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1600-1754: Religion: Overview

1600-1754: Religion: Overview

Native Peoples. When the Europeans began their colonization of the North American continent after 1500, one of their goals was to convert the native peoples to Christianity. The Spanish in the Southwest and the French in the North brought Catholic priests and friars with them, for Catholicism was their state religion. The English on the East Coast practiced several varieties of Protestantism and relied more on the settlers themselves to bring their interpretation of Christianity to the Native Americans. Although there was a wide variety of religious beliefs among the native peoples, all believed in a supreme creator who continued to maintain a presence in their world. The Europeans did not recognize the basic similarity of these religious beliefs to their own, and each nation attempted to convince the natives that its interpretation of God was correct and its religious practices were the most valid. The Spanish created missions in the Southwest, gathering the native peoples into communities where the friars could teach the European ways of living and thus make it easier to convert them to Catholicism and suppress their traditional religious practices. Those who did convert usually practiced their traditional religion as well. The French were more successful among the northeastern Woodland nations, particularly after the Jesuit order of priests arrived in 1625. They allowed the native converts to retain their traditional cultural practices and incorporate some Christian ideas into their own belief system.

Early Outposts. In the seventeenth century the eastern coastal colonies were little more than outposts of English immigrants. The settlers brought with them religious belief systems which had been formed in England and which reflected the variety of emphases spawned by the English Reformation. They lived in primarily two areas. To the north were the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England who translated Calvinist directives into a formula for creating religious communities independent of England. Their way of life was centered on the church, and their religious beliefs dictated the structure of families, society, economy, and government. These Bible Commonwealths spread throughout present-day Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire and constituted a New England Way. Rhode Island attracted people who disagreed with the prevailing view in these communities, primarily Baptists and Quakers. To the south, around the Chesapeake Bay, the Puritan emphases of the Anglican Church were present in Virginia, but the settlers practiced their religion privately because the dispersed settlements precluded the community organization found in New England. After Virginia became a royal colony in 1624, the Church of England was established as the official religion but did not affect the lives of the settlers much. The clergy who came were inferior, and the planters were more interested in making money than in practicing religion. In this area religion occupied a comfortable niche within a society orientated toward more secular concerns. Maryland developed in a different manner. This land was granted in 1632 to an individual, George Calvert, Baron of Baltimore, who intended it to be a haven for his fellow Catholics who were being persecuted in England. Yet non-Catholics always outnumbered Catholics in the colony, and to insure that Catholics would not suffer at the hands of the majority, the assembly passed a Toleration Act in 1649, which guaranteed the free exercise of religion. Yet Catholics continued to hold important offices and ran the colony in its early years.

English Developments. The shifts in the religious scene in England had a direct effect on American religious life, particularly in seventeenth-century New England. The move to purify the Anglican Church of England of its Catholic practices that had begun with the English Reformation gained momentum until it culminated in a Puritan victory against Charles I in the English Civil War and during the Puritan rule in the Interregnum (16401660). All of the varieties of puritanism that arose in this period appeared in New England to challenge the Puritan Orthodoxy there. The Stuart monarchs were restored to the throne in 1660, and their determination to reestablish a more Catholic Anglican Church threatened the very existence of the religious communities in New England. Although James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the new Protestant monarchs, William and Mary, supported the unpurified Anglican Church and removed the New England colonies from Puritan control.

Continental Conflicts. American religion was also influenced by religious strife on the European continent that intensified during the seventeenth century. In an effort to unify their countries, rulers persecuted any who dissented from the state religion. German princes forced their pietistic sects to seek new homelands; in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, under which Protestants had been tolerated, and drove the Huguenots from France; from 1661 to 1665 Charles II introduced the Clarendon Code into England and Ireland to force conformity to the Church of England. These efforts, coupled with the ensuing religious-political wars, drove many Protestants to the colonies, enhancing the religious pluralism that already was forming. During the Glorious Revolution the colonists did not know for several months whether the Catholic James II had prevailed over his Protestant challengers. Rumors that his royal governors were directed to deliver the colonies to the French papists fueled Leislers Rebellion in New York and Puritan rebellions in New England in which the colonists imprisoned the royal officials and took over the governments. Fearful of a French-Indian invasion, the inhabitants of Maryland formed a Protestant Association, removed all Catholics from government offices, and even convinced the Crown to deprive Lord Baltimore of his proprietorship for twenty-six years. Once in control, however, the Protestants abided by the Toleration Act and did not persecute the resident Catholics. Wars between England and France became a contest for a religious empire, which extended to America. The colonists joined in the battles as much to protect their Protestant religion from the hated Catholicism as to attain political control of North America.

Pluralism. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he rewarded his loyal supporters by granting them land in America. New York, taken from the Dutch in 1664, already contained settlers with a variety of religious orientations, but New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas were relatively vacant. In order to attract the most settlers, all of these proprietary colonies guaranteed freedom of religion to those immigrants who were fleeing wars and religious persecution in their homelands. They came in droves, bringing their Old World religions with them and creating religious diversity in these newer colonies. Even a few Catholics and Jews came, although the latter were denied political rights. The appearance of larger farms or plantations which could no longer count on indentured European servants as a labor force also led to an increase in African slaves, which added African religion and Islam to the spiritual brew. Adherents of a variety of religious belief systems were forced to coexist, sharing ideas and emphases and blending in the beliefs in magic and the power of the supernatural held by many of the common folk of all origins.

Colonial Problems. In the early part of the eighteenth century immigrants were mixed, scattered, and unable to support a settled minister of their traditional denomination, even if they could find one. There was a shortage of clergy, often caused by ministerial requirements set by Old World churches. Thus the religious scene was fluid, with settlers attending whatever Protestant church was within their reach. For instance, Presbyterians and Baptists in Philadelphia met together in a storehouse and listened to any Presbyterian or Baptist minister who happened to be in town. The most desirable clergy in the middle colonies were those who could preach in English, Dutch, and German. Most denominations directed their settled ministers to officiate in the smaller, outlying congregations and adopted temporary measures to increase the number of qualified clergy. Anglican ministers could only be ordained by a bishop who resided in England, so the Church of England paid its ordained clergy to come as missionaries. The Dutch Reformed Church created a subsidiary body just to oversee the American ordination of ministers for both the Dutch and German Reformed Churches. Presbyterian clergy were required to have a university degree, which was difficult to obtain in the colonies, so the synod allowed ministerial candidates to take an examination instead.

American Denominations. The growing numbers of immigrants in the eighteenth century joined earlier settlers and slowly blended their divergent practices into the American denominations of Congregational, Presbyterian, Baptist, Quaker, Lutheran, Anglican, German Reform, and Dutch Reform. The Great Awakening of the late 1730s and early 1740s influenced and accelerated this development as traveling revivalistic preachers both challenged the nature of existing denominations and hastened their spread into new regions. The result by midcentury was a geographical diversity of denominations, each of which formed intercolonial ties. This development occurred in the same period in which the American provinces were being reintegrated into the transatlantic world in religious and Enlightenment thought, as well as in politics and economics. Americans were on the threshold of defining themselves as distinctively American in their unique blend of the secular new learning and old religious affiliations. Awareness of this distinctiveness became more conscious in the period after 1750.

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