Throughout American history, religious people and groups have developed, sustained, or challenged cultural norms around gender, marriage, and sexual purity. Beginning with the earliest English Protestant settlers in the 17th century, American Christians have devoted consistent attention to the proper roles of men and women, and to the proper functioning of families. Throughout American history, religious leaders have assigned men as spiritual leaders of their families. Assessments of women’s piety—and its importance in maintaining social order—have grown more positive over time. Prophetic radicals and political activists have frequently challenged American Christianity by attacking its traditionalism on issues related to gender and sexuality. The ideal of a “traditional family” has, however, proven quite robust. Even as cultural attitudes around gender and sexuality have shifted dramatically in recent years, the presumption that typical American families are heterosexual, middle-class, and Christian has persisted. This presumption developed over time and has remained dominant owing in part to the contributions of American religious groups.
Americans, and others, have used the term “Zionism” to relate to groups and individuals that have promoted the idea that Jews should settle in Palestine and build a commonwealth there. Zionist ideas and movements have had a long and varied presence in America, beginning in colonial times. Despite the absence of a unified Zionist program, both Christian and Jewish Zionists translated religious messianic yearnings into political, social, or cultural goals, varying in their motivations and visions. Christian Zionism has developed mostly among messianic-oriented Protestants, although at times other Christians too have supported Zionist goals. In recent decades, Christian Zionism has been associated with conservative evangelicals, in America as well as in other countries. Zionism developed a noticeable presence among Jews in America at the turn of the 20th century. In its first decades, the movement attracted few followers, most Jews preferring other political or ideological options. It gained more ground after the British issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the movement grew further following the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933. During the 1960s–1980s, the majority of Jews in the United States embraced pro-Zionist views, which by that time both Christians and Jews understood as promoting support for Israel in the American public arena. The cooperation between Christian and Jewish Zionists, over the building of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine or over supporting it, has been more extensive than standard histories of Zionism have suggested. Christian and Jewish Zionists have provided each other immense encouragement, offering validation and legitimizing each other’s messianic convictions and projects. Christian supporters have acted as pro-Zionist lobbies, attempting to influence American policies. Their activities became crucial during World War I and then again in the 1970s–2000s, with the resurgence of conservative evangelicalism in the United States. Cooperation between conservative American Christian and Jewish Orthodox messianic groups developed at the turn of the 21st century, with many evangelical Christians contributing to support Jewish settlers and organizations that prepare for the building of the Third Temple in Jerusalem. This alliance has stirred strong reactions among pro-Palestinian and liberal Christians and Jews, who object to what they see as one-dimensional support of right-wing Israeli causes on behalf of messianic interpretations they do not share. For many antagonists, Zionism has become synonymous with a state they oppose and agendas they see as hostile to their cause. Self-identification as Zionist is currently prevalent among Modern Orthodox Jews and conservative evangelical Christians. Many others, including former liberal Christian supporters and progressive Jews, in the United States, Europe, and Israel, have moved to define themselves as post-Zionists, if not as non-Zionists altogether.
Both sexuality and religion are terms as vexatious to define as they can be alluring to pursue. In the contemporary period, figuring out one’s sexual feelings, identity, and preferences has become a signal aspect of self-formation. Understanding one’s religious feelings, identity, and preferences may seem less imminent, but is certainly no less complicated. Both terms cause no small amount of confusion. Clearing up some of this confusion requires speaking frankly about delicate matters, and also speaking flatly about enormously complex experiences. Popular media coverage of ecclesiastical sex scandals in America suggests that people enjoy hearing about the profanation of religious duty. Despite the observed, inferred, and accused sexuality in American religious history, or maybe because of it, eroticism suffuses narrative accounts of American religious history and descriptions of religious actors. In U.S. history, sexuality has often been a key lens through which we have understood the nature of religion, the leaders of religions, and the reason for religious commitment.
Abram C. Van Engen
The Salem witch trials have gripped American imaginations ever since they occurred in 1692. At the end of the 17th century, after years of mostly resisting witch hunts and witch trial prosecutions, Puritans in New England suddenly found themselves facing a conspiracy of witches in a war against Satan and his minions. What caused this conflict to erupt? Or rather, what caused Puritans to think of themselves as engaged, at that moment, in such a cosmic battle? These are some of the mysteries that the Salem witch trials have left behind, taken up and explored not just by each new history of the event but also by the literary imaginations of many American writers. The primary explanations of Salem set the crisis within the context of larger developments in Puritan society. Though such developments could be traced to the beginning of Puritan settlement in New England, most commentators focus on shifts occurring near the end of the century. This was a period of intense economic change, with new markets emerging and new ways of making money. It was also a time when British imperial interests were on the rise, tightening and expanding an empire that had, at times, been somewhat loosely held together. In the midst of those expansions, British colonists and settlers faced numerous wars on their frontiers, especially in northern New England against French Catholics and their Wabanaki allies. Finally, New England underwent, resented, and sometimes resisted intense shifts in government policy as a result of the changing monarchy in London. Under James II, Massachusetts Bay lost its original charter, which had upheld the Puritan way for over fifty years. A new government imposed royal rule and religious tolerance. With the overthrow of James II in the Glorious Revolution, the Massachusetts Bay government carried on with no official charter or authority from 1689 until 1691. When a new charter arrived during the midst of the Salem witch hunt, it did not restore all the privileges, positions, or policies of the original “New England Way,” and many lamented what they had lost. In other words, in 1692, New England faced economic, political, and religious uncertainty while suffering from several devastating battles on its northern frontier. All of these factors have been used to explain Salem. When Governor William Phips finally halted the trials, nineteen had been executed, five had died in prison, and one man had been pressed to death for refusing to speak. Protests began almost immediately with the first examinations of the accused, and by the time the trials ended, almost all agreed that something had gone terribly wrong. Even so, the population could not necessarily agree on an explanation for what had occurred. Publishing any talk of the trials was prohibited, but that ban was quickly broken. Since 1695, interpretations have rolled from the presses, and American literature—in poems, plays, and novels—has attempted to make its own sense and use of what one scholar calls the mysterious and terrifying “specter of Salem.”
Historians most often use the term primitivism to refer to the attempt to reconstruct a religious tradition’s original theology, structure, or beliefs. Primitivists believe that the earliest expressions of the faith are the most efficacious, powerful, and valid, and hence they attempt to recapture them in as complete a form as it is possible for them to imagine. Thus, they frequently dissent from established religious traditions, believing that those constructed under the primitive impulse achieve superior purity. Of course, these attempts are normally incomplete or inaccurate, reflecting the desires or needs of the group doing the restoring more than the original version of whatever faith is involved. Primitivism has taken on a number of forms throughout American history. This essay follows a chronological approach, but uses Richard Hughes’s designations of “ethical,” “ecclesiastical,” and “experiential” primitivism to distinguish among various movements and provide some order to the narrative. These are common impulses in American religion, particularly in the years immediately following the American Revolution commonly called the Second Great Awakening. The language of primitivism has provided Americans with the weight of historical authority, often invoked to overturn established hierarchies and replace them with forms of religious practice deemed, alternately, more democratic, more biblical, more conducive to religious experience, or more ethically demanding. Whatever the case, primitivism has spoken to the American impulse toward reform, resistance to institution, and individual capacity.
M. Michelle Jarrett Morris
Puritan women could be found throughout early America, but the majority lived in New England. More is known about those who were white and of middling or elite rank, but Puritans could be found in all ranks of society, and some Native Americans and Africans converted to Christianity in response to Puritan missionary efforts as well. Puritan women’s lives were multifaceted. They were the backbone of the Puritan church and expert witnesses in court. They were economic partners in domestic economies, household managers, and could if necessary act in their husbands’ stead. Women were dispensers of charity and the workforce of military garrisons. As wives under coverture (a legal doctrine which placed wives’ legal and economic identities under their husbands’ control), they were expected to be submissive, but as mothers and mistresses, their role was to exercise authority. As members of earthly churches they were subordinate, but, as souls in the Church universal, they were equal before God. Although many Puritan women shared basic roles, their experiences and the daily rhythms of their lives varied considerably. Age and life-cycle, as well as inequities of wealth, made some women mistresses and others servants. Married women’s work was focused primarily around food, clothing, and childcare, but geography and their husbands’ occupations shaped what women grew in their gardens and what food they foraged or bought, as well as which raw materials they had available for other types of domestic production. Aptitude and informal education led some women to become sought-after healers or midwives to whom other women turned in difficult times. Puritan women were part of both heterosocial and homosocial communities which might be sustaining or riddled with conflict. In extreme cases, social conflict might even lead to accusations of witchcraft. Often in those cases, both accused and accusers were Puritan women.