The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America

By Blosser, Jacob M. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2012 | Go to article overview

The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America


Blosser, Jacob M., The Journal of Southern History


The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America. Edited by Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda. Early American Studies. (Philadelphia and Oxford, Eng.: University of Pennsylvania Press, c. 2011. Pp. vi, 401. $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8122-4270-6.)

Creatively and thoughtfully connecting the two historiographical traditions that examine religious tolerance and intolerance in early America-church-state history and religious history--this edited volume's essays use the ideological and legal arguments favored by church-state historians and the emphasis on ecclesiastical identity and practice common in religious history. The result is a surprisingly cohesive collection of essays that, given their chronological and geographical breadth, demonstrate the cultural and judicial ubiquity of religious prejudice while highlighting often unexpected opportunities for religious toleration, coexistence, and exchange in early America.

With the notable exception of Chris Beneke's provocative essay, which describes the Revolutionary era as the harbinger of expansive forms of religious liberty, the other essays in The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America view religious intolerance as a mainstay of Anglo-American culture from the earliest days of English settlement through the early nineteenth century. Examining the ideological origins of colonial American religious prejudice, John Corrigan argues that the fate of the biblical Amalekites--the descendants of Esau whose persecution of the Hebrews during the exodus from Egypt earned them divine destruction--served as a template for the intolerant treatment of non-Christians in the New World, especially Native Americans. Demonstrating the legal application of religious ideology, Susan Juster's and Christopher Grasso's essays describe the prosecution of religious crimes. Juster shows that seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century civil magistrates took blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking very seriously. And while Grasso's early-nineteenth-century courts did not inflict the same draconian punishments (tongue boring and the like), they nevertheless prosecuted deists, skeptics, and freethinkers for blasphemy.

Supported by the courts, colonial American religious majorities frequently practiced religious intolerance. Joyce D. Goodfriend demonstrates that even the famously tolerant Netherlands produced a fanatically Calvinist colonial director-general, Petrus Stuyvesant, whose intolerant policies greatly limited Lutheran, Quaker, and Jewish religious expression. Similarly, Owen Stanwood demonstrates the intercolonial pervasiveness of a virulent anti-Catholic paranoia that was deeply rooted in British nationalism. Religious intolerance existed even in the City of Brotherly Love. As Andrew R. Murphy's discussion of the Keithian controversy demonstrates, even Quakers could silence their religious and political opponents.

Yet, notwithstanding the ever-present colonial realities of religious intolerance, several essayists point to a modicum of religious toleration that led, in some cases, to unexpected cultural exchange. …

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