Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Britons: Forging the Nation

This week's topic in my Tuesday seminar was Religion, and we read the section on Protstantism in Linda Colley's Britons: Forging the Nation (2005).
The show-piece was Edinburgh New Town, its center designed by James Craig in 1767 as a celebration of British patriotism, and as an assertion of Scotland's and the city's importance in the Union. Prince's Street, George Street and Queen Street intersected with Hanover and Frederick streets, thereby paying tribute to George II, his immediate family, his father, and his dynasty. And while St. Andrew's Square commemorated Scotland's own patron saint, it was balanced - in Craig's initial plan at least - by another square named after St. George.

That's a fine selection, but my favorite quote was this one, describing Britons attending performances of Handel's Protestant oratorios: "[T]he men and women Wagner saw listening so intently were indeed engaged in an act of faith. Only what many of them were worshipping was Great Britain, and indirectly themselves" (32).

I liked this book much better than the Frey and Wood, but that may just have been that it was better organized. And I like a well-organized book. This one had subheadings, topic sentences, and a bang-up conclusion at the end of the chapter:

Protestantism meant much more in this society than just bombast, intolerance, and chauvinism. It gave the majority of men and women a sense of their place in history and a sense of worth. It allowed them to feel pride in such advantages as they genuinely did enjoy, and helped them endure when hardship and danger threatened. It gave them identity. There were other powerful identities at work, of course. A sense of Protestant unity did not always override social class, anymore than it overwhelmed the profound historical and cultural divisions between the English, the Scottish, and the Welsh. But to the questions: Who were the British, and did they even exist? Protestantism could supply a potent and effective answer, perhaps the only satisfactory answer possible. Great Britain might be made up of three separate nations, but under God it could also be one united nation. And as long as a sense of mission and providential destiny could be kept alive, by means of maintaining prosperity at home, by means of recurrent wars with the Catholic states of Europe, and by means of a frenetic and for a long time highly successful pursuit of empire, the Union flourished, sustained not just by convenience and profit but by belief as well. Protestantism was the foundation that made the invention of Great Britain possible.

Good writing!

She argued her case well, and I found myself convinced. Still, in order to afford Protestantism the power she does, it becomes almost unrecognizable as a religion. Colley's point that religion and national identity were inextricable is well taken, but it makes me wonder just how people experienced their Protestantism. What makes someone a Protestant? Is there a minimum level of ritual participation required? Is it something personal that only God can know? How did people define themselves as Protestants? What did they feel were the minimum requirements?

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