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Challenging the formidable tradition that places early New England Puritanism at the center of the American religious experience, Yale historian Jon Butler offers a new interpretation of three hundred years of religious and cultural development. Butler stresses the instability of religion in Europe where state churches battled dissenters, magic, and astonishingly low churc Challenging the formidable tradition that places early New England Puritanism at the center of the American religious experience, Yale historian Jon Butler offers a new interpretation of three hundred years of religious and cultural development. Butler stresses the instability of religion in Europe where state churches battled dissenters, magic, and astonishingly low church participation. He charts the transfer of these difficulties to America, including the failure of Puritan religious models, and describes the surprising advance of religious commitment there between 1700 and 1865. Through the assertion of authority and coercion, a remarkable sacralization of the prerevolutionary countryside, advancing religious pluralism, the folklorization of magic, and an eclectic, syncretistic emphasis on supernatural interventionism, including miracles, America emerged after 1800 as an extraordinary spiritual hothouse that far eclipsed the Puritan achievement--even as secularism triumphed in Europe. Awash in a Sea of Faith ranges from popular piety to magic, from anxious revolutionary war chaplains to the cool rationalism of James Madison, from divining rods and seer stones to Anglican and Unitarian elites, and from Virginia Anglican occultists and Presbyterians raised from the dead to Jonathan Edwards, Joseph Smith, and Abraham Lincoln. Butler deftly comes to terms with conventional themes such as Puritanism, witchcraft, religion and revolution, revivalism, millenarianism, and Mormonism. His elucidation of Christianity's powerful role in shaping slavery and of a subsequent African spiritual "holocaust," with its ironic result in African Christianization, is an especially fresh and incisive account. Awash in a Sea of Faith reveals the proliferation of American religious expression--not its decline--and stresses the creative tensions between pulpit and pew across three hundred years of social maturation. Striking in its breadth and deeply rooted in primary sources, this seminal book recasts the landscape of American religious and cultural history.


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Challenging the formidable tradition that places early New England Puritanism at the center of the American religious experience, Yale historian Jon Butler offers a new interpretation of three hundred years of religious and cultural development. Butler stresses the instability of religion in Europe where state churches battled dissenters, magic, and astonishingly low churc Challenging the formidable tradition that places early New England Puritanism at the center of the American religious experience, Yale historian Jon Butler offers a new interpretation of three hundred years of religious and cultural development. Butler stresses the instability of religion in Europe where state churches battled dissenters, magic, and astonishingly low church participation. He charts the transfer of these difficulties to America, including the failure of Puritan religious models, and describes the surprising advance of religious commitment there between 1700 and 1865. Through the assertion of authority and coercion, a remarkable sacralization of the prerevolutionary countryside, advancing religious pluralism, the folklorization of magic, and an eclectic, syncretistic emphasis on supernatural interventionism, including miracles, America emerged after 1800 as an extraordinary spiritual hothouse that far eclipsed the Puritan achievement--even as secularism triumphed in Europe. Awash in a Sea of Faith ranges from popular piety to magic, from anxious revolutionary war chaplains to the cool rationalism of James Madison, from divining rods and seer stones to Anglican and Unitarian elites, and from Virginia Anglican occultists and Presbyterians raised from the dead to Jonathan Edwards, Joseph Smith, and Abraham Lincoln. Butler deftly comes to terms with conventional themes such as Puritanism, witchcraft, religion and revolution, revivalism, millenarianism, and Mormonism. His elucidation of Christianity's powerful role in shaping slavery and of a subsequent African spiritual "holocaust," with its ironic result in African Christianization, is an especially fresh and incisive account. Awash in a Sea of Faith reveals the proliferation of American religious expression--not its decline--and stresses the creative tensions between pulpit and pew across three hundred years of social maturation. Striking in its breadth and deeply rooted in primary sources, this seminal book recasts the landscape of American religious and cultural history.

30 review for Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    This is an abbreviated review. The full review can be found here: http://www.librarything.com/work/3351... Introduction Paints a picture of early American religion that was every bit as "bumptious and complex" as the latter day manifestations at the time of his writing this book. To show this, he takes us beyond "familiar themes of New England Calvinism, evangelicalism, voluntarism and declining religious adherence." (p.1) Butler's themes are complexity, diversity and process. Magic and Occult pra This is an abbreviated review. The full review can be found here: http://www.librarything.com/work/3351... Introduction Paints a picture of early American religion that was every bit as "bumptious and complex" as the latter day manifestations at the time of his writing this book. To show this, he takes us beyond "familiar themes of New England Calvinism, evangelicalism, voluntarism and declining religious adherence." (p.1) Butler's themes are complexity, diversity and process. Magic and Occult practice are certainly not off bounds, nor are the many other ways in which common people expressed their spiritual existence. Americans have always been "awash in a sea of faith." By looking at lay as well as church religion, he is able to include "real people in real places across real centuries." (p. 4) Looking first at the European roots of religious belief in America, Butler then hopes to show us how the choices made in the American setting led to a unique process of Christianization. 1. The European Religious Heritage Religious practice in the Early American colonies was extremely lax. Much rhetoric to the contrary, the religious beliefs of the colonists ranged widely from orthodoxy to the magic and occult. "Christianization - meaning a regular if not vigorous attachment to Christian institutions, theologies, and norms - was in a crisis that continued unabated as Europeans poured out of the Old World into the New." (p. 8) The colonists came from a European world where religion was steeped in a multivalent supernaturalism, a supernaturalism they brought with them to the colonies and which manifested itself in magic, astrology and divination as much orthodox Christianity. Europeans who stayed in Europe, as well as those who made the journey to the new world, were presented with a wide range of supernatural beliefs with extraordinary explanatory powers. Butler points to the ironic result of the Reformation in 16th C Europe that the movement that unleashed the move toward personal Christianity and the priesthood of all believers actually strengthened the hand of official state-sponsored Christianity. The values of protestant Christianity were given the force of law, thousands of people worked for official churches and the state sacralized the landscape with "churches, chapels, shrines and other symbols of Christianity's claim to the religious allegiance of the early modern laity." (p. 13) The social impact of Reformation Christianity was also to reinforce the differences between the middling sorts and the poor, as the marginalization of the latter continued in new the new Protestant churches. And the impact of local traditions also continued unabated, with localisms often trumping national religious practice. In this landscape, Christianization was hardly a given. Pointing to the work of David Hall, Butler points out that the boundaries between Christian spirituality and occult practice were highly porous in Early Modern society. Across social boundaries people practiced astrology, alchemy, fortune telling and other occult practices - often doing so alongside more orthodox Christian observance. By the 1680s, historians point to a folklorization of occult belief as the learned dislodged magic from their midst. Unwilling to point to the old fashioned explanation of "Enlightenment" for this process, Butler notes that the process none the less did take place. As Natalie Z. Davis has pointed out, by the 18th Century, magic and the occult had retreated to the world of the "little people". Along with the rise and fall of Dissent during the 17thC, this marginalization of magic and the occult from learned society complicated the religious world even further. As Dissent went into eclipse in England, Anglicans became more forceful, founding the SPCK and SPG around 1700. Where the Anglicans were not always successful, there were often not Dissenters to fill the void as religious adherence developed in many complex ways in the Old World. The religious complex which made its way across the ocean to the New World. 2. The Crisis of Christian Practice in America Despite the high goals of the colonies' founders, the story of American Christianity was (from the start) one of complexity and confusion. The Virginia colony provides a good example of this pattern. The religious purposes of the Virginia Company not withstanding, "[b]y mid-century, however, Virginia was better known for irreligion and indifference than piety. Its religious difficulties were rooted in traditional European spiritual lethargy." (p. 40) Even after the crown took over the colony in 1724, the official government support to Christianity continued and continued to fail. Butler sees the reasons for these failure in the inability of Anglican Christianity to provide strong leadership in the colony. Few church buildings were built and few ministers served in Virginia. In contrast to Cotton Mather's New England, there arose no cult of divines to spur on institutional tradition. There was no impactful institutional support until the later 17th C when, as Bernard Bailyn has pointed out, the new aristocracy of Virginia constituted itself as the result of a process of political and social maturation. Even then, the church-state alliance in Virginia was never fully successful in its Christianizing mission. Butler then recounts the story of religious devolution in Maryland. The catholic colony of Maryland was even less Christianized than Virginia, as the priests there feared too open a practice least they anger the powers that be in Europe and end up revoking the MD charter. So the colonists there saw even less sacralization of the landscape and fewer public observances of Christian ritual. The 1649 "Act concerning Religion," which was the first act for religious toleration in the colonies, appears in this light to be more a of a plea for religion -- any Christian religion -- to be allowed to make some progress in the colony. In a land of withered religious practice, drunken funeral parties typified the lack of Christianization in Maryland. In stark contrast to Anglican Virginia and Catholic Maryland was Puritan New England. In New England, Christianization was early and thorough -- far outstripping levels in the Old Country at its very outset. The anxiety over declension in the later 17th C can be understood as a concern to maintain this abnormally high level (by standards of the 17thC) of Christianization. The social history of the New England colonies is instructive in contrast to that of Virginia. Massachusetts Bay attracted families of the "middling sort" rather than poor single males. They were also highly literate and schooled quickly in the ways of Christian faith. In the latter half of the 17th C, however the strains of dissent began to show with Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson being only two of the more vocal and well known individuals. Church membership did in fact decline, and the half way covenant of 1662 made it possible for the unbaptized to take a more prominent role in the church. Cotton Mather was right, but for the wrong reasons. It wasn't the Baptists, Quakers and Anglicans that led the people astray. It was, rather, the changing social patterns where new immigrants were not included within the church. The inability for the Puritan Divines to develop an inclusive approach to Christianization doomed them to increasing marginalization and eventual irrelevance. All in all the landscape of the colonies at 1690 betrays the lack of sacralization and is revelatory of the status of a lassitude in Christian practice. Christianization was not automatic, it had to be learned and for various and sundry reasons organized religions did a poor job of it in the 17th C. Although colonies like Pennsylvania's Quaker community were successful in Christianization, they descended into tribalism just as did the Puritan New Englanders and the Catholics of Maryland. 3. Magic and the Occult It is at first surprising the magic and the occult, so obviously prevalent in the Old World had a delayed appearance in the new. Not until the later 17th Century did the new world see a proliferation of occult practice. This, according to Butter, was due to the social structure of migration. The common folk among whom magic and occult practice was prevalent only came later to the colonies. With a broadening of the social pool from which immigration drew came a broadening of the religious milieu as well. To show that witchcraft extended far beyond Essex County in Massachusetts Bay Colony, he draws on the work of John Demos, Carol Karlsen, Perry Miller and David D. Hall, Butler tours the 17th C landscape of magic and links it to the pursuit of the medicinal amongst the common folk. "Cunning folk" could see death in a child's eyes, make chickens die if you failed to sell them, even make people fall ill. Learned Occultism probed the natural world and sought the secrets of alchemy. John Winthrop, Jr. was a noted alchemist. Learned practitioners of the occult, like Johannes Kelpius in Pennsylvania, mixed the occult with Christianity. The emerging aristocratic elite of Virginia collected (and read) works of occult and magic. Astrology, as practiced in colonial almanacs, was amongst the most prominent of occult practices in the colonies. Almanacs even outsold the Bible in the colonies. "Using the almanac, even semiliterate colonists could plant, bleed, marry or bleed on correct days and, by following its guide to the stars, predict the future." (p. 80) As the 17th C progressed, however, the learned moved increasingly away from magic and the occult. At the same time, magic and the occult persisted in the New World as in the Old as these practices entered the folk practice. Indeed, after the mixed results of the witchcraft trials of the late 17th C, the law left people to deal with the occult themselves. Though people still believed they were plagued by witches, there was seldom a legal remedy. Though recent scholarship has destroyed our comfortable narrative of "Enlightenment" and "Scientific Revolution" sweeping aside superstition and magic, we are still left with the difficult work of explaining exactly how magic was folklorized in America, as we are in Europe. Rather than pointing to a single simple rationale of causation, Butler prefers to give us the many ways in which the occult was under attack from the learned and the Christian. Individual almanac printers view amongst each other for circulation, marginalizing some. Protestant laity marginalized the occult by increasingly associating it with Catholicism. Christian ministers also saw the "world of wonders" increasingly as a threat to their authority. Government statutes in the 17th and 18th C began to outlaw occult practice, to make blasphemy a crime and to require professions of Christian faith in order to assume office. And too, Christian rituals began to increasingly resemble the occult (see evangelical conversion rituals of the Great Awakening). "As in England, intellectual change, increasing Christian opposition, and government coercion all worked to suppress occult and magical practice in the advancing social elite and to contain it within the rougher segments of early society." (p. 96) 4. The Renewal of Christian Authority Points to changes in American religion between 1680 and 1760, changes which included the enlargement of the state religion tradition in VA and NE, sacralization of the landscape, and the creation of coercive denominational institutions. As the colonies approached the break with England they were pursuing the European past in "vibrant and complex ways." Beginning with VA, Butler traces the establishment acts in each of the colonies. As the prototypical Anglican colony, VA's establishment was tightly bound up with the rise of a new planter gentry. Parish life was part and parcel of the political landscape and by sacralizing the VA landscape the new elite extended its power and control over the politics of the colony. Anglican establishment proceeded apace in the Carolinas as well. Similar developments occurred in Congregational NE and Quaker PA, were the Anglican church increasing sought to protect itself. In all of the colonies the trend was toward landscape sacralization that increased the power and authority of new elites. During the period of 1680 to 1760, Dissenters also embraced authoritarian denominational structures which disciplined, reshaped and ultimately strengthened them -- leading to a greater Christianization of the American colonies. Focusing in particular on the Quakers and Baptists of PA, Butler finds that It was the Delaware Valley that became the citadel of denominational authority in prerevolutionary America ... By 1740 -- indeed, as early as 1710 -- Boston could claim little that rivaled the authority, prestige, and institutional sophistication of the Quaker's Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the Presbytery and, later, Synod of Philadelphia Baptist Association. (p. 118) The world of early Quakerism with its inner piety and outward peacefulness gave way increasingly to a political and powerfully hierarchical system based upon a centralized institutional structure. It was, indeed, over the power of this central organization that the controversy surrounding George Keith arose with the ultimate result that he left the Society of Friends for the Anglican Church. Even the fiercely independent Baptists of the middle colonies came increasingly under the denominational authority of the Philadelphia Baptist Association (founded in Sept. 1707). The Presbytery of Philadelphia originated in 1706 as a ministerial organization in which the ministers were permanent members and lay elders were transitory. By guaranteeing the work of their fellow ministers and settling disputes within individual congregations, the Presbytery exercised increasing authority. Even German Lutherans were successful in establishing denominational structures and control. Ultimately it was the Anglicans who failed to establish their authority and thereby take a major part in the Christianization of America. The result was the supreme irony of early American denominational development: the failure of the Anglican church in Britain's American colonies, a failure caused not by its inability to adjust to American individualism but by its inability to transplant its institutional authority in the ways the Dissenters did so successfully. (pp. 127-8) 5. Slavery and the African Spiritual Holocaust Led by Anglicans and then later powerfully reinforced by Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodist leaders, clergymen articulated a planter ethic of absolute slave obedience that ran thoroughly counter to contemporary English political and social theory and became a principal foundation of American slavery's distinctive paternalism in late colonial and antebellum society. (p. 129) It was during the same period that American denominationalism took off that slavery came to replace indentured servitude and the labor of black slaves became the foundation upon which the economic prosperity of the colonies rested. In this process, Butler argues that the destruction of African traditions and religious culture amounted to an "African Spiritual Holocaust." Despite the fact that Caribbean slavery was much more deadly for slaves than mainland slavery, and the numbers of slaves as percentage of the total population was much greater in the Caribbean, mainland slavery's growth in this period lead to tremendous anxiety on the part of slave holders. Fearing slave rebellions, they resisted the Christianization of slaves. Slave owning society chose to grant greater coercive powers to masters as the institution grew. NYC slave rebellions in 1712 and 1741, and especially the Stono Rebellion in 1739 (SC), gave even greater force to the slaver owners' fears and lead to more restrictive slave codes. In Virginia the Anglican church was the first to reconcile Christianity with slavery, and they did so by developing a theology of degrees of obedience in which slave obedience was absolute. The work of Bishop William Fleetwood is a particularly fruitful example of this theology to which Butler points. As Winthrop Jordon argued, the emerging slave codes were aimed at whites every bit as much as blacks, their aim was to solidify white racial bonds at the expense of any empathy the "mud sills" might have with slaves. Through the doctrine of absolute obedience, Anglican ministry supported the emergent paternalism of slave owners. Less successful in shaping denominational structures of authority, the Anglican ministries were highly successful in shaping the emergent slave holding culture in ways that re-enforced its violence and brutality. Marginalizing abolitionist Baptists, Anglicans formed an ever deeper bond with the slave holding aristocracy. Lastly in this chapter, Butler turns to the issues of continuities and discontinuities in African religion. Setting up the discursive field by recounting the impact of Melville Herskovitz and Eugene Genovese, both of whom stressed continuities with an African past across the divide of slavery, he argues that African religious belief did not survive as a "system" but that individual practices did. This fits with Butler's larger point about the significance of institutions in Christianizing America. By destroying African institutions, slavery paved the way for the Christianization of African slaves. 6. The Plural Origins of American Revivalism Starting with commentary to the effect that the term "Great Awakening" is less than useful, Butler proceeds to describe first Anglican and then Congregationalist life in the early 18th C. Anglican religious observance centered around ritual, was often oriented toward material external observance, and was intimately bound with the social structure of Virginia in particular. In NE, unlike in Virginia where Anglican observance was on the rise, church membership did stagnate as the late 17th C progressed and go into decline in the early 18th. At the same time, there was a withdrawal from disciplinary functions of the Church in Puritan NE (see C Dayton Taking the Trade on the gender implications). To the assemblage of state-sponsored churches of the 17thC were added a wide range of other denominations in the 18thC. Institutional proliferation marked the 18thC as an increasingly pluralistic religious landscape. Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers all gained in strength by the early 18th C in NE. In the Middle and Southern colonies the pattern was even more exaggerated. Increased immigration brought with it greater ethnic and religious diversity. German Memmonites and Lutherans and Scots-Irish Presbyterians were joined by upstart Baptists challenging the Anglican hegemony in the South. It was in this context of increasing religious diversity that religious renewal occurred. Religious doctrines imported from Europe fuelled the fires of revivalism throughout the colonies. Revivalism arose from a "peculiar, seemingly contradictory, mix of provincialism, regionalism and internationalism" (p. 179) The career of George Whitefield typifies this mix.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy Canipe

    As my interest in American religious history has grown, I’m become aware that Jon Butler’s Awash In A Sea of Faith: The Christianization of the American People stands out as a major interpret which I needed to read. Previously, I had the impression that Butler, a now-emeritus professor of history and religious studies at Yale University had focused the book upon arguing that the First Great Awakening was an interpretive fiction. Instead, this argument is only a part of a sweeping narrative, stre As my interest in American religious history has grown, I’m become aware that Jon Butler’s Awash In A Sea of Faith: The Christianization of the American People stands out as a major interpret which I needed to read. Previously, I had the impression that Butler, a now-emeritus professor of history and religious studies at Yale University had focused the book upon arguing that the First Great Awakening was an interpretive fiction. Instead, this argument is only a part of a sweeping narrative, stretching from the 1600,s through the Civil War. John Butler draws together an impressive array of secondary sources and a reasonable amount of edited primary sources to argue that the American people were not firmly Christianized until the mid-1800s, noting that a higher percentage of Americans regularly attended Christian churches in the mid-20th century that in periods of time he covers. Butler also expressly refers to his cross-disciplinary borrowing from several anthropologists’ modes of studying religion. In so doing, the author proposes to study all modes of belief in “supernaturalism and with the conviction that supernatural beings and powers can and do affect human life as we know it.” (p. 3). He also assumes person who lack any such belief are not religious, a distinction that begs the question, I might argue, insofar as all persons, even persons who profess irreligion or atheism must seek some system to answer human life’s ultimate questions and to settle upon some sort of worldview to define moral behavior. In the Introduction, John Butler seems to be posit his book as debunking a popular form of historical member that would characterize modern America as a nation fallen away from a prior near-consensus of Christian belief and Christian practice. Butler sets out his intended project – tracing “popular religion” – meaning “the religious behavior of laypeople,” not official theological teachings nor pastors and priests nor the institutional Christian church in its many variant forms. Jon Butler begins his task in Chapter 1, “The European Religious Heritage.” Not only does Butler look into the historical literature regarding English religious history and “popular religion,” he considers the same contours from other European nation Several trends appear. First, regular church attendance o taking the Lord’s Supper was not systematic nor universal. He argues that many English did not believe in God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible. Some were indifferent; some were actually secular Second, what we might take describe as occult practices and belief in magic was quite widespread. Third, national churches (which he uniformly labels as state churches) combine civil and ecclesiastical powers. In Chapter 2, “The Crisis of Christian Practice in America,” John Butler takes this motley stew of state churches, a lack of regular Christian practices among many English and others in Europe, and this level of popular reliance on magic into the colonial era. He traces developments into the various English colonies, intentionally disallowing what Butler sees as an erroneous over-focus on Puritan New England. Throughout, he asserts that, as the emerging European nation-states were growing in coercive power over their citizens, so, too was the power of the variety of the churches established as officially government-sanctioned and supported churches in the various English colonies in North American able to partake of such power. This latter position is articulated by Chapter 5, “The Revival of Christian Authority." Nonetheless, Butler argues in Chapter 3, “Magic and the Occult,” the colonist of British North America remained decidedly un-Christianized. It was common, he stresses, for the traditional folk religious beliefs, including a positive view of magic, both white and black, to be a part of popular religion in the colonies. While Butler never writes about Native American religion, his most negative treatment is reserved from the religious impact of enslavement upon people of African descent. The title of Chapter 5, “Slavery and the African Spiritual Holocaust” is a bracing introduction this subject. In my view, his writing does not consider the historical literature in full. More recent historians have noted that, stripped away from African developed a common identity that drew from materials drawn from across a wide range of African cultures even in the colonial era. This would include common elements of various African religious traditions. Instead, Butler inaccurately argues that enslavement decimated and destroyed African religious belief systems. This is actually not the case. Chapter 6, “The Plural Origins of American Revivalism” focuses again upon the plurality of Christian religious views and churches that were part of the religious landscape of British North American before the American Revolution. Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and a myriad of other churches contended for potential believers, with official, colonial-government sponsored churches in each colony demanding at least financial support, if not attendance. This story is continued by Chapter 7, “A Revolutionary Millennium?” Butler focused on the secular aspects of the ideology of the American Revolution, but seeks to downplay the role played by theological convictions. He does trace out the ways, positive and negative, that differing denominations grew or shrank as a result of the American Revolution. Perhaps Butler’s seeming chagrin that the United States did not emerge as an increasingly secular nation, unlike the trend of Europe, he notes that the various churches tended to try to put a Christian spin on the Revolution. “Towards The Antebellum Spiritual Hothouse,” the title of Chapter 8, helpful encapsulates the growth of many Christian denominations after the American Revolution. Butler also brings back into focus the other non-Christian and non-orthodox belief systems the remained – or even emerged – in this period. This includes college-educated men, often Christian, who remained fascinated with alchemy, seer stones and necromancers, Methodism’s tremendous growth, the emergence of substantial Roman Catholic communities via immigration, and spiritualism, and the growth of a distinct African American Christianity. Interestingly, and perhaps contradictory, Butler writes that enslaved Africans, illegally imported after 1808, brought knowledge of African religious beliefs and religious leaders which infused African American Christianity with a distinct African aspect. He also looks at the rise of Mormonism. In all of these traditions, Jon Butler argues for a syncretism among orthodox Christianity, belief in the occult, and direct divine revelation in dreams and visions. Chapter 9 discussed these trends on a continued basis, as well as the disestablishment of state-sponsored churches. In this regard, Professor is rather incorrect. He does not seem to grasp that the First Amendment only disallowed the Federal government from establishing a formal national church, while the state governments remained able to have official state churches. That these state-official churches were all disestablished by the 1830s ought, instead, be discussed as a growth of freedom. The Conclusion is meaningfully titled “Lincoln and the Almost Chosen People.” Jon Butler notes how Christian adherence grew remarkably in the century after the Civil War. Butler’s eventual focus on the religious views of the Sixteenth President is short but helpful. At the same time, he ties to arrive at definite conclusions more fitting for a full religious biography that a brief chapter. Butler argues that Lincoln can be seen as an exemplar of the multitudinous religious influences in antebellum America. Raised on the frontier by an emotionally distant but apparently believing father influenced by the Second Great Awakening, Abraham Lincoln did not become a Christian believer as a boy or teenager. He experimented with the skepticism and nearly atheistic views of some popular European writers of the day. Lincoln would become more interested in matters of religion in later years, seeking for answers and consolation after the deaths of two sons, one before and a second during the Civil War. He and Mary Todd Lincoln attended a Presbyterian church during part of the Civil War, also looking for answers as Lincoln dealt with the emotional freight of sending so many young men to their deaths as President. Mrs. Lincoln was rather taken with spiritualism, as much or more than with orthodox Biblical Christianity, bringing mediums to the White House, thinking to see their 2 dead boys. Lincoln participated in a few but did not seem to believe in this activity. Lincoln also took stock in visions and dreams in regards to the course of the Civil War. Yet, Butler takes great pains to note that Lincoln’s public statements spoke of a God of judgment, and not of Jesus as Savior. To let Butler concludes in his own words, he wrote that “Lincoln himself also represented the ambivalent spiritual inclinations among America’s heterodox citizens, mean and women whose religious practice had been reshaped by the events of the previous three hundred year but who, in Christian terms at least, still remained an “almost chosen people.”” While not entirely convincing, Jon Butlers' book is worth your time to read.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Susie Meister

    Butler tackles three centuries (1550-1865) of American religiosity in this book with the goal of constructing a more complex history than is often presented. His interest is not in perpetuating the Puritan lore, but instead to focus on what he sees as the eclectic religious tapestry of America. He emphasizes the importance of authority, both religious and secular, in forming American religious practice and history. Published before Finke and Stark's seminal work, The Churching of America, Butler Butler tackles three centuries (1550-1865) of American religiosity in this book with the goal of constructing a more complex history than is often presented. His interest is not in perpetuating the Puritan lore, but instead to focus on what he sees as the eclectic religious tapestry of America. He emphasizes the importance of authority, both religious and secular, in forming American religious practice and history. Published before Finke and Stark's seminal work, The Churching of America, Butler does not account for how churches and denominations "marketed" their traditions, and therefore offers a different perspective for how American religious landscape evolved. Butler begins with a discussion on religion in the Old World and describes the "complex infrastructure of theology, law, and social process" sheltered and supported Christianity. Butler discusses great changes that occurred between 1680-1760 where cities and rural areas became "centers of ecclesiastical splendor," and institutional authority was used to sustain and expand their traditions in the New World. Butler claims church attendance dwindled in the mid-seventeenth century in agreement with Edmund Morgan in the emphasis of "visible sainthood." The influx of magic, divination, and occultism to America colored its landscape with new traditions. Butler's discussion on witchcraft indicates that the accusations that eventually caused many (women) to fear were based upon many actual witchcraft practitioners (he doesn't mention Braude's belief that these accusations were driven by long-standing beliefs that women were daughters of Eve and inherently sinful). Butler's discussion on slavery shows developments in how owners and slaves navigated religion. Slave-owners initially saw Christianity as a bar to slaveholding and to effective slave management. Anglican emphasis on absolute obedience had crucial implications for slave punishment. Eventually, most clung to the Biblical justification for their treatment of the slaves. They also began to "convert" slaves, but what resulted was a hybrid of discrete African religious practice and Christianity. Ultimately, however, what emerged is a uniquely African-American Christianity as they were able to establish their own congregations and maintain their own religious identity. Butler claims scholarship on the Great Awakening is greatly exaggerated. The GA was built upon ideas of conversion popularized by Edwards and Whitefield that had been previously reserved for the Native Americans. He claims these revivals were inspired in part by an increase in religious pluralism. Eventually, denominations became the engine of spiritual development. Butler emphasizes the ambiguities of religious practice

  4. 4 out of 5

    Charlie

    Jon Butler's work on American (but not Native American) religion up to the Civil War presents an unusual but fruitful combination of narrative, quantitative data, and a near-anthropological approach to popular religion. Since Butler's thesis is that the origins of American religion cannot be reduced to a homogenous New England Puritanism, the first chapter is a summary of the complexity of religion in Europe. The summary is so good I might assign it as a reading for high school or college studen Jon Butler's work on American (but not Native American) religion up to the Civil War presents an unusual but fruitful combination of narrative, quantitative data, and a near-anthropological approach to popular religion. Since Butler's thesis is that the origins of American religion cannot be reduced to a homogenous New England Puritanism, the first chapter is a summary of the complexity of religion in Europe. The summary is so good I might assign it as a reading for high school or college students. Butler argues that colonists brought this entire complex structure with them and quickly transformed it in the New World. The portions from the founding of the colonies to the Revolutionary War are excellent. I learned many new facts, even about figures with whom I was already familiar. Butler's narration is colorful and witty. He is willing to argue over big-picture interpretations and usually does so well. His decision to examine African-American Christianity in relation to African systems of religion is elucidating. The chapters after the revolution to the conclusion about Lincoln were not as finely crafted. The data was still there, but presented less memorably. Several awkward sentences marred the reading experience for me. I wonder if sacrifices were made to a deadline or a word limit, or perhaps Butler was moving out of his field of expertise. Despite the anticlimactic finish, I still think this is a very good book. Because of its unique approaches, I think it is mandatory for students of American religious history.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Dan Gorman

    Well-written and informative, "Awash in a Sea of Faith" is a good primer on early American religious history, but several of its major claims are not persuasive when read today. Jon Butler makes a strong case for American religious eclecticism, pluralism (though the plural religious groups usually fought with each other), and interest in occult magic. He shows how American religious participation grew through the eighteenth century, thereby proving false the supposed trend of Protestant declensi Well-written and informative, "Awash in a Sea of Faith" is a good primer on early American religious history, but several of its major claims are not persuasive when read today. Jon Butler makes a strong case for American religious eclecticism, pluralism (though the plural religious groups usually fought with each other), and interest in occult magic. He shows how American religious participation grew through the eighteenth century, thereby proving false the supposed trend of Protestant declension, which Puritan descendants first proposed and which nineteenth-century U.S. "Whig" historians latched onto. But Butler is wrong when he argues that there was no First Great Awakening and that slavery totally abolished African religious systems.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Phil

    Paired this with Hatch’s Democratization (they came out within a year of each other). Where Hatch emphasizes democratization, Butler highlights institutional authority and even coercion (in terms of the development of Christianity in the US). That word coercion is a little tricky—Butler’s definitions and examples are often light. In the 17th and early 18th century denominational expansion, Butler’s account of coercion is more compelling than in his account of the 19th century, and his emphasis o Paired this with Hatch’s Democratization (they came out within a year of each other). Where Hatch emphasizes democratization, Butler highlights institutional authority and even coercion (in terms of the development of Christianity in the US). That word coercion is a little tricky—Butler’s definitions and examples are often light. In the 17th and early 18th century denominational expansion, Butler’s account of coercion is more compelling than in his account of the 19th century, and his emphasis on the “sacralization” of the landscape is particularly helpful in demonstrating the rising power of denominations to mark the colonies, and later the states, as Christian. This emphasis on the physical signs and markers of Christianity in promoting its presence prefigured Sally Promey’s “testimonial aesthetic” and “material establishment ideas” about Christian public display in America. In any case, Butler argues strongly that the physical testimonial aesthetic of the church tower and aural force of the bells clanging therein had to work towards marking the colonies and early republic as Christian—such a label was not a given. He shows that Christian “adherence” declined, as Cotton Mather famously bemoaned, in the eighteenth century. After formal disestablishment, “adherence” (basically association with a church) rose in the antebellum period of clunky, rapid population growth, where Protestant hegemony was never guaranteed. Butler labels the antebellum period a “hothouse” of diverse religious groups with innovative practices, fervent beliefs in supernatural intervention, and a reliance on denominational or institutional structures. That’s where his and Hatch’s narratives are most compatible. Hatch demonstrated that the hothouse was flooded with democratic sentiment; Butler demonstrates the opposite tendency towards authoritative institutional structures. We are left with the tension between democratic impulse and coercion... I appreciated Butler’s inclusion of magic, the occult, and the supernatural in this work, though he could’ve taken it further to elucidate what those things meant to everyday people, as David Hall had the year before this book came out. i did not appreciate Butler’s confident assertion that African Americans suffered a “spiritual holocaust” in the eighteenth century. That assertion to me feels like he read a review of Raboteau’s Slave Religion, and maybe skimmed Sobel’s Trabelin’ On, but didn’t take the time to explore the arguments they make that would contradict such a statement of “holocaust.” His argument about the lack of African religious “systems” is more sensible than naming a “holocaust,” and isn’t that far from Sobel’s arguments in Trabelin’ On about a lack of coherent worldview among slaves before revivalism swept the south in the early nineteenth century. But it is now the near consensus in African American religious history that enslaved Africans managed religious practice of one form or another before the Revolution. Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood roundly criticize Butler for this in Come Shouting to Zion. Despite this huge blunder, Butler’s account of the incomplete Christianization of America is the standard historical account for showing how American Christians often employed authoritarian strategies to advance the faith, in full irony of the revolutionary and early democratic spirit. the tumultuous side of the growth of Christianity and the lack of inevitability of any kind of Christian cultural hegemony at any point in our history also emerges clearly. He’s also entertaining—a “savage” iconoclast in terms of historiography, Butler more than anyone else seems to like telling historians they’re wrong.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Devin

    A groundbreaking work in American religious history, and one of the best books I read during my comps. A compelling argument delivered convincingly and in lucid prose. Can't recommend enough.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    Jon Butler's Awash in a Sea of Faith is a compendium of ideas organized around the concept of Christianization and focused primarily on the intellectual and cultural history surrounding American colonial religion. Through the use of lectures, sermons and almanacs, Butler provides a brief review of religion in the United States from the early 17th century up to the Civil War in order to question the prevailing scholarship supporting early American Protestantism. He ultimately believes that Americ Jon Butler's Awash in a Sea of Faith is a compendium of ideas organized around the concept of Christianization and focused primarily on the intellectual and cultural history surrounding American colonial religion. Through the use of lectures, sermons and almanacs, Butler provides a brief review of religion in the United States from the early 17th century up to the Civil War in order to question the prevailing scholarship supporting early American Protestantism. He ultimately believes that American religious history is a tale of "Christian ascension rather than declension"(2), and goes on to explain his perspective through an analysis of the exchange of intellectual ideas between the sacred and secular factions of society. While a good deal of historical scholarship has upheld the idea that Puritanism maintained a stronghold on early national America, Awash in a Sea of Faith takes a closer look at microcosmic beliefs and practices to show the extent of pluralism in colonial religion. In doing so, the author undermines the significance of the Great Awakening and the prevailing influences of Protestant evangelicalism that are said to be a direct result of the clergy's domineering role in Christianity. Instead, Butler discusses the factors he feels have had the greatest impact on religious hegemony: the supremacy of state churches, the compelling techniques used by despotic church leaders, the continuance of religious syncretism, and finally, the breakdown of African religious traditions. According to the author, one must look at American religion in its original, European context in order comprehend the narrative in its entirety. Contradictory attitudes toward the authoritative state church tradition, religious indifference, diabolically opposing views and a state-sanctioned ecclesiastical order all followed the Europeans to colonial America. This kind of lethargy is most easily seen in seventeenth-century New England as a result of struggling leadership, and in the overall inadequacy of the clergy in the South, both of which make it appear as if Christianity had lost sight of its goal. However, during the years from 1680 to 1760, religious authority became increasingly influential, determined to revive and centralize itself. It is this time period that Butler heralds as the height of Christian ascendancy. It was also during this time that capture, transport and subjugation "left slaves remarkably bereft of traditional collective religious practices"(130) and when members of the American clergy eventually accepted the idea of slavery, an opinion formed through an analysis of the doctrines of subjugation and obedience coupled with the portrayal of the plantation owner as the ultimate, divine authority. Reshaping these Biblical ideas enabled colonists to convince one another, as well as their slaves, that the physical labor being performed for their earthly master was the equivalent of spiritual labor for their heavenly master—a belief that helped to preserve order and support the institution of slavery. For Butler, it helped to establish a connection between the increase in slave labor and the development of institutional Christianity. If the American clergy can transform their perspective of slavery ever so simply, what does that say about the Christianization of America? First, it demonstrates that religion in early national America was composed of a web of intricately woven, changeable and adaptable beliefs. It also shows that the history of American religion is much more than a derivative of early American Protestantism, and thus much more complicated than had previously been thought. Finally, it helps to support Jon Butler's claim that the Christianization of America consisted of more growth than decline, and that much of this transformation can be explained through a process of syncretism.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Samuel

    In Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People, the author “proposes that we attach less importance to Puritanism as the major force in shaping religion in America and more importance to the religious eclecticism that has long been prominent” (2). Countering the powerful myth—most famously perpetuated by Robert Baird and Stephen Colwell in the 1850s—that America had been a uniformly Christian nation since its colonial beginnings, Butler demonstrates how focusing on t In Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People, the author “proposes that we attach less importance to Puritanism as the major force in shaping religion in America and more importance to the religious eclecticism that has long been prominent” (2). Countering the powerful myth—most famously perpetuated by Robert Baird and Stephen Colwell in the 1850s—that America had been a uniformly Christian nation since its colonial beginnings, Butler demonstrates how focusing on the popular religion of laypeople rather than theology produced by clergy reveals that many American colonists were areligious or otherwise rather than Christian, and that Church attendance and Christianity made its biggest inroads into American society following the Revolutionary War and particularly in the early antebellum era before the Civil War. Furthermore, Butler emphasizes the pluralistic reality of American faith not only among several denominations but also from various European and African roots including magic and the occult that underwent a folklorization in America which allowed it to largely survive the attacks by governments and the social and intellectual elite. This resilience of European beliefs in magic and the occult allowed for its syncretic appearances in nineteenth century Methodism, Mormonism, Afro-American Christianity, and spiritualism. Butler also notes an important paradoxical myth concerning institutionalism during the 1840s. Whereas nativist Protestants accused “Catholics and Mormons [of holding] a collectivist ethic that sacrificed individual rights on the altar of authoritarian institutionalism,” Protestant �denominations exerted an equal effort in developing their institutional authority during this time period. So while American religion—Protestant Christianity as many would have wanted to assert—was being purported as a land of individualism and religious freedom, it was in fact a religiously diverse landscape with many competing denominations that used institutional coercion to maintain power among followers in the same ways that other European and non-mainstream religions did and do. Finally, Butler uses the built environment and what he calls “landscape sacrilization” to support his argument of increased Christian practice and institutional control in eighteenth and nineteenth century America (in direct opposition to the myth of de-Christianization) (269). While the images and numeric inclusion of new churches built between 1780-1820 (10,000 new churches constructed in America) and 1820-1860 (40,000 more) does indeed seem to illustrate his points well, these portions could benefit from a bit more qualification and explicit explanation (270). For example, it would be interesting to note the proportion of Churches built in relation to population growth; if they are growing proportionately it would not support his argument as well as if Church-construction outstrips population growth. Furthermore, he could have more explicitly discussed the connections between Church construction and institutional power rather than allow for its implicit correlation. Overall, however, the inclusion of a material culture element to his argument was welcomed, interesting, and rather effective in supporting his interesting and sustainable thesis.

  10. 5 out of 5

    John

    The scope of Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith is extremely impressive. Butler examines religious life in all the colonies that would become part of the United States, from the early 17th century all the way to the Civil War, and provides a fascinating survey of an early America that was perhaps not as devoutly Protestant as some historians would have us believe. Though the diversity of the colonies and the long sweep of time make a coherent narrative seem improbable, Butler manages to assemb The scope of Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith is extremely impressive. Butler examines religious life in all the colonies that would become part of the United States, from the early 17th century all the way to the Civil War, and provides a fascinating survey of an early America that was perhaps not as devoutly Protestant as some historians would have us believe. Though the diversity of the colonies and the long sweep of time make a coherent narrative seem improbable, Butler manages to assemble several convincing and comprehensive arguments. First, he argues that the 17th century is less important in understanding American religious history than the 18th century – or rather what he would consider a long 18th century, roughly 1680 to 1820. Christian practice was torpid in the 17th century, according to Butler – even Puritan New England saw declension as the first settlers gave way to their children and grandchildren. The long 18th century, by contrast, was a period of “Christian ascension” across America. Butler is one of the leaders of the whole "the Great Awakening is an interpretive fiction" argument. He writes that America’s history of religious pluralism and repeated revivals is far too complex to be neatly divided into a 1st and a 2nd Great Awakening. What is important is the “breadth and diversity” of “attempts at religious renewal” all across America throughout the long 18th century, rather than anything specific to the 1740s or 1810s. Even if one does consider a “Great Awakening” to have begun in the early 1700s, Butler implies that it never really ended. Another of Butler's major points is that a strong belief in the supernatural never really died among the vast majority of Americans, and this popular supernaturalism helped create an “antebellum spiritual hothouse” in the early 19th century. This provided fertile soil for a variety of movements, many of which were born in Europe but transplanted to America. Not everything in Butler's book is totally convincing, but this is really one of those touchstone books that everyone studying American religion should probably read. Especially if you are only interested in more modern American religion, and you want just one or two books to introduce you to what historians say about colonial/Revolutionary religion...this should probably be one of them.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    One of my high school friends, Walt Wallace, went on to study American history in college and graduate schools, writing a lengthy thesis on the religious beliefs of colonial soldiers during the revolution. I'd been with him on some of his research to the archives of libraries in Illinois and Wisconsin and actually read the finished product while staying at the apartment he shared with Arthur Kazar near Northern Illinois University where I was to take the GRE. Being interested in American history One of my high school friends, Walt Wallace, went on to study American history in college and graduate schools, writing a lengthy thesis on the religious beliefs of colonial soldiers during the revolution. I'd been with him on some of his research to the archives of libraries in Illinois and Wisconsin and actually read the finished product while staying at the apartment he shared with Arthur Kazar near Northern Illinois University where I was to take the GRE. Being interested in American history to begin with and being sensitized to the religious dimension of it by Walter's work and my own work in seminary, I have ever since been attracted to books which might shed light on this aspect of the national character. The perfect book would, finally and convincingly, allow me to understand how contemporary people believe in personal immortality in the face of much evidence to the contrary and little or none in its favor. Butler didn't manage. No one has managed. But he did help me see past the apparent overemphasis on the Puritan colonial experiments in American historiography.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Steve Wiggins

    Butler does a wonderful job demonstrating that America as a "Christian nation" is quite overstated. I particularly enjoyed his exploration of lingering witch-type practices in culture that is nominally Christian. An academic book, but certainly readable by anyone with a deep interest in American religion. More comments may be found on my blog: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World. Butler does a wonderful job demonstrating that America as a "Christian nation" is quite overstated. I particularly enjoyed his exploration of lingering witch-type practices in culture that is nominally Christian. An academic book, but certainly readable by anyone with a deep interest in American religion. More comments may be found on my blog: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    Somewhat inscrutable and difficult to read, but interesting.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sula

    Unique and informative, solid research and presentation

  15. 4 out of 5

    Sam Newton

    Butler emphasizes a Christian ascension and greater religious pluralism before the great awakening, which he discounts.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Harrison

  17. 4 out of 5

    Roxanne Jenkins

  18. 5 out of 5

    Cameron Nielsen

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ben

  20. 4 out of 5

    Brant

  21. 5 out of 5

    Tarah Luke

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tim

  23. 4 out of 5

    Grant

  24. 4 out of 5

    Turbokinny

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kimhansen

  26. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin

  27. 4 out of 5

    Claire

  28. 5 out of 5

    Timothy Maples

  29. 4 out of 5

    Janine

  30. 5 out of 5

    ProfessorSaw

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