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‘The Opening of the Protestant Mind’ by Mark Valeri

Religious liberty in the U.S. today is enigmatic. It’s being attacked from the cultural left and the cultural right. Meanwhile, Supreme Court decisions suggest it’s gaining legal strength based on multiple recent cases.

Its future is contested, as are basic questions about its history. Did religious liberty spring forth from Enlightened philosophic minds? Do we see it most clearly in Martin Luther’s invocation of conscience at the Diet of Worms or even in early Anabaptist theology?

In 2019, historian Robert Louis Wilken responded to these questions in his superb book Liberty in the Things of God, asserting that freedom of religion was the ideological consequence of Christian belief in liberty of conscience.

Recently, another scholar has offered a complementary narrative that continues the discussion. Mark Valeri is professor of religion and politics at Washington University and author of The Opening of the Protestant Mind: How Anglo-American Protestants Embraced Religious Liberty.

Valeri describes how 17th-century Protestants in England and its North American colonies began to judge the value of competing religions by their adherence to certain political virtues rather than by their creedal commitments. He argues that sects espousing an ethic of toleration, reasonableness, and religious choice were granted varying degrees of religious liberty because they were viewed as socially nonthreatening. 

The Opening of the Protestant Mind: How Anglo-American Protestants Embraced Religious Liberty

Mark Valeri

The Opening of the Protestant Mind: How Anglo-American Protestants Embraced Religious Liberty

Mark Valeri

Oxford University Press. 312 pp.

Using a variety of sources—travel narratives, dictionaries and encyclopaedias of the world’s religions, missionary tracts, and sermons—The Opening of the Protestant Mind traces a transformation in how English and colonial American Protestants described other religions during a crucial period of English colonization of North America.  Mark Valeri neither valorizes Anglo-Protestants nor condemns them. Instead, he reveals the deep ambiguities in their ideas while showing how those ideas contained the seeds of modern religious liberty.

Oxford University Press. 312 pp.

Revolutions of Liberty

When considering freedom of religion, Americans might think of Puritans finding refuge in their city on a hill or of the “free exercise” clause in the First Amendment. But Valeri argues the real revolution was the 1688 ouster of England’s King James II, a Roman Catholic, and the subsequent coronation of William and Mary as Protestant monarchs.

Protestants called the ordeal the Glorious Revolution, but lingering religious divisions imperiled the new monarchy. Consequently, King William and his whiggish supporters––those who believed in the inevitable progress of liberty––elevated religious toleration as a key civic virtue. They believed the “success of the revolution depended on the support of different religious factions in the kingdom: Anglicans, Presbyterian and Independent dissenters, Quakers, Baptists, and patriotic Catholics” (72).

In this light, a policy of religious liberty developed to encourage a stable political coalition.

A policy of religious liberty developed to encourage a stable political coalition.

Parts of this story aren’t entirely new. For instance, stressing values like toleration to achieve social order is generally accepted as a catalyst for the Enlightenment, especially in Britain. Historian Thomas Kidd has shown how the Glorious Revolution led to an international Protestant interest that minimized sectarian distinctions.

Valeri’s narrative is interesting because he frames the Glorious Revolution not just as a matter of political liberty but as a bellwether of other intellectual revolutions. He asserts that post-1688 Protestants more readily affirmed that individuals had the natural right and ability to choose a religious identity, or what’s considered moral liberty.

A strength of Valeri’s methodology is his framework comparing pre- and post-1688 literature. This approach demonstrates how this discourse about moral liberty shaped Anglo-Protestant views of world religions, including even Native American spirituality and Roman Catholicism. But his attention to the theologies of conversion and Christian missions is particularly insightful.

Alternative Missiology

Valeri offers an alternative way of understanding the history of Christian missions in North America. He observes that pre-1688 English missionaries such as John Eliot described spiritual conversion in terms of a providential and passive submission to the English Protestant establishment. They thought adopting English customs raised “an awareness of the moral law [which] in turn led to the recognition of guilt” (60).

However, influenced by whiggish notions of moral liberty, later missionaries like David Brainerd assumed Native Americans were “Rational Beings,” and they shared the gospel by supposing a moral common ground.

This new strategy granted unbelievers a more active role in conversion and decoupled English national identity from an individual’s Protestant faith. In this regard, the book is timely because a careful reading pushes Christians to evaluate the intertwining of our national and spiritual identities.

The book is timely because a careful reading pushes Christians to evaluate the intertwining of our national and spiritual identities.

This narrative gives us a fresh look at how Christian missions in America developed over time. Valeri argues that the tactics of mid-18th-century Protestants provide an interlude between the imperial paradigm of the 17th century and the racialized civilizing mission of the 19th century.

In some sections, Valeri stretches his framework. He explores older ideas like John Calvin’s understanding of natural conscience and Jonathan Edwards’s work on the freedom of the will in the Great Awakening but mainly relies on Whig moral theory (e.g., toleration, reasonableness, moral liberty) to explain shifting conceptions of conversion as well as debates on the moral efficacy of human will. There’s room for more theological analysis, but his broader point is to show how those theories and debates aligned with Whig political discourse.

Seeing the Faith in the Past

Valeri’s work is always commendable and this volume is no exception. Readers will appreciate his forays into material culture (Have you ever seen how a 17th-century King of Hearts depicts English monarchs?), his sober evaluation of theological debates, and even more so his lack of cynicism.

He rightly notes the racial assumptions and social biases of these Anglo-Protestants. However, he contends that historians too often reflexively cast early modern Christianity as inescapably imperial, racist, and ethnocentric.

Central to the book’s approach is seeing the historical faith on its own terms and resisting the use of a religion’s sinister elements to define the whole. That’s a balancing act for us all: to keep a properly critical view from devolving into sheer cynicism. It’s something for us to reflect on while studying the American past and seeking to better understand the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

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