cover image Skepticism and American Faith from the Revolution to the Civil War

Skepticism and American Faith from the Revolution to the Civil War

Christopher Grasso. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (664p) ISBN 978-0-19-049437-7

In this revealing study, Grasso (Bloody Engagements), professor of history at William & Mary, argues that the American experience of and engagement with skepticism was a significant driver of social, cultural, religious, and political ferment in the young republic. Skeptics who questioned the three “grounds of faith”—the Bible, tradition, and personal subjectivity—prompted debates over many aspects of early American society, including epistemology, interpretation of the Bible and the Constitution, the appropriate response to poverty, the right of the faithful majority to be shielded from the “insult” of public skepticism, and the roots of faith and doubt in the anatomy of the brain itself. Grasso uses dozens of familiar and unfamiliar figures to explore the spiritual and practical consequences of these debates. His analysis of the ways race and gender shaped claims to knowledge and authority is strongest when considering black and white female skeptics such as 18th-century slaves who cultivated “deism, skepticism, universalism” and Methodist reformer Sarah Anderson Jones. Grasso uses a large appendix to define and explain the grounds of different faiths and their relationships to skepticism; general readers may find it helpful to begin in the appendix. True to its title, Grasso’s book demonstrates the centrality of skepticism in understanding how the American inclination to faith has been “forged in the foundry of culture.” (July)