Historians most often use the term primitivism to refer to the attempt to reconstruct a religious tradition’s original theology, structure, or beliefs. Primitivists believe that the earliest expressions of the faith are the most efficacious, powerful, and valid, and hence they attempt to recapture them in as complete a form as it is possible for them to imagine. Thus, they frequently dissent from established religious traditions, believing that those constructed under the primitive impulse achieve superior purity. Of course, these attempts are normally incomplete or inaccurate, reflecting the desires or needs of the group doing the restoring more than the original version of whatever faith is involved.
Primitivism has taken on a number of forms throughout American history. This essay follows a chronological approach, but uses Richard Hughes’s designations of “ethical,” “ecclesiastical,” and “experiential” primitivism to distinguish among various movements and provide some order to the narrative. These are common impulses in American religion, particularly in the years immediately following the American Revolution commonly called the Second Great Awakening. The language of primitivism has provided Americans with the weight of historical authority, often invoked to overturn established hierarchies and replace them with forms of religious practice deemed, alternately, more democratic, more biblical, more conducive to religious experience, or more ethically demanding. Whatever the case, primitivism has spoken to the American impulse toward reform, resistance to institution, and individual capacity.
Lawrence A. Peskin
Encounters between Americans, Muslims, and Jews in North Africa played a foundational role in Americans’ early understanding of Islam and Judaism. At a time when the United States population had few Jews and virtually no free Muslims, North Africa was one of the places Americans were most likely to meet individuals from these groups.
Initially, American sailors and diplomats encountered North African Muslims and Jews as the result of frequent ship captures by Barbary corsairs beginning in the colonial period and culminating in the 1780s and 1790s. After 1815, the sailors and diplomats were joined by missionaries journeying to the Mediterranean region to convert Jews and Muslims as well as non-Protestant Christians.
These encounters prompted a good deal of literature published in the United States, including captivity narratives, novels, plays, histories, and missionary journals. These publications reinforced two dominant views of Islam. First, the early focus on Barbary corsairs capturing American “slaves” reinforced old notions of Islam as despotic and Muslims as “savages” similar to Native Americans. Missionary accounts prompted more thoughtful approaches to Muslim theology at the same time that they reinforced existing notions of Islam as a deceitful religion and revivified millenarian hopes that the declining Ottoman Empire foretold the Second Coming.
As a result of the captivity crises, Americans often had to deal with the area’s small but influential group of Jewish merchants in order to get terms and credit to free their countrymen. These fraught negotiations reinforced older European stereotypes of Jews as sharpers and Shylocks. As with Islam, the missionary period brought more thoughtful consideration of Jewish theology as Americans engaged in chiliastic hopes of bringing the Jews to Jerusalem.
After 1850 or so, Americans interested in Jews or Muslims looked less frequently to North Africa. Growing immigrant populations, first of Jews and then of Muslims, meant that Americans could encounter people of all three Abrahamic faiths at home. At the same time, missionary interests moved east, into the Holy Land, Syria, Turkey, and ultimately East Asia. Nevertheless, the early impact of North Africa on American thinking retained its influence, as is evident from President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech on American-Islamic relations delivered in Cairo.
Americans, and others, have used the term “Zionism” to relate to groups and individuals that have promoted the idea that Jews should settle in Palestine and build a commonwealth there. Zionist ideas and movements have had a long and varied presence in America, beginning in colonial times. Despite the absence of a unified Zionist program, both Christian and Jewish Zionists translated religious messianic yearnings into political, social, or cultural goals, varying in their motivations and visions. Christian Zionism has developed mostly among messianic-oriented Protestants, although at times other Christians too have supported Zionist goals. In recent decades, Christian Zionism has been associated with conservative evangelicals, in America as well as in other countries.
Zionism developed a noticeable presence among Jews in America at the turn of the 20th century. In its first decades, the movement attracted few followers, most Jews preferring other political or ideological options. It gained more ground after the British issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the movement grew further following the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933. During the 1960s–1980s, the majority of Jews in the United States embraced pro-Zionist views, which by that time both Christians and Jews understood as promoting support for Israel in the American public arena.
The cooperation between Christian and Jewish Zionists, over the building of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine or over supporting it, has been more extensive than standard histories of Zionism have suggested. Christian and Jewish Zionists have provided each other immense encouragement, offering validation and legitimizing each other’s messianic convictions and projects. Christian supporters have acted as pro-Zionist lobbies, attempting to influence American policies. Their activities became crucial during World War I and then again in the 1970s–2000s, with the resurgence of conservative evangelicalism in the United States. Cooperation between conservative American Christian and Jewish Orthodox messianic groups developed at the turn of the 21st century, with many evangelical Christians contributing to support Jewish settlers and organizations that prepare for the building of the Third Temple in Jerusalem. This alliance has stirred strong reactions among pro-Palestinian and liberal Christians and Jews, who object to what they see as one-dimensional support of right-wing Israeli causes on behalf of messianic interpretations they do not share. For many antagonists, Zionism has become synonymous with a state they oppose and agendas they see as hostile to their cause. Self-identification as Zionist is currently prevalent among Modern Orthodox Jews and conservative evangelical Christians. Many others, including former liberal Christian supporters and progressive Jews, in the United States, Europe, and Israel, have moved to define themselves as post-Zionists, if not as non-Zionists altogether.