Friday, 9 November 2012

America as "Conceived in Doubt"

Last night Amanda Porterfield, Robert A. Spivey Professor of Religion at Florida State University, wrapped up our series on religion and politics for the LeRoy Martin Distinguished Lecture Series at UTC. It was a very interesting lecture that was based on her most recent book, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation.

Porterfield has analyzed colonial American history and determined that much of the nation's Christian heritage was forged in skepticism. Throughout her lecture, she demonstrated a number of ironical twists in American religious history. Jefferson, for instance, although raised as an Anglican, grew suspicious of organized, elite religion. Furthermore, Jefferson--tarnished as an atheist by many American Christians--was ironically supported by evangelicals within the burgeoning Methodist and Baptist denominations. Even more intriguing, she posited that the best-selling pamphlet, The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine, ironically led to the galvanization of evangelicalism in America. Ministers outraged by the heterodoxy of the pamphlet doubled their efforts to preach to the masses about the need to embrace orthodoxy and reject the deism espoused by Paine and other iconoclasts. But even here, in this push to preach the gospel, Porterfield shows the presence of doubt and skepticism. The revivalists who urged Americans to have a conversion experiences embraced the sentiments of doubt in order to help guide their converts to an authentic, born-again experience. The presence of doubt within a potential convert was viewed by many evangelical preachers as a necessary part of the process that led to complete confidence in one's eternal state. All in all, a very intellectually stimulating lecture.

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