Tuesday, October 12, 2010

God In America, Part One: An Exercise in the Evangelical Whig View of Early American Religious History

I just got done watching Part 1 of the PBS series "God in America." I know I am behind (Part 2 aired tonight), but such is the life of a blogger, professor, and a new department chair.

The series begins with the Franciscan attempts to convert the Pueblo Indians to Christianity in the 17th century.  This, of course, is a sad chapter in American history.  The Spanish friars were militant.  Their evangelistic zeal led to the destruction of Pueblo sacred sites and all sorts of brutality.  The high point of this story is the Pueblo revolt of 1680, the Indian rebellion that put an end to the Spanish presence in the west and proved that Christianity would not come to America unchanged.

This is a nice way to begin, but it has absolutely no connection to the rest of Part One's narrative.  One gets the impression that this was just tacked on to the beginning of the program because SOMETHING needed to be said about native Americans.  The story line of the native Americans, and the Spanish for that matter, are quickly dropped in favor of what I call in the title of this post the "evangelical Whig view" of American history.  This script could have been written by George Bancroft.

And where is slave religion?  (Let's hope it is discussed later in the series).

The Puritans are next. Steven Prothero of Boston University establishes himself as our guide through this history, but we also hear from a star-studded lineup of historians that include Michael Winship, Frank Lambert, Mary Beth Norton, Stephen Marini

Much time is spent on Anne Hutchinson. Too much time.  Prothero is very good at showing the Protestant individualism of the Puritans and how Hutchinson, in some ways, seemed more Protestant than the Puritans.  Hutchinson is clearly the star.  There is more time spent on her story than on the Puritans who removed her from the colony.  Was the Hutchinson trial really the most important moment in 17th century New England history? Would the people living in Puritan New England have seen it this way?  Absolutely not. The Halfway Covenant, King Philips War, the Salem Witch Trials, and a host of other events would have been more important to the Puritan "city on a hill," but these events do not fit easily into the Whig narrative.

The portrayal of the Hutchinson trial is well-acted and the trial transcript is used as the script.  Winship claims that during this trial Hutchinson "rips him (John Winthrop) to shreds."  Norton celebrates the rebellious spirit of Hutchinson.  Prothero concludes that Hutchinson is the future of America--she represents liberty of conscience and religious freedom. 

The documentary then jumps to George Whitefield. Marini stresses the individualism of evangelical religion. (By the way, I would love to take a class with Marini--so much passion and energy!)  Harry Stout mentions Whitefield's appeal to the emotions and the imagination.  Lambert connects Whitefield's evangelical, individualistic Protestantism to that of Hutchinson.  A clear intellectual and spiritual genealogy is developing here.

The discussion of the First Great Awakening does a great job of explaining evangelicalism as a real and powerful religious movement that impacted people's lives.  The documentary uses a host of quotes from the diaries of Whitefield converts to make this point.  Very well done.

But overall the treatment of the Great Awakening is blatantly Whig. One is left with the impression that the Great Awakening was more of a political movement than it was a religious movement. Stout talks about the way Whitefield's evangelicalism challenged "the old aristocratic order" and even suggests that the Great Awakening led to the popular idea that "we are the people."  Then Daniel Driesbach talks about the way that the Great Awakening brought the colonies together.  One clearly gets the impression that these historians are setting us up for the American Revolution.  I tell my students that the Great Awakening created a transatlantic religious network that made the colonies more British and Protestant.  "God in America" would prefer to see it as the seedbed of individual liberty, revolution, and American identity.

And then, in the last three minutes of Part One, we get the triumph of the evangelical Whig narrative or, what Jon Butler has called "Born Again History." 

The narrator states that people began to insist that it was their right to worship in the church of their choice.  Evangelical religion is said to have provided the American Revolution with a sense of "moral" urgency. Prothero says that following the First Great Awakening, the Revolution was "inevitable" and "perfectly logical."

In the end, the story of "God in America"--at least early America-- is best told by following a direct line between Hutchinson and Whitefield, culminating in the American Revolution.  At times I thought I was sitting in a lecture at Glenn Beck University.


colin said...

I agree with your assessment Dr Fea. though I didn`t see it, I can see the rationale behind your arguments. Is this on the history channel?

Mary Lee said...

Hello Dr. Fea,

I watched part one, and I agree with your ideas about it being Whig and setting up the Revolution. I felt scholarly when Harry Stout came on the TV, and I knew who he was and had even read his work.

Also, your paragraph on the Great Awakening made me laugh because during the program my mother was surprised by how many miles Whitfield covered in one year. I responded and told her how he traveled to all of the colonies and Scotland and England, too. They all experienced the same sermons making them more connected. I was totally your student. haha

I am interested in your thoughts about something from part two. I'll be looking for your post...

Russ said...

I missed part one, and with that last line of your review, I won't rush to see it. I actually don't care much for tv history, and it doesn't sound like this would be an exception. I've mentioned before that I think Hutchinson gets far too much attention anyway, and to make her the progenitor of religious liberty is nonsense. Roger Williams maybe (well, still no), but Hutchinson wasn't crusading for religious freedom at all.

Bob Robinson said...

When you say that this documentary is an "Exercise in the Evangelical Whig View of Early American Religious History," how exactly do you define "Whig?" I know of the political party, but I think you have a specific definition in mind.

Also, are you surprised that PBS' "Frontline" would buy into this interpretation of history? That seems odd!

mcconeghy said...

I have a post that takes your helpful criticism and proposes a way I might use them in my own courses. Take a look if you would:


L said...

I didn't see the episode, but a friend of mine saw several minutes while she was channel-surfing. She's very much outside the religious-studies orbit, and she was completely blown out of the water by how _seriously_ people took religion "back then"--how it suffused every part of life and thought, and animated every choice people make. How it was literally a life and death matter, considering the survival rate of the first shipload of Pilgrims to arrive.

My fairly secular friend was shocked to encounter a worldview so different than her own. And by her descriptions, I'd say it was a fairly accurate portrayal of the worldview of these early English settlers.

I'm sure your criticisms of the episode are entirely fair. But judging from my friend's reactions, it seems that there are some important things the episode did right.