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Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People
by jon butler
harvard university press, 360 pages, $29.50 

Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith is the most ambitious and successful effort to date to link the social or behavioral history of American religion with that of medieval and reformation Europe. For the past sixty years, ever since the invention of the French Annales school of historians, there has been a grand trend of discovery and accent on the part of those who describe the lives of nominally Christian people of the West. The social historians have shown that the official, dogmatic, established, and routinized religion of the churches was a very fragile creation. The Summas and cathedrals, the doctrinal formulations and results of councils, be these Protestant or Catholic, reached only some parts of the lives of some inhabitants of Christendom.

The real religion of the people of the Catholic Middle Ages, in these studies, seems to have been an amalgam of sub or para-Christian frameworks including magic, astrology, the occult, reliance on relics, and the like. The Reformation, as Butler shows in his review of the literature, countered that heretical “supernaturalism” to less effect than Protestants liked to claim. Whereas some Catholic historians have extravagantly begun to claim that the Protestant Reformation was an attempt to Christianize semi-pagan Europe, Butler sees Protestantism as itself being “semi-”reformed, still influenced by the non-Christian supernaturalisms of the times.

Now comes America, the main subject of Yale professor Butler’s alluring work. In the face of his predecessor Sydney Ahlstrom, who made much of the Puritan thread in American religion, Butler announces a program that attaches less importance to Puritanism and more to what he calls throughout the book “religious eclecticism.” His is the history of the rise to hegemony—of Protestant Christianity between 1680 and 1860. But the ability of the white, male Protestants of certain denominations increasingly to “run the show” did not mean that during those eighteen decades the dominators-on-the-rise successfully purged “religious eclecticism.” Both their adherents and the majority who ignored or disdained their appeals kept their attachments to occultism and to other hardly licit supernaturalisms.

American historians, in Butler’s implied polemic, have paid too much attention to the official leadership and formulations and thereby missed the people. Butler is interested in seeing how what he calls a “spiritual hothouse” thrived in nominally Protestant America. Having to tell that story leads him to minimize the record of routine religion and maximize the spiritualisms, the magic of early Mormonism, mesmerism, divination, and the like.

Still, his case is compelling, and he makes it with such effect that the reader is likely to go looking with fresh spectacles for traces of this “religious eclecticism” and “spiritual hothouse” effect in contemporary America. One need not look far. Today’s successful Evangelicalism, putatively the stronghold of orthodoxies, often finds its congregants lured by “health and wealth” or “signs and wonders” gospels which, in Butler’s terms, manipulate the supernatural in hardly conventional forms. If such deviation goes on in the green tree of Evangelicalism, one expects to find devotion to magic and the supernatural even more focused in the larger culture. Words like “New Age” point only to the current version of semi-elite culture’s devotion to signs and wonders.

Butler restricts himself to the pre-Civil War story. In the controversy between the historians who say that Virginia and other southern Anglican religion was weak versus those who say it was “not so weak,” Butler sides with the “really, really weak” school. He shows how the churches of the New England Puritans represented minority religion even where they were supported by law. For Butler, the American Revolution was largely a secular affair. The Enlightened Founders were rarely orthodox Christians. Church participation was very low at the time of the birth of the nation. There are for Butler, quite properly, no colonial “good old days” when conventional religion of the Protestant or Christian or Judeo-Christian sort snatched America from the jaws of the Enlightenment and gave the nation a Christian birthing.

One of Butler’s most provocative chapters has to do with the African “spiritual holocaust,” during which time white Christians worked to uproot and proscribe the African religious ethos in slaves before they took pains to offer Christian alternatives. This holocaust, Butler argues, was more determinative of later American religious life than had been the importation of Puritanism and the rise of Evangelicalism in colonial days. Until about 1950 that would have been perceived as a bizarre claim; today it rings true in the dynamics of American pluralism. Whether “holocaust” is the right way to speak of the event, or whether the extirpation of African religious tradition was as extensive as Butler sees it to be, will be debated for a long time to come.

Butler shows how in the early national period, as the line of distinction between religion and the civil authorities (“separation of church and state”) developed and the citizenry relied ever less on the government for things spiritual or ecclesiastical, church life prospered. Denominations rose to fill the void of dying establishments. Now the churches used persuasion and not coercion to win their way. Yet their leaders were tempted to influence or pass laws to support their claims, sometimes with strong effects.

Jon Butler has made his way as a revisionist. In one famous essay he questioned whether there had ever been a “Second Great Awakening,” to use the term most historians found congenial. (When he finishes telling the story of the “Christianizing” of America in this period, he comes close to replicating their story but using a different term.) His choice of the revisionist essay form no doubt attracted, if not enemies, then at least people who have been waiting around to review his own book critically. The risks in the present work are high, but Butler seems to take them with zest. Expect controversy over his minimizing of ties between Evangelicalism and the American Revolution and similar connections being made by many in our time.

Butler tells his story well. Heterodoxy and heresy always make for better stories than does orthodoxy. He will certainly jostle the complacency of any who want to refresh America by appeal to the seventeenth-century Puritan and Anglican founders, or the eighteenth-century Enlightened ones. It was zealous, reformist, often legalistic shapers of a popular American synthesis, as they “sacralized” the landscape on which they built churches, who won hegemony. They helped give us America’s “the culture.” They did so, if I may use Butler’s figure, by trying to keep the panes unbroken, the doors on hinges, and the thermostats working in the “spiritual hothouse” they set out to control. They had some effect. America was “Christianized.” Their conventional use of power in the elite culture can provide the theme for a different story for a different day. I hope Butler will also put his mind to telling that one.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago and Senior Editor of The Christian Century.