Holy Heritage: Irish Covenanters and Belief in the Atlantic World

AHA Session 155
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Fairfield Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Kerby A. Miller, University of Missouri
For God and Ulster: The Solemn League and Covenant 1912–62
Jane G. V. McGaughey, The Royal Military College of Canada
David A. Wilson, University of Toronto

Session Abstract

What happens when a community of people signs their souls over to God? How does that sacred commitment pass through generations, migration, and into new political realities to find validity in daily life for over three hundred years? This panel will examine three distinct societies of covenanting peoples in different centuries, regions, and political conflicts. Ultimately, the panel explores the social, cultural, and political factors that allowed the National Covenant (1638) and Solemn League and Covenant (1643) in Scotland to take on such a powerful and recurring force in identity creation for three centuries of Ulstermen and women. Peter Gilmore examines the covenanting Irish immigrant experience in eighteenth century Pennsylvania. Joseph Moore examines white and black covenanting action and rhetoric in nineteenth century South Carolina. Jane McGaughey examines the use of covenanting to secure Protestant unionism in the twentieth century. In each place, the covenants and covenanter rhetoric became an essential aspect of sacralizing the identity of communities by connecting them to an idealized ancestral past. Each of these communities used (and reused) the covenants to separate themselves from the rest of society by the cultural marker that was their righteous contract with the Divine. From 1782-1820, Covenanting people in the mid-Atlantic wrestled with what it meant to be dissenters in a land of disestablishment and the degree to which old divisions should remain in a new nation. In the nineteenth century, Southern Covenanters rejected pro-slavery moderation and argued that black slaves had tangible civil liberties. Early twentieth century Ulstermen created a new Solemn League and Covenant in the model of the old to reassert manliness and imperial authority before the Great War interrupted an expected civil war; in the decades that followed Ulster Protestant men and women lived in the shadow of that event with tragic consequences. Each paper explores the heritage of Irish peoples “of the covenant” in the Atlantic world. In each century the subjects of these works interpreted, reinterpreted and applied this piety to the most important social problems of the day: religious schism and union, slavery and freedom, manliness and empire. The nature of this sacred obligation was related to the power structures of different nations, races, and social situations. For three centuries the myth-bearing legacy of the 1638 and 1643 Covenants informed religious and political sentiment across place and time in the Atlantic World. This panel seeks to add insights into why that was and encourage scholarly discussion in the years ahead about what covenanting means across the geographic boundaries and periodizations of the discipline.

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