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Passing as a Pastor: Clerical Imposture in the Colonial Atlantic World

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2018


Many impostors in the eighteenth century tried to pass as pastors in North America's churches. This phenomenon showed how increasing engagement with the broader Atlantic world could carry ominous implications for colonial religious leaders, implications that would become manifest in the itinerancy of the evangelical revivals and, in the early republic, finally crush any hopes of centered American religious authority. Eighteenth-century episodes of clerical imposture help illuminate the increasing loss of cultural mastery faced by religious elites as a result of Atlantic anonymities, itinerant ministries, and democratic sensibilities. This article considers why so many in the eighteenth century attempted to pass as pastors, from British wanderers like the supposed brick-maker Samuel May to notorious criminals like Tom Bell or Stephen Burroughs. Understanding the conditions that led to these cases of clerical imposture leads to greater understanding of the nature of religious and cultural power in colonial North America and in the early American republic. The eighteenth century brought a crisis to America concerning the implications of cultural and demographic fluidity as elites worried more and more about assigning true value and uncovering conspiracy in a world newly dependent on appearances to establish authority. The increasing cosmopolitanism, immigration, and commerce helped make the colonial elites more wealthy and powerful, but they also now had to scramble to resist the potential for deception and imposture that the new engagements created. Such conditions made new room for con men, many of whom posed as pastors to access the power of religious authorities.

Research Article
Copyright © Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture 2004

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Thanks to George Marsden, David Waldstreicher, Douglas Winiarski, Jane Kamensky, Richard Gildrie, Mark Peterson, and audiences at the 2004 Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and Society of Early Americanists conferences for their enormously valuable comments on drafts of this article.

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