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A.G. Roeber


Colonial Modern

When historian Jon Butler looks at early America, he sees the lineaments of contemporary secular pluralism.

Religion in Colonial America, by Jon Butler, Oxford University Press, 2000, 160 pp.; $22

Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776, by Jon Butler, Harvard University Press, 2000, 320 pp.; $27.95

What "things" one can see on the Minnesota prairie that remain hidden from other mortals, Jon Butler doesn't say, precisely. But the frontispiece quotation to his interpretive essay, Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776, should be taken seriously: "You can see things on the Minnesota praire that you can't see anywhere else." Emblematic clues that require reflective interpreters surface in many world religions, and meditation on this inscription can reward the reader of Butler's latest narratives, too.

In many respects, the unrestricted vistas of Butler's home prairie offer an apt metaphor for the imagined religious landscape he contends characterized North America even before the emergence of the first modern nation. In his view, religious concerns may have helped to shape the borders and far horizons of American nationhood, but optimism grounded in a decidedly secular, material progressivism provided the real color and texture to the canvas. The implicit teleology in his argument—his real question is Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's "What then, is the American, this new man?"—will surprise students of the early modern world. Whatever else has characterized the evolution of early American studies since the 1940s, the hard struggle to interpret that history in its own terms—and not as mere prelude to the more important "national" story—surely has been of paramount importance. But Butler now seems to be retrieving aspects of that earlier view. In the end, he is really interested in the rational, progressive (and surprisingly areligious) society that he believes paved the way for 1776 and beyond.

Butler is not guilty of reconstructing a narrative of national political triumph. Indeed, he pays commendable attention to the literatures on African and ...

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