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Modern Voices
Peter Wood on English Protestantism
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Q: Let's talk about English Protestantism, and how England had a sense of manifest destiny that also led into the New World?
Peter Wood

A: The English in the time of Elizabeth were in a difficult situation. They had separated from the Catholic Church in Rome, they had joined the Protestant Reformation. And their attitude toward the powerful Catholic Spanish was ambivalent. On the one hand, that's the enemy. But on the other hand there's some jealousy.

So there's this dilemma, both in Europe and overseas as to whether to beat them or join them. Certainly on the issue of slavery there's a question of whether you should try to horn in on their lucrative slave trade and get a piece of that action, as many of the people who saw profits in that route were tempted to do. But there was also a competing sense that if that's what the Spanish do, we shouldn't do that, we'll do it differently. And in fact, our English heritage demands that we do it differently, to prove that we're better than the enslaving Catholics. That was a difficult choice, and the dilemma went on for many years.

In 1620, precisely the year that the English pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock, another Englishman named Jobson is on the African coast engaging in trade. He's offered some African slaves and he says, "We don't trade in people like ourselves, that's not a trade that we take part in." Of course, the year before colonists in Jamestown had already bought some Africans. But the English as a whole at that point were ambivalent in that period.
Peter Wood
Professor of History
Duke University

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