Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation

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Americans have long acknowledged a deep connection between evangelical religion and democracy in the early days of the republic. This is a widely accepted narrative that is maintained as a matter of fact and tradition—and in spite of evangelicalism’s more authoritarian and reactionary aspects.

In Conceived in Doubt, Amanda Porterfield challenges this standard interpretation of evangelicalism’s relation to democracy and describes the intertwined relationship between religion and partisan politics that emerged in the formative era of the early republic. In the 1790s, religious doubt became common in the young republic as the culture shifted from mere skepticism toward darker expressions of suspicion and fear. But by the end of that decade, Porterfield shows, economic instability, disruption of traditional forms of community, rampant ambition, and greed for land worked to undermine heady optimism about American political and religious independence. Evangelicals managed and manipulated doubt, reaching out to disenfranchised citizens as well as to those seeking political influence, blaming religious skeptics for immorality and social distress, and demanding affirmation of biblical authority as the foundation of the new American national identity.

As the fledgling nation took shape, evangelicals organized aggressively, exploiting the fissures of partisan politics by offering a coherent hierarchy in which God was king and governance righteous. By laying out this narrative, Porterfield demolishes the idea that evangelical growth in the early republic was the cheerful product of enthusiasm for democracy, and she creates for us a very different narrative of influence and ideals in the young republic.

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Editorial Reviews

Religion in American History

“Amanda Porterfield’s subtle study of religio-political formations, intellectual virtue, and declension narratives marks a needed contrast to the tide of amateurish history and bloviations about the colonial era . . . Conceived in Doubt is a fresh inquiry into the emergence of the independent category 'religion' in American political life.”

— Jason Bivens


“Amanda Porterfield convincingly challenges Nathan Hatch's assertions in his The Democratization of American Christianity, contending that Hatch over-emphasized evangelical aversion to religious and political authority. . . . Porterfield shows that nineteenth-century evangelicals’ stance towards political authority was manipulation for religious purposes and enlightens readers about evangelical Christianity and politics during this era, as well as the relationship of the two to one another. Highly recommended”
Church History - Daniel Walker Howe

“I welcome Amanda Porterfield's book for its originality and scope. It will stimulate students and scholars to rethink the evangelical movement in America, including the manner in which it provided a sense of security in the face of frequently dismaying circumstances.”

"The author enlightens readers about evangelical Christianity and politics during this era, as well as the relationship of the two to one another. A challenging read for the layperson, her book is nonetheless valuable for the fresh perspective it provides. Highly recommended."
North Carolina Historical Review

"Sobering. . ."
Politics and Religion

“Porterfield approaches her topic with understandings drawn from religious history and religious studies. Her evidence thus ranges broadly to take in the experiences of a wide array of people in the new nation, even making use of fiction to trace evolving perceptions. The work is well-theorized and traces interesting connections between religious culture and the larger culture of which it was a part. . . . Porterfield is particularly helpful in pushing our perspective to consider religious struggles in the very early republic.”
University of Minnesota - Kirsten Fischer

“In this lively and provocative book, Amanda Porterfield counters the now commonplace notion that evangelicalism in post-revolutionary America served as an anti-authoritarian and democratizing force. Instead, Porterfield finds that evangelical groups fueled a culture of anxiety, mistrust, and bitter partisanship that paved the way for an eventual assertion of political authority. Conceived in Doubt covers much ground in cultural and political history, marshaling a wide array of evidence for Porterfield’s innovative claims about the relationship of evangelical religion and politics in the early United States. The book should gain a wide readership and point scholars in productive new directions.”
Religion in American History - Jason Bivens

“Amanda Porterfield’s subtle study of religio-political formations, intellectual virtue, and declension narratives marks a needed contrast to the tide of amateurish history and bloviations about the colonial era . . . Conceived in Doubt is a fresh inquiry into the emergence of the independent category 'religion' in American political life.”
author of Reforging the White Republic - Edward J. Blum

"Amanda Porterfield is a rare historian and Conceived in Doubt is a gem of a book. She dives directly into the fear, doubt, and skepticism that Americans drank widely in the early national period and finds that religion did not save them, but contained them. The new evangelicalism of the era corralled doubt and then used it to create new definitions of religion and politics. In the process, they carved a space for themselves while carving others to pieces. Conceived in Doubt is a brilliant work. By forcing us to reconsider the relationship between religion and politics in the early republic, it helps untangle some of the knots that continue to lace them together today."
Purdue University - Franklin Lambert

“With sound scholarship and deep research, Porterfield offers a fresh interpretation of the symbiotic relationship between evangelical popular religion and libertarian politics in the early republic. I am confident that Conceived in Doubt will take its place as a seminal work in the study of American religion and politics.”—Franklin Lambert, Purdue University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226675121
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/23/2012
  • Series: American Beginnings, 1500-1900 Series
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 485,999
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Amanda Porterfield is the Robert A. Spivey Professor of Religion and professor of history at Florida State University.

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Read an Excerpt

Conceived in Doubt

By Amanda Porterfield

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-67512-1

Chapter One

Faith in Reason and the Problem of Skepticism

Jailed in Paris in 1793 for criticizing the terrorist regime controlling the French Revolution, Thomas Paine worked on a book to expose terrorist regimes in the Bible. Published in two parts in 1794 and 1795, The Age of Reason intended to unmask the Bible as "a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind." Although he acknowledged that the Old Testament contained some "elevated sentiment reverentially expressed of the power and benignity of the Almighty," Paine argued that on the whole, "the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled," were more characteristic of "the word of a demon than the Word of God." As for the New Testament, he maintained that the gospels were unreliable hearsay and that the miracles ascribed to Jesus ought not to be taken seriously. With "every mark of fraud and imposition stamped on the face of it," Paine insisted, accounts of the birth and resurrection of Jesus had been fabricated by "Christian Mythologists." Doctrines of damnation and salvation, which had proved so lucrative to the Catholic Church over the centuries, had been contrived by priests who manipulated fear in the service of political tyrants.

By demolishing the authority of biblical revelation, Paine hoped to expose God's "TRUE REVELATION," the rational order of nature. Although clouded over by ignorance, superstition, and predatory priests, God's true revelation could be seen in the material world: "THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD," Paine proclaimed, "and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man." Thus Paine the true believer exposed tyrants who preyed on people's fears while pretending to be their saintly defenders. With Catholicism his first target but not stopping there, Paine sought to expose the whole "Christian system of faith" as a form of Jacobinism, calling Christianity "a species of Atheism—a sort of religious denial of God" that "professes to believe in a man rather than in God." Interpreting efforts to divinize Jesus as a stratagem priests used to dominate other men, Paine called people to rely on their own reason instead.

Paine's Age of Reason fused two meanings of reason—objective order and skeptical criticism—into one politically charged package. He was not alone in holding these competing and potentially conflicting notions of reason together, or in directing them against established religious and political authority; Thomas Jefferson and other celebrants of reason thought along similar lines. But Paine's skeptical criticism of biblical authority became popular among working people, igniting a firestorm of fear and controversy at all levels of society. This firestorm resulted in effective efforts to block political skepticism from undermining respect for biblical authority.

The catalyst of a significant shift in public opinion at a moment of formative development in American politics and religion, reaction against Paine's Age of Reason contributed to new understanding of the relationship between religion and politics. Against Paine's effort to link the two by attacking unwarranted authority in both, evangelicals elevated religion above politics and censored religious skepticism. Combined with permissive attitudes toward skepticism typical of partisan political attacks, the squelching of religious skepticism forged a new kind of cultural consensus about the difference between religion and politics.

Paine's different usages of the term reason expedited this process and facilitated attacks against him. At one level, he celebrated reason as the organizing principle of nature embedded by the Creator in man and in the material world. Manifest in nature, Paine believed, reason was an objective expression of the moral order and integrity of the universe. This sense of reason as natural order, plainly evident for everyone to see, lay behind Paine's objection to mysticism and hearsay in the Bible, and his demand that "A thing which everybody is required to believe requires that the proof and evidence of it should be equal to all, and universal."

At another level, Paine understood reason as an activity of mind, building on and making use of things. Paine's own flair for inventing things—most notably, an iron bridge to expedite commerce and travel—animated his sense of reason as an activity that expanded upon the rational order of nature for human benefit. This constructive activity of reason was complemented by its deconstructive work of discerning faulty constructions, exploring fallibility and corruption in government, and unmasking tyranny and fraud, which Paine regarded as violations of the moral integrity of material things and the natural order of reason. In his political and religious writings, Paine's bold attempts at unmasking tyranny and fraud generated most attention. As John Adams commented with regard to one of Paine's earlier writings, he "has a better hand at pulling down than building."

Paine's Age of Reason tied these meanings of reason together in a political attack on Christianity and biblical revelation. Willingness to accept the fabulous stories in the Bible "on hearsay" exemplified the disregard for the natural order reason that weakened human character and allowed dictators to seize power. The man who went along with such "moral mischief," Paine asserted, "prostituted the chastity of his mind"—and with far-reaching consequences; once a man professed to believe "things he does not believe he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime." Paine looked forward to the day when people recovered their ability to activate natural reason—"The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind." Once people were really free to wield that weapon, the religious supports propping up tyranny would be exposed and a "revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion."

Paine's denunciation of biblical revelation fell on fertile soil. American printers turned out tens of thousands of copies of The Age of Reason in eighteen editions, and the inexpensive pamphlet—twenty cents for the second American edition, about the cost of a pound of pork, a pound of raisins, or a pound of tallow—circulated widely. As Lyman Beecher recalled New En gland in the 1790s, "That was the day of the infidelity of the Tom Paine school." Even boys "that dressed flax in the barn," Beecher recalled, "read Tom Paine and believed him." Kentucky Presbyterian Robert Stuart remembered how Paine's book was "extensively circulated, and his principles imbibed by the youth particularly, with avidity; so that Infidelity, with all its concomitant evils, like a mighty tide, was desolating the land."

Though hardly the first to doubt biblical revelation, Paine popularized and politicized it, making skepticism of biblical revelation a natural extension of challenging oppressive taxes and other forms of tyranny, as well as a means of striking back at wealthy elites and institutional authorities who benefited from people's fear and submission. The connection Paine drew between democratic republicanism and freedom from Christianity brought new cadence to the popular drumbeat against political authority in the 1790s, and made assault on biblical revelation popular among many Americans inclined toward democracy. While various forms and degrees of religious skepticism already existed in America—including doubts about the divinity of Jesus and the miracles described in the Bible—Paine made those doubts politically volatile.

Paine's political critique of religion also sharpened the division in public opinion over the meaning of democracy. Those who defined democracy as the antithesis of political order decried Paine's Age of Reason as evidence of the destruction of everything sacred that ensued when rabble-rousers attempted to overthrow the legitimate authority of government. On the other hand, many of those who defined democracy as the people's direct control of government through their exercise of natural reason took delight in reading The Age of Reason or in hearing excerpts read aloud in taverns or around trees where the pamphlet was posted. Eager to throw off all forms of human oppression, proponents of reason as the basis of human equality embraced Paine's argument that religion should not be taken on authority any more than politics.

Paine's Age of Reason may have enjoyed greatest popularity in Kentucky and the Mississippi Valley. When General Anthony Wayne's soldiers defeated Indians along the Miami River in the summer of 1794 and treaties that fall opened Kentucky's bloody ground to a dramatic increase in the flow of people passing through Lexington, Paine's Age of Reason came with them. Bibles were still relatively rare and expensive in the 1790s, although they would not be so for long, and Paine's "cheap pamphlet," complained a nineteenth- century historian, "was used instead of the Bible" and could be found virtually everywhere east of the Mississippi, "in the cabin of the farmer, on the bench of the tailor, in the shops of the smith and the carpenter, on the table of the lawyer, and at the desk of the physician."

In Kentucky, where Baptists had established a significant presence in the 1780s, with forty-two churches by 1790, their proportional representation in the state eroded dramatically over the next decade, from one in twenty-three Kentuckians to one in forty-three in 1800. In 1795, leaders of Kentucky's Baptist Association referred to the "common calamity" of Christianity's decline and tried to sustain morale by enumerating "the duties incumbent on us in this lamentable time." By 1800, many of Kentucky's leading citizens were skeptically inclined; deism prevailed among lawyers and politicians, and the state's first governor, James Garrard, originally a Baptist preacher, became a Unitarian.

Chafing at taxes imposed by the federal government and at various federal restrictions, including navigation rights on the Mississippi and occupation of Indian lands, Americans in the West invoked Paine as an opponent of overweening federal control. In 1796, the Kentucky Herald published excerpts of a letter "from the celebrated Thomas Paine" protesting the growing gap between the democratic sentiments of the American people and the repressive character of their federal government. The Herald agreed with Paine's observation that "[t]he American character is so much sunk in Europe, that it is necessary to distinguish between the government and the country."

Then the tide began to turn. Denunciations of Paine's Age of Reason escalated on both sides of the political divide over democracy, and perceptions about Paine took on a life of their own, sometimes in conflict with what he actually wrote. Though Paine extolled the wisdom of God and the moral virtue of reason, opponents of democracy condemned The Age of Reason as atheistic and immoral. Forced to defend themselves against charges attached to Paine, advocates of democracy distanced themselves from him and his manifesto on religion. Denounced as a symptom of the extremist folly of the French Revolution, The Age of Reason came to represent a dangerous assault on religion that Americans on both sides of the partisan political conflict over democracy opposed.

Through its effect on both politics and religion, rejection of Paine's Age of Reason contributed to a new kind of symbiosis between the two. Longstanding disdain for Paine as a low-class, rotten revolutionary—"culled from [the] garbage," one newspaper wrote—acquired new force as a result of his assault on the Bible, adding to the weight of political opinion against the democratic reforms Paine advocated, not least of which was the abolition of slavery. At the same time, reaction against Paine helped to secure religion's privileged place in American society, making respect for the authority of biblical revelation a greater and more predominating force in American society and contributing to a general consensus that religious skepticism should be treated as a species of immorality. Paine came to be perceived as the embodiment of fears that the United States might succumb to the violence of the French Revolution, that unconditional faith in reason led to atheism, and that all vestiges of social order would crumble if religious skepticism spread further among ordinary people.

The divorce between reason and skepticism, precipitated in the reaction against Thomas Paine, shaped the cultural matrix in which American political and religious organizations developed. To fully appreciate the effects of this divorce on American political and religious institutions, the marriage Paine represented between faith in reason and willingness to doubt and dismantle institutions of political and religious authority requires further discussion.


Excerpted from Conceived in Doubt by Amanda Porterfield Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



1    Faith in Reason and the Problem of Skepticism
2    Partisan Mistrust
3    Religion to the Rescue
4   : Church Citizenship
5    Religion in the Formation of Political Parties
6    Honor into the Breach

Notes Index

Amanda Porterfield is the Robert A. Spivey Professor of Religion and professor of history at Florida State University.

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  • Posted May 8, 2012

    Excellent, balanced account of political & religious tensions post-Revolution.

    Porterfield has delved into the archives and provides a fascinating account of how, in times of post-Revolutionary turmoil, various religious groups and political factions interacted. In less than two decades the American republic went from widespread reading and discussion of Tom Paine's Age of Reason to a renewal of traditional religion, a change due in substantial part to the anxieties facing the young republic--and man's innate need for a sense of metaphysical grounding. Illuminating, by indirect light, both our modern tensions and some of the difficulties facing newly liberated cultures with quite different religious and political circumstances. Highly recommended.

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