Last time I was in Williamsburg I picked up Under the Cope of Heaven, by Patricia U. Bonomi. This book was first published in 1986, and at the time was on the forefront of re-examining the place of religion in the mid to late Colonial Period. I’m reviewing the updated edition which was published in 2003, an editition which does a good job intergrating scholarship from 17 intervening years into the new text. This is one of the aspects of the book that I most appreciate. There are no “addendums to the original chapter” in the work, the new research has been intergrated into the text seemlessly.
Bonomi does an excellent job of countering the typical belief that religion in the colonies was dead or dying before the advent of the first Great Awakening. Rather, Bonomi points out, at the time when religion was said to be dying in the colonies there was actually a rapid increase of new churches being started. Bonomi does a good job unpacking how the typical belief of a vapid religious atmosphere came to be, pointing out that the oft-quoted lack of clergy did not mean that the people were not wanting spiritual nourishment. She also makes a good case that the Anglican reports to the Society of Promotion of the Gospel often over-stated the case that the “sects” (non-established churches) were ignorant and immoral. She even goes so far as to state that the commonly held “20% church attendance” was incredibly low – asserting that it was more like that “60%” of Colonial Americans were church goers. Given what I’ve read about the nature of Colonail religion (as well as her own book) I have a hard time swallowing Bonomi’s number. I have a feeling that the two are using different measuring sticks.
The key angle of the text, however, is religion’s effects on the political attitudes of Colonial Americans. To Bonomi, the struggle that many “sepratist” Christians waged against the established churches set the stage for a later questioning of authority (in particular the authority of a church-state) that would culminate in the Revolution. While this questioning first took form among the New Side and New Light Evangelicals of the Great Awakening, the practice of denominational politics eventually became commonplace – especially in the Middle Colonies (and especially Pennsylvania – who’s lack of a state church led to a poliferation of Christian denominations within it’s borders). By the time of the revolution Evangelicals, Rationalists, and moderates were all utilizing similar religious language to stump for the Revolution. Whether or not you think that was a good thing depends on your theological outlook, I suppose (I tend to cringe).
What most intrigued me in this book was how Bonomi deftly showed how Colonials came to embrace the relationship between civil and religious liberty (highlighted by the Colonial’s reaction to the proposal of seating a Bishop in America). In the climate of the 17th Century the weapons of the “conservatives” (both civilly and religiously) was the doctrine of “passive obedience and nonresistance.” This belief stemmed from the idea of divine right and monarchical absolutism – where opposing “God’s chosen ruler” was considered a great sin. It was the siren warning of this doctrine that stoked so many, normally moderate, Christians to stump for the political liberty of the Colonies – included a high number of Southern Anglicans. As someone educated at a Mennonite high school, it is fascinating to see the 17th Century English understanding of nonresistance framed as the tool of conservatives. Mennonites, after all, use the same languge to promote radical obedience to God – not the king.
If you want to examine the great theological shifts and nuances of 17th Century America, Under the Cope of Heaven might leave you a bit disappointed, because that isn’t it’s purpose. Rather, Bonomi uses those theological shifts to show how they impacted a segment of public life that had been overlooked by scholarship for years – that is, the religious impact on the political realm. As she goes about her writing, however, Bonomi does a good job expressing the uniqueness of what was going on in the religous life of the Colonies and how it changed more than the Church. It’s a wonderful book, I highly recommend it.