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Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World
Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World
Carla Gardina Pestana
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009
312 pp., $39.95

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Alister Chapman


When Religion and Politics Were Indivisible

No wall of separation.

When Great Britain and France signed the Treaty of Paris in 1763 at the conclusion of the Seven Years War (a conflict that included the French and Indian War), the victorious British gained respect, territory, and a major political headache. The headache was over what the very Protestant British state would do with the thousands of Catholics that it now controlled in its new lands in North America, especially Canada. Would the government allow these Catholics to stay Catholic, or would it close their churches, repress their rites, and require George III's new subjects to become Protestants? Many Protestants in Britain and her North American colonies wanted the latter. For them, Bible truth was more important than toleration. This was a test of the religious and political soundness of the British government at a time when religion and politics were indivisible.

In 1774, the British parliament gave its answer. The Quebec Act allowed the Québécois to continue to be Catholics. This affected not only French Catholics but also many native Americans who had embraced the faith brought to them by French missionaries. Many British Protestants were outraged, especially in New England. These were people who had supported the French and Indian War as a war against popery. Now it looked as though the British government was going soft on error and selling out liberty: for hotter Protestants, Catholicism had long been linked with political despotism. And for colonists already frustrated with the government in London, this helped give divine sanction to what in normal circumstances would have been sedition. 1776 was about Christian conviction as well as political and economic principle.

The last thirty years have been good ones for historians interested in religion. It used to be the case that many historians were happy to ignore religious beliefs or to interpret them as a mask for more fundamental social or economic concerns—someone might have said they were fighting ...

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