'' But he is careful to say that colonial America wasn't New England writ large. For a time, the middle Colonies and the South were ignored by historians, he notes; recent scholarship has changed that. Still, New England had an inordinate influence in the colonial era: