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Scott Gerber on Evan Haefeli on the Origins of Religious Toleration in America
Michael Ramsey

At Law & Liberty, Scott Gerber (Northern Ohio): The English Origins of American Toleration (reviewing Accidental Pluralism: America and the Religious Politics of English Expansion, 1497–1662 by Evan Haefeli (Univ. of Chicago Press 2021).  From the introduction: 

Haefeli’s previous book, New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty, likewise proffered a revisionist account of the origins of religious liberty in America. In his prior book, Haefeli insisted that the greatest contribution of the Dutch to American religious diversity was not to promote tolerance, but to keep the mid-Atlantic region out of English hands until the Restoration, giving pluralism a chance to take root in what became New York and New Jersey as well as parts of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

In Accidental Pluralism Haefeli argues that the religious pluralism that came to characterize colonial America was not a result of the colonists’ embracing pluralism as an ideal or establishing it in some planned or deliberate fashion. Rather, Haefeli contends, the origins of American religious freedom—a “peculiar mix of pluralism, tolerance, and liberty”—can be traced to the religious and political history of England and its empire between the earliest exploratory voyages and the re-institution of the Church of England after the Stuart Restoration.

Haefeli attempts to prove his thesis via a chronological discourse on England’s political history. He divides his book into five parts—Tudor-Stuart Foundations, 1497–ca. 1607; Jacobean Balance, ca. 1607-1625; Caroline Transformation,1625-1638; Civil Wars, 1638-1649; and Commonwealth, 1649-1660—presented in fourteen chapters and a conclusion.

And in conclusion:

My objection to Haefeli’s neglect of the European and American origins of religious toleration in America is not meant to deny the significance of Haefeli’s accomplishment. He has written an excellent book, and other scholars likely will be grappling with it for years to come. That said, I did find off-putting Haefeli’s occasional chest-thumping about how his approach is “original” and “correct” (my words, not his). For example, he avers in the introduction to his book that “Scholarship on early America is hampered by the habit of thinking about religion in small pieces” and that “we lack a bigger account of how those pieces fit together.” And after claiming to have provided that “bigger account,” he proclaims in the conclusion that “Crafting this history has required taking a whole series of national and imperial narratives and weaving them together into a new narrative.”  

Put directly, Haefeli has written a fine book that fits comfortably within the historiographic fad of the moment—Atlantic History—but that does not mean that alternative approaches to colonial American history are not useful too. Personally, I agree with Richard B. Morris and George Lee Haskins—two pioneering scholars in the field of American colonial legal history—that each colony must be examined individually. Despite what many historians seem to think, the writing of history is an art, not a science, and the more colors on the palette the better.