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The First Prejudice

Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America

Edited by Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda

Publication Year: 2011

In many ways, religion was the United States' first prejudice—both an early source of bigotry and the object of the first sustained efforts to limit its effects. Spanning more than two centuries across colonial British America and the United States, The First Prejudice offers a groundbreaking exploration of the early history of persecution and toleration. The twelve essays in this volume were composed by leading historians with an eye to the larger significance of religious tolerance and intolerance. Individual chapters examine the prosecution of religious crimes, the biblical sources of tolerance and intolerance, the British imperial context of toleration, the bounds of Native American spiritual independence, the nuances of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, the resilience of African American faiths, and the challenges confronted by skeptics and freethinkers.

The First Prejudice presents a revealing portrait of the rhetoric, regulations, and customs that shaped the relationships between people of different faiths in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America. It relates changes in law and language to the lived experience of religious conflict and religious cooperation, highlighting the crucial ways in which they molded U.S. culture and politics. By incorporating a broad range of groups and religious differences in its accounts of tolerance and intolerance, The First Prejudice opens a significant new vista on the understanding of America's long experience with diversity.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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pp. v-vi

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pp. 1-20

In colonial British America, religion distinguished outsiders from insiders. It furnished many of the categories through which people were classified, separating the saved from the damned, Christians from heathens, Protestants from Catholics, and conformists from dissenters. Like other means of social sorting before and since, religious distinctions offered seventeenth- and...

PART I: Ideologies of Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America

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Chapter 1. Faith, Reason, and Enlightenment: The Cultural Sources of Toleration in Early America

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pp. 23-52

The issue of religious toleration in early America is enormously complex. The essays in this volume highlight that complexity by revealing the range of ideas, social practices, and legal norms that determined the extent of toleration in early American society, both before and after the American Revolution. Yet even while considering this range, as well as the intolerance that...

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Chapter 2. Amalek and the Rhetoric of Extermination

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pp. 53-72

The definitive nineteenth-century biography of the nation’s seventh president concluded with its author observing: ‘‘It does not appear that he ever repented of anything, ever thought that he had been in the wrong in anything, or ever forgave an enemy as a specific individual.’’1 But as William Graham Sumner and a throng of other biographers since have noted, the General gave...

PART II: Practices of Tolerance and Intolerance in Colonial British America

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Chapter 3. The Episcopate, the British Union, and the Failure of Religious Settlement in Colonial British America

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pp. 75-97

The exceedingly long controversy over the project of bringing an Anglican bishop to colonial British America has never been an easy matter for American historians to explain. Originating in intermittent plans introduced during the seventeenth century, the Anglican effort to obtain a bishop recurred enough times a century later to form an almost continual point of conten-...

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Chapter 4. Practicing Toleration in Dutch New Netherland

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pp. 98-122

For centuries, the Dutch Republic has been hailed for leading the march toward religious toleration in seventeenth-century Europe. Among the many achievements of this geographically compact but economically mighty nation, its role as sanctuary for people fleeing religious persecution from across Europe has ranked high. Yet the intricate maneuvering that underlay this...

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Chapter 5. Heretics, Blasphemers, and Sabbath Breakers: The Prosecution of Religious Crime in Early America

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pp. 123-142

Charles Arabella could not help himself. Having accidentally spilled ‘‘some scalding pitch upon one of his feet,’’ he swore ‘‘by God.’’ Though his ‘‘blasphemous words’’ were clearly ‘‘spoken in a great passion,’’ Arabella nonetheless found himself convicted of the crime of blasphemy, a capital offense in most British colonies. The court mercifully ordered him to be ‘‘bored...

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Chapter 6. Persecuting Quakers? Liberty and Toleration in Early Pennsylvania

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pp. 143-165

Pennsylvania has long been considered a singular success story in the history of Anglo-American religious liberty. In the standard narrative, William Penn’s colony illustrates how adherents of diverse religious views can peacefully coexist, creating a vibrant public life bound together by civil interest and a commitment to the common good...

PART III: The Boundaries of Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America

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Chapter 7. Native Freedom? Indians and Religious Tolerance in Early America

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pp. 169-194

‘You, above all the Inhabitants of the Earth, ought to be zealous in establishing the generous Principles of religious Freedom.’’ Otherwise your actions‘‘may possibly be attended with Consequences that are fatal.’’ Without religious liberty, ‘‘the temporal Interests of the Colonies’’ will be ‘‘obstructed,’’ the ‘‘out-lying Parts of the British Settlements’’ will be ‘‘doomed to live in...

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Chapter 8. Slaves to Intolerance: African American Christianity and Religious Freedom in Early America

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pp. 195-217

In summer 1774, as the American revolutionary movement intensified, the sun scalded the Virginia countryside. The ground withered and the corn was‘‘roll’d up with the heat & Drouth.’’ On a hot Sunday morning at the end of July, the man who wrote those words, Philip Vickers Fithian, a tutor on the plantation of Robert Carter in northern Virginia, emerged from his...

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Chapter 9. Catholics, Protestants, and the Clash of Civilizations in Early America

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pp. 218-240

In 1774 the Continental Congress reached out to the inhabitants of Quebec. American colonists were engaged in a bitter struggle with Parliament over the rights of colonial subjects within an imperial system and they needed to present a united front against British tyranny. In particular, the Congres surged French Canadians to reject the Quebec Act, a recent act of Parliament...

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Chapter 10. Anti-Semitism, Toleration, and Appreciation: The Changing Relations of Jews and Gentiles in Early America

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pp. 241-262

The status of the small number of Jews in early America from their first arrival in New Amsterdam in the early 1650s until the beginnings of a significant, largely German migration in the 1820s may be best expressed through three interacting concepts: anti-Semitism, toleration, and appreciation. These concepts overlapped in that early American Jews often experienced more than...

PART IV: The Persistence of Tolerance and Intolerance in the New Nation

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Chapter 11. The ‘‘Catholic Spirit Prevailing in Our Country’’: America’s Moderate Religious Revolution

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pp. 265-285

A revolution in religious culture and politics began in Britain’s North American mainland colonies during the 1770s.1 This movement toward religious liberty, nonsectarianism, and public civility was never undone. There would be no retreat, no Thermidorian Reaction. New laws almost always expanded, and almost never contracted, the range of religious liberties granted to reli-...

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Chapter 12. The Boundaries of Toleration and Tolerance: Religious Infidelity in the Early American Republic

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pp. 286-302

In 1798, a pamphlet by a member of a Newburgh, New York, deistical club responded to an attack printed in a local paper. The newspaper essayist’s denunciation of deism had begged two questions, the pamphleteer wrote: first, ‘‘is the gospel or any principle of religion incorporated in our federal or state constitutions,’’ and, second, ‘‘are deism and patriotism irreconcilable?’’...


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pp. 303-384

List of Contributors

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pp. 385-387


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pp. 389-401

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204896
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242706

Page Count: 416
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Daniel K. Richter, Kathleen M. Brown, Max Cavitch, and David Waldstreicher See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700618
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The First Prejudice

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Church history -- 17th century.
  • United States -- Church history -- 18th century.
  • United States -- Religion -- To 1800.
  • Religious tolerance -- United States.
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