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.