Curtis Freeman on Undomesticated Religious Dissent
Date: June 17th, 2018

Religion and socio-political dissent have often been historically linked.  Prof. Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and Baptist studies at Duke University’s Divinity School, guides us along a journey of religious dissent in the British and American tradition, focusing on three notable authors/artists — John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, and William Blake.  This journey for Dr. Freeman began when the Wesley Chapel in London was closed and someone suggested that he travel to the cemetery across the street, a place known as Bunhill (Bone-hill) Fields and the resting place of these three historical figures.  Fascinated by their prominence in this graveyard, filled with many other dissenters who couldn’t receive eternal rest amongst the official Church of England burial grounds, Curtis set out to write about these figures who spanned about two centuries of British history.

Our conversation begins with an explanation of religious dissent in England that dates back to the early 17th century, encompasses the turbulent times of the English Civil War, and then moves forward through the period of the Restoration monarchs and a wee bit further.  Curtis explains that the Church of England had a stamp of approval on all things religious and a “polite culture” developed to keep a medieval status quo of economic classes in place despite the growing role of the urban workforce.  Religious dissenters who chafed under this regime often married their spiritual protests with apocalyptic visions and covenant-type community that also served as socio-economic commentary.

We then move into the three main authors that Prof. Freeman uses to illustrate his points — John Bunyan (1628-88), Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), and William Blake (1757-1827).  It is at this point that Tony notices that he has written “William Dafoe” (1955-present) in his notes and quickly corrects himself.  Curtis reviews how Bunyan’s work, primarily A Pilgrim’s Progress, represents a “slumbering dissent” that turns attention inwards to reflect upon the spiritual journey we fight for salvation within during changing times.  Themes of “church” (the institutional faith) and “chapel” (the congregation of religious people) figure into this narrative and provide the basis for the type of dissent that landed Bunyan in prison.  Daniel Defoe’s work, principally Robinson Crusoe, is presented as “prosperous dissent” and an allegory for British economic culture at the time.  While Tony remembers this work largely as secular, Prof. Freeman reminds him how the Bible — particularly Psalms, the story of the prodigal son, and Job — played an important role in the story.  It is at this point that Tony realizes he was reading Defoe through the lens of Gilligan’s Island when growing up.  Defoe’s work is also reminiscent of the Protestant work ethic notion of the age and Curtis notes the curious mix of Tory politics and support for the working class that permeated the author’s life.  Finally, we move on to William Blake who was a poet but also an artist and printer.  Again, we see the working class lifestyle of Blake that mirrored the other two figures we discussed. Blake’s work, Curtis argues, resembles an “apocalyptic dissent” with vivid imagery of end times, destruction, and redemption that comes across in his artwork and poetry.  His fascination with the Albion Mills fire, an example of the inherent dangers of early industrialization, figures prominently in his poetic works such as Jerusalem. Our discussion then travels across the Atlantic and fast forwards in time to discuss how many of these dissenting and apocalyptic themes work their way into the thinking of colonial Americans, Abraham Lincoln, and even the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Curtis notes that America is often viewed as a “Beulah land” of dissent and we ponder the rhythms of history that continually bring new forms of dissent to the fore.

The conversation finishes with Prof. Freeman’s reflection on his own intellectual journey, and he notes how “little steps across a street” (as he took to Bunhill Fields many years ago) can lead one to new adventures and the ability to tell untold stories.  Recorded: June 11, 2018.



Prof. Curtis Freeman’s bio at the Duke Divinity School.

Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity, by Curtis Freeman.

Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists, by Curtis Freeman.

Baptist Roots: A Reader in the Theology of a Christian People, by Curtis Freeman.

A Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan.

Bunyan Meeting in Bedford, UK.

Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.

Songs of Innocence and Experience, by William Blake.


Thomas Kidd on Benjamin Franklin’s Faith.

Daniel Dreisbach on Abraham Lincoln’s Rhetoric.

Daniel Dreisbach on Religious Rhetoric in the Founding Era.

Sean Scott on Religious Rhetoric in the US Civil War.

Robert Joustra on Zombies, Cylons, Charles Taylor, and the Apocalypse.

James Patterson on MLK, Fulton Sheen, and Jerry Falwell.

Jim Papandrea on the End of the World and Revelation.

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