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How the Irish Became Protestant in America

  • Michael P. Carroll


It often comes as a surprise to learn that most contemporary Americans who think of themselves as “Irish” are, in fact, Protestant, not Catholic. While commentators generally agree that these Protestant Irish-Americans are descended mainly from the Irish who settled in the United States prior to the Famine, the story of how they became the Protestants they are is—this article argues—more complicated than first appears. To understand that story, however, one must correct for two historiographical biases. The first has to do with the presumed religiosity of the so-called “Scotch-Irish” in the pre-Famine period; the second involves taking “being Irish” into account in the post-Famine period only with dealing with Catholics, not Protestants. Once these biases are corrected, however, it becomes possible to develop an argument that simultaneously does two things: it provides a new perspective on the contribution made by the Irish (generally) to the rise of the Methodists and Baptists in the early nineteenth century, and it helps us to understand why so many American Protestants continue to retain an Irish identity despite the fact that their link to Ireland is now almost two centuries in the past.



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The research reported here was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

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61. Ibid., 294.

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64. Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001).

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66. Ibid., 59–68

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68. Fischer, Albion's Seed, 703–8; Schmidt, Holy Fairs, 50–68.

69. Doyle, Ireland, Irishmen, 109–51; S. J. S. Ickringill, “American Revolution,” in Connolly, Oxford Companion to Irish History; Arthur Mitchell, “The American Revolution,” in Glazier, Encyclopedia of the Irish in Ameica, 15–23.

70. See, in particular, O’Brien, Hidden Phase.

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72. Mitchell, “American Revolution,” 16.

73. Ibid., 16–17.

74. Doyle, , Ireland, Irishmen, 109–51.

75. Lipset, Seymour Martin, Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada (New York: Routledge, 1990).

76. Mathews, Donald G., “The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780–1830: An Hypothesis,” American Quarterly 21 (1969): 2343 ; Schneider, Gregory A., “Social Religion, the Christian Home, and Republican Spirituality in Antebellum Methodism,” in Perspectives on American Methodism: Interpretive Essays, ed. Richey, R. E., Rowe, K. E., and Schmidt, J. M. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 192208 .

77. Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity

78. Miller, “Scotch-Irish, Black Irish,” 140.

79. Ibid., 141.

80. Hout, Michael and Goldstein, Joshua R., “How 4.5 Million Irish Immigrants Become 40 Million Irish Americans: Demographic and Subjective Aspects of the Ethnic Composition of White Americans,” American Sociological Review 59 (February 1994): 6482 .

81. Ibid., 79

82. Andrew Greeley, “Achievement of the Irish in America,” in Glazier, Encyclopedia of the Irish, 3.

83. Interestingly, the issue of why Irish-Americans became the mainstay of the American Catholic church is also something that is more problematic than first appears. The Famine Irish who immigrated to America, for example, were little affected by the devotional revolution in Ireland, and, indeed, there is much evidence that they were as little attached to Catholicism or the Catholic Church as their pre-Famine forebears. That they did quickly become good Catholics, however, is undeniable. I am currently working on a companion article (”Why the Irish Became Catholic in America”) that addresses this issue.

84. Eagles, Charles W., “Introduction,” in The Mind of the South: Fifty Years Later, ed. Eagles, C. W. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992).

85. Cash, Wilbur Joseph, The Mind of the South (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1941).

86. Fitzpatrick, Rory, God's Frontiersmen: The Scots-Irish Epic (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989); Kennedy, Billy, The Scots-Irish in the Hills of Tennessee (Londonderry: Causeway Press, 1995 ); Kennedy, Billy, The Scots- Irish in the Carolinas (Londonderry: Causeway Press, 1997); Kennedy, Billy, The Scots-Irish in Pennsylvania and Kentucky (Londonderry: Causeway Press, 1998).

87. Lewis, Thomas A., West from Shenandoah: A Scotch-Irish Family Fights for America, 1729–1781, A Journal of Discovery (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2003).

88. Hanna's The Scotch-Irish was reprinted in 1968; Ford's The Scotch-Irish in America was reprinted in 2004.


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