A New Take on Skepticism in Early American History

By Paul Heffron

A new book by Christopher Grasso, Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2018), presents a new take on early U.S. history, which might lead to a revision in the historiography of that era.

The conventional view of this history is that the Revolution, and the founding of the United States through the Constitution, were influenced by Enlightenment thought, but that the secularism and rationalism of the founders faded in the Early Republic and were succeeded by what Grasso calls an “Evangelical Tsunami.” 

There certainly was a major growth of Evangelical Protestantism. After all, the major Protestant denominations had almost all the churches, colleges, and seminaries. They benefited from revivals and “Awakenings” and were very aggressive in their missions to the new territories while gaining dominance in the South by providing a defense of slavery.

But Grasso maintains there was more to it than that. He researched not only the major writings and activities of the prominent figures of the time but also the more personal writings, letters, newspapers, periodicals, etc. He found that many people, both prominent and ordinary, struggled with the conflict between faith and skepticism. 

Even people in churches, colleges, and seminaries had doubts about aspects of Christian faith. Some experienced a mix of doubt and faith or went back and forth. Those who were open about their doubts paid a cost. Others kept their doubts to themselves lest they would become ostracized.

There were skeptics in religious groups like Unitarians, Universalists, Transcendentalists, and Congregationalists. Some Congregationalists even claimed to be the true bearers of the Enlightenment. 

With doubts about the Trinity doctrine, many Congregationalist leaders worried about the drift to Unitarianism at Harvard and among many of their ministers and churches. Some abolitionist skeptics attacked the Christian justification for slavery and some feminist skeptics the Christian patriarchy.

Grasso writes: “Seasoning the narrative of American religious history with the stories of a few vocal freethinkers is not enough. Self-proclaimed deists, skeptics, and freethinkers were so threatening because they gave voice to the doubts Christians had about their own faith or about the fidelity of the fellow in the next pew. Putting skepticism back into the story of American religious history in this period involves attending to both the ‘not much’ skepticism that was open and avowed and the ‘vast amount’ that observers insisted was hidden and silenced.”

He goes on to say that “the stories of the relationship of skepticism and faith is more than a tale of a few marginalized freethinkers…Religious skepticism touched — and in some cases transformed — many more lives than we ought to expect in the early American Republic.”

The big takeaway from this book for me is that Grasso’s thesis applies throughout American history right up to the present — from the Golden Age of Freethought in the late 19th century to the secular takeoff in the 21st century. 

Today, we see not only many more people who are openly skeptical — including prominent and influential writers, speakers, and leaders — but also many more ordinary skeptics, especially among the younger generation, including those who haven’t come out yet (among the “nones,” or people without religious affiliation, in recent surveys). This suggests that we have a great potential in our future.



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