The City on a Hill gets new meaning in religion America-style

Third of four excerpts from 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem' leading up to the symposium 'Religion and the Quest to Control Violence'

James Carroll at Brandeis commencement, 2008

This is the third of four excerpts being presented by BrandeisNOW from James Carroll's new book "Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World." The book is a centerpiece of the symposium "Religion and the Quest to Control Violence" on Monday, March 14, in Sherman Function Hall. Following a talk by Carroll, scholars from Brandeis and around the country will discuss and critique Carroll's argument that religions represent human efforts to understand and restrain the impulse to violence.

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From Chapter 6: City on a Hill 

The public show of devotedness, in combination with an increasingly private understanding of what it signified, became the mark of American religion, and it stamped nothing so much as the political doctrine of the separation of church and state. The virtues of that separation are evident, and in our appreciation of Roger Williams's innovation we have already noted them. State power and religious zealotry, joined in coercion, make a deadly combination. But for all of the virtues of church-state separation, this tradition would have two profoundly negative consequences.

Because matters of religion would be kept in a realm apart, the zone designated as private, the kinds of human development nurtured in the public square would not find a hospitable niche in religion. In America, for example, the task of education would increasingly belong to the consciously nonreligious sphere - a good thing in itself, but unintended outcomes followed. Public schools and publicly supported institutions of higher learning set the tone and standards for education generally. In fact, public education in America would have an unmistakably Protestant stamp until the mid-twentieth century, but that, too, would be purged for the important reason that the consciences of pupils must not be even implicitly coerced by government-sponsored initiatives. All instruction in religion, as well as exercises of religion like prayer, would be banned from public classrooms.

Meanwhile, church-sponsored religious education - Sunday school - would be overwhelmingly focused on children, resulting in an infantilization of belief. Bible stories yes, biblical criticism no. This would lead to a widespread religious illiteracy, and not even those educated in religiously affiliated private (parochial) schools would be exempt from it, since they, too, would suffer from the corrupting sacred-profane dichotomy. Most secular Americans would be too ignorant to know how this lack in their education would undercut them, while relatively few American believers would ever be offered significant religious instruction by their faith institutions. Thus church-affiliated people, to take only one example, would accept too easily the canard that science and religion are necessarily in conflict, while scientists would condescend to religious traditions that produced science in the first place (Copernicus was a priest).

The result of all this would be a population that takes for granted the methods of historical and critical thinking in all other areas of life while remaining intellectually immature when it comes to religion. The unconscious assumptions of belief would go forever unexamined. Science, meanwhile, would regard ethics as a subspecialty instead of as an all-encompassing way of thinking. The a priori assumptions of science would alone be exempt from the obligation to submit all knowledge to the test. Such bifurcated thinking is why the core subject of this book - how religion and violence advance each other - has been so far beyond the competence or interest of most public criticism. That biblical ideas of apocalypse, to stay with a key motif, have underwritten most American warmaking is neither understood nor addressed to this day. Religion as an invented realm apart is understood to be a source of intolerance and violence, while the nation - and all things secular - are seen as intrinsically tolerant and, unless unjustly provoked, peaceful.

                But the separation of church and state had a more immediate, and more immediately negative, consequence - and that consequence would be apocalyptic. Because the private realm of church was taken to be exempt from public challenge, represented by the authority of the state, the single largest moral question of the new American nation went unasked - that of the claim of some persons to have ownership of other persons. The explosive growth of intensely private religiosity, leading to singularly American religious forms, matched the growth of chattel slavery in the United States. The uncontested individualism of the pietist denominations - especially Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists - reinforced the frontier nation in its refusal to intrude on the individual or the individual's conscience. That sacred, fenced-off interiority was increasingly described not in the theological or philosophical categories of tradition, but in terms of each believer's personal relationship with Jesus. The most sacred realm of that refusal, as American selfhood was literally defined by the act of staking claims to pieces of the ever-expanding supply of land on the frontier, had to do with what came to be known as property rights.

In 1780, there were 2,500 Christian congregations in the nation; by 1860, that number had grown to 52,000, vastly outstripping population growth. The number of slaves in the United States, meanwhile, went from around 600,000 in 1780 to about four million in 1860. Christians were divided on the morality of slavery, but slave owners readily found justification for ownership in their creeds. For Thomas Jefferson and other slaveholders, the "wall of separation" between church and state meant that the government had no business in regulating, or passing judgment on, the private affairs of property owners, which is why he could argue during the 1789 Constitutional Convention for the continuance of chattel slavery.

Jefferson reckoned slavery as wrong ("I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever"), but he could not bring himself to support a government-mandated end of it when, compared to what followed, it would have been relatively easy to do so. The tragedy of timing, of course, is that slavery was not fully embedded in the economy of the South before the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. That unpredicted leap in the technology of cotton processing required a much larger number of manual laborers. Once the entire economy of the cotton-growing South - and the textile manufacturing North - was dependent on the institution of slavery, it could not be changed by the mere votes of lawmakers.

In 1831, an apocalyptic Christian took the matter into his own hands. A Methodist "exhorter," or lay preacher, he had been carefully instructed in the scriptures by his grandmother. The rhythms and imagery of the Book of Revelation were second nature to him, and, as it happened, the millennial enthusiasm of what would be called the Second Great Awakening was at full tide across evangelical America. From Oberlin, Ohio, to Rochester, New York, to Nashville, Tennessee, the evils of alcohol, penal abuse, and corruptions of the government's spoils system were roundly denounced by preachers, but the heretofore avoided beast in the American sanctuary, chattel slavery, was finally drawing notice as well.

Had slaveholding America lost its status as God's new chosen people? Had it gone the way of the faithless Israelites? Was the Armageddon reckoning at hand? Could the United States, in which so many individuals were undergoing the rebirth of a new baptism in the spirit, itself be reborn? As this particular Bible-preaching exhorter saw the thing, the corruptions of the mystical Babylon were now epitomized by the brutalities of the slave nation, and the time had come when an avenging messenger of God would bring about slavery's end. For him, the question went beyond morality or politics; it was a matter of life and death. He, too, sensed the imminence of the End Time and felt compelled to act on it.

He was a broad-shouldered man in his thirties, marked with scars from the kick of a mule and the whip of a slave master. The vision that was to make him the scourge of the abomination of slavery could not have been more explicit. "I heard a loud voice in the heavens," he reported, "and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said . . . I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons." The first of those weapons was the broadax with which he had done his work in the fields, and the first against whom he swung it was the sleeping Travis family in Southampton County, Virginia. Striking in the middle of the night on August 22, 1831, he killed the Travis mother, father, and children, including the twelve-year-old boy who was his legal owner. Then, accompanied by perhaps a dozen other slaves, armed with hoes and axes, he set out on the Barrow Road, heading for the county seat, where he believed there was an arsenal of the guns and ammunition that would enable their rebellion to succeed. Defeat was unthinkable.

"I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle," he had prophesied, "and the sun was darkened - the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and the blood flowed in the streams - and I heard a voice saying, ‘Such is your luck, such are you called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bear it.' "

It came rough. Along the Barrow Road, he and his comrades fell upon other farms, killing families as they slept - including some of the Turners, his original owners, the family that gave him his name. The plan was that the rebels would gather recruits to their band from among other slaves as they went, but as many slaves resisted them as joined them. The leader knew only that once they reached the county seat, they would be victorious. But white militias sprung up to stop them, blocked the roads, forced the rebels into hiding.

The revolt was quickly over, but rumors and reports of a slave insurrection went wild and wide. Panic spread among whites throughout Southampton County and beyond. Hundreds of slaves who had nothing to do with the rebellion were whipped and even killed for imagined acts of insolence. White women and children fled farms and plantations to take refuge in the county seat, huddling in and around the courthouse. In the end, about sixty Negroes had joined the revolt, and about as many whites were killed. The rebels may have had no real plan beyond their mystical sojourn on the road toward the main town of Southampton County, as if arrival there would be enough. In fact, there was no arsenal, no store of guns. Even if there had been, it is likely that few of the rebels would have known how to load and fire the muskets.

By the end of August, the rebellion was fully quashed, and the leader holed up in the woods. He eluded capture for two months. "It was plain to me," he reported, "that the Savior was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of man, and the great Day of Judgment was at hand." At the end of October, he was captured. He was brought at long last to his fated destination - but in chains. While awaiting death in his cell, he dictated his "confession" to a white lawyer. He was hanged on November 11. His name was Nat Turner. The town toward which he set himself and where he was executed, the county seat of Southampton, Virginia, was Jerusalem. And how could he not have believed?

After Nat Turner's rebellion, laws were passed across the South further restricting slaves, especially forbidding their education. Reading was proscribed, notably including the Bible, which, sanctioning the victim's point of view, had again proven to be subversive. Nat Turner was the strange fruit of the Reformation and its biblical literacy. Some states required that white ministers be present whenever slaves gathered to worship. The combination of involuntary servitude and millennial Christian enthusiasm was explosive, and in 1831 it was far from disarmed. The African-American historian and civil rights activist Vincent Harding sums up what the Nat Turner rebellion, and the subsequent attention paid to his "confession," set in motion: "So black struggle and black radicalism had no choice but to continue as an active, moving, relentless sign, forcing the issue of the nation's future, never allowing any of our God-driven, freedom-seeking, Jerusalem-marching fathers to have died in vain, pointing the way."


Excerpted from JERUSALEM, JERUSALEM by James Carroll. Copyright (c) 2011 by James Carroll. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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