From the Editor

By Carol Berkin

History Now welcomes you back to the classroom for another exciting semester engaging the American past. We begin this school year with an issue on early American religion that highlights one of the critical characteristics of our nation: its multicultural heritage. America’s people have come from all over the globe, bringing with them a dazzling variety of languages and idioms, religious beliefs and cultural traditions, gender ideals, political persuasions, and creative skills and talents. In the essays that follow, our historians offer us a closer look at one of the primary elements in this multicultural mix: the religious beliefs and institutions originating in Europe that played major roles in the lives of colonial America’s women and men. In "The Puritans and Dissent: The Cases of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson," Francis Bremer explores the two most important challenges to Puritan uniformity in "the city upon a hill." His nuanced account of the Puritan leaders and their efforts to preserve the identity of the community will perhaps surprise those who have always thought of John Winthrop and his supporters as villains. Bremer reminds us that historical controversies must never be seen in simple black-and-white terms, and he urges us not to impose our modern values on the women and men who lived so many centuries before us.

Eli Faber provides an in-depth examination of one of the minority groups who sought refuge in colonial America in his essay "Early America’s Jewish Settlers." Faber narrates the story of a people who grappled with the tension between distinctiveness and adaptation, between the preservation, intact, of their own culture and the demands of life in a new world. This tension will be a familiar one to many modern-day immigrants.

In "The Origins and Legacy of the Pennsylvania Quakers," Barry Levy examines the contributions a radical, "backwoods" group made to the culture of colonial America. Levy helps us understand the reaction of more established English religious groups to the Quakers, who found the members of this radical sect socially uncouth and far too egalitarian. They gained respect in America as they turned Pennsylvania into "the best poor man’s country," but their influence diminished when pacifism led many to remain neutral during the American Revolution. Levy reminds us, however, that many Quaker ideas influenced American society after the war, among them, the centrality of women in the family, pacifism, and abolitionism.

In "Thomas Jefferson and Deism," Peter Onuf revises our understanding of the role of deism in the philosophy of one of the most famous Revolutionary leaders. Arguing that the caricature of Jefferson as anti-Christian was the work of his political opponents, the Federalists, Onuf shows us the connection between Jefferson’s belief in rationality and science, republicanism, and what he called "primitive Christianity." For Jefferson, religious toleration, the rejection of clerical hierarchies, and a commitment to the most basic moral values of Jesus were the best foundation for the new nation.

Our interactive feature provides a religious map of the colonies, indicating the distribution and strength in numbers of the many religious groups within American society. Our master teachers, Philip Nicolosi and Bruce Lesh, provide useful and thought provoking suggestions about how to integrate the themes of this issue into classroom discussion and instruction. Our remarkable archivist, Mary-Jo Kline has put together a wealth of resources for those who wish to pursue this subject in greater depth. And, as always, we offer model lesson plans that address the topic of religion in early America.

Our next issue will focus on some of the most important reform movements of the nineteenth century, as Americans took a close look at everything from what they ate to how they organized their society to how they dealt with newly arriving immigrants and to the transatlantic movement known as Progressivism—and the steps they took to improve their behavior and their institutions in each of these areas.

Carol Berkin
Editor, History Now

Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence.