Protestantism in the Americas

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Protestantism in the Americas

European Protestants had continuous contact with Africans in the Americas from at least the docking of the first slave-trading ship in Virginia in 1619. In the seventeenth century, English and Dutch Protestants settled most of the eastern seaboard of North America. During the same period, they and Danish Protestants established their rule or cultural influence over Jamaica, Barbados, the Virgin Islands, and other smaller islands in the West Indies, Suriname and Guiana in South America, and Belize and the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua in Central America. African slaves were brought to all of these locations.

However, sustained religious interactions had to wait for nearly a century after 1619. There was substantial resistance among the European Protestants to proselytizing the slaves for a variety of reasons, including fear of both lost productivity and the encouragement of a pride that would make slaves "ungovernable." Many English feared that Christianizing the slaves would make them automatically eligible for freedom, a notion that had vague precedents in medieval law, with some court cases in its favor in the seventeenth century. However, from the 1660s onward, the combined actions of several English colonial legislatures and instructions by the Bishop of London made it clearer that a slave's religious affiliation would not necessitate manumission.

One of the first advocates for proselytizing the slaves was George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), who visited Barbados, Jamaica, and England's North American colonies between 1671 and 1673. Fox advocated inclusion of slaves in religious services (or "meetings for worship," as the Quakers termed them), and strongly denied allegations that Quakers were encouraging slaves to rebel. One of his traveling companions, William Edmondson, was one of the first Europeans to denounce slavery, calling it "an aggravation, and an oppression upon the mind" in a subsequent visit to Barbados in 1676. However, the exhortations of Fox and Edmund-son had little immediate effect, inasmuch as Quakers were then being sporadically but severely repressed in both Barbados and England.

The first organized missionary efforts by the Anglican Church toward Africans in the Americas were the work of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). In Barbados, the SPG became the owner of two sugar-growing estates as a result of Christopher Codrington's will in 1710, and the society appointed a series of chaplains and catechists to the slaves on those plantations, though little was achieved over the next century. In the first two decades of the eighteenth century, the SPG also appointed ministers to African slaves in such far-flung locations as New York, South Carolina, and Saint Kitts. Their proselytizing work was slow going, however, in part because the SPG ministers insisted on slaves learning an extensive catechism before being baptized. SPG missionaries worked for humane treatment of the slaves, but they did not openly advocate manumissions.

The revivals of the mid-eighteenth century led to the first large-scale conversions of blacks in the western hemisphere. The first of the evangelical groups to be active in this endeavor was the Moravian Brethren, a church that amalgamated pietist and Anabaptist influences. The Brethren's missionary work among slaves began in 1732 in the Danish Virgin Islands, and was then extended to Berbice (later British Guiana), Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, and North Carolina. Methodists began their evangelism in North America and the West Indies in the 1760s, establishing biracial congregations that were, in places such as South Carolina and Antigua, overwhelmingly composed of blacks. Baptist evangelical work commenced at about the same time, with Separate Baptists (seceding from Congregationalists) bearing the brunt of the work during the First Great Awakening (c.1730c.1770). The evangelicals' emphasis on religion of the heart, rather than mastery of a catechism, and their openness to emotional expression in worship facilitated the participation of blacks.

Also in the mid-eighteenth century, the Quakers in North America became the first Christian group to adopt a strong antislavery stance. In part, they grounded their opposition in the Golden Rule, but, as pacifists, they also noted that many slaves were taken captive during wars, and they felt that they could not be complicit with the ill-gotten fruits of warfare. Anthony Benezet, a Quaker schoolteacher in Philadelphia, corresponded widely and converted others such as the Methodist John Wesley to the antislavery cause. Many evangelicals, especially Moravians and Methodists, were affected by the Quaker position against slavery. In general, while evangelical Protestantism was attractive to many blacks because of its strong egalitarian tendencies, economic necessity and the racism of their white American converts eventually forced each of the evangelical sects to abandon or to curtail their antislavery message in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Independent black churches developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in both North America and the Caribbean, due to the pressures of their white racist co-religionists, and also because of the desire of many black Christians for cultural autonomyin Daniel Coker's echo of a verse from Isaiah, to be able to "sit down under our own vine to worship and none shall make us afraid." The tiny Silver Bluff Baptist Church, an independent black Baptist church founded in Silver Bluff, South Carolina, on the eve of the American Revolution, had a worldwide effect on black Protestantism. One of its members, David George, went on to found black Baptist churches in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. George Liele, who had founded the Silver Bluff Baptist Church, evacuated with British loyalists at the end of the Revolution, and moved to Jamaica, where he founded a Baptist Church in Kingston. There he met and converted Moses Baker, another American émigré, who proceeded to found a Baptist church in the parish of Saint James in western Jamaica, sponsored by a Quaker planter, Isaac Lascelles Winn. Another convert of Liele's, Andrew Bryan, pastored the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. Among Methodists, Peter Spencer's African Union Church in Wilmington, Delaware, provided the core for a new black denomination in 1813, and Richard Allen's Bethel African Methodist Church was instrumental in forming the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1816. Other independent black denominations followed in North America, including the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church (1822), the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church (1870), and the National Baptist Convention (1895).

In the early nineteenth century, black church leaders throughout the hemisphere took a variety of stances on slavery. Many, like Richard Allen, openly opposed slavery, as Allen showed in a 1795 tract, while others soft-pedaled any oppositionas did Andrew Bryan, who owned slaves himself and counseled slaves in his congregation to obey their masters. George Liele assured Jamaican planters that slaves attending his church would not be permitted to plan revolts there, but an 1807 Jamaican law still shut down independent black Baptist congregations such as Liele's. Differences in the political climate between Allen's Pennsylvania, with its heavy Quaker influence, and Bryan's Georgia undoubtedly affected the two men's stances.

In most areas where slavery was legal, a clandestine black church grew up entirely outside of any white control, an "invisible institution" little understood by otherwise well-informed contemporaries. African spiritual practices, including such traditions as vodou and myalism (a spiritual healing practice), blended strongly with Christianity in these clandestine churches. In the southern United States, this was often referred to as "brush arbor" religion; in Jamaica, the Native Baptists fit this description well, and they grew substantially after the repressive 1807 law.

Advocacy of antislavery in Georgia and other slave territories undoubtedly meant rebellion, a reality grasped by the African Methodist Denmark Vesey, who staged an abortive revolt in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822, and the Baptist lay preacher Nat Turner, who led a revolt in 1831 in Southampton, Virginia. One of the most massive slave revolts in the hemisphere took place in Jamaica over a two-week period beginning in Christmas, 1831. As many as twenty thousand slaves were involved and massive property damage was inflicted on white planters. Jamaicans were not unfamiliar with slave revoltsthey recalled a revolt of similar size, for example, coordinated by a spiritual leader recently imported from the Gold Coast in 1760but one distinguishing feature of the 1831 revolt was the prominent leadership of black Christians, most notably Sam Sharpe, a lay leader in the Missionary Baptist Church and a "Daddy" among the Native Baptists. Sharpe conceded that, as a slave, he had been relatively well treated, but he defiantly stated that he would rather die than remain a slave. The revolt was so permeated by Baptist influence that it has often been called the "Baptist War." It coincided with a concerted campaign by evangelical Christians in Great Britain to abolish slavery in the West Indies, as black Jamaicans were immensely frustrated with the various maneuvers undertaken by Jamaican planters to stave off emancipation. The Jamaican planters were ultimately unsuccessful, as the British Parliament enacted a law abolishing slavery in the West Indies to take partial effect on August 1, 1834, and full effect four years later.

Some black North American clergy played prominent roles in the abolitionist movement in the United States. Jermain Loguen, an AMEZ minister in Syracuse, New York, was an activist who opposed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and he played a key role in the 1851 rescue of Jerry Henry, a fugitive slave who had been jailed by federal marshals who intended to return him to slavery. Loguen and his associates spirited Henry to freedom in Canada across Lake Ontario. Thomas Henry, an AME minister, was a correspondent of John Brown and may well have known of his plans for the ill-fated insurrection at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Many black clergy chose not to play leading roles in the abolitionist movement, favoring community-building work instead. AME minister Richard Robinson articulated this position when he asserted that it was useless for black ministers to flaunt outspokenly radical antislavery stands, because it would only make them more of a target: "Every colored man is an abolitionist, and slaveholders know it." When the Emancipation Proclamation permitted the enlistment of black soldiers in 1863, however, black ministers such as Henry McNeal Turner played an active role in obtaining recruits for the United States colored regiments. At least twelve black ministers, including Turner, also served as military chaplains during the Civil War.

After Emancipation (Canada and British West Indies, 1834; Danish West Indies, 1848; United States, 1865), it was unclear throughout the hemisphere how much the dominant political forces would permit freedom to be combined with empowerment of the freed persons. In both the United States and the Caribbean, the immediate post-Emancipation period was one of intense educational efforts among the freed men and women, with such efforts slackening off within a decade or two, as philanthropic zeal lessened among those whites who had adopted education of blacks as a cause. The American Missionary Association in the United States, funded mainly by Congregationalists, was responsible for the founding of such schools as Atlanta, Dillard, Hampton, Fisk, and Howard Universities. With little resources, predominantly black denominations in the United States were responsible for the founding of their own colleges and universities, including Wilberforce (AME), Morris Brown (AME), Livingstone (AMEZ), Lane (CME), and Paine (CME). Most of these institutions of higher education were located in the southern states, the main exception being Wilberforce in southwestern Ohio.

Throughout the hemisphere, the freedom delivered by Emancipation often did not include meaningful economic options, with landlessness, racist coercion, and unjust legal systems trapping many former slaves in sharecropping or peonage arrangements that were almost indistinguishable from slavery. In Jamaica, such conditions helped to bring about the Morant Bay Rebellion of October 1865. Similar to the Baptist War of 1831, the leader, Paul Bogle, and many other of the rebels were Native Baptists, and the conspirators met in Native Baptist chapels. Hundreds of blacks were hanged in the aftermath of the revolt, including Bogle and his co-conspirator, George William Gordon. The 1865 rebellion and its draconian suppression resulted in the dismissal of Jamaica's governor, Edward J. Eyre, and the imposition of Crown Colony government.

After Emancipation, there was often an informal merging of the black churches founded by the missionaries and those black churches that could be characterized as "Independent" or "Native" in origin. This resulted in a large increase in membership in these denominations, but also in an increase of social-class and regional tensions within those same denominations. The AME Church, for example, had about 20,000 members in 1858, growing to 452,725 in 1896, an increase of over twenty times. A significant transformation in the American black churches occurred after 1915, when, in response to significant continuing human rights abuses, greater economic opportunities, and boosterism by African-American newspapers in northern states, many African Americans left the South to make their homes in northern cities. Black denominations struggled to meet the new demand by the often poorer migrants. The AME Church also opened missions in the West Indies and British Guiana, although their failure to supply consistent episcopal oversight stymied their growth in that region, at least until 1972, when Frederick Talbot, a native of Guyana (formerly British Guiana), assumed the episcopal duties in that region.

The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Communities League, founded by Marcus Garvey, an immigrant from Jamaica to Harlem, New York, in 1914, stimulated pride in blackness and in Africa. Garvey promoted a black nationalism that would encompass the mother continent and the entire black diaspora, and he formed the Black Star steamship line in order to further these aims. In doing so, he built upon the black nationalism of several notable nineteenth-century black clergy, such as Alexander Crummell (Episcopal), Edward Blyden (Presbyterian), and Henry McNeal Turner (AME). Problems with the seaworthiness of the vessels and with Garvey's economic management prevented the UNIA from any sizeable involvement in trade or emigration, and, in any event, the administration of President Calvin Coolidge obtained the conviction of Garvey on mail fraud and deported him to Jamaica in 1927, after he had served two years in the Atlanta Penitentiary. But the black nationalism of Garvey was an enduring legacy to African Americans in this hemisphere, including black Protestants. Some of the new religious movements that claimed inspiration from Garvey, including the Black Jews, the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, and Rastafarianism, had an authentic claim to the rebellious traditions of the Native and Independent Churches while their connections to Protestantism per se was tenuous or idiosyncratic at best.

The Los Angeles revival of 1906, presided over by a Louisiana-born African American minister, William Joseph Seymour (18701922), inaugurated the era of Pentecostalism, a brand of Protestantism that advertised its adherence to the "full gospel," which included a Spirit Baptism manifested by speaking in tongues, and also in faith healing. In the remainder of the twentieth century, this interracial religious movement spread far and wide, reaching parts of the Americas that had previously been primarily Catholic. Other Protestant new religious movements also proselytized aggressively and successfully in the Caribbean and Latin America. Seventh-day Adventists had notable successes in the Caribbean. A 1978 revelation by the patriarch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) that black men could at last be admitted to the priesthood was reportedly facilitated by the dawning realization on the church hierarchy that the prospects for its missions in predominantly black and racially mixed Brazil was dependent on its ridding itself of obvious signs of any antiblack bigotry.

In the eighteenth century, the established church (the Anglican Church through much of the Protestant Americas) was the church of the wealthy and powerful, while the churches that derived from the dissenting churches in England, such as the Baptists and Methodists, were often composed mostly of "plain folk" and slaves. Among the predominantly white churches, there has been much social mobility in the membership of this latter class of churches, as Methodists and Baptists have made substantial inroads into the middle and upper classes. Among black Protestants, there have always been some congregations that have heavily represented the black middle class, and there have always been the aspiration and accompanying practices to enable social mobility through economic mutual aid, teaching middle-class life habits, and engaging in social action to oppose white racism. Since Emancipation, some black laity and clergy have criticized the financial demands of churches for high-ticket itemssuch as building programs and (sometimes) ministers' salariesas imposing an excessive drag on the economic advancement of members of their congregations. While black clergy have often strongly asserted the effectiveness of their church work in this regard, it must also be conceded that there have been times and places in the Americas (such as the late-nineteenth-century United States) where racist opposition was strong enough to retard much social mobility among black Protestants.

Role of Gender in Congregations and Leadership

African women often served in positions of religious leadership, filling such roles as diviners and mediums. This tradition of female religious leadership survived the Middle Passage. In the western hemisphere, the strong support given by Quakers, and later more equivocal support by Methodists, for women's ministry did not go unnoticed by black women. One such female minister, "Old Elizabeth" (c.17651866), clearly influenced by both Quakers and Methodists, carried her ministry from Michigan to Virginia in the early to mid-nineteenth century. She, Jarena Lee, and Zilpha Elaw recorded narratives of their ministry or dictated them to others. None of the preaching women in the early nineteenth century were ordained. All of these women experienced great opposition from men who were against women's ministry on various grounds, including citing scriptural injunctions. Elizabeth's reply was typical: She had not been ordained by men, but "if the Lord had ordained me, I needed nothing better."

Some black women have started their own religious communities or denominations as a result of the resistance they have experienced from men, from nonblacks, or from both. One example is Rebecca Cox Jackson, a Philadelphia woman who grew up in the AME Church and had a call to the ministry and to celibacy. Leaving her husband, she traveled to Albany to join the Shakers, eventually returning to Philadelphia and founding a Shaker religious community composed mostly of black women.

In most Protestant congregations, women have composed a substantial majority, and predominantly black denominations were no exception. In virtually all of these congregations, there has been substantial female leadership. One role that has been particularly significant in many black congregations is that of "church mother." These are often elderly and spiritually mature women, who frequently have an important if informal role in church governance. A church mother might be a wife or widow of a preacher or bishop, but this is not always the case. Many church mothers are also exhorters, who traditionally delivered their spiritual messages from the floor of the church, not from the pulpit (which was understood to be man's space).

Eventually, many Protestant denominations began to ordain women. Antoinette Brown Blackwell, a white female Congregationalist, was the first woman to be ordained in 1853. Sarah Ann Hughes was ordained as a deacon in the AME Church in 1885, but her ordination was removed two years later. However, the AMEZ Church ordained two women, Julia A. J. Foote and Mary J. Smallin 1894 and 1895, respectively, and these ordinations stood. During the early twentieth century, many women served as pastors in black denominations, although generally without formal ordination. In 1948, the AME Church ordained Rebecca Glover as an assistant pastor, and eight years later, the same denomination gave full ordination rights to women. The first African-American woman elected to the episcopacy was Leontine T. C. Kelly, in the Methodist Church, in 1984. Four years later, Barbara Harris, an African American woman, became the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church, and in 2000, Vashti McKenzie, became the first female bishop in the AME Church.

Black Baptist churches do not have denomination-wide policies on women's ordination. However, women have often served in very powerful leadership roles in the black Baptist churches. One example is Nannie Helen Burroughs, a notable educator and church leader in the National Baptist Convention. In 1900, she helped to organize the Woman's Auxiliary Convention of the National Baptist Convention, and she served as either secretary or president of the Women's Convention until her death in 1961.

Protestantism and the State

While each of the British colonies inherited the Anglican establishment, the Anglican Church was rendered weak and ineffectual by the remote supervision of its branches in the colonies through the Bishop of London. In the colonies that became the United States, the fear of imposition of a bishop in the western hemisphere helped to fuel rebellion and, ultimately, the disestablishment of all of the colonial church establishments, whether Anglican, Congregationalist, or Dutch Reformed. Instead of "church" and "sect," the United States pioneered the formal equality in the eyes of the law of all religious bodies as "denominations." The principle enshrined in the First Amendment of religious liberty, however, was not automatically seen to apply to African Americans. Rather, they won their religious liberty piecemeal. One landmark decision was rendered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1816, a decision which supported Richard Allen and the African Methodists in Philadelphia in their resistance to attempts by white Methodists to rule them against their will. This decision enabled Allen to call the first General Conference of the AME Church. In the wake of this decision, a tenuous religious freedom for African Americans spread throughout most of the northern states and, even more tenuously, through parts of the Upper South. Meanwhile, any antislavery religious sentiment in the South was ruth-lessly suppressed, and independent black churches were often regarded as deeply suspect, especially in the wake of the 1822 Vesey plot and Turner's 1831 revolt.

The Thirteenth (1865) and Fourteenth (1868) Amendments more solidly cemented religious liberty for African Americans throughout the United States. In effect, the right of African Americans to form not only congregations but also denominations became universally conceded. Despite some church burnings, the black churches proved to be a bulwark for the defense of African Americans throughout the long nadir of Jim Crow, disfranchisement, and lynchings. Black churches assumed a variety of political and social functions in addition to their spiritual activities, so much so that they were sometimes called a "nation within a nation." In contemporary times, many American politicians, even presidential candidates, have sought African-American votes by attending black churches, and the economic liberalism and social conservatism of many African Americans has often created a perception of a "swing vote" to which politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties can successfully appeal.

In Canada and the British West Indies, the delineation between the "Church" (i.e., Anglicanism) and the dissenting sects was more pervasive and long standing. Still, the remoteness of the Anglican establishment was not remedied in the West Indies until 1824, when the first resident bishop was appointed to the Caribbean. In the first third of the nineteenth century, the Anglican ministers were widely seen as promoting the interests of the planter class, while the dissenters (especially the Baptists), through their fearless use of social critique, were seen as encouraging change and rebellion, implicitly if not explicitly. This bifurcation began to break down somewhat in the later nineteenth century. The Anglican Church in the West Indies was disestablished and disendowed around 1870, and indigenous leadership of that church was especially encouraged after that date. In the predominantly Catholic areas of the Americas, Protestants have always been seen as a dissenting force, although, evangelical Protestants have sometimes ascended to the leadership roles in government, sometimes with the complicity of the American military (General Efrain Rios Montt served as president of Guatemala from 1982 to 1983, for example, though his rule was, in fact, more of a dictatorship).

Protestantism, Human Rights, and Liberation Theology

White and black Protestants have often disagreed, within and across racial lines, on human rights issues. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many white Protestants retreated in their commitment to human rights for African Americans. For example, the Congregationalist minister Henry Ward Beecher preached strong antislavery sermons in the 1850s, though he roundly disparaged as worthless anyone or anything deriving from Africa in the 1880s. By the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan had made substantial inroads among white Protestants, even in some northern states, such as Indiana. At this time, there were some black conservatives, such as Booker T. Washington, who, in public if not in private, defended the view that African Americans should concern themselves mainly with economic progress, which would cause white Americans to respect their human rights.

On the other hand, many black Protestants, and a small minority of white Protestants, were strongly committed to the support of human rights for African Americans throughout this period. Some, such as AMEZ bishop Alexander Walters and AME minister (later bishop) Reverdy Ransom, were strong supporters of the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Although the NAACP was avowedly secular, it developed strong connections with black churches throughout the United States. Ransom and the Baptist minister George Woodbey were outspoken advocates of socialism, with its view of collective ownership of the means of production. When a newly formed ecumenical organization, the Federal Council of Churches (ancestor of the National Council of Churches), refused to advocate for antilynching laws in the U.S. Congress, Ransom and other black clergy formed the Fraternal Council of Negro Churches in 1934. The Washington, D.C.based FCNC was dedicated mostly to lobbying Congress, but it prepared the way for other organizations of black clergy and laity who were prepared to mobilize in a more extensive way. The most notable of these later organizations was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded in 1957 by the Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. and others.

The FCNC and SCLC were increasingly dedicated toward racial integration as the preferred alternative to the degradation of Jim Crow and racial bigotry. In so doing, they were joined during the 1950s and 1960s by the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization of mostly white Protestants. The National Council of Churches and SCLC, together with the NAACP and some labor unions, were the major forces behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But some black Protestants, influenced by the advocacy of Black Muslim minister Malcolm X and others, as well as the memory of Marcus Garvey, preferred a more racially separatist, or black nationalist, approach toward building an American community that more fully respected human rights. The Black Power movement, as this tendency became known, was also a major force behind a fuller recovery and celebration of African-American culture and history, which in the early 1960s was still being almost entirely overlooked in mainstream American culture.

The black liberation theology and Caribbean liberation theology movements that emerged in the aftermath of the 1960s were influenced strongly both by the civil rights and Black Power movements, the thought of Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Many of the black nationalist elements of these new theologies were of Caribbean origin, especially the influence of the Rastafarians, who saw the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie as the second coming of Christ, and who developed a sophisticated critique of African-American Christian culture and Biblical interpretation in favor of a more Afrocentric approach. These liberation theology movements, led by James H. Cone and others, posited that God was on the side of the oppressed. Jesus was celebrated as the "Black Messiah,"or at least as nonwhite, and hence an implicit source of critique of the European and white American varieties of oppression over the previous centuries. Like both King and Malcolm X, black liberation theologians called for a form of black Christianity that was fully engaged in combating social and economic problems in the black community, and while unsparing in their critique of white racism, these theologians also drew on the black nationalist exhortation to self-reliance. Later versions of liberation theology by William R. Jones, Anthony Pinn, and others have highlighted issues of theodicy, as well as advocating more humanist versions of liberation theology, as compared to the more orthodox Christian versions that prevailed in the early 1970s. While black churches have made effective and selective use of some of these forms of liberation theology, this form of theological discourse has flourished far more on college and university campuses than in many local grassroots Protestant congregations.

See also African Methodist Episcopal Church; African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; African Union Methodism; Allen, Richard; Baptists; Black Power Movement; Blyden, Edward Wilmot; Burroughs, Nannie Helen; Coker, Daniel; Crummell, Alexander; Garvey, Marcus; Harris, Barbara Clementine; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Liberation Theology; Liele, George; Malcolm X; Morant Bay Rebellion; Moravian Church; Nat Turner's Rebellion; Nation of Islam; Rastafarianism; Sharpe, Samuel; Social Gospel; Theology, Black; Turner, Henry McNeal


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stephen w. angell (2005)

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Protestantism in the Americas

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