Historianess on the Great (non) Divide in Colonial Religious History

Paul Harvey

My friend Historianess (aka Rebecca Goetz, Professor of History at Rice University) is back! She began blogging as "Musings of a Graduate Student" back in the Stone Age (2002), when bloggers had to chisel out their posts on stone tablets, later to be deciphered by experts in ancient scripts. A few years ago, she went on semi-hiatus as she worked on completing what is going to be a major book (coming out with Johns Hopkins later) on conceptions of race and religion in colonial Virginia (more on the book when its due date is closer). Now she has revived Historianess, with some new clothes and a new move Uptown to a wordpress.com address!

In one of her initial posts, she takes on a hardy perennial of colonial religious history -- religious New England versus the irreligious grasping Chesapeake colonies. It makes for a nice contrast in class, useful for a pedagogical tool for students -- which was the "real" early America? Are we more religious, or are we more material, as a country, or can one draw such contrasts. Hardy perennials for the undergraduate classroom discussion-starter, like the little batch of sourdough that you keep using to bake bread.

But like most oversimplifications, or like the sourdough left out uncovered and ready for the resident cat to lap it up, it doesn't hold up very well to much scrutiny or exposure. She writes:

Take religion, for example. New England’s puritans were a pious lot, and the Chesapeake harbored England’s lawless and godless. New Englanders lived in an enchanted, supernatural world, full of devils and witches and  portents. In Virginia, damned souls made tobacco for profit (apologies to Edward Bond). It’s a common portrait, and it would make historians’ lives so much simpler if it were true. But it isn’t. Consider this document:
You’d think that this prophetic bit of blood in the laundry came from New England, but if you thought that, you would be wrong. James Horn uses this document from Virginia in 1644 in his book, Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake (1994), to introduce a chapter on religion and popular belief. Horn argues, quite convincingly and with plenty of evidence, that English society in the Chesapeake was highly religious, and not all that different from New England. Edward Bond, in his Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia (2000) makes a similar argument: historians must take the religiosity of English people outside of New England seriously.
Oh well -- another favorite teaching tool bites the dust. Chris Beneke already made me throw away some of my proverbial yellowed class notes, now some others go into the recycle bin. Thanks a lot, Historianess! More seriously, welcome back to the 21st century! 


Chris Price said…
Perry Miller in his classic work Errand into the Wilderness brought up this important point. The people coming to Virginia viewed their journey in a religious context, as well. There was more of a commercial impetus, but that is not to say religion was no motivation at all.

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