In which we see the shifting logic of belief, and evolving notions of common sense
—Hey Mr. K.
|Presbyterian Church, Williamsburg, Virginia|
—Yeah. I said “Oh my God.”
Right. As I mentioned, I want to start today’s discussion with that. Because God—more specifically, Jesus—was actually a major force as the colonial era came to a close in British North America. As I’ve been telling you many times now, if you’re growing up in in the British colonies, much of the outside world is very far away, literally and figuratively. But Jesus is close to home. Actually, in an important sense, Jesus for the first time may actually be in your home.
—What do you mean?
Sorry, Kylie. I’m being a little elliptical here. Let’s go about this a different way: Ethan, what is your relationship with Jesus like?
—I don’t have a relationship with Jesus. I’m Jewish.
—What do you mean, “So?”
I mean that the fact that you’re Jewish doesn’t mean you don’t have to contend with Jesus, does it? I mean he’s everywhere, isn’t he? I don’t mean this in a spiritual sense; I mean that every time you turn around you bump into him. Churches, Christmas trees, people wearing necklaces with crosses. As you know, this isn’t evidence of any great religiosity in American society, necessarily. We live in a culture that’s largely secular and pluralistic. Without exaggerating the similarities, I’ll tell you that the British colonies were also significantly secular and pluralistic for most of the century before the American Revolution, though mix was different than it is today.
—I thought that people back then were a lot more religious than we are today.
In some ways, yes. Christianity of the Protestant variety was almost universal. Certainly no one was going around proclaiming atheism. (In fact, the number of avowed atheists is very small, less than five percent, even today.) But precisely because the colonies are not only Protestant, but Protestant in diverse ways, it’s hard to insist on any one way of doing things, though Lord knows some people try. There’s also a lot of what one historian has called “horse-shed Christianity”: people who go religious services to gossip and trade just outside the church door. Church as a social, not a sacred, ritual.
A lot of this diversity is geographic. The New England colonies are more religious than the rest, which reflects the imperatives of its founding as well as the fact that New England towns were compact enough for churchgoing to be a realistic option in terms of distance and having the collective financial resources to pay for churches and ministers. Ministers were paid with taxes that were imposed whether you were an officially accepted member of a church or not. Church membership (as opposed to churchgoing, which was required and probably perfunctory for that very reason) was only a fraction of the population of a given town. This reflected the fact that in many congregations you had to give convincing testimony of your conversion to gain admission—assuming you wanted admission, which many people did not. In the middle colonies, there were a profusion of Protestant sects (the Dutch Reformed Church in New York; Presbyterian churches in New Jersey; Quaker congregations in Pennsylvania, to name three examples that also overlapped), which prevented religious cohesion. In the South, most churchgoers identified with the mainstream (Anglican) Church of England, which we today call the Episcopalian Church. Yes, Yin?
—Why is it called the Episcopalian Church?
The name refers to a unit of church organization of bishops. Presbyterians, for example, are organized around presbyteries, which are collections of clergymen in region, which contrasts with a Congregational church, where each of which one stands on its own. (Most American Puritans were Congregationalists; a lot of English Puritans were Presbyterian.) An episcopacy is a more hierarchical than a presbytery. The papacy is the most hierarchical of all: it puts the Pope on top, something Protestants of all stripes rejected.
Systems that you’re not part of or interested in often do. To me, Jonah, all hip-hop music sounds the same.
About as crazy as a non-separating Congregationalist with hopes for Anglican reformation.
—I don’t get it.
—I have a different question.
—You said you had to pay church taxes whether you went to church or not.
Yes, that’s right. Actually, not only that: if you went to a different church—let’s say you were a Quaker who went to a meetinghouse, the way Quakers did, sitting silently until the spirit literally moved them, hence their name and one reason so many people regarded them as weirdoes—you also had to pay for the support of that church in addition to the one that was officially established. If you were in Virginia or South Carolina, for example, it would be the Church of England. If you were in Connecticut, it would probably be to your local Congregationalist Church.
—That doesn’t seem fair.
—Why should you have to pay for something you don’t do or use?
Well, that’s how the world works, isn’t it? I have to pay taxes to the government for wars, whether I approve of them or not. We can’t have people deciding which individual thing people are willing to pay for or which they won’t. There are certain compromises we have to make, certain freedoms we have to give up, in order to have a functioning society. If go to a Catholic Church, I don’t pay taxes, but I put money in an envelope each week. Who knows how the money gets used. I’d probably be annoyed if I did.
—But that’s different.
—You can’t make someone pay for what they believe!
Oh no? Can a faith for which you don’t make any sacrifices really mean anything? In any case, you don’t have to believe. But you do have to pay.
Hmmm. Emily thinks this is crazy. Adam, straighten her out.
—Because she’s right.
Damn. Anyone? Anyone who sees agrees with my position—that religion, like government, is a foundation of civilization and must be financially supported by all members of a community for the sake of social cohesion—raise your hand.
You’re tough customers. A consumer mentality, apparently: everyone pays for their own religion, or doesn’t pay for religion at all. Well, I’d like to say that you just don’t get it. I want to say that your imagined peers here in 1760 just plain see the matter differently than you do. But I can’t do that. Anymore, anyway. Because a growing number of them agree with you. That’s one of the ways the world is actually changing, though in what is still a largely invisible way.
—Why is it changing if everything had been the same for so long?
Ah, good question, Yin. To answer that, I have to go back to Jesus. You all know about the Reformation; you learned about it before you took this course. That pitted Protestants against Catholics. But in the first half of the 1700s we in effect have a second Reformation that pitted older brands of Protestantism against newer ones. And the consequences were profound, not only in religious terms but in political ones, too.
—Wait. Before you get to that: what about the slaves? They didn’t have to pay taxes, did they? I mean, they couldn’t, even if they wanted to.
No, Sadie, they didn’t have to pay church taxes. But that wasn’t so much because they couldn’t afford it. It was more because they weren’t allowed to become Christians.
Nope. But that’s one of the things that’s beginning to change: slaves are beginning to become Christians in large numbers. This event I’m talking about, which tends to get buried these days in the history textbooks—we’re much more interested in race and gender issues these days—was known as the First Great Awakening. Speaking of which, would someone give the dozing Ethan over there a nudge?
Vaya con Dios, Ethan.
Next: Waking up with God