First Prejudice Revisited

Earlier in the year, Paul and Randall both blogged about Chris Beneke and Christopher Grenda's edited collection of essays, entitled The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).
Six months late to the conversation, I recently read selections from the volume and found it by far the most stimulating collection of essays on American religious history I've read in years. Thus, anyone who shies away from edited volumes should overcome that prejudice and get a copy immediately. The essays will prove a valuable resource for anyone teaching or studying the history of American religion.

A few of the many highlights:

- John Corrigan's analyzes the New Englander reimagination Native Americans as Amalekites whose destruction God had commanded. This was entirely new to me. [I especially appreciated the closing reference to an 1844 newspaper editorial that applied the Amalekite analogy to Mormons and Catholics].

- Susan Juster's essay on the prosecution of religious crime in Early America provided me with a wealth of anecdotes for my Am Rel Hist survey next semester. Nothing like a fresh story about a blasphemer being repeatedly bored through the tongue to get students' attention.

- Richard Pointer very thoughtfully analyzes white Protestant American responses to native religious practice. Pointer avoids simplifications, noting circumstances in which white Americans tolerated, appreciated, and even adopted aspects of native religion and other instances (especially in New England) in which white communities suppressed religious practices.

- Anyone wanting a brief but very helpful primer on colonial American anti-Catholicism ("antipopery") should read Owen Standwood's essay.

My apologies for not mentioning the many other fine essays. As Paul earlier noted, the collection is unusual for its coherence and for the fact that many of the authors reference and engage the work of their co-contributors.

The collection closes with two gems, essays by Beneke and Christopher Grasso which arrive at rather different conclusions about the progress of post-revolutionary religious freedom in the United States.

From Beneke: "It was Error of Fact better to be a religious minority in the United States in 1780 than in colonial America in 1750; better in 1800 than 1780; and better still in 1850 than 1800." Mormons and Catholics in the 1840s would probably have questioned at least the "better still in 1850 than 1800" portion of Beneke's thesis. If one is going to commit what Beneke labels the sin of "Whiggism," better to sin boldly, as Beneke does. Actually, Beneke sins rather carefully and makes a strong argument that "something ordinarily considered 'progress' occurred, and that it was enduring." No more boring of tongues.

From Grasso: "The idea that a deist, skeptic, or freethinker could be a virtuous neighbor and a patriotic American citizen remained nearly as controversial by the middle of the nineteenth century as it had been at the end of the eighteenth." So much for Whiggism. Grasso's essay includes a splended account of freethinker Abner Kneeland's 1838 travails. The fact that Kneeland "lectured twice weekly before an audience of as many as two thousand people" and had 2,500 subscribers to his newspaper, though, suggests a relatively high degree of religious freedom beyond mere toleration. Between these two closing essays, there is much food for thought and room for debate. As a whole, The First Prejudice presents a wealth and diversity of original, primary source research coupled with smart analysis and nuance. It should become a standard read for graduate students in American religious history and a model for future edited collections.


Anonymous said…
thanks for the updates! I love everything Susan Juster writes so I'll have to check that out.
Chris Beneke said…
Thanks a lot for the props, John! Much appreciated. Let me just point out that while the phrase "Error of Fact" does succinctly capture much of what I say on any given occasion, it was not supposed to be in that sentence...It's a really notable [sic] that occurred after the proofing process.
Paul Harvey said…
Thanks for this John; the book has been on my shelf, read through it completely recently and had been meaning to get up a post, but you have covered my points very well. Great job, Mr. Editor! Now get back to your Whiffleball.

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