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  • The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America ed. by Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda
  • J. Kime Lawson (bio)

Religion, Religious persecution, Religious intolerance, Church-state, Religious liberty

The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America. Edited by Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 401, Hardcover, $45.00.)

The First Prejudice is a collection of twelve essays by leading historians that reexamine the role of religious tolerance and persecution in shaping the legal and cultural practices of the early American colonies. Religion is called "the first prejudice" in early America because before the legal imposition of racially based forms of intolerance, municipal authorities mandated the practice of religious customs and often punished nonconformists with violence. Studying the history of tolerance and intolerance in America has typically been the domain of legal or church historians focused on court records or sermons, but this volume demonstrates that closer scholarly attention to sources illustrating lived religion, local legal norms, or everyday practices can complicate longstanding assumptions about early American religious history. While most religious histories of early America have stressed big events like the English Toleration Act or the American Revolution to describe continuity, change, or progress during the period, each selection in this volume challenges the usefulness of those categories to explain the more complex and ambiguous cultural exchanges hiding underneath the grander narratives of American religious history.

Christopher S. Grenda's and John Corrigan's essays on "tolerance and intolerance" begin the volume proper. Grenda points out that over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, faith and reason often had a complex and multidimensional relationship in the public discourse of American colonial intellectuals, who relied on "sacred" forms of reasoning rooted in their understanding of the Bible rather than Enlightenment secularity to argue their desires for a more tolerant society. Corrigan shows the more gruesome side of "sacred" reasoning, explaining how a variety of early American Christians deployed the Hebrew Biblical story recounting Israel's extermination at divine behest of the ancient Amalekites as a justification for intolerance and violence toward Native Americans. Both essays demonstrate that religious ideology was central to people's choices and behaviors in regard to justifying both tolerance and intolerance, even if that ideology was diverse, adaptable, and situational. [End Page 364] They disagree about continuity and change in regard to religious influence from Europe, however, insofar as Grenda suggests a formal continuity of religious ideology coming from the Continent, while Corrigan notes the break between the British and the more violent American usage of "Amalekite" rhetoric.

Part two has four selections. Ned Landsman addresses the lingering question of why the Anglican Church never became a powerful religious force in the American colonies. Rather than following the more traditional explanation that the Anglican Church resisted appointing a bishop in the American colonies out of fear of igniting anti-imperial sentiments, Landsman shows that factors such as internal Anglican Church restructuring as a result of the union with the Church of Scotland, anxieties about preserving apostolic succession and other sacred practices without direct oversight, and stubbornness to compete within the American denominational style all contributed to the Anglican Church's lack of institution-building in the American colonies. Landsman also claims that the lack of Anglican institutional strength in the American colonies led to an informal separation of church and state in practice. Joyce D. Goodfriend compares the legal treatment of religious outsiders in New Netherlands with their treatment in Holland, as the Dutch are usually cited for pioneering European religious toleration. Peter Stuyvesant's handling of religious outsiders such as Lutherans, Jews, and Quakers was just short of brutal, and religious toleration in Dutch colonies was at best tepid with an uncooperative colonial state authority. In the case of Stuyvesant's famous opposition to any Jewish presence in New Amsterdam, Goodfriend demonstrates how toleration of Jews was much more generous in Holland than in its colonies by recounting multiple instances in which the Jewish community in New Amsterdam lobbied against Stuyvesant for greater liberties based on their knowledge of the rights provided legally for their co-religionists in Holland. Despite state...


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pp. 364-368
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