“One especially dramatic example”: Mormonism and Religion in the Atlantic World

By January 10, 2011

I recently finished reading Protestant Empire, Carla Pestana’s rich survey of the role religion played in the establishment and development of the British Atlantic world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Pestana identifies three “contested processes” that shaped the Anglo and Anglo-American religious world of the early modern era: literacy and the importance of print culture; the “problematic goal” of transplanting Old World religious communities to the New World, which ultimately “complicated the religious milieu rather than, as had been anticipated, keeping it simple” (p. 8); and the negotiation that occurred as divergent cultures from Europe, Africa, and America encountered one another. She concludes that by the time of the American Revolution and establishment of the United States of America, British Protestant religion had made a significant mark on people throughout the Atlantic world. “By 1800,” she writes, “monotheism and especially Christianity had reached deep into North America, carried by European-descended believers, embraced by recently converted slaves and freed persons of color, and taken up by Native American peoples.” Meanwhile, “religion in Europe itself was also transformed as part of this process” as “Atlantic settlements became sites of unprecedented religious diversity,” and Christians in West Africa likewise “participated in the creation of an inclusive Atlantic Christian community” (pp. 256-57).

In the book’s conclusion, Pestana briefly reflects on developments of the nineteenth century, an era when histories of the “Atlantic world” generally end. “Looking ahead, we can see that the circumstances set into motion by the expansion of England into the wider Atlantic world continued after 1800” (p. 260). Her concluding example of this point is the rise of Mormonism, a religion born in America amidst the “widespread awakening” of “the so-called Burned-Over district in upstate New York.” “The Church of the Latter Day Saints,” in Pestana’s reading, reflects the persistence of the very processes that defined the earlier Atlantic world of British Protestants. Mormonism’s combination of “elements of traditional Protestant Christianity with new revelation recounting New World biblical history,” which “creat[ed] a new version of an old faith adapted in some ways to the New World” bring to mind the negotiation and hybridity of religion in the Americas. The importance of literacy and print culture is evident in Joseph Smith’s use of the Book of Mormon and printed revelations to convey “this new faith [which] soon spread widely within the United States and in Britain itself.” It was in the act of aggressively spreading the Mormon message from America to England and the success in attracting British converts to then migrate to America that mark Mormonism as “one especially dramatic example of a dynamic process of integration and adaptation that had been going on for centuries in the British Atlantic” (pp. 263-64).

Pestana is, I think, quite right to situate Mormonism within the context of the “Atlantic world.” Mormonism not only developed on both sides of the Atlantic and prompted the migration of thousands back and forth across that ocean (about which Ben’s post last week raises important questions), but inherited and re-appropriated older theologies, modes of worship, and religious practices from divergent European traditions stretching back several centuries. While most scholars would agree on this basic point, there is disagreement on the particulars of the process. John Brooke, for example, described his The Refiner’s Fire as “fundamentally a presentation of the hermetic interpretation of Mormon origins, in relation to the prior cultural history of hermeticism in the early modern North Atlantic.” Our own Steve Fleming has embarked on an ambitious reinterpretation of Mormonism that looks beyond “its esoteric aspects” and explores potential “pre-Reformation survivals” and “crypto-Catholic practices” that Joseph Smith “restored.”

In addition to these insightful avenues of research, future historians might benefit from situating Mormonism’s views on Native Americans and their policies on African Americans, as well as the movement’s missionary ventures beyond the British Isles, within the intellectual and cultural heritage of religion in the early modern Atlantic world.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins International Mormonism


  1. Thanks for the review, Chris. When she deals with Native peoples, does she primarily look at indigenous converts, or does she include discussions of ways that religion undergirded the settler colonial project and indigenous displacement?

    Comment by David G. — January 10, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

  2. David, yes, she treats both. Though this being a lightly-footnoted synthesis, I’m not sure she offers any new interpretation of either facet of the Native experience.

    Comment by Christopher — January 10, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

  3. Thanks for this Chris.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 11, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

  4. Awesome stuff, Chris. As we’ve discussed, I too hope that historians of Mormonism in the future focus more on these transatlantic connections.

    Comment by Ben — January 11, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

  5. Chris,

    Is it readable. Could undergrads understand it?

    Comment by John — January 12, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

  6. It’s very readable, John, and undergrads in upper-division courses could certainly read it, John. Selections from it could even be used in survey courses, I would think. It might require some introduction to students of the concept of an “Atlantic world,” but yes, I think the book would be an excellent selection for an undergrad course.

    Comment by Christopher — January 12, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

  7. […] recently opined on the benefits of situating the rise of Mormonism within the larger historical context of the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Methodism, Mormonism, and the Atlantic World — January 12, 2011 @ 2:06 pm


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