Colonial sermons laid groundwork for the Revolution

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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For Stout - whose nine-year study of some 2,000 scattered, unpublished colonial sermons gained him a Pulitzer Prize nomination this year - the new scholarship is a restorative enterprise.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.

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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:

Issues of power and authority, of spirit and law, were debated with solemn intensity in Congregational churches - attended by 70 percent of New Englanders. What was genuine conversion? Was it necessary for church membership? How would Psalms be sung? Could they come from sources other than the Bible? How were new parishes to be formed? What were their rights, their tax bases?

New York University Prof. Patricia Bonomi comments: ``The attention to fine matters of theology that most of us would care less about today - the passion, the brilliance - was the same quality of mind that would soon create the Constitution.''

The new twist was the active role of church members: ``Congregationalism, by its very nature, grants sovereign power to no one,'' Stout says. ``So we find people in New England in these churches playing democratic politics from the start, without ever calling it that. As a matter of fact, I think if you were to stop the average New Englander in the early 18th century and mention the word politics, they would know that word, but would think instinctively of church politics.''

Outside a scholarly circle, these views are news to the 20th century. Stout and others say popular history isn't accurate.

Says David Hall, a historian at Boston University: ``There is a religious continuity in American history through the Revolution, and it's important to know that. We exaggerate the religion of the 17th-century Puritans today, and devalue the religion of the Revolution. The uprising was not just about taxes and land.''

Even the classic deist-rationalists - Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin - believed in afterlife, says Dr. Bonomi.

It's all news to Stout's undergraduates. It doesn't fit with the history they have been taught. Students think the Revolution was a struggle for freedom, equality, and ``a way to make lots of money,'' Stout says. ``They find it curious that the colonists thought about it in terms of concepts like sin, virtue, and redemption.''

In class, Stout bridges the gap through popular music - the songs of Bruce Springsteen in particular. ``Bruce is disillusioned, because he's been brought up to think there is a promised land. But he doesn't find it in the factories, or in the streets of fire.'' What Stout asks his students is: Where did Springsteen ever get the idea that there is a promised land?

``The question I keep asking students is: `What does America mean to you? Where do we get our ideas?''' he says.

Stout, who holds a joint appointment in the Yale Divinity School and history department, is an easy-spoken native of Philadelphia - a baby-boomer who took seriously the idealism of his own generation. Ironically, his first teaching job was at Kent State University in 1970 - he arrived on campus three days after the National Guard shot four students (``There were tanks on campus ... I met the chairman of the history department in a grammar-school parking lot'').

He took up history after reading the great Harvard Prof. Perry Miller's ``Errand Into the Wilderness.'' It helped sort out American ideals and myths. Today Stout worries about ``zealots'' who confuse American nationalism with religion.

For now, experts say, the field of religious studies in American history is growing. New work is being done on colonial schooling, for example. (Puritan children knew more about the history of Israel than of England, Stout says.)

Rev. Charles Hambrick-Stowe's recent study of religious confessions of lay people is receiving more attention, as is a work by Brandeis University Prof. Christine Leight Heyrman on the communities of Marblehead and Gloucester, Mass., and Bonomi's recent ``Under the Cope of Heaven,'' about the vitality and contribution of Anababtists, Quakers, Lutherans, and others during the Revolution.

Says Bonomi: ``The field is developing rapidly. We talk about it with each other. But somebody has to say we've broken into a whole new territory.''

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