39: John Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith

John Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith is a welcome revisionist history of American religion before 1865.  Against a long-standing narrative of American religious decline, (the Puritans were the high point of American religion, apparently), Butler argues that religious beliefs have had an impact on American culture from the get-go, but to see them, we have to broaden our definition of religion to include multiple Christianities and multiple belief systems, including magic, the occult, astrology, that helped Americans make sense of their world.  He also broadens the scope of his investigation beyond New England to include religious history in the mid-Atlantic and slave and African religions, and he replaces narratives of linear development with patterns of religious diffusion and struggles among competing Christianities and between Christianities and various occult practices, particularly in slave communities.  And he carefully examines formal records, like church registers, parish and parishioner counts, and new church starts, to show that formal religious institutions have historically housed but a small fraction of Americans – and uses these numbers to spatially expand his study of religion beyond the confines of the church as well.

With so much of the old narrative blown wide open, Butler proceeds to show that beginning in the early 17th century, Europeans who settled North America brought many different formal belief systems with them, including Puritanism, Anglicanism, Catholicism, Quakerism, and Presbyterianism.  But most people in the New World didn’t go to church at all, and many immigrants also brought Old World occult practices with them.  Colonial leaders responded to this perceived crisis of Christianity by banning occult practices, and from 1680-1760 formal churches worked hard to bring congregants into the fold and discipline them; Butler’s interpretation is very different from the usual story of antiauthoritarian religious fervor in the colonies. While the Revolution was definitely a secular event, churches sacrilized it soon after, and the early 19th century was characterized by incorporation of occult beliefs into formal religious institutions and a scattering of Christianity into lots of new, often authoritarian, denominations, all intent on increasing their parishioner counts.  Butler also argues that 1800 marked a high point for European Christianity in slave communities; after that point, religion became increasingly segregated and African-Americans developed their own syncretic forms of Christianity.

Throughout, Butler’s consistent argument is that American religious beliefs had a profound impact on American culture, but formal religious adherence has been largely a top-down affair.  As against Bob Abzug’s Cosmos Crumbling, which focuses more on the religious experience, Butler’s top-down emphasis and his understanding of the importance of religious institutions may have more to do with his reliance on official sources and previous studies based on those sources than on the voices of adherents.

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