Popular Religion in Colonial America

As we near the end of my British colonial America course this semester, we have discussed several topics related to what might be called “popular religion.”  They include:

  • witchcraft in Salem and beyond
  • “horse-shed” Christians in Puritan New England
  • George Whitefield’s facial tic
  • reactions to Mary Dyer’s “monstrous birth.”
  • religious practices among slaves in the rice fields of colonial South Carolina

Through the examination of these and other supernatural, popular, or occult-like practices and beliefs, I hope my students come away with an understanding that colonial British America was a proverbial “foreign country.”

Over at Religion in American History, John Crow provides a nice overview of some of the literature on the “occult” and popular religion in colonial America.  

Here is a taste:

It is unlikely I have to tell the readers of this blog about the significance of Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith (Harvard 1992) or David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (Harvard 1990). Both books were important in examining the way the occult manifested in the religious practices of early colonialists. Less known is Herbert Leventhal’s In the Shadow of the Enlightenment: Occultism and Renaissance Science in Eighteenth-Century America (NYU 1976). Whereas Butler and Hall make a division between orthodox religion and so-called “popular religion,” Leventhal does not erect such boundaries noting that everyone in the eighteenth-century had a cosmological view that permitted the existence of spirits and asserted the connection between human health and the position of the stars. It was not the commoners casting astrological charts and making diagnoses, it was the court physicians. This is a point that Walter W. Woodward makes in his recent Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676 (UNC 2010). Though Woodward does perform some contortions to maintain some divisions between elite and popular religiosity, he squarely identifies alchemy as a practice for the elite, and that there was an active network of alchemists communicating throughout Europe and the British Colonies. It was Winthrop, Jr. along with others, according to Woodward, who resisted claims of witchcraft, not because he said that witchcraft was false, but because it was complex and beyond the abilities of the most uneducated. It seems alchemy and witchcraft were the purview of the elite!

Read the rest here.