Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


William and Mary Quarterly

3d ser., 75, no. 1 January 2018


Contested Words: History, America, Religion

By Catherine A. Brekus

Ever since the nineteenth century, when Robert Baird published the first single-volume history of religion in the United States, scholars of early America have debated how to define three contested words: history, America, and religion. They have argued over how historical change takes place, whose histories are important to tell, and whether history, as a field, should focus on the practices of everyday life or on the power of ideas. Scholars have also sparred over the geographic boundaries of early America—especially over whether the colonies that became the United States should enjoy a privileged place in historical narratives—and over the term religion, which has often been treated as synonymous with Protestantism. Before the rise of social and cultural history during the 1970s and 1980s, most early American historians focused on Protestant consensus, the British mainland colonies, and white male leaders. Today, in contrast, historians tend to highlight transatlantic connections, religious pluralism, and the agency of Native Americans, enslaved people, and women of all races. This article, based on the 2016 WMQ-EMSI workshop, “Religions in the Early Americas,” offers an overview of the historiography of early American religion from the nineteenth century until the present.

Connecting Protestants in Britain’s Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Empire

By Katherine Carté Engel

Historians have debated whether religion united or divided the eighteenth-century British Empire. “Connecting Protestants” reassesses those debates by tracing who nurtured ties among Protestants across the empire’s long distances, diverse establishments, and varied traditions. Recognizing the mechanisms, personal and institutional, through which religious leaders communicated and collaborated reveals a symbiotic relationship between the empire’s religion and its political structures. Religious leaders from the empire’s dominant denominations sustained an extended system that united in a common cause Protestants who disagreed profoundly on matters of theology and ecclesiology. These leaders worked together—in extended networks, denominational organizations, and voluntary societies—principally because they believed the promotion of Christendom required strong Christian institutions. Yet the shape of their collaboration was determined by Britain’s religious politics. The extended system supported by these efforts included all of the empire’s dominant religious institutions, and it provided the pathway through which Protestants engaged the empire’s distant realms in religious terms. It also contained intra-Protestant disputes so they did not disrupt political order, explaining why transatlantic and interregional religious institutions did not become a major site of organization during the imperial conflict of the 1760s and 1770s.

The Hudson’s Bay Company, Social Legitimacy, and the Political Economy of Eighteenth-Century Empire

By David Chan Smith

Interpretations of the significance of early modern corporations have taken a sociological turn. Historians have increasingly emphasized that corporations depended for their business on a multitude of relationships and were expected to provide benefits to other communities in return for their privileges. The attacks on the Hudson’s Bay Company that culminated in a parliamentary inquiry in 1749 illuminate the complexity of these social entanglements and their impact on the political economy of empire. At issue was whether the trade to the Hudson Bay region should be opened to others or left under the control of the HBC. Contemporaries argued this point by examining whether the HBC operated for its private advantage or in the public interest. But interpreting the public interest was a complex act that depended on economic ideas about the operation of imperial market systems as well as calculations about European rivals. Ultimately, the evaluation by members of Parliament of the social function of markets such as Hudson Bay—including the dependency on Indigenous suppliers—and apprehensiveness about French competition supported the company’s privileges. The episode revealed how contemporaries applied their expectations about corporate conduct and how ideas of economic cooperation influenced the political economy of empire.

Fugitive Collections in New England Indian Country: Indigenous Material Culture and Early American History Making at Ezra Stiles’s Yale Museum

By Christine DeLucia

Native communities across North America experienced disruptions when European and colonial collectors began seeking out their material objects for deposit into museums, scholarly repositories, and comparable institutions. Yet Native people and sovereign nations repeatedly exercised agency in shaping objects’ transits and meanings in early America. This article revisits a “lost” museum once situated at Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. Here Ezra Stiles and other eighteenth-century collegiate affiliates assembled a wide-ranging collection of objects, including Indigenous items from local and more distant communities. The museum sheds light on an early instance of using materiality for knowledge formation and history making in Anglo-American colonial settings, a project that departed in signal ways from the logic and goals of both European Wunderkammern and later American museums. Despite its significance, this early collection is scarcely known today, and the whereabouts of its contents—including sensitive Indigenous heritage objects—are uncertain. Using interdisciplinary, decolonizing historical methodologies, this article appraises how such sites can be used to convey multivocal histories of Indigenous entanglements with evolving forms of settler colonialism and to better recognize tribal communities’ long-standing practices of material interpretation and caretaking.