In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religious Border-Crossing

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Tolerance/Pluralism
  • Syncretism

Atlantic History Religious Border-Crossing
Susanne Lachenicht
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0152


Religious border-crossing in the Atlantic world was common practice. French Huguenots in the Hudson Valley attended Anglican, Dutch Calvinist, and Lutheran services; Portuguese conversos would practice Judaism in the British Caribbean. Native Americans in New France adopted Catholicism while simultaneously conserving much of their non-European rituals and belief systems. These three examples stand for a great variety of religious border-crossings in the Atlantic world that could result in conversion, syncretism, multireligious identities, and religious pluralism. Religious border-crossing, syncretism, and pluralism as common practice is, in the early modern period, all the more surprising as the Catholic and most Protestant churches and sects were looking for the purity and orthodoxy of their faith. Religious institutions were eager to keep their flocks away from other denominations. Many European and colonial governments sought to establish a monoconfessional colony or state: Catholicism was to be the one and sole denomination throughout much of the French, Portuguese, and Spanish Atlantic world, in theory at least. In some cases, however, governments allowed for religious pluralism, when economic or military interest made them settle Sephardic or Ashkenazi Jews in the British Caribbean or German Lutherans in Georgia. Besides religious pluralism, some Christian denominations even tolerated transconfessional practices when pastors of their own denomination were too small in numbers. In some places, tolerance and pluralism allowed for religious border-crossing and fostered syncretism and multiple religious identities. In theory, religious border-crossing beyond the Christian denominations was even more problematic: Spanish and Portuguese conversos or Moriscos became “notorious” suspects in the early modern Atlantic world. Churches and states throughout Europe struggled for the authority of their teachings, also because pre-Christian or pagan beliefs and practices survived through much of the 18th century. With the so-called European expansion, the religious landscape became even more complex. African and Native American religions, along with missionary efforts in Africa and the Americas, enhanced religious border-crossing and syncretism. Pagan rituals and belief systems melted with Catholic and Protestant rituals in most of the Atlantic world. As the history of religions in the Atlantic world has more often than not been written as Catholic or Protestant churches’ or missionary histories, the literature on transconfessional practices among Europeans in the Atlantic world is rather scarce. Research to date has largely focused on religious encounters and border-crossing in Native American–European missions or in African–Native American–European encounters, as the following sections demonstrate. This bibliography treats, first, the pre-conditions of religious border-crossing and includes as such a section on tolerance/toleration and pluralism. It then proceeds to a section on syncretism being understood as one possible outcome of trans-religious contacts and cultural exchange. Third, it presents literature on the actual religious border-crossing, between Christian denominations, Native Americans and Christians, African American religions and Christianity, and Jews and Christians.

General Overviews and Reference Resources

There are hardly any general overviews or reference sources on the subject “religious border-crossing” itself. However, some bibliographies (Axtell and Ronda 1978), overviews (Porterfield and Corrigan 2010, Goff 2010), and atlases (Carroll 2000; Gaustad, et al. 2001) on religion in the Americas and the Atlantic world help identify the religions and belief systems involved in processes of border-crossing and transculturation. Greer and Bilinkoff 2003 offers one of the few collections of essays on various forms of religious border-crossing and syncretism in the western Atlantic world.

  • Axtell, James, and James P. Ronda. Indian Missions: A Critical Bibliography. Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indian Bibliographical Series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

    While this publication does not offer references for the topic itself, it helps to identify Indian missions in the Americas and thus locates areas in which religious border-crossing took place.

  • Carroll, Bret E. The Routledge Historical Atlas of Religion in America. New York: Routledge, 2000.

    This atlas presents religions in the United States from the pre-Columbian era to the present day.

  • Gaustad, Edwin Scott, Philip L. Barlow, and Richard W. Dishno. New Historical Atlas of Religion in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    This is a revised version of Gaustad’s Historical Atlas of Religion in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1962). It provides an overview of religions (mainly Christian denominations) in the United States from the colonial period to the present day.

  • Goff, Philip, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444324082

    This encyclopedia of religions in North America looks predominantly at Christian and Jewish religions but also includes some information on Native American and non-Western religions.

  • Greer, Allan, and Jodi Bilinkoff, eds. Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas, 1500–1800. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

    This collection of essays presents syncretism in New Spain and the French and British colonies (mainland and Caribbean) and thus provides Native American Catholic and Native American Protestant examples of the American “conquest of Christianity.” The volume brings together studies of local saints from across the Americas and thus describes in a comparative perspective a still understudied phenomenon: the appropriation of Christianity by indigenous cultures in the Americas.

  • Porterfield, Amanda, and John Corrigan, eds. Religion in American History. Chichester, UK: Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444315806

    This book offers an overview of European, Native American, and African religions and North American history through themes such as politics, cosmology, community, and practice ranging from the early colonial period to the present day.

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