Colonial sermons laid groundwork for the Revolution
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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?Skip to next paragraph
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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.''