The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America

Article excerpt

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

Contending that religion was America's first prejudice, this ambitious anthology examines intolerance and tolerance in early America from the early seven teenth century to the first decades of the early republic. While Chris Beneke and Christopher Grenda acknowledge that there was more toleration later in this period than earlier on, the volume sensibly avoids any linear telling of toleration's rise. Instead, tolerance and intolerance coexisted at the intersection of law, rhetoric, and practice, while public opinion shifted from toleration for dissenting views to later arguments about the equality of denominations and freedom of conscience for believers, though not yet for those who advocated the freedom not to believe.

This volume consists of twelve essays and the editors' introduction. Some chapters survey a select issue over two centuries, such as cultural and ideological sources of toleration or Catholic-Protestant relations. Other chapters examine the situation and experiences of specific groups, such as Pennsylvanian Quakers, the Dutch in New Netherland, Jews, Native Americans, and African Americans. The book is thematically organized into four parts (ideologies, practices, boundaries, and persistence) that consistently intertwine tolerance and intolerance. Whether the American Revolution was a watershed event in the history of religious toleration is among those contested issues featured in individual chapters. The editors acknowledge an unintentional absence of material focusing on the First Great Awakening. Granted, this book does propose other useful markers that denoted "sites of coexistence, the segregation and integration of different religious groups" and the treatment of dissenters (11), and yet still one wonders about possible connections between revivalism and the coexistence framework advanced here. Did revivalism contribute to a cultural shift toward religious tolerance, work against it, or both?

The ecclesiastical power structures are present, though an emphasis is placed on the ideas and practice of resilient groups seeking to improve their religious liberty. Essays by Grenda and John Corrigan each examine the ideologies of toleration/intolerance and biblical imagery of Amalek. Ned Landsman's essay on the colonial Anglican episcopacy controversy offers a fresh perspective by considering the impact of the British Union of 1707 (which created a multinational state with two national churches) on colonial Anglicans' efforts to forge a national church in the empire. …