Religion in American history is a vast, complicated topic. Rather than attempt to tackle such an immense subject, the producers of the forthcoming PBS series “God in America” have spotlighted about a dozen events in America’s religious history that tell us something significant about the role of religion in American life. The series’ executive producer, Michael Sullivan, has experience with religious topics — he produced “The Mormons” for “American Experience” and “John Paul II: The Millennial Pope” for “Frontline.” 

Religious dissent 

“God in America,” a coproduction of “American Experience” and “Frontline,” focuses in large part on religious dissidents such as Anne Hutchinson, whom the religious and secular authorities of Massachusetts expelled from the colony for teaching unorthodox doctrine; the Rev. George Whitefield, who left the Anglican Church to preach an emotional, intensely personal form of Christianity that became known as Methodism; and Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who founded Reformed Judaism, a branch of the Jewish faith that swept away most of the forms of worship, traditions and laws of Orthodox Judaism to make it easier for Jewish immigrants to assimilate into American society.  

The stories of Hutchinson, Whitefield and Wise illustrate one of America’s core principles — the guarantee of freedom of religious expression, even if the individuals exercising that right are exasperating, or downright infuriating. The Whitefield and Wise segments are especially fascinating: The stories of these religious innovators and their reasons for challenging the faiths in which they had been raised are very well told.  

In the case of Hutchinson, however, the screenwriter dropped the ball. Seventeenth-century Massachusetts is an alien world that bears almost no resemblance to our own, yet the Hutchinson episode offers viewers virtually no historical context. This episode needs a description of Puritan society in Massachusetts, the place of women in that society and in the church, what Hutchinson taught and why the Puritans considered it so theologically dangerous that they banished her from the colony. 

Without such context, the odds are good that most viewers will interpret the Hutchinson story as a textbook case of sexist, intolerant men picking on a courageous, free-thinking woman. And there is much more to the case than that.

Lincoln’s religious thought 

If the Hutchinson episode falls short of the mark, the episode devoted to slavery, the Civil War, and the evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s religious thought is just about perfect. By the 1840s, Christian denominations in America were wrestling with the issue of slavery. Was it an offense against God? If so, why are there so many texts in the Bible that seem to support the institution of slavery, such as St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon, in which he sends the runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his master? 

To illustrate how destructive the slavery debate could be within a denomination, the program focuses on a beloved and respected Methodist bishop, James Osgood Andrew of Georgia, who inherited a slave. At the Methodist Church’s General Conference in New York in 1844, Northern anti-slavery clergy demanded that Andrew emancipate his slave or resign his office. Southern clergy defended slavery and the bishop’s right to keep his property. The dispute became so bitter that the church split into Northern and Southern branches; the breach was not healed until 1939. 

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, both North and South tended to cast the conflict in terms that were legal rather than moral: It was a case of states’ right versus preserving the Union. Abolitionists were the only Americans in the North who viewed the war as a struggle to free the 4 million slaves in the Confederacy and the border states. Leading the North at this time of crisis was a man we can describe as religiously uncommitted. Abraham Lincoln belonged to no denomination; he had never even been baptized, yet he had read deeply of the King James translation of the Bible, and its message shaped his conscience, just as its cadences and vocabulary shaped his writing. After his favorite child, Willie, died at age 11 in 1862, Lincoln began to search the Bible to discern the meaning of his son’s death and the deaths of so many men in the war. He concluded that while he could not comprehend God’s reason for taking Willie, he could see the will of God working in the Civil War, and what God willed, Lincoln came to believe, was the emancipation of the slaves. Lincoln had come to understand a theological concept common to both Catholics and Protestants — that human suffering is not random or meaningless, that it has a purpose, and that sometimes God lets us understand what that purpose is. Lincoln believed that the war expiated the sin of slavery, and he said as much in his second inaugural address in March 1865: “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” 

Catholic contributions? 

Catholic viewers may be disappointed the series does not feature more episodes about them. There is a segment about Archbishop John Hughes of New York, who created the Catholic school system in his diocese as an alternative to public schools where anti-Catholic textbooks and Protestant religious instruction were part of the curriculum. There is also a vignette about New Mexico’s Pueblo Revolt of 1680, in which more than 30 Franciscan missionary priests were killed by the Pueblo Indians.  

If the producers were looking for a Catholic topic, they might have examined why Catholics, who were forbidden to practice their religion in 11 of the 13 colonies and whose priests lived under a death sentence, gave their support to the American Revolution. 

The production values of the series are very good, which we have come to expect from “American Experience” and “Frontline.” Scenes are illus-trated with historic paintings, photographs and artifacts, on-site footage at historic locations, as well as re-enactments featuring such actors as Chris Sarandon, who plays Lincoln, and Michael Emerson of “Lost,” who plays John Winthrop. Most of the “talking heads” are academics who specialize in the history of religion in America. 

There is a segment of American society today that would like to see religious ideas driven from the public square and America’s religious heritage minimized, if not erased altogether. “God in America” is one antidote to such distorted thinking. The series reminds viewers of the powerful role faith has played in the great events of this nation, and how religious men and women have shaped the American character.  

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Stealing Lincoln’s Body(Harvard University Press, $15.50) and of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Cardlinks series. This preview was based on viewing the first four episodes of the series; episodes 5 and 6 were unavailable by OSV’s press time.

On Screen (sidebar)

God in America,” a six-hour documentary series that explores 400 years of religious history in the United States, will air 9-11 p.m. Eastern time Oct. 11-13 on PBS (times may vary; check local listings).