- Practicing Religions, Empires, and Degrees of Toleration
With Empires of God and The First Prejudice, Penn Press has released two handsomely produced collections of essays that strongly complement each other. On a superficial level, the books demonstrate a definite overlap in their interest in religion's variegated role in colonial societies in the Atlantic World, as well as in their concern for the practices of religious expression, not just institutional arrangements or theology. Because of these similarities, several essays could easily have been traded between volumes. Ned Landsman's reappraisal of the Resident Bishop controversy as a failure of the British imperial settlement dating to the 1707 Act of Union could easily have found a place in Empires of God, just as Bethany Wiggin's study of the pleas for tolerance from Pennsylvania printer Christopher Saur would have been at home in The First Prejudice. The strongest example of this overlap comes in the writing of Susan Juster, who both edited Empires of God and contributed a chapter to The First Prejudice.
More significantly, both books point to an important historiographical recognition for the early modern world. The confessional conflicts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe did not stop at the Atlantic's edge but suffused through European imperial endeavors. Although occasionally noted, this significant reality has been underappreciated in the field of Atlantic studies. Carla Gardina Pestana's Protestant Empire (2009) began an important reassessment, and Empires of God advances the understanding of imperial projects as religious projects. With this insight, as The First Prejudice demonstrates, there should be no surprise that doctrinal conflicts and intolerance were the starting point in British North America. Yet, in a fluid colonial setting, also at [End Page 175] work were forces for tolerance and toleration that would develop through the colonial period and flower, though still imperfectly, in the Revolutionary era.
In their organizing strategies, both volumes seek to cross disciplinary boundaries, but they reach out to divergent fields and consequently produce contrasting results. Empires of God embodies a multidisciplinary approach through the linking of historical studies with literary studies, with occasional glances toward material culture, semiotics, and anthropology. The editors believe that religious language and narratives provided "templates for" and "instruments of empire" (pp. 4, 6). Thus over half of the essays employ literary approaches to describe the uses of religion for empire development. By contrast, The First Prejudice uses insights from religious studies—especially the appreciation of the practices of "lived religion"—to move beyond older accounts of the growth of toleration grounded only in intellectual history or church/state constitutional studies to craft a social history of religious toleration. The authors thus attempt to relate "practice, rhetoric, and law" to trace both tolerance and intolerance (p. 11). In so doing, they mirror some of the more successful strategies employed by Stuart Schwartz in his All Can Be Saved (2008), which focused on tolerance and toleration in the Iberian Atlantic. The editors' approach succeeds, and historians of early America will likely find The First Prejudice more satisfying and convincing through its presentation and use of evidence than Empires of God.
The dissatisfaction and discomfort with Empires of God arise from its problematic treatment of some of its central categories of analysis, such as "religion," "empire," and "violence." The book claims to trace the links between religion and empire formation, and the editors helpfully categorize possible types of links as causal, oppositional, dialectic, and affiliative (p. 2). In the chapters themselves, however, the treatment of these links is uneven. The most successful chapters in this regard are those that actively demonstrate how empires actually functioned vis-à-vis religion. Thus Carla Gardina Pestana's chapter on the justifications for Cromwell's "Western Design" and the subsequent Anglo-Dutch Wars demonstrates the uses of religion for imperial...