When should the colonial era end?

Last night, I attended a presentation by Timothy Matovina, who my department had brought in from Notre Dame to speak as part of an endowed lecture series. Matovina’s topic was “Latinos and the Transformation of American Catholicism.” The first part of his presentation was historiographical, offering thoughts on how American religious history would look different if you pull Latinos into a story presently dominated by events on the East Coast and trans-Atlantic immigration. In the process, he tipped his hat to my dissertation advisor, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, for her 1997 essay “Eastward Ho!” which undertook a similar re-imagining of American religious history from the vantage point of trans-Pacific immigration and movement east across the continent (rather than west).

Matovina’s historiographical revisionism was relatively tame, in the sense that he was content to work within an existing periodization: the colonial era, followed by a century of immigration (1820-1920), followed by a period of Americanization. He didn’t propose a new periodization, which would be a bolder kind of revisionism. Maybe something that bold isn’t needed to accomplish the work he’s interested in, but this is a question I have simmering in a pot on my back stove: If we want to create a grand narrative of American religious history that will decenter the East Coast and give greater prominence to religious diversity in the U.S., what alternative periodization(s) might we come up with?

Listening to Matovina last night, I thought that one possibility–although still a relatively tame one, perhaps–would be to rethink when the colonial era ends. When I teach narrative surveys of American religious history, I end the colonial era with the American Revolution, i.e., the 1770s-1780s. After that, I start talking about a period called the New Republic, which begins with the Constitution of 1789 and then bleeds into a period called the antebellum era. But what if I didn’t close the colonial era with the end of British colonial rule in what is now U.S. territory? What if I closed that period with the end of Spanish imperial rule in what is now U.S. territory? That would be the 1810s-1820s. (Actually, come to think of it, I’d need a later date if I consider Puerto Rico, but let’s not go too crazy…yet.)

If you were to write a textbook chapter covering the colonial period that ended in the 1820s, that would certainly require a different narrative than one that ends in the 1780s. You would need to include different events, i.e., things happening between the 1780s and the 1820s. And you would need to invent some basis for including those events other than the fact that they happened to occur during that time frame, i.e., you would need to weave them into a coherent narrative around some trope like cause-and-effect or comparison-contrast.

You would have to think more, in other words, about how things that were happening on the eastern half of the continent during the 1770s-1820s related to things that were happening on the western half of the continent. In the process, you might end up highlighting religious developments that aren’t usually regarded as so important in the traditional historiography of American religion–and, by the same token, you might end up sidelining developments that currently do loom large.

I have no idea what that hypothetical chapter would look like. But it’s something I’d like to play with.

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