Religious Border-Crossing

Susanne Lachenicht

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online January 2013 | | DOI:
Religious Border-Crossing

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Religious border-crossing in the Atlantic world was common practice. French Huguenots in the Hudson Valley attended Anglican, Dutch Calvinist, and Lutheran services; Portuguese conversos would practice Judaism in the British Caribbean. Native Americans in New France adopted Catholicism while simultaneously conserving much of their non-European rituals and belief systems. These three examples stand for a great variety of religious border-crossings in the Atlantic world that could result in conversion, syncretism, multireligious identities, and religious pluralism. Religious border-crossing, syncretism, and pluralism as common practice is, in the early modern period, all the more surprising as the Catholic and most Protestant churches and sects were looking for the purity and orthodoxy of their faith. Religious institutions were eager to keep their flocks away from other denominations. Many European and colonial governments sought to establish a monoconfessional colony or state: Catholicism was to be the one and sole denomination throughout much of the French, Portuguese, and Spanish Atlantic world, in theory at least. In some cases, however, governments allowed for religious pluralism, when economic or military interest made them settle Sephardic or Ashkenazi Jews in the British Caribbean or German Lutherans in Georgia. Besides religious pluralism, some Christian denominations even tolerated transconfessional practices when pastors of their own denomination were too small in numbers. In some places, tolerance and pluralism allowed for religious border-crossing and fostered syncretism and multiple religious identities. In theory, religious border-crossing beyond the Christian denominations was even more problematic: Spanish and Portuguese conversos or Moriscos became “notorious” suspects in the early modern Atlantic world. Churches and states throughout Europe struggled for the authority of their teachings, also because pre-Christian or pagan beliefs and practices survived through much of the 18th century. With the so-called European expansion, the religious landscape became even more complex. African and Native American religions, along with missionary efforts in Africa and the Americas, enhanced religious border-crossing and syncretism. Pagan rituals and belief systems melted with Catholic and Protestant rituals in most of the Atlantic world. As the history of religions in the Atlantic world has more often than not been written as Catholic or Protestant churches’ or missionary histories, the literature on transconfessional practices among Europeans in the Atlantic world is rather scarce. Research to date has largely focused on religious encounters and border-crossing in Native American–European missions or in African–Native American–European encounters, as the following sections demonstrate. This bibliography treats, first, the pre-conditions of religious border-crossing and includes as such a section on tolerance/toleration and pluralism. It then proceeds to a section on syncretism being understood as one possible outcome of trans-religious contacts and cultural exchange. Third, it presents literature on the actual religious border-crossing, between Christian denominations, Native Americans and Christians, African American religions and Christianity, and Jews and Christians.

Article.  5429 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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