Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland, c.1650-c.1850. – Review

Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland, c.1650-c.1850. – Review – book review

Richard L. Greaves

Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland, c.1650-c.1850. Edited by Tony Claydon and Ian McBride. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xi, 317. $64.95.)

In Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1992), Linda Colley accorded a major role to Protestantism in creating a sense of British community, arguing that the key features in this emergent British nationalism were Britons’ sense of being an elect nation and their pronounced anti-Catholicism. The stimulating essayists in Protestantism and National Identity explore the ramifications of Colley’s thesis, sometimes defending it, as in Colin Haydon’s analysis of English anti-Catholicism and xenophobia, or posing substantive criticism, as in Jeremy Black’s superbly argued case against a simplistic zeitgeist. The editors themselves make a significant point in arguing that Protestantism and identity are best approached when Protestant nationality is seen as an aspiration rather than an achieved fact.

The gems in this collection are the essays by Jeremy Black, Steven Pincus, and Tim Harris. Whereas Colin Haydon sagely cautions against assuming a uniform intensity of anti-Catholicism and notes that antipopery could create Anglo-Scottish tension, Black’s critique of Colley and the competing thesis of Jonathan Clark that Protestantism was at the core of a stabilizing English conservatism is more penetrating, comprehensive, and provocative. Black makes a compelling case against envisioning Protestantism as a hegemonic ideology, failing to accord appropriate weight to diversity, and papering over the religious divisiveness that existed among Protestants and even within denominations. In addition to recognizing the ambiguity and complexity of religion’s role in creating national identity, Black stresses the extent to which European rulers tended to accord priority to maximizing the resources of their states, not to excluding their religiously heterodox subjects. Pincus’s contention that the revolution of 1688-1689 was nationalist rather than a late war of religion is another warning against any simplistic attempt to make religion the core of nationality, although Pincus accepts it as a constituent element. Opposition to James II, Pincus avers, stemmed from fears that he intended to supplant English government with French-style absolutism.

Reflecting on Scottish history in the light of Colley’s thesis, David Allan finds evidence to suggest that Protestantism significantly contributed to a sense of nationhood, even among the writers of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, and that eighteenth-century Scottish Protestantism was more vigorous than most historians have recognized, thus enabling it to play an important role in shaping national sentiment. Unfortunately, Allan accords only cursory attention to the divisive tendencies within Scottish Protestantism. In a finely nuanced case study of “the British dimension,” Harris explores the role of religion in shaping political identities, noting the importance of perceptions in each of Charles II’s kingdoms of what was transpiring in the other two. Political and religious divisions during this period, he cogently avers, prompted the development of allegiances that transcended national sentiments. Harris sagely concludes that by 1685 there was no British identity or unifying ideology, though a British political awareness had developed as various groups recognized affinities with cohorts in Charles’s other realms. In light of these essays, Colley’s thesis requires extensive qualification.

Richard L. Greaves

Florida State University

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