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Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Topic: Predicaments of Early Republican LifeTopic: ReligionTopic: PoliticsTopic: ExpansionTopic: Equality
Topic: Religion
Overview of Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Resource Menu: Religion
Text 1. Online Exhibition
Text 2. Jefferson/Madison
Text 3. Adams/Jefferson
Text 4. American Bible Society
Text 5. Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church
Text 6. Rev. Peter Cartwright
Text 7. Richard Allen
Text 8. Background


  Resource Menu

Library of Congress  
Anabaptist ceremony in N. America, ca. 1819
"Anabaptist ceremony in N. America," ca. 1819

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How was religious freedom defined in the new republic?
  •  How did rationalists and evangelicals differ on the place of religion in a republic? How did they agree?
  •  How did diverse religious communities contribute to a shared national identity?
  •  How could church-state separation co-exist with the conviction that religion is critical to a nation's strength?

»RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  1.  Online Exhibition: Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Sections VI and VII

This exhibition from the Library of Congress provides a made-to-order introduction to this section. As you read the brief content overviews and view the graphics, documents, and artifacts, your appetite will be whetted for exploring this aspect of the newly free nation. Section VI, "Religion and the Federal Government," reviews the church-state relationship from the perspective of several "Founding Fathers"—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin. Section VII, "Religion and the New Republic," presents the religious orientations of the populace, especially in evangelical churches, the African American church, and the proliferation of new sects. This pairing reflects the organization in this Toolbox section, as you progress from reading the letters of rationalist Thomas Jefferson to the memoirs of an evangelical "backwoods preacher." Ideal for student use. Not designed for printing.

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  2.  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison on Religious Freedom
- Jefferson, Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, 1779
- Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1785

Standards in the canon of American history, these two documents defined "religious freedom" for the new republic, rejecting the notion that the state could legislate about religious matters in an even-handed way. After the Revolution, Virginia considered a "General Assessment" bill to levy a religion tax in support of Christian denominations chosen by each citizen, in effect establishing Christianity as the state religion. Jefferson and Madison vociferously opposed the bill, arguing that only full separation of church and state could guarantee religious liberty. In 1786 the Virginia Assembly passed Jefferson's bill, and three years later Madison would encorporate it in the First Amendment of his proposed Bill of Rights.

Although these texts are widely known, it is valuable to read them again in this section. That Jefferson and Madison would need to construct such fervent argumentation for positions we now take for granted reveals the import of setting a clear definition of religious freedom. 7 pages.

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  3.  John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Correspondence, 1812-1823; excerpts from ten letters

Let's revisit two "Founding Fathers"—Adams and Jefferson—as they reflect in their senior years on life, religion, and the young republic. In 1812, when these excerpts from their correspondence begin, Louisiana is admitted as the first state from the Louisiana Territory, construction has just begun on the National Road, the War of 1812 is declared, and most of the revolutionary leaders have died. Jefferson is 69 years old, having written the Declaration of Independence three decades earlier and left the presidency four years earlier. Adams, eight years older at 77, has been out of public office for a dozen years. They have time to reflect, worry, reconsider, affirm—and write numerous letters each day. What are the "general principles" on which the Union was formed? Where does religion fit in these principles? Where does Christianity fit? What causes them anxiety or assurance about the state of the Union? In what do they have faith? 6 pages.

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  4.  Constitution of the American Bible Society, 1816, excerpts

After the Revolution, the western frontier was finally open to settlement, and Americans headed down the Ohio and over the Appalachians in a fevered rush of optimism and ingenuousness. Some people back East feared that the pioneers' fervor for religion might suffer from the isolation and self-determination that defined the wilderness. To address this concern, the American Bible Society was formed in 1816 to distribute printing plates for producing low-cost Bibles throughout the frontier. It was typical of many volunteer associations of the time, determined to direct the pliable new nation toward its vision of greatness. Paralleling this mission, the Society strove to counter the threat of rationalism to "seduce mankind" away from truth. Thus this text gives us a transition from the rationalism of the revolutionary leaders to the evangelicalism that came to flourish in the newly settled west. Valuable short document to use with students. 2 pages.

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  5.  Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church, Kentucky; Minutes, 1800-1817, excerpts

If church secretaries knew how illuminating their minutes would be for later historians! For there is perhaps no better introduction to frontier religion than these excerpts spanning seventeen years of an evangelical Baptist church in Kentucky. Within these four pages you will read of disputes over slavery, doctrinal self-questioning, rapid in- and out-migration of members, exclusion of members for immoral conduct, attitudes toward African American members, interdenominational rivalry, and the mundane matters of a growing church. From land disputes to crises of conscience to the housekeeper's pay, these minutes reveal a frontier community "living the revolution." That this church serves as the center of the community is apparent in ways that few 21st-century churchgoers experience. Would fascinate students. 4 pages.

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  6.  Peter Cartwright, Autobiography: The Backwoods Preacher, 1856, excerpts

We strongly recommend that you include this memoir in your syllabus, because it's all here—the lawless frontier, pioneer hardships, hostile Indians, the debate over slavery, churchless living, religious conversion, and evangelical camp meetings—all from the perspective of "backwoods preacher" Peter Cartwright. In the early 1790s, young Cartwright traveled with his family from Virginia through the "unbroken wilderness" to Kentucky. Living into his teens as a "wild, wicked boy," Cartwright at 16 experienced a religious conversion at the very time the Second Great Awakening was beginning in the revivals of Kentucky and Tennessee. He joined the Methodist Episcopal Church and at age 19 became a traveling preacher—exhorting at revivals, opposing ritual excesses like the "jerks," tackling doctrinal differences with Baptist preachers, and bemoaning the lackluster stance of his fellow Methodist ministers against slavery. A heartfelt, riveting memoir, and one to pair with the next text, Richard Allen's memoir as an African American preacher in the Methodist Church. Very useful in the classroom. 13 pages.

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  7.  Richard Allen, The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, 1833, excerpts

Like Peter Cartwright, Richard Allen experienced a deep religious conversion in his youth, joined the Methodist Church, became a traveling preacher, and wrote his memoirs as an old man. Unlike Cartwright, Allen was born an enslaved African American. Allowed to buy his freedom as a young man in Delaware, he became a traveling preacher, exhorting to white and black audiences and earning his living through hard menial labor. After becoming an assistant pastor in Philadelphia, he urged the creation of a church building for African American Methodists, but his plan met angry unprincipled opposition from church elders. Defeat was not in Allen's vocabulary, however, and he succeeded in establishing the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794. 22 years later, in 1816, the AME Church became the first fully independent black church in America. We recommend that you pair Allen's and Cartwright's poignant memoirs in your syllabus. Important text for the classroom. 13 pages.

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  8.  Background: Instructional Guides in Divining America: Religion in American History, on TeacherServe® from the National Humanities Center

To illuminate and contextualize some of the issues covered in this section of "Living the Revolution," you might want to visit the instructional guides on TeacherServe®, the National Humanities Center's curriculum enrichment service. We recommend the following from the guide Divining America: Religion in American History.

Toolbox: Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Predicaments | Religion | Politics | Expansion | Equality

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