The Scotch-Irish

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The distinctive religious influence of the Scotch-Irish and New Englanders was not in their common Calvinism, though certainly Calvinist theology has had its effect upon America: it was rather in persuading millions of Americans that religion and character are synonyms. In most other parts of the world religion is likely to mean ritual observance, adherence to a creed, customary pious acts, or some combination of these; but when an American says that a person is deeply religious he is likely to mean first of all that he is upright and highly moral. Both Puritans and Scotch-Irish insisted upon rectitude of life and behavior, stubborn adherence to principle, scorn of compromise, and a stern severity that could be as hard upon others as upon self. Neither people could accept the idea that a man’s religious duty consisted only of acts performed on Sunday or of doctrinal orthodoxy. Since America quickly became pluralistic in religion, there could never have been agreement upon ritual, creed, or observances to unify us religiously; but all Americans could agree on admirable character and high moral rectitude. What the Puritans and Scotch-Irish made of religion was immensely reinforced when the Baptist and Methodist movements, rising to ascendancy in the nineteenth century, taught the same ideas.

In certain ways the Presbyterian Church of the ScotchIrish was the first important denomination to become “Americanized” and broadly “American.” In log churches on a frontier, with a congregation of pioneer farmers, many formal traditions of the dignified Presbyterian Church quietly vanished—the Geneva gown and stock, the separate pulpit, the attendance of the minister by a beadle, the set prayers. Many of the colonial Presbyterian ministers experimented with unconventional, direct methods of evangelism, in order to speak clearly to a people losing interest in dignity for the sake of tradition. (The approval of the presbyteries for this informality was not won, however; and because the dynamic Methodists and Baptists felt free to adopt resourceful methods of evangelism, they drew thousands of adherents among descendants of the Scotch-Irish.)

The Church of England was the established religion in six colonies and the Congregational faith in three others; both, then, were identified with the upper-class English Establishment; but the Presbyterian Church was nowhere official, elite, or English. Moreover, these other two dominant churches were regional, strong only in the Tidewater and in New England; but the Presbyterian Church, like the Scotch-Irish people, was present in every colony. Its ministers were supported not by legally exacted tithes but by free contributions of members; these ministers in their work moved freely from one region to another. The organization of the church was controlled by presbyteries that ranged from New York to the South. The “federal” structure of the church of the Scotch-Irish seemed congenial to American conditions and exerted a unifying influence in our early history.

If we of the twentieth century wish to admire the Scotch-Irish as representative prototypes of later Americans, we must ruefully note that their Ulster forefathers’ neglect of things aesthetic was carried over to the new country. European visitors and critics in the nineteenth century, indeed, considered all Americans deficient in such matters; but we now know how wrong they were, for our museums are full of beautiful early American art and artifacts from New England, from the Tidewater, from German farmlands, and from many other regions and districts—but not from Scotch-Irish settlements. Nothing in the background of these people in either Scotland or northern Ireland had attracted them to painting, sculpture, architecure, music, and literature, and nothing in their way of life in the colonies apparently changed their attitude. They liked what was practical and seemed indifferent to whether it was beautiful. The lists of distinguished scions of the Scotch-Irish in nineteenth-century America include no names of artists and poets.

By 1800 the young United States was growing strong and self-confident, with a continent to win. Already the authority of the thirteen original states was losing its hold over the rising generation. If a farsighted historian Of the time had been inclined to identify representative types of inhabitants who would probably become the most characteristic Americans of the new century, he might well have named the restless frontiersman and the rising middle-class townsman. The former was rapidly winning the West, clearing the wilderness, exploiting America’s fabulous wealth, adding romance to the American myth; the latter was establishing law and order, building industry, adding comfort to utility, and treasuring respectability and responsibility. If the same historian had sought to find the embodiment of each of his representative types, he could have pointed immediately to the descendants of the vigorous Scotch-Irish, now thoroughly American, with no further accretions from abroad. Most of them had even forgotten the adjective formerly applied to them. The daily life of being an American was too absorbing to permit adulation of one’s ancestors, even though these had been the admirable Scotch-Irish.

A professor of sociology at Washington and Lee University, Dr. Leyburn is the author of several books, including The ScotchIrish: A Social History , published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1962, from which this article is adapted.