Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania by Peter E. Gilmore

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770–1830
by Peter E. Gilmore
University of Pittsburgh Press, 248 pp., hardcover $27.95

The Scots-Irish have always captured the imaginations of historians. Images of hardscrabble frontiersmen, ferocious both in their devotion to Presbyterianism and their hostility toward the Indians they hoped to displace from their new Canaan, have never lost their interest — which has sometimes made it hard to see through to the more complex realities that defined their experiences. In this fine book, Peter Gilmore pierces through that veil of legend to show readers the stuff of day-to-day existence in Scots-Irish communities. He does so by emphasizing the importance of Presbyterianism, a stance he underlines by referring to his subjects as “Irish Presbyterians” rather than the more familiar “Scots-Irish.”

In each of the book’s seven chapters Gilmore turns that interpretive lens on a different aspect of life in these Irish Presbyterian communities. After a brief introduction, chapter one examines both the push and pull factors motivating Irish Presbyterian migration to Pennsylvania. Chapter two offers an account of the church structures these migrants assembled in western Pennsylvania, emphasizing the importance of Old World religious ideas to the process. Chapter three reconstructs the day-to-day practices of Presbyterian ritual and discipline in the region and their important contribution to the construction of a communal identity among Irish Presbyterians. Chapter four turns from these rituals of inclusion to the importance of doctrinal contention, a process by which migrants determined who did and did not belong to their communities. These broadly thematic chapters are followed by a series of more narrative-focused chapters that take the story from the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion to the Market Revolution.

Taken together, the chapters add up to a richly textured portrait of an ethnoreligious community to which there was more than usually meets historians’ eyes. Gilmore’s Presbyterians turn out to be just as interesting — and more real — than the Scots-Irish they replace.

Sam Fisher
The Catholic University of America