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Religion, Revolution and the Rise of Modern Nationalism: Reflections on the American Experience

  • Sydney E. Ahlstrom (a1)


In 1789, two months after the inauguration of George Washington as president of the “first new nation,” the foundering regime of Louis XVI, in the 802d year of Capetian rule in France, was forced to convene the Estates General. As the French crisis deepened, all of Europe was deeply stirred—and in radically diverse ways. One Sunday morning in the spring of 1791 some Tübingen University students, including the future philosophers Hegel and Schelling, were bold enough to celebrate the revolution's progress by erecting a Freedom Tree in a nearby meadow. A more characteristic response came in August of that year when the Hapsburg Emperor Leopold II, whose sister, Marie Antoinette, had recently been made a prisoner in the Tuilleries, joined the King of Prussia in the Declaration of Pillnitz. This threat of foreign intervention, in turn, awakened the French nation and brought the revolution to a new pitch of excitement. Paris soon heard for the first time the thrilling strains of La Marseillaise. While a citizens army marched off against the forces of Reaction, the newly elected delegates to a constitutional convention made their way to Paris. Then on 20 September 1792, the very day on which the Convention proclaimed the Year One of the French Republic, the Prussian march on Paris was gloriously halted at the battle of Valmy in the Argonne near Belgium.



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1. “Wir hatten, eben als es Nacht werden wollte, zufällig cinen Kreis geschlossen in dessen Mitte nicht einmal wie gewöhnlich ein Fener konnte augezündet werden; die meisten schweigen, einige sprachen, und es fehlte doch eigentlich einem jeden Besinnung und Urtheil. Endlich rief man mich auf, was ich dazu denke—denn ich hatte die Schaar gewöhnlichme mit Rurzen Spruchen erheitert und erquickt— diesmal sagte ich: von hier und heute geht eine neue Epoche der Weltgeschichte aus, und ihr könnt sagen, ihr seyd dabei gewesen.” Campagne in Frankreich (1792), in Sammtliche Werke (Stuttgart Edition, 6 vols.), 4:527.

2. See Pöggeler, Otto, Hegels Kritik der Romantiker (Bonn, 1956), p. 17.

3. Hegel, G. W. F., The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. Baillie, J. B. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1967), p. 75. Hegel sent this book to the printer amid the turmoil of Napoleon's invasion of Germany, and one sees his remarkably concrete way of understanding history by the famous letter to Friedrich Niethammer, written while Napoleon was occupying the university town of Jena where Hegel was then teaching: “The Emperor, this world-soul, I saw him as he rode through the city to gain its submission, and it was a wonderful experience actually to see such an individual, here concentrated on a single point, sitting on a horse, who yet spans the world and rules it.” Wiedmann, Franz, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in Seibstzeugnissen und Buildokumenten (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1965), p. 35.

4. My own tendency is to locate the high tide Romanticism in the period of transition to which Goethe and Hegel are here pointing. It was an international phenomenon that came to expression in many areas of human concern. See my Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), chaps. 3638.

5. Dichtuny und Wahrheit (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, n.d.), p. 562.

6. Zahme Xenien, 9: “America, you are better off/ than our continent, the old one: / You have no crumbled castles,/ and no bed-rock./ With a lively sense of the present,/ you are not inwardly torn/ by useless memories/ and senseless strife.”

7. Hegel, G. W. F., The Philosophy of History, trans. Sibree, J. (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), p. 8687.

8. John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, 13 February 1818. In the same letter he also declares that “its effects and consequences have already been awful over a great part of the globe. And when and where are they to cease?” The Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams, ed. Adrienne Koch and William Peden (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), p. 203. In his Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law (1765) the senior Adams stressed the revolutionary significance of Puritanism. He saw its resistance to the “execrable race of the Stuarts” as the “great struggle which peopled America.” Nor was it religion alone that led them but “a love of universal libberty.” Ibid., p. 14ff.

9. George Bancroft was born in 1800, Bushnell in 1801, George Ripley in 1802, Brownson and Nevin in 1803, Hedge in 1805, Whittier and Longfellow in 1807, Parker, Margaret Fuller, J. F.Clarke, and W. H. Channing in 1810, and so forth.

10. Gabriel, Ralph Henry, The Course of American Democratic Thought (New York: Ronald Press, 1940), p. 33.

11. Kedourie, Elie, Nationalism (New York: Frederik A. Prager, 1961), p. 9. The opening sentence of this well received book is only cited as an example of the commonly accepted view.

12. In the United States the most terribly ironic fact of all was the presence of a vast system of chattel slavery in the “land of the free.” The subject is complex but it must not be slighted. See Morgan, Edmund S., “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox”, The Journal of American History 59 (06 1972): 529.

13. Some indication of the impact of American events in Europe has been suggested in my prologue, though the question of influence is not here my concern; but see Weber, Paul C., America in Imaginative German Literature of the First Half of the 19th Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1926); Palmer, Robert R., The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800 (Princeton: University Press, 1950, 1954); and Echevarria, Durand, Mirage in the West: A History of the French Image of American Society in 1815 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).

14. Judges 5:4–5. For the version used and supporting comment see Meck, Theophile J., Hebrew Origins (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), pp. 99100 et passim.

15. The course of human events is thus a once-and-for-all matter. The end of all things determines the significance of all things. Except as God reveals his will, the significance of something can be known only when its terminus is known. Mere historians, who know not God's will, must eat humble pie.

16. Finkelstein, Jacob J., “The Goring Ox: Some Historical Perspectives on Deodands, Forfeitures, Wrongful Death, and the Western Notion of Sovercignity,” Temple Law Quarterly 46 (Winter 1973): 253; see also pp. 206, 207, 210, 287–289.

17. “The natural man is a born Catholic” is the rendering in Sohm, Rudolf, Outlines of Church History, trans. Gwatkin, H. M. (1887: Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p. 35.

18. Miller, Perry and Johnson, T. H., eds., The Puritans, 2 vols. (New York: Harper Torch-books, 1963), 1:197, 210, 244.

19. One might say, indeed, that the recent scholarship of Goen, McLoughlin, Heimert, Cherry, Hudson, Tuveson, Gaustad and several others has vindicated not only Niebuhr's, H. RichardKingdom of God in America (1937) but the “classic” evangelical interpretation of Puritanism and the Awakening as decisive forces in the shaping of American culture.

20. It is on this point that my own thinking owes most to Sidney Mead's interpretations of the Lively Experiment and the ways in which the United States is “a nation with the soul of a church.” Yet it is here, too, where I also differ with his emphasis; I would place much less weight on the continuing impact of Enlightened thought far more on the wide popular appeal of Puritanic evangelicalism. Among intellectuals and the general public alike Enlightened rationalism rapidly faded from view after the Second Great Awakening and the influx of Romantic modes of thought.

21. The vast literature on Weberian themes cannot be cited here, but I do have a special debt to Little's, DavidReligion, Order and Law (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1969). See also Besnard, Philippe, Protestantisme et Capitalisme (Paris: Armand Colin, 1970), an analysis and anthology of the Weberian controversy.

22. In a profound passage on the sources of revolutionary rationales Marx observes that “Cromwell and the English people had borrowed speech, passion, and illusions from the Old Testament for their bourgeois revolution. When the real aim had been achieved, when the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk. Thus the awakening of the dead [in the Puritan and French revolutions] served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in imagination, not of fleeing from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, [and unlike Napoeleon III] not of making its ghost walk about again.” Marx, Karl, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), p. 17. That 1976 will also be the Bicentenary of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations may not be proof of divine providence, but the coincidence is at least not entirely fortuitous.

23. Bailyn, Bernard, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967); Morgan, Edmund S., “The Puritan Ethic and the American Revolution,” William & Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 24 (01 1967): 343; Craven, Wesley F., The Legend of the Founding Fathers (New York: New York University Press, 1956).

24. See Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom.”

25. Governor William Bradford in 1620, after the Pilgrims' safe arrival, gave thanks for God's mercy: “He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor.” On 3 July 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife that the day of Independence “ought to be celebrated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.” In 1834 George Bancroft announced his intention of recounting how “a favoring Providence … has conducted the country to its present happiness and glory.” Beneath and behind these three testimonies to divine providence one hears, respectively, the accents of John Calvin, John Locke and Friedrich Hegel. Continuities are obvious, but the changing world-views are equally momentous. In this context it is clear that the optimistic devices on the national seal are good examples of Enlightened rephrasing of essentially biblical ideas. This fact, however, did not prevent a materialist like Jefferson from suggesting Israel 's escape from bondage as a theme for the national soal or for invoking the same event in his Second Inaugural. For a more extended account of the country 's ideological history, see my “The American National Faith: Humane Yet All Too Human,” in Religion and the Humanizing of Man, ed. James H. Robinson (Council for the Study of Religion), 1972; reprinted as an Aspen Institute Occasional Paper (1973).

26. Every person, whether in belief or disbelief, has his own way of using the word “God,” but rarely if ever is the term vacated of all reference to the concept of justice and rightecusness or the idea of transcendent principle.

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