Nov. 12, 2021

In this episode of It’s Useful to Know, Dr. Seth Perry talks about the variety of religions present in the United States at the time of the nation’s founding and why it’s complicated to claim that the nation has Christian origins. He also shares some of his current research on religion in the early national period, and he explains the connection between national identity and the stories we tell about ourselves.

About the Expert

Dr. Seth Perry is a professor of Religion at Princeton University. He is interested in American religious history, with a particular focus on print culture and religious authority. Dr. Perry is the author of Bible Culture & Authority in the Early United States (2018). He is currently working on a biography of Lorenzo Dow that expands on his 2015 article on Dow

Start a Conversation

  1. The debates around America’s founding revolve around stories we tell about our origins: where did we come from? How did we get here? What is our purpose? How do you narrate your own community’s origins, and whose stories do you include or exclude when you communicate them? How does the story change depending on who you’re telling it to?
  1. Look at this map that highlights some of the varieties of Euro-American religions in the thirteen British colonies in 1750. Choose a couple of groups that interest you and research their beliefs. What do you notice about the internal diversity of Christianity at the time of America’s founding? Why do you think it matters?
  1. Now take a look at a different map that shows the thirteen British colonies in 1774 as part of the land that would become the continental United States.  You’ll notice that the groups that controlled most of this territory at the time are quite different from those in the thirteen colonies: Native Americans, African Americans, the French in French Louisiana (consisting of the Midwest), and the Spanish in Florida, Texas, and the lands west of French Louisiana. What could we say about the founding of America if we take into account that this land was predominantly a space where African diasporic religions, Indigenous religious practices, and varieties of European Catholicism were practiced? Why do you think these groups are often peripheral in contemporary debates about the origins of the United States?
  1. Much of the debate about a Christian founding rests on claims about the founding fathers’ religious affiliations. Dr. Perry mentioned Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson as key figures surrounding the debates around America as a Christian nation. How would you summarize their religious affiliations? Why do you think these figures came to play such a central role in discussions of Christian nationalism?
  1. The founding fathers were an elite handful of the many people living in the colonies and the rest of North America in 1776. When we focus on the founding fathers, whose stories do we leave out? How would including their stories change the narrative? 

Additional Resources

Religion and Revolution 

Kate Carte-Engel, who recently published her book on religion and the American Revolution, started a digital project with her students to look at the different roles of religion in the revolution. Here, she and her students analyze colonial newspapers for references to religion: 

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

This is a helpful collection of documents from the Library of Congress that historians have used to talk about religion and the American revolution.  

Faith and the American Insurrection

This essay series from the Berkley Forum at Georgetown University explores the sociological, historical, and theological roots of the religion on display during the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Featured scholars include Dr. Judith Weisenfeld, the chair of the Department of Religion at Princeton, and Dr. Lauren R. Kerby, a visiting fellow at CCSR.

Edwards, Mark. “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” CNN, July 4, 2015.

Manseau, Peter. “Why Thomas Jefferson Created His Own Bible.” Smithsonian Magazine, September 8, 2020.