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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., 55.00

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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 for their faith, but in reality it was about ambition or greed. But this reductionist state of affairs has given way to one in which many historians now take religion more much seriously. Carla Gardina Pestana's Protestant Empire is a case in point, and the above story is an excellent example of the main argument of her book, namely that we will not understand the Atlantic world in the early modern era until we recognize the importance of religion.

Pestana begins her story with a survey of the religious worlds of the North Atlantic in the late 15th century. Religion, she argues, was central to everyone's life, whether you were an Irish Catholic, an English astrologer, a Native American priest, a North African Muslim, or a West African diviner. Everyone lived in societies where the supernatural was very present, where God or the gods were to be feared, and where certain people or rituals had great power for good or ill. In certain key respects, there was a good deal in common in the way people in Africa, Europe, and the Americas understood life, death, and what lay beyond.

Then, of course, came Columbus on the Santa Maria, and then the Puritans on the Mayflower, and Africans on countless slavers. Much of the rest of Pestana's book is the story of encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans, especially in North America. Europeans were alarmed by the "heathen rites" of their African slaves. Indians joined a praying village on Martha's Vineyard. New Englanders were horrified when Eunice Williams, the daughter of a minister, settled in New France, embraced Catholicism, and married a Mohawk man.

But Pestana's book is much more than a collection of stories of intriguing interactions. She wants to show how religion molded the geopolitics of the Atlantic world. For example, the contest between European powers for dominance in the New World became a religious contest after the Reformation of the early 1500s. English and Dutch Protestants took to the seas and planted their flags in part out of a desire to stop the spread of Catholic Spain and France. European expansion became a facet of Europe's religious conflicts. When the English defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, they celebrated the triumphant destiny of Protestant England in the New World as well as the defense of Elizabeth's realm. Another example is Pestana's detailed account of the variety of Protestant coups staged in England's colonies at the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. Highly religious geopolitics shaped the encounters between people like Pocahontas and John Rolfe, and Pestana's careful narrative does a lot to explain them.

Yet there are puzzles too. For example, if English expansion was motivated by the conviction that the Protestant faith was the true one, why were the English so slow to preach the gospel to Native Americans? Why were they much less devoted to this task than the Spanish or the French? Pestana points to the centrality of literacy and personal conversion for Protestantism, which "raised the bar for conversion." The emphasis on the universality of the Catholic Church seems to have made Catholics more open to diversity. And the British had no equivalent of the Catholic religious orders who carried the gospel overseas. Even when the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) started sending missionary priests to North America in the 18th century, these men often ignored their brief and served English populations instead. The first spg missionary in South Carolina lived with the governor and never so much as spoke to a Native American. It is worth remembering that Spanish priests saw the possibilities for a pure, new Christian civilization in the West long before the Puritans did.

Pestana takes the story through the civil wars of the 17th century, the revivals of the 18th century, and the era of the American and French revolutions, all the while pointing out how religion was at the heart of people's lives and their debates. In the final chapter, she looks at religious migrants from North America who, after the revolution, fled a difficult religious and political climate, much as the Puritans had done a century and a half before. Loyalists left in large numbers, some going to England, others to Canada, while those who owned slaves gravitated to British colonies in the Caribbean. With them went slave preachers, who planted black churches in places like Jamaica and the Bahamas. Britain evacuated hundreds of loyalist ex-slaves to Nova Scotia, where black congregations soon emerged. Later, most traveled yet farther, to the British colony of Sierra Leone.

The book does very well with the non-English parts of the history. Pestana works in the Irish and Scottish roots of what is typically called the English Civil War, finding space for a delightful story about a Scottish woman who was so upset by Charles I's proposal for reform of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland that she threw a stool at the official reading the royal edict. African Americans and Native Americans are important players in their own right, and not just interesting when they start interacting with Europeans. Pestana tells a broad and varied story and tells it very well. There is plenty here for people who already know about the religious roots of the English Civil War and Jonathan Edwards' engagement with Enlightenment.

Pestana ends her account in 1800, and so there is little on the religious life of the United States. But what she does say is suggestive. There is an arresting account of the Massachusetts constitutional convention, where one speaker concerned about incipient Universalism apparently warned that under the new constitution "a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States." Anyone tempted to think that the Religious Right is merely a recent phenomenon will be interested to read of Jefferson's conservative opponents, who called for a variety of "public religious practices, such as prayer before legislative sessions."

But Pestana shows that Christianity could be radical too, emphasizing its role in various reform movements such as the abolitionism of the 18th and 19th centuries. Characteristically, she makes lesser lights sparkle as brightly as William Wilberforce. When slaves rebelled in the South American British colony of Guyana in 1823, a white British Baptist who had been preaching to them was condemned to death. And an uprising in Jamaica in 1831 was called "the Baptist Revolt" by slaveowners, who believed that the black churches had fomented it.

But is it really possible to recapture the world of the North Atlantic in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries? Here one of the book's greatest strengths—its effective demonstration of the centrality of religion—becomes a problem. Pestana wants to show just how important religion was for the Atlantic world, but the very act of doing so makes use of a modern bifurcation between religion and political life that would not have made sense to contemporaries. Politics were by definition religious, and religion was by definition political. Pestana recognizes all this. Yet like most of the rest of us today, she works with two distinct categories and wants to show how the two relate. It is certainly a good way to translate a foreign world to people who put religion and politics in separate boxes. But if we are to come close to seeing things in the way that people in the past did, we must continue to push beyond our dichotomies. What we need next is a book about the North Atlantic that puts people's beliefs at the center because that is the way things were, not because the book has a particular point to make. I imagine that Pestana would be very happy if her book became a stepping stone to such a project. The best religious history may sometimes be the least self-consciously religious.

Alister Chapman is associate professor of history at Westmont College. With John Coffey and Brad Gregory, he is the editor of Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion (Univ. of Notre Dame Press). His book Godly Ambition: A Short Life of John Stott is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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