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Secularism, Synthesis, and Antebellum Evangelical Self-Understanding


In Secularism In Antebellum America, John Modern extensively and directly engages with what he calls Mark Noll's “magisterial treatment of evangelicalism” in America's God. In light of this, I have been surprised at what a challenge it has been to bring these books into conversation with one another on the subject of evangelicals and evangelicalism. The central reason for the difficulty, I think, is that Modern's treatment of antebellum evangelical print culture—his chapter entitled “Evangelical Secularism and the Measure of Leviathan”—is not actually about evangelicals. It is about secularism. And that, in a nutshell, is Modern's point. Throughout his book, he works hard to bring what he sees as the background into the foreground, rendering the emergent atmosphere of secularism as the protagonist in his story of evangelical media practices.

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1 Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America, 76.

2 I agree with Dana Logan's observation that, while Mark Noll's America's God certainly puts more emphasis on evangelical agency than John Modern wants to, Noll's narrative is highly attuned to the unintended consequences of the actions of his evangelical agents. For Noll, all evangelical agency in the antebellum period is fundamentally conditioned by the way that “the spheres of secular and religious discourse were connected,” and that as such, “the key moves in the creation of evangelical America were also the key moves that created secular America” (America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln [New York: Oxford University, 2002], 439, 443). Thus, Noll's evangelical “surge” is always already a Pyrrhic victory, ambivalent and tragic. For more on this point, see the comments about the contrast between Noll and Modern's treatments of historical agency in the other essays in this Forum.

3 Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America, 55.

4 Noll, America's God, 9.

5 Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America, 73–74.

6 Ibid., 60, 61, 64, 84.

7 Ibid., 54.

8 Ibid.

9 For example, American Tract Society, Eighth Annual Report of the American Tract Society (New York: D. Fanshaw, 1833), 8; American Tract Society, Seventh Annual Report of the American Tract Society (New York: D. Fanshaw, 1832), 6.

10 Twelfth Annual Report of the American Tract Society (New York: D. Fanshaw, 1837), 47; American Tract Society, Ninth Annual Report of the American Tract Society (New York, by D. Fanshaw., 1834), 41; American Tract Society, ATS Seventh Annual Report, 6.

11 Noll, America's God, 365–445.

12 Ibid., 434.

13 Charles I. Foster, An Errand Of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front, 1790–1837 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1960), 150–151.

14 Noll, America's God, 198.

15 First Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society (New York: Dorr and Butterfield, 1834), 12; “The Anti-Slavery Society,” Commercial Advertiser, May 10, 1834; “Anti-Slavery and Colonization,” Boston Recorder, May 24, 1834.

16 First Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society, 19.

17 Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University, 1997), 115.

18 “American Tract Society,” New York Evangelist, May 10, 1834.

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Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
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