Breaking Ties: The SPG, the SPCK, and International Protestantism during the American Revolution

Friday, January 8, 2010: 9:30 AM
Elizabeth Ballroom B (Hyatt)
Katherine Carte Engel , Texas A&M University, College Station, TX
In 1775, the American Revolution divided the and challenged the ideal of a unified religious future for the Protestant world.  The 1778 annual sermon of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel reveals the strained nature of international Protestantism at this time: After describing the British colonization of North America as a “holy commission,” the Bishop of York argued that “we of this country have been the chosen instruments of God, to enlarge the number of his worshippers, by sending over Christian, Protestant inhabitants into the northern parts of that continent,” thus preserving them from the “spiritual bondage of a popish establishment” such as prevailed in the Spanish territories.  The marriage of anti-Catholicism and British nationalism evident in the sermon points to Protestantism’s well-known role in supporting British identity.  Yet his phrases also drew on quite different themes, ones familiar to his listeners and to scholars of international Protestantism and early evangelicalism.  The hope for a worldwide harvest of souls formed an important basis for the Protestant International, an ideal that transcended national boundaries, animated religious awakening, propelled SPG ministers into the field, and inspired the Society’s most vigorous opponents.  This paper reexamines the records of the SPG, reports from missionaries and annual sermons, to uncover the consequences of war within the Protestant world on the ideal of the “Protestant International.”  It argues that the American Revolution was a transitional moment in the history of Atlantic religion, during which religious nationalism and international Protestant activism came into conflict.  The resulting reconfiguration of allegiances that followed the war had a direct impact on the development of Atlantic Protestantism, replacing an idealized Protestant geography and future with much more limited forms of transnational and inter-denominational cooperation.
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