2 1.2. History of Religion in the United States

The religious history of the United States before the colonial period was dominated by Native American religions. It exhibited much diversity, and are often characterized by animism or panentheism. While there are many different Native American religious practices, most address the following areas of supernatural concern: an omnipresent, invisible universal force, pertaining to the “three ‘life crises’ of birth, puberty, and death”, spirits, visions, the shaman and communal ceremony.[1]

After European settlement, religious history began more than a century before the British colonies became the United States of America in 1776. Some of the original settlers were men and women of deep religious convictions. The religious intensity of the original settlers diminished to some extent over time but new waves of 18th-century immigrants brought their own religious fervor across the Atlantic. In addition, the nation’s first major religious revival in the middle of the 18th century injected new vigor into American religion.

Wave after wave of ethnic groups from Europe (as well as other parts of the globe) brought along their traditional churches—some, especially the English and the German Americans brought along multiple Protestant denominations, as well as Catholicism. Several colonies had an “established” church, which meant that local tax money went to the established denomination. In general, the colonial governments were little involved in religion, and many denominations and sects flourished. Freedom of religion became a basic American principle, and numerous new movements emerged, many of which became established denominations in their own right. The heavy influx of immigration in the 19th and 20th century reinvigorated religion; in many cases, the immigrants became much more religious than they had been in the old country in order to assert their new complex identity. As Europe secularized in the 20th century, the Americans largely resisted the trend, so that by the 21st century it had become perhaps the most religious of all major nations, with religiously based moral issues (such as abortion) occupying a major role in American politics.[citation needed]

North America as a religious refuge: 17th century

Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the 17th century by men and women, who, in the face of European religious persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe.[2]

The Middle Atlantic colonies of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, were conceived and established “as plantations of religion.” Some settlers who arrived in these areas came for secular motives—”to catch fish” as one New Englander put it—but the great majority left Europe to worship in the way they believed to be correct. They supported the efforts of their leaders to create “a City upon a Hill” or a “holy experiment,” whose success would prove that God‘s plan for churches could be successfully realized in the American wilderness. Even colonies like Virginia, which were planned as commercial ventures, were led by entrepreneurs who considered themselves “militant Protestants” and who worked diligently to promote the prosperity of the church.


Puritans were English Protestants who wished to reform and purify the Church of England of what they considered to be unacceptable residues of Roman Catholicism. In the 1620s, leaders of the English state and church grew increasingly unsympathetic to Puritan demands. They insisted that the Puritans conform to religious practices that they abhorred, removing their ministers from office and threatening them with “extirpation from the earth” if they did not fall in line. Zealous Puritan laymen received savage punishments. For example, in 1630 a man was sentenced to life imprisonment, had his property confiscated, his nose slit, an ear cut off, and his forehead branded “S.S.” (sower of sedition).

Beginning in 1630, as many as 20,000 Puritans emigrated to America from England to gain the liberty to worship as they chose. Most settled in New England, but some went as far as the West Indies. Theologically, the Puritans were “non-separating Congregationalists.” Unlike the Pilgrims, who came to Massachusetts in 1620, the Puritans believed that the Church of England was a true church, though in need of major reforms. Every New England Congregational church was considered an independent entity, beholden to no hierarchy. The membership was composed, at least initially, of men and women who had undergone a conversion experience and could prove it to other members. Puritan leaders hoped (futilely, as it turned out) that, once their experiment was successful, England would imitate it by instituting a church order modeled after the New England Way.

Persecution in America

Although they were victims of religious persecution in Europe, the Puritans supported the Old World theory that sanctioned it: the need for uniformity of religion in the state.

Once in control in New England, they sought to break “the very neck of Schism and vile opinions.” The “business” of the first settlers, a Puritan minister recalled in 1681, “was not Toleration, but [they] were professed enemies of it.” [3] Puritans expelled dissenters from their colonies, a fate that in 1636 befell Roger Williams and in 1638 Anne Hutchinson, America’s first major female religious leader.

Those who defied the Puritans by persistently returning to their jurisdictions risked capital punishment, a penalty imposed on the Boston martyrs, four Quakers, between 1659 and 1661. Reflecting on the 17th century’s intolerance, Thomas Jefferson was unwilling to concede to Virginians any moral superiority to the Puritans. Beginning in 1659, Virginia enacted anti-Quaker laws, including the death penalty for refractory Quakers. Jefferson surmised that “if no capital execution took place here, as did in New England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or the spirit of the legislature.”[4]

Founding of Rhode Island

Expelled from Massachusetts in the winter in 1636, former Puritan leader Roger Williams issued an impassioned plea for freedom of conscience. He wrote, “God requireth not an uniformity of Religion to be inacted and enforced in any civill state; which inforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civill Warre, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisie and destruction of millions of souls.”[5] Williams later founded Rhode Island on the principle of religious freedom. He welcomed people of religious belief, even some regarded as dangerously misguided, for nothing could change his view that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”[6]

Jewish refuge in America

A shipload of twenty-three Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Dutch Brazil arrived in New Amsterdam (soon to become New York City) in 1654. By the next year, this small community had established religious services in the city. By 1658, Jews had arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, also seeking religious liberty. Small numbers of Jews continued to come to the British North American colonies, settling mainly in the seaport towns. By the late 18th century, Jewish settlers had established several thriving synagogues.


The Religious Society of Friends formed in England in 1652 around leader George Fox.

Many scholars[who?] today consider Quakers as radical Puritans because the Quakers carried to extremes many Puritan convictions.[citation needed] They stretched the sober deportment of the Puritans into a glorification of “plainness.” Theologically, they expanded the Puritan concept of a church of individuals regenerated by the Holy Spirit to the idea of the indwelling of the Spirit or the “Light of Christ” in every person.

Such teaching struck many of the Quakers’ contemporaries as dangerous heresy. Quakers were severely persecuted in England for daring to deviate so far from orthodox Christianity. By 1680, 10,000 Quakers had been imprisoned in England and 243 had died of torture and mistreatment in jail.

This reign of terror impelled Friends to seek refuge in New Jersey in the 1670s, where they soon became well entrenched. In 1681, when Quaker leader William Penn parlayed a debt owed by Charles II to his father into a charter for the province of Pennsylvania, many more Quakers were prepared to grasp the opportunity to live in a land where they might worship freely. By 1685, as many as 8,000 Quakers had come to Pennsylvania from England, Wales, and Ireland.[citation needed] Although the Quakers may have resembled the Puritans in some religious beliefs and practices, they differed with them over the necessity of compelling religious uniformity in society.

Pennsylvania Germans

During the main years of German emigration to Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century, most of the emigrants were Lutherans, Reformed, or members of small sects—Mennonites, Dunkers[disambiguation needed], Schwenkfelders, Moravians, and some German Baptist groups. The great majority became farmers.[7]

The colony was owned by William Penn, a leading Quaker, and his agents encouraged German emigration to Pennsylvania by circulating promotional literature touting the economic advantages of Pennsylvania as well as the religious liberty available there. The appearance in Pennsylvania of so many different religious groups made the province resemble “an asylum for banished sects.”

Roman Catholics in Maryland

Catholics were harassed and persecuted in England throughout the 17th century. Driven by “the sacred duty of finding a refuge for his Roman Catholic brethren,” George Calvert obtained a charter from Charles I in 1632 for the territory between Pennsylvania and Virginia.[8] This Maryland charter offered no guidelines on religion, although it was assumed that Catholics would not be molested in the new colony. His son Cecil Calvert, Baron Baltimore, was a Catholic who inherited the grant for Maryland from his father and was in charge 1630-45. In 1634, Lord Baltimore two ships, the Ark and the Dove, with the first 200 settlers to Maryland. They included two Catholic priests who had been forced to board surreptitiously to escape the reach of English anti-Catholic laws. Lord Baltimore assumed that religion was a private matter. He rejected the need for an established church, guaranteed liberty of conscience to all Christians, and embraced pluralism.[9]

Catholic fortunes fluctuated in Maryland during the rest of the 17th century, as they became an increasingly smaller minority of the population. After the Glorious Revolution of 1689 in England, the Church of England was legally established in the colony and English penal laws, which deprived Catholics of the right to vote, hold office, or worship publicly, were enforced. Maryland’s first state constitution in 1776 restored the freedom of religion.[10]

Virginia and the Church of England

Virginia was the largest, most populous and most important colony. The Church of England was legally established; the bishop of London made it a favorite missionary target and sent in 22 clergyman by 1624. In practice, establishment meant that local taxes were funneled through the local parish to handle the needs of local government, such as roads and poor relief, in addition to the salary of the minister. There never was a bishop in colonial Virginia, and in practice the local vestry consisted of laymen who controlled the parish and handled local taxes, roads and poor relief.[11]


The Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg. Government and college officials in the capital at Williamsburg were required to attend services at this Anglican church.

When the elected assembly, the House of Burgesses, was established in 1619, it enacted religious laws that made Virginia a bastion of Anglicanism. It passed a law in 1632 requiring that there be a “uniformitie throughout this colony both in substance and circumstance to the cannons and constitution of the Church of England.”[12]

The colonists were typically inattentive, disinterested, and bored during church services, according to the ministers, who complained that the people were sleeping, whispering, ogling the fashionably dressed women, walking about and coming and going, or at best looking out the windows or staring blankly into space.[13] The lack of towns means the church had to serve scattered settlements, while the acute shortage of trained ministers meant that piety was hard to practice outside the home. Some ministers solved their problems by encouraged parishioners to become devout at home, using the Book of Common Prayer for private prayer and devotion (rather than the Bible). This allowed devout Anglicans to lead an active and sincere religious life apart from the unsatisfactory formal church services. However the stress on private devotion weakened the need for a bishop or a large institutional church of the sort Blair wanted. The stress on personal piety opened the way for the First Great Awakening, which pulled people away from the established church.[14]

Especially in the back country, most families had no religious affiliation whatsoever and their low moral standards were shocking to proper Englishmen[15] The Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and other evangelicals directly challenged these lax moral standards and refused to tolerate them in their ranks. The evangelicals identified as sinful the traditional standards of masculinity which revolved around gambling, drinking, and brawling, and arbitrary control over women, children, and slaves. The religious communities enforced new standards, creating a new male leadership role that followed Christian principles and became dominant in the 19th century.[16] Baptists, German Lutherans and Presbyterians, funded their own ministers, and favored disestablishment of the Anglican church. The dissenters grew much faster than the established church, making religious division a factor in Virginia politics into the Revolution. The Patriots, led by Thomas Jefferson, disestablished the Anglican Church in 1786.[17]

Eighteenth century

Against a prevailing view that 18th century Americans had not perpetuated the first settlers’ passionate commitment to their faith, scholars now identify a high level of religious energy in colonies after 1700. According to one expert, religion was in the “ascension rather than the declension”; another sees a “rising vitality in religious life” from 1700 onward; a third finds religion in many parts of the colonies in a state of “feverish growth.”[18] Figures on church attendance and church formation support these opinions. Between 1700 and 1740, an estimated 75-80% of the population attended churches, which were being built at a headlong pace.[18]

By 1780 the percentage of adult colonists who adhered to a church was between 10-30%, not counting slaves or Native Americans. North Carolina had the lowest percentage at about 4%, while New Hampshire and South Carolina were tied for the highest, at about 16%.[19]

Church buildings in 18th-century America varied greatly, from the plain, modest buildings in newly settled rural areas to elegant edifices in the prosperous cities on the eastern seaboard. Churches reflected the customs and traditions as well as the wealth and social status of the denominations that built them. German churches contained features unknown in English ones.


Deism is a loosely used term that describes the views of certain English and continental thinkers. These views gained a small, unorganized but influential number of adherents in America in the late 18th century. Deism stressed morality and rejected the orthodox Christian view of the divinity of Christ, often viewing him as a sublime, but entirely human, teacher of morality.[18]

Though their views were complex, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison were adherents, in some respects, of Unitarianism. Jefferson in particular was an adherent of “Deism and Unitarianism”. Unlike Thomas Paine, this was not a radical, anti-Christian Deistism. Instead it was always respectful of Christianity, admired the ethics of Christ, believed religion could and should play a beneficial role in society, and was open to the possibility that there was a benevolent God involved in the affairs of men and nations.[20]

Deism also influenced the development of Unitarianism in America. By 1800, all but one Congregationalist church in Boston had Unitarian preachers teaching the strict unity of God, the subordinate nature of Christ, and salvation by character. Harvard University, founded by Congregationalists, became a source of Unitarian training.

Great Awakening: emergence of evangelicalism

Main article: First Great Awakening

In the American colonies the First Great Awakening was a wave of religious enthusiasm among Protestants that swept the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s, leaving a permanent impact on American religion. It resulted from powerful preaching that deeply affected listeners (already church members) with a deep sense of personal guilt and salvation by Christ. Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made religion intensely personal to the average person by creating a deep sense of spiritual guilt and redemption. Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom sees it as part of a “great international Protestant upheaval” that also created Pietism in Germany, the Evangelical Revival and Methodism in England.[21] It brought Christianity to the slaves and was an apocalyptic event in New England that challenged established authority. It incited rancor and division between the old traditionalists who insisted on ritual and doctrine and the new revivalists.

The new style of sermons and the way people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America. People became passionately and emotionally involved in their religion, rather than passively listening to intellectual discourse in a detached manner. Ministers who used this new style of preaching were generally called “new lights”, while the preachers of old were called “old lights”. People began to study the Bible at home, which effectively decentralized the means of informing the public on religious manners and was akin to the individualistic trends present in Europe during the Protestant Reformation.[22]

The fundamental premise of evangelicalism is the conversion of individuals from a state of sin to a “new birth” through preaching of the Word. The First Great Awakening led to changes in American colonial society. In New England, the Great Awakening was influential among many Congregationalists. In the Middle and Southern colonies, especially in the “Backcountry” regions, the Awakening was influential among Presbyterians. In the South Baptist and Methodist preachers converted both whites and enslaved blacks.[23]

During the first decades of the 18th century, in the Connecticut River Valley, a series of local “awakenings” began in the Congregational church with ministers including Jonathan Edwards. The first new Congregational Church in the Massachusetts Colony during the great awakening period, was in 1731 at Uxbridge and called the Rev.Nathan Webb as its Pastor. By the 1730s, they had spread into what was interpreted as a general outpouring of the Spirit that bathed the American colonies, England, Wales, and Scotland.

In mass open-air revivals powerful preachers like George Whitefield brought thousands of souls to the new birth. The Great Awakening, which had spent its force in New England by the mid-1740s, split the Congregational and Presbyterian churches into supporters—called “New Lights” and “New Side“—and opponents—the “Old Lights” and “Old Side.” Many New England New Lights became Separate Baptists. Largely through the efforts of a charismatic preacher from New England named Shubal Stearns and paralleled by the New Side Presbyterians (who were eventually reunited on their own terms with the Old Side), they carried the Great Awakening into the southern colonies, igniting a series of the revivals that lasted well into the 19th century.[18]

The supporters of the Awakening and its evangelical thrust—Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists—became the largest American Protestant denominations by the first decades of the 19th century. Opponents of the Awakening or those split by it—Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists—were left behind.

Unlike the Second Great Awakening that began about 1800 and which reached out to the unchurched, the First Great Awakening focused on people who were already church members. It changed their rituals, their piety, and their self awareness.[22]

Evangelicals in the South

The South had originally been settled and controlled by Anglicans, who dominated the ranks of rich planters but whose ritualistic high church established religion had little appeal to ordinary men and women, both white and black.[24][25]


Energized by numerous itinerant self-proclaimed missionaries, by the 1760s Baptists were drawing Southerners, especially poor white farmers, into a new, much more democratic religion. Slaves were welcome at the services and many became Baptists at this time. Baptist services were highly emotional; the only ritual was baptism, which was applied by immersion (not sprinkling like the Anglicans) only to adults. Opposed to the low moral standards prevalent in the colony, the Baptists strictly enforced their own high standards of personal morality, with special concern for sexual misconduct, heavy drinking, frivolous spending, missing services, cursing, and revelry. Church trials were held frequently and if members who did not submit to disciple were expelled.[26]

Historians have debated the implications of the religious rivalries for the American Revolution. The Baptist farmers did introduce a new egalitarian ethic that largely displaced the semi-aristocratic ethic of the Anglican planters. However, both groups supported the Revolution. There was a sharp contrast between the austerity of the plain-living Baptists and the opulence of the Anglican planters, who controlled local government. Baptist church discipline, mistaken by the gentry for radicalism, served to ameliorate disorder. The struggle for religious toleration erupted and was played out during the American Revolution, as the Baptists worked to disestablish the Anglican church.[27]

Baptists, German Lutherans and Presbyterians, funded their own ministers, and favored disestablishment of the Anglican church.


Methodist missionaries were also active in the late colonial period. From 1776 to 1815 Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury made 42 trips into the western parts to visit Methodist congregations. In the 1780s itinerant Methodist preachers carried copies of an anti-slavery petition in their saddlebags throughout the state, calling for an end to slavery. At the same time, counter-petitions were circulated. The petitions were presented to the Assembly; they were debated, but no legislative action was taken, and after 1800 there was less and less religious opposition to slavery.[28]

Masculinity and morality

Especially in the Southern back country, most families had no religious affiliation whatsoever and their low moral standards were shocking to proper Englishmen[15] The Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and other evangelicals directly challenged these lax moral standards and refused to tolerate them in their ranks. The evangelicals identified as sinful the traditional standards of masculinity which revolved around gambling, drinking, and brawling, and arbitrary control over women, children, and slaves. The religious communities enforced new standards, creating a new male leadership role that followed Christian principles and became dominant in the 19th century.[16]

American Revolution

Religion played a major role in the American Revolution[citation needed] by offering a moral sanction for opposition to the British—an assurance to the average American that revolution was justified in the sight of God[citation needed]. As a recent scholar has observed, “by turning colonial resistance into a righteous cause, and by crying the message to all ranks in all parts of the colonies, ministers did the work of secular radicalism and did it better.”[citation needed]

Ministers served the American cause in many capacities during the Revolution: as military chaplains, as scribes for committees of correspondence, and as members of state legislatures, constitutional conventions and the Continental Congress. Some even took up arms, leading Continental Army troops in battle.

The Revolution split some denominations, notably the Church of England, whose ministers were bound by oath to support the king, and the Quakers, who were traditionally pacifists. Religious practice suffered in certain places because of the absence of ministers and the destruction of churches, but in other areas, religion flourished.

The Revolution strengthened millennialist strains in American theology. At the beginning of the war some ministers were persuaded that, with God’s help, America might become “the principal Seat of the glorious Kingdom which Christ shall erect upon Earth in the latter Days.” Victory over the British was taken as a sign of God’s partiality for America and stimulated an outpouring of millennialist expectations—the conviction that Christ would rule on earth for 1,000 years. This attitude combined with a groundswell of secular optimism about the future of America helped to create the buoyant mood of the new nation that became so evident after Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801.

Church of England

The American Revolution inflicted deeper wounds on the Church of England in America than on any other denomination because the English monarch was the head of the church. Church of England priests, at their ordination, swore allegiance to the British crown.

The Book of Common Prayer offered prayers for the monarch, beseeching God “to be his defender and keeper, giving him victory over all his enemies,” who in 1776 were American soldiers as well as friends and neighbors of American parishioners of the Church of England. Loyalty to the church and to its head could be construed as treason to the American cause.

Patriotic American members of the Church of England, loathing to discard so fundamental a component of their faith as The Book of Common Prayer, revised it to conform to the political realities. After the Treaty of Paris (1783) documenting British recognition of American independence, the church split and the Anglican Communion created, allowing a separated Episcopal Church of the United States to replace, in the United States, and be in communion with the Church of England.

Great Awakenings

Main article: Revivalism
See also: Revival meeting

The “great Awakenings” were large-scale revivals that came in spurts, and moved large numbers of people from unchurched to churched.

Second Great Awakening

See also: Camp meeting

In 1800, major revivals began that spread across the nation: the decorous Second Great Awakening in New England and the exuberant Great Revival in Cane Ridge, Kentucky. The principal religious innovation produced by the Kentucky revivals was the camp meeting.

The revivals at first were organized by Presbyterian ministers who modeled them after the extended outdoor “communion seasons,” used by the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, which frequently produced emotional, demonstrative displays of religious conviction. In Kentucky, the pioneers loaded their families and provisions into their wagons and drove to the Presbyterian meetings, where they pitched tents and settled in for several days.

When assembled in a field or at the edge of a forest for a prolonged religious meeting, the participants transformed the site into a camp meeting. The religious revivals that swept the Kentucky camp meetings were so intense and created such gusts of emotion that their original sponsors, the Presbyterians, as well the Baptists, soon repudiated them. The Methodists, however, adopted and eventually domesticated camp meetings and introduced them into the eastern United States, where for decades they were one of the evangelical signatures of the denomination.

The Second Great Awakening (1800–1830s), unlike the first, focused on the unchurched and sought to instill in them a deep sense of personal salvation as experienced in revival meetings. The great revival quickly spread throughout Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Ohio. Each denomination had assets that allowed it to thrive on the frontier. The Methodists had an efficient organization that depended on ministers known as circuit riders, who sought out people in remote frontier locations. The circuit riders came from among the common people, which helped them establish rapport with the frontier families they hoped to convert.

The Second Great Awakening exercised a profound impact on American religious history. By 1860 evangelicalism emerged as a kind of national church or national religion and was the grand absorbing theme of American religious life. The greatest gains were made by the very well organized Methodists. Francis Asbury (1745–1816) led the American Methodist movement as one of the most prominent religious leaders of the young republic. Traveling throughout the eastern seaboard, Methodism grew quickly under Asbury’s leadership into the nation’s largest and most widespread denomination. The numerical strength of the Baptists and Methodists rose relative to that of the denominations dominant in the colonial period—the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Reformed. Efforts to apply Christian teaching to the resolution of social problems presaged the Social Gospel of the late 19th century. It also sparked the beginnings of groups such as the Mormons, the Restoration Movement and the Holiness movement.

Third Great Awakening

Main article: Third Great Awakening

The Third Great Awakening was a period of religious activism in American history from the late 1850s to the 20th century. It affected pietistic Protestant denominations and had a strong sense of social activism. It gathered strength from the postmillennial theology that the Second Coming of Christ would come after mankind had reformed the entire earth. The Social Gospel Movement gained its force from the Awakening, as did the worldwide missionary movement. New groupings emerged, such as the Holiness movement and Nazarene movements, and Christian Science.[29]

The Protestant mainline churches were growing rapidly in numbers, wealth and educational levels, throwing off their frontier beginnings and become centered in towns and cities. Intellectuals and writers such as Josiah Strong advocated a muscular Christianity with systematic outreach to the unchurched in America and around the globe. Others built colleges and universities to train the next generation. Each denomination supported active missionary societies, and made the role of missionary one of high prestige. The great majority of pietistic mainline Protestants (in the North) supported the Republican Party, and urged it to endorse prohibition and social reforms.[30][31] See Third Party System

The awakening in numerous cities in 1858 was interrupted by the American Civil War. In the South, on the other hand, the Civil War stimulated revivals and strengthened the Baptists, especially.[32] After the war, Dwight L. Moody made revivalism the centerpiece of his activities in Chicago by founding the Moody Bible Institute. The hymns of Ira Sankey were especially influential.[33]

Across the nation drys crusaded in the name of religion for the prohibition of alcohol. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union mobilized Protestant women for social crusades against liquor, pornography and prostitution, and sparked the demand for woman suffrage.[34]

The Gilded Age plutocracy came under harsh attack from the Social Gospel preachers and with reformers in the Progressive Era who became involved with issues of child labor, compulsory elementary education and the protection of women from exploitation in factories.

All the major denominations sponsored growing missionary activities inside the United States and around the world.[35][36]

Colleges associated with churches rapidly expanded in number, size and quality of curriculum. The promotion of “muscular Christianity” became popular among young men on campus and in urban YMCA’s, as well as such denominational youth groups such as the Epworth League for Methodists and the Walther League for Lutherans.[37]

Emergence of African American churches

Scholars disagree about the extent of the native African content of black Christianity as it emerged in 18th-century America, but there is no dispute that the Christianity of the black population was grounded in evangelicalism.

The Second Great Awakening has been called the “central and defining event in the development of Afro-Christianity.” During these revivals Baptists and Methodists converted large numbers of blacks. However, many were disappointed at the treatment they received from their fellow believers and at the backsliding in the commitment to abolish slavery that many white Baptists and Methodists had advocated immediately after the American Revolution.

When their discontent could not be contained, forceful black leaders followed what was becoming an American habit—they formed new denominations. In 1787, Richard Allen and his colleagues in Philadelphia broke away from the Methodist Church and in 1815 founded the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which, along with independent black Baptist congregations, flourished as the century progressed. By 1846, the AME Church, which began with 8 clergy and 5 churches, had grown to 176 clergy, 296 churches, and 17,375 members.

After the Civil War, Black Baptists desiring to practice Christianity away from racial discrimination, rapidly set up several separate state Baptist conventions. In 1866, black Baptists of the South and West combined to form the Consolidated American Baptist Convention. This Convention eventually collapsed but three national conventions formed in response. In 1895 the three conventions merged to create the National Baptist Convention. It is now the largest African-American religious organization in the United States.

Church of Christ, Scientist

The Church of Christ, Scientist was founded in 1879, in Boston by Mary Baker Eddy, the author of its central book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, which offers a unique interpretation of Christian faith.[38] Christian Science teaches that the reality of God denies the reality of sin, sickness, death and the material world. Accounts of miraculous healing are common within the church, and adherents often refuse traditional medical treatments. Legal troubles sometimes result when they forbid medical treatment of their children.[39]

The Church is unique among American denominations in several ways. It is highly centralized, with all the local churches merely branches of the mother church in Boston. There are no ministers, but there are practitioners who are integral to the movement. The practitioners operate local businesses that help members heal their illnesses by the power of the mind. They depend for their clientele on the approval of the Church. Starting in the late 19th century the Church has rapidly lost membership, although it does not publish statistics. Its flagship newspaper Christian Science Monitor lost most of its subscribers and dropped its paper version to become an online source.[40]


Restorationism refers to the belief that a purer form of Christianity should be restored using the early church as a model.[41]:635[42]:217 In many cases, restorationist groups believed that contemporary Christianity, in all its forms, had deviated from the true, original Christianity, which they then attempted to “Reconstruct”, often using the Book of Acts as a “guidebook” of sorts. Restorationists do not usually describe themselves as “reforming” a Christian church continuously existing from the time of Jesus, but as restoring the Church that they believe was lost at some point. “Restorationism” is often used to describe the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. The term “Restorationist” is also used to describe the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the Jehovah’s Witness Movement.


The origins of another distinctive religious group, the Latter-day Saints (LDS)—also widely known as Mormons—arose in the early 19th century during the “Golden Day of Democratic Evangelicalism.” Founder Joseph Smith, Jr., and many of his earliest followers came from an area of western New York called the burned-over district, because it had been “scorched” by so many revivals. Young Joseph Smith had a series of visions, revelations from God and visitations from angelic messengers, providing him with ongoing instruction in the execution of his role as a prophet and a restorationist. After publishing the Book of Mormon—which he claimed to have translated by divine power from a record of ancient American prophets recorded on golden plates — Smith organized “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” on April 6, 1830.

Mormon theology was far out of the mainstream, and the Mormons were driven out of state after state; Smith was assassinated and Brigham Young led the people out of the U.S. into Utah — at the time virtually ungoverned. Rumors to the effect Mormons were practicing polygamy there were true; the U.S. government went to Utah, clashed with the Mormons, and sought to disenfranchise the Church for practicing polygamy. The Church pulled away from plural marriages between 1890 and 1907, was allowed to resume normal status, and Utah was granted statehood in 1896. Thanks to worldwide missionary work, the church now counts over 14 million members.[43]

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses comprise a fast-growing denomination that has kept itself separate from other Christian denominations. It began in 1872 with Charles Taze Russell, but experienced a major schism in 1917 as Joseph Franklin Rutherford began his presidency. Rutherford gave new direction to the movement and renamed the movement “Jehovah’s witnesses” in 1931. The period from 1925 to 1933 saw many significant changes in doctrine. Attendance at their yearly Memorial dropped from a high of 90,434 in 1925 to 63,146 in 1935. Since 1950 growth has been very rapid.[44]

During the World War II, Jehovah’s Witnesses experienced mob attacks in America and were temporarily banned in Canada and Australia because of their opposition to the war effort. They won significant Supreme Court victories involving the rights of free speech and religion that have had a great impact on legal interpretation of these rights for others.[45] In 1943, the United States Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette that school children of Jehovah’s Witnesses could not be compelled to salute the flag.

Benevolent societies

Benevolent societies were an extremely new and conspicuous feature of the American landscape during the first half of the 19th century. Originally devoted to the salvation of souls, they eventually focused on the eradication of every kind of social ill. Benevolent societies were the direct result of the extraordinary energies generated by the evangelical movement—specifically, by the “activism” resulting from conversion. “The evidence of God’s grace,” Presbyterian evangelist Charles Grandison Finney insisted, “was a person’s benevolence toward others.”[46]

The evangelical establishment used this powerful network of voluntary, physcological,ecumenical benevolent societies to Christianize the nation. The earliest and most important of these organizations focused their efforts on the conversion of sinners to the new birth or to the creation of conditions (such as sobriety sought by temperance societies) in which conversions could occur. The six largest societies in 1826-27 were all directly concerned with conversion: the American Education Society, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Bible Society, the American Sunday-School Union, the American Tract Society, and the American Home Missionary Society.

Roman Catholicism

Catholicism first came with the Spanish explorers. In the Thirteen colonies, Catholicism was introduced with the settling of Maryland in 1634; this colony offered a rare example of religious toleration in a fairly intolerant age. Maryland law remained a major center, as exemplified by the pre-eminence of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in Catholic circles. However, at the time of the American Revolution, Catholics formed less than 1% of the white population of the thirteen states.[47] Religiously, the Catholics were characterized by personalism, discipline, and a prayer life that was essentially personal, demanding only a small role for priests and none for bishops. Ritualism was important, and focused on daily prayers, Sunday Mass, and observance of two dozen holy days.[48]

The main source of Roman Catholics in the United States was the huge numbers of European immigrants of the 19th and 20th centuries, especially from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland.. Recently, most Catholic immigrants come from Latin America, especially from Mexico.[49]

The Irish came to dominate the Church, providing most of the bishops, college presidents and lay leaders. They strongly supported the “ultramontane” position favoring the authority of the pope.[50]

In the latter half of the 19th century, the first attempt at standardizing discipline in the American Church occurred with the convocation of the Plenary Councils of Baltimore. These councils resulted in the Baltimore Catechism and the establishment of the Catholic University of America.[51]

In the 1960s the Church went through dramatic changes, especially in the liturgy and the use of English (and Spanish) instead of Latin. The number of priests and nuns declined sharply as few entered and many left their vocations. Since 1990 scandals involving the coverup by bishops of priests who sexually abused young men has led to massive financial payments across the country—and indeed in Europe as well.

Eastern Orthodoxy

Eastern Orthodoxy spread to the North American continent with the founding of Russian America, in what is today the State of Alaska. The spreading of the Orthodox faith went along with the Russian colonization of the Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries. From there, it spread to the continental United States with the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe.


The history of the Jews in the United States comprises a theological dimension, with a three-way division into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. In social terms the Jewish ethnic community began with small groups of merchants in colonial ports such as New York City and Charleston. In the mid and late 19th century well-educated German Jews arrived and settled in towns cities across the United States, especially as dry goods merchants . From 1880 to 1924 large numbers of Yiddish-speaking Jews arrived from Eastern Europe, settling in New York City and other large cities. After 1926 numbers came as refugees from Europe; after 1980 many came from the Soviet Union, and there has been a flow from Israel. By the year 1900 the 1.5 million Jews residing in the United States were the third most of any nation, behind Russia and Austria-Hungary. The proportion of the population has been about 2 to 3% since 1900, but in the 21st century Jews were widely diffused in major metropolitan areas around New York or the Northeastern United States, and especially in South Florida and California.[52][53]

Denominations and sects founded in the U.S.

Church and state issues

Establishment in colonial era

Early immigrants to the American colonies were motivated largely by the desire to worship freely in their own fashion, particularly after the English Civil War, but also religious wars and disputes in France and Germany.[54] They included a large number of nonconformists such as the Puritans and the Pilgrims, as well as Roman Catholics (in Baltimore). Despite a common background, the groups’ views on broader religious toleration were mixed. While some notable examples such as Roger Williams of Rhode Island and William Penn ensured the protection of religious minorities within their colonies, others such as the Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony had established churches. The Dutch colony of the New Netherlands had also established the Dutch Reformed Church and outlawed all other worship, although enforcement by the Dutch West India Company in the last years of the colony was sparse. Part of the reason for establishment was financial: the established Church was responsible for poor relief, and dissenting churches would therefore have a significant advantage.

There were also opponents to the support of any established church even at the state level. In 1773, Isaac Backus, a prominent Baptist minister in New England, observed that when “church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.” Thomas Jefferson’s influential Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was enacted in 1786, five years before the Bill of Rights.

Most Anglican ministers, and many Anglicans outside the South, were Loyalists. The Anglican church was disestablished but the denomination was reestablished in the decade after the war.

Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” The phrase “separation of church and state,” which does not appear in the Constitution itself, is generally traced to an 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, where Jefferson spoke of the combined effect of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. It has since been quoted in several opinions handed down by the United States Supreme Court.[55]

Robert N. Bellah has argued in his writings that although the separation of church and state is grounded firmly in the constitution of the United States, this does not mean that there is no religious dimension in the political society of the United States. He used the term Civil Religion to describe the specific relation between politics and religion in the United States. His 1967 article analyzes the inaugural speech of John F. Kennedy: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word ‘God’ at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension.”[56]

This is not only the subject of a sociological discussion, but can also be an issue for atheists in America. There are allegations of discrimination against atheists in the United States.

Jefferson, Madison, and the “wall of separation”

The phrase a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” was first used by Baptist theologian Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island.[57] It was later used by Thomas Jefferson as a commentary on the First Amendment and its restriction on the legislative branch of the federal government, in an 1802 letter.

Jefferson’s and James Madison‘s conceptions of separation have long been debated. Jefferson refused to issue Proclamations of Thanksgiving sent to him by Congress during his presidency, though he did issue a Thanksgiving and Prayer proclamation as Governor of Virginia and vetoed two bills on the grounds they violated the first amendment.

After retiring from the presidency, Madison argued in his detached memoranda[58] for a stronger separation of church and state, opposing the very presidential issuing of religious proclamations he himself had done, and also opposing the appointment of chaplains to Congress.

Jefferson’s opponents said his position meant the rejection of Christianity, but this was a caricature. In setting up the University of Virginia, Jefferson encouraged all the separate sects to have preachers of their own, though there was a constitutional ban on the State supporting a Professorship of Divinity, arising from his own Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.[59]

Test acts

The absence of an establishment of religion did not necessarily imply that all men were free to hold office. Most colonies had a Test Act, and several states retained them for a short time. This stood in contrast to the Federal Constitution, which explicitly prohibits the employment of any religious test for Federal office, and which through the Fourteenth Amendment later extended this prohibition to the States.

Article Six of the United States Constitution provides that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”. Prior to the inclusion of the Bill of Rights, this was the only mention of religious freedom in the Constitution.

First Amendment

The first amendment to the US Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” The two parts, known as the “establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause” respectively, form the textual basis for the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the “separation of church and state” doctrine.

On August 15, 1789 Madison said, “he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience….”[60]

All states disestablished religion by 1833; Massachusetts was the last state. This ended the practice of allocating taxes to churches.

Supreme Court since 1947

The phrase “separation of church and state” became a definitive part of Establishment Clause jurisprudence in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947), a case that dealt with a state law that allowed government funds for transportation to religious schools. While the ruling upheld the state law allowing taxpayer funding of transportation to religious schools as constitutional, Everson was also the first case to hold the Establishment Clause applicable to the state legislatures as well as Congress, based upon the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[61]

In 1962, the Supreme Court extended this analysis to the issue of prayer in public schools. In Engel v. Vitale 370 U.S. 421 (1962), the Court determined it unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and require its recitation in public schools, even when it is non-denominational and students may excuse themselves from participation. As such, any teacher, faculty, or student can pray in school, in accordance with their own religion. However, they may not lead such prayers in class, or in other “official” school settings such as assemblies or programs.

Currently, the Supreme Court applies a three-pronged test to determine whether legislation comports with the Establishment Clause, known as the “Lemon Test“. First, the legislature must have adopted the law with a neutral or non-religious purpose. Second, the statute’s principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion. Third, the statute must not result in an excessive entanglement of government with religion.[61]


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