Posts Tagged ‘Colonial North America’

Thomas Jefferson Versus Some Historians: Frank Cogliano Responds to Arthur Sherr

Monday, April 21st, 2014

By Frank Cogliano

Church History’s Spring issue includes an article by Arthur Sherr, entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” When the article appeared, we asked Frank Cogliano for his comments. We also asked John Ragosta, whose response is here, and Thomas Kidd, whose response is here.

Frank Cogliano is a professor of American history and Dean International for North America at the University of Edinburgh. He has authored or edited nine books on revolutionary and early national America, including Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy (2006) and Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy (2014).


In “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians” Arthur Scherr challenges the view that Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state was permeable and that the Sage of Monticello was a devout Christian. The view of a Christian Jefferson who accepted a blurring of the boundary between church and state, supported fast days and attended church services in public buildings, has gained traction in recent years particularly among those who advocate for a “Christian Founding” of the American Republic. If Jefferson, so long portrayed as deistic skeptic who believed a wall should separate church and state, the president who excised miracles from the New Testament, can be shown to be a devout Christian, then there can be no question that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and (by implication) should be a Christian nation today. This view has most prominently, and controversially, been promulgated by David Barton – whose work has been discredited even on the Christian Right. (Barton makes a cameo appearance in this essay but, thankfully in my view, isn’t its main focus.)

Arthur Scherr challenges and seeks to refute the Christian Jefferson, arguing that Jefferson believed in a strict separation of church and state and denying that he was a Christian, at least in the sense recognized by Americans at the turn of the nineteenth century. Scherr’s Jefferson was comfortable with atheism and, while he believed in the moral teachings of Jesus, denied Jesus’s divinity, rejecting the afterlife and organized Christianity in old age. Scherr does so through a close reading of some of the scholars who have written recently on the issue of Jefferson and religion, notably Daniel Dreisbach, James Hutson and Edwin Gaustad. He provides a detailed point-by-point refutation of their main arguments. His analysis of Dreisbach’s main argument is excellent. On balance his analysis is persuasive. I find Scherr’s Jefferson more compatible with my own understanding of Jefferson’s religion than I do Dreisbach’s (despite Scherr’s characterization of my own treatment of Dreisbach and Hutson as sympathetic, p. 67 n. 17).

Despite this, I respectfully disagree with certain aspects of Scherr’s analysis. For example when he discusses Jefferson’s reluctant acceptance of wartime fast days during his tenure as governor of Virginia, Scherr asserts that Jefferson was “merely following orders from the House of Delegates” (63) and Congress. In 1779, Scherr argues, Jefferson followed the orders of Congress for fear “he would have been suspected of treason or loyalism if he did not.” (66) I think this is a misreading of the situation. While the Virginia constitution of 1776 created a very weak executive, the House of Delegates couldn’t issue orders to the governor. Students of the War of Independence will know that Congress similarly lacked the authority to order state governors to act. While a small matter, I think Scherr has overstated his case somewhat to explain away Jefferson’s support for, or at least his failure to oppose, wartime fast days.

While close reading of the sources, both primary and secondary is the key to Scherr’s analysis, I think he sometimes misreads Jefferson. He suggests that Jefferson’s failure to capitalize “god” “unconsciously” implies “irreverence” (93). Perhaps. Perhaps not. Anyone who’s spent time perusing Jefferson’s writings in manuscript, as Scherr surely has, will know that Jefferson was inconsistent in his use of capital letters. Similarly I don’t think Jefferson actually feared that Presbyterians would introduce an inquisition in Virginia in 1820. (103) His rhetorical excesses when writing about his political opponents are well-documented and this seems to be such a case.

My most serious observation concerns the eponymous “historians” who have misread Jefferson’s religion, according to Scherr. While these include leading figures in the field such as Dreisbach, Hutson and Gaustad, Scherr fails to discuss the work of the likes of John Ragosta and Johann Neem which generally support his view. This may seem curious, except this literature somewhat undermines the premise the article—that there is a “trendy” (106, n. 106) historiographical consensus in favor of a Christian Jefferson which needs to be refuted. As the scholarship of Ragosta and Neem demonstrates this is something of an historiographical straw man.

I was a little bit dismayed by Dr. Scherr’s treatment of some of his fellow scholars. He castigates Andrew Burstein, unfairly in my view, as “vapid” and “perfunctory” (104) for his treatment of Jefferson’s late-in-life views on immortality. He is especially critical that Burstein bases his argument on one letter that Jefferson wrote to Francis Van Der Kemp on January 11. 1825. Burstein’s reading of the Van Der Kemp letter is considerably more persuasive, I believe, than attempting to divine Jefferson’s unconscious thoughts from his orthography. At any rate, Burstein’s scholarship warrants more temperate and measured consideration than it receives here.

Arthur Scherr has written a fascinating analysis of Jefferson’s religious thought. He has taken on some of the most influential writing on the subject in a persuasive manner. I’m largely sympathetic with his portrait of Jefferson. Perhaps more historians share his view than Scherr realizes. This article isn’t so much about Jefferson versus the historians as Jefferson versus some historians.

Jefferson Versus the Historians, or Barton Versus the Historians? Thomas Kidd Responds to Arthur Sherr

Monday, April 14th, 2014

By Thomas Kidd

Church History’s Spring issue includes an article by Arthur Sherr, entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” When the article appeared, we asked for comment from other historians who have studied the role of religion in Jefferson’s thought. (Last week’s response by John Ragosta is here.)

Thomas S. Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University, and is completing a biography of George Whitefield for Yale University Press.


The topic of Thomas Jefferson’s faith generates an extreme range of opinions. These run from Christian pop history writer David Barton’s insistence that, until late in life, Jefferson was an orthodox Christian, to Arthur Scherr’s contention in his Church History piece that Jefferson lived and died as an “Epicurean deistic pagan,” a pantheist, or perhaps even an atheist.

Barton’s The Jefferson Lies strained credulity by its selective use of evidence, leading Thomas Nelson publishers to pull the book from circulation in 2012. Scherr’s article respects standard historical practices in its use of evidence, and his analysis highlights many important aspects of Jefferson’s faith (or lack thereof). But as with other polemical views on Jefferson’s beliefs, Scherr’s thesis – that Jefferson considered himself no kind of Christian, not even a radically liberal one – outruns the nuances of the evidence.

To take one example, Scherr cites Jefferson’s 1788 letter in which he excused himself from serving as a godparent because the ritual would require him to affirm Trinitarian doctrine. (David Barton’s book neglected to address this letter.) “The difficulty of reconciling the ideas of Unity and Trinity, have, from a very early part of my life, excluded me from the office of sponsorship,” Jefferson confessed. Scherr thinks that the sentences that follow are more important: the prospect of godparenting had often been proposed to him by his friends, Jefferson noted, “who would have trusted, for the faithful discharge of it, to morality alone instead of which the church requires faith.”

Against the conventional reading of this passage, in which Jefferson is simply saying that doubts about the Trinity prevented his service as a godparent, Scherr interprets Jefferson as saying that he “did not believe in Christianity,” and that he was advancing the possibility that “an atheist could be a decent, moral person.” Later, Scherr does not explain the meaning of Jefferson’s famous 1803 statement “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished,” other than to note that this letter denied the resurrection.

Scherr’s article pits Jefferson against the “historians,” and it is quite an impressive roster of “scholarly adherents” whom Scherr regards as standing implicitly with the Religious Right in its co-opting of Jefferson. Thomas Buckley, Andrew Burstein, Peter Onuf, the late Edwin Gaustad, and others all seem to be part of those serving the interests of the Christian Right by “fecklessly attempt[ing] to depict [Jefferson] as a man of devout Christian faith.”

The worst offender, for Scherr, is Daniel Dreisbach. But I see little evidence in Scherr’s article that any of these historians, including Dreisbach, have tried to paint Jefferson (a la Barton) as a person of orthodox, Trinitarian faith. Instead, they have tried to account for Jefferson’s occasional comfort with government entanglement with religion, his fascination with the historical (though non-divine) Jesus of Nazareth, and his political alliance with many evangelicals, especially Baptists.

I covered many conservative and Christian historians’ rejection of Barton for the evangelical periodical WORLD Magazine in 2012. For one of those articles, I interviewed Dreisbach, who told me that he had a “‘very hard time’ accepting the notion,” advanced by Barton, “that Jefferson was ever an orthodox Christian, or that Jefferson ever embraced Christianity’s ‘transcendent claims.’” According to Scherr, Dreisbach is “closer to Barton than Barton’s opponents.” But in fact, across the ideological and faith spectrum Barton found virtually no scholarly supporters for The Jefferson Lies.

As an article on Jefferson’s faith, then, Scherr adds value to the scholarly discussion. The notion of Dreisbach and other historians bolstering David Barton’s caricature of Jefferson, however, is not reflected in what those scholars have actually written.

Thomas Jefferson and the Historians – John Ragosta Responds to Arthur Sherr

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

By John Ragosta

Church History’s Spring issue includes an article by Arthur Sherr, entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” When the article appeared, we asked for comment from other historians who have studied the role of religion in Jefferson’s thought.

Our first response comes from John Ragosta, author of Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (University of Virginia Press, 2013) and Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped to Win the American Revolution & Secured Religious Liberty (Oxford University Press, 2010).


Asked for a comment on Arthur Scherr’s analysis of Thomas Jefferson, Christianity, morality, and an afterlife, I am a bit ambivalent.

Scherr is deeply concerned with misinformation from the “religious right” suggesting that Thomas Jefferson was not really devoted to a strict separation of church and state or that he was a devout Christian (and the possible implications of such misinformation to constitutional debate and policy – although he studiously ignores those issues).

Scherr is on strong ground here. He points out many problems with the understanding of Jefferson promoted by David Barton, Daniel Dreisbach, James Hutson, and Charles Sanford and the occasional excess of Edward Gaustad. Those corrections need not be rehearsed here; Scherr covers many well and there is a voluminous literature on the topic.

Exploring that literature, including works by Michael Myerson, Johann Neem, or my own work,1 would have added considerable primary and secondary sources as well as depth to his argument. He might, for example, have looked to other sources for James Madison’s response to the limitation of the First Amendment to the federal government (a plea that the states adopt its principles) or to the manner in which Jefferson’s beliefs matured over time. His brief dismissal of the good work by Warren Throckmorton and Michael L. Couter as being from the “public field” is also misplaced.

Yet, the article potentially raises more problems than it solves. Scherr’s treatment of the question of Jefferson’s belief in an afterlife is emblematic. He entitles the relevant section, appropriately enough, “Jefferson’s Doubts About the Afterlife,” but concludes that Jefferson’s “only concept of ‘afterlife’ was the end of life: death” (108). (Compare 82 – “probably considered belief in the afterlife puerile.”) This is far from clear, especially as Jefferson grew older, and Scherr’s own citations and quotes demonstrate Jefferson’s lack of certainty. As Neem explains, the empirical Jefferson “could never convince himself” of an afterlife, but “express[ed] hope.”

Reading the entire Jefferson and John Adams correspondence, one might reasonably argue even more strongly. Certainly Jefferson’s materialism is not dispositive as he always believed that God (or, to him, “god”) could enervate matter. (Compare Scherr: materialism “implicitly denying Christianity’s belief in the afterlife,” 104.) More generally, one should not expect more than human certainty from a Founder.

Scherr’s criticisms of a number of historians is also excessive. For example, Peter Onuf’s comments on Jefferson’s support of evangelical church polities and “democratic theology” (107), is hardly to say that Jefferson endorsed evangelical dogma. In fact, Scherr ignores Jefferson’s statement that Christianity is the best religion for a republic (largely for the reasons that Onuf explains). (Compare Scherr’s treatment of Eva S. Wolf’s metaphorical comment about “election[s]” in a republic, 107.)

More seriously, Scherr runs perilously close to endorsing a false dichotomy between a Christian evangelical Jefferson and an agnostic or atheist one. He says dismissively that Jefferson’s inaugural included “pro forma thanks to a creator,” and follows that with a “however” the inaugural supported religious liberty (67), as if the two were inconsistent – an argument made (implicitly) against Jefferson that deeply angered him. With some bitterness, he wrote Margaret Bayard Smith in 1816 of the jibes he suffered from “the priests:” “They wished him to be thought Atheist, Deist, or Devil, who could advocate freedom from their religious dictations.”

Evidence of Jefferson’s sincere and deep belief in a god is overwhelming. To snipe that, when praying in both of his inaugurals, Jefferson “may have only uttered these platitudes with reluctance” (68), is, at best, speculative and inconsistent with Jefferson’s other actions and letters. To say later that Jefferson “lent a tacit approval to atheism” by attacking Calvin and corruptions of Christianity that suggest revelation is necessary to find a god (93), is to give the entirely wrong impression. (As Scherr notes, it was in this context that Jefferson calls Calvin an “Atheist, which I can never be.”)

My criticisms are not meant to undermine the primary point of this article, which is correct and timely. Yet, by giving the wrong impression about Jefferson’s deep religiosity and, most especially, overstating Jefferson’s objections, one risks not only confusion but gives those to whom Scherr is addressing his arguments too much ammunition.

I will end with Scherr’s final words: “Were Jefferson alive, he would probably say, contrary to the claims of the Religious Right and its scholarly adherents, who fecklessly attempt to depict him as a man of devout Christian faith, ‘let the wall of separation stand.’” (109).


[1] See, e.g., Michael Myerson, Endowed by their Creator (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012); Johann Neem, “Beyond the Wall: Reinterpreting Jefferson’s Danbury Address.” Journal of the Early Republic 27 (Spring 2007): 139-54; Johann Neem, “A Republican Reformation: Thomas Jefferson’s Civil Religion and the Separation of Church and State,” in A Companion to Thomas Jefferson, ed. by Francis D. Cogliano, 91-109 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011); John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013).

Banned Books Week and an Incident in Boston

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

By David M Powers

The American Library Association’s “Banned Books Week” (September 30-October 6) underscores a disturbing recurrent theme in American life — and a trait we clearly share with other parts of the world. While perhaps more notorious and frightening in other countries, the dangers from banning and burning books continue in our own, as we have seen when a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Quran on September 11, 2010.

The Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts, has one copy — and there are only nine known in the world — of the first book banned and burned on American territory. This significant event occurred in Boston on October 17, 1650. The volume in question is The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption. Its author was William Pynchon (1590-1662), a merchant and magistrate of considerable importance to the puritan venture in New England.

Pynchon was so busy as the colonizing founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, that it is extraordinary that he had time for anything else. But much to everyone’s surprise copies of a theological treatise he wrote arrived in Boston in October 1650. As luck would have it –- or not –- the Massachusetts General Court (the colony’s legislature) was then in session. Even though it is a thin volume, 158 pages of text, the authorities did not need to read it. The Meritorious Price was a book you could tell by its cover: a glance at the title page convinced them that Pynchon’s views were somewhat unorthodox. That, in their judgment, was enough to make it potentially prejudicial to the Bay Colony, especially among those in the British parliament who were already skeptical about the Massachusetts experiment. Pynchon fell victim to the puritan versus puritan struggles which eventually doomed the English republican Commonwealth.

The General Court voted a “protestation” on October 16, 1650, which called for “the said book now brought over be burnt by the executioner… & that in the market place in Boston, on the morrow, immediately after the lecture.” (Mass. Records, III, 215)

As for the aftermath: the book-burning incident had a traumatic impact on Pynchon. Though he tried a conciliatory approach when he conferred about it with three Court-approved clergy, he never attended the Massachusetts legislature again. And while the dramatic public censure of The Meritorious Price reflected badly on Massachusetts, its result at the time was negligible, if not counterproductive. The symbolic execution by burning Pynchon’s book changed nothing. By 1653 Pynchon was back in England, where he wrote several more increasingly wordy volumes, mostly on the same theme. He never changed his mind. He died late in 1662.

Adapted from a posting on Beacon Street Diary

For a more extensive analysis see David M. Powers, “William Pynchon and The Meritorious Price: The Story of the First Book Banned in Boston and the Man Who Wrote It,” Bulletin of the Congregational Library, Spring 2009, pp. 4-13. For more on burning books, see Hans J. Hillerbrand, “On Book Burnings and Book Burners: Reflections on the Power (and Powerlessness) of Ideas,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74, (2006: 593-614).

American Indians and the Doctrine of (Christian) Discovery

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

by Linford D. Fisher

On June 24, 2012, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) voted to officially repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery (DOD). The what, you say? Exactly. The DOD (or Doctrine of Christian Discovery, as it is sometimes referred to) is one of the most important historical and contemporary issues that Native activists and communities talk about, educate regarding, and work against, and yet the vast majority of non-Natives have never heard of it.

In short, the Doctrine of Discovery is the deceptively simply historical notion that Europeans had rights to the lands of the Americas by right of discovery and verbal fiat from the Pope and Christian European kings and queens. Although this may sound to most modern readers like historical malarkey that we have all abandoned long ago (and, in fact, never subscribed to in the first place), this notion has resurfaced repeatedly in American history and, indeed, silently undergirds not just public discourse about Native land rights and sovereignty, but the U.S. Federal Court system as well.

The DOD has its roots in pre-Columbian European expansion, mainly in the colonization of the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands by the Portuguese and Spanish in the fifteenth century. Most scholars date the official origin of the DOD to the papal bull issued in 1452 by Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, which specifically sanctioned the colonization of non-Christian lands by Christian European monarchs and their emissaries. It was with this fictive legal and religious authority that Columbus first claimed the island of Guanahani (San Salvador, in the present-day Bahamas) for Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (an authority that was reconfirmed by Pope Alexander VI in 1493).

Papal bulls between 1481 and 1529—including The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494—attempted to keep the peace between competing and expanding European empires by officially dividing the newly “discovered” lands of the northeastern Atlantic, the Americas, and the West Indies between the Spanish and the Portuguese. After the 1520s, Protestant nations like England and eventually the Netherlands followed suit, replacing the authority of the pope with that of a king or ruler.

It takes little effort to convince most modern-day Americans (or Euro-American residents of the Americas) that this was a preposterous notion, rooted firmly in the arrogance of Europeans’ self-perceived cultural and religious superiority. So then, what’s the big deal?

The problem is that the DOD—or at least the ideas behind it—has never gone away. It still influences much of the cultural assumptions of non-Native inhabitants of the Americas, particularly in the U.S. and Canada. More perniciously, the DOD actually continues to inform the U.S. legal system in terms of how it determines the ongoing rights of Native peoples within its borders. One of the clearest examples of this is the infamous 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In it, Chief Justice Marshall ruled that only the U.S. Congress had the right to buy and sell Native land and based this right on the original “discovery” and conquest of the Americas by Europeans who were sent by Christian kings and queens to Christianize and conquer the “heathen” peoples.

The implications of this ruling were simply tragic, and its logic defies rational and historical analysis. In an astonishing overturning of colonial practice and belief, in one fell swoop American Indians were decreed to have never been the rightful possessors of their land in the first place, all based on this notion of the authority of European discovery (the word “discovery” is used twenty-three times in the ruling).

Johnson v. M’Intosh has had a long shadow. Up through the present, it remains the legal standard for Native land rights cases and was indirectly cited in court decisions as recently as the 2005 decision City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. (this 2005 ruling cited a 1985 ruling, County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation, which explicitly references the “doctrine of discovery” and cites Johnson v. M’Intosh as one of the prior precedents).

In many ways, however, the tide is turning, even if officially this legal precedent is still firmly in place. Some of the most interesting recent developments have been taking place on the international stage. The United Nations established a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2000. In 2007 the United Nations overwhelmingly passed an unprecedented document, titled the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It is the boldest and most comprehensive statement to date on the rights of indigenous populations worldwide, but particularly of those in the “Lands of the Demographic Takeover,” as Alfred Crosby has described it (PDF), or North and South America (including the Caribbean islands), New Zealand, and Australia. The United States was only one of four nations out of 147 that voted against UNDRIP (the other three were, predictably, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia). Although the governments of Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have all subsequently signed on to UNDRIP, the U.S. remains the sole holdout. Obama declared in December 2010 that the U.S. will sign UNDRIP, but so far he has been unable (or unwilling) to get the U.S. Congress to officially endorse it.

As groundbreaking as the UUA resolution was last month, it was not the first such motion by a religious body. That honor goes to the Episcopal Church, which in 2009 passed a resolution that officially denounced the DOD and called for the U.S. to sign on to UNDRIP. The World Council of Churches eventually followed suit in February 2012 during its executive committee meeting in Switzerland. The hope is as other denominations learn about this doctrine and its history, they, too, will be compelled to repudiate it officially and join the growing chorus of calls for the U.S. to adopt UNDRIP. The DOD even has its own Wikipedia page (which marks a certain coming of age in the wider public consciousness, I guess).

In the meantime, despite the wider academy’s failure to engage the DOD as a serious academic topic of inquiry, Native academics have led the way, putting together panels at academic conferences, running regional seminars and listservs (like the one out of Syracuse University), creating an informative website, and publishing books and articles on the topic (one of the best summaries of the DOD is a little essay titled “Five Hundred Years of Injustice,” by Steve Newcomb). This dedicated cadre of Native scholars and activists deserve the credit for bringing this important historical and present-day issue to the attention of literally millions of people around the world, including a growing number of Christian churches and other religious bodies.

Linford D. Fisher is Assistant Professor of History at Brown University and author of The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford, 2012).

Middle Ground: Reflections on the Historiography of David D. Hall

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

by E. Brooks Holifield

David Hall, recently retired from the Harvard Divinity School, has done as much as any historian of the past three decades to shape the direction and hone the methodology of both American religious history and the history of the book and of reading. We have much to learn by looking at his career — his career so far — and I would like to examine his style of historical thinking by noting a series of metaphors that began to appear in his books and articles in the 1970s. The metaphors assumed different shadings of meaning, but they exhibit a consistent habit of mind, a way of thinking historically that will influence us for a long time.

The central image is “middle ground,” or the “middle way,” or “middle space,” or “middling spaces.” And it attracts other related metaphors: negotiation, adaptation, appropriation, mediations, mediating contexts, reciprocities, tangled reciprocities. These metaphors, in turn, attract a related set of conceptions: ambivalence, paradox, overlapping contradictions, ambiguity, and dialectic.

Those metaphors and concepts have carried the weight of David Hall’s consistent opposition to binary constructions, sharp polarities between orality and literacy, piety and indifference, tradition and the market, clergy and lay, misogynist patriarchs and insurgent women, literate and illiterate, theocrats and democrats, purity and declension, formality and ecstasy, the people and the elite, dominating and dominated, communal and individualist, local and metropolitan, genteel and common, and European and American.

He has always acknowledged differentiations, but he has also relativized them, situated them in historical settings in which one finds both oppositions and mediations. He has been a critic of “stark extremities” and simple dichotomies. When he has looked at the past, he has found conflicts but also subtle negotiations.

He has written about educated elites, but he has uncovered their intimate linkage to “the people.” He has insisted that we look at both social history and intellectual systems, at both behavior and language, at both the liminal and the ordinary, at both the conserving and the radical, and the ways in which they are entangled with each other.

His position has been hard-earned, grounded in prodigious research in the primary sources and a mastery of the secondary literature that few can equal. When Hall published his study of the New England clergy in 1972 — The Faithful Shepherd — a growing array of colonial social historians were ready to say that the clergy were largely irrelevant to understanding early America, even the New England colonies. And intellectual history and the history of ideas were largely irrelevant to understanding almost everything about the past.

The opponent of choice for the social historians of colonial America was Perry Miller, whom they accused of overstating the power of “elite ideas,” and they published a variety of local studies that ignored religion, and especially religious leaders and their ideas, built a wall between high and popular culture, and accented the vast distance between the collective mentality of folk belief and the rarified and isolated mental world of the literate. Intellectual history seemed “irretrievably displaced by numbers-driven social history.” ["Witchcraft and the Limits of Interpretation," 281] There was always, he wrote later, both conflict and negotiation, and so unpredictability and uncertainty, in the hunt for witches. He urged the necessity for a vision of mediation in the historiography of witch-hunting.

By 1989, when he published Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment, he had become an incisive critic of the Americanization thesis (with its pronounced contrast between Europe and America). He also called into question notions of decline from supposedly pristine orthodoxies and over-precise distinctions between the people and their leaders. And he had found imaginative ways to get inside the heads of ordinary people who lived in both an enchanted universe and a Protestant world.

The 1990s brought a shift of interest in his scholarship in at least four ways: (1) First, he began to publish the results of his research on the history of reading and the book. Second, an assignment to edit one of the volumes of the Yale Edwards edition cast him into the manuscripts of Jonathan Edwards. (3) Third, he moved deeper into social history by exploring the dynamics of the colonial family and of women in New England religion. (4) And fourth, he began to develop his concept of “lived religion” as an alternative to the binary “popular” and “elite.” In all these endeavors, he exemplified a resistance to simple binaries.

In Cultures of Print (1996) and A History of the Book in America, Vol. 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (2000), with Hugh Amory, he emphasized again the ambiguities and overlaps. Had there really been a revolutionary transition from intensive reading in colonial America to extensive reading in the nineteenth century? Did the polarity of domination and resistance really clarify the role of gender in reading? Should we distinguish high and low with as much confidence as we sometimes do? Was there really a vast gulf between local and metropolitan readers? The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World —rich in detail— will be, for our lifetimes and beyond, the classic, comprehensive study of the book in early America.

His work on Edwards led him to look closely at the institutional settings and the family dynamics in the background of Edwards’s ideas about the church. In fact, Hall’s study of the family helped him explain the ways in which the desires of women to protect their children helped define both seventeenth and eighteenth century Puritanism as a continuing “negotiation between extremes,” a multilayered system out of which both clergy and laity selected motifs and symbols that sometimes overlapped and sometimes did not. [“Introduction,” Jonathan Edwards: Ecclesiastical Writings, 82]

Finally, his concept of lived religion — a concept that has deeply influenced recent directions of American religious history — enabled him to look at how religions and cultures embodied overlapping tensions and even contradictions in early America.

The notion of lived religion was an effort to move beyond an undifferentiated notion of popular religion and to see both the continuities and the discontinuities between the religion of the people and official religion. For example, his essay on Samuel Sewall in Worlds of Wonder — a small masterpiece — showed through imaginative detailed reading of the diaries the ways in which this seventeenth-century Puritan layman partook both of Protestant tradition and popular sensibilities in his quest for protection in a frightening world of harsh contrasts and unpredictable forces.

Now, simply to trace a few continuities — a few motifs — in David Hall’s historical writing is to miss, of course, the textured complexity of his work. He has not written history that admits of simply summary. He has immersed himself in the detail — and unearthed both the spoken and the unspoken in early America. He has taken us into the stubborn recalcitrance of a history that is sometimes messy, rarely malleable and submissive to our simplifying categories, and always engaging of our serious attention.