Colonial Encounters

In 1528, three Spanish Catholics and an African wandered through the American Southwest, visiting Native American villages and performing religious healing rituals that astonished their Indian hosts. The three Spaniards—Álvar Núñez Ca- beza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo, and Andrés Dorantes—along with Dorantes’s Moroccan slave, Estebanico (who was possibly a Muslim convert to Christianity), had been part of a failed 1528 Spanish attempt to permanently settle La Florida. After being captured and enslaved by the Apalachee Indians, a small group of Spanish soldiers escaped and, in a precariously rigged raft, sailed their way across the Gulf of Mexico, where they shipwrecked on the coast of present-day Texas, near Galveston. The only survivors of the shipwreck, this foursome meandered their way for eight years through Indian territory, hoping to be rescued by Spanish explorers. At the mercy of the Natives, who saw them as powerful shamans, or holy men, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions were thrust into the position of religious healers. Cabeza de Vaca later described how, at the Indians’ insistence and instruction, the foursome performed their healings by “making the sign of the cross on the sick persons, breathing on them, saying the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary over them, and asking God our Lord, as best we could, to heal them and inspire them to treat us well.” Their prayers were reportedly so effective that grateful Natives brought baskets of prickly pears, pieces of meat, and bows and arrows to the men.

This unexpectedly early collision of people, cultures, and religious practices from three continents brings to the fore myriad questions about the traditional narratives of religious encounter in colonial America. Building on a Protestant historiography dating back to at least the nineteenth century, historians for most of the twentieth century gave Protestantism—particularly reformed Protestantism— center stage in the story of early American religious history. Starting in the mid- twentieth century, however, emerging trends in historical writing that borrowed from ethnohistory, anthropology, and the new social history opened up new kinds of questions that, while not completely de-centering reformed Protestantism, made it difficult to responsibly narrate the history of religion in America without recognizing the incredible diversity of religious experiences, beliefs, and practices in the colonial period.
In more recent years, with the growth of the wider Atlantic world as a serious field of inquiry, historians of race, economics, empires, and commerce have forced historians of religion in America to widen the scope of their field of vision and ask different kinds of questions. To adequately account for the religious diversity present in colonial America, scholars have broadened their traditional geo- graphical boundaries to include New France, New Spain, the Caribbean, and even Africa, and have enlarged their chronological scope to include the traditions of pre-Columbian Native Americans and the vibrant and diverse religious world- views that Africans brought to the New World in the holds of slave ships, which included a fascinating blend of African traditional religions, Islam, and (in some cases) loosely adopted Catholic rituals. This enlarged geographical and chrono- logical focus has coincided with other interests in religious rituals, religious healing, slavery (African and Indian), conversion, and the persistence of culturally integrated, co-created “borderlands,” or culturally mixed areas of settlement, all across the Americas.
Scholars following this vein of thought have identified an intensely diverse tri-racial society that emerged in the opening decades of European colonization on the North American continent (Africans were in Virginia before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, for example) and grew exponentially in the decades leading up to the Revolutionary War as Swedish, Dutch, French Huguenot, Scots-Irish, German, African, and, of course, English men and women of the more tradition- al variety swarmed through the port cities of British North America and poured into the colonial backcountry—areas, that is, largely occupied and claimed by Native Americans—taking with them their diverse and distinctive religious idioms and practices.
One of the most salient features of the religious encounters in the colonial period is the seemingly incessant friction between and within specific religious groups. These disagreements, often originating in social, cultural, and theological circumstances, resulted in ongoing cycles of schism and the creation of new subgroups and denominations. Although the question of just how religious colonists were (and how that religiosity should be measured) continues as a point of contention among historians, scholars have often noted the striking contrast between the rise in church affiliation from the eighteenth into the nineteenth century in the colonies and the decline in membership experienced by European churches at precisely the same time. Historians have often cited various possible explanations, including the lack of a state church in the colonies, the ongoing attraction of European religious dissenters to the region, and the general voluntary and grassroots nature of religious associations. It was this populist, voluntary, and endlessly dissenting and dividing character of religious adherence in America that made the colonies a uniquely religiously diverse place.
Historians of religion in early America have often utilized differing strategies for understanding the various kinds of religious encounters that took place. Successful strategies include looking at a particular region, such as New England; a specific denomination, like the Baptists or Anglicans; certain immigrant groups, like the Scottish Presbyterians or German Moravians; an outstanding individual, such as the German Lutheran leader Henry Melchior Muhlenberg; or the co- created worlds of the borderlands that might have involved diverse groups of Indians and Europeans. Each of these approaches has much to offer and has led to important contributions on the issue of religious encounter in the colonial period. Over the past decade, another helpful lens has been that of “lived reli- gion,” which takes as its overall point of departure the premise that the religious lives of people are far more complex than might be represented by affiliation (or not) with more “official” organizations, denominations, or systems of thought. Shying away from an overly cerebral definition of religion as simply an intellec- tual assent to particular theological doctrines, lived religion tends to look at the ways farmers and housewives, ministers and magistrates, sailors and slaves, lived out their religious ideas in ways that reflected, in the words of David D. Hall in his introduction to Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, “the tensions, the ongoing struggle of definition, which are constituted within every religious tradition and that are always present in how people choose to act” (xi). In this model, change is constant and any synthesis is provisional. A lived reli- gion approach also cautions against isolating something called “the religious” from the rest of ordinary life for colonial men and women. All “Americans”— newcomers and original inhabitants alike—felt a certain affinity with practices, idioms, and ideas that were simultaneously cultural and religious. “Religious encounters” in the colonial period, then, should be seen as ongoing processes that tugged at an intricate package of values, beliefs, and practices that encom- passed the totality of individuals’ lives and experiences.
From the perspective of the hundreds of distinct sociolinguistic groups of Natives that were spread over the full expanse of the North American continent prior to 1492, the encounter with Europeans was full of religious meaning. Many, like the Natives who lived along the Hudson River in 1609, were astonished by the sight of massive European ships, which they took to be floating islands, and Europeans themselves, whom they often viewed as “Mannittoo,” or supreme beings. Dozens of such “first encounter” stories were recorded by Europeans and disseminated around Europe. Within Native communities, too, first encounter stories were passed down through the generations and occasionally recounted to European missionaries centuries later, as when the Moravian missionary John Heckewelder was told by a Delaware a detailed version of the first Dutch and Lenni Lenape meetings in the 1610s.
Similarly, Europeans brought with them heavily Eurocentric frameworks of religious orientation informed by specific branches within Western Christianity, and often—especially prior to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century—defined specifically with oppositional reference to Jews and Muslims, who seemed dangerously close to controlling parts of Europe. Narratives of the religious history of North America have begun to recognize the multiple religious voices that colonization in North America—taken in a wider perspective— brought. The first permanent European colony on the North American continent was St. Augustine in La Florida, established by the Spanish in 1565, a full forty-two years before the founding of the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown (Virginia) in 1607. And even as English adventurers and indentured servants were weathering disease and starvation and warring with the local Powhatan in Jamestown, two other major and permanent sites of settlement were being established in 1608, one by the French on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River in present-day Canada, called Quebec City, and the other by the Spanish just off the banks of the Rio Grande in present-day New Mexico, named Santa Fe. From this continental perspective, the origins of permanent European settlement in North America were overwhelmingly Catholic, with settlements by European Catholic empires outnumbering Protestant England’s Jamestown three to one. From the perspective of the Atlantic world as a whole, however, the Spanish settlements in St. Augustine and Santa Fe were the northernmost points of a massive, wealthy, and politically aggressive Spanish empire in the Americas (Cabeza de Vaca and his crew, for example, to return to the opening vignette, started their journey in Spanish Cuba and after their rescue were taken to one of the hubs of the Spanish empire in the Americas, Mexico City). This geopolitical reality of Catholic European empires in North America, in fact, animated English concerns through much of the colonial period as England worked hard not just to defend claims on the North American mainland, but also to stake out claims in parts of the Caribbean. The role of the Caribbean wing of the English empire was not limited to merely the lucrative sugar islands like Barbados (founded in 1627); Puritans—who historians often assume were uninterested in questions of empire—were heavily involved in a daring Caribbean colonization attempt in the heart of the Spanish Caribbean, as Karen Kupperman has demonstrated in Providence Island, 1630–1641: The Other Puritan Colony.

As a result of this early Catholic colonial dominance, religious encounters between Europeans and American Indians for the first century of European colonial exploration and settlement in North America were almost exclusively between indigenous communities in particular geographical regions of North America and Catholics of all stripes—lay Catholic men and women of varying degrees of religious fervency, conquistadores and servants, commanders and merchants, regular priests and members of Catholic religious orders, and recent converts to Catholicism, including Jews and Africans. From the early entradas of Spanish conquis- tadores like Hernando de Soto, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, and Cabeza de Vaca in the American Southeast and Southwest to the Franciscan mission towns in the panhandle of La Florida to the Recollect and (later) Jesuit missionary efforts on both sides of the Saint Lawrence River in New France, cultural and religious encounters between Old World Catholics and the regionally specific religious orientations of Indian communities figured prominently in the early colonization of the New World.
Such religious encounters often ended in either death or disappointment. One of the more tragic encounters has been poetically retold by Emma Ander- son in The Betrayal of Faith: The Tragic Journey of a Colonial Native Convert, in which the Innu youth Pierre-Anthoine Pastedechouan was befriended by Catholic missionaries in New France, sent to Paris for intensive study, returned to his own people, and subsequently rebelled against his increasingly invasive and confrontational mentor, the Jesuit Paul LeJeune, a rebellion that ultimately ended in Pastedechouan’s untimely death. Similarly, on the other side of the Saint Lawrence River, the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf lived among and sought to evangelize the Huron in New France in the 1630s and 1640s. Refusing to leave his catechumens during a period of sustained Iroquois raids, Brébeuf was captured, tortured, and executed by the Iroquois, who were so impressed with his bravery that they ate his heart and drank his blood in hopes of receiving some of his power and strength.
Not all religious and cultural encounters involved the more “official” religious showdowns mediated by missionaries, however. Indians on the coasts of North America and along the waterways winding their way into the interior of the continent encountered a constant trickle of explorers, fishermen, merchants, traders, and slavers who made regular visits for purposes of trade and exploration. Such chance meetings usually met with varied economic success but had a catastrophic demographic impact, as “virgin soil” diseases ravaged coastal and inland Indian communities in the wake of first contact, no matter how brief or sustained.
By the time the first permanent nodes of English New World settlement were established in Virginia in 1607 and Plymouth in New England in 1620, Indians and Europeans alike had had more than a century of sporadic contact and plenty of experiences with which to fashion both practical and cosmological opinions of each other. Although English and Dutch traders and fishermen had occasionally hunted and traded up and down the East Coast of North America in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in terms of permanent settlements, Protestants were latecomers to the colonial world. Nonetheless, despite this fact, and despite the presence of Spain and France on the North American continent until mid- eighteenth century (and beyond, for Spain), most historians continue to be disproportionately drawn to the regions dominated by English settlement, largely on the Eastern Seaboard of the present-day United States.
Even assuming for the moment that the eventual thirteen colonies should be the primary focus, in this region, too, religious diversity abounded. The English indentured servants and planters who first peopled Jamestown in 1607 and beyond were largely Anglican. Within a decade of the founding of Jamestown, however, Dutch traders and merchants (Protestants, too, but of a Dutch Reformed confession) laid claim to North American territory with the establishment of Fort Nassau (present- day Albany, New York) in 1614. The Pilgrims (separating Puritans, really) arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, having fled first to Holland. But even as English fishing villages like Salem (1626) began to dot the American seacoast north of Plymouth, the Dutch had already established their trading dominance among the various Indian communities along the Hudson and Connecticut rivers and around the perimeter of Long Island Sound. In 1626, four years prior to the founding of Boston, the Dutch had officially established New Amsterdam on the southern tip of present- day Manhattan, which quickly became the center of the Dutch empire in North America. By the time John Winthrop and the vanguard of the non separating Puritans established Boston in New England, much of present-day New York and parts of Connecticut were demonstrably under Dutch influence, while the French dominated the fur trade farther north along the Saint Lawrence. As political and religious circumstances in Old England grew undesirable, the ensuing “Great Migration” in the 1630s of 20,000 Puritan refugees flooding into New England quickly altered the demographics in favor of the English over local Indian communities, the Dutch, and the French. Despite their shared Protestant faith, the Dutch were bitter commercial rivals of the English, as numerous clashes revealed.
In recent years, historians have begun to recover the religious diversity even in the most seemingly homogeneous regions, like Puritan New England. Often available sources are typically not self-reflective with regard to the experiences of Puritan life among Natives and servants from Africa and/or the Caribbean. But glimpses of the daily rhythms of religious encounter can be seen in the texts, whether in the passing references of the General Court in Boston, which note the arrival of French Huguenots, or in the anguished writings of the Deerfield minister John Williams, whose daughter Eunice chose to stay with her Indian captors and convert to Catholicism in the months following the 1704 French and Indian raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts.
Upon closer inspection, however, beneath the thin veneer of Puritan consensus a wide variety becomes evident with regard to visions for society, church, and the marketplace. Historians are perennially drawn to moments of conflict that played out in print, in courtrooms, or before church councils and involved individuals like Roger Williams, who directly challenged the church–government synthesis in the early 1630s by questioning (among other things) whether colonial governments could and should enforce religious practices, which he considered to be a matter of conscience; Anne Hutchinson, who challenged Puritan gen- der norms by holding weekly discussions in which she accused Boston’s Puritan ministers of preaching a “covenant of works” (versus a covenant of grace); and Robert Keayne, who in 1639 was charged with “oppression,” or overcharging on basic colonial imports like thread, buttons, and nails. Colonial governments had their ways of dealing with such dissidents, and Puritan New England was particularly efficient in punishing the most unrepentant in their midst: Hutchinson was excommunicated and banished, and Williams, facing deportation, fled south to the Narragansett, while Keayne was slapped with an outrageously high fine of
£200 (later reduced to £100, which he grudgingly paid but never forgave). Williams remained a thorn in the side of the Puritan leadership of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by founding a new colony around his small settlement of Providence at the head of Narragansett Bay on land he purchased from the Narragansett Indians (another thing he criticized the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans for failing to do). Rhode Island, as Williams’s colony was later called, quickly became known as a place of religious toleration and refuge, attracting the perceived religious riffraff of New England, including banished Puritans, Baptists, Jews, and Quakers. Religious freedom had its limits, however, even in Rhode Island, as later heated disputes between an aging Williams and the Quaker leader George Fox attest.
Even aside from these obvious examples of Puritan diversity, the more numerous and convincing examples of differences in religious opinion emerge in less dramatic ways, in the rhythms of everyday life and practice, as David D. Hall has described in Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England. The church and court records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are bursting with examples of individuals who—against their ministers’ wishes—relied on charms and quasi-magical remedies for daily problems, practiced defensive magic, and otherwise sought to both control and shape their enchanted world. Similarly, colonial diaries are filled with all manner of Puritan orthodoxies and heterodoxies that continued undetected in the lives of ordinary men and women. At a more basic level, deviant New Englanders stole cattle from their neighbors; sold guns and ammunition to local Natives; abandoned their spouses or fathered children with consorts, Indians, or slaves; and sold corn, lumber, and their own labor for higher than the deemed market value.
All of this serves as a reminder that New England was not simply a “Puritan” colony. Throughout the seventeenth century, English Quakers, Anglicans, Baptists, Anabaptists, Huguenots, and, of course, a wide variety of “horseshed Christians” (to borrow another term from Worlds of Wonder) who cared little for the rigors of Puritanism trickled into the Northeast, at times provoking direct confrontation with New England authorities. Legislation in Puritan colonies was designed to forcibly encourage these religious outsiders to conform. Quakers often fared the worst, suffering imprisonment, confiscation of property, brandings, whippings, and—for especially unrepentant repeat offenders like Mary Dyer—hanging on Boston Common.
New England Puritans—like other New World settlers—had to also decide how to deal with the numerically reduced but militarily and politically significant Indian nations in close proximity to their towns and farms. Although early letters, diaries, and reports from Pilgrims and Puritans alike demonstrate the potentially amicable relationship many colonists had with local Natives, evangelization of these perceived heathens in their midst received no sustained attention for several decades. Instead, within six years of the founding of Boston, the Puritans had decimated one of the most powerful chiefdoms in the region, the Pequot, killing 700 Pequot women, children, and old people in one particularly brutal attack. The bloody Pequot War, as this conflict has often been termed, shocked sponsors in Old England and other neighboring Indian nations alike. Not all colonists agreed with this policy, and, as Richard Cogley has argued in John Eliot’s Mission to the Indians Before King Philip’s War, most Puritans practiced an “affective” evangelism in which they hoped that their own good examples and beliefs might attract the few surrounding Natives who actually got close enough to observe the rhythms of Puritan religious life. Intentional evangelism eventually got under way in the 1640s and quickly mushroomed into a well-funded enterprise, led by Roxbury minister John Eliot and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England and Parts Adjacent (often called the New England Company), which was founded as a Puritan and Independent missionary society in London in 1649. Between 1644 and 1675, Eliot produced dozens of Indian-language books and tracts (including the entire Bible in 1663), founded fourteen Indian “Praying Towns,” and boasted well over a thousand “Praying Indians” in Massachusetts. Thomas Mayhew Jr. had even greater success on Martha’s Vineyard, and others labored on Cape Cod. In 1674, the New England Indian missionary enterprise was by far the largest and most successful anywhere in the English colonies, with as many as 4,500 Christianized Indians between Massachusetts and Plymouth Colony combined.
Such sustained cultural contact often provoked indigenous revolts that included varying levels of explicit religious motivation. Virginia experienced the deadly Powhatan Uprising in 1622; in New England, an intertribal Indian uprising known as King Philip’s War (1675–1676) ravaged the New England colonies and temporarily set back the evangelization project (fourteen Praying Towns in Massachusetts were reduced to four, for example). The ambiguous place of Christianized Indians in larger colonial society was tragically demonstrated in the way in which Praying Indians around New England were mistrusted by Indians and colonists alike and targeted for violence. At the height of the war, 500 of these Christianized Indians were rounded up and placed on Deer Island in Boston Harbor to weather a long New England winter with insufficient housing, food, and clothing. In the American Southwest, a century of Spanish occupation and oppressive Franciscan mission towns triggered the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. Despite these tangible evidences of Indian resistance, neither missionaries nor empires gave up. Franciscans eventually returned to Santa Fe, and the New England Company continued to fund book translations and missionaries for northeastern Algonquians in the decades following King Philip’s War. Although many individual Indians joined Anglo-American churches in the Great Awakening of the 1740s, in many cases these same Indians later abandoned English churches for the more informal Indian-run churches on reserved lands and adapted Christian practices for their own purposes.
Outside Puritan New England, new and existing colonies greatly increased the religious diversity of the seventeenth century as well as the potential for religious conflict. New Amsterdam (present-day New York City) was quickly becoming one of the most diverse nodes of colonial settlement, in part because of relatively tolerant Dutch religious policies and New Amsterdam’s connection to its Old World urban namesake, Amsterdam. With Amsterdam the trading center of the Atlantic world in the early seventeenth century—having eclipsed the English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French in terms of its international empire of trade—people from almost every portion of Europe and beyond passed through Old World Dutch cities, often en route to other destinations in the far-flung Dutch empire. The Dutch, in fact, completely dominated the colonization of the Mid-Atlantic region in the early decades of the seventeenth century, including present-day Delaware, New Jersey, and New York. Thousands of Dutch immigrants poured into these regions, particularly the area surrounding New Amsterdam and the lands along the Hudson River extending northward to present-day Albany. Dutch settlement extended eastward onto Long Island as Dutch merchants, families, and ministers bought land from local Natives and set up towns, churches, and trading houses. By 1655, at the same time Boston was enforcing its New England Way and flogging Quakers and other dissenters, New Amsterdam was, in the words of the Dutch minister Johannes Megapolensis, teeming with “Papists, Mennonites and Lutherans among the Dutch; also many Puritans and Independents, and many Atheists and various other servants of Baal among the English.” Added to this blend was a group of recently arrived Jews, who came to New Amsterdam from Dutch-controlled Brazil in 1654 (having fled first from Spain to the Netherlands and then to Brazil) and quickly set up a congregation of worship; Megapolensis feared that the Jews had “no other aim than to get possession of Christian property.” Omitted from Megapolensis’s description, of course, were the regional Indians who came to the city to trade and barter, and free and enslaved Africans who arrived in Dutch trading ships from the Caribbean and the coasts of West Africa.

A little farther south along the Eastern Seaboard, the founding of Maryland exemplifies precisely the ways religious differences intertwined with issues of reli- gious affiliation and class. Maryland was settled in 1634 on land purchased from local Indian tribes by descendents of the English Catholic George Calvert and approximately 150 immigrants, who included several dozen Catholic gentlemen, two Jesuit priests, and dozens of Protestant servants. Although it was founded as a place of Catholic refuge (as Pennsylvania was to become later in the century for Quakers), from the beginning the Catholics could not agree on how “Catholic” the colony should become (and, indeed, it was the only English Catholic colony). The Calverts and many of the gentlemen preferred private, household Catholic worship, while some of the gentry and the Jesuit priests preferred a more public and exclusive organization. Despite the trickle of settlers into Maryland, Catholics never constituted a demographic majority, and in 1649 the Protestant planters, farmers, and servants forced the Calverts to make concessions to the clearly Protestant majority.
Meanwhile, in smaller enclaves along the Delaware River in present-day south- western New Jersey, some Swedish colonists—largely Lutheran—settled a few towns on Lenape Indian land. New Sweden, as it was called, officially founded in 1638, proved to be a relatively short-lived experiment, and in 1655 the neighboring Dutch subsumed the colony into its own expanding North American holdings.
The classic model for colonial diversity, however, is Pennsylvania. It serves as something of a case study for one major theme of this book: (in)tolerance, diver- sity, and pluralism. Founded in 1682 by the ardent Quaker William Penn as an intentional “holy experiment” and a place of refuge for ethnic and religious com- munities from Europe, Penn’s commonwealth quickly exceeded the diversity even he envisioned. Penn early advertised his colony in England and throughout Europe and labored tirelessly to ensure that well-oiled mechanisms of governance were in place to deal with what eventually became a tidal swell of immigrants drawn to the religious freedom and fertile lands of eastern Pennsylvania. In the first few decades, English Quakers and a variety of German immigrants flooded into Penn’s new colony. Lutherans, German Reformed, Moravians, German Bap- tists, Mennonites, Amish, Schwenkfelders, and Catholics each entered through Philadelphia and set up smaller ethnic communities in the rich farmland on the outskirts of what was quickly becoming a major East Coast metropolis. The tenor of the commonwealth was captured by Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist, who reported in 1748 that Philadelphia was a place “quite filled with inhabitants, which in regard to their country, religion, and trade, are very different from each other.” Furthermore, anyone who acknowledged God was “at liberty to settle, stay, and carry on his trade” in Philadelphia, “be his religious principles ever so strange.” Pennsylvania’s relative freedom and diversity attracted the religiously fervent and indifferent alike, producing in the mid-eighteenth century the unlikely mutual admiration and friendship of the Anglican revivalist George Whitefield and the Philadelphia printer, inventor, public intellectual, and humanist Benjamin Franklin. Penn’s fabled good dealings with Indian nations also attracted Native refugees from surrounding colonies who saw in Penn’s “holy experiment” a possible escape from ongoing land encroachment and mistreatment.
Historians have long neglected religion in seventeenth-century Virginia. And compared with the religious flourishes of the Puritans in New England, or the devotionalism of Pennsylvania’s Quakers, the rough, materialistic workaday world of tobacco-obsessed Virginia seemed unconcerned with religion. The Anglican Church agreed and tried with little success in the first hundred years to change it. The lack of well-organized towns and the spatial separation of tobacco plantations strung out over hundreds of acres made for difficult regulation on all fronts, and ministers found it equally hard to maintain workable parishes for much of the seventeenth century (a fact that was exacerbated in part by the lack of effective Anglican organizational leadership—like bishops—in the colonies). In the eighteenth century, however, as Lauren Winner has shown in A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia, planters and their families practiced Anglican rituals at home, following a calendar of domestic life that implanted a lived religion in the homes of people who may or may not have spent much time in church pews.
Very quickly in the seventeenth century, Virginia became the most intensely tri-racial of the early colonies, and perhaps the most ripe for religious encounters of all kinds, as historians have only recently begun to uncover. Virginia might have lacked missionaries, but tens of thousands of Indians around Jamestown called the region home. Similarly, African slaves first arrived in 1619 on a Dutch merchant ship, and by mid-century the African population began growing exponentially as indentured labor became increasingly scarce. No discernible attempt was made to evangelize the tribes of the Powhatan confederacy around Jamestown, although— like in New England—over the course of the seventeenth century colonists waged several wars against the Natives and provoked a devastating Indian uprising in 1622. Planter patience for the more measured Indian policy pursued by royal governors after 1624 ran out in 1676 as Nathaniel Bacon led a revolt against Virginia’s governor William Berkeley.
Although many Euro-American observers in this time period believed blacks to profess no discernible religion (in part because, as had been true in the case of American Indians, colonists were rather impatient interpreters of “inferior” cultures), in fact Africans brought with them a wide variety of religious backgrounds, including African tribal religions, Islam, and varying versions of Christianity. Particularly after the 1650s in Virginia, when legislation began to more explicitly define and constrict the freedom and rights of blacks (through mid-century, some Africans owned land and even slaves on Virginia’s Eastern Shore), Virginia planters were increasingly hesitant to encourage or even allow blacks any forms of religious expression for fear that they might encourage unity and rebellion. The Anglican priest Morgan Goodwin lamented this trend in a dismal report on the state of religion in Virginia in 1684, when he noted that ministers failed to inform the planters and masters in their congregations “of the Indespensable Necessity of Instructing and Baptizing, even those, Negroes or Indians.” Quakers readily took Virginians to task for this omission and—later—faced resistance when they and other missionaries sought to evangelize the growing masses of slaves in the southern colonies.
One of the most influential sources of religious and cultural change in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was the orchestrated attempt by the Church of England to “Anglicize” what it perceived to be widespread irreligion in the colonies. The primary arm for this was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), founded in 1701 by Thomas Bray. Although the ostensible purpose of this ardently Anglican institution was to convert Africans, Indians, and backslidden colonists to the Church of England, it also was founded to curb the growth of boisterous independent and dissenting congregations—for which the colonies were infamous in England. Up and down the colonies, evangelistically oriented SPG missionaries and other colonial leaders seeking to strengthen Anglicanism in their jurisdictions encountered resistance to their attempts to bring people into the Anglican fold. In 1707, the Anglican New York governor Edward Cornbury had the Presbyterian itinerant minister Francis Makemie arrested for preaching without a license. From prison, Makemie con- tested—and won—what he perceived to be a violation of the English Declaration of Toleration of 1698. Similarly, when the SPG began sending its missionaries and educators to New England in the 1710s, Congregationalist ministers immediately resented and protested what they viewed as an intentional invasion of their parishes.
Anglican presence in New England dated back to the founding of King’s Chapel in Boston in 1686, when the hated royal governor Edmund Andros created an Anglican congregation by royal fiat. The SPG’s actions, however, represented a more aggressive policy. In 1763, Jonathan Mayhew, minister of Boston’s West Congregational Church, protested in print the intentional strategy of the SPG ministers who would target New England urban centers where Congregational churches were in abundance and “encourage and increase small disaffected par- ties” in each town to attend the new Anglican church instead. So great was the perceived menace posed by Anglicanism in New England that a vocalized threat to “turn Anglican” at times prompted disciplinary actions by Congregationalist and Presbyterian ministerial associations, as the disgruntled Mohegan Indian minister Samson Occom found in the 1760s when he publicly contemplated turning to the Church of England.
SPG missionaries also faced fierce resistance within the Anglican fold when, in the early eighteenth century, they began intentionally targeting the ever- increasing slave population in Virginia and the Carolinas. Francis Le Jau, for example, who served in South Carolina’s Goose Creek Parish in 1709, grew frustrated with his parishioners who refused to send their slaves to his weekly religious educational services and classes. In Virginia, many planters believed that conversion to Christianity made slaves “proud and undutiful” and encouraged “thoughts of freedom.” Missionaries and ministers sought to placate planters and masters with assurances to the contrary, as did laws passed by colonial legislatures beginning in 1664 that stated clearly that conversion to Christianity did not change a slave’s status. Nonetheless, Le Jau required slaves in his classes to swear two oaths declaring that, first, they were not seeking Christian instruction and baptism in order to secure their own freedom, and second, that they would abandon their polygamous practices.
Planter fears were confirmed in occasional slave revolts and rumors of riots, particularly in the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, which had at its core hundreds of discontented Catholic Africans from the kingdom of Kongo in mod- ern-day Angola. Furthermore, Le Jau himself recorded instances of slave converts who spoke of disturbingly vivid visions that seemed to presage a world turned upside down; these were visions very much akin to those recorded in the nineteenth century by the slave rebel and messianist Nat Turner, who saw a sign from God that led him to spark a bloody uprising in Southampton County, Virginia (discussed further in Blum, chap. 10, this volume).
Slave converts, moreover, retained an older, more radical view of Chris- tian conversion wherein their religious status gave them rights to freedom and respect, for which they were in turn willing to fight—in courtrooms, in letters to imperial officials, and, as a last resort, in rebellions. Our language of Christian Englishmen and non-Christian Africans interacting in the Chesapeake here fails completely, for what we see instead are Christianized Afro-Virginians utilizing the levers of power to try to transform Christianity into freedom. They knew the language of power, and they spoke it eloquently and at great risk to themselves. This is clear from a recently rediscovered letter from 1723 in which a group of mixed-race slaves wrote to the newly appointed Anglican bishop, asking for their freedom based on their grounding in the Christian faith. They were, they wrote, “Baptised and brouaht up in a way of the Christian faith and followers the wayes and Rules of the church of England.” They complained about the law “which keeps and makes them and there seed Slaves forever.” The hardness of their masters, they said, kept them from following the Sabbath: “wee doo hardly know when [Sabbath] comes,” they wrote, “for our task masters are as hard with us as the Egyptians was with the Chilldann of Issarall.” Their letter concludes with an explanation of why they did not sign their names, “forfreare of our masters for if they knew that wee have Sent home to your honour wee Should goo neare to Swing upon the Gallass tree” (quoted in Thomas N. Ingersoll, “Releese Us Out of This Cruell Bondegg: An Appeal from Virginia in 1723,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 51 [1994]: 776–782).

Perhaps one of the greatest areas of neglect in writing the history of religion in America concerns the great masses of immigrants who poured into the American backcountry in the eighteenth century, and the ways in which the arrivals of these immigrants altered colonial demographics and reshaped religious practices over the course of that century. Several important studies have shed some light on these groups. Leigh Eric Schmidt, in Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period, traces the ways Scottish Presbyterian prac- tices of a prolonged, multiday “holy fair” were brought to the New World and con- tributed to an emerging American revivalism in surprising ways. Similarly, recent studies of the Moravians such as Jesus Is Female: Moravians and Radical Religion in Early America by Aaron Spencer Fogleman reveal that distinctive Moravian ideas about Christ’s blood and death and their more egalitarian views of women and society challenged established cultural and religious norms in the colonies.
Examples abound of the friction created between these newcomers and the established colonial groups. When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 (which provided legal protection for Protestants in France), French Huguenots fled their motherland in droves, often making the arduous journey to the Ameri- can colonies. As Anglicans exerted increasing authority in places like South Carolina, Huguenots (and later, rabble-rousing revivalists) became the target of protective ministers and bishops wary of “foreign” ministers operating in their parishes. Such conflicts often took on transatlantic importance, as when the Huguenot pas- tor John Lapierre in 1726 complained directly to the bishop of London of the ill treatment received at the hands of the Anglican minister Alexander Garden.
Similarly, when the Presbyterian Scots-Irish immigrants began flooding the Pennsylvania backcountry in the 1740s and 1750s, they quickly grew impatient with the unwillingness of the Pennsylvania Assembly (largely Quaker and pacifist) to deal forcibly with the Delaware, Nanticoke, and Shawnee Indian communities that were resisting the westward encroachment of the colonists. After the French and Indian War (1754–1763) and the expulsion of the French empire from North America failed to bring about the reduced restrictions on expansion these immi- grants desired, a rowdy group of frontiersmen from Paxton County, Pennsylvania, took matters into their own hands, massacring more than a dozen friendly Cones- toga Indians and marching to Philadelphia to have their demands heard.
The larger imperial context of the colonial period often framed—and shaped— religious colonial encounters. Within the colonies there might have been endless confrontations and squabbles about theology and religious practices, but when it came to colonists dealing with England’s longtime Catholic rivals France and Spain, scholars have increasingly recognized an ardent anti-Catholic and—by the 1750s—an anti-Indian consensus that served to galvanize and unify the colonists. In times of crisis what Thomas Kidd terms a “Protestant Interest” eclipsed inter- and intra-colony rivalries in pursuit of a common Catholic enemy. Similarly, in the eighteenth century, when many of the Indian nations just beyond the periphery of English settlement often sided with the French and Spanish during times of ongoing imperial warfare, little justification was given or apparently needed for total warfare being waged against these Indian nations. Particularly for those colonies situated on the fringes of the British empire—Maine (an exclave of Mas- sachusetts), New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and (later) Georgia—the concern was both practical and ideological. Colonial leaders detested the ongoing French and Spanish presence, in part because these Catholic merchants, traders, and missionaries provided constant (and effective) competition for Indian furs, souls, and allegiance. More than just economic or imperial rivalry, however, at stake for many Protestants was nothing less than the triumph (or defeat) of “true” Christianity. In 1700, for example, the New York Assembly passed an act that ordered “every Jesuit and Seminary Priest missionary or other Spiritually or Ecclesiastically person” who received their authority from Rome to leave the colony. Per- sons who defied this law would “suffer perpetuall Imprisonment”; repeat offenders (should they escape from prison) would be executed.
Such threats were not mere saber-rattling. France and England were officially at war at least four times in the sixty years preceding the onset of the French and Indian War in 1763, both in Europe and in the colonies. Even in times of peace, individual colonies took decisive action against perceived Catholic threats. When the Jesuit priest Sebastian Rale set up a successful mission town among the Wabanaki in southern Maine in the early eighteenth century, Massachusetts magistrates and ministers collaborated to outperform him by sending their own rival Protestant missionaries. When these Puritan evangelists failed to draw the Indians away from Catholicism, and when Rale began encouraging the Wabanaki to assert their land rights against English settlers, Massachusetts governor William Dummer sent 208 soldiers to Norridgewock in 1724, where they razed the Catholic missionary village and killed Father Rale.
Similarly, when English and German Moravians with their mystifying blend of pre-Reformation and Protestant religious sensibilities showed up in New York and western Connecticut just a decade and a half later in the 1740s and began preaching to the Housatonic and Pachgatgoch Indians, local colonial officials, settlers, and ministers feared that these rather mysterious individuals might be Catholics in disguise, seeking to turn the Indians’ allegiances away from England and toward its rival and geographical neighbor in the New World, France. In part because of the increased religious tensions caused by the Great Awakening and the heightened political sensitivity caused by preparations for King George’s War (fought against France), in May 1743 two Moravians were arrested and marched fifty-two miles from Kent to Milford, Connecticut, and placed on trial for a week as the Connecticut governor and local ministers tried to figure out who in fact these people were. The trial itself illuminates the religiously contested region New England had become. Over the course of their weeklong detention in Milford, these pacifistic Moravians received inquiring visits from Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, New Light ministers, and Indians, who alternately accused them of being Catholic, New Light, Anglican, and Quaker. The options for religious affiliation in the Awakening and post-Awakening years were proliferating; gone were the days when Puritan churches fairly effectively exerted a modicum of control over the events in their towns.
One of the greatest periods of intensified religious encounters and transformations in the colonial era, in fact, was triggered by the loosely connected and ongoing series of revivals in the 1730s and 1740s often referred to as the First Great Awakening. These revivals were part of a larger, transatlantic Protestant Awakening that involved the full spectrum of religious and ethnic groups in the colonies, including Puritan ministers of all stripes, Anglicans on both sides of the Atlantic, Quakers, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Rogerenes, Scots-Irish Presbyterians, German and English Moravians, Native Americans, and free and enslaved blacks, who came from all strata of society—farmhands as well as ministers, housewives and sailors, merchants and lawyers. At the core of the revivals were a series of questions regarding religious experience of a particular sort, mostly related to individual regeneration, or salvation. Although the most publicized revivals originated under the Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1735/1736 (building on the prior “seasons of grace” there under his grandfather and previous minister, Solomon Stoddard), historians have often highlighted the involvement of other ministers and laypeople, such as the Dutch Reformed minister Theodore Frelinghuysen in the Raritan Valley of New Jersey, who led a series of revivals in the 1720s; the Presbyterian minister Gilbert Tennent, also in New Jersey; and the Anglican minister George Whitefield, based in Old England. Whitefield’s regular evangelistic preaching tours throughout the colonies from 1739 until his death in 1770 thrust a particular kind of revivalistic Protestantism not only into the colonial spotlight, but into immediate friction with ministers of established churches up and down the colonial seaboard.
Largely following Whitefield’s emphasis on personal regeneration and Gilbert Tennent’s call to reject unconverted ministers, lay men and women throughout the colonies began to challenge the authority of ministers and magistrates in ways that deeply unsettled colonial leaders, who believed that social order was essen- tial for societal stability. The result was innumerable showdowns in dozens, if not hundreds, of Congregational, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches along the East Coast. Ministers who could not (or would not) produce narratives of their conver- sion experiences were ousted if possible; when parishioners concerned with such tests of spiritual authority failed to constitute a majority (and the power to depose the minister), collections of members separated and formed their own churches or joined other Separate or Baptist associations. Radical pro-revivalist ministers like James Davenport and Daniel Rogers forced the issue more than most revivalists, often staging public showdowns between themselves and local ministers, many of whom were moderately supportive of the revivals. In just one such public encounter, on July 26, 1741, Davenport preached outdoors to a large crowd in Stonington, Connecticut, and very pointedly suggested that one of the local ministers, Nathaniel Ells—who was present—might not be converted. The disgusted and offended Ells retreated into the nearby meetinghouse with his own less-radical supporters in tow while Davenport and his followers continued the lengthy New Light service.
The more radical aspects of the Awakening similarly drew in large numbers of Native Americans and enslaved and free Africans, who were, historians have argued, attracted to the more participatory and emotional elements of revival services, such as boisterous singing, praying, preaching, exhorting, and an emphasis on individual religious experiences (often with an anti-authoritarian tinge). Itinerants and self-proclaimed exhorters emerged from the woodwork, preaching indoors and out to any who would listen. Although some Indians and blacks eventually ceased formal affiliations with white colonial churches as the Awakening fervor subsided, for many this encounter with Christianity had long-term effects. Scholars of religion among Indians have recently focused more on the emergence of an indigenous Christianity that was deeply inflected by regional, personal, and tribal factors, and became central for some Indians’ self-understanding and identity.
Although the Awakening fervor lessened in the colonies over time, the tensions between religious communities continued in waves and cycles, often sparked by the growth of certain denominations, like the Baptists and (later) the Methodists in the South, along with the ongoing immigration of Scots-Irish Presbyterians into the backcountry of Anglican-dominated Virginia and North and South Carolina. As in New England during the 1740s, such conflicts between the Scots-Irish pro- revivalists and the Anglican parish priests resulted in public showdowns, as when an Anglican minister in Culpepper County, Virginia, sat in the front row of a Baptist minister’s church and after the sermon ended proceeded to pronounce the Baptist minister “a schismatick, a broacher of false doctrines,” and someone who “held up the damnable errors that day” (quoted in Keith Harper and C. Martin Jacumin, eds., Esteemed Reproach: The Lives of Rev. James Ireland and Rev. Joseph Craig [Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2005], 10). Far from just being limited to the 1740s, the controversies raised during the Awakening resurfaced through- out the colonies over the ensuing hundred years.

The point in all of this is simply that no comparable proliferation of faiths existed in the Old World, particularly when one considers the North American mixture of European immigrant religions alongside long-standing, emergent, and diverse African and Indian religious traditions and practices. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, the colonies and the Mid-Atlantic region in particular—Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and northern Maryland—had become, in the words of historian Peter Silver, “perhaps the most racially, ethnically, and religiously mixed place in the world.” The religious diversity of the American colonies was in large part a by-product of external forces (immigration) and internal factors (lack of state–church consensus and enforcement). As scholars have pointed out, the American Revolution only increased the growing traditions of individualism and anti-authoritarianism in American religions, a pattern that intensified during the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Despite all of this fresh and invigorating scholarship, many avenues of research need further attention. The first, mentioned earlier, is with regard to specific immigrant groups like the Scots-Irish, Huguenots, and myriad German ethnic groups that flooded into the colonial backcountry in the eighteenth century, particularly in the middle and southern colonies. Second, and more generally, historians of religion in America have often struggled to adequately describe and account for the masses of men and women from all walks of life who had little desire to affiliate with the more lively religious traditions in the colonies (or any religious movement at all, for that matter). Similarly, scholars are often unattuned to what might be termed the “everydayness” of religious encounter: a Dutch Reformed farmer bantering with his Anglican neighbor; a Congregational master and head of household disagreeing with his New Light Baptist African slave; French Huguenot parents pleading with their daughter to not marry her Lutheran suitor. Third, historians of religion in the colonial period continue to have difficulty giving adequate attention to the experiences of women in society and in the churches. This is especially curious considering that colonial women constituted a clear numerical majority in churches across denominations, even as they were largely excluded from leadership positions. Finally, historians have yet to satisfactorily account for the role of religion in the countless wars and armed conflicts—official or not—during the colonial period.
As a whole, however, historians of religion in America continue to ask new and interesting questions that illuminate in ever-greater detail the contentious religious landscape of colonial America. Slowly but surely, narratives of religion in the colonial period are being enlarged to include the full geographical and chronological spread of religious diversity in North America, which was present from the first attempts at colonization, as the circuitous wanderings of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and Estebanico among southwestern Indians remind us.


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