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How the Irish Became Protestant in America

  • Michael P. Carroll

Abstract

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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Notes

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

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35. Trinterud, , Forming of an American Tradition, 109 .

36. Ibid., 199.

37. Ibid.

38. Griffin, Patrick, The People with No Name: Ireland's Ulster Scots, America's Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689–1764 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001 ).

39. See Tyler Blethen, H. and Wood, Curtis W., “Scotch-Irish Frontier Society in Southwestern North Carolina, 1780–1840,” in Ulster and North America: Transatlantic Perspectives on the Scotch-Irish, ed. Blethen, H. T. and Wood, C. W. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997); and Chepesiuk, Ronald, The Scotch-Irish: From the North of Ireland to the Making of America (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Co., 2000 ).

40. Doyle, , Ireland, Irishmen, 5960 .

41. See Carroll, Michael P., “Upstart Theories and Early American Religiosity: A Reassessment,” Religion 34 (2004): 129143 .

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46. McDonald, Forrest and McDonald, Ellen Shapiro, “The Ethnic Origins of the American People, 1790,” William and Mary Quarterly 37 (January 1980): 179–99; McDonald, Forrest and McDonald, Ellen Shapiro, “Commentary,” William and Mary Quarterly 41 (January 1984): 129–35.

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48. Purvis, “European Ancestry,” 98.

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52. Finke and Stark, Churching of America, 24–28.

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54. Thompson, History of the Presbyterian Churches, 73; Gibson, William, The Year of Grace: A History of the Ulster Revival of 1859 (Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1860), 338 .

55. Glazier, Encyclopedia of the Irish in America.

56. Finke and Stark, Churching of America, 109–44.

57. Dolan, Jay P., The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).

58. See, for example, Bonomi, Patricia U., Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

59. Albanese, Catherine L., American Religious History: A Bibliographical Essay, Currents in American Scholarship Series (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 2002).

60. Steensland, Brian, Park, Jerry Z., Regnerus, Mark D., Robinson, Lynn D., Bradford Wilcox, W., and Woodberry, Robert D., “The Measure of American Religion: Toward Improving the State of the Art,” Social Forces 79 (2000): 291318 .

61. Ibid., 294.

62. Akenson, Irish Diaspora, 224.

63. See Fischer, Albion's Seed, 707–8; Westerkamp, Marilyn J., Triumph of the Laity: Scots-Irish Piety and the Great Awakening, 1625–1760 (New York: Oxford, 1988 ); McCauley, Deborah Vansau, Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995 ); Cohen, Charles L., “The Post-Puritan Paradigm of Early American Religious History,” William and Mary Quarterly 54 (October 1997): 695722 .

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

65. Ibid., 24.

66. Ibid., 59–68

67. McCauley, Appalachian Mountain Religion, 192–98.

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.

71. Lecky, William Edward Hartpole and Woodburn, James Albert, The American Revolution, 1763–1783: Being the Chapters and Passages Relating to America from the Author's History of England in the Eighteenth Century (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1898).

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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