Alexis de Tocqueville on Religion in 18th-Century America

If you want to measure the state of American spirituality, you need a point of comparison.  Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville supplied this standard when he published Democracy in America in the 1830’s – years of America’s youth.

To Alexis de Tocqueville religion was a powerful force in American life, “an established an irresistible fact which no one undertakes to either attack or defend.”  That this discovery delighted the young French official was everywhere apparent.  He reminded his fellow Europeans that “there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.”

This prevalence of Christianity in America is all the more noteworthy when you consider that Tocqueville was sent to America to study something quite different.

Tocqueville had not come to the United States to study its religion.  Indeed, the French government had sent him to America in the spring of 1831 to examine its prisons.  Yet before he left nine months later he had subjected American political and social institutions to the first comprehensive study in the nation’s history.  Upon his return to France he wrote his two-volume classic Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840.

Imagine a Frenchman being sent to America in our time to study our prisons.  What might he have to say about the practice of the Christian religion in America?

Source:  “Christianity and Democracy: Tocqueville’s Views of Religion in America” by Norman A. Graebner, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 1976), pp. 263-273.
Published by: University of Chicago Press: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1201932

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