Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Evangelical Story of Church and State

11/11/2019 - 12:00pm to 1:15pm
Chancellor Green 105
Gretchen Murphy Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin


Critics of postsecularism have unsettled the idea that the United States is progressively secularizing, leading to scholarship that explores the complex entanglement of religion and politics in America. This paper furthers this project by examining one of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s later novels, Poganuc People (1870), for its articulation of an enduring cultural narrative about evangelical religion supplanting rancorous party politics by occupying its place and assuming its democratic character. This novel depicts an important turning point in Connecticut political history and in Stowe’s father Lyman Beecher’s career — the 1818 election that brought down the state’s Federalist party and led to church disestablishment in Connecticut. With this setting, Stowe follows her father in describing disestablishment as a fortunate fall that unfettered American religious freedom and invigorated Christian zeal, but she diminishes her father’s ministerial role in weathering the crisis in order to stress the populist character of freely chosen religious beliefs. While some Protestant clergy of Stowe’s era strove to ensure that the growing cultural consensus about a wall of separation between church and state would not totally isolate government from Christianity, Stowe uses the form of the novel to imagine a Christian democracy without government, a religious privatization that joins evangelicalism and libertarianism in U.S. public discourse and historical mythology.


Gretchen Murphy is professor of English and women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin.  She is the author of Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire (Duke University Press, 2005) and Shadowing the White Man’s Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line (NYU Press, 2010).  Her current book project is titled “Divine Government: New England Women Writers, Secularity, and the Federalist Politics of Church and State.”

Sponsored by the Program in American Studies, the Department of English, and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies