Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Author's Corner with S. Scott Rohrer

Scott Rohrer is an independent historian who has published several books on religious history. This interview is based on his new book Jacob Green's Revolution (Penn State University Press, November 2014).

JF: What led you to write Jacob Green's Revolution?

SR: When I finished my previous book on religious migrations in early America, I turned my attention to the American Revolution—my initial thought was to explore how a Presbyterian community functioned during the war, in an attempt to understand what made church members such fervent backers of the Revolution. I wanted to know what was happening on the ground, religiously and socially, during the war. So I began reading about a Presbyterian community that seemed like a good candidate for a case study: Morris County, N.J., a Presbyterian-Whig stronghold if there ever was one. Presbyterians dominated the religious landscape in Morris and wholeheartedly backed the war.

As I read through the primary and secondary sources for this community, a name kept jumping off the page: Jacob Green. I had never heard of him, but I became more and more intrigued by his story as I learned more about this remarkable man: Green wrote a bestselling tract (a social-religious satire), helped persuade New Jerseyans to declare for independence, and fought for the abolition of slavery, among many other things. I also found that no one had written a modern biography of him. There was a personal reason as well for this change: my first book (on the Moravians’ agricultural settlements in North Carolina) was a community study, and I realized I really wasn’t interested in doing another one. It would be fun to do something different, to write a biography.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Jacob Green's Revolution?

SR: Jacob Green was all about reforming society, so this book seeks to explain why—and to explain why his source of energy is important to our understanding of revolutionary society. And my argument is that Calvinism—for all its seemingly crazy predestinarian beliefs that many contemporaries saw as inhibiting reform (where’s the incentive to act morally, to do good, to reform society, if God has preordained your fate, and this fate is immutable?)—spurred on Green’s reform drive and was vibrant, even revolutionary, compared with, say, High Church Anglicanism.

JF: Why do we need to read Jacob Green's Revolution?

SR: To be blunt, some reviewers will be asking this very question: why should we care about someone so obscure? Admittedly, this parson from Morris County, N.J., is not a household name, even to historians of the revolutionary period. Few have heard of him. Which is exactly why I think he’s worthy of study. At heart, I’m a social historian who finds the obscure just as interesting and important as the famous. This book details the life of a little-known revolutionary who pursued a reform program that was as radical and ambitious as anything pursued by the Adamses and Jeffersons of the revolutionary world. Green’s life provides an enlightening look into the ways religion influenced—and did not influence—society during the revolutionary era.

I’d like to think this book is worth a read for a second reason:
Jacob Green’s Revolution experiments with the biographical format. Religion’s influence on the Revolution was not uniform. So I decided to tell an alternate story between the main chapters in an effort to show this, and to better demonstrate Calvinism’s inherent radicalism. The second story revolves around a High Church Anglican named Thomas Bradbury Chandler who lived about 20 miles from Green and was Green’s polar opposite: both were New Englanders who came to New Jersey to become ministers; both pursued reform causes; both were influential writers—but they took opposite sides in the revolutionary drama and had far different conceptions of society and religion’s role in it. So Chandler’s story, told as narrative-driven vignettes, is meant to sharpen our understanding of Green’s radicalism. I also hope readers, especially general readers, will simply find Chandler’s story interesting and entertaining.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SR: History’s in my DNA. I always hated math and science and never, ever considered pursuing a career in business. From a young age I was fascinated by colonial America—the architecture, the people, the times they lived in. Besides taking trips to Williamsburg, visits to the old family farm in Lancaster County, Pa., also hooked me on early American history. My ancestors were German Mennonites, and my great-grandfather’s farm was a trip back in time. Those Mennonite roots helped pique my interest in religious history. I was utterly fascinated by the Mennonites, Moravians and others, and how their religious beliefs influenced the way they lived.

JF: What is your next project?

SR: My next project builds on Jacob Green’s Revolution—it takes a deeper look into religion and revolution by focusing on the British Atlantic world over three centuries. The work that’s been done on religion and the American Revolution is outstanding, and the quality of this work is forcing me to try to find fresh ways to approach the topic. That’s a healthy exercise.

I do think studies attempting to explain religion’s influence—or lack of influence—on the Revolution are too focused on the 18th century and the Great Awakening. A long, long history of religious turmoil stretching back to Henry the VIII helped condition the colonists to react a certain way when the crisis with British authorities began in the 1760s. This history was centered on the English Church’s attempts to impose conformity and the backlash this attempt created. So to fully grasp the religious dimensions of the revolutionary crisis, I’m going all the way back to Tudor England and the attempts during the Elizabethan period to stifle dissent and create a consensus for a state church based on a middle way (“via media”).

The book will be divided into three sections that look at religious conflict through a series of case studies: the Tudor period; the Laudian years of the 1630s; and the American scene in the 18th. I’m most interested in comparing/contrasting England, Scotland, Ireland, and America (including Canada) over the three periods and showing how important this history was to the American colonists and their impending revolution. The bishop’s cause and Thomas Bradbury Chandler will figure prominently in the story, too.

JF: Thanks, Scott! Sounds good.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner