- 1 Status of Religion in the United States
- 2 Political Influence of Religion in the United States
- 3 Table of religious bodies in the United States
- 4 Religious affiliation
- 5 Religious history of the United States
- 6 America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century
- 6.1 European Persecution
- 6.2 The Puritans
- 6.3 Bible commonwealths
- 6.4 Persecution in America
- 6.5 Jewish refuge in America
- 6.6 The Quakers
- 6.7 Pennsylvania Germans
- 6.8 Roman Catholics in Maryland
- 6.9 Virginia and the Church of England
- 7 Religion in Eighteenth-Century America
- 8 Religion and the American Revolution
- 9 Religion and the Continental Congresses
- 10 Religion and state governments
- 11 Religion and the federal government
- 12 Religion and the New Republic
- 13 External links
- 14 See also
- 15 References
Status of Religion in the United States
Religion is a significant part of the culture of the United States. The United States is one of the most religious first-world nations in the world. According to a 44-nation survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, religion is more important to people in the US than to those in other industrialized nations. Gallup International indicates that 41% (2001) of American citizens report they regularly attend religious services, compared to 15% of French citizens, 7% of UK citizens, and 25% of Israeli citizens.
However, these numbers are somewhat suspect if one wishes to judge people's religious beliefs by how often they attend church. As noted by ReligiousTolerance.org, "Church attendance data in the U.S. has been checked against actual values using two different techniques. The true figures show that only about 20% of Americans and 10% of Canadians actually go to church one or more times a week. Many Americans and Canadians tell pollsters that they have gone to church even though they have not. Whether this happens in other countries, with different cultures, is difficult to predict."  How they "discovered" that individual people were supposedly lying is perhaps unknown, and where they found Biblical authority for a "If you don't go to church all the time, you are not a Christian evars" stance is unclear.
The First Amendment guarantees right to freedom of religion. It also ensures that the government does not act in the interest or disinterest of religion. Some scholars have argued that this "free market" of ideas forces American pastors to cut overhead and market faith in new and supposedly more effective ways Culture "wars" often have roots in religious differences, but major incidents of religious violence are rare.
Political Influence of Religion in the United States
Politicians frequently discuss their religion when campaigning and many churches and religious figures are highly politically active. However, to keep their status as tax-exempt organizations they must not officially endorse a candidate thanks to a law passed in the 1950's I think. The considerable majority of presidents have had some affiliation with Protestant Christianity, several early holders of the office supposedly being Deists, with at least four Unitarians and a single Roman Catholic. (See the list of U.S. Presidential religious affiliations.)
Table of religious bodies in the United States
The table below represents selected data as reported to the U.S. Census Bureau. It only includes the voluntary self-reported membership of religious bodies with 60,000 or more. The definition of a church member is determined by each religious body. A growing sector of the population, currrently 14%, does not identify itself as a member of any religion.( tables 67-69 )
|Religious body||Year Reported||Churches Reported||Membership
|Number of Pastors|
|African Methodist Episcopal Church||1999||(NA)||2,500||7,741|
|African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church||2002||3,226||1,431||3,252|
|American Baptist Association||1998||1,760||275||1,740|
|American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.||1998||3,800||1,507||4,145|
|Antiochian Orthodox Christian Diocese of North America||1998||220||65||263|
|Armenian Apostolic Church of America||1998||28||200||25|
|Assemblies of God||1998||11,937||2,526||18,148|
|Baptist Bible Fellowship International||1997||4,500||1,200||(NA)|
|Baptist General Conference||1998||876||141||(NA)|
|Baptist Missionary Association of America||1999||1,334||235||1,525|
|Christian and Missionary Alliance, The||1998||1,964||346||1,629|
|Christian Brethren (Plymouth Brethren)||1997||1,150||100||(NA)|
|Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)||1997||3,818||879||3,419|
|Christian Churches and Churches of Christ||1998||5,579||1,072||5,525|
|Christian Congregation, Inc., The||1998||1,438||117||1,436|
|Christian Methodist Episcopal Church||1983||2,340||719||(NA)|
|Christian Reformed Church in North America||1998||733||199||655|
|Church of God in Christ||1991||15,300||5,500||28,988|
|Church of God of Prophecy||1997||1,908||77||2,000|
|Church of God (Anderson, IN)||1998||2,353||234||3,034|
|Church of God (Cleveland, TN)||1995||6,060||753||3,121|
|Church of the Brethren||1997||1,095||141||827|
|Church of the Nazarene||1998||5,101||627||4,598|
|Churches of Christ||1999||15,000||1,500||14,500|
|Conservative Baptist Association of America||1998||1,200||200||(NA)|
|Coptic Orthodox Church||1992||85||180||65|
|Cumberland Presbyterian Church||1998||774||87||634|
|Evangelical Covenant Church, The||1998||628||97||607|
|Evangelical Free Church of America, The||1995||1,224||243||1,936|
|Evangelical Lutheran Church in America||1998||10,862||5,178||9,646|
|Evangelical Presbyterian Church||1998||187||61||262|
|Free Methodist Church of North America||1998||990||73||(NA)|
|Full Gospel Fellowship of Churches and Ministers International||1999||896||275||2,070|
|General Association of General Baptists||1997||790||72||1,085|
|General Association of Regular Baptist Churches||1998||1,415||102||(NA)|
|General Conference Mennonite Brethren Churches||1996||368||82||590|
|Grace Gospel Fellowship||1992||128||60||160|
|Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America||1998||523||1,955||596|
|Independent Fundamental Churches of America||1999||659||62||(NA)|
|International Church of the Foursquare Gospel||1998||1,851||238||4,900|
|International Council of Community Churches||1998||150||250||182|
|International Pentecostal Holiness Church||1998||1,716||177||1,507|
|Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, The||1998||6,218||2,594||5,227|
|Mennonite Church USA||2005||943||114||(NA)|
|National Association of Congregational Christian Churches||1998||416||67||534|
|National Association of Free Will Baptists||1998||2,297||210||2,800|
|National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.||1987||2,500||3,500||8,000|
|National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.||1992||33,000||8,200||32,832|
|National Missionary Baptist Convention of America||1992||(NA)||2,500||(NA)|
|Old Order Amish Church||1993||898||81||3,592|
|Orthodox Church in America||1998||625||1,000||700|
|Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc.||1998||1,750||1,500||4,500|
|Pentecostal Church of God||1998||1,237||104||(NA)|
|Presbyterian Church in America||1997||1,340||280||1,642|
|Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)||1998||11,260||3,575||9,390|
|Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.||1995||2,000||2,500||(NA)|
|Reformed Church in America||1998||902||296||915|
|Religious Society of Friends (Conservative).||1994||1,200||104||(NA)|
|Roman Catholic Church, The||2002||19,484||66,404||(NA)|
|Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America, The||1996||37||65||37|
|Salvation Army, The||1998||1,388||471||2,920|
|Serbian Orthodox Church in the U.S.A. and Canada||1986||68||67||60|
|United Church of Christ||1998||6,017||1,421||4,317|
|United Methodist Church, The||1998||36,170||8,400||(NA)|
|Wesleyan Church, The||1998||1,590||120||1,806|
|Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod||1997||1,240||411||1,222|
Self-Described Religious Identification of US Adult Population: 1990 and 2001 
All figures after adjusting for refusals to reply, which jumped from 2.3% in 1990 to 5.4% in 2001
|Christians (no supplied denomination)||4.7%||7.2%||+2.5%||+75.3%|
|Protestant (no denomination supplied)||10.0%||2.4%||-7.7%||-73.0%|
|Churches of Christ||1.0%||1.3%||+0.3%||+46.6%|
|Congregational/United Church of Christ||0.3%||0.7%||+0.4%||+130.1%|
|Assemblies of God||0.4%||0.6%||+0.2%||+67.6%|
|Church of God||0.3%||0.5%||+0.2%||+77.8%|
|Other Christian (less than 0.3% each)||1.6%||1.9%||+0.3%||+40.2%|
|Total other religions||3.5%||5.2%||+1.7%||+69.1%|
|Others (less than 0.07% each)||0.6%||0.7%||+0.1%||+25.4%|
Religious history of the United States
Many of the original settlers were men and women of deep religious convictions. That the religious intensity of the original settlers would diminish to some extent over time was perhaps to be expected, but new waves of eighteenth century immigrants brought their own religious fervor across the Atlantic and the nation's first major religious revival in the middle of the eighteenth century injected new vigor into American religion.
The result was that many of the people who rose in rebellion against Great Britain in 1776 cited reasons of a religious nature for their actions, and most American statesmen, when they began to form new governments at the state and national levels, shared a conviction that religion was, to quote Alexis de Tocqueville's observation, "indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions".
The efforts of the founding fathers to find a proper role for their support of religion, and the degree to which religion can be supported by public officials without being inconsistent with the revolutionary imperative of freedom of religion for all citizens, is a question that is still debated in the country today.
America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century
Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately-held religious convictions and fled Europe.
The New England colonies, 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 enthusiastically supported the efforts of their leaders to create "a city on 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.
The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens.
Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of this policy, denounced by Roger Williams as "inforced uniformity of religion," meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst.
In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, in some other areas one Protestant group persecuted Protestants of other groups, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.
Execution of Mennonites in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselins, described variously as Dutch Anabaptists or Mennonites, were executed by Catholic authorities in Ghent in 1554. Strangled and burned, van der Leyen was finally dispatched with an iron fork. Bracht’s Martyr’s Mirror is considered by modern Mennonites as second only in importance to the Bible in perpetuating their faith.
Jesuit persecution in Great Britain
Jesuits like John Ogilvie (Ogilby) (1580-1615) were under constant surveillance and threat from the Protestant governments of England and Scotland. Ogilvie was sentenced to death by a Glasgow court and hanged and mutilated on March 10, 1615.
Brian Cansfield (1581-1643), a Jesuit priest was seized while at prayer by English Protestant authorities in Yorkshire. Cansfield was beaten and imprisoned under harsh conditions. He died on August 3, 1643 from the effects of his ordeal. Another Jesuit priest, Ralph Corbington (Corby) (ca. 1599-1644), was hanged by the English government in London, September 17, 1644, for professing his faith.
The Expulsion of the Salzburgers from Austria
On October 31, 1731, the Catholic ruler of Salzburg, Austria, Archbishop Leopold von Firmian, issued an edict expelling as many as 20,000 Lutherans from his principality. Many propertyless Lutherans, given only eight days to leave their homes, froze to death as they drifted through the winter seeking sanctuary. The wealthier ones who were allowed three months to dispose of their property fared better. Some of these Salzburgers reached London, from whence they sailed to Georgia. Others found new homes in the Netherlands and East Prussia.
Persecution of Huguenots by Catholics
The slaughter of Huguenots (French Protestants) by Catholics at Sens, Burgundy in 1562 occurred at the beginning of more than thirty years of religious strife between French Protestants and Catholics. These wars produced numerous atrocities. The worst was the notorious St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris, August 24, 1572. Thousands of Huguenots were butchered by Roman Catholic mobs. Although an accommodation between the two sides was sealed in 1598 by the Edict of Nantes, religious privileges of Huguenots eroded during the seventeenth century and were extinguished in 1685 by the revocation of the edict. Perhaps as many as 400,000 French Protestants emigrated to various parts of the world, including the British North American colonies.
Drowning of Protestants in Ireland
Approximately one hundred Protestants from Loughgall Parish, County Armagh, were executed by mobs at the bridge over the River Bann near Portadown, Ulster. This atrocity occurred at the beginning of the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Having held the Protestants as prisoners and tortured them, the Catholics drove them "like hogs" to the bridge, where they were stripped naked and forced into the water below at swordspoint. Survivors of the plunge were shot.
Massacres of Catholics in Ireland
Thousands of Catholic residents were massacred by Oliver Cromwell's protestant troops at Drogheda, Wexford and Waterford during the Irish campaign of Autumn and Winter 1649. All of the survivors of Drogheda, and many from other places were sold as slaves to the West Indies. In 1652 all catholic-owned estates east of the River Shannon were confiscated, and their residents evicted en-masse amid plague and famine that killed an even greater number. The penal laws of 1690 caused still more destitution and emigration.
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.
The New England colonies have often been called "Bible Commonwealths" because they sought the guidance of the scriptures in regulating all aspects of the lives of their citizens. Scripture was cited as authority for many criminal statutes, a tradition that still impacts modern state laws.
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." 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 four Quakers between 1659 and 1661. Reflecting on the seventeenth 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."
Founding of Rhode Island
Expelled from Massachusetts in the dead of winter in 1636, former Puritan leader Roger Williams (1603-1683) issued an impassioned plea for freedom of conscience. He wrote, "God requireth not an uniformity of Religion to be inacted and inforced 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 hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls." Williams later founded Rhode Island on the principle of religious freedom. He welcomed people of every shade of religious belief, even some regarded as dangerously misguided, for nothing could change his view that "forced worship stinks in God's nostrils."
Execution of Quakers
Mary Dyer (d. 1660) first ran afoul of Massachusetts authorities for supporting theological dissenter Anne Hutchinson. As a result Dyer and her family were forced to move to Rhode Island in 1638. Converted to Quakerism in England in the 1650s, Dyer returned to New England and was three times arrested and banished from Massachusetts for spreading Quaker principles. Returning to Massachusetts a fourth time, she was hanged on June 1, 1660.
Jewish refuge in America
For some decades Jews had flourished in Dutch-held areas of Brazil, but a Portuguese conquest of the area in 1654 confronted them with the prospect of the introduction of the Inquisition, which had already burned a Brazilian Jew at the stake in 1647. A shipload of twenty-three Jewish refugees from 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 time of the Declaration of Independence, Jewish settlers had established several thriving synagogues.
Many scholars today consider Quakers as radical Puritans, because the Quakers carried to extremes many Puritan convictions. 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 the King's jails.
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 (1644-1718) 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. 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 are inaccurately known as Pennsylvania Dutch, from a misunderstanding of "Pennsylvania Deutsch", the group's German language name. The first group of Germans to settle in Pennsylvania arrived in Philadelphia in 1683 from Krefeld, Germany, and included Mennonites and possibly some Dutch Quakers. During the early years of German emigration to Pennsylvania, most of the emigrants were members of small sects that shared Quaker principles—Mennonites, Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, Moravians, and some German Baptist groups—and were fleeing religious persecution.
Penn and his agents encouraged German and European 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." Beginning in the 1720s significantly larger numbers of German Lutherans and German Reformed arrived in Pennsylvania. Many were motivated by economic considerations.
Roman Catholics in Maryland
Although the Stuart kings of England did not hate the Roman Catholic Church, most of their subjects did, causing Catholics to be harassed and persecuted in England throughout the seventeenth century.
Driven by "the sacred duty of finding a refuge for his Roman Catholic brethren," George Calvert (1580-1632) obtained a charter from Charles I in 1632 for the territory between Pennsylvania and Virginia. This Maryland charter offered no guidelines on religion, although it was assumed that Catholics would not be molested in the new colony.
In 1634 two ships, the Ark and the Dove, brought the first settlers to Maryland. Aboard were approximately two hundred people. Among the passengers were two Catholic priests who had been forced to board surreptitiously to escape the reach of English anti-Catholic laws. Upon landing in Maryland the Catholics, led spiritually by the Jesuits, were transported by a profound reverence, similar to that experienced by John Winthrop and the Puritans when they set foot in New England.
Catholic fortunes fluctuated in Maryland during the rest of the seventeenth 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.
Until the American Revolution, Catholics in Maryland were dissenters in their own country, living at times under a state of siege, but keeping loyal to their convictions, a faithful remnant, awaiting better times.
Virginia and the Church of England
Virginia was settled by businessmen, operating through a joint-stock company, the Virginia Company of London, who wanted to get rich. They also wanted the Church to flourish in their colony and kept it well supplied with ministers.
Some early governors sent by the Virginia Company acted in the spirit of crusaders. Sir Thomas Dale (d. 1619) considered himself engaged in "religious warfare" and expected no reward "but from him on whose vineyard I labor whose church with greedy appetite I desire to erect."
During Dale's tenure, religion was spread at the point of the sword. Everyone was required to attend church and be catechized by a minister. Those who refused could be executed or sent to the galleys.
When a popular assembly, the House of Burgesses, was established in 1619, it enacted religious laws that "were a match for anything to be found in the Puritan societies." Unlike the colonies to the north, where the Church of England was regarded with suspicion throughout the colonial period, Virginia was a bastion of Anglicanism.
The House of Burgesses 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." The church in Virginia faced problems unlike those confronted in other colonies--such as enormous parishes, some sixty miles long, and the inability to ordain ministers locally--but it continued to command the loyalty and affection of the colonists.
In 1656, a prospective minister was advised that he "would find an assisting, an embracing, a comforting people" in the colony. At the end of the seventeenth century the church in Virginia, according to a recent authority, was prospering; it was "active and growing" and was "well attended by the young and old alike."
Religion in Eighteenth-Century America
Against a prevailing view that eighteenth-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." Figures on church attendance and church formation support these opinions. Between 1700 and 1740, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the population attended churches, which were being built at a headlong pace.
Toward mid-century the country experienced its first major religious revival. The Great Awakening swept the English-speaking world, as religious energy vibrated between England, Wales, Scotland and the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. In America, the Awakening signaled the advent of an encompassing evangelicalism--the belief that the essence of religious experience was the "new birth," inspired by the preaching of the Word. It invigorated even as it divided churches. 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 nineteenth century. Opponents of the Awakening or those split by it -- Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists -- were left behind.
Another religious movement that was the antithesis of evangelicalism made its appearance in the eighteenth century. Deism, which emphasized morality and rejected the orthodox Christian view of the divinity of Christ, found advocates among upper-class Americans. Conspicuous among them were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Deists, never more than "a minority within a minority," were submerged by evangelicalism in the nineteenth century.
18th Century Churches
Churches in eighteenth-century America came in all sizes and shapes, 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. Hence, a new Anglican Church in rural Goose Creek, South Carolina, was fitted out with an impressive wood-carved pulpit, while a fledgling Baptist Church in rural Virginia had only the bare essentials. 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 attracted a following in Europe toward the latter part of the seventeenth century and gained a small but influential number of adherents in America in the late eighteenth century. Deism stressed morality, rejected the orthodox Christian view of the divinity of Christ, often viewing him as nothing more than a "sublime" teacher of morality.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are usually considered the leading American deists. There is no doubt that they subscribed to the deist credo that all religious claims were to be subjected to the scrutiny of reason. "Call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion," Jefferson advised.
Other founders of the American republic, including George Washington, are frequently identified as deists, although Washington was more reserved in expressing his religious convictions. Several other presidents (especially from Virginia) had deist beliefs. Though influential, Deists in the United States amounted to only a small percentage of the general population.
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, itself became a source of Unitarian training. John Adams (and his family) attended one of the first Unitarian churches in Massachusetts.
The Great Awakening: The emergence of evangelicalism
Evangelicalism is difficult to date and to define. In 1531, at the beginning of the Reformation, Sir Thomas More referred to religious adversaries as "Evaungelicalles." Scholars have argued that, as a self-conscious movement, evangelicalism did not arise until the mid-seventeenth century, perhaps not until the Great Awakening itself. 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 generation of New England Puritans required that church members undergo a conversion experience that they could describe publicly. Their successors were not as successful in reaping harvests of redeemed souls.
During the first decades of the eighteenth century in the Connecticut River Valley a series of local "awakenings" began. 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. Together with New Side Presbyterians (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 nineteenth century.
Religion and the American Revolution
Religion played a major role in the American Revolution 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. 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."
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 national 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 to create the buoyant mood of the new nation that became so evident after Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801.
The American Revolution inflicted deeper wounds on the Church of England in America than on any other denomination because the King of England was the head of the church. Anglican priests, at their ordination, swore allegiance to the King.
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 Anglicans. Loyalty to the church and to its head could be construed as treason to the American cause.
Patriotic American Anglicans, loathe to discard so fundamental a component of their faith as The Book of Common Prayer, revised it to conform to the political realities.
Religion and the Continental Congresses
The Continental Congresses and Congress of the Confederation, legislative bodies that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, contained an extraordinary number of deeply religious men. The amount of energy that Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion in the new nation exceeded that expended by any subsequent American national government. Although the Articles of Confederation did not officially authorize Congress to concern itself with religion, the citizenry did not object to such activities. This lack of objection suggests that both the legislators and the public considered it appropriate for the national government to promote a nondenominational, non-polemical Christianity.
Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible, imposed Christian morality on the armed forces, and granted public lands to promote Christianity among the Indians. National days of thanksgiving and of "humiliation, fasting, and prayer" were proclaimed by Congress at least twice a year throughout the war. Congress was guided by "covenant theology," a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people. This agreement stipulated that they "should be prosperous or afflicted, according as their general Obedience or Disobedience thereto appears." Wars and revolutions were, accordingly, considered afflictions, as divine punishments for sin, from which a nation could rescue itself by repentance and reformation.
The first national government of the United States, was convinced that the "public prosperity" of a society depended on the vitality of its religion. Nothing less than a "spirit of universal reformation among all ranks and degrees of our citizens," Congress declared to the American people, would "make us a holy, that so we may be a happy people."
Religion and state governments
Many states were as explicit about the need for a thriving religion as Congress was in its thanksgiving and fast day proclamations. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 declared, for example, that "the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend on piety, religion and morality." The states were in a stronger position to act upon this conviction because they were considered to possess "general" powers as opposed to the limited, specifically enumerated powers of Congress.
Congregationalists and Anglicans who, before 1776, had received public financial support, called their state benefactors "nursing fathers" (Isaiah 49:23). After independence they urged the state governments, as "nursing fathers," to continue succoring them. Knowing that in the egalitarian, post-independence era, the public would no longer permit single denominations to monopolize state support, legislators devised "general assessment schemes." Religious taxes were laid on all citizens, each of whom was given the option of designating his share to the church of his choice. Such laws took effect in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire and were passed but not implemented in Maryland and Georgia.
After a general assessment scheme was defeated in Virginia, an incongruous coalition of Baptists and theological liberals united to sunder state from church. However, the outcome in Virginia of the state-church debate did not, it should be remembered, represent the views of the majority of American states that wrestled with this issue in the 1780s.
During the debates in the 1780s about the propriety of providing financial support to the churches, those who favored state patronage of religion urged their legislators, in the words of petitioners from Amherst County, Virginia, in 1783, not "to think it beneath your Dignity to become Nursing Fathers of the Church."
This idea was an old one, stretching back to the dawn of the Reformation. The term itself was drawn from Isaiah 49:23, in which the prophet commanded that "kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers." The responsibilities of the state were understood in an early work like Bishop John Jewel's Apologie of the Church of England (1562) to be comprehensive, including imposing the church's doctrine on society.
The term "nursing father" was used in all American colonies with established churches. It appeared in the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the "creed" of New England Congregationalism; in numerous Anglican writings; and in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession. By the time of the American Revolution, the state was no longer expected to maintain religious uniformity in its jurisdiction, but it was expected to use its resources for the churches' benefit.
Church and state debate: Massachusetts
After independence the American states were obliged to write constitutions establishing how each would be governed. In no place was the process more difficult than in Massachusetts.
For three years, from 1778 to 1780, the political energies of the state were absorbed in drafting a charter of government that the voters would accept. A constitution prepared in 1778 was decisively defeated in a public referendum. A new convention convened in 1779 to make another attempt at writing an acceptable draft.
One of the most contentious issues was whether the state would support religion financially. Advocating such a policy--on the grounds that religion was necessary for public happiness, prosperity, and order--were the ministers and most members of the Congregational Church, which had been established, and hence had received public financial support, during the colonial period. The Baptists, who had grown strong since the Great Awakening, tenaciously adhered to their ancient conviction that churches should receive no support from the state. They believed that the Divine Truth, having been freely received, should be freely given by Gospel ministers.
The Constitutional Convention chose to act as nursing fathers of the church and included in the draft constitution submitted to the voters the famous Article Three, which authorized a general religious tax to be directed to the church of a taxpayers' choice. Despite substantial doubt that Article Three had been approved by the required two thirds of the voters, in 1780 Massachusetts authorities declared it and the rest of the state constitution to have been duly adopted.
Church and state debate: Virginia
In 1779 the Virginia Assembly deprived Church of England ministers of tax support. Patrick Henry sponsored a bill for a general religious assessment in 1784. He appeared to be on the verge of securing its passage when his opponents neutralized his political influence by electing him governor. As a result, legislative consideration of Henry's bill was postponed until the fall of 1785, giving its adversaries an opportunity to mobilize public opposition to it.
Arguments used in Virginia were similar to those that had been employed in Massachusetts a few years earlier. Proponents of a general religious tax, principally Anglicans, urged that it should be supported on "Principles of Public Utility" because Christianity offered the "best means of promoting Virtue, Peace, and Prosperity." Opponents were led by Baptists, supported by Presbyterians (some of whom vacillated on the issue), and theological liberals. As in Massachusetts, they argued that government support of religion corrupted it. Virginians also made a strong libertarian case that government involvement in religion violated a people's civil and natural rights.
James Madison, the leading opponent of government-supported religion, combined both arguments in his celebrated Memorial and Remonstrance. In the fall of 1785, Madison marshaled sufficient legislative support to administer a decisive defeat to the effort to levy religious taxes. In place of Henry's bill, Madison and his allies passed in January 1786 Thomas Jefferson's famous Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which brought the debate in Virginia to a close by severing, once and for all, the links between government and religion.
Religious persecution in Virginia
In Virginia, religious persecution, directed at Baptists and, to a lesser degree, at Presbyterians, continued after the Declaration of Independence. The perpetrators were members of the Church of England, sometimes acting as vigilantes but often operating in tandem with local authorities.
Physical violence was usually reserved for Baptists, against whom there was social as well as theological animosity. A notorious instance of abuse in 1771 of a well-known Baptist preacher, "Swearin Jack" Waller, was described by the victim: The Parson of the Parish [accompanied by the local sheriff] would keep running the end of his horsewhip in [Waller's] mouth, laying his whip across the hymn book, etc. When done singing [Waller] proceeded to prayer. In it he was violently jerked off the stage; they caught him by the back part of his neck, beat his head against the ground, sometimes up and sometimes down, they carried him through the gate . . . where a gentleman [the sheriff] gave him . . . twenty lashes with his horsewhip.
The persecution of Baptists made a strong, negative impression on many patriot leaders, whose loyalty to principles of civil liberty exceeded their loyalty to the Church of England in which they were raised. James Madison was not the only patriot to despair, as he did in 1774, that the "diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages" in his native colony. Accordingly, civil libertarians like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson joined Baptists and Presbyterians to defeat the campaign for state financial involvement in religion in Virginia.
Religion and the federal government
In response to widespread sentiment that to survive the United States needed a stronger federal government, a convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and on September 17 adopted the Constitution of the United States. Aside from Article VI, which stated that "no religious Test shall ever be required as Qualification" for any public office or trust, the Constitution said little about religion. Its reserve troubled two groups of Americans--those who wanted the new instrument of government to give faith a larger role and those who feared that it would do so. This latter group, worried that the Constitution did not prohibit the kind of state-supported religion that had flourished in some colonies, exerted pressure on the members of the First Federal Congress. In September 1789 the Congress adopted the First Amendment to the Constitution, which, when ratified by the required number of states in December 1791, forbade Congress to make any law "respecting an establishment of religion."
The first two Presidents of the United States were patrons of religion--George Washington was a reverent Deist, and though not a communicant, often attended Episcopal services with his wife, and John Adams described himself as "a church going animal." Both offered strong rhetorical support for religion. In his Farewell Address of September 1796, Washington called religion, as the source of morality, "a necessary spring of popular government," while Adams claimed that statesmen "may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand."
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the third and fourth Presidents, are generally considered less hospitable to religion than their predecessors, but evidence shows that, while in office, both offered religion powerful symbolic support.
Religion and the Constitution
When the Constitution was submitted to the American public, "many pious people" complained that the document had slighted God, for it contained "no recognition of his mercies to us… or even of his existence." The Constitution was reticent about religion for two reasons: first, many delegates were committed federalists, who believed that the power to legislate on religion, if it existed at all, lay within the domain of the state, not the national, governments; second, the delegates believed that to introduce such a politically controversial issue as religion into the federal Constitution would lead to dissension and be a tactical mistake.
The only "religious clause" in the document -- the proscription in Article VI that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" -- was intended to defuse controversy by disarming potential critics who might claim religious discrimination in eligibility for public office.
That religion was not otherwise addressed in the Constitution did not make it an "irreligious" document any more than the Articles of Confederation was an "irreligious" document. The Constitution dealt with the church precisely as the Articles had, thereby maintaining, at the national level, the religious status quo. In neither document did the people yield any explicit power to act in the field of religion. But the absence of expressed powers did not prevent either the Continental-Confederation Congress or the Congress under the Constitution from sponsoring a program to support general, nonsectarian religion.
Religion in the Bill of Rights
Many Americans were disappointed that the Constitution did not contain a bill of rights that would explicitly enumerate the rights of American citizens and enable courts and public opinion to protect these rights from an oppressive government. Supporters of a bill of rights permitted the Constitution to be adopted with the understanding that the first Congress under the new government would attempt to add a bill of rights.
James Madison took the lead in steering such a bill through the First Federal Congress, which convened in the spring of 1789. The Virginia Ratifying Convention and Madison's constituents, among whom were large numbers of Baptists who wanted freedom of religion secured, expected him to push for a bill of rights.
On September 28, 1789, both houses of Congress voted to send twelve amendments to the states. In December 1791, those ratified by the requisite three fourths of the states became the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
Religion was addressed in the First Amendment in the following familiar words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In notes for his June 8, 1789, speech introducing the Bill of Rights, Madison indicated his opposition to a "national" religion. Most Americans agreed that the federal government must not pick out one religion and give it exclusive financial and legal support.
Early presidential support for religion
The country's first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, were firm believers in the importance of religion for republican government. As citizens of Virginia and Massachusetts, both were sympathetic to general religious taxes being paid by the citizens of their respective states to the churches of their choice.
However both statesmen would have discouraged such a measure at the national level because of its divisiveness. They confined themselves to promoting religion rhetorically, offering frequent testimonials to its importance in building the moral character of American citizens, that, they believed, undergirded public order and successful popular government.
Washington's farewell address
George Washington's farewell address is one of the most important documents in American history. Recommendations made in it by the first president, particularly in the field of foreign affairs, have exerted a strong and continuing influence on American statesmen and politicians. The address, in which Washington informed the American people that he would not seek a third term and offered advice on the country's future policies, was published on September 19, 1796, in David Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser. It was immediately reprinted in newspapers and as a pamphlet throughout the United States. The address was drafted in July 1796 by Alexander Hamilton and revised for publication by the president himself. Washington also had at his disposal an earlier draft by James Madison.
The "religion section" of the address was for many years as familiar to Americans as was Washington's warning that the United States should avoid entangling alliances with foreign nations. Washington's observations on the relation of religion to government were commonplace, and similar statements abound in documents from the founding period. Washington's prestige, however, gave his views a special authority with his fellow citizens and caused them to be repeated in political discourse well into the nineteenth century.
The state becomes the church
It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington, DC during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives.
Madison followed Jefferson's example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Worship services in the House -- a practice that continued until after the Civil War -- were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.)
As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a "crowded audience." Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers.
Jefferson's actions may seem surprising because his attitude toward the relation between religion and government is usually thought to have been embodied in his recommendation that there exist "a wall of separation between church and state." In that statement, Jefferson was apparently declaring his opposition, as Madison had done in introducing the Bill of Rights, to a "national" religion. In attending church services on public property, Jefferson and Madison consciously and deliberately were offering symbolic support to religion as a prop for republican government.
The wall of separation
Thomas Jefferson's reply of January 1, 1802, to an address of congratulations from the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association contains a phrase familiar in today's political and judicial circles: "a wall of separation between church and state."
Many in the United States, including the courts, have used this phrase to interpret the Founders' intentions regarding the relationship between government and religion, as set down by the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ." However, the meaning of this clause has been the subject of passionate dispute for the past fifty years.
Far from dashing it off as a "short note of courtesy," as some have called it, Jefferson labored over its composition. Jefferson consulted Postmaster General Gideon Granger of Connecticut and Attorney General Levi Lincoln, Sr. of Massachusetts while drafting the letter. That Jefferson consulted two New England politicians about his messages indicated that he regarded his reply to the Danbury Baptists as a political letter, not as a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement on the relations between government and religion.
Religion and the New Republic
The religion of the new American republic was evangelicalism, which, between 1800 and the Civil War, was the "grand absorbing theme" of American religious life. During some years in the first half of the nineteenth century, revivals (through which evangelicalism found expression) occurred so often that religious publications that specialized in tracking them lost count. In 1827, for example, one journal exulted that "revivals, we rejoice to say, are becoming too numerous in our country to admit of being generally mentioned in our Record."
During the years between the inaugurations of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, historians see "evangelicalism emerging as a kind of national church or national religion." The leaders and ordinary members of the "evangelical empire" of the nineteenth century were American patriots who subscribed to the views of the Founders that religion was a "necessary spring" for republican government; they believed, as a preacher in 1826 asserted, that there was "an association between Religion and Patriotism."
Converting their fellow citizens to Christianity was, for many Christians, an act that simultaneously saved souls and saved the republic. The American Home Missionary Society assured its supporters in 1826 that "we are doing the work of patriotism no less than Christianity." With the disappearance of efforts by government to create morality in the body politic (symbolized by the termination in 1833 of Massachusetts's tax support for churches) evangelical, benevolent societies assumed that role, bringing about what today might be called the privatization of the responsibility for forming a virtuous citizenry.
In the late 18th century and early 19th century, Bishop Francis Asbury 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 one of the nation's largest and most influential denominations.
The camp meeting
In 1800 major revivals that eventually reached into almost every corner of the land began at opposite ends of the country: 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 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.
Emergence of African American churches
Scholars disagree about the extent of the native African content of black Christianity as it emerged in eighteenth-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--forming new denominations. In 1787 Richard Allen (1760-1831) and his colleagues in Philadelphia broke away from the Methodist Church and in 1815 founded the African Methodist Episcopal (A. M. E.) Church, which, along with independent black Baptist congregations, flourished as the century progressed. By 1846, the A. M. E. Church, which began with 8 clergy and 5 churches, had grown to 176 clergy, 296 churches, and 17,375 members.
Benevolent societies were a new and conspicuous feature of the American landscape during the first half of the nineteenth century. Originally devoted to the salvation of souls, although eventually to 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," the Presbyterian evangelist, Charles G. Finney insisted, "was a person's benevolence toward others."
The evangelical establishment used this powerful network of voluntary, 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 1826-1827 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.
- Among Wealthy Nations... U.S. stands alone in its embrace of religion. Report by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. December 19, 2002
- Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, Yale University Press, 1972, ISBN 0-300-01762-6, 2nd edition 2004, ISBN 0300100124
- Harold Bloom, The American Religion, Simon & Schuster, 1992, ISBN 0-671-86737-7
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