religious qualifications found no place in the con­stitution -- 3/29/17

Today's selection -- from The Stammering Century by Gilbert Seldes. The United States was founded in an era in which there was a movement away from conventional religion and toward rationalism, deism and even secularism. The predominant churches at the time were rooted in the formal, austere Christianity of England. The spirit at the time was increasingly one of "gross, unmitigated materialism." Into this emotional void came a backlash called "The Second Great Awakening," led by the religious fervor and revivals of the frontier Methodists:

"The work of [the renowned Christian pastor] Jonathan Edwards was interrupted by the War of the Revolution. It was resumed, with a difference, in 1800. In the half century following his death, a new nation came into existence and, in the judgment of the faithful, the old religion was jeopardized. Deists (generally called atheists), infidels, and Universalists had been as prominent as orthodox Chris­tians in directing the war.

"When the time came to frame a constitution, God was consid­ered an alien influence and, in the deliberations of the Assembly, his name was not invoked. 'Inexorably,' say Charles and Mary Beard in their story of The Rise of American Civilization, 'the national government was secular from top to bottom. Religious qualifications ... found no place whatever in the Federal Con­stitution. Its preamble did not invoke the blessings of Almighty God ... and the First Amendment ... declared that "Con­gress shall make no law respecting an establishment of re­ligion. ..." In dealing with Tripoli, President Washington al­lowed it to be squarely stated that 'the government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion'" -- ­a sad issue, surely, of the theocracy of Edwards.

"Among the evangelizing religions, Methodism alone was fa­vored by the break-down and change in authority which came with the creation of the Republic, and Methodism created, in the first years of the century, the characteristic revival form, the camp-meeting. Baptists and Presbyterians were eventually to shriek and fall into fits as their preachers were driven to emulate the enthusi­asm of the Methodist itinerant but, at the beginning, religion fell away, was lost in the jumble of new interests and opportunities, or was rejected because it was not spiritually appropriate to the new order. Essentially, the established religion, which had its roots in English soil, taught obedience; America taught freedom. Calvinism looked backward to the glorious past before the Fall: the eyes of new America were toward the future. The great hope offered by Congregationalism was redemption from sin; America had defi­nitely begun to be interested only in Progress.

"Wherever we turn, the irreligion of the early republic is evi­dent. In the churches themselves, the movement away from Cal­vinism, theocracy, and the trinity, toward religions of universal for­giveness, is marked. 'In 1782, King's Chapel in Boston formally and officially declared in favor of unitarianism' and, a generation later, the movement which was to split Congregationalism in two was openly inaugurated by [William Ellery] Channing in the same city. The work of Francis Asbury, the Methodist, claimed three hundred thousand converts between the 1770's and the 1820's; and each conversion, although a religious exercise in itself, was a fresh danger to the more austere churches. The association of Church and State, abol­ished in the Federal Government, grew gradually weaker in the several states. The association of the church with education, art, literature, science, mechanical progress, and international policy was either totally lacking or persistently on the losing side. In the home, romances supplanted volumes of sermons. And even New Eng­landers learned to go to the theater instead of being satisfied with 'meetings.' Colleges which had been founded to supply ministers of the Gospel began to be heretical or infidel. The New World, which had been exploring the mysteries of Heaven, began to press across the frontiers of the West, to search out the mysteries of the Mississippi basin or of the Oregon. The American Republic had come into existence at the beginning of the scientific era which was to reach its climax with the trans-continental railway and the publication of the Origin of the Species.

"If all this shows how irrelevant the Great Awakening was to the problems of the new country, or how disappointing the fruits of that revival had been, it also shows why the revivalists of 1800 felt their call so deeply. The infidelism of 'Voltaire, Paine, and Volney' (to adopt the usual grouping of the time) had made head­way. The French Revolution had not entirely discredited the En­cyclopedia. Infidels were in the Federal Government. They were representing us abroad. They were making fortunes as merchants in Philadelphia. Everywhere they were breaking down the author­ity of God's word. A thousand new names were spoken daily: names signifying political conflict, westering convoys, ships around the Horn, research into the nature of things, speculation (in both the philosophic and financial sense), material problems, material ambition, material conquest. Only the name of the Lord was not heard. Infidelism was the sour to the evangelical's spirit; the enemy was the universal, gross, unmitigated materialism of the early Republic."



Gilbert Seldes


The Stammering Century (New York Review Books Classics)


Copyright 1927, 1928 by Gilbert Seldes


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