Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland, C. 1650-C. 1850

By Magennis, Eoin | Anglican and Episcopal History, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland, C. 1650-C. 1850


Magennis, Eoin, Anglican and Episcopal History


TONY clayDON AND IAN MCBRIDE, EDS. Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland, c. 1650-c. 1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xi + 317, introduction and index. £45.00.

As Tony claydon and Ian McBride make clear in their introduction to these essays, the study of national identities and also that of religion have prospered over the past decade. What they attempt to do in this book is to bring these two topics together and test how far religion, in this case Protestantism, has forged national identities in Britain and Ireland. The editors (and all the contributors to the 1995 conference which gave birth to the essays) are keen to point out how indebted they have been to the work of Linda Colley (especially her Britons book) and, to a lesser extent, J.C.D. Clark. This collection of essays is an attempt further to tease out some of the questions raised by those historians. The introduction will certainly be useful to students in pointing out how historical practice (in the Anglo-American world and Ireland) has come to the point where national identity, Protestantism and the relationship between the two have come to such importance. The explanation lies in the collapse of Marxist and Whig historiography, which had largely portrayed religion as simply an obstacle to progress. Leaving aside the Whigs, this would seem to understate the work of Christopher Hill and E.P Thompson, to name but two Marxists, who added much, from their distinct perspectives, to our understanding of religion and "Englishness." However, this is a small quibble in what is generally a superb opening essay.

The section which follows concentrates on England through studies of anti-catholicism, the "Glorious Revolution" and different aspects of Protestantism in the eighteenth century. There is an uneven feel to this section, typified by Colin Haydon's essay on xenophobia. Hatred of the "other," in this case France or Catholics within England, is shown to have been a key part of the Protestant experience in the eighteenth century but one is not sure how much this forges "Englishness," and, more importantly, how such feelings were shared by, in particular, Scottish Protestants. That is not to say that this is a poor essay, far from it, but to point out difficulties in how it fits into the bigger project. Steven Pincus' piece is even better but, in his study of 1688-89, he is quite clear about his skepticism about the role of Protestantism in national identity at that time. This skepticism was revealed even more strongly in his earlier book on English foreign policy during the Cromwellian and Restoration periods, and this essay hints at further exciting work ahead.

One of the points that has been made in many reviews of Colley's Bntons, and something which she acknowledged at the 1995 conference, was that the omission of Ireland and some weakness in her Scottish material had caused problems for the overall thesis. …

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