The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America

The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America

The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America

The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America


In many ways, religion was the United States' first prejudice--both an early source of bigotry and the object of the first sustained efforts to limit its effects. Spanning more than two centuries across colonial British America and the United States, The First Prejudice offers a groundbreaking exploration of the early history of persecution and toleration. The twelve essays in this volume were composed by leading historians with an eye to the larger significance of religious tolerance and intolerance. Individual chapters examine the prosecution of religious crimes, the biblical sources of tolerance and intolerance, the British imperial context of toleration, the bounds of Native American spiritual independence, the nuances of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, the resilience of African American faiths, and the challenges confronted by skeptics and freethinkers.

The First Prejudice presents a revealing portrait of the rhetoric, regulations, and customs that shaped the relationships between people of different faiths in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America. It relates changes in law and language to the lived experience of religious conflict and religious cooperation, highlighting the crucial ways in which they molded U.S. culture and politics. By incorporating a broad range of groups and religious differences in its accounts of tolerance and intolerance, The First Prejudice opens a significant new vista on the understanding of America's long experience with diversity.


Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda

In colonial British America, religion distinguished outsiders from insiders. It furnished many of the categories through which people were classified, separating the saved from the damned, Christians from heathens, Protestants from Catholics, and conformists from dissenters. Like other means of social sorting before and since, religious distinctions offered seventeenth- and eighteenth-century communities a rich trove of justifications for discrimination. Yet in some places and in some times in early America, as in early modern Europe, diversity in religious belief and practice served markedly different functions, presenting occasions for both cross-cultural cooperation and earnest pleas for liberty. To the degree that the people inhabiting this place and time shared our modern understandings of intolerance and tolerance, they did so in the domain of religion. in the multiple ways that the following chapters illustrate, religion was the United States’ first prejudice—an early and frequently inveterate source of bigotry, and the locus of the first sustained efforts to mitigate bigotry’s effects.

The importance of early American religion is well established. For decades, surveys of colonial, early national, and antebellum U.S. history have abounded with ministers, theologies, revivals, and vague spiritual influences. Pre–Civil War histories have, Jon Butler observes, “long featured religion at almost every critical interpretative point.” Since the late 1980s, religion’s historiographical weight has held steady. However, the field has changed in ways that reflect larger shifts in the study of American history, and that carry important implications for scholarship on religious tolerance and intolerance. To begin, there has been a noticeable drift in emphasis from intellectual toward social and cultural history, from formal theology toward the “lived” experience of everyday practices and beliefs, and from denominational and church histories toward dynamic interactions within and between . . .

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