Oppositionalism And The Shaping Of American Protestant Identity

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How was a sense of identity shaped and reinforced within American Protestantism until the eve of the First World War? This important question penetrates to one of the fundamental questions probed throughout this volume—namely, what is it that actually "defines" Protestantism?

For the first Protestant settlers, their Protestant identity was what had singled them out for victimization and discrimination in Jacobean and Caroline England. Their sense of identity, already strong, was reinforced by their experience of suffering, which was frequently compared to the experiences of Israel in Pharaonic Egypt. The dangerous voyage across the Atlantic was like the crossing of the Red Sea, and the arrival at New England like the entry into the promised land of Canaan. The long history of the exodus narrative as a source of inspiration to American Protestants began with the founding of the nation.

Once settled in America, the predominantly Congregational church polity of the seventeenth century diluted a sense of Protestant identity. Memories of a European past began to fade, and the new generation knew the past indirectly, not as a lived reality or shared experience. Diaries and journals of the period certainly emphasize the importance of religious faith to many early Americans. However, this was not articulated in terms of a shared Protestant identity. The religious identity of many seems primarily to have been developed within the family, among neighbors, within the congregation, and at the level of the township. Faith was often a strongly individual commitment, expressed by church attendance and in civic responsibility.

The Great Awakening and its successor movements certainly gave a new energy and sense of direction to religious faith in America. Yet the renewal of individual faith was not linked with a deeper commitment to some pan-denominational entity called "Protestantism." My own reading of the journals and sermons of the period, while not exhaustive, suggests that a sense of transdenominational identity was articulated using the category of "the gospel," not Protestantism. In part, this may reflect growing tensions within society over the colonial question, which highlighted fissures within American Protestantism of the time—above all, between Anglicans, on the one hand, and Presbyterians and Congregationalists, on the other. At the time of the Second Great Awakening, American Protestant identity was shaped primarily by the concrete experiences of the denomination, especially its officers and structures. "Protestantism" seemed to be something ethereal and hypothetical—an abstract entity lying over the horizon of everyday church life.

If any one factor can be identified as sharpening up a sense of shared Protestant identity, it is "oppositionalism"—the belief that an outside agency threatened the future of all Protestants in America. One of the defining features nourishing and fueling a sense of Protestant identity during the period 1750 to 1960 was open hostility toward Catholicism.45 Protestants were those who abhorred Catholicism—whether for its ideas, intolerance, oppression, or religious practices. In the eighteenth century, this opposition was often rather theoretical—there were few Catholics in America at this time—but lacked nothing in vigor for that reason. Paul Dudley (1675-1751), chief justice of Massachusetts, established the Dudleian lectures on religion at Harvard College, one of which was required to expose "the idolatry of the Romish church," including its "damnable heresies" and "abominable superstitions."46

When the British government extended full civil and religious freedom to Catholics in the colony of Quebec in 1774, American Protestants reacted with indignation, seeing this as legitimizing tyranny in the region. This hostility toward Catholicism was deeply ingrained across the denominations, and thoroughly embedded within American culture as a whole, shaping both the cultural and religious identity of Protestantism.47

Conspiracy theories mushroomed. In 1834 the somewhat incendiary Lyman Beecher published his Plea for the West, which portrayed the pope in cahoots with degenerate Catholic European monarchs in a plot to take over the Mississippi Valley. Tensions rose, leading to the burning of a convent in Charlestown in 1834.48 These were given credibility as Catholic emigration to America began to surge in the second half of the nineteenth century. "Nativism" became a significant ideology, rallying those already settled in America against the newcomers, whom they believed threatened to undermine their religious and political freedoms.49 Catholicism was regularly and aggressively portrayed as "the other" or "the threat," and as fundamentally at odds with the libertarian and republican principles of the United States. Rhetoric shaped perception, and perception became reality.

The case of late nineteenth-century Boston illustrates this trend well. In 1800 Boston, the city at the heart of the largely Puritan commonwealth of Massachusetts, was a powerful symbol of the American Yankee Protestant heritage. Yet mass immigration from Catholic Ireland from 1840 onward changed everything. In 1885 three Protestants were arrested by the police for preaching on Boston Common, sparking protests that revealed the deep levels of insecurity within the community—above all, the sense of having become aliens and strangers in what was once their heartland.50

Protestantism closed ranks against this growing threat. Its somewhat tenuous and fluctuating sense of shared faith and values was given both focus and substance by the perception of a serious external threat to church and nation. Other external threats helped shape the notion of a mainline Protestant identity, which had to be defended against external threats. The election of Mormon apostle Reed Smoot to the U.S. Senate in 1903 caused the mainline Protestant denominations to react against a clear threat to their ideas and values, particularly in the light of Smoot's commitment to polygamy.51

The decade before the First World War represents a transitional period in American Protestant history. There was little, if any, sense of a looming crisis of identity. Protestants, having always enjoyed the liberty that comes from writing the law, were confident that no difference existed between duty to the church and to the state. Yet change was under way. By about 1910, the role of government was in transition: it was turning from the enforcement of a particular moral or religious order to ensuring that competition was fair among the various concentrations of power—whether these took the form of political parties, pressure groups, business interests, or religious communities.

The scene was thus set for new tensions as American culture appeared to move in a more progressive, secular direction. The ground had been prepared for the preliminary skirmishes of the culture wars and a fundamental realignment of American Protestantism in the twentieth century—a matter to which we shall return in a later chapter.

But our attention now turns to the great events of the nineteenth century, during which Protestantism experienced massive expansion— and in growing, changed in more ways than its numerical strength. The global expansion of Protestantism reshaped its ideas and attitudes, with highly significant results for its understanding of its identity and mission.

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