Ever since the nineteenth century, when Robert Baird published the first single-volume history of religion in the United States, scholars of early America have debated how to define three contested words: history, America, and religion. They have argued over how historical change takes place, whose histories are important to tell, and whether history, as a field, should focus on the practices of everyday life or on the power of ideas. Scholars have also sparred over the geographic boundaries of early America—especially over whether the colonies that became the United States should enjoy a privileged place in historical narratives—and over the term religion, which has often been treated as synonymous with Protestantism. Before the rise of social and cultural history during the 1970s and 1980s, most early American historians focused on Protestant consensus, the British mainland colonies, and white male leaders. Today, in contrast, historians tend to highlight transatlantic connections, religious pluralism, and the agency of Native Americans, enslaved people, and women of all races. This article, based on the 2016 WMQ-EMSI workshop, “Religions in the Early Americas,” offers an overview of the historiography of early American religion from the nineteenth century until the present.
A leading journal in early American history and culture, the William and Mary Quarterly publishes refereed scholarship in history and related disciplines from initial Old World–New World contacts to the early nineteenth century. Its articles, sources and interpretations, and reviews of books range from British North America and the United States to Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean, and the Spanish American borderlands. Forums and special issues address topics of active interest in the field.