Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Politics, Religion, Then, Now

· February 28th, 2018 · 1 Comment

WMQ author Katherine Carté Engel (January 2018) discusses some of the questions the editorial process forced her to confront when writing her article “Connecting Protestants in Britain’s Eighteenth-century Atlantic Empire.”

by Katherine Carté Engel

According to the handy new tool put up by Michael McDonnell, the word “colonial” appears 138 times in titles in the WMQ. I’m not surprised that the number is so high. I sometimes self-identify as a “colonialist,” (different, I have to remind students, from being a “colonist”), even though I am now finishing a long project on religion and the American Revolution. My central focus has always been on the nearly two centuries when British North America was connected politically to Great Britain. The power in the term is that it conjures such a lengthy, and presumably coherent, period.

The process of working on “Connecting Protestants,” however, has made me rethink the way I understand the periodization of my subject, by forcing me to think more clearly about the major political turning points that define #vastearlyamerica. When I started, I wanted to trace out the transatlantic networks of colonial Protestants. These networks appeared, at first glance, to be an important aspect of the religious history of a significant and durable community. Clarifying the “so what” question in response to reviewers, however, meant putting a finer point on the idea of “colonial,” or even (since I was never looking at the seventeenth century), “eighteenth century.”

That the communities I looked at had their origins in the period after the Glorious Revolution was legally evident. That they endured until 1775 was also clear. Being forced to articulate why those chronological boundaries mattered also required that I not see the political transitions that marked the empire as simple bookends for the religious history I was narrating. The stability between revolutions ultimately mattered less than the twinned moments when these networks came into being and, even more important, when they collapsed.

In the end, even as a colonialist who has been trained to pretend the Revolution wasn’t coming, because eighteenth-century folk had no idea that it was, I found it was impossible to avoid. As I revised, I set aside for another time one major argument—the normative use of the term “religion” by Protestant leaders—and embraced the overwhelming importance of the Revolution as an event for interpreting early American religious history. It wasn’t a hard shift, given that the war is the focus of my larger project, but it surprised me that I could not avoid it.

The importance of 1775 as an end date demanded more clarity in start dates. Ultimately, the imperial system I described endured for about fifty-five years, really only coming into its full-fledged form in about 1720. Specifying this relatively short time span highlights the importance of political transformation to the history of religion. Rather than seeing the history of religion as one of longue durées, the site of deep-seated cultural attitudes, working on this article convinced me that structures that appeared—and that ministers tried to describe as—eternal, often had very short pasts and even shorter futures.

This lesson had immediate application in the final stages of publication. Between the time this article was initially submitted, in May 2016, and its appearance in January 2018, the term “evangelical” went through a striking transition. Though scholars have been debating its utility for years, in the year after the 2016 election—a moment which saw self-identified “evangelicals” voting for Donald Trump in high numbers—the issue became broader and more pressing. (For some discussions, see here and here.)  In class, I found myself telling students, “I’m not talking about who you think of when I say evangelicals.”  Because of these recent events, it became impossible to put the word “evangelical” into the article, even though communities that historians have described with that term play a key role in the subject. We dropped it at nearly the last possible moment. For the record, I do believe there was an identifiable network of people in the eighteenth-century who shared common beliefs about religious awakening, and I think we need a common term to describe them. For many years, historians have called those folks “evangelical,” even though it was not a term they used for themselves. This retroactive labeling no longer works, because politics have once again redefined religious community with amazing speed.

One Response

  1. Jean Perry says:

    I’m not sure if my ancestry fits into your research, but the subject you mention (religion) and the time period you mention 1720s – 1775) caught my eye.

    I am descended from the Scots-Irish Chambers brothers who came to central Pennsylvania in the 1730s. My understanding is that they formed three Presbyterian churches, at least two of which are still in existence at Middle Spring (some members of our family still attend there) and at Chambersburg which was founded by Benjamin Chambers, it was very much an outpost at the time, on the “frontier.” They are both in what is now Franklin County, Pa.

    If this interests you, I have some websites with further information.

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