Linford D. Fisher

The year is 1521. A young theologian and Augustinian friar named Martin Luther is commanded to recant his writings and ideas before regional religious and political authorities at a meeting in Worms (Germany). Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan reaches the enormous archipelago of the Philippines and, later that year, is killed in the Battle of Mactan. While Magellan exhales his final breath, across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean a brash Spanish military leader named Hernán Cortés puts together the finishing touches on a master plan to successfully invade the enormous and impressive city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec stronghold in what is now Mexico. Within a month of the fall of Tenochtitlan, across the Atlantic Suleiman the Magnificent captures Belgrade (Serbia) as a part of the ongoing expansion of a wide-flung and vibrant Ottoman Empire.

The breathtaking global simultaneity of these events in the early modern world summarizes the intellectual inspiration for this present project. In short, on the pages that follow, we have attempted to rethink the received geographical, temporal, and topical boundaries of the early modern period. Using religion as a primary lens of analysis, we have tried to put the following areas and eras into conversation, even when—or perhaps precisely when—such conversation is non-existent in the literature at present:

1) Early modern European religious history (era of Protestant reform and Catholic renewal)

2) Western European expansion – into Asia, the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa

3) Atlantic world history, particularly the religious history of the Atlantic world

4) The history of religion in America (which often operates narrowly, within the boundaries of the present-day U.S.)

Taking all these various geographies together highlights the incredible motion of people, goods, and ideas in ways that are truly global. If one of the critiques of Atlantic world histories has been that they are artificially limiting in terms of geography (see Peter Coclanis’ “Atlantic World or Atlantic / World?” [2006]), the approach we have taken here is an explicit attempt to partially remedy such geographic limitations. By considering North America and the Atlantic World in tandem with early modern Europe and considering the full expanse of early modern empires, a more accurate, full span of early modern religious activity comes into focus. Jesuit missionaries in China and India; English Protestant ministers in Japan, Goa, and Istanbul; Protestant merchants and ministers circulating through the Ottoman Empire, coming into contact with Jews and Muslims alike; Catholic popular devotional practices being transported to the shores of South America by “unorthodox” laypersons; Puritan colonists founding Boston and Providence Island deep in the Spanish Atlantic empire; Jewish and Moravian merchants moving from continental Europe to North America to Brazil and Caribbean islands; all reveal the interwoven, overlapping, and textured worlds of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim renewal and expansion into the various corners of the early modern world.

Along the way, consideration of the full expanse of early modern European religious history as it intersects with Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim imperial expansion, alongside of more “traditional” narratives of religious migration that include the Puritans and the religious developments in British North America, prompts helpful kinds of connections, questions, and challenges to existing historiographies. Thinking about the conquest of the New World starting in 1492 as an extension of the crusading impulse that as recently as 1460 was alive and well helps put into conversation the “early modern” world of Columbus and the actions of the Spanish conquistadores and the realities of the conquest of the Americas.

Similarly, considering the “Evangelical Awakening” (of which the “First Great Awakening” in the British North American colonies was one manifestation) within the larger world of early modern religious activity and expansion reveals the literature to be exclusively focused on Protestantism, which prompts the now-obvious question regarding how the various manifestations of Catholicism, Judaism, and even Islam, might be understood within a larger framework of cyclical spiritual renewal and growth (and what relation those dynamic developments might have to the “Evangelical Awakening”).

Along the same lines, although the scholarship on the role of religion in the development of “capitalism” within the Protestant world in the seventeenth century (a la Weber) is rich and ongoing (of which Kate Carte Engel’s Religion and Profit is a good recent example), reading the very different scholarship on the commercialism of early modern diasporic Judaism alongside of the vast commercial undertakings of the Jesuits prompts the question of why historians have allowed Protestantism to take the center stage on this question, when Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish merchants all could arguably demonstrate similar “precapitalist” impulses—as much as any good hardworking Puritan in New England.

Taken as a whole, then, the historiographical essays and annotated bibliographies that constitute this project are an attempt to further a conversation, to push these fields in a more expansive direction, and to encourage parallel readings and conversations where few or none existed previously. The table of contents on the right will guide you through the various themes and topics of this project.