Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America

Paul Harvey

Congratulations to our contributor Chris Beneke, and to Christopher S. Grenda, whose edited anthology has just come out: The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America (Univ. Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

(Incidentally, a shout out to U. Penn Press, which has been putting out great stuff in American religious history over the last several years, ranging from this book to Janet Lindman's Bodies of Belief to Ed's religious biography of Du Bois to Steven Miller's study of Billy Graham).

Chris has posted here before on some recent scholarly discussions on religious tolerance and intolerance generally in the early modern world, a subject that has produced a number of landmark scholarly works in the last few years. And quite a long time ago we blogged about this particular book, then in its "forthcoming" state (click on the link for the table of contents), and blogged also about Chris's seminal text Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism.

With this new edited anthology, featuring twelve essays from many of the top scholars of this subject, the conversation continues. I'll have more to say about this volume later after I have time to digest all of it, but suffice for now to say that it provides just the kind of first-class scholarly analysis that one would hope for, and will be an absolutely essential text for university libraries. Perhaps most importantly, the editors don't try to elide or explain away the differing arguments put forth by the various authors, but include a sterling introduction which explains and sets in context some of the major debates in this field. The editors propose a "co-existence" framework, one that was neither "tolerant" nor "intolerant" per se, and then suggest a research agenda that should warm the hearts of historians: get thee to the archives!

If this volume can bring mainstream religious history and its focus on identity and practice into a fuller dialogue with the traditional concerns of church-state history and its focus on ideology and law, it may become possible for teachers and scholars to communicate more confidently about the history of tolerance and intolerance in early America. There is hard work ahead. To understand how religious differences were lived in early America, we may need to resuscitate a long neglected tradition in American religious historiography: town and parish studies. That would mean renewed attention to local records . . . It would also entail investigations of the many sites where inter-religious interaction took place, including the unlikely places that recent cultural and social history has equipped us to probe such as homes, shops, taverns, and the streets.

In short: playing around on Google Books is no substitute for the hard historical research required in exploring this topic.

The editors are self-consciously bringing together two disparate forms of inquiry which have been pursued simultaneously but without a lot of dialogue in recent years: the social history of religion in early America (including lived religion), and the intellectual/constitutional studies of church and state, primarily concerned with ideas rather than everyday behavior. The editors explain that the authors of the chapters in the anthology "depart from both recent scholarship on the history of religious culture and the venerable study of church-state relations by their willingness to relate changes in law and rhetoric to the social experience of religious differences across British America and the early United States. They gaze broadly across the vast expanse of tolerance and intolerance in America, at the many varieties of persecution and the various manifestations of toleration, at the groups that were immediately affected by constitutional guarantees of religious liberty, and those that were not." The intent is to help "identify intersection points where the tangle of regulations, rhetoric, and customs that governed relations between early American faiths can be addressed without reflexively defaulting to the languages of toleration, religious freedom, or church and state."

Any number of recent works, including David Sehat's Myth of American Religious Freedom and the edited primary source anthology Religious Intolerance in America, have documented the substantial history of religious intolerance/repression in American history, while much older scholarship and newer works such as Chris's Beyond Toleration have explored the history of relative freedom and toleration. The dialogue continues renewed and afresh in this terrific new anthology. For my own research interests, I especially appreciate the inclusions of essays by Jon Sensbach and Richard Pointer on what "toleration" meant for Natives and African Americans. The last two essays, by Chris Beneke and Christopher Grasso, provide wonderfully contrasting examples of "America's moderate religious revolution," on the one hand, and the "boundaries of toleration and tolerance" experienced by religious skeptics and "infidels," on the other.


Randall said…
Paul, I second that about UPenn Press. And the edited volume is a wonderful addition.

I have a short video interview with Beneke on the book. Reminds me that I need to post it!
esclark said…
I just read this last week for a seminar with Dr. Corrigan on religious intolerance. Great book with a wide selection of essays. This book reads very smoothly because the authors refer to the other chapters, drawing connections with the other contributors. And their defining and use of terms like "coexistence," "tolerance," "toleration," and the relationships between them is sophisticated and engaging. Definitely worth getting your hands on and reading!
I'm submitting my review of this volume to Church History today. I really enjoyed every bit of it. Great job by the editors. Definitely worth the readers here picking up a copy.

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