Here is Thomas Kidd at The Panorama:
One of the most common news topics on American religion in recent years has been the rise of the “nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated. News stories from the Pew Research Center and similar outlets constantly tout the growing numbers of Americans who tell pollsters that they have “no religion” in particular. The media, by definition, is more interested in change than continuity. Coverage of the nones generally assumes that the increase in the religiously unaffiliated is unprecedented in American history. But actually, it isn’t unprecedented.
People in America’s early republic worried about the religiously unaffiliated, too. They didn’t call them the “nones,” however. As I show in my JER article, commentators at the time had their own name for these people. They were “nothingarians.” Nearly forgotten today, the word nothingarian was a fixture of American religious rhetoric in the nineteenth century. Although nothingarians lived in a different spiritual and cultural milieu than the nones do, “nothingarian” carried many of the same connotations as the term none. Observers in the early 1800s also believed that nothingarians were on the rise.
Understanding fears about the nothingarians enhances our increasingly complex view of religion in the early republic. The literature on religion in that period used to be dominated by stories of the massive Christian growth during the “Second Great Awakening.” That narrative remains essential, but we now know that the early republic was also a time of burgeoning doubt and skepticism, even among the general reading public. Similarly, the incredible expansion of upstart Protestant denominations, especially the Methodists and Baptists, was undergirded by fears about the spiritual destitution of large sections of the country. The frontier, in particular, was allegedly deluged with the irreligion of nothingarians.
Fears about the decline of American religious commitment are as old as John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” address. But there were special reasons why the early republic was a time of special anxiety about Americans’ religious commitments, or lack thereof. One factor was controversy over skepticism, especially the controversy spawned by Thomas Paine’s popular The Age of Reason (1794). “Nothingarian” did not necessarily connote a person who doubted the veracity of traditional faith, however. Nothingarians, in the minds of devout observers, seemed simply not to care about religion.
Why else did the decades after independence prove so fertile for anxiety about nothingarians? British Protestantism had provided the overarching religious and imperial structure for the colonies before 1776, and it was not clear what would replace that cohesive structure in the new American nation. The New England states kept their established churches for decades into the nineteenth century. But New Englanders particularly worried about the disestablished status of religion outside their region. Within it, they looked with alarm at religiously libertarian Rhode Island. They also were concerned about the adoption of a new Constitution that prohibited the creation of a national church.
Read the rest here.