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Atlantic History Protestantism
Carla Gardina Pestana
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0046


Protestants arrived relatively late in the Atlantic world. No permanent settlement of Protestants was founded until the early 17th century, giving the Roman Catholics a head start of more than a century. Though always outnumbered by Catholics in the Atlantic world, Protestants did become a significant minority. Before 1800, they came to dominate the northern reaches of the Americas and were a presence on every continent touching on the Atlantic world. The history of Protestantism in the Atlantic world has thus far been written largely as a history of English (later British) expansion, in part because Britain was ultimately the most successful of the Protestant states to expand into the Atlantic world in the Early Modern era. French Protestants (Huguenots) were active in the early phase, before their government excluded them from its colonies; later they would move into the Atlantic world as refugees, usually going to British-controlled destinations. The Dutch and English were therefore the major Protestant colonizers. Little has been written on the Dutch case to date. The historiography of Protestantism in the British Atlantic has been dominated by the mainland North American colonies that would become the United States; and some key questions have been driven by issues of concern in that nation’s historical narrative (such as the separation of church and state). Diversity was one of the hallmarks of the Protestant Atlantic. First the Three Kingdoms of England (and Wales), Scotland, and Ireland generated a varied population of (mostly) Protestant settlers, as well as some Irish and English Catholics. The Dutch similarly carried the diversity that marked their experience in Europe into the colonies, although the Dutch West India Company, like the British monarchy, attempted to limit that spread. The colonies established by both the English and the Dutch eventually played host to a wide variety of immigrants from various European locations, so that the variation among European Protestantism was re-created in the wider Atlantic world. Scholars have explored many of these churches and sects within an Atlantic context.

General Overviews

Most general treatments (Bonomi 2003, Butler 1990, Cohen 2003) examine British Protestantism in the context of the thirteen colonies that would become the United States, thereby omitting Canada and the Caribbean. Dixon 2010 lays out the narrative of one strand of Protestantism transplantation to British America. Pestana 2009a covers the whole of the British Atlantic world, and the author amplifies her thinking about the ideological aspects in Pestana 2017. Dayfoot 1999 treats only the Caribbean. Lindenauer 2002 offers a comparative treatment of women in various 17th-century Reformed churches. MacCulloch 2004 establishes essential background while placing early colonization (especially in New England) in a European context.

  • Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Overview of British North American religion until the eve of the American Revolution, offering well-considered judgments on such long-standing questions as the relationship of the Great Awakening of the 1740s to the American Revolution. Bonomi argues for a high level of participation in religious services across regions.

  • Butler, Jon. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

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    Influential older work that focuses on those colonies that would form the United States; Butler’s work is especially remembered for his controversial discussion of an “African spiritual holocaust.” More generally, Butler argues that religion did not become well developed in the colonies until the 18th century, in a process he described as “Christianization.”

  • Cohen, Charles L. “The Colonization of British North America as an Episode in the History of Christianity.” Church History 72.3 (2003): 553–568.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0009640700100356Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Using the larger framework of Christian history, Cohen describes British North America as a “promiscuously Protestant environment in which religious identity was often shallow.”

  • Dayfoot, Arthur Charles. The Shaping of the West Indian Church, 1492–1962. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

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    With a focus on the British Caribbean, Dayfoot begins with the “Spanish Catholic monopoly” before introducing Protestantism and diversity. Takes the story up to the mid-20th century, but the bulk of the book concentrates on the period prior to the mid-19th century.

  • Dixon, Scott. Protestants: A History from Wittenberg to Pennsylvania. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

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    This general history of the rise and diffusion of Protestantism establishes the larger context for considering the Protestant experience in the Atlantic world.

  • Lindenauer, Leslie J. Piety and Power: Gender and Religious Culture in the American Colonies, 1630–1700. New York: Routledge, 2002.

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    Comparing Massachusetts Bay, New York, and Virginia as three Calvinist colonies, Lindenauer argues that all three boasted religious cultures that granted spiritual authority to women.

  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History. New York: Viking, 2004.

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    Monumental history of the Reformation that carries the story up to 1700 and therefore deals with the dispersal of Protestants into various extra-European locations, particularly in the Atlantic world.

  • Pestana, Carla Gardina. Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009a.

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    Places British expansion into the Atlantic world in a religious context, covering 1500 to 1830, employing themes of circulation, transplantation, and negotiation. See also her essay “Religion,” in The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800 (Pestana 2009b, cited under Textbooks and Surveys).

  • Pestana, Carla Gardina. “Protestantism as Ideology in the British Atlantic World.” In The World of Colonial America: An Atlantic Handbook. Edited by Ignacio Gallup-Diaz, 263–280. New York: Routledge, 2017.

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    Reconsideration of the topic of her 2008 book, arguing that Protestantism itself functioned as an ideology.

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