TTU's Field Writes Social History of Religious, Cultural and Batttle

Just after the War for Independence, there was another revolution -- a bloodless revolution in Massachusetts fought over the souls and intellects of parishioners by their own clergy.

As in so many wars, the line was blurred between winner and loser, and the ramifications were far-reaching. This war, says historian and Tennessee Technological University history professor Peter Field, not only contributed to an explosion of free thought in the United States, but foreshadowed today's division between secular and religious cultures.

Field's first book, "The Crisis of the Standing Order: Clerical Intellectuals and Cultural Authority in Massachusetts: 1780-1833," was released late last year by the University of Massachusetts Press. Field is currently conducting research at Princeton University's Center for Study of American Religion.

Before the American Revolution, the state-supported Congregationalist church dominated Massachusetts' cultural landscape. Though the clergy of the "Standing Order" wielded no formal political power and held no great wealth, they still were considered the cultural elite of Massachusetts society.

"For more than two centuries, the Congregational clergy, a remarkable group of learned men, commanded the respect, deference and allegiance of magistrate and citizen alike," said Field.

But in the years following independence, the society of the new republic grew more and more complex. Americans began to look to sources other than their spiritual leaders to explain the new order. New denominations challenged the Congregationalist establishment, and Americans were increasingly insistent that church and state be separate.

In the midst of all this change, Standing Order ministers split into factions Ñ the liberal Unitarians and the orthodox Calvinists Ñ breaching the former solidarity of the group and dividing the Standing Order into hostile camps that ultimately destroyed its standing with the public.

"As the Standing Order split apart, one group of ministers proved instrumental in the movement away from religion as the virtually exclusive expression of high culture," said Field. "These Boston-area ministers, the Brahmins, created a secular high culture, while their opponents sought to revitalize traditional Congregational piety."

The Boston Brahmins were an alliance of clerical-intellectuals and prosperous merchants who found a common cause. Their newfound unity lent them the kind of public authority and clout previously enjoyed by the Standing Order. The Brahmins mixed religion with literary and artistic endeavors, including the "Monthly Anthology and Boston Review," one of America's first literary journals, which helped establish the Brahmins as dictators of Boston high culture and intellectual thought.

The struggle over cultural dominance came to a head when the Boston Brahmins successfully sought to take over Harvard College, rousing the Standing Order to counterattack the upstarts in Boston. But the resulting skirmish was short-lived. In 1833, Massachusetts formally disestablished the Congregationalist church, the official end of the Standing Order.

The schism between the Standing Order clergy and Brahmins was permanent, foreshadowing a division between religious and secular cultures that continues today. And yet, Field argues, there was a backlash effect, blurring the outcome of the cultural and religious war. By the mid-1800s, the remnants of the Standing Order, embracing evangelical revivalist techniques, succeeded in appealing to the general population, while the Unitarian Brahmins were patronized by the rich and culturally elite.

"The Unitarian ministers who came of age in the 1830s and 1840s worried that exclusivity ultimately entailed irrelevance," said Field. "This generation of ministers that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose father had been one of the leading Brahmin ministers, realized the futility of separating its high-cultural education from the popular appeal necessary to gain a wide audience."

Rejecting the elitism of the previous generation, Emerson and others sought to become the nation's first truly democratic intellectuals. That movement, in turn, led to the remarkable flowering of American literature Ñ the generation of Thoreau, Hawthorne and Melville.

Currently, Field is working on his second book, "Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Problem of Democracy." He returns to Tennessee Tech in June.