How the Scots-Irish Invented Fundamentalism

Excerpt from Chapter 3 of The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family.

Summary: The Scots-Irish migration to America in the 1700s helped prepare the way for the explosive growth of evangelicalism in the 1800s and the birth of modern fundamentalism in the early 1900s.The character of fundamentalism was shaped by the experience of the Scots-Irish over centuries of conflict and deprivation, and it included a profound love of democracy, a passion for individual rights, the placement of God and religion at the center of one's life. The Scots-Irish in my own family historically had the paradoxical capacity to find theological justification for the abolition of slavery or the defense of slavery, depending on their economic motivations..

The emigration of the Rice clan to America in the 18th century, along with hundreds of thousands of other Scots-Irish, was the result of a series of clashes that dated back to the late 1500s in the British Isles. A quick examination of these conflicts helps explain where modern American fundamentalism came from. At the end of the 16th century, two distinct struggles took place as Britain was in the throes of creating a modern state founded on the new democratic ideals of the Enlightenment. Both conflicts appeared to be religious disputes arising out of the Protestant Reformation. However, they gave birth to two movements in which 20th century fundamentalism germinated: the Presbyterianism of the Scots-Irish who settled the American South beginning in the 17th century, and the Puritanism of the religious refugees who settled New England beginning in the same century.

In the last decade of the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth of England engaged in a hard and bloody struggle to subdue the Catholics of Ireland and force them to submit to the authority of the British crown. The war pitted the army of Elizabeth against an array of Gaelic Irish chieftains led by Hugh O’Neill, the second Earl of Tyrone. After nine long years of continual violent conflict and many thousands of deaths, the English army used a combination of invasion, military victories, and a scorched earth policy to provoke famine and hardship for the Irish population and undermine support for O’Neill. The end of the war came in March of 1603, just a week following the death of Elizabeth. The new king of a unified Great Britain was James I, who confronted multiple problems on his accession to the throne. He decided that the solutions to two of those problems were happily related.

First, James wanted to dampen or extinguish the flames of Irish independence as permanently as possible. The idea that occurred to him was to evict all the Catholics from six counties of Ulster in Northern Ireland and to replace them with a sustainably large population of Protestants who would be loyal to the British crown. This project was known as the Plantation of Ulster, and it began in 1609, a few years after the war’s end.

James’ second problem was a troublesome group of dirt-poor, hardscrabble farmers and fighters in the borderlands and lowlands along the Scottish, English, and Welsh borders. They led a marginal existence, were famous for their cattle-rustling and raiding, and were considered to be pugnacious, contentious, and easily inflamed. They were known as the “Border Reivers” or “Borderers” because they had played the invaluable role of a buffer between the Scottish and English warring parties during 300 years of intermittent fighting.

James attempted to solve both of his problems by exporting a large number of these cantankerous Borderers to Ireland, providing them with land grants and planting them in Ulster in large enough communities to be sustainable and defensible. The immigrants were fairly diverse in their origins. Many of them were of Scottish heritage, but others were Welsh or English and had little or no Scottish ancestry. The arrival of the Borderers was coincident with the beginning of the “Troubles” that plagued Ireland into the 21st century.

The Borderers were militantly Protestant, espousing an especially dogmatic and anti-Catholic version of Calvinist Presbyterianism. They believed that every word of the Bible was literally true, and that anyone who disagreed with them on any speck of Biblical doctrine was headed straight for Hell, including the Irish Catholics with whom they had been at war for centuries, and the denizens of the Church of England whom they despised for slavish service to the British state and monarch. They were people of strong convictions, easily angered, and valued for their fighting prowess. They cherished their individual freedoms: their freedom from taxes, freedom from the interference of the state in their lives, freedom to practice their religion just as they pleased. They were a ferocious people of an egalitarian spirit, and did not easily accept the yoke of any king, governor, or politician.

They didn’t get along with the native Irish, either. The next century was replete with complicated conflicts that would sputter for a time and then flare up into armed dispute with their Catholic neighbors to the south or rebellion against a British monarch who failed to appreciate their political demands or their Calvinist theology. Life continued to be marginal, brutish, and oppressive, and their sojourn in Ulster was not a happy one. They struggled with famine, wars, and religious persecution. The first large scale immigration of Scots-Irish to America was a group that arrived in Boston from County Londonderry in 1718, and then moved to New Hampshire, where they founded the town of Londonderry.

They were followed by hundreds of thousands of other Scots-Irish over the next several decades. Many of them first settled in Pennsylvania, and then, finding all the eastern lands in the colonies either occupied or too expensive, they traveled south into Virginia and the Carolinas, and to the interior frontier lands, to the foothills of Appalachia—an area geographically very similar to their original homes in the borderlands between England and Scotland. By the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the Scots-Irish probably constituted about a quarter of the colonial American population, and on at least one occasion King George III referred to the war in North America as ‘that Presbyterian revolt.” Over the next several decades the Scots-Irish spread farther west and to the lowlands of the deeper South , and by the mid-19th century, they provided the dominant culture of the American South.