The Author’s Corner with Peter Gilmore

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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!

A Hessian Tries to Understand Religion in Revolutionary America

HeinrichsJohann Heinrichs was a member of the Hessian jager corps occupying Philadelphia in January 1778.  In this letter to friend in Hesse, dated January 18, 1778, he tries to make sense of the religious influences on the American Revolution.

He writes:

Call this war, dearest friend, by whatsoever name you may, only call it not an American Revolution, it is nothing more nor less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.  Those true Americans, who take the greatest part therein, are the famous Quakers.  The most celebrated, the first ones in entire Pennsylvania and Philadelphia and Boston are, properly speaking, the heads of the Rebellion.

Source: Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography XXI:2 (1898)

Thanks to Chris Juergens for bringing this letter to my attention.

Is Heinrich’s confused about Quakers leading the charge or is he referring to the so-called “weighty friends” in Philadelphia who did support the Revolution?

Project Reading

Here are my continued thoughts on the secondary reading I am doing for my current project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  (For additional entries in this series click here).

I want to continue with my thoughts on Patrick Griffin, The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764.

Griffin offers a slightly different interpretation of the Paxton Riots than Peter Silver does in Our Savage Neighbors. As I discussed in a previous post in this series, Silver’s interpretation of the riots is focused almost entirely on race.  Griffin, while not ignoring that race was a factor, interprets the riots through British rights language.  In other words, the Paxton Boys believed that they had legitimate grievances against the Pennsylvania Assembly. They did not feel that they were being represented by the provincial government and thought that the government was not doing enough to deal with the Indian problem on the frontier in the wake of Pontiac’s Rebellion.  The riots were a manifestation of their fight for the rights afforded to all British subjects. Griffin writes:

But the [Indian] wars had revealed as never before their [Scots-Irish] marginal status in Pennsylvania and their impotent voice in an empire that they believed they had a significant hand in fashioning and defending.  

And this:

…for these people holed up in small forts in times of dangers on a bleeding frontier or fleeing east from dispossessed Indians, British liberty took on new, troubling meanings.  Britishness underscored a right to life and property, a liberty that negligent government officials alienated at their own peril.  For frontier settlers, however, the unifying logic of such concepts could also justify the slaughter of Indians both hostile and friendly.

Griffin’s book has me more optimistic about the possibility of a religious (Presbyterian) interpretation of the Paxton riots.