To the Republic, for Which It Stands

Illustration by Tim Robinson.

Frances FitzGerald, a dogged chronicler of the American moral imagination, has taken on a forbiddingly large subject for her most recent study, and it’s no surprise that The Evangelicals is, in every sense, a forbiddingly large book. Clocking in at over 700 pages, it aims to deliver an authoritative account of the restive spirits of American Protestantism and to produce a last-word consensus of the sort achieved in Sydney Ahlstrom’s two-volume 1973 classic, A Religious History of the American People.

Viewed in this light, FitzGerald’s tome possesses many virtues. She has always been a nimble and gifted interpreter of historical ironies and unintended outcomes, going back to her classic study of the American misadventure in Vietnam, Fire in the Lake (1972). And the story of American Protestantism is nothing if not a sustained study in irony. The breakaway sectarians who first settled colonial New England were theological communitarians who brooked no dissent, social or religious, and who envisaged the ideal Christian order as a theocratic network of “little commonwealths” (to borrow the title of John Demos’s social history of colonial New England family life). But what they ended up with was an unprecedented republic of disestablished worship, a religious polity that is far more pluralistic and robustly competitive than any other in the Western world.

FitzGerald narrates the broad outlines of this familiar story with verve. She begins with the revivalist crusades of the 18th century’s First Great Awakening under the direction of the theologian Jonathan Edwards and the preacher George Whitefield, and she concludes with the rise of a conservative religious right that reached the summit of executive power during the two-term presidency of George W. Bush.

In between these historical bookends, FitzGerald also examines the 19th century’s Second Great Awakening and the schism between liberal modernists and evangelical fundamentalists in the early 20th century. A story of social reform and mounting spiritual distress, The Evangelicals captures how the religious revival of the early 19th century moved in concert with the broader “populist” stirrings of Jacksonian democracy along the young republic’s southern interior and western frontier. FitzGerald then zooms in on the primary subject of her book: the events that rent Protestantism into two halves and helped establish Evangelicalism as a distinct religious identity.

In FitzGerald’s narrative, the Second Great Awakening and the rise of the evangelicals are linked by a mounting preoccupation with visiting the wonders of individual redemption on the American polity as a whole. Charles Grandison Finney, the signature revivalist of the Second Great Awakening, became an apostle of “spiritual democracy”: the notion that converted souls can take an active part in their own redemption—and then channel their energies into the pious work of social reform. Finney’s own sprawling empire of reform, which ran the gamut from abolitionism to temperance to support (at least rhetorical) for women’s equality, became a template of sorts for Evangelicalism’s activist impulses—particularly those of a more liberal-leaning hue.