Monday, 6 September 2021

Building a Righteous Nation: Religion in the political construction and disintegration of the United States 1787-1861 (Thursday 23 September)

Religious conviction and affiliation have been and remain fundamental components of being American since the first ships carried hundreds of Europeans across the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century in search of new lives. Many who settled and founded colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America sought the freedom to worship in ways they believed to be correct. The Rhode Island colony was founded on the principle of religious freedom, while some Puritans, who had left Europe to escape persecution for their beliefs, expelled dissenters from their own communities. Quakers founded Pennsylvania, Catholics Maryland. Lutherans and members of small Christian sects came from the German states. Jewish refugees fleeing Dutch Brazil settled on Long Island (New Amsterdam/York).

As the War of American Independence (1775-1783) brought together the thirteen colonies of British America and a new nation was born, religious freedom was a primary concern of the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were all active in their local churches but keen to avoid religious dogma and strife. The Constitution of the United States, written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, had a strong secular character, and its First Amendment (1791), part of the Bill of Rights, sought to ensure freedom of religion.

Our first speaker of the new season, Professor Richard Carwardine, has taken 1787 as the starting point for his lecture Building a Righteous Nation: Religion in the political construction and disintegration of the United States 1787-1861. The 'disintegration' of his title relates to the American Civil War (1861-1865). Its central cause was slavery. The schism was between the Northern states (the Union) and the South (the Confederate States of America). Methodists, Northern Baptists and Congregationalists usually supported the war effort, though Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans and conservative Presbyterians were wary of dividing their members. Richard Carwardine has argued that many Methodists regarded the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 as heralding the arrival of the kingdom of God in America. The Confederate States were overwhelmingly Protestant. Both free people and slaves identified with evangelical Protestantism, but slavery divided the evangelical denominations.

Some members will remember Richard Carwardine speaking on Abraham Lincoln: Myth, Legacy and Reality at Green Park Station in February 2012. Those who do will be pleased to welcome him back to Bath for what is likely to be a stimulating lecture.

Mike Short