In his book, Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, however, historian Peter Gilmore digs deeper, restoring his subject with a more complicated and complete account. Setting his history in the back country of the commonwealth during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the author finds an usually high concentration of Irish Presbyterian settlers, exercising a particularly strong demographic and cultural influence over the region. Separated from the East Coast by the Alleghany Mountains for most of the period in question, western Pennsylvania drew a steady stream of arrivals who saw the landscape in almost eschatological terms as a fruitful ground in which they might replant and even perfect their Ulster society. Free from the strictures of the established church and aristocratic landlords who had relegated them to the status of "second-class subjects in a second-class kingdom" (in a phrase the author borrows from Andrew Holmes), the new setting offered the promise of previously unrealized dreams.
Once they arrived, Gilmore notes that the migrants valued "interdependence rather than independence," thus challenging the conventional image of the "Scotch-Irish" as uncompromising (and even prickly) frontier individualists. Gilmore notes that the vast majority of settlers (and their following generations) chose a more isolated rural life rather than settling in the small towns of the area. He is also clear about the challenges represented by the rugged landscape and the regular eruption of hostilities throughout the later eighteenth century. Yet if such hardships demanded resilience in the new world, this did not necessarily entail separation from their original homeland, or their new neighbors. While the Irish Presbyterians of western Pennsylvania celebrated their deliverance from institutional restraints in Ireland, they still cherished memories of their former home. Rather than just "moving on" from the Old Country with the inexhaustible restlessness that later chroniclers would ascribe to them, these migrants sought to recreate their old world in the landscape of the new, applying Irish place-names to their new landscape, writing letters home to Ulster, and bequeathing American property to Irish relatives.
The Irish arrivals also prized the sense of community that they established among their denominational brethren in western Pennsylvania. Acknowledging the various strands of Presbyterianism in the commonwealth, Gilmore explains that the roots of such divisions extended back to the fissiparous energies of Calvinism on the other side of the Atlantic. Within the denominations, members were deeply devoted to building their congregational communities through elemental practices like family worship, psalm-singing and five-day communion gatherings. Whether covenanter, seceder, or mainline Presbyterian, communal work and mutual aid played a central role in their lives. Settlers came together to provide the collective labor necessary for the construction of churches and bams, as well as harvesting crops, and creating a core (often cemented by the exchange of whiskey, as he later points out) that was "materially, emotionally, and culturally" essential to their new lives. On a religious level, Presbyterian congregations placed great emphasis on rituals of inclusion and exclusion, with the communion feasts preceded by sessions, during which candidates for admission (as well as those facing communal discipline) faced questioning by local elders. Gilmore even goes so far as to suggest that these latter interrogations served as an unofficial rite of confession for the Presbyterians involved and functioned alongside the doctrinally recognized sacraments of baptism and communion. But even these sessions seemed generally integrative, as the author hints that they were generally more inclusive than anathematizing.
With his account of the unruly republicanism among the Irish Presbyterians in the region, Gilmore addresses another Scotch-Irish shibboleth: the notion of Irish Protestant patriotism. Breaking with the standard tributes to Washington's brave soldiers during the American Revolution, he focuses more on the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s and its divisive legacy. Born of frustration and anxiety among frontier farmers during the uncertain days of the early republic, the combined effect of this failed revolt and the arrival of United Irish exiles accentuated a traditional distrust of centralized authority that complicates any simple definition of patriotism.
This failure of this political movement gave way to a deeper theological division among Irish Presbyterians in the region. As prominent clerical leaders of mainstream Presbyterianism denounced the Whiskey Rebellion as a usurpation of rightful (i.e., Federalist) authority, dissident sects like the covenanters and seceders sided with Jeffersonian Democrats in their resistance to calls for order, with some even forming Jacobin clubs in western Pennsylvania. Gilmore highlights Rev. Elisha Macurdy's 1802 "war sermon" as a defining point in the clergy's renunciation of the rising, as the pastor's calls for penitent submission evoked ecstatic reactions from the crowd. Harnessing the anxieties and desire for closure among the members of his audience, Macurdy and other ministers breathed new life into their law-and-order message with the energies of the Great Western Revival. With native-born clergy and a later-generation audience, "falling sessions" and increasing emphasis on "experientialism" (i.e., spontaneous conversions) brought many Presbyterians closer to other Protestant denominations, such as the Baptists, and contributed to the distinctly American evangelical spirit of the Second Great Awakening.
This enthusiasm provoked a strong reaction from tradition-minded Irish Presbyterians, however. Although revivals generated impressive numbers of attendees, there was a patchwork mixture of support (and opposition) to the revival movement, in contrast to the wider transformation that would sweep through the so-called "Burnt-Over Region" of western New York. Gilmore attributes the scattered nature to differing levels of economic development throughout the region, pointing out that the revivalists' support for Federalist authority was strongest in those areas where farmers had started to make the transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture.
In the hinterlands, traditionalist Presbyterian congregations and individual believers viewed revivalism as a dangerous, and perhaps even satanic, innovation. Gilmore attributes much of this resistance to economic anxiety regarding the uncertain changes taking place in the early Republic, but most of his subsequent account focuses on resistance among traditionalist Presbyterian sects such as the covenanters and seceders. Members of these dissident congregations saw the charismatic falling exercises and other innovations (such as hymn-singing rather than psalm recitations) as an abandonment of Presbyterian tradition, particularly in the way that it prized spontaneous experiences over older statements and documents, many of which dated back to their Irish and Scottish origins.
Although evangelicalism would play an increasingly central role in the emergence of a distinctly American religious culture, the traditionalist resistance to revivalism was no dead-end movement. The transatlantic stream of Irish Presbyterians continued throughout the early nineteenth century, with a large portion of that inflow buttressing the traditionalist denominations. By the 1830, the Presbyterian General Assembly had severed transatlantic connections with the synods in Ireland and Scotland and embraced New England Congregationalists.
The last encroachment on the Irish Presbyterian congregations of western Pennsylvania during the early republic came as the commercial revolution reached across the Alleghenies and Appalachians during the early nineteenth century. The arrival of steamboats on inland waterways and the extension of the eastern turnpike, the growing national economy would reach and eventually swallow the back country. These new inroads also facilitated the encroachment of market forces that threatened to weaken or even dissolve the tight bonds of community among early Irish Presbyterian congregations that Gilmore described in earlier chapters. The informal economy of the late eighteenth century, based on subsistence farming, had instilled communal values among previous generations with gatherings for events like barn-raising and harvests, as well as five-day celebrations of "the Lord's Supper," which entailed considerable travel and the accommodation of visiting families. As the region became integrated into the national economy, these communal occasions lost what Gilmore describes as their "ritualistic" character and the growing evangelical spirit redirected energies toward larger national campaigns like abstinence and Sabbatarianism. Stripped of the social and cultural lubricant that whiskey had offered and yoked to a cash-based transactional worldview, Gilmore asserts that the market revolution shifted the basis for Presbyterian identity from the radical communitarianism of Westminster Confession to Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, with the emphasis of the latter on the redemptive power of work and thrift.
At first glance, there are a few aspects of Gilmore's book that might convey the misleading impression that the story of the Irish Presbyterians in Western Pennsylvania are primarily of regional significance. The particularity of the title, for instance seems to indicate that the book returns to the kind of micro-studies that marked the social scientific work of the 1970s. A few maps or illustrations would have helped to leaven the wealth of empirical information and more frequent reference to emigrant correspondence might have provided the kind of reflections that illustrate the impact of these larger changes on a personal level.
Yet Gilmore's work is much more than a particularistic local history. From this base, specific as it might initially seem, the author has woven together religious, political, social and economic strands to create a tapestry that depicts the creation of a distinctly "American Christianity" in the early republic. Integrating transatlantic perspectives, theological matters, land records and early census information, Gilmore sheds new light on the interplay between Old World forces and New World experiences in the decades leading up to the Second Great Awakening, shedding light on the underlying role played by economic developments along the way.
Finally, Gilmore's work offers a more specific but nonetheless crucial lesson for historians studying immigration and ethnicity. Irish Presbyterians in Western Pennsylvania deserves to take a prominent place among a commendable wave of recent scholarship that offers a chance to resuscitate the study of Irish Protestant migration after more than a century of assimilationist triumphalism. Even today, many of the most common depictions of Irish Presbyterians in the United States date back to the filiopietistic efforts of the Scotch-Irish Society of the United States (SISUS), formed in 1889. Driven by an underlying intent of reinforcing the status of its constituents against the incursions of more recent arrivals (especially Irish Catholics) and relying on financial support from ethnically proud plutocrats, the chroniclers of the SISUS projected Gilded Age values backwards onto their accounts of previous generations. The heady success enjoyed by Irish Protestant captains of industry was not enough to keep the national organization intact, however, and the Society broke down into its constituent local groups, led by the only remaining state chapter in Pennsylvania. Ironically, the chroniclers of the Scotch-Irish had fallen victim to their success. After having defined themselves by their American successes and assuming the role of archetypal Old Immigrants, the Scotch-Irish story was subsumed within the generalized account of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the United States. By the late 1920s, for example, when Irish-American writer Frank O'Malley criticized his fellow upwardly mobile Irish Catholics for shedding their humble confessional roots, he declared that they had "gone Scotch." Triumphalism gave way to staleness, and the continued reliance on James Leyburn's capable but dated 1962 account, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History, spoke to the lack of analytical innovation in the field.
As Gilmore takes his place with other groundbreaking scholars such as Patrick Griffin, he offers an instructive example for historians writing on other ethnic groups in the United States--especially Irish America. Painstakingly removing the layers of gloss that previous generations of filiopietists laid upon the story of the Scotch-Irish, Gilmore's detailed and compelling book has exposed the gnarls and bumps that restore the texture and significance of Irish Presbyterian settlement in the early United States.
--Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
BY MATT O'BRIEN
IRISH PRESBYTERIANS AND THE SHAPING OF WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA, 1770-1830. UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH PRESS, 2018
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|Title Annotation:||Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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