The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Brown Bag Lunch Talk: “The Theology of Citizenship”

On Wednesday, October 31, Andrew W. Mellon research fellow Ben Park, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, England,  presented a brown bag lunch talk, “The Theology of Citizenship: Local Preachers and the Production of Nationalism in Early America.” Park’s dissertation explores the local production of national identities in the Early Republic, using South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts as comparative regional case studies. His current research focuses on the role of the clergy in imagining and disseminating notions of citizenship and national character. To introduce his topic, Park described the evolution of the Reverend Jeremy Belknap (1744-1798), a key figure in the founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Belknap spent his early career in New Hampshire where his sermons remained politically neutral throughout the Revolution and into the 1780s. Only when Belknap moved from New Hampshire to Boston in 1787, where he took up a post at the Federal Street Church, did his weekly sermons begin to more overtly combine religious notions of providentialism with exhortations to patriotic sensibility. He began to speak of God’s role in shaping the United States as a nation, condemned those he saw as religious and political fanatics, had harsh words to say about French “atheist” revolutionaries, and expressed trepidation at the growing role of mercantilism in American life. Park theorizes that Belknap’s change in geographic location brought him into a new “localized nationalism,” in which particular Boston-based notions of civic responsibility and national identity galvanized him into political speech. Previous historians have explored the effect of politics on religious identity and practice; Park wonders about the effect of religion on political identity and action.

Conversation following Park’s presentation explored the working definitions of “local,” “national,” and “citizenship,” and the relationship between these three concepts: What does it mean for citizens to articulate ideas of nationalism from their position in a particular locality? What happens when individuals from two different localities converse about their mutual citizenship in the newly federal America? To what extent can existing sources – such as sermons – open a window into how congregants understood themselves in relation to political powers? When sources are clustered in urban centers (Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston) to what extent can arguments be made about the region as a whole? What interpersonal networks existed between urban and rural communities in each state? How does one get not only at local political ideas but also local political acts such as voting, pageantry, and revolts?

We look forward to following Ben’s work during over the course of his year-long residency here in Boston conducting his primary source research for the dissertation; and eventually we look forward to congratulating him upon a successful defense of his work and conferral of his Ph.D. Best wishes for a successful year of study and writing!

permalink | Published: Friday, 2 November, 2012, 1:00 AM