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Accidental Pluralism

America and the Religious Politics of English Expansion, 1497-1662

The United States has long been defined by its religious diversity and recurrent public debates over the religious and political values that define it. In Accidental Pluralism, Evan Haefeli argues that America did not begin as a religiously diverse and tolerant society. It became so only because England’s religious unity collapsed just as America was being colonized. By tying the emergence of American religious toleration to global events, Haefeli creates a true transnationalist history that links developing American realities to political and social conflicts and resolutions in Europe, showing how the relationships among states, churches, and publics were contested from the beginning of the colonial era and produced a society that no one had anticipated. Accidental Pluralism is an ambitious and comprehensive new account of the origins of American religious life that compels us to refine our narratives about what came to be seen as American values and their distinct relationship to religion and politics.


"An impressive, important, powerful, and sweeping book that few scholars could have written."

Journal of Early American History

"Accidental Pluralism challenges the popular notion that puritans saw America as a refuge. . . .  Haefeli offers a new explanation of how religious pluralism worked its way into English colonies in North America and the Caribbean in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries."

Australasian Journal of American Studies

"Accidental Pluralism is brimming with fascinating details about more than a century and a half of English, Scottish, and Irish colonial enterprises, arguably more of them stillborn than successful. And he does a consistently effective job situating these projects with the contentious politics of early modern Britain. The effect is often kaleidoscopic, as patterns of common religious policies and imperatives appear among the various locales for a moment before dissipating into difference and fragmentation."

H-Early America

"Origin stories of the United States often highlight religious freedom as a foundational pillar of the earliest English settlers. But Haefeli tells a more complex story in Accidental Pluralism. In this ambitious contribution to the origins of American religious tolerance, Haefeli argues that religious diversity was rarely the hoped-for goal of English expansion in the Atlantic. Rather, toleration arose of necessity from the collapse of political control over the English state church in the highly contested landscape of early modern religious conflict."

New Books Network

“An important study.”

Pennsylvania Literary Journal

“An eye-opening narrative of the many versions of church-and-state attempted or imagined during the great age of British colonization in the Caribbean and North America—a narrative uprooting the assumption that a straight line runs from those attempts to post-1789 schemes to separate church and state. Accidental Pluralism will surprise and probably enchant most students of early American history.”

David D. Hall, author of A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England

Accidental Pluralism is an outstanding piece of research, encyclopedic in scope. It has a unique and important point of view that needs to be taken seriously by all scholars of early American religion, of toleration and religious liberty, and of the early English empire in general.”

Ned Landsman, author of Crossroads of Empire: The Middle Colonies in the British Atlantic

“A sweeping, grand narrative, which exemplifies Atlantic history at its best. Haefeli chronicles the halting, often unintended, spread of spiritual diversity throughout the English-speaking colonies, and in the process delivers what is in many ways a new, overarching religious history of the early British empire.”

David Como, author of Radical Parliamentarians and the English Civil War

Table of Contents


Part 1: Tudor-Stuart Foundations, 1497–ca. 1607

1. Colonization: Religion, Expansion, Guiana, and Slavery
2. Conformity: Religious Change, Obedience, and Virginia
3. Jurisdiction: Ireland, Scotland, and the Limits of Authority
4. Dissent: English Papists, Puritans, and Others

Part 2: Jacobean Balance, ca. 1607–1625

5. Balance: Virginia, Bermuda, Newfoundland, ca. 1607–1618
6. Polarization: Plymouth, Avalon, Nova Scotia, New England, 1618–1625

Part 3: Caroline Transformation, 1625–1638

7. Favorites: Saint Christopher, Barbados, Maryland, 1624–1632
8. Puritans: New England, Providence Island, the Leewards, 1629–1638
9. Catholics: Montserrat, New Albion, Maryland, 1632–1638

Part 4: Civil Wars, 1638–1649

10. Fragmentation: Rhode Island, Madras, Trinidad, 1638–1643
11. Toleration: New England, Bermuda, Madagascar, 1643–1646
12. Revolution: New England, the Bahamas, Barbados, the Leewards, 1647–1649

Part 5: Commonwealth, 1649–1660

13. Republic: New England, the Caribbean, Acadia, 1649–1654
14. Empire: Surinam, Barbados, Jamaica, Dunkirk, 1654–1660
Note on Transcriptions, Dates, Sources, and Terminology

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