Emily Clark and Mary Laven (eds), Women and Religion in the Atlantic Age, 1550–1900, Ashgate, Farnham, 2013.

Emily Clark and Mary Laven (eds), Women and Religion in the Atlantic Age, 1550–1900, Ashgate, Farnham, 2013. £70, ISBN 978-1-4094-5274-4 (hardback), pp. v + 220.

Reviewed by: Naomi Pullin, University of Warwick, September 2014


This volume of essays places women at the centre of debates about the religious development of the early modern Atlantic. The editors identify the primary goal of the collection as mapping ‘the effects of religious reform and revival among women in the wider Atlantic world’ (p. 2). This is deeply influenced by scholars like Natalie Zemon Davis, who have shown us how religious reform provided women with opportunities to alter their status and make an impact on religious culture. It is also reminiscent of a number of recent edited collections that have sought to redefine the space of the Atlantic by placing women, gender, and religion at the centre of analysis, such as those by Lisa Vollendorf and Daniella Kostroun, Susan E. Dinan and Debra Meyers, and Nora Jaffary. In contrast to what has come previously, however, Clark and Laven provide a refreshing re-interpretation of Atlantic culture by expanding the lens of focus beyond the temporal and geographic boundaries of Early Modern Europe. Each of the chapters allows the reader to compare the experiences of Old and New world women from a range of confessional backgrounds and across a broad time span (1550–1900). By adopting a framework that is inclusive of non-European religious cultures, they also succeed in expanding the rubric of ‘Atlantic community’ into a more global perspective.

The nine essays that make up this collection are the product of deep engagement with the issue of whether religion was a constraining or empowering experience for women, which is explored in detail in the Introduction. Each of the chapters underscores the varied ways the practise of piety could act as a stimulus for women’s involvement in broader social, cultural, and political developments. One of the strengths of the collection is also to recognise the constraints imposed upon women through their relationship to male power. Some of the chapters, however, sit somewhat uncomfortably with the intended objectives of the volume. The editors’ criticise the current scholarship for being too narrowly focused on particular types of religious women. Nuns, Puritan women, and radical and evangelical sectarians, they explain, are too often discussed in isolation from one another (p. 3). Yet many of the essays remain confessionally segregated and overlook how women’s experiences were affected by broader changes occurring within the Atlantic. This is particularly true of the essays comprising the first and last parts of the collection. This tension, however, highlights the continued challenges that historians face in using the ‘Atlantic’ as a category of historical analysis.

Part 1 begins to chart the impact of confessional difference by exploring how the religious reforms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries affected the lives of European women. In his chapter ‘What Are the Women Doing in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs?’ (pp. 15–32), Patrick Collinson revisits the women included in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments. He sheds new light on this much-researched collection, by showing how the public images given to these women were carefully constructed and mediated by male editors. This is achieved through an effective comparison between the original manuscript letters sent between women and the martyrs to those published in Foxe’s volumes. Collinson shows not only how the image presented of the women in the Protestant martyrology was carefully constructed, but also the vital religious agency that these women were able to demonstrate through their private and unpublished writings. Robin Briggs’s chapter ‘From Devilry to Sainthood’ (pp. 33–48), also tackles the issue of the construction of female identity, through exploring the demonic possession of a French Catholic nun, Mère Jeanne des Anges. In contrast to Collinson, however, Brigg’s shows how women like Anges were able to manipulate male authority and forge their own public identities. This rather unusual case study underscores the argument that forced enclosure never isolated women from wider social and political concerns. Such a story also makes a strong case for showing how the sense of solidarity and community between women within the walls of a convent had the potential to place them in significant positions of power.

Part 2 expands the volume’s focus beyond Europe, exploring how European religious culture was transplanted to Africa and the Americas. This is the most original section of the volume, and shows how different European traditions were both transformed and shaped by encounters with the wider-world. John J. Clune’s and Emily Clark’s respective essays: ‘Islands of Women in a Sea of Change’ (pp. 51–66) and ‘When Is a Cloiser Not a Cloister?’ (pp. 67–87), offer important insights into how the colonial convents of Havana and New Orleans were key components ‘in a complex web of secular social and economic interests’ (p. 70). In retaining a sense of their European legacies, the communities discussed in these chapters demonstrate the various ways in which women could fashion a distinct identity for themselves both within and without the walls of the cloister. The focus then shifts toward the experience of Protestant women. Annette Laing’s chapter ‘Crossing Denominational Boundaries’ (pp. 89–115), charts the experiences of two eighteenth-century women who transformed their identities as a result of religious experimentation. The women concerned are Ann Curtis Clay, who was raised a Quaker, but later converted to the Church of England and Elizabeth Ashbridge, who converted from Anglicanism to Quakerism. This chapter fits into a recent trend to view the early modern Atlantic World as a marketplace, where religion became a commodity that was sold and consumed, and where colonial inhabitants felt comfortable traversing sectarian divides. Yet, one of the most persuasive and important insights of Laing’s discussion is how it was easier for people to alter their beliefs and experiment in other faiths, than it was for them to change their identities through formal conversion (p. 121). It would have been helpful to have deeper engagement with the secondary literature on the challenges faced by other religious women who felt compelled to alter their religious identities, but the comparison between the two women’s writings nevertheless works well. Laing provides a particularly important reinterpretation of early Quakerism, by showing how it was impossible for individuals to completely insulate themselves from those of other faiths, and thus counters the view that the colonial Quaker movement was isolated from wider eighteenth-century culture. Cathy Skidmore-Hess closes this section with a thought-provoking essay on the seventeenth-century Angolan female ruler, Njinga of Matamba (pp. 123–40). Angolan culture was deeply affected by the introduction of Christianity through the Atlantic slave-trade and Njinga’s story provides a fascinating example of how an African woman could be active in the creation and production of a ‘system of Christianity’ that was deeply linked to the ‘labour and status of women’ (pp. 139–40). Collectively, the chapters in this part of the book succeed in providing a more nuanced picture of the diverse ways in which gender and religion intersected in extra-European cultures.

The final part of this volume explores the nineteenth-century revival of Protestantism and Catholicism in England and the colonies. Like Part 1, the focus of the chapters is on the changes occurring within specific denominations and localities. Susan O’Brien’s essay ‘Religious Sisters and Revival in the English Catholic Church’ (pp. 144–64) charts the growth of the Catholic Church in England between 1840 and 1880 and provides an important exploration of how Catholic women were intimately involved in the Church’s transatlantic revival. This is developed further by Hazel Mills’s essay on Jeanne-Antide Thouret and the Sisters of Charity in nineteenth-century France (pp. 165–93). Mills shows how public-facing religious women like Thouret contributed towards religious revival and wider social and political developments. Despite the claim, however, that the history of specific congregations should be connected to the ‘consequential transformations taking place within the female religious life in France, Europe, and beyond’ (p. 192), further emphasis could have been placed on how Thouret and the Sisters of Charity were directly affected by changes occurring in Europe and the wider Atlantic. The volume concludes with an interesting essay by Timothy J. Lockley titled ‘Religion and the Rise and Fall of Female Benevolence in Antebellum Savannah’ (pp. 195–212). Women have long been recognised for their role in the philanthropic societies and charitable activities of their communities. Yet little is known about the relationship between religion and charity and how the evolution of female-run benevolent societies was linked to wider social and political developments. Unlike the other chapters of this collection, which are largely focused on how women’s work in specific religious denominations had an impact on wider developments, Lockley explores how religion influenced the creation and changes occurring in the secular sphere. By comparing the experiences of women in different benevolent societies, including the Savannah Female Asylum (SFA) and Female Seaman’s Friend Society (FSFS), Lockley reveals how women were able to adapt and transcend their denominational affiliations for wider social and political causes. This topic is worthy of further research, yet this chapter certainly succeeds in showing us how specific gender, religious, and charitable concerns could become deeply entwined within a particular community.

Thisskilfully edited volume stands as testament to the vibrant work that continues to be pursued on the relationship between gender and religion in the early modern Atlantic. The chapters also make a larger contribution to the current research that is being undertaken on how confessional divergence shaped gendered experiences. Scholars interested in early modern Atlantic, Gender, or Religious Studies will learn much from this stimulating collection of essays, which embraces the study of the religious experience of women and reveal the ‘dynamic processes of cross-fertilisation’ that affected every corner of the Atlantic World’ (p. 11).

Other works cited:

Davis, Natalie Zemon, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, CA, 1975).

Dinan, Susan E. and Meyers, Debra (eds), Women and Religion in Old and New Worlds (London, 2001).

Jaffary, Nora E., (ed.), Gender, Race and Religion in the Colonization of the Americas (Aldershot, 2007).

Kostroun, Daniella and Vollendorf, Lisa (eds),Women, Religion, and the Atlantic World (1600–1800) (Toronto, 2009).