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Colonial sermons laid groundwork for the Revolution

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FOR a hundred years, American students have been taught that the Fourth of July and the American Revolution were mainly political and economic events - triumphs of the secular forces of rationalism in human history. But don't expect to be given that view in Harry Stout's class.

Dr. Stout is a professor at Yale University and one of the leaders of a quietly growing number of scholars who, using a new blend of intellectual and social history, have begun to find a religious consciousness and motive at the center of the American Revolution.

For Stout - whose nine-year study of some 2,000 scattered, unpublished colonial sermons gained him a Pulitzer Prize nomination this year - the new scholarship is a restorative enterprise. It rejects the standard idea that the Revolution was primarily a product of the Enlightenment, and that religion had died as an active force in the Colonies by the 1700s.

Instead, the ``new religious history'' - as one scholar calls it - sees the colonial revolt as an outflow of fervent religious debate that had been bubbling in colonial churches for decades. If the Revolution ``began in the minds of the people,'' as founder John Adams put it, then those minds were imbued with a complex understanding of biblical history and metaphor, and of the struggle of oppressed peoples for liberty, these scholars say.

Stout's work is not based on a literary survey. He visited old churches in New England - digging up early sermon notes, ministers' diaries, handwritten manuscripts of church meetings, and other documents never before studied as a group.

He also studied the communication of ideas in the Colonies. In the 17th and 18th centuries, America was a wilderness. There were few roads, no national postal system. Most of the population lived in villages untouched by newspapers or print media. The only books most colonists owned were the Bible and a few almanacs, Stout found.

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