Women and Religious Liberty in Early America

AHA Session 258
Monday, January 6, 2020: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Gibson Room (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Janet Moore Lindman, Rowan University
Rosemarie Zagarri, George Mason University

Session Abstract

In 1638, Massachusetts Bay Colony authorities banished Anne Hutchinson and a group of fellow dissidents to neighboring Rhode Island. Reflecting on their heresy, the Reverend John Cotton wondered aloud “how farr the wives doe Consent or dissent from thear Husbands.” Cotton never received satisfaction on that count, and neither have historians since. In contrast to the numberless volumes dedicated to church and state in the American colonial and early national eras, surprisingly little attention has been paid to whether women could dissent from husbands and fathers within households, that is, whether they enjoyed what Monica Najar calls “domestic liberty of conscience.”

For decades, church-state historians have treated the history of religious liberty as a matter of public finances and public space, as a tale of conflict between denominations, or between churches and states. They have framed it as a struggle for the right to build places of worship, express nonconforming opinions, gain relief from inequitable taxation, or acquire exemptions from generally applicable laws. Rarely have these historians considered it as a matter of gender equity or probed inside households to measure the treatment of dissent within the family.

Our proposed panel ventures into this neglected territory to ask new questions: What if we consider religious liberty as a right that might be asserted within private households, as well as public arenas? How far could early American women’s beliefs and practices diverge from those of husbands and fathers? And, how should their treatment as agents of household faith figure into histories of church-state relations?

The papers in this panel survey the history of white women and religious liberty in the United States from the seventeenth-century English settlements through the antebellum era. It draws on the methods of religious, gender, and constitutional history.

Shelby Balik’s paper explores how eighteenth-century American women understood religious liberty within the overlapping frameworks of marriage and the household. She argues that wives’ assertions of spiritual liberty in their own homes both supported the Protestant enterprise and threatened the ideal of male mastery upon which that enterprise depended.

Monica Najar’s paper examines women and church-state relationships in mid-nineteenth century anti-Catholic print culture. She argues that anti-Catholics understood Protestant young women to be a cipher for a fragile system of religious liberty. As they saw it, women were at once its greatest weakness and its chief defense.

Chris Beneke’s paper considers women and rights of conscience within the broader sweep of early American church-state history. Revisiting several key episodes in early American history, he traces the treatment of female dissent over time and explores the significance of its exclusion from virtually every discussion respecting the exercise and establishment of religion.

Rosemary Zagarri, an expert on early American political history and women's history, and the author of Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, will comment on the panel. Janet Lindman, an expert on gender and women in America and the author of Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America, will chair it.

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