Tocqueville and American Religious History

By March 12, 2008

The historian of American history loves to quote Tocqueville, and the historian of U.S. religious history is no different. Even historians of Mormonism find him helpful.[1] Yet what place does Tocqueville’s work have in helping us understand early nineteenth century American religion?

Tocqueville’s understanding of religion’s–which for him meant Christianity’s–importance in America is well known, but his interpretation of that role played out in different ways. In some instances his observations and predictions about religion in America are accurate and precise; yet, many of his generalizations inevitably fail to correctly depict specific religions or religious beliefs. In some ways he identified religion as the most prevalent theme within American culture, and yet this view did not lead to an insightful study on the particulars of American religious belief. Tocqueville’s analysis of religion in America stemmed from personal belief, or lack thereof, and religion’s role in his native France.

Tocqueville’s religious background was based in aristocratic Catholicism, and over time his beliefs became less dogmatic, and more utilitarian. This colored his interpretation of American religion, and its impact on political life. Tocqueville seemed to be primarily interested in observing democracy in America in light of how it might play out in France. Because Tocqueville was intimately aware of France’s Catholic nature, Tocqueville sought to understand how religion worked within a democracy, and specifically Catholicism’s role in a French democracy. Thus, in many ways Tocqueville was disinterested in the specific Protestant beliefs in America, but rather he focused on the impact of religion on politics, and vice a versa.

Tocqueville’s approach to interpreting religion’s role in a democracy led him to generalize about religion and religious belief in America. Various scholars have noted that Tocqueville’s observations regarding the ubiquity of religion in American life were discerning, as they illuminated the whole of nineteenth-century American society.[2] On the other hand, Puritan historian Perry Miller used as an example Tocqueville’s inability to account for religious toleration in a pluralist religious society (specifically with regard to Christianity), and concluded that Tocqueville’s pages on religion in Democracy in America “are probably the least perceptive he ever wrote.”[3] His focus on breadth instead of depth, on religion as a whole and not in parts, led him to inadequately explain the varied American religious experience, but perhaps somewhat ironically, it also allowed him to predict the success of certain religious movements.

What Tocqueville observed about Catholicism and what he failed to mention with regard to Mormonism illuminate his insufficient, if at times prescient, analysis of religion in America. His interest in Catholicism, due to his religious background and also the prospect of a democratic France, perhaps contributed to his optimistic view of the religion’s success in America. Without mentioning immigration as a factor in Catholicism’s growth, Tocqueville attributed the success to its organization and unity. He predicted that American descendants would probably be Catholic or non-Christian. Tocqueville’s optimistic emphasis on Catholicism, and his disinterested analysis of other Christian religions, led him to ignore both anti-Catholicism, and deny any possibility for the founding of new religious traditions.[4]

Tocqueville observed that “men who live in times of equality” are more prone to seek truth within themselves than through a religious authority. Catholicism overcame this problem, in Tocqueville’s analysis, because it carried a sense of organization and unity, perhaps in part because of its long ecclesiastical existence. Thus, Tocqueville was led to conclude that in democratic times “a new religion could not be founded…[and] peoples under democratic rule will not easily believe in messages from a divine source and will willingly laugh at new prophets.”[5] He made this observation in the very decade Mormonism was founded, when many accepted Joseph Smith as a prophet. Perhaps Tocqueville’s observation that organization and unity contributed to Catholicism’s success could be applied to Mormonism, a quite exclusivistic religion that claimed an authority that not even Catholicism possessed. Mormon exclusivism and a lack of what Tocqueville termed religious “self-restraint,” which meant keeping out of the public sphere, combines to help explain Mormonism’s success, and the prejudices raised against it. Thus Tocqueville’s study is not descriptive with regard to the American religious society; some of his observations are important for interpreting some religions’ existence.[6]

[1] See for example, Robert B. Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, 241-242.

[2] Doris S. Goldstein, Trial of Faith: Religion and Politics in Tocqueville’s Thought (New York: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Co., 1975), 25.

[3] Perry Miller, “From the Covenant to the Revival,” in The Shaping of American Religion, edited by James Ward Smith and A. Leland Jamison (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 365.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, (London, England: Penguin Books, 2003), 519-520.

[5] Tocqueville, 500.

[6] Tocqueville, 516-517.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Stimulating thoughts, Jordan. It seems that Tocqueville was really only seeing the parts of American religion that he wanted to, and therefore focused on the group of Americans that saw Mormons through the lens of fanaticism. I also find his thoughts on organization as a source of stabilitiy to be provacative and brings to mind Mark Noll’s recent article/document in BYU Studies, which contained a description of Mormonism written by a European Protestant who saw in Mormonism the re-birth of the Catholic hierarchy.

    Comment by David G. — March 13, 2008 @ 9:56 am


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