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Earnestly Contending

Earnestly Contending: Religious Freedom and Pluralism in Antebellum America

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 224
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    Earnestly Contending
    Book Description:

    InEarnestly Contending,Dickson Bruce examines the ways in which religious denominations and movements in antebellum America coped with the ideals of freedom and pluralism that exerted such a strong influence on the larger, national culture. Despite their enormous normative power, these still-evolving ideals-themselves partly religious in origin-ran up against deeply entrenched concerns about the integrity of religious faith and commitment and the role of religion in society. The resulting tensions between these ideals and desires for religious consensus and coherence would remain unresolved throughout the period.

    Focusing on that era's interdenominational competition, Bruce explores the possibilities for and barriers to realizing ideals of freedom and pluralism in antebellum America. He examines the nature of religion from the perspectives of anthropology and cognitive sciences, as well as history, and uses this interdisciplinary approach to organize and understand specific tendencies in the antebellum period while revealing properties inherent in religion as a social and cultural phenomenon. He goes on to show how issues from that era have continued to play a role in American religious thinking, and how they might shed light on the controversies of our own time.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3364-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[xii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    The study that follows may require a word of explanation. It is an effort to explore, using antebellum American history as its focus, both the possibilities for and barriers to realizing ideas and ideals of religious toleration and religious freedom. It grows out of my own conviction that dominant approaches to many of the dilemmas having to do with issues of religion in the public sphere in our own time, including those involving religion and state, inadequately account for the character of religion, as such, as it shapes the ideas and beliefs of those who see faith as central to...

  4. ONE “Divisions among You”: Dilemmas of Pluralism and Freedom in Antebellum America—An Overview
    (pp. 9-31)

    To a great extent, the dilemmas and difficulties that characterized the conflict between a normative discourse of freedom and toleration and the realities of religious diversity in the antebellum period grew out of significant elements in the discourse itself, including both its historical sources and its course of development from colonial times through the first half of the nineteenth century. In its antebellum form, the roots of this discourse were both long and not so long. But its establishment in American ideals and rhetoric took place rapidly over the course of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, drawing on...

  5. TWO “And They Shall Contend One with Another”: Freedom, Diversity, and Human Nature
    (pp. 32-54)

    As one examines antebellum efforts to reconcile faith, freedom, and toleration, the degree to which the era’s religious concerns were shaped by more general properties of religion—especially its transcendent power for explanation, prediction, and control—becomes readily apparent. The relevance of such properties becomes especially clear as religion is seen to comprise a kind of “cultural system,” to use Clifford Geertz’s well-known characterization.¹ As Geertz and others have explored this view of religion, they have argued that religion, in its cultural dimensions, uniquely creates and defines a variety of orientations for its believers, orientations toward the self, toward society,...

  6. THREE “And the Truth of the Lord Endureth Forever”: Truth, Error, and the Problem of Difference
    (pp. 55-75)

    To the extent that religion represents, for a community, a statement of ultimate reality, of transcendent forces and purposes, then, clearly, diversity in belief and practice represents a real challenge to the character of that truth and gives a profundity to questions of limits that goes beyond matters of simple consensus and cooperation. How much variation can there be before differences become distinctions among those who claim to be members of the community of faith? At what level must variations be seen not as variations but as true departures from all that religion demands be held as sacred?

    The evidence...

  7. FOUR “With One Spirit, with One Mind”: The Search for Unity and the Problem of Authority
    (pp. 76-93)

    It was because of the confrontation with boundary concerns—defined in ways consistent with an understanding of the singularity of religious truth—that, with increasing urgency in the antebellum religious explosion, two issues came up almost endlessly in religious writings, sermons, and even theological debates trying to come to terms with ideals of freedom and the hard fact of diversity. One entailed a continuing, and continuingly unsuccessful, effort to locate what might be described as core elements of faith or practice that could be identified as essential criteria for determining the limits of acceptable religious claims in a diverse society—...

  8. FIVE “The Keeper of Her Laws”: Morality and Its Religious Foundations
    (pp. 94-119)

    The normative discourse of religious freedom and toleration described in the preceding chapter posed some of its most significant problems as antebellum Americans sought to define religion’s role in regard to problems of morality and moral consensus. Morality, in the dominant view, was inseparable from religion, and religion was, for its part, inseparable from morality as well. Religion was taken to be, to at least some extent, about morality (although what this meant was subject to great debate). Morality, more crucially, was assumed to be impossible without religious underpinnings to give it force. In 1820, the Unitarian Andrews Norton captured...

  9. SIX “That This Land Be a Land of Liberty”: Religion, Civil Society, and National Identity
    (pp. 120-139)

    In antebellum America, one of the issues that gave great urgency to problems of moral community and moral consensus had to do with the ways in which religious faith was connected to notions of national identity, a connection succinctly summarized by the prosecutor in Abner Kneeland’s blasphemy trial, in an assertion that “the happiness of the people, and the preservation of civil government depend on religion and morality.”¹ Or, as Robert Baird wrote in 1851, “It is conceded by all the ablest writers on the subject of Government and Jurisprudence that the prevalence of sound Morality is essential to the...

  10. SEVEN “The Knowledge of the Holy”: Problems of Certainty in a Changing World
    (pp. 140-168)

    Exacerbating dilemmas spawned by ideals of freedom and facts of diversity in the antebellum religious world were significant intellectual developments that, while antedating the nineteenth century, were to have great impact on antebellum religious thought. These intellectual and cultural changes heightened the concerns and anxieties regarding religion, as such, that freedom and diversity helped bring to the fore, including assumptions about religion’s ultimate truth and about the authoritative means by which that truth might be communicated and maintained.

    In general, the most challenging intellectual and cultural changes in the antebellum period focused on two key issues that were to assume...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 169-174)

    This exploration of antebellum American approaches to ideals of religious freedom and to religious diversity has looked in two directions. On the one hand, it has sought to delineate the demands of what I have called a “normative discourse” of freedom and toleration made on those who felt compelled to maintain strong religious foundations for American life and society, trying to delineate, as well, the ideas and assumptions that made foundations seem essential. On the other, it has sought to explore the power of religious demands, as such, on those who held them dear, and, specifically, to understand the...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 175-204)
  13. Index
    (pp. 205-210)