From The Wall Street Journal:
‘Evangelicals,” or born-again Protestants—Christians who believe in converting non-Christians to their faith—haven’t had a lot of great press of late. The mainstream media all but blamed them for the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Going further back are evangelical ties to the Moral Majority and the religious right. Evangelicals in both politics and religion have a reputation for intolerance. They may have earned it: In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that evangelicals, more than any other Christian group, viewed Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, atheists and Muslims unfavorably.
Mark Valeri’s “The Opening of the Protestant Mind” isn’t about 21st-century America, but his exploration of born-again Protestantism’s historical roots upends assumptions about religious conversion. Instead of making Christians intolerant, coming to faith by conversion historically went hand in hand with reasonableness, civility and religious toleration. Most readers would likely assume the opposite: If you believe other people need to convert to your faith from theirs, chances are you won’t give them much of a hearing. In Mr. Valeri’s interpretation, though, a figure like Jonathan Edwards, famous for preaching “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” may have been among the most liberal and progressive thinkers in the Anglophone world.
Mr. Valeri’s narrative of Anglo-American Protestantism between 1650 and 1750 is not as oxymoronic as it initially sounds. The Protestant outlook that prevailed in English society at the time of Charles I’s execution in 1649 assumed that the “health of the state depended on a . . . religious confession” to supply social coherence. For the rest of the 17th century, when English writers (including American colonists) encountered non-Christians, they saw “illegitimate, dangerous, and demonic” religions.
But after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, in which the threat of a Catholic monarch was decisively ended, English Protestants began to distinguish “loyalty to the kingdom” from “conformity to any one creed.” English writers—some zealous Protestants, others philosophically inclined—“minimized theological orthodoxy” as a requirement for social standing. Not only did these authors discover “republican ideas of toleration and moral virtue” in other religions; they also revised Christianity. Conversion became the path to faith not by submission to dogma but by persuasion. This shift aided the ascendant Whigs in governing a diverse religious constituency. It also prompted Protestants to regard conversion (and awakenings) as the mark of true faith.
Mr. Valeri, a professor of religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis, refers to a variety of authors well known and obscure. In the case of John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689), the key to civil liberty was separating the purpose of the state from that of the church. If religious controversy threatened public order, the state should intervene. Otherwise government should leave religious groups to themselves. Locke’s outlook extended to Native Americans: “If they believe that they please God and are saved by the rites of their forefathers, they should be left to themselves.” Jonathan Edwards, who for a time served as a missionary to Native Americans, echoed Locke. Although an advocate for the First Great Awakening, Edwards regarded the Mohawks and English people as spiritual equals because they shared the same sinful human nature. For that reason, Edwards thought acculturating Native Americans to Anglo-American conventions as unimportant compared with converting them through persuasive preaching.
The 1733 English publication of “The Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the Various Nations of the Known World” is Mr. Valeri’s best example. Compiled by two French Protestants, Bernard Picart and Jean Frédéric Bernard, this popular book reinforced the ideal of conversion. Especially appealing to Anglo-American Protestants was the French catalogers’ contention that ceremonial religion represented an illegitimate “alliance between priests and secular rulers who persecuted religious dissenters.” Ritualized Christianity went hand-in-hand with imperial ambition and produced “uncivil, unreasonable, and coercive” religion.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal
PG notes that there were periods in history (including the times that the book described in the OP discusses) when religion had the power to impel men and women to many different actions.
The Crusades were a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims that started primarily to secure control of holy sites considered sacred by both groups. In all, eight major Crusade expeditions—varying in size, strength and degree of success—occurred between 1096 and 1291.
The Muslim conquests were a military expansion on an unprecedented scale, beginning in the lifetime of Muhammad and spanning the centuries down to the Ottoman wars in Europe.
PG compares the general power of religion to cause humans to exert substantial amounts of money and blood in ancient times with the far more subtle influences of religion in the 21st Century. PG is certainly pleased that there have been no major religious wars lately, but he also wonders if religion, taken as a whole, occupies a smaller place in the minds of humanity, speaking generally, in today’s world.
PG asks that comments to this post not insult any particular religion or its adherents.