This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.
By J.L. Tomlin
Residents of Boston awoke to odd noises on the morning of February 15, 1687. Samuel Sewall peered through a window in his prominent home on Main Street and observed a “strange procession” noisily making its way towards the Royal Governor Edmund Andros’s residence. The procession leader carried “a Cock at his back, with a Bell in his hand,” an elaborate public mockery of the rituals surrounding the Catholic holiday of Shrovetide. The ultimate point of such a display, however, was not to attack Catholic theology but rather to label their Anglican Governor as “the worse of Papists” because of his exclusionary political policies, heavy-handedness, and the revocation of Massachusetts’ colonial charter the previous year. The story takes an even stranger turn, though, when Sewall recalls that this opinion was widespread and that even Andros’s Anglican allies freely admitted Andros’s power was essentially “as arbitrary as the grand Turke.” At first glance, these comments indicate an almost unintelligible conflation of Islamophobic and Catholic stereotypes within a political conflict that involved neither group, nor even an inherently theological dispute. Behind these densely symbolic and often overlapping tropes, however, we get a fascinating glance at the foundational role the religious “other” played in local and colonial contests over political power and identity. In fact, it defined the first American Revolution of 1689.
The use of Islamophobic rhetoric already represented a well-worn tradition in English popular culture and politics by the turn of the eighteenth century, and the description of Andros’s power as “arbitrary as the grand Turke” was an easily understood disparagement by most English Protestants of the time. It abounded in English culture, and it fit into a much larger symbolic tradition of the “Mahometan chieftain” or “Moslem Despot” that factored prominently in a variety of western depictions of Muslim society and governance. John Toland’s 1718 Nazarenus, or Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity, for instance detailed the “tendencies toward base despotism in governance” in Islamic societies. Toland argued that outside of the true gospel, Muslims were condemned to “rulers who must allow no dissent and …subjects in the religion which does not beg freedom” of belief or action. It is important to note that Toland’s view on tyranny in Muslim culture was a commonly held one. One pamphlet written in response to Toland’s Nazarenus agreed that “Mahometans do not seek liberty or grant it to those subject” to their power. Another writer, citing Toland’s work, argued that “many educated in the manners of the Mahometans speak to their cruel tyranny in governance.” Even “academic” works such as Thomas Cooper’s The Imperious Style of Turks Exemplified revisits several historical accounts of interaction between Christians and Muslims from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in these terms. Recounting a series of exchanges in 1562 between the Caliph Solyman the Magnificent and King Ferdinand of Spain that effected a temporary alliance between the two leaders’ states, Cooper recalls the Caliph commenting on the “mildness” of Ferdinand’s rule. Since English Protestants remembered Ferdinand as a Catholic despot, the comparison is telling. Cooper suggested “Amurath would rule over them as does any Turkish Potentate,” which he goes on to describe as “Mahometan absolutist governance.” All of these stereotypes suggested to Protestants that Islam had perverted conceptions of power and monarchy “to a state unrecognized by Englishmen accustomed to their liberties.”
This widespread, and often erroneous, presumption of Islam and Muslim societies might seem an odd idea to include with accusations of “popery,” but in fact English Protestant views of Islam and Catholicism, and the derogatory language applied to both, presented a remarkable degree of interchangeability. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Protestants interpreted Islam and Catholicism as “Gog and Magog,” the dual images of antichrist depicted in the Bible in the book of Revelations. In this formulation, Muslims and Catholics both worshiped false prophets and idols. Islam and Catholicism originated as separate counterweights to the true gospel, just as the forces of Satan and evil stood as binaries to Godliness and righteousness. Boston tradesman Henry Tordes’s travel diary from the West Coast of Africa in the spring of 1712 acknowledged the Africans he encountered as “Mahometan,” but simultaneously added they were “all of them Papists” since they “enforce their religion universally and with great violence.” Memories—real, exaggerated, and imagined—as well as forced tithes, the corrupt selling of indulgences, and the tendency of Europe’s Catholic monarchs toward despotism and divine right rule loomed large in the Puritan and later Congregationalist worldview. To them, “arbitrary as the Grand Turke” and “the worse of Papists” could and did easily describe the same actions and individuals.
Into the heart of this fearful and xenophobic tradition, one that still held deep meaning to the Protestant religious dissenters who dominated Boston’s political and cultural scene, arrived Edmund Andros in 1686. As an Anglican, serving a Catholic King who openly stated his desire and authority to revoke Congregationalist power and privileges and restore the authority of the Anglican Church over all England’s American colonies, he would have seemed custom-made for the image many maintained in their darkest fears of the threats facing them and their godly society. Upon his arrival in 1686, Andros enacted the James II’s policy of revoking the Massachusetts charter and reconstituting the New England colonies as a single “Dominion of New England.” With the loss of this charter, Massachusetts lost keys aspects of local governance as well as the traditional dominance of the colony’s Congregationalist establishment. Worsening the tensions at every turn, Congregationalists watched as he replaced their leaders with Anglican deputies, reinstituted mandatory tithes for the Anglican Church among all citizens regardless of their denominational affiliation, and declared an “oath of loyalty” legally mandated to all public servants. In short, the effect was precisely the type of religious and political oppression dissenters in the English empire had built their identity upon hating and fearing, and had built their colonial societies to escape.
By 1688-89, however, the growing rumblings in Boston seemed echoed by growing dissatisfaction with James II and his “Romish tendencies in governance” back in England. The Catholic King repeatedly expressed his belief in divine right rule, had severely curtailed the power of Parliament, and now had produced a Catholic heir. By spring of 1689, Boston’s disenfranchised religious and political elites had reached a boiling point and began amassing local militia. On the morning of April 18 they struck, arresting royal officials at gunpoint and eventually persuading Andros himself to surrender in order to avoid bloodshed. Only the almost simultaneous overthrow of the Stuart Monarchy in the Protestant-led Glorious Revolution allowed Bostonians to label their actions as patriotic support of their new monarchs rather than violent treason against the English state. Yet, in their effusive declarations of loyalty to their new rulers they defined their actions as “against the Papist despotisms” of Andros and James II and “in support of the efforts of the Protestant religion and good governance.” Grateful for the colonists’ support but wary of the precedent it set, William and Mary returned several meaningful privileges back to Massachusetts and other colonies. Tellingly, however, they retained the system of royal governors should the troublesome and suspicious colonists ever again become restive or rebellious. As one English observer noted, “They are wildly jealous of their privileges and ever fearful that they should soon be lost to Popery” and might do anything they felt necessary to prevent this from happening.
Early America benefits from a historiography and a popular memory that emphasizes its comparative religious tolerance and diversity. And while these elements were certainly present, they have overshadowed the incredible prevalence and power of the “religious other” in early American political and cultural thought. To a society whose worldview intermarried the secular and the sacred, notions of legitimate power relied heavily on communal, political, and interpersonal relationships formed, defined, and labeled through religious opposition. The vitriolic anti-Catholic and anti-Islamic rhetoric that suffused their first experience with political revolution proves this point. It also suggests the incredible value of further study into the precise role religious fear and xenophobia had, not only in the contours of political power, but also in the construction of the language of democracy itself in Early America.
J.L. Tomlin is a Senior Lecturer at the University of North Texas. He is currently revising his book project tentatively titled Fear and Loathing and Freedom: Early American Xenophobia and the Paradoxical Origins of American Pluralism, wherein he examines how the English tradition of anti-Catholicism came to inform American religious dissenters’ notions of individual autonomy and democracy, and the ways in which religious fear perpetuated those ideas in the decades leading into the American Revolution.
Title image: Sultan Suleiman II. in Profile, circa 1530.
Fenton, Elizabeth. Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in 19th Century U.S. Literature and Culture. (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Garcia, Humberto. Islam and the English Enlightenment, 1670-1840. (John Hopkins University Press, 2012).
Newman, Simon P. Parades and Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Public. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).
Stanwood, Owen. The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).
Wooten, David, ed. Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England. (Hackett Publishing, 2003).
 Samuel Sewall. The Diary of Samuel Sewall, I, 1674-1700, MHS, Collections, 5th see., V (Boston, 1878), 167-169, 171.
 Randolph to Thomas Povey (21 June 1688), Randolph, Papers, vol. 4, pp. 227.
 Humberto Garcia. Islam and the Enlightenment, 1670-1840 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012), 112-129.
 John Toland. Nazarenus, or Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity (London, 1718), 59.
 Ibid., 62-65.
 Thomas Mangey, Remarks Upon Nazarenus (London, 1718), 5.
 Humphrey Prideaux, The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet (London, 1707), 18-19. (Prideaux’s citation is listed in the 1727 reprint of True Nature.)
 Thomas Cooper. The Imperious Style of the Turks Exemplified (London, 1739), 22-24.
 Ibid., 30-31.
 William Stasty. A Description of Persian Monarchy (London, 1626), 99-101.
 Thomas Kidd, American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 17, 27-31; Fuad Sha’ban. Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought: The Roots of Orientalism in America (Durham: Acorn Press, 1991), i-vi; Michael Gomez, “Muslims in Early America,” Journal of Southern History 60 (Nov. 1994): 671-72; Bernard Lewis. Culture in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 26-30.
Henry Tordes, Private Diary: January-December 1712, with notes on travel aboard a trading vessel (Boston. 1714), 219-221.
Sewall, Diary, (21 December 1686), 47.
Nicholas Noyes. New England’s Duty and Interest (Boston: 1698), 19, 21-27.
 Stewart Roland. A Note on England’s Recent, and Righteous Revolution, with Some Report on Public Sentiment in her Various Possessions (London, 1699), 21-23.
2 thoughts on ““As Arbitrary as the Grand Turke:” Religious Othering and the First American Revolution”
Thank you for this essay. I think this also highlights another “overshadowed” reality: that the communities at the time were more connected and well-known to each other (less isolated) than we might currently think. It also raises questions as to why Philip Ludwell III, scion of a leading colonial Virginia family, chose to convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity at the age of 22 in London, at the hands of a half-French, half-Alexandrian Greek priest in London’s Russian Orthodox chapel. https://www.ludwell.org/
This is an interesting point, and the example you mention is a potentially rich case study. I would say that I agree with your focal point: that this was a more cosmopolitan, interconnected, and mutually responsive world than we have previously felt comfortable imagining. That said, I’d offer that point with one significant caveat. My own research, and that of numerous others, indicate that while interconnected in engaged in various forms of dialogue, the atlantic world was also a prism of distortion and exaggerated reproduction. Exchange was often a point of political grandstanding, symbolic language usage(we’d now call it “dogwhistles”), and often outright misappropriation of fact and history in favor of local or regional concerns. While clearly aware of the “other”, I think the category of the “other” still applies in the way knowledge was disseminated, distorted, imagined and reimagined, and sometimes outright contrived.