Religion and Religious Affiliation

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RELIGION AND RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION. When European scholars and church leaders visited early-nineteenth-century America, they were quick to comment on the religious freedoms of the new nation. Reporting on his 1831–1832 visit in the now famous Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the "religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention." Tocqueville was not alone. Francis Grund from Austria, Andrew Reed from England, Philip Schaff of Germany, and many others commented on the "voluntary principle" of religion, the peculiar "religious economy," and the religious "exceptionalism" of the new nation. In their European homelands, church and state had strong formal ties. American churches, by contrast, received no financial support from the state and faced few regulations.

What most intrigued the visitors was that severing ties between church and state appeared to invigorate rather than decimate the religious life of the nation. Alexis de Tocqueville reported that it became his objective to discover how "the real authority of religion was increased by a state of things which diminished its apparent force." Writing for their European audiences, the visitors explained how the new religious freedoms of the voluntary principle contributed to a host of new preachers (many unpaid) and the building of more churches. With obvious enthusiasm they reported on the population's voluntary and generous contributions of time and money for their churches. Yet they expressed strong concerns over the proliferation of sects that were openly disagreeing over church teachings and aggressively competing for members. Finally, they marveled at the churches' ability to gain support from a broad cross-section of the population. They noted how the diversity of churches reflected the diversity of the population, with each of the major religious traditions of Europe being represented in the new nation. The consequences the European visitors associated with the new religious freedoms have persisted throughout American history.

The freedoms identified by the Europeans have continued to fuel religious changes. Indeed, the history of American religion is a story of constant change. For many observers, the most surprising change is that religious participation has dramatically increased over time. As shown in Figure 1 less than 20 percent of Americans were active in church affairs in 1776. Throughout the twentieth century, church membership included more than half of all Americans. Voluntary contributions and the value of church property have shown similar trends, with contributions to religious organizations still towering over other forms of voluntary charitable giving. But some of the most dramatic changes have occurred in the shape of the religious landscape. The dominant colonial mainline religions (Congregational, Presbyterian, and Anglican), holding the allegiance of more than half of colonial church adherents, plummeted in the nineteenth century and now claim the loyalties of approximately 5 percent of all adherents. Meanwhile, a handful of marginal religious minorities and ethnic religious enclaves of past eras have become powerful mainline denominations today. This proliferation and growth of sects, which so alarmed the European visitors, shows no signs of slowing. Religious diversity continues to mirror the diversity of the population as new religious movements frequently emerge and immigrants

introduce and promote their religions. Gordon Melton's most recent Encyclopedia of American Religions reports on more than 1,500 religious movements in the United States.

This brief sketch of major changes in religious affiliation over the course of American history inevitably omits many important religions, eras, and events. For a more complete review, readers may consult the sources listed in the bibliography.

Colonial Religion

Americans are burdened with more nostalgic illusions about the colonial era than any other period in our history. Our conceptions of that era are dominated by a few powerful images, such as the Pilgrims walking through the woods to church and the first Thanksgiving. What these myths fail to illustrate is that the colonies were open frontiers, oriented toward commercial profits, and were typically filled with a high percentage of recent immigrants lacking social ties. As in other frontier areas throughout history this resulted in high levels of social deviance (crime, prostitution, and alcohol abuse) and low levels of church involvement. Even the celebrated Puritan settlements in New England, with their high initial levels of involvement, were showing increasing signs of religious apathy and dissent by the mid-1600s. Neither the second generation nor the new immigrants shared the fervor of the founders.

Levels of religious deviance as well as social deviance were high, including alternative religious practices outside the church and corrupt clergy within the church. Magic, the occult, and the practice of witchcraft were all part of the colonial experience. The witchcraft and witch hunts of New England are the most famous, but the practices were probably more common in other colonies. When Reverend Henry Muhlenberg arrived in 1742 to put the affairs of the Pennsylvania Lutherans in order, he was appalled by the religious deviance he found in and outside the church. He charged that Pennsylvania, the colony with the most Lutherans and one of the highest rates of religious adherence, had more necromancers than Christians. Muhlenberg's sharpest criticism, however, was aimed at the fraudulent clergy selling religious services, confessing faiths they did not hold, and taking part in activities prohibited by the church.

Lutherans were not alone in their struggle against fraudulent and immoral clergy. Anglican vestrymen complained that many of their clergy left England to avoid debts, wives, and onerous duties, viewing the colonies as a place of refuge and retirement. Both the Anglicans and the Lutherans faced a common problem: their reliance on European clergy resulted in a severe shortage, forcing them to accept any clergy who would make the trip across the Atlantic and allowing all forms of religious deviance to arise in the areas where clergy could not be provided.

Struggling to survive in this new frontier were the ill-equipped offshoots of Europe's state churches. In the

southern colonies, the Anglican Church (Church of England) attempted to serve as the official establishment. Despite receiving financial support from the state and sporadically regulating dissenters, the Anglican establishment proved ineffective in all of the southern colonies except Virginia. By 1776 (see Table 1) the dissenting religions had far more congregations than the Anglicans throughout the South.

In New England the Congregational establishment was substantially more effective in regulating dissenters, receiving state support, and appealing to the people. With the exception of Roger Williams's Rhode Island, where the Congregational Church was never the establishment, more than 60 percent of all New England churches were Congregational in 1776.

In the middle colonies, the picture is far more mixed. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware had no religious establishments and were known as bastions of religious toleration. Although New York and Maryland supported Anglican establishments for most of the colonial era, New York began as a Dutch colony and Maryland was started as a haven for Catholics. Both retained a high level of religious diversity. The middle colonies were also ethnically diverse. Along with hosting religions of British origin, the middle colonies were home to the German and Dutch Reformed, the German and Swedish Lutherans, and the Moravians. When the first U.S. Census was conducted in 1790, only New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania had less than 65 percent of their population being of British descent

By the middle of the eighteenth century, three significant developments had occurred. First, religious toleration was increasingly practiced throughout the colonies. The growing diversity of the settlers and their religions,

Table 1

Percentages of All Adherents in 1776, by Geographical
source: For 1776 data, see Stark and Finke 1988; for 1850–1926, see Finke and Stark 1986 and 1992; for 1952, see Zelinsky 1961; and for 1980, see Stark 1987. Using the Churches and Church Membership in the United States, 1990 and multiple other sources, the authors calculated the 1990 rate.
note: Adherents include adult members and their children.
Anglican (Episcopal)8.412.927.8
German Reformed0.09.82.8
Dutch Reformed0.08.90.0
Roman Catholic0.04.20.1

combined with the vast amount of space, a desire for profitable colonies, and the religious apathy of most residents, resulted in eroding support for the establishments. Second, the 1730s and 1740s introduced new methods for conducting religious revivals. George Whitefield, in particular, demonstrated how itinerant preaching, extensive promotions, and an emotional plea for conversion could appeal to the populace. Third, many of the distinctive Native American cultures and their religions were annihilated. The devastating effects of European diseases, combined with frequent warfare, resulted in the extinction of 100 to 200 Native American groups. Each of these developments would shape the religion of the new nation. Native American religions, like their cultures, would continue to face the threat of extinction; the new methods for conducting religious revivals, including itinerant preaching, would be openly embraced by new sects; and the eroding establishments would give way to a religious diversity that few could then imagine.

In 1776, there were an estimated 3,228 churches in the colonies and a total population of approximately 2.5 million. Even if we estimate 130 adherents per church, a number that exceeds the capacity of most colonial churches, less than one in five residents was active in a local church.

Unleashing the Upstart Sects

As geographic size, economic interests, and increasing religious diversity pushed the colonies toward an increased acceptance of religious toleration, an unlikely alliance between the rationalists (such as Thomas Jefferson) and the evangelical dissenting religions (such as Baptists) pulled the colonies toward religious freedom. Despite the disparity in the background and training of the rationalist and evangelical leaders, they agreed that religion was a concern for God and the individual, and that the state should not intervene. The rationalists often deplored the religious fervor of the new sects, and the evangelicals were clearly at odds with the beliefs of many rationalists, but the alliance proved effective as the rationalists provided legal justification for the emotional pleas of the evangelicals. In 1791 the First Amendment promised that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of." De facto establishments remained, and many states still refused to give religious liberties to Catholics, Jews, and those opposing a Protestant Christianity, but the regulation of religion was declining rapidly. There would be no national church, and the groundwork was laid for a continuing separation of church and state.

The first to take advantage of these new freedoms were the Methodists, Baptists, and other upstart sects. They quickly generated a legion of clergy throughout the new nation. Although few had seminary training, and many lacked even a grade-school education, they held an unbridled fervor for spreading their religious message. Both the Methodists and Baptists made it easy for gifted laymen to enter the ministry. Among the Baptists, the preacher was often a man of local origins whose call was ratified by his fellow congregants. The Baptist position was simple: God never called an unprepared man to preach. Receiving little or no pay, Baptist clergy typically earned their living behind a plow, like other members of the congregation. The Methodists' local church also relied on the voluntary services of class leaders and local preachers. Even the highly visible circuit riders, who supervised and coordinated the activities of the churches in their circuits, received little pay. One consequence of having untrained and often unpaid clergy was that their message was heartfelt and in the vernacular. Rather than offer an articulate and carefully drafted sermon based on years of seminary training, they used emotional pleas to arouse faith and call for spiritual conversion. This method of calling clergy also allowed the Methodists and Baptists to sustain a congregation any where a few people would gather. The clergy's low pay reduced the start-up costs of new churches, and because clergy could be called from the local congregation, there was seldom an absence of clergy. The result was that the upstarts seemed to thrive every where.

But as the new sects thrived, the former colonial mainline denominations struggled. The two colonial establishments, the Anglicans (now Episcopalians) and Congregationalists, fared the worst. Accustomed to a parish system, where clergy and congregation received state support for serving a prescribed area, the old establishments were ill-prepared for the free-wheeling, no-holds barred approach of the upstarts. The Congregational clergy (and Harvard faculty) had objected to Whitefield's preaching in areas served by Congregational churches. Now they faced a more formidable challenge. Whereas Whitefield was content to preach revival, the upstarts were starting new churches and appealing to the membership of their churches. The Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians also failed to match the upstarts' supply of clergy. Relying on seminary-trained clergy, they faced a constant shortage. Moreover, because the clergy expected financial support from the congregation, they were less willing to go to the new frontiers where accommodations and support were lacking.

Finally, the old colonial mainline and the new upstarts differed in their acceptance of the new methods of revivalism. The upstarts openly embraced the new methods, but the new revivalism became a source of bitter dispute and schism for the colonial mainline. After helping to organize one of the earliest and most successful frontier revivals, Cane Ridge, Barton Stone, and other Presbyterian clergy were charged with insubordination for failing to affirm strict Calvinist doctrines. Stone and his followers soon began their own religious movement, which later joined the Cambellites to form the Christian Church. In sharp contrast, the Baptists and Methodists actively promoted revivals. The famous Methodist bishop Francis As-bury was effusive in his praise of camp meetings and advised his clergy to replace the circuit's summer quarterly meeting with a revivalist camp meeting. Writing in his Journal and Letters, he described camp meetings as "fishing with a large net" and the "battle ax and weapon of war" against wickedness. The Baptist and Christian Church movements agreed.

The differences in membership growth were dramatic. Figure 2 reports on religious adherents (membership including children) for each denomination as a percentage of all adherents in the nation. Of all Americans active in a religious denomination in 1776, more than half (55 percent) belonged to one of the three major colonial religions: Congregationalist, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian. By 1850 the percentage plummeted to 19 percent. All of the groups continued to gain members, but none could keep pace with the upstarts, and only the Presbyterians continued to grow at a pace roughly equal to the growth of the population.

The Methodists and Baptists, however, grew at a pace that far exceeded population growth throughout the new nation. The Methodists, in particular, sky rocketed from 2.5 percent to 34.2 percent. Part of this growth came from the upstarts' ability to adapt to the expanding frontiers, an area where the colonial mainline churches were slow to go. But they also showed sustained growth in areas where communities and congregations were well founded. Table 2 shows that even in New England, the heart of the Congregational stronghold, the upstarts were rapidly dominating the religious landscape. Regardless of the location, the Baptists and Methodists were appealing to a growing segment of the population.

The appeal of the Methodists and Baptists was also evident in the growing African American population. Prior to 1776, few enslaved Africans converted to Christianity. But following the Revolutionary era, the Methodists and Baptists began preaching, with results. The Minutes of the Methodist Conferences in America, 1773–1813 reports that even as late as 1785 there were only 1,890 "colored" Methodists, or about 9 percent of all Methodists. By 1813 about 20 percent (42,859 members) of all Methodists were African American. The upstart churches offered an emotional worship style leading to a personal conversion experience and allowed African Americans to exercise a leadership that was denied in all other areas of their life. Overcoming numerous legal and social obstacles, African

Table 2

Percentages of All Adherents in Major Denominations, 1776 and 1850.
*New England totals exclude Rhode Island, which never supported an established church.
source: For 1776 data, see Stark and Finke 1988; for 1850–1926, see Finke and Stark 1986 and 1992; for 1952, see Zelinsky 1961; and for 1980, see Stark 1987. Using the Churches and Church Membership in the United States, 1990 and multiple other sources, the authors calculated the 1990 rate.
note: Adherents include adult members and their children.
Congregational Establishment67%28%
Baptist and Methodist12%41%
Roman Catholic0%11%
Congregational Establishment61%19%
Baptist and Methodist8%58%
Roman Catholics0%6%
Congregational Establishment63%30%
Baptist and Methodist9%46%
Roman Catholics0%3%
Congregational Establishment65%29%
Baptist and Methodist10%4%
Roman Catholics0%6%
Congregational Establishment72%29%
Baptist and Methodist15%33%
Roman Catholics0%17%
Congregational Establishment64%37%
Baptist and Methodist9%39%
Roman Catholics0%11%

Americans also began to form their own churches in the North.

Recall from Figure 1 that the percentage of the population active in a church jumped from 17 percent to 34 percent between 1776 and 1850. The rapid growth of the Protestant upstarts, especially the stunning growth of the Methodists, made this increase possible. But the Protestant upstarts were not the only groups growing. Figure 2 and Table 2 also reveal that the Catholics were showing sizable and rapid increases—a growth that would swell in the remainder of the century. A plethora of new religious movements was also emerging. Most would fall into decline or expire before the end of the century. But a few, such as the Mormons and Adventists, would experience a persistent growth throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Building Religious Communities

The religious freedoms of the new nation not only allowed the new religions to compete for members without fear of persecution or penalty; they also forced the local churches to become more responsive to the people. Churches became an institutional free space where even oppressed minorities could build a church that was responsive to their needs. After the Civil War, the millions of new immigrants and freed slaves created churches that catered to unique language, political, social, and religious needs. Despite holding limited resources, they effectively built institutions that carried their unique religious identity and culture.

Annual immigration to the United States first exceeded 200,000 in 1847 and, with the exception of the Civil War era and a brief interval in the 1870s, immigration never dropped below 200,000 until 1931. The initial waves of immigrants were from Ireland, Germany, and later Scandinavia. By the end of the century, however, the boats were filled with central, eastern, and southern European immigrants. During an 80-year time span (1850– 1930), more than 35 million immigrants arrived—immigrants who changed America.

The most dramatic shift in American religion was the rapid growth of Roman Catholics. As shown in Figure 3, Roman Catholicism was the largest denomination in the nation by the end of the nineteenth century. This might seem inevitable, with the heavy flow of immigrants from

predominantly Catholic nations. In truth, however, most of the millions of immigrants from "Catholic" nations were at best potential American Catholic parishioners. To tap this potential, the Roman Catholic Church had to counteract the vigorous efforts of Protestant sects to recruit these immigrants and it had to activate them to entirely new levels of commitment and participation. The techniques they used were remarkably similar to their Protestant counterparts. At the center of this new evangelical surge was the Catholic revival campaign they called the parish mission. Using uniquely Catholic ritual, symbolism, and ceremony, the traveling evangelists would seek to stir the spirit and save the soul. Like the Protestants, Catholics aggressively recruited new members into the church.

Once they were recruited, the Catholic parish offered new parishioners a distinctive Catholic society. From social groups to schools to literature, American Catholicism created a subculture that was parallel yet separate from the hostile dominant culture. Like Protestant sectarian movements, they stressed a distinctive lifestyle and placed high demands on their membership. But the Catholic subculture was strengthened by yet another dimension: ethnicity. Deviating from strict territorial parishes, they also founded national churches organized around a common language and nationality. As late as 1916 nearly half (49 percent) of all Catholic parishes held worship services in a language other than English. Considering that English was the native tongue for Irish-American parishes, this is a strong testimony to the ethnic identity of the local parish.

The Protestant and Jewish immigrants would follow a similar pattern. The churches and synagogues quickly learned that they must appeal to the new immigrants or lose them to the aggressive sects. When Friedrich Wyneken wrote his Notruf (Distress Call) to German religious and social leaders in 1843, he warned of the "dangerous" and large number of sects in America. He explained that "there is hardly a Lutheran or Reformed congregation which does not suffer from these swarming pests." Like the Catholics, the Protestant and Jewish immigrants developed institutions (often emphasizing educational institutions) that paralleled those in the dominant culture and offered a unique appeal to the new immigrants.

For the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, denominations were soon formed around nationality and the recency of their immigration. Composed of recent Dutch immigrants, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) split from the Reformed Church of America (RCA) to form a more distinctive Dutch Christian church. Not surprisingly, 90 percent of the CRC congregations held services in a foreign language, compared to only 35 percent in the RCA. The Lutherans were fractured into more than 20 different denominations based on nationality, recency of immigration, region of the country, and doctrine. The denominational nationalities included German, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Slovak, Danish, and Finnish. Once again, the more recent immigrants retained a more distinctive ethnic subculture and more frequently held services in a foreign language.

Finally, Jewish immigrants faced similar divisions. The immigrants arriving before 1880 tended to be German, middle class, and were seeking to more fully assimilate. After 1880, a flood of poor, rural eastern European immigrants developed a distinctively Jewish enclave. Yiddish became the vernacular and, in New York alone, the number of Jews increased from 80,000 in 1880 to more than 1 million by 1910.

Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish enclaves all served a dual role. Despite separating the new immigrants from a foreign world and supporting a distinctive religious and ethnic subculture, the enclaves also served to assimilate immigrants into the larger culture. Many of the institutions in the immigrant enclaves paralleled those in the dominant culture, providing immigrants with the skills, information, and training needed for success in the new land. Educational, recreational, and social service institutions are the most obvious examples, but the mutual benefit societies, professional associations, and social networks all served to integrate immigrants into the new nation.

The most impressive institution building of this era, however, was the development and growth of African American churches. After the slave revolts in the 1830s, the slaves were seldom allowed to hold public religious services without white supervision—a restriction that limited the formal development of African American churches in the South before the Civil War. Following the Civil War, however, the African American churches became the key institution for uniting the former slaves, training new leaders, and building a new community. In 1890 the Bureau of the Census' Report on Statistics of Churches reported 19,448 churches in the Baptist and Methodist African American denominations alone, with well over 2 million adult members. When children are included in the membership count, the 1890 adherence rate for African Americans is 6 points higher (51 percent) than for the nation as a whole. Because many African Americans remained members in predominantly white denominations, the actual rate is even higher. In less than 25 years they built institutions that helped mobilize the African American community throughout the twentieth century.

As African Americans and new immigrants were making bold changes to the religious landscape, other, more subtle shifts were taking place. All of the major denominations were increasing their membership totals, but as a percentage of all Americans involved in religion their rates were falling (see Figure 3). The Episcopalians and Baptists showed a slight decline, the rates for Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Methodists plummeted. A part of this change can be explained by the immigrants' attraction to churches supporting their language and ethnicity. Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Jewish congregations, and their cultural enclaves, held a unique appeal.

But this doesn't explain the sudden changes for the Methodists. When they moved from a sect served by itinerant and untrained clergy promoting revivals to a mainstream denomination with settled and seminary-trained clergy, their growth rates began to resemble those of mainline churches. As they drifted from their moorings of holiness teachings and revivalism at the turn of the century, they also spawned a series of holiness sects protesting these changes. Most would fade away, but a few served as catalysts for growing denominations in the twentieth century.

Expanding Pluralism

With the Immigration Act of 1924 taking effect in 1929 and with the onset of the Great Depression, the pace of change in American religion seemed to slow. Immigration dropped sharply from more than 4.3 million in the 1920s to less than 700,000 in the 1930s, and the existing immigrants were gradually assimilating into the American culture. Even the mainline denominations seemed to receive a short reprieve from their long declines. As shown in Table 3, the changes between 1925 and 1950 were modest for all of the major denominations, with the Episcopalians even showing a substantial increase. This proved to be the calm before the storm.

In the latter portion of the twentieth century, major shifts in American Protestantism reemerged. First, the mainline Protestant religions continued their long decline. When measured as a percentage of the population, the 1999 adherence rates of United Methodists, American Baptists, and the United Church of Christ (including the Congregationalists) were half or less of their 1950 rates. For the first time, their membership totals also showed significant declines. The other mainline denominations and Judaism also showed declines.

The Catholics and the older evangelical denominations, Southern Baptists and Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, showed rapid growth until 1975 but have now started to plateau and even decline. The more recently emerging evangelical groups, however, have continued to show a rapid growth. Emerging in the early twentieth century, the two small pentecostal groups, Assemblies of God and Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc., now outnumber the Congregationalists (United Church of Christ). The reliability of the data for African American denominations is weak, but the trend appears to be similar to the other Protestant denominations. The new African American pentecostal denomination, Church of God in Christ, is showing the most rapid growth.

Finally, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and the Jehovah's Witnesses, which were minuscule religious outsiders in the nineteenth century, are showing consistent and rapid growth. Once largely confined to the state of Utah, the Mormons are now making a presence throughout the United States.

By the late 1960s, however, new religious outsiders were arriving in increasing numbers, once again altering

Table 3

Church Adherence Rates for Major Denominations (Adherents Per 1000 Population)
SOURCE: All information is from the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, except for the most recent Jewish and National Baptist Convention, USA estimates and the 1973 estimate for the Church of God in Christ.
NOTES: 1) Reported rates are rates of church adherence per 1000 members of the population, rather than the percentage of church adherents reported elsewhere. Because the total number of adherents was unknown for most years, the percentage of total church adherents could not be calculated. 2) All estimates before 1999 adjust for mergers and splits among denominations by including all denominations that comprise the denomination in question in 1999.
Mainline Protestant
The United Methodist    
Evangelical Lutheran    
Church in America15262519
Presbyterian Church    
Episcopal Church1017 (1949)139
Greek Orthodox    
Archdiocese of North    
and South America27 (1947)97 (1998)
American Baptist    
Churches in the USA131075
United Church of Christ1413 (1949)85
The Orthodox Church in    
Evangelical Protestant
Southern Baptist    
The Lutheran Church—    
Missouri Synod5111310
Assemblies of God.4269
Pentecostal Assemblies    
of the World, Inc..06 (1937).32 (1989)6 (1998)
African American
Church of God in Christ2 (1933)N/A14 (1973)20
National Baptist    
Convention, USA, Inc.29 (1936)2932 (1958)30 (1989)
National Baptist    
Convention of America261716 (1956)15 (1987)
African Methodist    
Episcopal Church689 (1978)9
African Methodist    
Episcopal Zion Church445 (1973)5
The Church of Jesus Christ    
of Latter-Day Saints771119
Jehovah's WitnessesN/A1 (1955)37
The Catholic Church    
(Roman Catholic)139189227229
Judaism32 (1937)332824 (1990)

the landscape of American religion. When the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act replaced country-of-origin quotas with a single quota for the Eastern and Western Hemisphere, immigration to the United States increased and the sources of immigration suddenly shifted. Immigration from India, for example, rose from 467 in 1965 to 2,293 the next year, and now runs around 30,000 a year. For Asia as a whole, immigration went from a modest 20,040 in 1965 to an average of nearly 150,000 per year in the 1970s and more than 250,000 in the 1980s. Immigration from Latin America, especially Mexico, was sizable before 1965, rose sharply throughout the 1970s, and remained the largest current of immigration in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1960 about 75 percent of all foreign-born residents were born in Europe. Forty years later (2000) 15 percent of the foreign-born were from Europe, 26 percent were from Asia, and 51 percent were from Latin America. This sudden shift in the nationality of immigrants has brought immediate changes to American religion.

One of the most potent effects of this new wave of immigrants is that world religions other than Christianity are being introduced to America. Buddhism and Hinduism are making a presence throughout the nation, with approximately 400 Hindu temples and more than 1,500 Buddhist temples rising. Estimates for Muslims are often erratic, but a series of major surveys projects their membership at approximately 2 million. These religions are also reaching beyond the confines of the immigrant enclaves. Although most were founded to serve the new immigrants, Buddhist temples have proven effective in appealing to middle-class whites, and the Islamic mosques are enrolling increasing numbers of African Americans. Although still small, these movements are having an impact on American religion.

Most immigrants, however, are reshaping the European foundations of American Christianity. The large flow of Latin Americans is redefining American Catholicism and is having a growing impact on American Protestantism, especially the pentecostal groups. More than 25 percent of all Americans identifying themselves as Catholic are now Hispanic. Even from nations where Christians are a minority, a disproportionate number of Christians emigrate and many convert to Christianity after they arrive. South Korea, for example, is 25 percent Christian, but an estimated 50 percent of Korean immigrants are Christian and half of the remainder join Christian churches after arriving in the United States. China holds only a small minority of Christians, yet the number of Chinese Protestant churches in the United States jumped from 66 in 1952 to 697 by 1994.

Often the immigrants bring distinctive versions of Catholicism and Protestantism. Many Chinese Christians find that the family-oriented and theologically conservative teachings of evangelical Protestantism are congruent with Confucian principles. Supporting more than 3,500 Spanish masses, Hispanics are giving new emphasis to the emotional or charismatic aspects of Catholicism. Immigrant churches that are members of the Protestant mainline (such as Presbyterian USA) often call for a return to more traditional teachings. In these and many other ways the new immigrant churches are remolding the foundation of American Christianity.

Yet for all of the changes that immigrant religions (Christian and non-Christian) bring to America, the immigrant faiths are adapting in ways that closely resemble past experience. Like the immigrant congregations before them, they seek to preserve the ethnic and religious identity of the new immigrants as they adapt to a new world. Congregations teach the younger generations to speak the native language as they teach the older generations to speak English. They hold worship services in the native tongue and promote traditional rituals as they assist members in getting citizenship, jobs, and training. They also know that membership is voluntary and the religious alternatives are many, leading them to actively recruit new members and to seek higher levels of commitment from their members. Finally, the congregations use community halls, recreational facilities, schools, and other organizations to promote tight social networks among their parishioners.


At the dawn of a new century, the religious pluralism of America continues to expand. As new faiths emerge from importation and inspiration, and other faiths fall into extinction, the profile of American religion is ever changing. Even the religions of prominence and power have shifted over time. The marginal minority faiths of one era have often become the prominent religions of the next.

The increasing religious pluralism is also forcing changes in the public arena. New rules for religious civility are slowly emerging. A Protestant America once strained to include Catholics and later Jews into the public faith. Now the Judeo-Christian faiths are struggling to incorporate Muslims, Hindus, and others into the public religion of America.

Yet many things have gone unchanged for more than two centuries. Endowed with religious freedoms, religious organizations and their clerics continue to appeal freely to the people. New faiths quickly emerge and seek out a following. Even the minority faiths can openly compete with other faiths. Free of state control, the local congregations remain a free space for institution-building and cater to the specific needs of their memberships. A result of this ongoing effort is a church adherence rate that has exceeded half of the population for the last century. As American religion undergoes an endless cycle of change, the consequences of religious freedoms remain the same.


Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972.

Albanese, Catherine L. America, Religions and Religion. 2d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1992.

Butler, Jon. Religion in Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Dolan, Jay P. The American Catholic Experience: A History From Colonial Times to the Present. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.

Ebaugh, Helen Rose, and Janet Saltzman Chafetz, eds. Religion and the New Immigrants: Continuities and Adaptations in Immigrant Congregations. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2000.

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Gaustad, Edwin Scott, and Philip L. Barlow. New Historical Atlas of Religion in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Mead, Sidney E. The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Noll, Mark A.. The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerd-mans, 2002.

Data Sources

Bureau of the Census. Eleventh Census of the United States: 1890, Vol. IX. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1894.

Bureau of the Census. Religious Bodies: 1906, Vols. I and II. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1910.

Bureau of the Census. Religious Bodies: 1916, Vols. I and II. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1919.

Bureau of the Census. Religious Bodies: 1926, Vols. I and II. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1930.

Churches and Church Membership in the United States, 1990. Glen-mary Research Center, 1992. The 1952, 1971, 1980, and 1990 Churches and Church Membership surveys can be reviewed and downloaded from the American Religion Data Archive (

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. "Turning Pews into People: Estimating 19th Century Church Membership." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 25 (1986): 180–192. Explains how census reports on churches were used to estimate 1850–1870 church membership.

Lindner, Eileen W., ed. Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches 2001. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2001. Reported numbers are from various volumes of the Yearbook, from 1925 to 2001. Titles vary: 1924/25, Year Book of the Churches. 1926/27, The Handbook of the Churches. 1930/31, The New Handbook of the Churches. 1932–1972, Yearbook of American Churches.

Stark, Rodney. "Correcting Church Membership Rates: 1971 and 1980." Review of Religious Research 29 (1987): 69–77. The Churches and Church Membership surveys reviewed in this article can be reviewed and downloaded from the American Religion Data Archive (

Stark, Rodney, and Roger Finke. "American Religion in 1776: A Statistical Portrait." Sociological Analysis 49 (1988): 39–51. Explains how 1776 church membership estimates were computed.

Zelinsky, Wilbur. "An Approach to the Religious Geography of the United States: Patterns in 1952." Annals of the American Association of Geographers 51 (1961): 139–193.



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Religion and Religious Affiliation