Peter Gilmore is a ruling elder at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh and teaches history at Carlow University. This interview is based on his new book Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830?
PG: In Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania I want to show how Irish immigrants attempting to recreate their religious culture inadvertently laid the foundations of Presbyterianism in a region notable for its Presbyterian density. My goal is to unpack “Scots Irish Presbyterian,” particularly for a time and place in which the terms “Irish” and “Presbyterian” were often interchangeable—a circumstance generally not known or understood, but instructive when thinking about migration, diaspora, and ethnic diversity in the Early Republic.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830?
PG: Irish migration to the Pennsylvania backcountry, 1770-1830, created mutually reinforcing religious systems and near-subsistence farming communities. The shift to market-driven production eclipsed an old-world religiosity founded on days-long ritual and church discipline.
JF: Why do we need to read Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830?
PG: As a study of an ethnoreligious group in a particular time and place, Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania is a potentially useful exploration of ethnic and religious diversity and of the significant role of religious values in shaping life in the Early Republic. This book offers an explanation of how religious controversies could be immigrant strategies of assimilation as well as strategies of accommodation to the Market Revolution.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
PG: My grandfather sharing with me Revolutionary War sites in his beloved Boston excited in my childish self an unending sense of wonder and curiosity. In the decades since I’ve been obsessed with the meaning of it all, especially the transnational movement of people and ideas and the intersection of ethnicity, religion, and class. My work is largely in the Early Republic, and yet rooted in eighteenth-century Ireland.
JF: What is your next project?
PG: Following up on the research for this book, I’m working on an article that explores Pittsburgh Presbyterian responses to Ireland’s Great Hunger in the context of intensified anti-Catholicism. I’m also preparing an investigation into “Old School” Presbyterian responses to slavery in the Upper Ohio Valley. Presbyterians of Irish origin didn’t always respond to developments in United States in the same manner as other American Protestants, and the differences (and similarities) are fascinating.
JF: Thanks, Peter!