America and the Religious Politics of English Expansion, 1497-1662
Series: American Beginnings, 1500-1900
- ISBN: 9780226742618
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: April 2021
Evan Haefeli’s Accidental Pluralism: America and the Religious Politics of English Expansion, 1497-1662, enters the academic conversation about religious toleration—particularly in America—with two important assertions. Citing both Tom Paine and Ezra Stiles in his defense, Haefeli asserts that America has long been misunderstood as a place settled and founded as a refuge by and for religious dissenters. He’s right: such hagiography is evident in the 19th century when, for example, the historical fortunes of Roger Williams (a religious dissenter par excellence but ignored or scorned by contemporaries) and John Cotton (Puritan stalwart and advocate for hard religious establishment) began to be reversed.
In reality, every colony supposedly founded on religious freedom was, with very few and mostly brief exceptions, interested only in an establishment different from the one it abandoned in England or in the colony next door. No serious academic historian has been suggesting anything else—or reviving the old Whig histories—for some time. Of course, even as it was understood that toleration was contrary to the intentions of the first settlers and ecclesiastical or civil authorities, toleration was then cast as something advanced by principled argument rather than expedience or circumstance. In other words, great men or women brought down the establishments with better ideas rather than those establishments collapsing under their own weight, neglect, abuse, or poor administration. Romantic ideas of principled pluralism certainly colored later depictions of Williams, for example. Less academic denominational histories (especially those of Baptists or Quakers) also kept alive the myth of brave principled dissenters whose persistent efforts bent the arc of history toward religious liberty.
Haefeli retorts that the best way to rightly understand the rise of religious toleration or liberty in America is to situate it in a larger British context. In short, we ought to center events on a metropolitan world: the “Atlantic” or “Transatlantic” approach increasingly popular with historians. Though this is currently the historiographical fashion, the approach certainly stands on its own merits. Toleration was about law more than anything else, and British law was policy in the colonies, to the extent which it could be enforced, and Whitehall (the government center of the UK) was not distracted by events closer to it (e.g., civil war). British law was more responsible for expanding toleration in the colonies than the progressive ideas of any particular colonial leaders (e.g., Williams or William Penn), however much American scholars and jurists have tried to read legal toleration in the colonies backwards through the lens of the First Amendment. But while the current historiography is in Haefeli’s favor, he pays relatively little attention to legal documents or petitions concerning toleration, for example.
Haefeli’s methodology and motive, however unoriginal, is therefore sound. But the real value of this history of toleration (“pluralism” is anachronistic and was never intended by any Briton or American) depends on one’s expectations. If one desires a sweeping and aggregated history of what various people did in various places, some (but not all of it) having to do with religion but most of it having to do with colonization or colonial politics, this is your book. If one seeks insight into how toleration came about, especially through attention to primary sources,), this should not be your first choice. Haifeli tells the story of English expansion first, America second, and pluralism only, well, accidentally. There are exceptions. In the first chapter, for example, he insightfully attributes toleration of slave piety to moral indifference by slave holders. That moral indifference would have become unsustainable if their slaves became Christians.
Haefeli has written on religious toleration before. His earlier book, New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty (Penn, 2012), demonstrated how the Dutch advanced toleration in the middle colonies not as a matter of principle but because it kept the harder English establishments out. Accidental Pluralism uses fourteen chapters and a conclusion to cover a longer time period: Tudor-Stuart Foundations (1497–ca. 1607, already a break with the typical American narrative beginning with 1607 or 1620); Jacobean Balance (ca. 1607–1625); Caroline Transformation (1625–1638); the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1638–1649); and Commonwealth and reestablishment (1649–1662 —in this last year, Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity). Haefeli claims to pursue a thematic approach rather than a purely chronological one, but that’s available to him only insofar as one can find themes (e.g., colonization, dissent, polarization, fragmentation, revolution) in these periods. Such themes do not necessarily provide much insight into the phenomena of expanding toleration, however. Themes related more directly to toleration would have been better. For better or worse, Haefeli takes the top-down approach and ignores current historiographical trends such as “lived experience,” or other variants of social history.
There are better and more focused histories of transatlantic religion by Carla Pestana or Owen Stanwood, for example. Andrew Murphy’s Conscience and Community (Penn State, 2001) covers the justifications for toleration much better. Michael Winship’s Godly Republicanism (Harvard, 2012) also implicitly challenges Haefeli’s thesis by casting the Atlantic as a two-way street with New England influencing England at points rather than the other way around. Unlike Winship and Stanwood. Haifeli confines “English expansion” to colonization and thereby ignores the arguably more religiously and politically significant period of empire. The idea of a British Protestant empire, especially after 1662, made the landscape of toleration more complicated and arguably more interesting than the period of colonization.
While Haefeli is probably right to insist on “pluralism” coming about haphazardly or at least unintentionally, the ecclesiology or soteriology of dissenters was more significant for ending English Christendom than he acknowledges.. And while he eschews the Whig history more common to earlier generations, he makes the same mistake as other historians of toleration: he doesn’t care much about the what or why of establishment.
Glenn A. Moots is a professor at Northwood University.Glenn MootsDate Of Review:November 30, 2022