Saint of the Republic : Martin Luther, myth, and national identity in antebellum America.


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This dissertation examines the reception of Martin Luther within American culture, from the colonial period to Reconstruction. Just as scholars have delineated German “Luther myths” from the early modern era to the twentieth century, I argue that a distinct American Luther myth came into existence at the end of the eighteenth century and pervaded American culture by 1850. The narrative of the myth was quite simple: in his efforts against the Roman Catholic Church, Luther proved himself a champion of religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and individual rights—republican civic virtues that would only gain widespread validation with the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. Thus, Luther could be touted as a proto-American hero, a man whose actions and teachings anticipated a nation founded 250 years after his death. Ironically, Luther’s mythical status was aided by the lack of comprehensive engagement with his writings and theology. Depending mostly on second-hand historical accounts, Luther’s reputation remained unhindered by his unpopular theological conclusions among his American devotees who instead focused on his world-historical significance. While American Lutherans were instrumental in publishing Luther-related materials, non-Lutherans were the chief cultivators of the American Luther myth. They claimed the reformer as a champion of American civic virtues and a universal exemplar for American citizenship. As Americans divided over questions of race, gender, and party politics, they attempted to apply the Luther myth to these contemporary concerns. The myth proved quite malleable in that it could appeal to opposing sides of these debates, but such disparate uses led some to abandon the myth for its apparent incoherence and vacuity. Others tried to expose the ways in which myth benefitted those in power. Luther’s place as a universal exemplar for Americans was questioned by those who wondered if the Protestant liberty he had established (and America protected) was truly universal. The American Luther myth asserted that Luther was a proto-American and that the United States, at its root, was a Protestant nation. Though not without its critics, this vision of Luther’s foundational relationship to the United States endured through the nineteenth century to the present.