Although historians consider Protestantism an engine of trans-Atlantic migration, they overlook its role in propelling internal migration in colonial and antebellum America, asserts S. Scott Rohrer. In Wandering Souls, Rohrer seeks to emend this deficiency, tracking religious migrants across North America in eight case studies. Bookended by the usual suspects—land-hungry Puritans and persecution-fleeing Mormons—Rohrer’s study highlights a range of groups and individual migrants: Devereux Jarratt, an atypical Anglican, seeking new birth in western Virginia; Scotch–Irish Presbyterian families edging into Maine and backcountry Virginia; Moravian clans relocating to Wachovia, North Carolina; reforming Methodists tromping through the Ohio Country; [End Page 162] post-Revolutionary Seventh Day Baptists migrating from New Jersey to western Virginia; and Inspirationists (a German and Swiss Pietist group centered on divine revelation) making an American exodus from western New York to Amana, Iowa.
Dissatisfied with other scholars’ migration models, Rohrer proposes his own schema to understand and map these disparate religious treks. According to Rohrer, wandering Protestants fell into two broad categories: individuals and families pulled up stakes because of a combination of religious, social, and economic factors; and religious bodies relocated en masse because of internal conflict, external persecution, or utopian visions. This second category is a familiar trope in religious history; Rohrer recognizes that he is not breaking new ground in exploring how utopian groups like the Inspirationists felt compelled to move eight hundred miles in order to find seclusion and create a purer community, or how violent harassment drove Mormons from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and finally to the Salt Lake Valley.
The novelty lies instead in the first category, and in Rohrer’s analysis of what these two types of migration shared. Previous historians have identified land as the motive force behind migration. Rohrer argues that such economic analyses overlook key social and cultural factors. Migrants in his first category moved because their economic needs intertwined with their religious faith and with one or more of four variables: the pursuit of the evangelical experience of new birth, ethnic and national identity, links between family and land, and a commitment to social reform. Thus, Scotch–Irish Presbyterians’ robust ethnic identity combined with their yearning for agricultural livelihoods and greater religious freedom to impel them out of Puritan New England to the more discrete charms of Boothbay, Maine, while Moravians, the subject of Rohrer’s earlier book Hope’s Promise: Religion and Acculturation in the Southern Backcountry (Tuscaloosa, AL, 2005), tramped to North Carolina, where they could raise their children in the fold of their faith and keep them there with the promise of generous land inheritances. The breadth of Rohrer’s categories allows him to treat even Devereux Jarratt, an orphaned farm laborer who moved to western Virginia for a teaching job and some measure of respectability, as a religious migrant on the basis that Jarratt became an evangelical in the backcountry, an unusual transformation for an Anglican.
Rohrer seeks to open the eyes of scholars not only to the ubiquity of religiously motivated migrations in early America, but also to the positive, [End Page 163] symbiotic relationship between migration and Protestantism, particularly dissenting Protestantism. “Migration enabled Protestantism to spread across the continent and its followers to recommit to the Lord,” he writes, “while religious values helped prod people to move” (13). Rather than foisting otherwise faithful adherents into a savage wilderness, mobility inspired, and was inspired by, religious commitment; groups and individuals in both of Rohrer’s categories relocated in order to build stronger faith communities, to satisfy their spiritual restlessness and find salvation, and to reform society.
Rohrer’s case studies substantiate his argument of Protestantism and mobility fueling each other. His work is useful both as a corrective to the tendency in migration literature to ignore religion, and as an in-depth introduction to eight Protestant traditions in America. Synthesizing vast bodies of secondary literature, Rohrer situates each group historically, tracing roots—whether European or American—and initial settlement, as...