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Conceived in Doubt

Religion and Politics in the New American Nation

Conceived in Doubt

Religion and Politics in the New American Nation

Americans have long acknowledged a deep connection between evangelical religion and democracy in the early days of the republic. This is a widely accepted narrative that is maintained as a matter of fact and tradition—and in spite of evangelicalism’s more authoritarian and reactionary aspects.

In Conceived in Doubt, Amanda Porterfield challenges this standard interpretation of evangelicalism’s relation to democracy and describes the intertwined relationship between religion and partisan politics that emerged in the formative era of the early republic. In the 1790s, religious doubt became common in the young republic as the culture shifted from mere skepticism toward darker expressions of suspicion and fear. But by the end of that decade, Porterfield shows, economic instability, disruption of traditional forms of community, rampant ambition, and greed for land worked to undermine heady optimism about American political and religious independence. Evangelicals managed and manipulated doubt, reaching out to disenfranchised citizens as well as to those seeking political influence, blaming religious skeptics for immorality and social distress, and demanding affirmation of biblical authority as the foundation of the new American national identity.

As the fledgling nation took shape, evangelicals organized aggressively, exploiting the fissures of partisan politics by offering a coherent hierarchy in which God was king and governance righteous. By laying out this narrative, Porterfield demolishes the idea that evangelical growth in the early republic was the cheerful product of enthusiasm for democracy, and she creates for us a very different narrative of influence and ideals in the young republic.


“Amanda Porterfield’s subtle study of religio-political formations, intellectual virtue, and declension narratives marks a needed contrast to the tide of amateurish history and bloviations about the colonial era . . . Conceived in Doubt is a fresh inquiry into the emergence of the independent category ’religion’ in American political life.”

Jason Bivens | Religion in American History

"Amanda Porterfield is a rare historian and Conceived in Doubt is a gem of a book. She dives directly into the fear, doubt, and skepticism that Americans drank widely in the early national period and finds that religion did not save them, but contained them. The new evangelicalism of the era corralled doubt and then used it to create new definitions of religion and politics. In the process, they carved a space for themselves while carving others to pieces. Conceived in Doubt is a brilliant work. By forcing us to reconsider the relationship between religion and politics in the early republic, it helps untangle some of the knots that continue to lace them together today."

Edward J. Blum | author of Reforging the White Republic

“In this lively and provocative book, Amanda Porterfield counters the now commonplace notion that evangelicalism in post-revolutionary America served as an anti-authoritarian and democratizing force. Instead, Porterfield finds that evangelical groups fueled a culture of anxiety, mistrust, and bitter partisanship that paved the way for an eventual assertion of political authority. Conceived in Doubt covers much ground in cultural and political history, marshaling a wide array of evidence for Porterfield’s innovative claims about the relationship of evangelical religion and politics in the early United States. The book should gain a wide readership and point scholars in productive new directions.”

Kirsten Fischer | University of Minnesota

“I welcome Amanda Porterfield’s book for its originality and scope. It will stimulate students and scholars to rethink the evangelical movement in America, including the manner in which it provided a sense of security in the face of frequently dismaying circumstances.”

Daniel Walker Howe | Church History

"Sobering. . ."

North Carolina Historical Review

Table of Contents


1    Faith in Reason and the Problem of Skepticism
2    Partisan Mistrust
3    Religion to the Rescue
4   : Church Citizenship
5    Religion in the Formation of Political Parties
6    Honor into the Breach


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