views updated May 21 2018


Stephen W. Angell
Genevieve Slomski

Origins and History of African American Religious Traditions

African American Female Religious Leadership

African American Churches during Reconstruction

African American Churches in the Twentieth Century

Evolving Trends among African American Churches

Religious Leaders

The first Africans who arrived on North American shores brought their own religious worldviews with them. While a minority had been Muslims or Christians prior to their kidnapping by slave traders, most adhered to their native African religions. Hundreds of different religions developed, but in general, the Africans believed that the world had been created by a high god who removed himself from direct intervention in worldly affairs after the act of creation.



In Africa, worshipers directed their prayers to intermediary spirits, chief among whom were their ancestors or the “living dead.” If proper offering was made to an ancestor, the individual would be blessed with great prosperity, but if the ancestor was slighted, misfortune would result. In addition, the Yorubas worshiped a variety of nature spirits, or orishas. These spirits often possessed their devotees, who then became mediums of their gods. This kind of spirit-possession is a prominent feature of some modern African American religions, such as Santeria, which recently has spread across large urban areas including Miami and New York. Also a part of the African worldview, especially among the Bakongo, was the practice of magic, variously known in the New World as obeah, vaudou (voodoo), or conjure. This magic, designed to help friends (myalism) or to hurt enemies (obeah), at one time was widely practiced by Africans throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The type of African spirituality that took root in North America merged elements from many African cultures. Since slave masters intentionally mixed Africans from many tribal backgrounds, no “pure” African religion preserving one tradition emerged. Nevertheless, the longstanding scholarly controversy over the degree to which African traditions have been retained in African-based religions is gradually being resolved in favor of those who see extensive survivals. In addition to singing, church music, and preaching style, aspects where an African influence has generally been conceded, scholars have made persuasive arguments for African survivals in family structure, funeral practices, church organization, and many other areas.


The first sustained effort at converting African Americans to Christianity was made by the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which sent

missionaries to North America in 1701. These missionaries had little success among the Africans; many mocked those who imitated the whites too closely and, thus, resisted the missionaries. In addition, white slave masters often resented losing slaves’ time to church services and feared that slaves would lay a claim to freedom through conversion. The numerous colonial laws, starting with Virginia in 1669, proclaiming that conversion failed to entitle slaves to freedom did not comfort some slave masters, who suspected that Christianity would undermine slave discipline—indeed, some remained unconvinced of the advisability of missionary efforts until emancipation occurred. On the other hand, some slave masters believed the Christianization of Africans to be justification for enslaving them.

Subsequent efforts to convert African Americans to Christianity were more successful. In his seven missionary tours throughout North America between 1742 and 1770, the spellbinding orator George Whitefield effected the conversions of large numbers of both black and white Americans. The ministry of Methodist circuit riders, such as Francis Asbury, was also well received by African Americans at the end of the eighteenth century. Baptist and Methodist churches were the most successful in attracting African American members. Since these churches did not require their ministers to be well educated, doors were opened for aspiring African American ministers, many of whom lived in states where teaching African Americans to read and write was forbidden by law. Furthermore, the Baptists and Methodists were not as hostile to the emotionalism of African American preachers and congregations as were more staid denominations, such as the Episcopalians. Finally, the anti-slavery stance of notable Methodist and Baptist leaders, such as John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and John Leland, and the greater degree of equality nurtured within many Baptist and Methodist congregations were attractive to African Americans.


Probably the first organizing effort by African Americans to bear fruit in an independent African American congregation was the Silver Bluff Baptist Church in South Carolina, which came into existence between 1773 and 1775. David George, an African American, and seven other men and women formed its organizing nucleus. George Liele, one of George’s associates, often preached at the Silver Bluff Church before emigrating to Jamaica in 1782. Andrew Bryan, one of Liele’s converts, founded the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, in 1788.

Bryan’s life well represented the complex predicament faced by African American religious leaders in the antebellum South. In the early years of his ministry, Bryan was whipped and twice imprisoned by whites who feared him. But he bought his freedom, prospered, and eventually came to own much property, including eight slaves; his death in 1812 was mourned by blacks and whites alike. While many African American churches continued to be served by white ministers until 1865, African American pastors, licensed ministers, and exhorters ministering to African American Baptist and Methodist congregations were not at all unusual at this time, either in the South or the North.


Before the Civil War, African American Catholics were confined largely to Maryland and Louisiana. However, Catholics made greater efforts to convert African Americans after the Civil War. By the end of the nineteenth century, nearly 200,000 African American Catholics were worshiping in the United States, but more Protestant African American ministers existed than did African American priests in the Catholic churches.


While white preachers urged African Americans to convert, and many predominantly white congregations welcomed them into membership, racial prejudice was never absent from the religious scene. Although the level of discrimination varied from region to region and congregation to congregation, some factors were relatively constant.

One such factor was the relative paucity of ordained African American clergy. To take the Methodists as an example, some African American ministers were ordained as deacons within the Methodist Episcopal Church prior to 1820, but none in the following four decades. No African American Methodist minister was ordained by the Methodist Episcopal Church to the higher office of elder or consecrated as a bishop prior to the Civil War, unless he was willing to emigrate to Liberia.

Other discriminatory practices also formed part of the religious landscape. The Methodists and many other denominations tried to reserve the administration of sacraments as the exclusive province of white clergy. Segregated seating in churches was pervasive in both the North and the South. Church discipline was often unevenly applied. Of course, racial discrimination in the churches was only a small part of the much larger political and moral controversy over slavery.

Resistance to discrimination took many forms. In the North, Peter Spencer in Wilmington, Delaware, Richard Allen in Philadelphia, and James Varick in New York, led their African American followers out of white Methodist churches and set up independent African American congregations. In Allen’s case, his departure was preceded by a dramatic confrontation over segregated seating in Philadelphia’s white Methodist church. Each of these men then used his congregation as the nucleus of a new African American Methodist denomination—Spencer formed the African Union Church in 1807; Allen, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1816; and Varick, a denomination eventually called the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion) in 1821.

Meanwhile, in Charleston, South Carolina, a more explosive situation was taking shape. Morris Brown, an African American Methodist minister from Charleston, who had helped Richard Allen organize the African Methodist Episcopal Church, organized an independent African American Methodist church in his home city. The authorities harassed Brown’s church and sometimes arrested its leaders. Nevertheless, within a year, more than three-quarters of Charleston’s African American Methodists had united with him. The oppression of African Americans in Charleston was so severe that many members of Brown’s congregation, including prominent lay leaders, joined the insurrection planned by Denmark Vesey to take over the Charleston armory and, eventually, the whole environs of Charleston. The conspirators, apprehended before they could carry out their plans, testified that Brown had not known of their scheme, and the minister was allowed to move to Philadelphia, where Richard Allen made him the second bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

A few African Americans became acquiescent as a result of Christianity. One such example was Pierre Tous-saint, a black Haitian slave who fled in 1787 to New York with his white owners, the Berards, just prior to the

Haitian Revolution. In 1811, Mrs. Berard manumitted Toussaint on her deathbed. Over the next 40 years, Tous-saint became a notable philanthropist, contributing funds to the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. However, when the cathedral opened, Toussaint did not protest when a white usher refused to seat him for services. Some American Catholics recently revived the controversy over Toussaint, by campaigning for his canonization. Many African American Catholics have strongly objected, seeing Tous-saint as passive and servile and thus a poor candidate for sainthood.


The mid-nineteenth century saw increased anti-slavery activity among many African American church leaders and members. Some gave qualified support to the gradual emancipation program sponsored by the American Colonization Society, which sought to encourage free African Americans to emigrate to Africa in order to Westernize and Christianize the Africans. Virginia Baptist pastor Lott Cary and Maryland Methodist minister Daniel Coker were the two most prominent African American religious leaders to emigrate to Africa in the 1820s. By the 1850s, enough African American Methodists were in Liberia for the Methodist Episcopal Church to consecrate an African American bishop, Francis Burns, to serve the Liberian churches. While some black Americans were emigrating to Africa, others emigrated to the West Indies—Episcopalian Bishop James T. Holly, for example, settled in Haiti to undertake missionary work.

Because of the extreme repression in the slave states, African Americans were unable to openly express their views on political issues. They were, however, often able to make their views clear; for example, a white minister who dwelled too long on the Biblical text that servants should obey their masters was apt to find his African American listeners deserting him. In addition, African American Christians often held secret meetings in “brush arbors,” rude structures made of pine boughs, or in the middle of the woods. There they could sing spirituals and pray openly for the quick advent of freedom. Slave revolts, on the other hand, provided a violent outbreak of dissent much feared by whites. The 1831 revolt of Nat Turner, a Baptist preacher, in Northampton County, Virginia, was suppressed only after tremendous bloodshed had been visited upon both African Americans and whites. Frightened whites in the South intensified their surveillance of African American churches in the aftermath of the Turner revolt. Even conservative African American preachers, such as Presbyterian John Chavis in North Carolina and the Baptist “Uncle Jack” in Virginia, were prohibited from preaching.

African American leaders in the North could afford to be more open and forthright in their political stance. Most rejected outright the views of the American Colonization Society in favor of the immediate abolition of slavery. Presbyterian minister Henry Highland Garnet was a prominent abolitionist, urging African American slaves in 1843 to “let your motto be RESISTANCE! RESISTANCE! RESISTANCE!” African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Daniel Payne and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Bishop Christopher Rush, both emigrants from the Carolinas to the North, were outspoken abolitionists who, after the mid-1840s, became the most prominent leaders in their respective churches.

Frederick Douglass was one of the few leading African American abolitionists who did not pursue a ministerial career, and even he had briefly served as an African Methodist Episcopal Zion preacher in New Bedford, Massachusetts. African American clergy were extraordinarily active in recruiting African American men to join the Union armies during the Civil War, after the Emancipation Proclamation opened up the possibility of military service to them. During the Civil War, nearly a dozen African American ministers, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Henry McNeal Turner, served as chaplains to African American army regiments.


Early African American women ministers sometimes served as traveling evangelists, especially within African American denominations. While Sojourner Truth’s oratory has become appropriately famous, Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, and other early nineteenth century women also spoke eloquently and, in Leeaposrsquo;s and Elaw’s cases, traveled widely and labored diligently. None of these women were ordained, but Elizabeth (no last name known), a former slave from Maryland whose ministry began in 1796, spoke for many female preachers when she was accused of preaching without a license: “If the Lord has ordained me, I need nothing better.” Rebecca Cox Jackson left the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1830s when she felt that men denied her the chance to exercise her ministry, and she eventually became head eldress of a predominantly African American Shaker community in Philadelphia.

During the postbellum years, some African American women sought and obtained formal ordination from their denominations. Sarah Ann Hughes, a successful North Carolina evangelist and pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was ordained by Bishop Henry McNeal Turner in 1885, but complaints from male pastors caused her ordination to be revoked two years later. The AME Church would not ordain another woman until 1948, when Rebecca Glover was ordained. Two women were ordained, however, by African Methodist Episcopal Zion bishops not long after the Hughes controversy—Mary J. Smalls in 1895 as a deacon and in 1898 as an elder, and also Julia A. J. Foote in 1894 and 1900, respectively. Pauli Murray, a distinguished lawyer and educator, in 1977 became the first African American woman to be ordained a priest in the predominantly white Episcopal Church. In 1989, Barbara Harris became the first woman bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church.

Throughout American history, many African American women exercised their ministry through para-ecclesiastical structures, such as women’s temperance and missionary societies, while others, such as Anna Cooper and the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Frances Jackson Coppin, became renowned educators.


African American church membership grew explosively after the Civil War, especially in the South, where the African American clergy played a prominent part in the Reconstruction governments. African Methodist Episcopal minister Hiram Revels became the first African American to serve as a U.S. senator, when the Mississippi legislature sent him to Washington, D.C., in 1870. However, Revels was only the groundbreaker; many African American ministers went on to serve in the Congress or in their state governments. African American participation in Reconstruction politics was effective in large part because ministers in the AME and AME Zion Churches, and many African American Baptist ministers carefully and patiently educated their congregation members on every civic and political issue. (Although the newly established African American denomination, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, largely stayed away from politics during Reconstruction.)

Even though African Americans were largely expelled from Southern state governments after the end of political Reconstruction in the 1870s, many African American ministers and laity continued to play an active political

role in such issues as temperance, often campaigning on behalf of prohibition referenda. The Southern white campaign of terror, lynching, and disfranchisement steadily reduced African American political power and participation, however, until the onset of mid-twentieth century civil rights movements.


As the system of racial segregation imposed in the 1880s and 1890s took hold, African American ministers coordinated a manifold response. First, they forthrightly challenged new segregation laws, engaging in civil disobedience and boycotts. For example, when the city of Nashville, Tennessee, segregated its street cars in 1906, influential Baptist minister R. H. Boyd led an African American boycott of the streetcars, even operating his own streetcar line for a time. No defeat was ever seen as final.

Second, African American ministers helped to nurture a separate set of African American institutions to serve African Americans excluded from white establishments. The Congregationalists, Baptists, and Northern Methodists established schools in the South for African Americans during Reconstruction, but the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal bishops forged ahead with the establishment of their own network of schools. The African American denominations also built up their publishing houses, and the books and periodicals that they published were vital to the black community. Virtually every institution with ties to African American communities received some support from African American churches.

Third, some African American ministers believed that the civil rights retreats of the late nineteenth century should spur African Americans to leave the United States for a destination where their full civil rights would be respected. A “Back to Africa” movement grew to enable African Americans to find a home where they could run governments, banks, and businesses without interference from whites. Thus, Bishop Turner helped to organize a steamship line to carry African Americans back to Africa, and two shiploads of African American emigrants sailed to Liberia in 1895 and 1896 as a result of his efforts. Some African American church leaders, such as Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Lucius Holsey and AME Bishop Richard Cain, held views similar to those advocated by Turner, but many more church leaders opposed Turner’s emigrationism vigorously. Simultaneously, African American missionary work continued to occupy the attention of African Americans at the end of the nineteenth century. Under the guidance of Bishops Payne and Turner, for example, the African Methodist Episcopal Church had a vigorous missionary presence in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and South Africa.


In the twentieth century, African American religious life was characterized by a far greater degree of diversity and pluralism. At the same time, traditional African American concerns, including the continuing quest for freedom and justice, were not only maintained but also strengthened. Pentecostalism, which burst on the American scene in 1906, became a major religious force within the African American community. William Joseph Seymour, a preacher and son of ex-slaves from Louisiana, led an extraordinary interracial revival in Los Angeles from 1906 to 1909 that enabled Pentecostalism to spread worldwide. The claim that all heavenly gifts that were available to early Christians, including faith healing and speaking in tongues, were available to modern Christians, gave great impetus to the movement. The Pentecostal-oriented Church of God in Christ, founded by Charles H. Mason, who attended Seymour’s revival, became the second largest African American denomination in the United States. In the latter part of the century, the charismatic or Neo-Pentecostal movement has revitalized many congregations within mainline African American denominations.

The liturgy of the African American churches was transformed with the introduction of gospel music in the early part of the twentieth century. Influenced by the work of such composers as Charles Tindley, Charles Price Jones, Lucie Campbell Williams and Thomas Dorsey, the new music enabled worshipers to praise God with rhythms and harmonies imported from more secular musical genres, such as blues and jazz. This new fusion sparked the creation of compositions that perhaps expressed the deep religious feelings of ordinary worshipers in the pews more appropriately than any previous music. New instruments were brought into the churches for the performance of these new musical compositions including guitars, drums, and, eventually, synthesizers and electronic instruments. This music initially encountered strong resistance in many African American congregations, but the popularity of such performers as Mahalia Jackson and the passage of time have enabled it to win a very wide acceptability. Church choirs and

ensembles, such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, helped to gain for gospel music an ever-increasing audience. While both Methodists and Baptists played a part in the spread of gospel music, the Holiness-Pentecostalist churches stemming from the 1906 revivals in Los Angeles played an especially important role in its increasing popularity.

The black nationalism of Bishop Turner came to full flower in the work of such men as Marcus Garvey (and his chaplain general, George A. McGuire), Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X. This black nationalism aided the growth of non-Christian religions, such as Islam and Black Judaism, within the African American community. Black nationalists often rejected Christianity as too complicit with slaveholding and racial oppression. A spectacular rise of storefront churches occurred, some of which were led by flamboyant showmen, such as Father Divine and “Sweet Daddy” Grace. Each of these trends has been significantly aided by the African American migrations after 1915 from Southern states to the North, which greatly strengthened African American communities.

A somewhat later migration from the Caribbean provided support for the growth of a diverse range of religions within the African American community including the Episcopal Church, Seventh-Day Adventism, Roman Catholicism, Rastafarianism, santeria, and voodoo. An early Caribbean migrant was Sarah Mae Manning, who brought up her son, Louis Eugene Wolcott, in Boston within the Episcopal Church. He later achieved fame as a Muslim under the name of Louis Farrakhan.

Many black ministers became advocates of a Social Gospel movement. One of the most famous was Rev. Ransom of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who

came into prominence between 1901 and 1904 as pastor of an Institutional Church in Chicago. (Institutional churches provided a range of social services to needy members and neighbors, in addition to regular worship.) Social Gospellers highlighted the reality of collective, societal sin, such as the starvation of children and the denial of human rights, and maintained that Christian repentance of these sins must be followed by concrete actions to rectify injustice and to assist the poor. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was profoundly influenced by this Social Gospel movement.

Many ministers and congregations maintained a kind of political involvement that built on a long tradition within the African American community and often with Social Gospel concerns in mind. Chicago AME minister Archibald Carey was a behind-the-scenes political organizer early in the twentieth century who effectively represented the interests of the African American community. New York’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Floyd Flake and Atlanta’s Andrew Young and John Lewis were ministers who achieved election to the U.S. House of Representatives, with Powell rising to the chairmanship of the influential Education and Labor Committee during the 1960s.

Other African American ministers, including Malcolm X, Al Sharpton, and Calvin Butts, have played important roles as community organizers, although never serving in elective office. Jesse Jackson’s attempts to gain the Democratic nomination for president in 1984 and 1988 brought the electoral clout of the African American church into the spotlight. The African American church’s strong involvement in political, economic, and social affairs helps to point out its continuing and central relevance—even indispensability—within the national context.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s was deeply influenced by the African American church context from which its most prominent organizer, Martin Luther King Jr., sprang. Its demonstrations, speeches, and movement songs were suffused with biblical images drawn from the Book of Exodus and other parts of the Bible. It was their deep religious faith that made it possible for the movement to keep progressing along a nonviolent path, even when King’s home in Montgomery was firebombed or the Ninth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 also was bombed, with four young girls the casualties of that violence. In a significant sense, King inherited his activism from his father, Martin Luther King Sr., also a Baptist pastor, who had led rallies and economic boycotts against racial discrimination as far back as the 1930s.

But it is also worth recalling that many African American religious leaders in the 1960s thought that King’s brand of social activism was too radical. One of King’s most determined critics during the 1960s was the theologically conservative president of the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., Inc., Joseph H. Jackson. The attempt by King’s ministerial allies to unseat Jackson as president of the convention in 1960 and 1961 led to a schism, with King and his supporters forming a new denomination, the Progressive National Baptist Convention. King came under further criticism when, in 1967 and 1968, he made it clear that his advocacy of pacifism extended to opposition to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

The Black Theology movement, which grew rapidly after King’s assassination, attempted to fashion a critique of the prevalent Christian theology out of the materials that Malcolm X and the Black Power movement provided. African American theologians were skeptical of the integrationist and non-violent thrusts of the Civil Rights movement, calling the African American community toward greater pride in and reliance upon the community’s own cultural resources. One such theologian, Albert Cleage, pastor of the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Detroit, argued that Jesus was a black messiah and that his congregation should follow the teachings of Jehovah, a black god. “Almost everything you have heard about Christianity is essentially a lie,” he stated. Cleage was representative of many black theologians in arguing that black liberation should be seen as situated at the core of the Christian gospels. In the 1980s, African American women such as Jacquellyn Grant, Delores Williams, and Katie Cannon have formulated “womanist” theologies, which seek to combat the triple oppression of race, class, and gender suffered by most African American women.


In most African American congregations, sermonizing is an interpersonal skill that African Americans have elevated to the level of art with such notable elements as call and response and repetition of phrases. The exuberance of all participants is highly dependent upon the tradition within which one worships. For example, in the more highly liturgical traditions such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, sermons only tend to be instructional. By contrast, non-liturgical Protestant denominations, including Baptist and Pentecostal churches, tend to view sermons as verbal sacraments.

In the 1990s, nondenominational churches reached a new high in popularity, usually centered upon a solitary, charismatic figure. As the medium is the message, performance was as important as the words themselves. Among the most highly regarded “artists” were Gardner C. Taylor, pastor emeritus of Brooklyn, New York’s Concord Baptist Church of Christ; Barbara King, founder and minister of Atlanta’s nondenominational Hillside Chapel and Truth Center, Inc.; and James Forbes, senior minister of New York City’s Riverside Church. They were just a few of those who were earmarked as the great preachers of the late twentieth century. In 1996, both Forbes and Taylor were deemed two of the 12 most effective preachers by a Baylor University survey, and Taylor was named as one of President Bill Clinton’s favorite evangelists.


In the twenty-first century, African American religions are undergoing substantial changes. The religious searches of prosperous middle-class African Americans has brought about surging enrollment at African American mega-churches in many of the nation’s metropolitan areas, such

as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Dallas. A growing interest in do-it-yourself spirituality has greatly enlarged the readership of inspirational writers, such as Iyanla Vanzant and T.D. Jakes. There has been an unprecedented interest in racial reconciliation among conservative Christian churches, joining liberal Christians who have pioneered in this area since the 1960s, even while an upsurge in African American church burnings, especially in the rural South demonstrated that the nation still has much work to do in addressing racism. Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan achieved spectacular success with his Million Man March in October 1995, stressing such spiritual themes as atonement, but he has not fashioned an effective follow-up to this headline-grabbing event. Meanwhile, the urban poor, especially young African American men, seem to be staying away from the churches in ever-increasing numbers.

Large African American churches, such as the Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Maryland with 12,000 members, have attracted the African American middle-class worshippers in unprecedented numbers. They have done so with very diverse offerings. For example, Ebenezer offers marriage counseling, workshops on financial planning, a ministry to lawyers and a socially involved, intellectually informed ministry. Many of the megachurch ministers, such as Ebenezer’s pastor and assistant pastor, have doctoral degrees. African American megachurch members reach out to young African American men who are still in poverty, even though their churches are often in the suburbs, miles away from inner city problems. Some African American churches have traditionally had large memberships, but the new megachurches feature younger pastors who have earned doctorates and are often still in their 30s or 40s. Unlike their white counterparts, African American megachurches often seek out social involvement and uplift with the poor. Other African American mega-churches can be found in such metropolitan areas as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Memphis.

Increasingly, African American ministerial leadership is passing from those who were on the front lines of civil rights struggles in the 1960s to their children’s generation. Perhaps this reality is best symbolized by events in Atlanta in the late 1990s. In July 1997, 75-year-old Joseph Lowery, who had helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with his colleagues Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, stepped down from the presidency of that organization. Meanwhile, Bernice King, who was five years old when her father was assassinated, has established a successful ministry at the Greater Rising Star Baptist Church in Atlanta. Similar to her father, she preaches a message of forgiveness and reconciliation, and she calls upon churches to commune and fellowship more across racial and ethnic lines. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. previously preached, opened a new sanctuary seating 1,600 worshipers in March 1999. The old church building, only half as large, was taken over and maintained by the National Park Service.


On the whole, African American churches continue to address a wide variety of social problems affecting the African American community. Perhaps most urgently, many churches have strong anti-drug programs. Some congregations have undertaken vigorous action against crack houses. Parochial schools, feeding centers, and housing for senior citizens are also part of the African American church’s outreach to the community.

Many African American ministers have noted, however, the growing division of the African American community along lines of social class and have exhorted middle-class African Americans to give more generously to programs that aid the poor. James Cone, a leading African American theologian, has stated that African American churches need to devote less time and attention to institutional survival and more to finding ways to deal with such pressing issues as poverty, gang violence, and AIDS. In 1997, five historically African American denominations formed Revelation Corporation of America, a partnership between corporations, charities, and churches; the income from the corporation will be used to help to subsidize home ownership among moderate-income residents of big cities, such as Philadelphia and Memphis.

African American churches have been involved in a wide variety of ecumenical efforts with white churches. While mainline Christian organizations, such as the National Council of Churches of Christ, have been involved in efforts for human rights for all and interracial reconciliation since the 1960s, it has only been since the 1990s that evangelical Christian organizations have joined in similar movements.

In 1994, predominantly African American and predominantly white Pentecostalist churches formed an inter-racial umbrella organization for the first time. The Promise Keepers, a Christian men’s movement designed to motivate men to become better husbands and fathers, fully included African Americans in the staff and leadership of the organization. In June 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution apologizing for its previous defense of slavery and “unwaveringly” denouncing “racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin.”

The predominantly white National Association of Evangelicals and the National Black Evangelical Association agreed to hold their future meetings jointly. Still, some racial discontent continued to surface among evangelical Christians. The National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. withheld its support from one of the Reverend Billy Graham’s crusades because of Graham’s refusal to support affirmative action. In addition, E. Edward Jones, president of the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., refused to accept the Southern Baptist Convention’s apology for slavery and racism, charging that the resolution was simply a cover for aggressive evangelism in the African American community that would draw members away from historically African American churches.

Dialogue among individual denominations continues to nurture the spirit of cooperation between them, with the result of establishing closer working relationships on the national and community levels. In June 1997, leaders of eight historically African American denominations met in Hampton, Virginia, in a week-long conference. The church leaders evinced a remarkable spirit of unity, but agreed to disagree on such issues as whether it could be the church’s responsibility to help redeem society by pursuing social and economic change, or the church was only responsible for the salvation of individual souls.

African American men from four Methodist denominations met in Atlanta in October 1998, addressing issues relating to families, male mentoring, and reconciliation between their various traditions. Bishops from these four denominations—the predominantly white United Methodist Church and three African American Methodist denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Churches—continue to explore the possibility of a merger early in the twenty-first century.

In the era of the “megachurch,” storefront churches—historically, often the only place where African Americans could go for help in time of need—move against the trend toward massive congregations and televised sermons, offer Bible study and a sense of community in an intimate setting. An urban phenomenon, storefront churches are frequently created by unordained ministers and are independent of denominational hierarchies. Yet, these churches are often the lifeblood of urban communities plagued by violence and poverty. The social services and community outreach these churches offer to populations sometimes considered beyond help, pick up where the government leaves off.

African American churches also have found themselves compelled to address issues related to the multiethnic tensions of the 1990s. In the aftermath of the devastating arson attacks on black churches in 1996, white churches and African American churches joined together in some cities to offer workshops against racism. Leading African American pastors in Los Angeles have deplored both the violence of police revealed in the Rodney King incident and the violence of inner city rioters, while advocating urgent attention to the problems of inner-city residents. For example, James Lawson of the Holman United Methodist Church stated that those who burned buildings during the 1992 Los Angeles riots were“responding to a society of violence, not simply a society of racism,” and issued “a call to repent.” In Queens, New York, an African American Baptist congregation in 1991 warmly welcomed the opportunity to perform an ordination service for a Korean American minister, Chong S. Lee.

Black ministers and congregations have been increasingly opening themselves to frank discussions of human sexuality, impelled in part by the public health threat posed by the AIDS crisis, which has hit African American communities especially hard. In 1999, 5,000 churches participated in the Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, a 100% increase in only 10 years. Franklyn Richardson, senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, New York, is one minister who has openly discussed AIDS with his congregation; Richardson’s brother died of AIDS in 1993. Some African American congregations are still uncomfortable, however, about augmenting their traditional advocacy of monogamy and premarital abstinence with encouragement for sexually active individuals to use condoms to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. Often, African American ministers from conservative religious traditions (e.g., many Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Pentecostalists) are able to discuss this matter with their congregations only in an informal manner, if at all.

The cause of gender equality continues to make progress in African American churches. While two predominantly white denominations, the United Methodist and Protestant Episcopal Churches, have elevated African American women to the episcopacy in the past two decades, none of the largest historically African American denominations have done so. Nevertheless, women in some African American churches are achieving more prestigious ministerial assignments. Vashti McKenzie, a former model, disc jockey, and radio program director, has served as pastor of the Payne Memorial AME Church, an “old-line” church in Baltimore, since the early 1990s. Her innovative ministry, she says, is designed to “provide a message of hope for a hurting community.” More than 600 female pastors are ensconced in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Preaching the gospel in a faithful but relevant fashion remains the most important objective of black churches. In a recent survey, 22% of African American clergy considered the most important problem of the African American church to be “lack of evangelism in fulfilling its religious role.” That was more than twice the figure for any other problem identified. Ministerial training and financial support are other areas needing improvement in many African American churches. African American churches are not in danger of losing sight of their many, vital, and extremely significant functions, within both the black community and American society as a whole. It is safe to predict that the African American churches will continue to sustain and develop their important and prophetic witness.


While many African American Methodist and Baptist denominations have shown only limited membership growth, other African American denominations are showing marked membership increases. Foremost among these are the Pentecostalist churches, whose lively worship and extensive social ministries are attracting members from all classes within the African American community. The largest of these denominations, the Church of God in Christ, is now estimated to have over three million members. Charismatic congregations, also known as neo-Pentecostalist, within such mainline African American churches as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, are also thriving and for similar reasons.

Other groups that have made substantial membership gains among African Americans include the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches and Islam. While estimates differ, apparently more than 1.5 million African Americans now belong to the Roman Catholic Church, which has worked hard in recent years to be sensitive to their needs. In many inner cities, it has maintained churches and schools in predominantly African American neighborhoods, although closings, mostly for financial reasons, are increasing in such dioceses as Detroit. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church has been receptive to some liturgical variation, allowing gospel choirs and African vestments for priests in African American churches. Nevertheless, Roman Catholics confront some serious problems in serving African American parishioners. Fewer than 300 of the 54,000 priests in the United States are African American, meaning that some African American congregations must be served by white priests. In 1989, George A. Stallings Jr., a priest in Washington, D.C., broke away from Catholicism, arguing that the Catholic Church was still racist and did not do enough for its African American members.

In such large cities as New York, Afro-Caribbean immigrants are swelling the ranks of the Episcopal Church. For example, a substantial majority of the 1,300 members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn are Caribbean immigrants. At least three Episcopal churches in New York City have escaped closing by church authorities because of the influx of members from the Caribbean. The Episcopal Church is not the only predominantly white denomination to seek to attract new immigrants of African descent to its pews. Presbyterian Church (USA) officials plan to increase their denomination’s ethnic minority membership to about 300,000, or about 10% of total membership, within the next seven years, in part by targeting their outreach to new immigrants of African descent.

Mainstream Islam, despite raising its own complexities, has also made large gains in the United States. Of the six million Muslims in this country, one million are believed to be African American. Most African American Muslims do not distinguish between people of different races and worship cordially side by side with recent Muslim immigrants from Asia and Africa. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, however, which retains Elijah Muhammad’s black separatist teachings, continues to maintain a devoted following. Farrakhan was embroiled in much controversy over the years as a result of his negative statements about Jews, Palestinian Arabs, and Asians.

Due to its conservative stance on gender issues, Islam has proven to be more popular among African American men than among African American women. Following Farrakhan’s successful Million Man March in 1995, he is able to fill the house, even in smaller cities such as Tallahassee, Florida, and hold his audiences spellbound for hours with a mixture of religious prophecy, candid social commentary, and moral exhortation for youth, but surprisingly the march did not achieve for him a sustained national presence. The chief organizer of the Million Man March, Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, converted to the Nation of Islam in April 1997, and then suffered the termination of his ministerial standing in his former denomination, the United Church of Christ.

Farrakhan, along with other prominent African Americans, including Senator Barack Obama (D–Illinois), marked the tenth anniversary of the Million Man March by staging a second march, the Millions More Movement, in Washington, D.C., in October 2005. African and Afro-Caribbean religions, such as the Yoruba worship of the spirits (orisha), Cuban santeria, and Haitian voodoo, have also been gaining ground in African American communities and on some African American college campuses. Caribbean immigrants to the United States have helped to stimulate the growth of these African-derived traditions. A typical Haitian American voodoo congregation in Brooklyn, New York, was the subject of Karen McCarthy Brown’s groundbreaking work Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Some African Americans in the United States are also attracted by the honor shown to ancestors in these African traditions. Iyanla Vanzant, brought up as a Christian but who later identified herself as a Yoruba priest-ess, has provided low-key advocacy of these traditions in her best-selling works.


The most successful African American ministers today employ as many forms of media as possible in order to find and keep their audiences. T. D. Jakes, for example, might seem at first glance to be just a typical pastor of a mega-church, the Potter’s House in Dallas, with over 35,000 members. But what sets him above the crowd is his authorship of over one dozen books, many of them bestsellers, a popular program on the Black Entertainment Television (BET) cable network, and an active revival schedule that finds him packing venues such as Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. His popular Internet Web page makes his thought widely available to the computer literate. Some former Potter’s House members have been critical of the church, citing excessive control, legalism, and cult-like brainwashing techniques among its leadership.

Johnnie Coleman, pastor of the Christ Universal Temple, runs a seminary for pastors and has a radio ministry. Her fellow Chicagoan, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, also gets his message out through radio broadcasts and an active publishing program, including a weekly newspaper, The Final Call, sold on street corners nationwide. While pastors continue to spread their ideas through sermons on cassette tapes and in print, the most successful find many more ways to reach out.

One prominent African American minister who has encountered some failures is Henry J. Lyons, a St. Petersburg, Florida, Baptist minister who in 1994 became president of the National Baptist Convention of the USA, Inc. On July 9, 1997, Lyons’s wife Deborah Lyons was arrested and charged with arson at a Florida home that her husband owned together with Bernice Edwards, director of public relations for his denomination and Henry Lyons’s alleged mistress. This eventually led to state and national criminal investigations and indictments against Henry Lyons. Florida authorities charged Lyons with racketeering and grand theft in February 1998. They alleged that he had misappropriated denominational funds and swindled millions of dollars from large corporations by selling bogus membership lists. Five months later, Lyons was indicted by the federal government on 56 counts of extortion, fraud, and tax evasion.

Lyons requested forgiveness from his local congregation and his denomination. On February 27, 1999, Lyons was convicted of all three counts brought against

him by the state of Florida. On March 16, 1999, he resigned his office as president of the National Baptist Convention, and S. C. Cureton assumed the post until new elections were held. Lyons then pleaded guilty to five charges brought by the federal government on the following day. He was sentenced to five and one half years in a federal penitentiary and had to return $214,500 of donations that he had not distributed.


African American churches in the South were literally under fire in the 1990s. These incidents of church arson invoked grievous memories of racist violence during the 1960s, particularly the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixth Street Baptist Church in which four small girls were killed on September 15, 1963. In 1996, the peak year, 119 of 297 churches affected by arson nationwide were predominantly African American. In other words, while African American churches constituted about 6% of the nation’s churches, more than 40% of arson cases occurred that year at African American churches.

In response, President Clinton declared the “investigation and prevention of church arsons to be a national priority.” In June 1996, President Clinton established the National Church Arson Task Force and proposed a three-pronged strategy that called for prosecution of the arsonists, the rebuilding of church edifices, and the prevention of additional fires. In addition, on July 3, he signed the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996, which passed both chambers of the Congress unanimously.

Independently, Mac Charles Jones, associate general secretary for racial justice of the National Council of Churches of Christ, met with pastors of more than 30 burned-out churches and heard numerous stories of racist graffiti and threats issued against the pastors. African Americans concerned that the conflagrations were related took steps toward fighting the terrorism. To that end, the NAACP urged the Justice Department to investigate; in compliance, a full-scale civil rights investigation was initiated. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) also instituted a fund for the affected congregations.

Despite federal government involvement though, only 34% of the cases had been solved as of November 1998, and investigations continue as of 2007. (Those who have been charged with arson of African American churches have included 68 whites, 37 African Americans, and one Hispanic American.) In addition, neither the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) nor the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF)—which together have more than 200 agents on the case—have been able to find a common link among these crimes.

In 2006, three white university students at Birmingham-Southern, a Methodist-affiliated liberal arts college, gained national attention by setting fire to nine rural Alabama churches. Allegedly, five fires were set first as a “joke,” then the next four to lead the police astray. Five of the churches were white, and four were African American.


The Imani Temple, the first African-American Catholic Congregation, was founded in Washington, D.C., by George Augustus Stallings Jr., a former Roman Catholic priest, in July 1989. The schism occurred when Stallings performed a mass based on an experimental rite currently being used in Zaire, in defiance of the prohibition of his archbishop, James Hickey. This was the first schism from the Roman Catholic Church in the United States since 1904.

Stallings also voiced a number of criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the schism: “There are not enough black priests, not enough black church members, and some of the relatively few black churches that exist are being closed and consolidated. The black experience and black needs are addressed minimally in church services and life.” He also asserted that “we could no longer afford to worship white gods in black houses.” Thirteen African American Catholic bishops issued a statement denouncing Stallings and accused him of expressing “personal disappointment [and] individually felt frustration” under the guise of charges of racism.

Black Catholic reactions to these developments were mixed. Many expressed sympathy for Stallings’s concerns, but were unwilling to leave the Roman Catholic Church. Stallings assumed the title of archbishop of Imani Temple in 1991 and, at the same time, ordained a woman to the priesthood of the African American Catholic Congregation. Stallings has also relaxed the Catholic teaching on abortion for his congregation members and has declared the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be a saint.

In forming his denomination, he has experienced some setbacks. Several formerly close associates split with Stallings in 1991, alleging a lack of fiscal accountability in the church and accusing him of taking his liturgical innovations too far. In 1994, Stallings dedicated a new cathedral for his denomination in Washington, D.C. As of the same year, his denomination claimed 4,200 members in seven cities in the United States and in Lagos, Nigeria. As of 2007, there were 13 Imani temples under Stallings’ leadership.


The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded in 1816 at a conference convened in Philadelphia by Richard Allen, who was elected as its first bishop. In the following years, it grew throughout the North and Midwest and, after the Civil War, expanded quickly throughout the South and the West. In 1991, the church claimed about 3.5 million members, about one million of whom are found in churches in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean as a result of successful missionary efforts. It oversees about 8,000 churches, and the AME Church sponsors seven colleges and two seminaries in the United States and several colleges and educational centers in Liberia and South Africa.

Payne Theological Seminary is located in Wilber-force, Ohio, at the site of the church’s oldest school, Wilberforce University, founded in 1856. Turner Theological Seminary is one of six schools that have joined to form the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. About one-third of local AME congregations sponsor low-income housing, schools, Job Corps programs, or care for senior citizens. The African Methodist Episcopal Church’s chief governing bodies are the General Conference, the Council of Bishops, and the General Board. It publishes the following periodicals: the Christian Recorder; the Voice of Missions, and the AME Church Review. In 2000, Rev. Vashti Murphy McKenzie was elected the church’s first woman bishop.


Originally known as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was founded in 1821 in New York City. James Varick was elected its first “superintendent”; the title of the presiding officer was later changed to bishop. In 1848, the word “Zion” was added to the name of this church in order to avoid confusion with that founded by Richard Allen. It grew slightly prior to 1860, but expanded quickly in such Southern states as North Carolina and Alabama after the Civil War.

As of 1997, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church claimed approximately 1.3 million members, 100,000 of whom lived in Africa, England, India, South America, or the Caribbean. It possesses nearly 3,100 churches worldwide. The church supports three colleges, two of which are junior colleges, and one seminary. The four-year college and the seminary are Livingstone College and Hood Theological Seminary, both located in Salisbury, North Carolina. The denomination is governed by a general conference, a board of bishops, and a correctional council. Its publications include the weekly Star of Zion, the Quarterly Review, the monthly Missionary Seer, and the quarterly Church School Herald.


The African Orthodox Church was founded in 1921 by Archbishop George Alexander McGuire, once a priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church. McGuire was the chaplain for Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, but Garvey soon disavowed his chaplain’s efforts to found a new denomination. This church is today an autonomous and independent body adhering to an “orthodox” confession of faith. Its nearly 5,100 members worship in some 17 churches.


In 1973, a group of African Americans founded a voodoo kingdom in South Carolina called Oyotunji. This kingdom was run by the leader of the African Theological Archministry, King Efuntola. The king and his followers relocated to South Carolina from Harlem, moving their Shango Temple to Beaufort County. The king received his voodoo training in Nigeria, and his followers worship various gods and deities that represent different forces in life. The affiliated membership of the group is estimated at 10,000.


This denomination—the first independent African American denomination in the United States—was formed in 1866 by a merger of the African Union Church and the First Colored Methodist Protestant Church. The African Union Church traced its roots to a Union Church of Africans founded in 1813 by Peter Spencer in Wilmington, Delaware. This denomination includes 40 congregations in several states and has a membership of over 8,000.


This Pentecostal denomination, originally known as the Ethiopian Overcoming Holy Church, was incorporated in Alabama in 1920. Evangelistic in purpose, it emphasizes sanctification, holiness, and the power of divine healing. As of 1994, it claimed 173 churches and about 12,000 members.


Founded in 1957, this Pentecostal tradition claimed 300 churches and 250,000 members as of 2006. It publishes The Bible News Voice biweekly.


Nearly 100,000 African Americans consider themselves Jewish. Included among these are the Commandment Keepers, founded in Harlem in 1919 by a Nigerian man known as “Rabbi Matthew”; the Church of God and Saints in Christ founded in 1896 in Lawrence, Kansas, by William Crowdy; and the Church of God founded in Philadelphia by Prophet F. S. Cherry. In terms of doctrine, these groups share little more than a dislike of Christianity and an affection for the Old Testament. Some black Jews claim to be descended from the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia, who now reside in Israel. However, few black Jews are recognized as such by orthodox rabbis.

The Church of God and Saints of Christ is probably the largest of these groups, with more than 200 churches and a membership of 38,000. The World African Hebrew Israelite Community—a religious sect that believes blacks in the Western Hemisphere are the descendants of the original Hebrews and, as such, are the rightful heirs of the Holy Land of Israel—has 3,000 members throughout the United States and an additional 1,500 living in Israel. Since the late 1960s, they have been led by the spiritual leader Ben Ami Ben-Israel, formerly a Chicago bus driver named Ben Carter.


The Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, known until 1954 as the Colored Methodist Church, is the third largest African American Methodist body in the United States. It was founded after the Civil War, when some African American Methodist churches desiring not to join the African Methodist Episcopal or African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches successfully petitioned the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, for the right to form their own denomination. The first CME General Conference was held at Jackson, Tennessee, in 1870. There the church’s first two bishops, William H. Miles and Richard Vanderhorst, were elected.

In 1994, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church estimated its membership at over one million persons, of whom 75,000 were located overseas. It possesses about 3,000 churches and maintains five church-affiliated colleges, as well as the Phillips School of Theology, a seminary that is part of the consortium known as the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. Its periodicals include the bimonthly Christian Index and the monthly Missionary Messenger.


This denomination was organized in 1907 by Bishop Charles Price Jones, a renowned and prolific gospel song and hymn writer. The church traces its roots to an 1894 church established by Jones and C. H. Mason, but Jones and Mason parted company 13 years later after the two men disagreed about whether speaking in tongues was necessary to prove baptism of the Holy Spirit (Jones insisted that it was not). Some 160 churches and 9,300 members belong to this denomination, which upholds the possibility of sanctification and Christian perfection. The church operates Christ Missionary and Industrial College, in Jackson, Mississippi.


This Pentecostal denomination was founded in Florida in 1914. Its membership is concentrated in the Southeast.


The Church of God in Christ (COGIC) was organized in 1894 by two former Baptist preachers, Charles H. Mason and C. P. Jones, and was initially strongest in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Mason reorganized COGIC in 1907, when he and Jones parted on the issue of speaking in tongues. At that time, Mason was appointed “general overseer and chief apostle” of the Church, as well as its first bishop. It has subsequently expanded very rapidly throughout the United States, especially in African American neighborhoods in the inner cities.

As of 1991, COGIC claimed about 5.5 million members and 15,300 churches. It possesses bible colleges and a junior college, with plans for a university (All Saints University in Memphis) some time in the future. Its Charles H. Mason Theological Seminary is part of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. It is governed by a general assembly, a general council of elders, the board of bishops, and the general board composed of 12 bishops elected by the general assembly to four-year terms. In 2000, Gilbert Earl Patterson was elected presiding bishop over the organization, the fastest-growing Christian group in the United States.


This denomination was organized by K. H. Burruss in Georgia in 1914. It split off from the Church of Christ (Holiness) U.S.A. Membership in the group’s 40-odd churches totals some 25,000.


This church was organized on an interracial basis as the Fire Baptized Holiness Association in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1898; its African American members formed the Fire Baptized Holiness Church in 1908. The church subscribes to standard Pentecostalist doctrines on divine healing, speaking in tongues, and sanctification. As of 1968, it had about 50 churches and a membership of about 9,000. In 2006, the church included about 160 congregations throughout the United States.


After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, his son Warith D. Muhammad assumed leadership of the movement. Warith Muhammad shifted dramatically away from his father’s teachings of black nationalism, stating that whites could become members. He sought to bring his movement in accord with Orthodox Islam, and he eventually succeeded, renaming the Nation of Islam as the World Community of Al-Islam in the West and then as the American Muslim Mission before the merger was accomplished.

Three other splinter groups formed, the largest headed by Louis Farrakhan, who split from Muhammad to reestablish the Nation of Islam on the basis of Elijah Muhammad’s original black separatist teachings. The remaining two traditions are led by John Farrakhan and Caliph Emmanuel A. Muhammad.


The National Baptist Convention of America was formed in 1915, as a result of a schism with the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. over the issue of control of the denominational publishing house. The supporters of Richard Henry Boyd, chairman of the board of the publishing house, established this convention when Boyd’s opponents had attempted unsuccessfully to bring the publishing house more firmly under denominational control. In 1987, it was said to possess 3.5 million members and 2,500 churches. However, more congregations split off in 1988 to form the National Missionary Baptist Association, when the new denomination also tried to assert control over its publishing house. It has missions in Jamaica, Panama, Haiti, the Virgin Islands, and Africa, and supports 15 colleges.


The National Baptist Convention was formed in 1895, through the union of three smaller church organizations, the oldest of which had been founded only 15 years earlier: the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention of the U.S.A.; the American National Baptist Convention; and the National Baptist Educational Convention of the USA. The National Baptist Convention incorporated itself after a dispute over the publishing house led to a schism in 1915.

The National Baptist Convention, Inc., is governed by a 15-member board of directors and a nine-member executive board. It is a supporter of the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, and of six other colleges. Its publications include the semimonthly National Baptist Voice. The convention dedicated its World Center Headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1989. In 1994, Rev. Dr. Henry J. Lyons was elected as the sixth president of the National Baptists, the largest African American religious order in the United States. On March 16, 1999, Rev. Lyons resigned his office amidst serious state and federal charges against him. S.C. Careton assumed the post of president until new elections were held.

The National Baptist Convention, Inc., as of 1992, claimed 8.2 million members, 100,000 of whom were in foreign countries. Litigation documents concerning its former president, Rev. Lyons, however, established that the denomination’s membership in 1998 could be more accurately estimated at one million persons. It possesses 33,000 local churches.


Founded in 1988, this group boasted 3.2 million members in 1995 and more than 500 churches. Rev. W. T. Snead was elected president of the Convention in 1994. In 2006, Rev. C.C. Robertson was elected president.


African American and white Primitive Baptists separated after the Civil War. Although having long avowed opposition to church organization above the congregational level, it was not until 1907 that African American Primitive Baptists formed the National Primitive Baptist Convention. Each congregation is independent, and a decision by officials of a local church is final. Belief in “the particular election of a definite number of the human race” is included within its creed. In 1975, they possessed a membership of 250,000 in 606 churches. Elder Thomas W. Samuels was elected president in 1995.


An estimated one million members belong to the 1,760 churches of an organization founded in 1906. The church holds that speaking in tongues is vital to spiritual rebirth and that believers should be baptized only in the name of Jesus. Since its origins, it has accepted the ordination of women in the ministry.


The Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. was formed in 1961, as a result of a schism in the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., Inc. The schism resulted from a dispute over leadership occasioned by differences over tactical strategies in the struggle for civil rights. Those committed to such tactics as nonviolent civil disobedience, including Martin Luther King Jr., left to form the new denomination. The convention’s motto is “Unity, Service, Fellowship, and Peace.” It is a financial supporter of six colleges. It has active missions in Haiti and Africa. The Convention claims 2.5 million members and more than 2,000 churches and is governed by a 60-member executive board headed by Rev. Bennett Smith Sr. In 2006, the church elected Rev. T. DeWitt Smith president. Although it has no publishing house of its own, it does publish a quarterly periodical titled the Baptist Progress.


Members of this religion regard the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who died in 1975, a supreme being. Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born nationalist who advocated a back-to-Africa movement in the United States in the early 1920s, is also a central figure in the faith. Reggae musician Bob Marley, a Rastafarian, helped to increase the religion’s popularity in the United States.

Today, Rastas differ on specific dogma, but they basically believe that they are descended from black Hebrews exiled in Babylon and, therefore, are true Israelites. They also believe that Haile Selassie, whose name before ascending the throne was Lij Ras Tafari Makonnen, is the direct descendent of Solomon and Sheba, and that God is black. Most white men, they believe, have been worshipping a dead god and have attempted to teach the blacks to do likewise. They hold that the Bible was distorted by King James, and that the black race sinned and was punished by God with slavery. They view Ethiopia as Zion, the Western world as Babylon, and believe that one day they will return to Zion. They preach love, peace, and reconciliation between races, but warn that Armageddon is imminent.

Rastas do not vote, tend to be vegetarians, abhor alcohol, and wear their hair in long, uncombed plaits called dreadlocks. The hair is never cut, since it is part of the spirit, nor is it ever combed. Estimates of their numbers in the United States and around the world vary widely.


Founded in 1902, this denomination is identified by their belief in the Pentecostal forms of baptism, but their rejection of speaking in tongues. The type of baptism ceremony in this church is called “fire-baptism.”


The United Church of Jesus Christ split from the Church of God in Christ in 1945 over the issue of the Holy Trinity versus a theory of the “Oneness in Godhead,” which it follows. This splinter sect was named the Church of God in Christ (Apostolic) and was founded by Bishop Randolph Carr. In 1965, disputes over the lifestyle of Bishop Carr led Monroe Saunders and most of the church’s members to leave and found the present-day United Church of Jesus Christ. As of 2006, general minister and president was Rev. John H. Thomas.


(To locate biographical profiles more readily, please consult the index at the back of the book.)

JARAMOGI ABEBE AGYEMAN (1911–2000) Founder

Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman was born Albert Cleage Jr. in 1911, in Indianapolis, Indiana. His physician father relocated the family to Detroit a short time later, and Cleage undertook social work as a profession before earning a degree in divinity from Oberlin College in 1943. After his ordination, he headed Congregational churches in Kentucky and Massachusetts; Cleage’s work at the latter was notable for the community outreach and economic programs that he enacted. Returning to Detroit, the minister became head of a Presbyterian congregation that split off into its own church in 1953.

This fellowship, known as the Central United Church of Christ (CUCC), soon became a political powerhouse among Detroit’s increasingly significant African American community during the 1950s. Cleage’s growing interest in the Black Power movement of the 1960s—and especially the teachings of Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X—led the pastor to create a separate denomination from the CUCC in 1967, based on historical theories that Jesus was of African descent. The focal point of the church—and the symbolic gesture that attracted many to it—was a powerful 18-foot mural of the Black Madonna. The Black Christian Nationalist movement and its cornerstone congregation, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, soon became an influential religious, social, political, and economic force in the city.

Basing the church’s tenets on both teachings of visionaries, such as Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and Marcus Garvey, Cleage preached economic self-sufficiency to his flock and put the words into action by the creation of numerous social service programs, including a community grocery outlet, in answer to the inflated prices then common to white-owned stores in the African American neighborhoods, and a bookstore stocked with the significant African nationalist literature of the day. The Shrine of the Black Madonna expanded into other American cities over the next several years, but the imprint it left on Detroit was perhaps Cleage’s most significant achievement.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, after contentious 1967 race riots put aside any hopes of smooth integration between a diminishing white population and an increasingly frustrated African American citizenry, Cleage and the church’s active membership were credited with helping elect numerous African American political leaders, judges, and school board members who remained a vital force in Detroit well into the 1990s. Cleage authored two books, The Black Messiah and Black Christian Nationalism, before taking the name Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman. Cleage died of heart disease on February 20, 2000, in Calhoun Falls, South Carolina, at the age of 88.

NOBLE DREW ALI (1886–1929) Religious Leader

Noble Drew Ali, originally named Timothy Drew, was born in North Carolina in 1886. He is principally important for his role in establishing the first North American religious movement combining black nationalist and Muslim themes with the rejection of Christianity as the religion of whites. In 1913, he established the first Moorish Science Temple in Newark, New Jersey. He taught that African Americans were “Asiatics” who had originally lived in Morocco before enslavement. Every people, including African Americans, needed land for themselves, he proclaimed, and North America, which he termed an “extension of the African continent,” was the proper home for African Americans. The holy book for the Moorish Science Temple was a “Holy Koran,” which was “divinely prepared by the Noble Prophet Drew Ali.” (This book should not be confused with the Q’uran of Islam.) Every member of the Temple carried a card stating that “we honor all the Divine Prophets, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Confucius” and that “I am a citizen of the U.S.A.”

In the 1920s, the Moorish Science Temple expanded to Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago. Noble Drew Ali also started several small businesses, which he ran together with his followers. In 1929, Drew Ali was stabbed to death in his Chicago office, in an apparent strife over the leadership of the Temple. The Moorish Science Temple survived Drew Ali’s death, but the Nation of Islam was able to attract some of its followers.

RICHARD ALLEN (1760–1831) Civil Rights Activist, Bishop

Born a slave in Philadelphia on February 14, 1760, Richard Allen converted to Christianity in 1777 and, soon thereafter, bought his freedom. He then traveled widely through the Middle Atlantic States as an exporter. Francis Asbury, the first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, asked Allen to join him as a traveling companion, stipulating that Allen would not be allowed to fraternize with slaves and would sometimes have to sleep in his carriage. Allen refused to accept such an offer, instead settling down in Philadelphia, where he helped to found the Free African Society, an African American society for religious fellowship and mutual aid.

One day in the early 1790s, Allen was worshipping in Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Church when he was pulled off his knees during prayer by white deacons who insisted that Allen was sitting outside the area reserved for African Americans. Allen left, establishing his own church for Philadelphia’s African Americans in a converted blacksmith shop in 1794. White Methodists tried to exert their control over his church in various ways, which Allen resisted successfully. In 1816, after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court settled a suit over this church in Allen’s favor, Allen called for a conference of African American Methodists. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded at this conference, and Allen was consecrated as its first bishop.

Allen remained both religiously and politically active in his later years, and he was especially active in opposing schemes to colonize free African Americans in Africa.

CARL BEAN (1946?– ) Clergyman

Since 1985, Bishop Carl Bean, D.M., has been running two projects: the Minority AIDS Project (MAP) and the Unity Fellowship Church for African American gays and lesbians. Starting as a Bible study group, the church quickly took root, with chapters spreading to New York City, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Dallas, and Seattle by 1996. Meanwhile, MAP has become the largest AIDS agency serving African Americans in the United States.

Born and raised as a Baptist in Baltimore, Bean was an avid churchgoer in his youth. He grew up singing gospel. In the early 1960s, he lived and performed in Harlem and appeared at the Apollo Theater. He also performed on stage, appearing on Broadway in a gospel revue, and became a recording artist before turning to a vocation in the ministry. Ordained a minister in 1982, Bean first chose to work in south-central Los Angeles.

Openly gay, Bean wanted to help liberate ostracized people of color—gay or straight—because he himself had once felt shunned by the church. Reaching out to the disenfranchised, Bean’s followers believe that “Love is for everyone.” In 1991, the fellowship embarked on a campaign to work with gangs. Often getting referrals from social workers, Bean’s congregation has earned a reputation for doing whatever is required to get people’s lives on track. From distributing cash grants for food and bills to paying for funerals, Unity Fellowship members give back to the community.

Bean has received numerous awards for his community work, including a NAACP Image Award in 1987; a Prophetic Witness Award in 1993 from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and a Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Liberty Award in 1994.

SISTER THEA BOWMAN (1938–1990) Writer, Educator, Religious Leader

Born in Canton, Mississippi, in 1938, Thea Bowman, daughter of a medical doctor, joined the Roman Catholic Church at age 12 because of the Catholic education she had received. Three years later, she joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She was extensively educated, earning a Ph.D. in literature and linguistics and was a distinguished teacher who taught elementary and high schools, as well as at colleges. She helped to found the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University and was a distinguished scholar known for her writings on Thomas More. But it is probably for the spiritual inspiration that she provided in numerous lectures, workshops and concerts that she will be best remembered. She said that she brought to her church “myself, my black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become, my history, my culture, my experience, my African American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing.”

CALVIN O. BUTTS III (1949– ) Religious Leader

Calvin Butts spent the first eight years of his life on the Lower East Side of New York City, where he was born in 1949. In 1957, the family moved to Queens, New York. During the summer breaks from school, Butts’ parents would send him down South to stay with his grandmothers who lived near one another in rural Georgia. It was in these early formative years that Butts first became acquainted with church.

After graduating from Flushing High School, where he was class president his senior year, Butts was accepted to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. The year was 1967, an explosive time in the American civil rights struggle. At Morehouse, Butts attended lectures, rallies, and speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and other African American leaders. Following one of these very emotional events, Butts found himself immersed in a riot and actually assisted in the firebombing of a local store. Shortly thereafter, he renounced his capitulation to violence.

Just before his graduation with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Morehouse College, Butts was approached by two young seminarians trying to recruit students for their school. Later, he would receive his master’s degree in divinity from Union Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Ministry degree in Church and Public Policy from Drew University, New Jersey.

While attending the seminary, Butts raised a few eyebrows through his controversial stance on homosexuality. He has since defended the social and civil rights of gays, which he had once denounced.

Butts was recruited as a junior minister in 1972 by William Epps. During this time, his responsibilities included making hospital visits and conducting funeral services. From the very beginning, though, Butts realized the Abyssinian pulpit provided a great foundation from which to preach. For instance, he was quite vocal in his opposition to police brutality, along with any other form of violence.

Since assuming the pastoral role at Harlem’s nationally renowned Abyssinian Baptist Church, which boasts more than 5,000 parishioners, Butts has also been involved in the community. He co-founded the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a community-based organization that has donated over $300 million in housing and commercial development in Harlem. He also assisted in establishing the Thurgood Marshall Academy of Learning and Social Change, a public school. Butts is also President of the State University of New York College in Old Westbury, New York, and is President of the Council of Churches of the City of New York. He has sat on the board of the Harlem Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).

Butts has received numerous honors and awards for his service to the community, including the Louise Fisher Morris Humanitarian Award. His campaign to eliminate negative billboard advertising in Central Harlem and throughout New York City garnered national attention and sparked similar efforts throughout the country.

KATIE CANNON (1950– ) Presbyterian Minister, Educator, Feminist

Katie Cannon was born January 3, 1950, in Kannopolis, North Carolina. At the age of 12, she worked as a domestic alongside her aunt and later realized that her only way out of a life of menial labor was through education. As she approached adulthood, Cannon found that only two roads were available to most African American women in her community—they could work in the local mill or become a school teacher. The teachers that she knew played an important role in the early years of her life; she thrived in the supportive and protective environment of the academic environment, though the bite of racism was still all too real to her. African Americans were prohibited from public places, such as the library and the local pool, and Cannon was determined to escape.

Cannon enrolled in Barber-Scotia College in Concord, North Carolina, and participated in workshops and classes offered by the Presbyterian church. She graduated with a B.S. in 1971, after rising to the top of her senior class, making the dean’s list, and being named Miss Barber-Scotia. The following fall, Cannon went on to study at Johnson C. Smith Seminary of the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, Georgia—one of the two accredited African American seminaries at the time. During her time there, Cannon was exposed to every aspect of the ministry. Majoring in Old Testament studies, she was only one of only four women in her class. Upon completion of her studies, Cannon received her master’s degree in divinity in 1974.

Cannon served as pastor at the Ascension Presbyterian Church in New York City for three years. Her work there was followed by an administrative position at the New York Theological Seminary, then, ready to resume her scholarly endeavors, Cannon decided to attend Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, where she received her master’s degree in philosophy, as well as a Ph.D. in 1983. It was in New York City that she discovered feminism, studied Christian ethics, and began writing about black women.

Cannon served as the associate professor of Christian ethics at Philadelphia’s Temple University and has taught at the Episcopal Divinity School and New York Theological Seminary. She is the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. Cannon has written numerous articles and has published or edited a number of books, including Black Womanist Ethics (textbook, 1988);a compilation of previously published essays called Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (1997); and Teaching Preaching (2002).

JOHNNIE COLEMAN (c.1920– ) Religious Leader, Educator

The only child of John Haley and Lula Haley Parker, Johnnie Coleman was named after her father, who wanted a boy. Coleman grew up in Mississippi during the 1920s. A graduate Union Academy in Mississippi and then Wiley College in Texas, Coleman became and a school teacher in Mississippi and later moved to Chicago to teach. Coleman was diagnosed in 1953 with an incurable disease and told she had only six months to live. However, all of her symptoms disappeared by 1956—after she moved to Kansas City to study at the Unity School of Christianity. Nonetheless, Coleman suffered from racial discrimination at the Unity School. Only her threat to leave the school just short of graduation won her the ability to live on campus and eat in the campus cafeteria. Her south side Chicago church began as a study group in 1956 with only five members. In 1958, she named her church the Christ Universal Temple, and in 1963 she moved to the Chatham section of South Chicago.

In the early 1970s, she served as the first African American president of the Association of Unity Churches. Nevertheless, she still found racism too prevalent within the predominantly white denomination. Consequently, in 1974, she formed the Universal Foundation for Better Living, Inc., an association of churches devoted to the “positive thinking” derived from the New Thought movement. In the 1970s, she opened the Johnnie Coleman Institute to teach her doctrines derived from New Thought and, in the 1980s, began a broadcast ministry. Teaching her congregation members to discover the power of God within themselves, she has been a long-time advocate of Holy Materialism and Practical Christianity. By 1989, 23 churches belonged to the Universal Foundation, and her own congregation increased in size to 12,000 members.

JAMES H. CONE (1938– ) Author, Theologian, Educator

Born in Fordyce, Arkansas, in 1938, and was raised in Bearden, a small town. The segregation and racism Cone experienced and observed led him to question how the whites in the town could consider themselves good Christians. James Cone was called to the ministry at the age of 16 and became a pastor a year later. He received a B.A. from Philander Smith College, a B.D. from Garrett Evangelical Seminary, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Northwestern University. After teaching at Philander Smith and Adrian Colleges, Cone moved to Union Theological Seminary in 1969, and later became the Charles A. Briggs Professor of Systematic Theology.

Cone is the author of numerous books, including Black Theology and Black Power (1969); The Spirituals and the Blues (1972); For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church (1984); Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (1991); Black Theology (1993); Black Man Emerging (1999); and Risks of Faith (2001).

Perhaps more than any other African American theologian, Cone has provided a systematic exposition of the argument that since God, according to the Bible, is on the side of the poor and oppressed, that in the American context, God is siding with the black liberation struggle. He has made this argument using a diverse set of sources including the writings of modern European theologians such as Karl Barth and the writings and speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Cone has worked painstakingly for decades to build ties between black, feminist, and Third World liberation theologians.

SUZAN JOHNSON COOK (1957– ) Religious Leader, Author

Reverend Suzan Denise Johnson Cook was born on January 28, 1957, in New York City. She was raised in the Bronx, New York, and was a communications student at Emerson College in Boston when she went to Ghana as an exchange student. There she entertained notions of joining the ministry. She would later enroll at the United Theological Seminary, where she pursued a doctorate. Just as her role model, Presbyterian minister Katie Cannon, had found earlier, entering into the pastorship was a task rife with difficulty for a woman, but Cook carved a niche and persevered. Eager to assist other women in pursuing the ministry, she later directed Black Women in the Ministry, sponsored by the New York City Mission Society.

In 1983, Cook began 11 years of preaching at Mariner’s Temple, the oldest Baptist facility in Manhattan. Her rapport with the small congregation led her to become the first African American woman elected to senior pastor of a Baptist church in the United States. Her preaching skills won her recognition as one of the “Fifteen Greatest Black Women Preachers” by Ebony (Nov. 1997).

During her years with the church, membership swelled from 60 to more than 1,000 members. Cook became the first woman to be appointed chaplain of the New York City Police Department in 1990, when then-Mayor David Dinkins selected her. Three years later, President Bill Clinton chose her for a White House fellowship, the first female minister to be so recognized. She subsequently served on President Clinton’s National Advisory Board on Race.

Cook is the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of JONCO Productions, Inc., a sales, management, and diversity firm that hosts a speaker’s bureau and media and book distributions. She also serves an advocate for children and youth and serves as the Executive Director of the Multi Ethnic Center for Children and Families. Cook lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.

Cook has authored a number of books and audio cassettes, including Wise Women Bearing Gifts: Joys and Struggles of Their Faith (1988); Preaching in Two Voices: Sermons on the Women in Jesus’s Life (1992); Too Blessed to Be Stressed (1998); Sister to Sister (audio cassette, 2003); Praying for the Men in Your Life (2003); and Live Like You’re Blessed (2006).


WALLACE D. FARD (1877?–1934?) Religious Leader

W. D. Fard’s background is fiercely contested. According to the Nation of Islam, Fard was born in Mecca in 1877 to a black man named Alfonso and a Caucasian woman. Members of the Nation believed that Fard was highly educated, both in England and at the University of Southern California, and that he had been trained as an Arabian diplomat. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, however, contended that Fard was born in New Zealand or Oregon to either Hawaiian or Polynesian parents (possibly one parent was British), and that he was a convicted bootlegger during Prohibition. In 1926, he received a sentence of six months to six years for drug sales in California. Upon his release in 1929, he immediately headed for Detroit.

As a door-to-door salesman, Fard approached African Americans in Detroit, selling silk fabrics and raincoats. Soon he was advising his customers on their diet and health and teaching them about what he said was their true religion, the religion of black people in Africa and Asia. Here Fard was clearly influenced by the teachings of the Moorish Science Temple and by the Ahmaddiya Muslim movement, a Muslim splinter group that preached the imminent arrival of the Mahdi or Messiah. Fard told his listeners of the one true God, Allah. He presented himself as the intermediary between God and humanity. He claimed that Allah was soon to destroy the wicked white world and establish a heaven on earth for his followers. Fard taught his followers that they were not American, owed no allegiance to the American flag, and that they should discard their “slave names.” His mission, however, was to achieve “freedom, justice, and equality” for African Americans. He established a University of Islam to teach African Americans the truth about their past, and a paramilitary organization, the Fruit of Islam. Fard attracted numerous followers, perhaps as many as 8,000, within the African American community in Detroit. His most capable follower was a Georgia-born man named Elijah Poole, who was renamed Elijah Muhammad. In 1931, Fard designated Muhammad as his supreme minister.

The already considerable interest of Detroit police in Fard’s activities increased further when one of his followers, in November 1932, killed a white neighbor as a sacrifice to Allah. Fard strongly denied that he had ordered the killing, asserting that his teachings had been misunderstood. Still, the police, fearing the growing strength of Fard’s movement, put pressure on him to leave Detroit. Lowering his profile, Fard was able to remain in Detroit some months, transferring control of the movement to Elijah Muhammad during that time. But in May 1933, Fard was arrested for disturbing the peace, and he finally assented to demands from the police that he leave Detroit.

Fard’s later life is as mysterious as his early years. It is said that Fard moved to Chicago and that Elijah Muhammad kept in contact with him for about one year, but his whereabouts after June 1934, were unknown. Following Elijah Muhammad’s guidance, however, most members of the Nation of Islam, continued to regard Fard as Allah appearing in person to African Americans.

FATHER DIVINE (1879–1965) Religious Leader, Organization Executive/Founder

Father Divine was born George Baker in 1879 in Rockville, Maryland. In 1902, he moved to Baltimore. Baker visited California in 1906 and attended the Azusa Street Revival, which marked the beginning of Pentecostalism. The following year, after returning to Baltimore, Baker—under the moniker “The Messenger”—became associated with Sam Morris, a Pennsylvania African American man who called himself Father Jehovia, and John Hickerson, also known as Reverend Bishop St. John the Divine, in a house church. All three men had been influenced by the New Thought movement of the Unity Church and they considered themselves inwardly divine. After a series of personal and theological quarrels, the three men parted company in 1912.

In 1914, Baker moved to Valdosta, Georgia. Threatened by local authorities, Father Divine left Georgia the same year. After additional travels in the South, he settled in Brooklyn in 1917, where he worked as an “employment agent” for the few followers still loyal to him. His first marriage was to an African American woman named Peninniah, whom he apparently met while living in Brooklyn. Calling his meeting place “Heaven,” he soon attracted a larger following and moved to Sayville, Long Island, in 1919. It was at this time that Father Divine began to provide shelter and food to the poor and homeless.

Spiritually, Father Divine fostered what amounted to a massive cooperative agency, based on the communal spirit of the Last Supper. His movement practiced complete racial equality. Services included songs and impromptu sermons and were conducted without Scripture readings and the use of clergy. Once he was sentenced to six months in jail as a public nuisance, but the ensuing publicity only enhanced his popularity.

The Divine movement, a non-ritualistic cult whose followers worshiped their leader as God incarnate on earth, grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s, with Father Divine speaking out across the country and publicizing his views in New Day, a weekly magazine published by his organization. He set up “Peace Mission Kingdom” in the United States and throughout the world. After Peninniah’s death in 1946, Father Divine married his “Sweet Angel,” a 21-year old Canadian stenographer known thereafter as Mother Divine.

Father Divine died peacefully at Woodmont, an estate that he had acquired in the Philadelphia suburbs, and his wife pledged to continue the work of the movement.


ELIJAH JOHN FISHER (1858–1915) Community Activist, Minister

Elijah Fisher exemplifies the great charismatic African American preachers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who, with very little formal education, built large religious institutions, counseled racial pride, and expounded the cause of African Americans as a people.

Born in La Grange, Georgia, in 1858, the youngest of eight boys in a family of 17 children, Fisher’s father was an unordained preacher of a Baptist congregation that met in a white church. Fisher worked in a Baptist parsonage as a boy slave and was taught to read by a former house slave and a white missionary. In his teens, he worked in mines in Alabama and then as a butler, all the while studying theology on his own time. Though he lost a leg in an accident, Fisher became pastor of several small country churches in his early twenties and then, in 1889, of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Atlanta. In that year, he enrolled in the Atlanta Baptist Seminary, passed his examinations, and went to preach in Nashville and then Chicago where he led the Olive Baptist Church from 1902 until his death.

Throughout his life, Fisher continued his studies, preached from coast to coast, and involved the churches in youth work, food programs for poor people, and African American businesses. An active member of the Republican Party, Fisher strongly criticized African Americans who advised their brethren to rely solely on the good will of whites and publicly criticized Booker T. Washington for not speaking out against lynching.

FLOYD FLAKE (1945– ) Religious Leader, Member of Congress

Born on January 30, 1945 in Los Angeles, Floyd Flake came from humble beginnings: he was one of 13 children, and his father was a janitor. He graduated with a B.A. degree from Wilberforce University in 1967 and an M.A. from Payne Theological Seminary in 1970. He subsequently worked as a social worker, marketing analyst, and the dean of students before being called to pastor Allen AME Church in Queens, New York, in 1976. The church prospered under his leadership, and by 1986, Allen AME had grown to include 6,000 members. Flake also founded a Christian school at Allen and headed the Allen Home Care Agency for the Elderly. In the latter role, he supervised the construction of a $12 million facility. In 1986, he ran as a Democrat and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from the Sixth New York Congressional District. For 11 years, he served in Congress while remaining pastor of Allen AME Church. He was particularly interested in small business and affirmative action issues and was influential in securing federal government set-asides for minority-owned small businesses. In November 1997, he resigned his seat in Congress so that he could devote his full-time energies again to his church. He is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and is President of Wilber-force University in Wilberforce, Ohio. In 2006, Flake co-chaired Republican Ken Blackwell’s unsuccessful campaign for governor of Ohio.


“SWEET DADDY” GRACE (1881–1960) Religious Leader, Sales Agent

Born in 1881 in the Cape Verde Islands, Sweet Daddy Grace probably opened his first church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1921, but his first success occurred five years later when he opened a church in Charlotte. Grace’s church, the United House of Prayer for All People, had an ecstatic worship style, where speaking in tongues was encouraged. Grace claimed great powers, including the power of faith healing, and he stated, “Grace has given God a vacation, and since God is on His vacation don’t worry Him . . . If you sin against God, Grace can save you, but if you sin against Grace, God cannot save you.” Even the numerous products that he sold, such as “Daddy Grace” coffee, tea, soaps, and hand creams, were reputed to have healing powers.

At the time of his death in 1960, the church had 375 branches and about 25,000 members nationwide.

BARBARA C. HARRIS (1930– ) Executive Director, Bishop, Deacon

Barbara Harris was born in Philadelphia in 1930. She graduated from Philadelphia High School for girls in 1948 and enrolled in college, but never completed her course work. She was hired by Joseph Baker Associates, a public relations firm, in 1958. In 1960, Harris married, but the marriage ended in divorce three years later. She actively participated in the struggle for civil rights and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Harris, who felt a strong connection with the church she attended as a child—Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church, where her mother was choir director—was a strong advocate for women’s rights in the church, was ordained a deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1979 and a priest one year later. She served as the priest-in-charge of an Episcopalian Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania, the interim pastor of a church in Philadelphia, and the executive director of the publishing company associated with the Episcopal Church. In February 1989, she was consecrated as suffragan, or assistant bishop, for the diocese of Massachusetts. She thus became the first woman bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church. Although her appointment stirred much controversy among conservative members of the clergy, she received considerable support, despite the concerns of some that her views were too liberal. Her supporters said that despite the lack of a college degree or seminary training, she would broaden the outreach of her church. She remained a strong spokesperson for women in the clergy throughout her tenure as bishop. Harris retired in November 2002, shortly before she reached the mandatory retirement age of 72.


JAMES AUGUSTINE HEALY (1830–1900) Educator, Religious Leader

Born in 1830 in Macon, Georgia, James Augustine Healy was the son of an Irish planter, Michael Morris Healy, and a slave. Although born a slave, he later became the first African American Catholic bishop in the United States. (Healy’s brother, Patrick Francis Healy, was a Jesuit priest who served as president of Georgetown University from 1873 to 1882.) For 25 years, he presided over a diocese covering the states of Maine and New Hampshire. Healy received his education in the North, first at Franklin Park Quaker School in Burlington, New York, and later at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Healy graduated from the latter with first honors. Healy continued his studies abroad and was ordained in Paris at Notre Dame Cathedral in 1854. He then returned to the United States.

Pastor of a predominantly Irish congregation that was at first reluctant to accept him, Bishop Healy performed his priestly duties with devotion and eventually won the respect and admiration of his parishioners—particularly after performing in his office during a typhoid epidemic. Thereafter, he was made an assistant to Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston, who appointed him chancellor and entrusted him with a wide variety of additional responsibilities. In 1875, he was named bishop of Portland, Maine, and, in this capacity, he founded 60 parishes, as well as 18 schools. He died in Portland, Maine on August 5, 1900.

JOSEPH HENRY JACKSON (1904–1990) Organization Executive/Founder, Theologian, Civil Rights Activist

From 1953 to 1982, Joseph H. Jackson was the president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., the third largest Protestant denomination in the United States and the largest of the predominantly African American churches. Born in Rudyard, Mississippi, in 1904, Jackson later held a B.A. from Jackson College, a M.A. from Creighton University, and a B.D. from Rochester Colgate School of Divinity. After acting as pastor of churches in Mississippi, Jackson accepted a call to pastor the historic Olivet Baptist Church in 1941. His role in the civil rights movement was a fairly conservative one. He was supportive of the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, but criticized the massive nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns of the early 1960s.

Jackson’s main emphasis was on the need for African Americans to build a viable economic base. His favorite slogan was “From Protest to Production.” He was supportive of Baptist missions in Africa and attempted to finance them by developing farmland in Liberia.

T. D. JAKES (1956– ) Religious Leader, Author

Thomas Dexter Jakes, a West Virginia native, was born June 9, 1957 in South Charleston, West Virginia, and came from a United Pentecostal background. He began his preaching while a student at West Virginia State University. After the chemical plant that employed him closed, and his father died of kidney disease, Jakes undertook ministry on a full-time basis. Initially, he ministered in Morganton, West Virginia, and then in Dallas, Texas, where the Potter’s House, his non-denominational mega-church congregation founded in 1996. His church has approximately 35,000 members. Jakes’ services and sermons are broadcast on several television networks, including Black Entertainment Television (BET).

Jakes, one of the most famous Pentecostal ministers in the United States, travels widely to undertake revival services. His revivals draw hundreds of thousands of attendees. Time Magazine named him as one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals.

His books are largely aimed at encouraging and uplifting African American men and women. His two most popular books, which are filled with extensive passages from and interpretation of the Bible, are Woman, Thou Art Loosed (1996), which was made into a movie in 2004, and The Lady, Her Lover and Her Lord (1998). Other books include his self-empowerment book, He-Motions: Even Strong Men Struggle (2004), which was a bestseller; Ten Commandments of Working in a Hostile Environment (2005); Promises From God for Single Women (2005); and Not Easily Broken (novel, 2006). Jakes’ record label, Dexterity Sounds/EMI Gospel, won a Grammy Award in 2004 for Best Gospel Choir or Chorus Album, A Wing and a Prayer.

ABSALOM JONES (1746–1818) Religious Leader

Absalom Jones rose from slavery to become the first African American Episcopal priest and principal founder of St. Thomas, the first African American Episcopal church. Jones was born a slave in Sussex, Delaware, on

November 6, 1746. In 1762, his mother, five brothers, and sister were sold, and Jones was taken to Philadelphia, where he worked in a store and learned to write. In 1778, he began to ask to purchase his own freedom, but he was not manumitted until 1784.

Jones became a licensed Methodist lay preacher sometime around 1786, focusing on teaching and pastoral work. In May 1787, Jones joined African American religious leader Richard Allen and others in forming the Free African Society. The African Church of St. Thomas was later dedicated in 1794.

As the unofficial leader of the church, Jones seemed an obvious choice as a lay reader. After becoming lay reader in 1794, he was ordained deacon on August 6, 1795. Jones became the first African American Episcopal priest in 1804. He died in 1818.

LEONTINE T.C. KELLY (1920– ) Bishop

In 1984, the Western Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church elected Leontine T.C. Kelly the first African American woman bishop in any large U.S. denomination. Kelly was born in Washington, D.C., in 1920. She received a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, in 1969.

She served as a schoolteacher, pastor of Virginia churches, and a staff member of the Virginia Conference of Churches before being elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church in 1984. She presided over the California-Nevada conference, but resigned her office of bishop in 1989. Kelly been a civil and human rights activist and has taught at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. She is married to James David Kelly and has four children. In 2000, Kelly was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

ISAAC LANE (1834–1937) Educational Administrator, Religious Leader

A great religious leader and educator whose life spanned more than a century, Isaac Lane was born a slave in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1834. Self-educated, in 1856 he was granted a license to exhort, a category assigned to African Americans who were forbidden to preach, in the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Lane was ordained a minister in 1865.

In 1873, he was made a bishop of the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church (now known as the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church) at a salary so low that he had to raise cotton to supplement his income and support his wife and 11 children. His missionary work was instrumental in establishing the CME Church in Louisiana and Texas. In the 1880s, he established Lane College in Jackson with $9,000 that he raised. He died in 1937.

JARENA LEE (1783–1849) Women’s Rights Activist, Minister

Born in 1783, in Cape May, New Jersey, Lee worked as a servant for a family that lived near Philadelphia. She had a conversion experience in 1804, but was unable to find a church with which to unite until she heard Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, preach in Philadelphia. She experienced a call to preach in approximately 1808, and she sought permission to do so from Richard Allen on two occasions. On her first attempt in 1809, Allen refused her request. Eight years later, however, he granted it and licensed her as a preacher.

Subsequently, she traveled throughout the North and Midwest, and many of her listeners, especially women, were moved by her eloquent preaching. After Allen’s death in 1831, male African Methodist Episcopal preachers in Philadelphia attempted to deny her permission to preach from their pulpits, but she continued her ministry, despite such harassment.

In 1848, she attempted to form a connection of female African Methodist Episcopal preachers for mutual support, but her organization soon fell apart. Many African American women, especially within the African Methodist Episcopal Church, view Jarena Lee as a courageous foremother and a model for church activism.

GEORGE LIELE (1750–1820) Educator, Religious Leader

Born a slave in Virginia around 1750, George Liele was sold to a slave owner in Georgia. He experienced a Christian conversion after hearing a sermon by Matthew Moore, a white preacher, in 1773. Liele began conducting worship services on nearby plantations and, with Moore’s sponsorship, soon became the first ordained African American Baptist preacher in America. Liele’s slave master, Henry Sharp, granted him his freedom before Sharp was killed in the American Revolution. Liele preached at the Silver Bluff Baptist Church in Silver Bluff, South Carolina, probably the first independent African American congregation formed in North America, as well as a location outside Savannah. One of his notable converts was Andrew Bryan, who founded the First African Baptist Church in Savannah.

Some whites attempted to re-enslave Liele, but a British officer in Savannah ensured that he would maintain his freedom. Liele emigrated to Jamaica in 1784, where he started a school and preached to a small Baptist congregation in Kingston. Liele married a woman that he converted in Savannah, and his four American-born children accompanied him to Jamaica.

EUGENE A. MARINO (1934–2000) Archbishop

Born May 29, 1934, in Biloxi, Mississippi, Eugene Marino received his training at Epiphany Apostolic College and St. Joseph Seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1962. The next year, Marino was made director of St. Joseph Seminary. He also continued his educational studies at Catholic University, Loyola University, and Fordham University, where he earned a master’s degree of arts in 1967.

In 1971, Marino was named vicar general of the Josephites and served as an auxiliary bishop in Washington, D.C., after his ordination to the episcopate in 1974. Marino became the first African American Roman Catholic archbishop in 1988, when he was appointed to preside over the Atlanta archdiocese. He retired in 1990, in the midst of sex scandal, when an affair he was having with a woman was exposed. In 1993, ex-bishop Marino and Vicki Long, the woman in question, reunited and began a life together.

On November 12, 2000, in Manhasset, New York, Marino died of an apparent heart attack. He was 66.

CHARLES H. MASON (1866–1961) Religious Leader

Born in 1866 to former slaves on a farm outside Memphis, Tennessee, Charles Mason was converted at the age of 14 and joined a Missionary Baptist church. Mason obtained a preaching license from the Missionary Baptists in 1893 and, in the same year, he claimed to have the experience of entire sanctification, thus aligning himself with the Holiness movement. He had little formal education beyond a brief period of study at the Arkansas Bible College.

In 1895, the Baptists expelled him because of his beliefs on sanctification. Mason then held holiness revivals in Mississippi with the help of Charles Price Jones, a prolific writer of hymns and gospel songs, and others. In Lexington, Mississippi, his meetings were held in an abandoned cotton gin house. Despite an armed attack, probably by hostile African Americans, he achieved much success and many new converts with his revival preaching. In 1897, Mason and Jones founded a new Holiness church and called it the Church of God in Christ; they worked together harmoniously over the next decade.

In 1907, Mason attended the Azusa Street Revival conducted by William Seymour in Los Angeles, and he received the gift of speaking in tongues. He believed that the ability to speak in tongues was a necessary precondition for baptism of the Spirit. He and Jones disagreed on this point and parted company. Mason reformed the Church of God in Christ along the lines of his new spiritual insights. Over the next four decades, Mason, as bishop, general overseer, and “chief apostle,” shepherded his denomination through a period of tremendous growth. He traveled extensively, preaching at revivals throughout the United States and the world. He was imprisoned for making pacifist statements during World War I. He died in 1961.


Vashti Murphy was born on May 30, 1947, and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. She attended Morgan State University until her junior year, when she married professional basketball player Stan McKenzie. Following a brief period in Phoenix, the couple returned to the Baltimore area. Vashti Murphy McKenzie completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland. After graduation, she worked as a fashion model and a newspaper, radio, and television journalist.

In her late 30s, McKenzie realized that she was called to preach. With the support of her husband and three children, she enrolled in the Howard University School of Divinity, eventually earning a Master of Divinity degree. McKenzie later earned a Doctor of Ministry degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

After her graduation from Howard, McKenzie was assigned to a small church in Chesapeake City, Maryland. In 1990, she became the first female pastor of Baltimore’s Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. One of the few female senior pastors in the AME church at the time, McKenzie had to overcome the all too familiar obstacle of sexism in her first years at the church. During her tenure, the church grew from just over 300 members to nearly 1,700, and established 15 new ministries. McKenzie worked to help the church erase a longstanding division between itself and the community. The congregation’s non-profit community service agency, Payne Memorial Outreach, Inc., built many successful community programs, including summer youth camps, a food pantry, and a job service that supported more than 1,000 clients.

On July 11, 2000, McKenzie was elected as the first female bishop in the 213 year history of the AME church. As bishop, McKenzie leads the 18th Episcopal District in Southeast Africa. The district covers Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique and Swaziland. In her capacity as bishop, McKenzie planned to address issues including the AIDS crisis, economic development, church membership, and educational development.

McKenzie is the author of Not Without a Struggle: Leadership Development for African American Women in Ministry (1996); Strength in the Struggle: Leadership Development for Women (2001); and Journey to the Well (2002). She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors by a number of civic, educational, business, and governmental leaders. She was named in Ebony magazine’s “Year of the Black Woman” issue in 1992 and as one of the “15 Greatest African-American Female Preachers” by the magazine in 1997; receiving a letter of commendation from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for Payne Memorial AME church’s support of the “Love Baton Project” in 1996; and delivering the closing day invocation at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

WILLIAM HENRY MILES (1828–1892) Religious Leader

Born a slave in Kentucky in 1828, Miles was manumitted by his owner in her will. He joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and soon perceived a call to preach. In 1859, he was ordained a deacon. Uncertain about church affiliation after the war, he investigated the possibility of joining the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, but soon thought better of it. Thus, he remained a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, until its African American members, those who had decided not to join the African Methodist Episcopal or African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches, were allowed to form a separate denomination, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.

At the initial General Conference of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in 1870, Miles was elected one of the denomination’s first two bishops. He was an active advocate of African American colleges, especially those affiliated with the CME Church, such as Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, and Paine Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. He died in 1892.

AVA MUHAMMAD (1951– ) Religious Leader

Born in 1951, Ava Muhammad grew up in a middle-class Methodist home in Columbus, Ohio. After graduating from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1975, she became a criminal defense attorney. In 1979, Muhammad was diagnosed with cancer. She began searching for spiritual support, looking first to the church of her youth, but ultimately converting to Islam after hearing Louis Farrakhan speak in New York City.

After joining the Nation of Islam in 1981, Muhammad began to work as Farrakhan’s attorney. She defended him in 1986 when he was arrested following his return from a visit to Libya, on which President Ronald Reagan had placed a travel ban. In another high-profile case, she won a defamation lawsuit against the New York Post,which in a 1994 story implicated Farrakhan in the assassination of Malcolm X. In addition to her legal work, Muhammad gained prominence and recognition throughout the Nation of Islam, despite the limitations it had historically placed on women. She authored the book, The Myths and Misconceptions of the Role of Women in Islam in 1996, and the following year was a key speaker at the Million Women March, speaking on the topic, “The Further Development of Black Women Who Are or Wish to Become Professionals, Entrepreneurs, and/or Politicians.”

On July 28, 1998, Muhammad was appointed by Louis Farrakhan as Southern Regional Minister with the Nation of Islam. In this role, Muhammad became the first woman in Islam’s 1,400-year history to be appointed to a leadership position of the cloth. She has published a number of books, including A New Unit of Measurement; Good Health: The Key to Happiness; The Force and Power of Being; The Power of Family; Weapons of Self Destruction; Real Love; and Queen of the Planet Earth: The Birth and Rise of the Original Woman. She serves as the national spokeswoman for the Nation of Islam.



HAROLD ROBERT PERRY (1916–1991) Educator, Religious Leader

Harold Robert Perry was consecrated a bishop of New Orleans on January 6, 1966—and thus became the first African American Catholic bishop in the United States in the twentieth century. One of six children, Perry was born the son of a rice mill worker and a domestic cook in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1916. He entered the Divine Word Seminary in Mississippi at the age of 13, was ordained a priest in 1944, and spent the next 14 years in parish work.

In 1958, he was appointed rector of the seminary. Louisiana has the largest concentration of African American Catholics in the South, some 200,000 in all. In 1989, Perry was one of 13 African American bishops serving Catholic parishes around the nation. He died on July 17, 1991.

ADAM CLAYTON POWELL SR. (1865–1953) Religious Leader, Community Activist

Adam Clayton Powell Sr., father of the late U.S. representative from Harlem, was largely responsible for building the Abyssinian Baptist Church into one of the most celebrated African American congregations in the world. Born in Virginia in 1865, Powell attended school locally and, between sessions, worked in the coal mines of West Virginia. After deciding to enter the ministry, he began his studies at Wayland Academy (now Virginia Union University), working his way through as a janitor and waiter. He later attended the Yale University School of Divinity and served as pastor of the Immanuel Baptist Church in New Haven.

Powell became pastor of Abyssinian in 1908, when it had a membership of only 1,600 and was fiscally indebted by over $100,000. By 1921, the church had not been made solvent, but was able to move into a $350,000 Gothic structure. (This is its present location on 138th Street in Harlem.) During the Depression, Powell opened soup kitchens for Harlem residents and served thousands of meals. Later, he and his son campaigned vigorously to expand job opportunities and city services in Harlem. Powell retired from Abyssinian in 1937 and died in 1953.

FREDERICK K.C. PRICE (1932– ) Clergy, Author

Born on January 3, 1932, in Santa Monica, California, Frederick K.C. Price began preaching in a Baptist church in 1955 while also working as a paper cutter. He moved on to pastor African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and Presbyterian churches before finally joining the Christian and Missionary Alliance at West Washington Community Church in 1965. It was not until 1970, when he experienced a “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” that Price felt satisfied with the direction of his ministry.

In 1973, Price and 300 parishioners moved from West Washington to establish the Crenshaw Christian Center in Inglewood, California. Membership at the church began to grow exponentially as more and more people became interested in Price’s neo-Pentecostal message, defined, in part, by speaking in tongues, healing, and prosperity teachings. Price began broadcasting a radio program, Ever Increasing Faith, in the mid 1970s, and soon expanded to television. By the early 1980s, the program was broadcast to five major U.S. cities. In 1981, the church purchased the former campus of Pepperdine University and began construction of the 10,146-seat FaithDome, which was dedicated in 1990. By 1999, Ever Increasing Faith aired on more than 100 television stations and 42 radio stations, reaching 33 million households in the United States and other nations. The Crenshaw Center’s congregation had grown to include an estimated 22,000 members by 2002.

Price, who had completed two years of study at Los Angeles City College, returned to school at the Friends International Christian University in Merced, California, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1978, a Doctor of Ministry degree in 1988, and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies in 1992. He has authored more than 50 books, including the popular How Faith Works. Price received an honorary diploma from Rhema Bible Training Center in 1976, and an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Oral Roberts University in 1982. In 1998, Price received the Horatio Alger Award and the Kelly Miller Smith Interfaith Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

JOSEPH CHARLES PRICE (1854–1893) Civil Rights Activist, Minister, Prohibitionist

Born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in 1854 to a free mother, Price was educated in the school established for freed African Americans, and later at Shaw and Lincoln universities, graduating from the latter in 1879. At age 21, he was licensed to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and he received the ordination of elder six years later. Price was renowned for the eloquence of his public addresses.

It was Price who was the most responsible for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church’s success in establishing a church college—Livingstone College in North Carolina—after ministers in that denomination had failed in several previous attempts.

As president of Livingstone College, he quickly gave his school a solid grounding, both academically and financially. For example, he raised $10,000 for his school during a lecture tour of England. He was an active participant in politics, campaigned for civil rights and prohibition, and assumed such offices as chairman of the Citizens’ Equal Rights Association of Washington, D.C. He died from kidney failure in 1893.

WILLIAM JOSEPH SEYMOUR (1870–1922) Civil Rights Activist, Religious Leader

Born in Centerville, Louisiana, in 1870 to parents who had been slaves, Seymour taught himself to read and write. In 1900, Seymour encountered the prominent promoter of Holiness doctrine, Martin Knapp, and studied under him. He then suffered a bout of smallpox that left him blind in one eye. He was ordained as an evangelist by the Evening Light Saints, a group that eventually became known by the title Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). Moving to Houston, he sat immediately outside the door of white evangelist Charles Parham’s segregated classroom, while Parham lectured on Christian doctrine and, especially, on the importance of speaking in tongues.

In 1906, Seymour moved to Los Angeles to pastor a small African American Holiness church, but his congregation, opposed to Seymour’s contention that speaking in tongues was a very important part of Christian experience, dismissed him after one week. Seymour continued to hold religious meetings, attracting an interracial audience. A widely publicized outburst of speaking in tongues brought him an even larger audience, so he moved his Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission to a former AME Church building on Azusa Street.

The extremely successful meetings that he held before ecstatic, interracial throngs of listeners over the next three years have been universally acknowledged as the beginnings of modern Pentecostalism, both in the United States and around the world. Seymour was greatly saddened when the racial unity displayed in the early stages of Pentecostalism began to break apart under the pressures exerted by racial discrimination in the nation at large. He was holding services at the Azusa Street mission until his death in 1922.



AMANDA BERRY SMITH (1837–1915) Organization Executive/Founder, Evangelist/Missionary

Born in Long Green, Maryland, in 1837, Smith was manumitted during her childhood after her father paid for her freedom. She had a spiritual conversion experience in 1856 and began attending religious meetings faithfully. She resisted identification with any single denomination, and her religious practice was most strongly influenced by Quakers and Methodists. Attendance at the religious meetings of white evangelists Phoebe Palmer and John Inskip introduced her to Holiness doctrine, and she experienced entire sanctification in 1868. Her husband died the following year, and Smith soon became a full-time traveling evangelist. She never sought to breach the barriers against women’s ordination erected by male preachers, stating that the calling she had received directly from God was justification enough for her ministry.

From 1878 to 1890, Smith worked as a missionary in England, Ireland, Scotland, India, and Liberia. A Methodist bishop who heard her preach in India stated that he “had never known anyone who could draw and hold so large an audience as Mrs. Smith.” On her return to the United States in 1890, she preached widely and wrote her autobiography in 1893, an extremely detailed work now regarded as a classic. Her last 20 years were devoted to the construction and management of the Amanda Smith Orphan’s Home for Colored Children in Illinois. She died in 1915.

STEPHEN GILL SPOTTSWOOD (1897–1974) Organization Executive/ Founder, Religious Leader, Civil Rights Activist

Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church from 1952 to 1972 and board chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1961 until his death in 1974, Bishop Spottswood embodied the religious faith and intellectual incisiveness that has produced so many effective African American religious activists.

Spottswood was born in Boston on July 18, 1897, attended Albright College, Gordon Divinity School, and then received a Ph.D. in divinity from Yale University. As a religious leader, Bishop Spottswood was president of the Ohio Council of Churches and served on the boards of numerous interfaith conferences, as well as heading the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

His activity with the NAACP started in 1919, when he joined the organization. He was appointed to the national board in 1955. In 1971, he became the center of a political storm when he chastised the Nixon administration for its policies toward African Americans and refused, under strong pressure from the administration, to retract his comments. He died on December 1, 1974.


Born on March 17, 1948, in New Bern, North Carolina, Stallings is the eldest of six children. He received his B.A. from St. Pius X Seminary in 1970. He received his B.S. in theology from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in 1973 and his M.A. in pastoral theology the following year. In 1975, he was granted a licentiate in sacred theology by the University of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 1974, Stallings was ordained and was named pastor of St. Teresa of Avila

Church, located in one of Washington, D.C.’s poorest African American neighborhoods, in 1976.

While pastor at St. Teresa, Stallings stressed that the contributions of Africans and African Americans to Christianity should be recognized and that the needs of African Americans must be addressed by the Catholic Church. In an effort to confront what he considered the Catholic Church’s racial insensitivity, he made use of what is known as the “Rite of Zaire,” incorporated jazz and gospel music to the Mass, and added readings by celebrated African American writers to the liturgy. For these actions, Stallings received much criticism. In 1988, he was removed from St. Teresa of Avila and named head of evangelism for Washington, D.C.

In 1989, Stallings, still convinced that the Catholic Church was not meeting the cultural, spiritual, and social needs of African American Catholics, announced that he would leave the diocese to found a new congregation, the Imani Temple African-American Catholic Congregation, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Stallings not only advocated that priests be allowed to marry but also believed that women should be able to serve as priests. In 1990, Stallings was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. In 1991, he ordained former Roman Catholic nun Rose Vernell as a priest in his church. The congregation’s membership was estimated at 3,500 members. Since 1989, Stallings has established 13 Imani Temples throughout the United States. In 2002, Stallings and his wife, Sayomi, became parents for the first time.

Stallings is the author of I Am . . . Living in the Rhythm of the God Within: In the Key of G Minor (2003) and is working on a children’s book and his autobiography, Confessions of a Renegade Priest. He is in demand as a speaker both nationally and internationally.


GARDNER C. TAYLOR (1918– ) Civil Rights Activist, Religious Leader, Community Activist

Reverend Taylor is widely regarded as the dean of the nation’s African American preachers. He received a B.A. degree from Leland College in 1937 and a B.D. degree from the Oberlin Graduate School of Theology in 1940. Taylor has long been a community activist. He demonstrated for civil rights and suffered arrest for civil disobedience with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, and he introduced Nelson Mandela to a New York audience in 1990.

He is a trusted counselor to former New York mayor David Dinkins. Taylor served on the New York City Board of Education, is the past president of the New York Council of Churches, and the past vice president of the Urban League in New York City. After 42 years as pastor of the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, which became the most prestigious African American church in the United States, Taylor resigned his post in 1990. In 2000, United States President Bill Clinton awarded Taylor the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Taylor is considered by some to be the greatest living African American preacher. In 2007, at the age of 88, Taylor is a guest lecturer in great demand throughout the United States. He has been the recipient of more than 100 honorary degrees and is the author of the six-volume series, The Words of Gardner Taylor.

HOWARD THURMAN (1899–1981) Author, Theologian, Civil Rights Activist, Educator

Born in Daytona Beach, Florida, on November 18, 1899, Thurman studied at Morehouse College, Rochester Theological Center, and Haverford College. Thurman, named by Life magazine as one of the 12 great preachers of the twentieth century, served as a pastor to a Baptist church in Ohio and, from 1944 to 1953, to an interracial and interdenominational Fellowship church that he founded in San Francisco. He also served as dean of the chapel at Howard University from 1932 to 1944, as well as Boston University from 1953 until his retirement.

Thurman was one of the leading theologians of his time, writing The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death and about his opposition to segregation and support of the civil rights movement in This Luminous Darkness. Altogether, he authored 19 books including an autobiography published in 1979. He died on April 10, 1981.

SOJOURNER TRUTH (c.1797–1883) Orator, Women’s Rights Activist

Isabella Baumfree (or Bomefree) was born about 1797 on the estate of Colonel Johannes Hardenburgh (or Hard-enbergh) in Swartekill, a Dutch settlement in New York state. Isabella was owned by Hardenburgh, as were her parents, Elizabeth and James Baumfree. Her mother was thought to have pure Guinea Coast ancestry. Until she was nine years old, Isabella spoke only Dutch, but her master died, and she was sold to Colonel Hardenburgh’s son, Charles, who mistreated her. She was an intelligent child and learned English quickly.

After Charles Hardenburgh died in 1808, Isabella was sold to John Neely, who whipped her mercilessly. It was during this time that Isabella turned to religion to ease her suffering. She was sold again to Martinus Schryver, a tavern owner, then in 1810 to John Dumont of New Paltz, New York. At the Dumont estate, she fell in love with a slave named Robert, but he was not owned by Dumont and was driven off the estate. She gave birth to a daughter a short time later. She was married off to an older man, a fisherman named Thomas, about 1817, and had four more children with him. She remained with the Dumont family until about 1827, when she escaped after she was not freed as promised by Dumont. After praying for guidance, she found a home with Isaac Van Wagenen (or Wagener) and his wife, a kind couple for whom she worked.

It was when she was working in this household that she had a life-altering religious experience and was inspired to preach. She attended the local Methodist church until 1829, when she left town with a white evangelical teacher. Isabella’s reputation as an inspirational preacher spread, and she began working as a housekeeper for a fundamentalist religious reformer named Elijah Pierson and his group of followers. Pierson died in 1834, and Isabella was implicated in his death but was later acquitted.

She moved to New York City, but wanted to make her way as a traveling preacher. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843 and traveled to Massachusetts, where she met many famous abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass. She dictated her memoirs to a member of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, and her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, was published in 1850. After the publication, she was in demand as a speaker. She later moved to a small town near Battle Creek, Michigan, to live among a community of Spiritualists, who shared her values and beliefs.

Both intelligent and fiercely dedicated to the cause of freedom, Sojourner Truth was one of the most famous anti-slavery speakers of her time and preached in both white and black churches. There were many attempts to silence her, however, and she was beaten and stoned for her beliefs. The news of her speeches spread throughout the North as well as the South, and in 1864, she addressed an audience at the White House, with President Abraham Lincoln in attendance.

Sojourner Truth died on November 26, 1883, at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.

HENRY MCNEAL TURNER (1834–1915) Religious leader, Activist

Henry Turner was born in Newberry Courthouse, South Carolina, in 1834. Although Turner’s parents, Sarah Greer and Hardy Turner, were not slaves, in his childhood, Turner was forced to work among slaves in the local cotton plantation. He learned to read and write as an adolescent. After his religious conversion at a Methodist revival, he vowed to become a preacher. In 1853, he obtained his preacher’s license and was recruited as an itinerant minister for the Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1858, he was sent to Baltimore, where he studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and theology at Trinity College. In 1860, he moved to Washington, where he became the pastor of Union Bethal Church. He became politically active and played a part in organizing the First Regimen of U.S. Colored Troops in 1983. Turner gained national attention when Abraham Lincoln appointed him the regiment’s army chaplain—he was the first black army chaplain in U.S. history.

After the American Civil War, Turner moved to Georgia to work with the Freeman’s Bureau. Over the next few years, he established the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia. He worked tirelessly on behalf of former slaves.

In 1867, Georgia was readmitted to the Union, and in April, elections were held for governor and state legislators. Turner and 31 other black men were elected, despite the political dominance of conservative white men. Turner was embittered by white members of the Republican Party who refused to support pro-black legislation. He accused the whites of treachery and led a walk-out of black legislators.

Turner later retired from political life and returned to his religious duties full-time. He strongly advocated black pride and encouraged blacks to reject the white church’s teachings on black racial inferiority. He also helped to organize the International Migration Society, which promoted a return of African Americans to Africa, and established two newspapers to further the cause. His efforts, however, met with little success.

In 1880, Turner was appointed Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia, and in 1885, he published The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity, a guide to church policies and practices. Turner was married four times.

Turner died on May 8, 1915, in Windsor, Canada, while traveling on church-related business.

IYANLA VANZANT (1954– ) Author, Yoruba Priestess, Lawyer

Vanzant is the author of several books on spirituality that have been named BlackBoard Book of the Year. Her books include Tapping the Power Within (1992), Acts of Faith (1993), Interiors: A Black Woman’s Healing (1995), Value in the Valley (1995), The Spirit of a Man (1996), In the Meantime (1998), One Day My Soul Just Opened Up (1998), Yesterday, I Cried (1999), Until Today! (2000), Living Through the Meantime (2001), and Up from Here (2002). Her own life has served as an inspiration for many of her readers, as it has furnished rich material for her books. Her mother died when she was two years old, and she suffered from rape, spousal abuse, and nervous breakdowns. Yet, she managed to turn her life around. Her years of dependence on welfare ended in 1978, when she matriculated in Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and subsequently in law school. She served as a public defender in Philadelphia, but left that career behind for public speaking and writing self-help books.

She is currently the director of Inner Visions Worldwide, Inc. Spiritual Life Maintenance Center, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, where she conducts workshops and classes and dedicates herself to the spiritual empowerment of African American women and men as well as all people. She is also in great demand as a public speaker. Brought up in the Baptist and Pentecostalist faiths, she has since been initiated as a Yoruba priestess. Her writings and teachings draw widely from such diverse sources as African spirituality, Christianity, New Thought, and such Eastern religions as Buddhism.

JAMES VARICK (1750–1827) Abolitionist, Bishop, Deacon

Born near Newburgh, New York, around 1750, to a slave mother, Varick was a leader in the movement among African American Methodists in New York to set up a separate congregation. This was accomplished with the formation of the Zion Church in 1796. Ten years later, Varick was ordained a deacon by Bishop Francis Asbury. Varick sought to obtain full ordination as elder for himself and other African American ministers and would have preferred to have received such an ordination within the Methodist Episcopal Church, but this did not prove possible. He did not favor joining Richard Allen’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, especially since Allen had been attempting to set up a New York congregation considered by Varick as in competition with the Zion Church.

Eventually, Varick participated in setting up the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and he was elected the first superintendent or bishop. He was also deeply involved in issues relating to freedom and human rights, preaching against the slave trade in 1808 and subscribing to the first newspaper in the United States owned by African Americans, Freedom’s Journal. He died on July 22, 1827.

CORNEL WEST (1953– ) Scholar, Educator, Social Critic, Author

The grandson of Rev. Clifton L. West Sr., pastor of the Tulsa Metropolitan Baptist Church, Cornel West was born on June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. West developed skills of critical thinking and political action almost from birth. By age 17, he was enrolled as an undergraduate student at Harvard. Taking eight courses per semester during his junior year, he was able to graduate magna cum laude one year early. He received an A.B. in Near Eastern languages and literature in 1973. Immediately afterward, he completed his M.A. (1975) and Ph.D. (1980) at Princeton University.

Professor of religion and director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton University, Cornel West’s analytical speeches and writing on issues of morality, race relations, cultural diversity, and progressive politics have made him a keeper of the prophetic African American religious tradition. West has taught the philosophy of religion at both Union Theological Seminary (1977–1983, 1988) and Yale Divinity School (1984–1987). In 1994, he joined Harvard’s faculty, but returned permanently to Princeton in 2002 after a public rift with Harvard’s president. A complex individual, he juggles his theological concerns with his political convictions. West serves dual roles as prophet and intellectual within and beyond the African American community. His writings combine a castigation for moral failure with an optimism that insists on the possibility—through struggle—of making a world of stricter morality real.

West’s first books were published in the early 1980s, but he wrote many of them in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s, he encountered the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization that shaped the version of democratic socialism that he would subsequently adopt and promote in his works. Those include Black Theology and Marxist Thought (1979), Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982), and The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991). West’s impassioned and insightful writings also make a resounding appeal for cross-cultural tolerance and unity, while urging individuals to recognize the power of diversity within a society. Following those lines are such works as: Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, which he co-edited with Bell Hooks in 1991; Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism (1993); Race Matters (1993), perhaps his best known book; and Jews & Blacks: The Hard Hunt for Common Ground, co-written with Michael Lerner in 1995. He worked with Lerner on another book in 1996, Jews & Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America.

Throughout the 1990s, West teamed up with other well-known public figures to produce books, such as The Future of the Race (with Henry Louis Gates Jr., 1996), Death Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience (with Mumia Abu-Jamal, 1997), The Future of American Progressivism: An Initiative for Political and Economic Reform (with Roberto Mangabeira Unger, 1998), The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads (with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, 1998), The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country (with Gates, 2000). He also published Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism in 2004.

During his career, West has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the National Book Award in 1993 for Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism.


views updated May 18 2018


I. Anthropological StudyClifford Geertz


II. The Sociology Of ReligionRobert N. Bellah


III. Psychological StudyJames E. Dittes


The articles under this heading describe three approaches to the topic of religion in the social sciences. The history and doctrines of the major religions are discussed in Buddhism; Christianity; Hinduism; Islam; Judaism. The organizational aspects of religion are described in Monasticism; Psychiatry, article onthereligio-psychiatricmovement; Religious organization; Religious specialists; Sects and cults.Various aspects of religious belief and practice are reviewed in Canon law; Civil disobedience; Death; Millenarism; Moral development; Myth and symbol; Nativism and revivalism; Pollution; Religious observance; Ritual.Other relevant material may be found in Charisma; Voluntary associations.Biographical articles that are of relevance to the social scientific study of religion include Aquinas; Augustine; Becker; Bloch;Buber; Calvin; Comte; Durkheim; Erasmus; Febvre; Frazer; Freud; HalÉvy; Huizinga;James; Jung; Lowie; Luther; Malinowski; Marett; Marsilius; Marx; Mauss; Montesquieu; Mooney; Ockham; Rank; Seligman, C. G.; Smith, William Robertson; Spinoza; Tawney; Troeltsch; Tylor; Weber, Max.


The anthropological study of religion has been highly sensitive to changes in the general intellectual and moral climate of the day; at the same time, it has been a powerful factor in the creation of that climate. Since the early discussion by Edward Tylor, interest in the beliefs and rituals of distant, ancient, or simpler peoples has been shaped by an awareness of contemporary issues. The questions that anthropologists have pursued among exotic religions have arisen from the workings—or the misworkings—of modern Western society, and particularly from its restless quest for self-discovery. In turn, their findings have profoundly affected the course that quest has taken and the perspective at which it has arrived.

Perhaps the chief reason for the rather special role of comparative religious studies is that issues which, when raised within the context of Western culture, led to extreme social resistance and personal turmoil could be freely and even comfortably handled in terms of bizarre, presumably primitive, and thus—also presumably—fanciful materials from long ago or far away. The study of “primitive religions” could pass as the study of superstition, supposedly unrelated to the serious religious and moral concerns of advanced civilization, at best either a sort of vague foreshadowing of them or a grotesque parody upon them. This made it possible to approach all sorts of touchy subjects, such as polytheism, value relativism, possession, and faith healing, from a frank and detached point of view. One could ask searching questions about the historicity of myth among Polynesians; when asked in relation to Christianity, these same questions were, until quite recently, deeply threatening. One could discuss the projection of erotic wishes found in the “totemic” rites of Australian aborigines, the social roots and functions of African “ancestor worship,” or the protoscientific quality of Melanesian “magical thought,” without involving oneself in polemical debate and emotional distress. The application of the comparative method—the essence of anthropological thought—to religion per mitted the growth of a resolutely scientific approach to the spiritual dimensions of human life.

Through the thin disguise of comparative method the revolutionary implications of the work of such men as Tylor, Durkheim, Robertson Smith, Freud, Malinowski, and Radcliffe-Brown soon became apparent—at first mainly to philosophers, theologians, and literary figures, but eventually to the educated public in general. The meticulous descriptions of tribal curiosities such as soul loss, shamanism, circumcision, blood sacrifice, sorcery, tree burial, garden magic, symbolic cannibalism, and animal worship have been caught up in some of the grander intellectual battles of the last hundred years—from those over evolutionism and historicism in the late nineteenth century to those over positivism and existentialism today. Psychoanalysts and phenomenologists, Marxists and Kantians, racists and egalitarians, absolutists and relativists, empiricists and rationalists, believers and skeptics have all had recourse to the record—partial, inconsistent, and shot through with simple error as it is—of the spiritual life of tribal peoples to support their positions and belabor those of their opponents. If interest in “primitive religion” among savants of all sorts has been remarkably high, consensus concerning its nature and significance has not.

At least three major intellectual developments have exercised a critical influence on the anthropological study of religion: (1) the emergence, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, of history as the sovereign science of man; (2) the positivist reaction against this sovereignty in the first decades of the twentieth century and the radical split of the social sciences into resolutely psychological approaches, on the one hand, and resolutely sociological ones, on the other; and (3) the growth, in the interwar period, of a concern with the role of ideational factors in the regulation of social life. With the first of these came an emphasis on the nature of primitive reasoning and the stages of its evolution into civilized thought. With the second came an investigation of the emotional basis of religious ritual and belief and the separate examination of the role of ritual and belief in social integration. The concern with value systems and other features of the ideational realm led to an exploration of the philosophical dimensions of religious ideas, particularly the symbolic vehicles in terms of which those ideas are expressed.

Evolutionism and its enemies

Like so much else in anthropology, the study of the religious notions of primitive peoples arose within the context of evolutionary theory. In the nineteenth century, to think systematically about human affairs was to think historically—to seek out survivals of the most elementary forms and to trace the steps by which these forms subsequently developed. And though, in fact, Tylor, Morgan, Frazer, and the rest drew more on the synthetic social-stage theories of such men as Comte and Hegel than on the analytic random-variation and natural-selection ideas of Darwin, the grand concept of evolution was shared by both streams of thought: namely, that the complex, heterogeneous present has arisen, more or less gradually, out of a simpler, more uniform past. The relics of this past are still to be found scattered, like Galápagos turtles, in out-of-the-way places around us. Tylor, an armchair scholar, made no “voyage of the Beagle.” But in combing and organizing the reports of missionaries, soldiers, and explorers, he proceeded from the same general premise as did Darwin, and indeed most of the leading minds of the day. For them a comprehensive, historically-oriented comparison of all forms of a phenomenon, from the most primitive to the most advanced, was the royal road to understanding the nature of the phenomenon itself.

In Tylor’s view, the elementary form out of which all else developed was spirit worship— animism. The minimal definition of religion was “a belief in spiritual beings.” The understanding of religion thus came down to an understanding of the basis upon which such a belief arose at its most primitive level. Tylor’s theory was intellectualistic. Belief in spirits began as an uncritical but nonetheless rational effort to explain such puzzling empirical phenomena as death, dreams, and possession. The notion of a separable soul rendered these phenomena intelligible in terms of soul departure, soul wandering, and soul invasion. Tylor believed that the idea of a soul was used to explain more and more remote and hitherto inexplicable natural occurrences, until virtually every tree and rock was haunted by some sort of gossamer presence. The higher, more developed forms of “belief in spiritual beings,” first polytheism, ultimately monotheism, were founded upon this animistic basis, the ur-philosophy of all mankind, and were refined through a process of critical questioning by more advanced thinkers. For this earnest Quaker the religious history of the world was a history of progressive, even inevitable, enlightenment. [SeeTylor.]

This intellectualistic, “up from darkness” strain has run through most evolutionist thought about religion. For Frazer, a nineteenth-century figure who lived for forty years into the twentieth century without finding it necessary to alter either his views or his methods, the mental progress involved was from magic to religion to science. Magic was the primordial form of human thought; it consisted in mistaking either spatiotemporal connection (“sympathetic magic,” as when drinking the blood of an ox transfers its strength to the drinker) or phenomenal similarity (“imitative magic,” as when the sound of drumming induces thunderheads to form) for true scientific causality. For Durkheim, evolutionary advance consisted in the emergence of specific, analytic, profane ideas about “cause” or “category” or “relationship” from diffuse, global, sacred images. These “collective representations,” as he called them, of the social order and its moral force included such sacra as “mana,” “totem,” and “god.” For Max Weber, the process was one of “rationalization”: the progressive organization of religious concern into certain more precisely defined, more specifically focused, and more systematically conceived cultural forms. The level of sophistication of such theories (and, hence, their present relevance) varies very widely. But, like Tylor’s, they all conceive of the evolution of religion as a process of cultural differentiation: the diffuse, all-embracing, but rather unsystematic and uncritical religious practices of primitive peoples are transformed into the more specifically focused, more regularized, less comprehensively authoritative practices of the more advanced civilizations. Weber, in whom both intellectualism and optimism were rather severely tempered by a chronic apprehensiveness, called this transformation the “disenchantment (Entzauberung) of the world.” [SeeDurkheim; Frazer; Weber, Max.]

On the heels of evolutionism came, of course, antievolutionism. This took two quite different forms. On one side there was a defense, mainly by Roman Catholic scholars, of the so-called degradation theory. According to this theory, the original revelation of a high god to primitive peoples was later corrupted by human frailty into the idol worship of present-day tribal peoples. On the other side there was an attack, mainly by American scholars of the Boas school, upon the “armchair speculation” of evolutionary thinkers and a call for its replacement by more phenomenological approaches to the study of tribal custom.

The first of these reactions led, logically enough, to a search among the most primitive of existing peoples for traces of belief in a supreme being. The resulting dispute, protracted, often bitter, and stubbornly inconclusive as to the existence of such “primitive monotheism,” turned out to be unproductive—aside from some interesting discussions by Lang (1898) concerning culture heroes and by Eliade (1949) concerning sky gods—and both the issue and the theory that gave rise to it have now receded from the center of scholarly attention. The second reaction has had a longer life and great impact on ethnographic methodology, but it too is now in partial eclipse. Its main contributions—aside from some devastating empirical demolitions of evolutionist generalization—came in the field of cultural diffusion. Leslie Spier’s study of the spread of the Sun Dance through the Great Plains (1921) and A. L. Kroeber’s application of the age-area approach to aboriginal religion in California are good examples of productive diffusion studies. However, apart from their importance for culture history, the contribution of such distributional studies to our understanding of religious ideas, attitudes, and practices as such has not been great, and few students now pursue these studies. The call of the Boas school for thorough field research and disciplined inductive analysis has been heeded; but its fruits, insofar as religious studies are concerned, have been reaped by others less inhibited theoretically.

Psychological approaches

The major reaction against the intellectual tradition of the cultural evolutionists took place not within anthropology, however, but in the general context of the positivist revolt against the domination of historicist modes of thought in the social sciences. In the years before World War I the rise of the systematic psychologism of psychoanalysis and of the equally systematic sociologism of the Année sociologique forced evolutionist theorizing into the background, even though the leaders of both movements—Freud and Durkheim—were themselves still very strongly influenced by it. Perhaps even more relevant, it introduced a sharp split into anthropological studies of religion which has resolved into the militantly psychodynamic and the militantly social-structural approaches.

Freud’s major work in this field is, of course, Totem and Taboo, a book anthropologists in general have had great difficulty in evaluating—as Kroeber’s two reviews of it, the first facilely negative, the second, two decades later, ambivalently positive, demonstrate. The source of the difficulty has been an inability or an unwillingness to disentangle Freud’s basic thesis—that religious rituals and beliefs are homologous with neurotic symptoms—from the chimerical ethnology and obsolete biology within which he insisted upon setting it. Thus, the easy demolition of what Kroeber called Freud’s “just so story” concerning primal incest, parricide, and guilt within some protohuman horde (“in the beginning was the deed”) was all too often mistaken for total rejection of the rather more penetrating proposition that the obsessions, dreams, and fantasies of collective life spring from the same intrapsychic sources as do those of the isolated individual.

For those who read further in Freud’s writings, however—especially in “Mourning and Melancholia” and “Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices”—it became apparent that what was at issue was the applicability of theories concerning the forms and causes of individual psychopathology to the explanation of the forms and causes of public myth and group ritual. Róheim (1950) analyzed Australian circumcision rites against the background of orthodox Freudian theories of psycho-sexual development, especially those clustered around the Oedipal predicament. However, he explicitly avoided recourse to speculations about buried memories of primordial occurrences. Bettel-heim (1954) adopted a similar, though more systematic and less orthodox, approach to initiation practices generally, seeing them as socially instituted symbolic mechanisms for the definition and stabilization of sexual identity. Kardiner (1945), taking a neo-Freudian position, sought to demonstrate that the religious institutions of tribal peoples were projections of a “basic personality structure,” formed not by the action of an unconsciously remembered historical trauma but by the more observable traumas produced by child-training practices, an approach later extended and cast into quantitative form by Whiting (Whiting & Child 1953). Erikson (1950), drawing upon developments in ego psychology which conceived the emergence of the adult personality to be a joint product of psychobiological maturation, cultural context, and historical experience, interpreted the religious notions of the Yurok and the Sioux in terms of certain basic modes of relating to the world. These relationships gradually developed during the whole course of childhood and adolescence. Others— notably Devereux (1951)—have attempted to use the autobiographical, case-history approach to determine the relations between personality dynamics and religious orientation in particular individuals; still others—notably Hallowell (1937–1954)—have employed projective tests, questionnaires, reports of dreams, or systematic interviews toward similar ends.

In all such studies, even when individual authors have dissented from many of Freud’s specific views, the basic premise has been Freudian: that religious practices can be usefully interpreted as expressions of unconscious psychological forces—and this has become, amid much polemic, an established tradition of inquiry. In recent years, however, responsible work of this type has come to question the degree to which one is justified in subjecting historically created and socially institutionalized cultural forms to a system of analysis founded on the treatment of the mental illnesses of individuals. For this reason, the future of this approach depends perhaps more upon developments within psychoanalysis, now in a somewhat uncertain state, than within anthropology. So far, perhaps only Kluckhohn’s pioneering Navaho Witchcraft (1944) has attempted to systematically relate psychological factors to social and cultural aspects of primitive religion. The great majority of psychoanalytic studies of tribal beliefs and rites remain willfully parochial.

In any case, not all psychological approaches to religion have been Freudian. Jungian influences have had a certain impact, especially on studies of myth. Campbell (1949), for example, has stressed the continuity of certain themes both cross-culturally and temporally. These themes have been interpreted as expressions of transpersonal constancies in unconscious mental functioning which are at the same time expressions of fundamental cosmic realities.

Simple emotionalist theories have also been extremely popular. There have been two main varieties of these: awe theories and confidence theories. Awe theories have been based on some usually rather vague notion of “religious thrill” experienced by human beings when brought face to face with cosmic forces. A wide range of ethnologists, from Max Műller through Lang and Marett to Lowie and Goldenweiser, have accepted such theories in one form or another. However, awe theories remain mere notations of the obvious—that religious experience is, in the nature of the case, touched with intense feelings of the grandeur of the universe in relation to the self and of the vulnerability of the self in relation to the universe. This is not explanation, but circular reasoning.

Confidence theories also begin with a notion of man’s inward sense of weakness, and especially of his fears—of disease, of death, of ill fortune of all kinds—and they see religious practices as designed to quiet such fears, either by explaining them away, as in doctrines of the afterlife, or by claiming to link the individual to external sources of strength, as in prayer. The best-known confidence theory was that set forth by Malinowski. He regarded magic as enabling man to pursue uncertain but essential endeavors by assuring him of their ultimate success. Confidence, or anxiety-reduction, theories, like awe theories, clearly have empirical foundation but do not adequately explore the complex relationship between fear and religious activity. They are not rooted in any systematic conceptualization of mental functioning and so merely point to matters desperately in need of clarification, without in fact clarifying them.

Sociological approaches

The sociological approach to the analysis of the religions of nonliterate peoples proceeded independent of, and even at variance with, the psychoanalytic approach, but it shared a concern with the same phenomenon: the peculiar “otherness,” the extraordinary, momentous, “set apart” quality of sacred (or “taboo”) acts and objects, as contrasted with the profane. The intense aura of high seriousness was traced by Freud to the projection of unacceptable wishes repressed from consciousness onto external objects. The dramatic ambivalence of the sacred—its paradoxical unification of the commanded and the forbidden, the pure and the polluted, the salutary and the dangerous—was a symbolic expression of the underlying ambivalence of human desires. For Durkheim, too, the extraordinary atmosphere surrounding sacred acts and objects was symbolic of a hidden reality, but a social, not a psychological one: the moral force of the human community.

Durkheim believed that the integrity of the social order was the primary requisite for human survival, and the means by which that integrity superseded individual egocentricity was the primary problem of sociological analysis. He saw Australian totemism (which he, like Freud, made the empirical focus of his work) as a mechanism to this end. For example, the collective rituals involving the emblems of the totemic beings—the so-called bull roarers—aroused the heightened emotions of mass behavior and evoked a deep sense of moral identification among the participants. The creation of social solidarity was the result of the common public veneration, by specific groups of persons, of certain carefully designated symbolic objects. These objects had no intrinsic value except as perceptible representations of the social identity of the individuals. Collective worship of consecrated bits of painted wood or stone created a moral community, a “church,” upon which rested the viability of the major social units. These sanctified objects thus represented the system of rights and obligations implicit in the social order and the individual’s unformulated sense of its overriding significance in his life. All sacred objects, beliefs, and acts, and the extraordinary emotions attending them, were outward expressions of inward social necessities, and, in a famous phrase, God was the “symbol of society.” Few anthropologists have been able to swallow Durkheim’s thesis whole, when put this baldly. But the more moderate proposition that religious rituals and beliefs both reflect and act to support the moral framework underlying social arrangements (and are in turn animated by it) has given rise to what has become perhaps the most popular form of analysis in the anthropological study of religion. Usually called “functionalism”—or sometimes, to distinguish it from certain variants deemed objectionable, “structuralism”—this approach found its champion in Radcliffe-Brown and its major development in Great Britain, though its influence has now spread very much more widely.

Radcliffe-Brown (1952) agreed with Durkheim’s postulate that the main role (or “function”) of religion was to celebrate and sustain the norms upon which the integration of society depends. But, unlike Durkheim (and like Freud), Radcliffe-Brown was concerned with the content of sacred symbols, and particularly with the reasons why one object rather than another was absorbed into rite or woven into myth. Why here stones, there water holes, here camp circles, there personified winds?

Durkheim had held this to be an arbitrary matter, contingent upon historical accident or psychological proclivity, beyond the reach of and irrelevant to sociological analysis. Radcliffe-Brown considered, however, that man’s need for a concrete expression of social solidarity was not sufficient explanation of the structure of a people’s religious system. Something was needed to tie the particular objects awarded sacred status (or, in his terminology, “ritual value”) to the particular social interests they presumably served and reflected. Radcliffe-Brown, resolute empiricist that he was, chose a solution Durkheim had already magisterially demolished: the utilitarian. The objects selected for religious veneration by a given people were either directly or indirectly connected to factors critical to their collective well-being. Things that had real, that is, practical, “social value” were elevated to having spiritual, or symbolic, “ritual value,” thus fusing the social and the natural into one overarching order. For primitives at least (and Radcliffe-Brown attempted to establish his theory with regard to the sanctified turtles and palm leaves of the preagricultural Andaman Islanders and, later on, with regard to Australian totemism), there is no discontinuity, no difference even, between moral and physical, spiritual and practical relationships and processes. These people regard both men and things as parts of a single normative system. Within that system those elements which are critical to its effective functioning (or, sometimes, phenomena empirically associated with such elements, such as the Andaman cicada cycle and the shifting monsoons) are made the objects of that special sort of respect and attention which we call religious but which the people themselves regard as merely prudential.

Radcliffe-Brown focused upon the content of sacred symbols and emphasized the relation between conceptions of the moral order of existence and conceptions of its natural order. However, the claim that the sanctity of religious objects derives from their practical social importance is one of those theories which works when it works and doesn’t when it doesn’t. Not only has it proved impossible to find even an indirect practical significance in most of the enormous variety of things tribal peoples have regarded as sacred (certain Australian tribes worship vomit), but the view that religious concerns are mere ritualizations of real-life concerns leaves the phenomenon of sacredness itself—its aura of mystery, power, fascination— totally unexplained.

More recent structuralist studies have tended to evade both these questions and to concentrate on the role played by religion in maintaining social equilibrium. They attempt to show how given sets of religious practices (ancestor worship, animal sacrifice, witchcraft and sorcery, regeneration rites) do in fact express and reinforce the moral values underlying crucial processes (lineage segmentation, marriage, conflict adjudication, political succession) in the particular society under investigation. Arnold van Gennep’s study of crisis rites was perhaps the most important forerunner of the many analyses of this type. Although valuable in their own right as ethnography and as sociology, these structural formulations have been severely limited by their rigid avoidance, on the one side, of the kind of psychological considerations that could account for the peculiar emotions which permeate religious belief and practice, and, on the other, of the philosophical considerations that could render their equally peculiar content intelligible. [See Gennep.]

The analysis of symbolic forms

In contrast to other approaches—evolutionary, psychological, sociological—the field of what we may loosely call “semantic studies” of religion is extremely jumbled. There is, as yet, no well-established central trend of analysis, no central figure around whom to order debate, and no readily apparent system of interconnections relating the various competing trends to one another.

Perhaps the most straightforward strategy— certainly the most disarming—is merely to accept the myriad expressions of the sacred in primitive societies, to consider them as actual ingressions of the divine into the world, and to trace the forms these expressions have taken across the earth and through time. The result would be a sort of natural history of revelation, whose aim would be to isolate the major classes of religious phenomena considered as authentic manifestations of the sacred— what Eliade, the chief proponent of this approach, calls hierophanies—and to trace the rise, dominance, decline, and disappearance of these classes within the changing contexts of human life. The meaning of religious activity, the burden of its content, is discovered through a meticulous, wholly inductive investigation of the natural modalities of such behavior (sun worship, water symbolism, fertility cults, renewal myths, etc.) and of the vicissitudes these modalities undergo when projected, like the Son of God himself, into the flux of history.

Metaphysical questions (here uncommonly obtrusive) aside, the weaknesses of this approach derive from the same source as its strengths: a drastic limiting of the interpretations of religion to the sort that a resolutely Baconian methodology can produce. On the one hand, this approach has led, especially in the case of a scholar as erudite and indefatigable as Eliade, to the uncovering of some highly suggestive clusterings of certain religious patterns with particular historical conditions—for example, the frequent association of sun worship, activist conceptions of divine power, cultic veneration of deified heroes, elitist doctrines of political sovereignty, and imperialist ideologies of national expansion. But, on the other hand, it has placed beyond the range of scientific analysis everything but the history and morphology of the phenomenal forms of religious expression. The study of tribal beliefs and practices is reduced to a kind of cultural paleontology whose sole aim is the reconstruction, from scattered and corrupted fragments, of the “mental universe of archaic man.”

Primitive thought

Other scholars who are interested in the meaningful content of primitive religion but who are incapable of so thoroughgoing a suspension of disbelief as Eliade, or are repelled by the cultic overtones of this somewhat mystagogic line of thought, have directed their attention instead toward logical and epistemological considerations. This has produced a long series of studies that view “primitive thought” as a distinctive mode of reasoning and/or a special body of knowledge. From Lévy-Bruhl through Lévi-Strauss, and with important contributions from members of the evolutionary, psychoanalytic, and sociological schools as well, this line of exploration has persisted as a minor theme in anthropological studies of religion. With the recent advances in linguistics, information theory, the analysis of cognition, semantic philosophy, modern logic, and certain sorts of literary investigation, the systematic study of symbolic activity bids fair to become, in a rather thoroughly revised form, the major theme for investigation. The “new key” Susanne K. Langer heard being struck in philosophy in the early 1940s—“the concern with the concept of meaning in all its forms”—has, like the historicist and positivist “keys” before it, begun to have its echo in the anthropological study of religion. Anthropologists are increasingly interested in ideational expression, increasingly concerned with the vehicles, processes, and practical applications of human conceptualization.

The development of this approach has come in two fairly distinct phases, one before and one after World War II. In the first phase there was a concern with “the mind of primitive man” and in particular with its capacity for rational thought. In a sense, this concern represented the evolutionists’ interest in primitive reasoning processes detached from the historicist context. In the second phase, which is still in process, there has been a move away from, and in part a reaction against, the subjectivist emphasis of the earlier work. Ideational expression is thought of as a public activity, rather like speech, and the structure of the symbolic materials, the “language,” in whose terms the activity is conducted becomes the subject of investigation.

The first, subjectivist, phase was animated by a protracted wrangle between those who used the religious beliefs and practices of tribal peoples as evidence to prove that there was a qualitative difference between the thought processes of primitives and those of civilized men and the anthropologists who considered such religious activity as evidence for the lack of any such differences. The great protagonist of the first school was the French philosopher Lévy-Bruhl, whose theories of “prelogical mentality” were as controversial within anthropology as they were popular outside it. According to Lévy-Bruhl, the thought of primitives, as reflected in their religious ideas, is not governed by the immanent laws of Aristotelian logical reasoning, but by affectivity—by the vagrant flow of emotion and the dialectical principles of “mystical participation” and “mystical exclusion.” [SeeLÉvy-bruhl.]

The two most effective antagonists of Lévy-Bruhl’s theories concerning primitive religion were Radin and Malinowski. Radin, influenced by Boas’ more general attacks on theories of “primitive mentality,” sought to demonstrate that primitive religious thought reaches, on occasion, very high levels of logical articulation and philosophical sophistication and that tribal society contains, alongside the common run of unreflective doers (“men of action”), contemplative intellectuals (“men of thought”) of boldness, subtlety, and originality. Malinowski attacked the problem on an even broader front. Using his ethnographic knowledge of the Trobriand Islanders, Malinowski argued that alongside their religious and magical nations (which he, too, regarded as mainly emotionally determined) the “savages” also had a rather well developed and, as far as it went, accurate empirical knowledge of gardening, navigation, housebuilding, canoe construction, and other useful arts. He further claimed that they were absolutely clear as to the distinction between these two sorts of reasoning, between mystical-magical and empirical-pragmatic thinking, and never confused them in actual practice. Of these two arguments, the former seems to be today nearly universally accepted and was perhaps never in fact really questioned. But with respect to the latter, serious doubts have arisen concerning whether the lines between “science,” “magic,” and “religion” are as simple and clear-cut in the minds of tribal peoples (or any peoples) as Malinowski, never one for shaded judgments, portrayed them. Nevertheless, between them, Radin and Malinowski rather definitively demolished the notion of a radical qualitative gap between the thought processes of primitive and civilized men. Indeed, toward the end of his life even Levy-Bruhl admitted that his arguments had been badly cast and might better have been phrased in terms of different modes of thinking common to all men. (In fact, Freud, with his contrast between primary and secondary thinking processes, had already made this distinction.) [SeeMalinowski; Radin.]

Thus, the debate about what does or does not go on in the heads of savages exhausted itself in generalities, and recent writers have turned to a concern with the symbolic forms, the conceptual resources, in terms of which primitives (and non-primitives) think. The major figure in this work has been Claude Lévi-Strauss, although this line of attack dates back to Durkheim and Mauss’s influential 1903 essay in sociological Kantianism, Primitive Classification. The writings of E. E. Evans-Pritchard on Zande witchcraft, Benjamin Whorf on Hopi semantics, and Gregory Bateson on Iatmul ritual and, among nonanthropologists, works by Granet, Cassirer, and Piaget have directed attention to the study of symbolic formulation.

Symbolic systems

Lévi-Strauss, whose rather highly wrought work is still very much in progress, is concerned with the systems of classification, the “homemade” taxonomies, employed by tribal peoples to order the objects and events of their world (see Lévi-Strauss 1958; 1962). In this, he follows in the footsteps of Durkheim and Mauss. But rather than looking, as they did, to social forms for the origins and explanations of such categorical systems, he looks to the symbolic structures in terms of which they are formulated, expressed, and applied. Myth and, in a slightly different way, rite are systems of signs that fix and organize abstract conceptual relationships in terms of concrete images and thus make speculative thought possible. They permit the construction of a “science of the concrete”—the intellectual comprehension of the sensible world in terms of sensible phenomena— which is no less rational, no less logical, no more affect-driven than the abstract science of the modern world. The objects rendered sacred are selected not because of their utilitarian qualities, nor because they are projections of repressed emotions, nor yet because they reflect the moral force of social organization ritualistically impressed upon the mind. Rather, they are selected because they permit the embodiment of general ideas in terms of the immediately perceptible realities—the turtles, trees, springs, and caves—of everyday experience; not, as Levi-Strauss says, apropos of Radcliffe-Brown’s view of totems, because they are “good to eat,” but because they are “good to think.”

This “goodness” exists inherently in sacred objects because they provide the raw materials for analogical reasoning. The relationships perceived among certain classes of natural objects or events can be analogized, taken as models of relationships —-physical, social, psychological, or moral—obtaining between persons, groups, or other natural objects and events. Thus, for example, the natural distinctions perceived among totemic beings, their species differentiation, can serve as a conceptual framework for the comprehension, expression, and communication of social distinctions among exogamous clans—their structural differentiation. Thus, the sharp contrast between the wet and dry seasons (and the radical zoological and botanical changes associated with it) in certain regions of Australia is employed in the mythology of the native peoples. They have woven an elaborate origin myth around this natural phenomenon, one that involves a rain-making python who drowned some incestuous sisters and their children because the women polluted his water hole with menstrual blood. This model expresses and economizes the contrasts between moral purity and impurity, maleness and femaleness, social superiority and inferiority, fertilizing agent (rain) and that which is fertilized (land), and even the distinction between “high” (initiate) and “low” (noninitiate) levels of cultural achievement.

Lévi-Strauss contends that primitive religious systems are, like all symbolic systems, fundamentally communications systems. They are carriers of information in the technical Shannon-Weaver sense, and as such, the theory of information can be applied to them with the same validity as when applied to any physical systems, mechanical or biological, in which the transfer of information plays a central regulative role. Primitives, as all men, are quintessentially multichanneled emitters and receivers of messages. It is merely in the nature of the code they employ—one resting on analogies between “natural” and “cultural” distinctions and relationships—that they differ from ourselves. Where there is a distinguishing difference, it lies in the technically specialized codes of modern abstract thought, in which semantic properties are radically and deliberately severed from physical ones. Religion, primitive or modern, can be understood only as an integrated system of thought, logically sound, epistemologically valid, and as flourishing in France as in Tahiti.

It is far too early to evaluate Lévi-Strauss’s work with any assurance. It is frankly incomplete and explorative, and some parts of it (the celebration of information theory, for example) are wholly programmatic. But in focusing on symbol systems as conceptual models of social or other sorts of reality, he has clearly introduced into the anthropology of religion a line of inquiry which, having already become common in modern thought generally, can hardly fail to be productive when applied to tribal myth and ritual.

Whether his own particular formulation of this approach will prove to be the most enduring remains, however, rather more of a question. His rejection of emotional considerations and his neglect of normative or social factors in favor of an extreme intellectualism which cerebralizes religion and tends to reduce it yet again to a kind of undeveloped (or, as he puts it, “undomesticated”) science are questionable. His nearly exclusive stress on those intellectual processes involved in classification, i.e., on taxonomic modes of thought (a reflex of his equally great reliance on totemic ideas as type cases of primitive beliefs), at the expense of other, perhaps more common, and certainly more powerful styles of reasoning, is also doubtful. His conception of the critical process of symbolic formulation itself remains almost entirely undeveloped—hardly more than a sort of associationism dressed up with some concepts from modern linguistics. Partly as a result of this weakness and partly as a result of a tendency to consider symbol systems as entities functioning independently of the contextual factor, many of his specific interpretations of particular myths and rites seem as strained, arbitrary, and oversystematized as those of the most undisciplined psychoanalyst.

But, for all this, Lévi-Strauss has without doubt opened a vast territory for research and begun to explore it with theoretical brilliance and profound scholarship. And he is not alone. As the recent work of such diverse students as Evans-Pritchard, R. G. Lienhardt, W. E. H. Stanner, Victor W. Turner, Germaine Dieterlen, Meyer Fortes, Edmund R. Leach, Charles O. Frake, Rodney Needham, and Susanne K. Langer demonstrates, the analysis of symbolic forms is becoming a major tradition in the study of primitive religion—in fact, of religion in general. Each of these writers has a somewhat different approach. But all seem to share the conviction that an attempt must be made to approach primitive religions for what they are: systems of ideas about the ultimate shape and substance of reality.

Whatever else religion does, it relates a view of the ultimate nature of reality to a set of ideas of how man is well advised, even obligated, to live. Religion tunes human actions to a view of the cosmic order and projects images of cosmic order onto the plane of human existence. In religious belief and practice a people’s style of life, what Clyde Kluckhohn called their design for living, is rendered intellectually reasonable; it is shown to represent a way of life ideally adapted to the world “as it ‘really’ (‘fundamentally,’ ‘ultimately’) is.” At the same time, the supposed basic structure of reality is rendered emotionally convincing because it is presented as an actual state of affairs uniquely accommodated to such a way of life and permitting it to flourish. Thus do received beliefs, essentially metaphysical, and established norms, essentially moral, confirm and support one another.

It is this mutual confirmation that religious symbols express and celebrate and that any scientific analysis of religion must somehow contrive to explain and clarify. In the development of such an analysis historical, psychological, sociological, and what has been called here semantic considerations are all necessary, but none is sufficient. A mature theory of religion will consist of an integration of them all into a conceptual system whose exact form remains to be discovered.

Clifford Geertz


Bettelheim, Bruno 1954 Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Campbell, Joseph 1949 The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon.

Devereux, George 1951 Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. New York: International Universities Press.

Eliade, Mircea (1949) 1958 Patterns in Comparative Religion. New York: Sheed & Ward. → First published as Traite d’histoire des religions.

Erikson, Erik H. (1950) 1964 Childhood and Society. 2d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Norton.

Hallowell, A. Irving (1937–1954) 1955 Culture and Experience. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Kardiner, Abram 1945 The Psychological Frontiers of Society. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.

Kluckhohn, Clyde 1944 Navaho Witchcraft. Harvard University, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Papers, Vol. 22, No. 2. Cambridge, Mass.: The Museum.

Lang, Andrew (1898) 1900 The Making of Religion. 2d ed. New York: Longmans.

Lessa, William A.; and Vogt, Evon Z. (editors) (1958) 1965 Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. 2d ed. New York: Harper. → Contains a comprehensive bibliography.

LÉvi-strauss, Claude (1958) 1963 Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. First published in French. See especially the chapters on myth and religion, pages 167-245.

LÉvi-strauss, Claude (1962) 1966 The Savage Mind. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in French.

Radcliffe-brown, A. R. (1952) 1961 Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

RÓheim, GÉza 1950 Psychoanalysis and Anthropology: Culture, Personality and the Unconscious. New York: International Universities Press.

Spier, Leslie 1921 The Sun Dance of the Plains Indians: Its Development and Diffusion. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 16, part 7. New York: The Museum.

Whiting, John W.; and Child, Irvin L. 1953 Child Training and Personality: A Cross-cultural Study. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962.


Sociologists have undertaken three main types of religious study. They have studied religion as a central theoretical problem in the understanding of social action. They have studied the relation between religion and other areas of social life, such as economics, politics, and social class. And finally, they have studied religious roles, organizations, and movements. This article will be concerned primarily with the theoretical study of religion and secondarily with the relation between religion and the social structure.

Historical background

The sociological study of religion has grown out of and remains inextricably related to the much broader effort to understand the phenomenon of religion that has been made by scholars in many fields, especially since the eighteenth century in the West and more recently in other parts of the world. Theologians, philosophers, historians, philologists, literary critics, political scientists, anthropologists, and psychologists have all made contributions. In untangling this immensely complicated story it will be helpful to resort to a simplified schema that focuses on two main lines of intellectual development: the “rationalist” and the “nonrationalist” traditions. (A writer is referred to here as “nonrationalist” not because his thought is considered to be irrational but because he takes the nonrational aspect of human existence as central and irreducible.) Both traditions have roots deep in the history of Western thought and analogues in the thought of some non-Western cultures. The eighteenth century saw a certain crystallization of both traditions, which had important consequences for the nineteenth century and which still affects us in many respects.

The rationalists and nonrationalists

The rationalist tradition, which was closely associated with the rise of secular thought and skepticism in England and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, later stimulated the nonrationalist tendency as a reaction to it. Of course, the rationalists themselves were partly grappling with the great seventeenth-century antirationalist Blaise Pascal. It was the position of the rationalists that the apparently nonrational could not only be brought within the bounds of rational analysis but also could be eliminated as an influence on human action, though most of them doubted that this would ever be possible for the masses. Thus, they held that the obviously absurd doctrines of established religion had come into existence because of ignorance and the deliberate chicanery of the priests, who were serving their own self-interest as well as that of the secular despots who were often their masters. Behind the absurd historical forms, the deists discerned a natural religion in accordance with the dictates of reason.

Rousseau and Kant were transitional figures. Both believed in a generalized “reasonable” religion in preference to any historical faith, but they grounded their religious convictions on human nature (Rousseau) or the dictates of ethical experience (Kant) rather than on purely cognitive arguments. The nonrationalist tradition, which subsequently developed mainly in Germany, emphasized the sui generis quality of religion. Johann Gottfried Herder held that religion was grounded in specific experience and feeling rather than in reason. In the early nineteenth century Friedrich Schleiermacher undertook the first systematic exposition of this position. He held that religion was to be understood neither as crude philosophy nor as primitive ethics but rather as a reality in its own right; it is grounded neither in knowledge nor in action but in feeling. More specifically, he came to think that religion derives fundamentally from the feeling of absolute dependence. Both Herder and Schleiermacher, rejecting as they did a rationalist understanding of religion, opposed the search for a universal natural religion of self-evident reasonableness. Rather, they insisted on taking seriously the particular forms of culture and religion in all their historical diversity. Herder was, of course, one of the most important forerunners of nineteenth-century historicism, and Schleiermacher was one of the first to develop the tools of cultural interpretation (hermeneutics), which provided the main methodological equipment of the movement in Germany.

While the nonrationalist treatment of religion in Germany was closely related to the development of idealist philosophy there, the rationalist treatment of it was closely related to the rise of positivism in France and utilitarianism in England during the nineteenth century. Historicism cut across these distinctions and came to dominate Anglo-French as well as German thought. In both France and England rationalism in its historicist phase took the form of evolutionism.

Comte’s famous theory of the three stages viewed theology as appropriate in the childhood of man; however, it was to be displaced first by philosophy and then by science as men’s rational understanding of the universe gradually increased. Comte interpreted religion in terms that we would now call “functional,” stressing the contribution of belief and ritual to social solidarity and the control of personal feelings. While thus recognizing nonrational factors in religion and, indeed, arguing from them that religion is a permanent and inescapable aspect of human existence, he nonetheless stressed cognitive factors almost exclusively in his theory of religious evolution.

In England, Spencer developed an evolutionary perspective on religion that was even more narrowly cognitive than Comte’s, and Tylor also undertook an extensive effort to understand the religious development of mankind in these terms. In treating the development from animism through polytheism to monotheism as a succession of more and more adequate cognitive hypotheses, he remained thoroughly in the rationalist tradition. Frazer, while formally maintaining the same point of view, embraced a range of material—ritual kingship, human sacrifice, fertility ritual, and the like—which actually demanded a different interpretation. His.Golden Bough (1890) can be viewed as a marvelously intuitive catalogue of central problems that would have to be solved by other means. Finally, in the English tradition, Marett’s discussion (1900) of mana and preanimism came very near breaking through the preconceptions of the rationalist utilitarian school.

Dilthey, who was a follower of Schleiermacher as well as a neo-Kantian, continued the German nonrationalist tradition by stressing the irreducible nature of the religious Weltanschauung and the necessity for an inner understanding (Verstehen) of its particular forms. This tradition led directly into the modern sociological study of religion through the work of Troeltsch and particularly that of Max Weber, who both transcended the tradition in important respects. Postponing a consideration of these men for a moment, we may trace further into the twentieth century the development of the German tradition that was relatively independent of the influence of Weber and Troeltsch. A certain formal culmination was reached in the work of Rudolph Otto. In his important book The Idea of the Holy (1917), he richly developed the basic intuition of Schleiermacher by spelling out the phenomenology of the holy in terms of the numinous—the notion of the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. Here more clearly than ever was the assertion of the sui generis nature of religion and its “geometrical location” in a certain kind of immediate experience. That experience, according to Otto, can be phenomenologically understood, but it cannot be explained. This point was made quite explicit in the work of van der Leeuw, who shared Otto’s essential position: in the preface to Religion in Essence and Manifestation van der Leeuw said that he specifically disavowed all “theories” ([1933] 1938, p. vi). Thus Otto and the later exponents of this tradition—whether they were phenomenologists (such as van der Leeuw and Mircea Eliade) or were specifically interested in the sociology of religion (Joachim Wach and Gustav Mensching) —have given us a rich array of materials without appreciably advancing our theoretical understanding.

Generalizing the argument so far, we may say that while the nonrationalist tradition jealously guarded the specific nature of religion but eschewed any explanation of it, the rationalist tradition provided a number of ways of explaining religion which in the end explained it away. We will argue, following Talcott ParsonsThe Structure of Social Action (1937), that around the turn of the twentieth century several men from both traditions broke free of their preconceptions and converged on a more adequate approach to religion (and indeed to social phenomena generally).

However, just as we have noted that the non-rationalist tradition continues to our own day in relatively pure form, so we must point out that the utilitarian rationalist position also continues, not so much as a conscious tradition of scholarship as a semiconscious preconception of scholars in many fields. This preconception has been strengthened by its gradual fusion with a Marxian understanding of religion as essentially an ideological cover, either for the defense of the social status quo or for protests against it. Here religion is treated as a weapon in the political-economic struggle or as a preliminary stage in a political movement, a stage that may be outgrown with the attainment of political maturity. What is at issue is not the empirical adequacy of such analyses in particular instances, but rather the generalization of them as adequate for the understanding of the phenomenon of religion.

Foundations of an adequate theory

The architects of a more adequate understanding of religion were Durkheim, Weber, and Freud, though others also made important contributions.

Contributions of Weber and Durkheim

Weber maintained the idea of the centrality and irreducibility of nonrational elements in human action as it had developed in the German tradition, but he was not content with a mere phenomenological description of these elements. According to Parsons’ analysis, Weber began, at least incipiently, to place these nonrational elements within the context of a general theory of social action. This he did through two of his central concerns. The first was with the problems of meaning—of evil, suffering, death, and the like—which are inescapable in human life but insoluble in purely scientific terms. Weber argued that the alternative religious answers to these problems of meaning have had not only profound consequences for the motivation of individuals but also, in the long run, important causal effects on social development. The second of Weber’s concerns, which links irrational elements to a more general theory of action, was with what he called charisma. Charisma is primarily a quality of the individual that places him above normal expectations and endows him with the authority to utter new commandments. Charisma is a relational concept—that is, it comes into existence only when it is recognized by a group. It links deeper levels of psychic organization, within the charismatic individual and in the members of the group who recognize him, with the social process and particularly with the possibility of radical discontinuities in social development. In both cases Weber was arguing for the importance of religion in social action on the grounds of its closeness to powerful nonrational motivational forces and its capacity to give form and pattern to those forces, including its capacity to create radically new forms and patterns.

The rationalist positivist tradition was decisively broken through from within by Durkheim, when he recognized that religion is a reality sui generis. By this he meant that religious representations or symbols are not delusions, nor do they simply stand for some other phenomena, such as natural forces or (contrary to some interpretations of his work) social morphology. Rather, in his social Kantianism, he held that religious representations are constitutive of society. They exist within the minds of individuals so as to inhibit egocentric impulses and to discipline the individual so that he can deal objectively with external reality. These shared representations, with their capacity to direct and control personal motivation, are what make society possible. While his treatment of motivation remained rudimentary, he did point out very clearly the great importance of religious action for stimulating individuals to participate positively in social life (see the discussion of collective effervescence in Durkheim 1912, book 2, chapter 7) and for dealing with tendencies of individuals to withdraw from social life (see the discussion of funeral ritual in 1912, book 3, chapter 5).

Although they started from opposite directions, both Weber and Durkheim seem to have overcome the impasse in which the rationalist and non-rationalist approaches to religion had long been caught: they both placed religion in a theoretical rather than a purely descriptive context, without denying its centrality and irreducibility. However, they lacked any fine-grained structural understanding of the nonrational elements involved, even though they recognized their importance. It was in the work of Freud that a structural understanding of the relevant emotional and motivational elements was to be found for the first time.

Freud’s work on religious symbolism

Freud’s early work on the stages of psychosexual development was applied to religion in Totem and Taboo (1913), where the Oedipus complex with its mixture of dependence, love, and hostility was seen as the core problem of religious symbolism, which he treated as largely projective. Freud’s later ego psychology, heralded in the important essays “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1921) and “The Ego and the Id” (1923), provided the basis for a much more active understanding of religious symbolism, which could now be treated not merely as reflecting psychic conflict but as actually affecting the outcome of psychic conflict and redirecting psychic forces. This point of view was applied to religion in the somewhat idiosyncratic but extraordinarily fruitful Moses and Monotheism (1934–1938). “The Future of an Illusion” (1927) represents a reversion to the early projective theory of religion and is neither the final statement of Freud’s position nor even typical of his own late thinking.

By the early 1920s, then, the elements of a more adequate theory of religion had come into existence. However, at just this point the primary preoccupation with religion displayed by most of the great social scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries disappeared. Other issues occupied the center of attention. Even today a theoretical concern with religion is only gradually reviving as a central issue in social science.

A theory of religion

Only in the last few years has a new model of human action developed that will allow us to utilize the insights of Weber, Durkheim, and Freud without falling back into the old controversies about idealism and materialism, rationalism and irrationalism, and humanism and science. This is the cybernetic model (for a relevant, though partial, exposition, see Deutsch 1963). Parsons’ action theory is the chief link between earlier social science and cybernetic theory and has itself in recent years been increasingly restated in cybernetic terms. This model, whose basic terms are “energy” and “information,” seems likely to integrate the range of behavioral research that stretches from the work of biologists such as Nikolaas Tinbergen and J. P. Scott on animal behavior to that of philosophers such as Ernst Cassirer and Susanne K. Langer on symbolic forms.

The cybernetic model

An action system may be defined as the symbolically controlled, systematically organized behavior of one or more biological organisms. The energy of such a system is supplied by the organism and is organized through genetically controlled organic structures that are not directly open to symbolic influence. Thus the basic motivation of the action system—its drives and needs—is partially determined by organic structure, although it is subject, through learning processes, to a considerable degree of symbolic control. The precise boundary, or, perhaps better, the area of overlap, between what is genetically and what is symbolically controlled is by no means clear, and important research on the problem is continuing. For present purposes it is only necessary to note the relatively broad plasticity for symbolic learning that is usually recognized, at least in the human species.

Information in such a system consists largely of symbolic messages that indicate something about either the internal state or the external situation of the action system. These messages are understood or interpreted by matching them with previously learned symbolic patterns, which make up the memory of the system. New situations can be understood through a recombination of previously learned elements, so that a new symbolic pattern is created. Thus, the set of symbolic patterns existing in a system will be partially determined by the nature of the external world with which that system has had to deal and by the nature of the laws governing the cognitive processes of the brain. Within these limits there is a wide range of freedom, within which alternative symbolic patterns may operate with equal or nearly equal effectiveness, as is best illustrated perhaps in the phenomenon of language.

The cybernetic model thus conceives of a human action system as autonomous, purposive, and capable of a wide range of external adaptations and internal rearrangements within the very broad constraints inherent in the nature of energy and information. It is precisely the stress on autonomy, learning capacity, decision, and control that gives the cybernetic model the ability, lacking in previous mechanistic and organic models, to assimilate the contributions of the humanistic disciplines— the Geisteswissenschaften—without abandoning an essentially scientific approach [seeSystems analysis, articles onsocial systemsandpolitical systems].

The openness of an action system is always relative to its particular structure. We have noted that energy is structured by genetic information from the organism and by symbolic information from the culture. Energy and information are further structured by two systems that can be seen as integrating organic motivation and symbols: personality and society. These are symbolically patterned motivational systems; the first centers on individual organisms, and the other on groups. Any particular personality or social system will be determined in large part at any given moment by its history, for its learning capacity will be largely a product of the structures it has built up over time. However, if a system has managed to develop a broad and flexible capacity for rapid learning, and if it has a reserve of uncommitted resources, its reaction to any given internal or external situation will be open to a wide variety of alternative choices; in other words, it will have a high degree of freedom.

The role of religion in action systems

Religion emerges in action systems with respect to two main problems. In order to function effectively, it is essential that a person or group have a relatively condensed, and therefore highly general, definition of its environment and itself. Such a definition of the system and the world to which it is related (in more than a transient sense) is a conception of identity. Such a conception is particularly necessary in situations of stress and disturbance, because it can provide the most general set of instructions as to how the system is to maintain itself and repair any damage sustained.

In addition to the identity problem, there is the problem of dealing with inputs of motivation from within the system that are not under the immediate control of conscious decision processes. We have already noted that such motivation is partly under the control of genetic rather than symbolic processes. In addition, as Freud discovered, there are important symbolically organized systems of motivation that are partially blocked or screened off from consciousness through the mechanism of repression; this happens partly as a result of the pattern of child raising. Though these unconscious motivational forces exist in individuals, they are to a large degree shared in groups, because human biology and child-raising patterns are, broadly speaking, similar. The emotions can be seen as signaling devices by which the conscious decision process (the ego, in Freud’s terms) becomes aware of the existence of important inputs of motivation from unconscious levels of the system.

The problems of identity and of unconscious motivation are closely related, for it is just those situations of threat, uncertainty, and breakdown, which raise the identity issue, that also rouse deep unconscious feelings of anxiety, hope, and fear. An identity conception capable of dealing with such a situation must not only be cognitively adequate but must also be motivationally meaningful. It is precisely the role of religion in action systems to provide such a cognitively and motivationally meaningful identity conception or set of identity symbols. It is such a set of symbols that provides answers to Weber’s problems of meaning and to which Durkheim referred in speaking of religious representations. It is also what in large part Freud meant when he spoke of the superego. This mode of analysis leads to a definition of religion very close to that of Clifford Geertz, who wrote: “A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (1966, p. 4).

The conception of religion briefly sketched here—religion as the most general mechanism for integrating meaning and motivation in action systems—applies to all types of action systems, not only to whole societies or groups of them. Many smaller units (individual personalities and groups) appropriate the religious symbols of their social and cultural environment in dealing with their own religious problems, though always with some degree of individual variation. Moreover, even where prevailing religious symbol systems are rejected, the idiosyncratic solutions of individuals and groups to fundamental problems of orientation and identity may be viewed in terms of this scheme as “religious.” Of course, the degree to which religious problems will be salient for any individual or group is quite variable.

Current theoretically relevant research

While the theory outlined above has not previously been stated in exactly these terms, some recent research seems to be guided by a conception of religion as a control system linking meaning and motivation—a conception that is a close parallel of this theory. Three particularly interesting examples of such research will be cited. Each of them concentrates at a traditional level of social science—psychological, social, or cultural—but it is noteworthy that they all transcend the discipline boundaries in trying to understand rehgion.

Analysis of historical figures

The first is the application of detailed psychological analysis to significant figures in religious history. Erik H. Erikson, in Young Man Luther (1958), has overcome a tendency toward psychological reductionism that was evident in some earlier work of this sort. He is careful to place Luther’s life history in its proper social, historical, and religious context. In doing so, he shows how Luther was able to solve his own problem of identity, which had its roots deep in his unconscious conflicts, through constructive innovation with respect to religious symbolism. However, Erikson’s knowledge of the deep motivational forces involved does not lead him to deny the contribution of the religious reformulation itself. Rather, he emphasizes the fusing and forming power of the symbols to synthesize motivational conflicts and control destructive impulses.

Erikson also contributes to the broader problem of religious change by indicating that Luther’s solution, once it was embodied in communicable symbolic form, could be appropriated by others in the same society who had analogous identity problems arising from social-historical matrices similar to Luther’s own. Moreover, although the argument is not worked out in detail, Erikson implies that Luther was able to contribute to certain social and cultural identity problems of Germany in particular and of Western civilization in general. This detailed analysis of the mechanism involved in a major example of religious change, although it involves only one among several types of change, is an important contribution to one of our least understood problems. [SeeIdentity, psycho-social.]

Small-group research

The second new line of research has to do with the analysis of religious phenomena in small groups, as illustrated in Philip E. Slater’s Microcosm (1966). The small-group situation provides a laboratory within which the symbolic processes involved in group formation, as hypothesized by Durkheim and Freud, can be empirically synthesized. Slater shows how the group and its leader become foci for the unconscious anxieties, hopes, and fears of the members in the initial situation of uncertainty and lack of definition. These feelings are handled initially by the development of projective symbols, which are redolent with the mysterious potency of the unconscious feelings, that is, are highly magical and sacred. However, over time, as more and more of the group process becomes consciously understood and as the deeper feelings about the group and the leader are worked through, the group itself becomes “secularized” and the quality of the sacred is relegated to certain group ideals and symbols of group solidarity.

Slater’s comparison of this process of group development with the long-term process of religious evolution is highly suggestive. Particularly important is the perception of the changing role of symbolism with respect to the meaning-motivation balance as the group itself undergoes new experiences and changes in structure. Also of great general significance is Slater’s observation that social and psychological aspects of group process interpenetrate at every point and that a purely psychological or a purely sociological theoretical framework would result in an inadequate understanding of the processes at work.

Analysis of language as symbolic action

A third area of promising research is the analysis of language as symbolic action as it has been developed by Kenneth Burke in his Rhetoric of Religion (1961) and other works. Burke’s theory of artistic form (defined as “the arousing and fulfilling of expectations”), which is based on the Aristotelian theory of catharsis, emphasizes the working through of emotional tensions in symbolic form; thus, it is very close to the theory of religion developed above. Burke has pointed out that the tensions may be social as well as psychological, though they must be presented in personal terms if they are to have emotional impact. He has also pointed out the function of social and psychological control that such symbolic working through performs.

Perhaps Burke’s chief contribution is his insistence on the special formal qualities of language and symbolism generally. Language does not merely reflect or communicate social and psychological realities. Rather, language contains within itself a “principle of perfection” (1961, epilogue), which operates relatively independently of other factors. That is, a terminology, once established, has certain “entelechial” implications. For example, once the terms king, society, and god come into existence, there is the logical possibility that someone will ask what a perfect king, society, or god is and from this analysis actually draw conclusions about existing kings, societies, or ideas of god. Regardless of the many actual social and psychological blocks to carrying through such analyses, the fact is that the possibility of pushing toward terminological perfection is always present, and under certain circumstances it will actually be pursued. This is one of the chief reasons why cultural symbol systems cannot be treated entirely reductionistically. In The Rhetoric of Religion Burke has applied these insights with great brilliance to two key religious documents: the first three chapters of Genesis and Augustine’s Confessions [seeInteraction, article ondramatism].

Religion and society

An interest in the social consequences of religious belief and action is probably as old as the interest in religion itself. In the sixteenth century Machiavelli gave, in his Discourses, a functional analysis of Roman religion which had considerable influence. Spinoza, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Comte continued and developed the analysis of the political significance of religious commitment and the related problems of the influence of religion on personal morality and social solidarity. In one of the earliest quantitative studies in sociology, Durkheim introduced a “religious variable” in his study of suicide (1897). Subsequently many studies of varying breadth and quality have included a religious variable and thus advanced our knowledge of the influence or lack of influence of religion on some aspect of social existence; however, a comprehensive survey of the results obtained is still lacking.

The man who contributed most to the systematic understanding of the interrelations between religion and society and who stimulated more research (both quantitative and nonquantitative) than any other scholar was undoubtedly Max Weber. The most influential single hypothesis in this field is certainly his thesis on the influence of the Protestant ethic on the rise of modern society (1904–1905). Although the cumulated argument and evidence on this thesis are too massive to review here, one recent study by Gerhard Lenski (1961) is worth mentioning, not only because it sheds light on the Protestant-ethic thesis in contemporary America but also because it is perhaps the most successful attempt to apply the methods of survey research to the sociology of religion. Lenski was concerned with the influence of religious affiliations and beliefs on attitudes toward work, authority, education, and a variety of other matters in a large American city, and he found this influence to be considerable. Weber’s ideas on the non-Western religions have been applied much more sporadically (see the incomplete review in Bellah 1963), but as the comparative horizon of the sociology of religion widens, these ideas seem likely to attract more attention. In this same connection, a revival of interest in religious evolution as providing the soundest classificatory system for comparative work can also be expected.

Religious evolution

Although foreshadowings of the idea of religious evolution can be traced as far back as classical times, the first extensive effort in this direction was that of Vico in the eighteenth century. Elaborate schemes of religious evolution with copious empirical illustration were developed in the nineteenth century by Hegel, Comte, and Spencer. In more modest and judicious form, evolutionary ideas provided the basis of the sociology of religion of Durkheim (1912) and Weber (1922). Though long neglected and in some quarters excoriated, the idea of religious evolution has recently been revived (Bellah 1964). It provides the natural link between the kind of theory of religion sketched in this article and the comparative study of religion.

If one defines religion as a control system linking meaning and motivation by providing an individual or a group with the most general model that it has of itself and its world, then it becomes apparent that such a control system can vary in degree of complexity in ways that are not entirely random with respect to the degree of complexity of the social system of which it is a part. Since it has been clear for a long time that levels of social and cultural complexity are best understood in an evolutionary framework, it seems inevitable that religion too must be considered in such a framework.

Here it is possible only to enumerate some of the most important dimensions along which religious evolution can be expected to occur. The central focus of religious evolution is the religious symbol system itself. Here the main line of development is from compact to differentiated symbolism, that is, from a situation in which world, self, and society are seen to involve the immediate expression of occult powers to one in which the exercise of religious influence is seen to be more indirect and “rational.” This is the process of the “disenchantment of the world” that was described by Weber. Part of this process is the gradual differentiation of art, science, and other cultural systems as separate from religious symbolism. Furthermore, changes in the nature and position of religious symbolism effect changes in the conception of the religious actor. The more differentiated symbol systems make a greater demand on the individual for decision and commitment. To support this growing religious individualism, specifically religious group structures are required, whereas at earlier stages religion tends to be a dimension of all social groups. Finally, the capacity for religion to provide ideals and models for new lines of social development increases with the growing symbolic, individual, and social differentiation.

An adequate theory of religious evolution would have to go hand in hand with a general theory of social evolution. For example, the varying saliency of law, custom, and religion as agencies of social control in different societies, which was long ago pointed out by Montesquieu, could probably best be explicated by a general analysis of the evolution of control systems. Moreover, the contribution that a theory of religious evolution could make to a general conception of social evolution is also considerable. Such an approach would begin to indicate the ways in which changes in social structure impinge on the integration of established cultural meanings with the deeper levels of individual personalities and how shifts in that meaning-motivation balance can in turn help or hinder social differentiation.

Robert N. Bellah


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Frazer, James (1890) 1955 The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 3d ed., rev. & enl. 13 vols. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan. → An abridged edition was published in 1922 and reprinted in 1955.

Freud, Sigmund (1913) 1959 Totem and Taboo. Volume 13, pages ix-162 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan.→ First published in German. Freud, Sigmund (1921) 1955 Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Volume 18, pages 67-143 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan.→ First published in German.

Fkeud, Sigmund (1923)1961 The Ego and the Id. Volume 19, pages 12-63 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.

Freud, Sigmund (1927) 1961 The Future of an Illusion. Volume 21, pages 5-58 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.

Freud, Sigmund (1934–1938) 1964 Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays. Volume 23 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.

Geertz, Clifford 1966 Religion as a Cultural System. Pages 1-46 in Conference on New Approaches in Social Anthropology, Jesus College, Cambridge, England, 1963, Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. Edited by Michael Banton. A.S.A. Monographs, Vol. 3. London: Tavistock; New York: Praeger.

Leeuw, Gerardus Van Der (1933) 1938 Religion in Essence and Manifestation: A Study in Phenomenology. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Phanomenologie der Religion. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

Lenski, Gerhard E. (1961)1963 The Religious Factor: A Sociological Study of Religion’s Impact on Politics, Economics, and Family Life. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Lessa, William A.; and Vogt, Evon Z. (editors) (1958) 1965 Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. 2d ed. New York: Harper.

Marett, Rohert R. (1900) 1929 The Threshold of Religion. 4th ed. London: Methuen.

Mensching, Gustav 1947 Soziologie der Religion. Bonn: Rohrscheid.

Otto, Rudolph (1917) 1950 The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry Into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. 2d ed. London: Oxford Univ. Press. → First published as Das Heilige.

Parsons, Talcott (1937) 1949 The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory With Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers. Glen-coe, 111.: Free Press.

Slater, Philip E. 1966 Microcosm. New York: Wiley.

Troeltsch, Ernst (1912) 1960 The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. 2 vols. New York: Harper. → First published as Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen.

Wach, Joachim (1944) 1951 Sociology of Religion. Univ. of Chicago Press

Weber, Max (1904–1905) 1930 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons, with a foreword by R. H. Tawney. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Scribner. → First published in German. The 1930 edition has been reprinted frequently.

Weber, Max (1922) 1963 The Sociology of Religion. Boston: Beacon. → First published in German as Book 2, Chapter 4 of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.


Religion affords dramatic, insistent phenomena centrally entrenched in the intimate structures and functions of personality. These phenomena are likely to intrigue a psychologist for one of two contrasting reasons: either for their challenging uniqueness or for their vivid illustration of factors of more fundamental and general interest in psychology.

Sometimes, such phenomena as sudden conversion, mysticism, glossolalia, ritual, and intense religious commitment may seem incomprehensible in terms of readily available psychological theories and therefore may spark the development of new ones. Alternatively, they may appear to be particularly vivid instances of processes of central importance to psychology. In this case, these phenomena become a challenge in that they demand an account from those who aspire to a comprehensive theory of personality and its development and change, motivation, emotion, cognition, perception, group behavior, attitudes, values, socialization, guilt, or virtually any other theme of common psychological interest. In particular, religion poses urgent questions about the relation between affective and cognitive processes and between the individual and his social environment.

Religion appears to share with abnormal phenomena this characteristic of presenting seemingly dramatic and unique manifestations which at the same time illustrate processes of central concern to any personality psychologist.

This distinction—between the seeming uniqueness of religion and its instancing of general problems in psychology—suggests alternative strategies in the study of the psychology of religion. One strategy begins with careful attention to the phenomena and to the development of useful descriptive categories to handle them. The other strategy turns to religious phenomena only after a theory has been developed in another segment of personality and behavior. Of the pioneer systematists at the beginning of this century who turned their attention to religion, James (1902) represents the former strategy, Freud (1913; 1927; 1934–1938) the latter.

The phenomena-based strategy generally, although of course not exclusively or necessarily, has been employed by those who were personally more “sympathetic” to religion, who therefore tended to claim a greater richness or validity for their “participant” observations.

The psychology of religion has been marked by a schism between these two strategies. Descriptive, phenomena-based approaches of various kinds have made little progress toward developing genotypical categories useful for theoretical analysis. On the other hand, the “theoreticians” starting “outside” religion have made little use of the distinctions or other descriptive gains made by those interested in the phenomena.

While empirical research by either group has been limited—because practical, design, and measurement problems are formidable—the split, with regard to empirical work, is particularly wide. The theorists have apparently felt that any empirical obligation was already satisfied by demonstration— often clinical—of their theory before they applied it to religion or else by anecdotal application to instances derived from “armchair” observations or library resources. Empirical research by the phenomena-based group has tended to be limited to the most superficial data, such as church attendance or questionnaire self-report of “belief.” Questions of greatest interest and importance have not been asked.

Background and context

Beyond the general psychological fascination which religion may have, impetus for work in the psychology of religion has come from at least three sources. The first, and perhaps the major, impetus has come from practical and theoretical concerns within institutionalized religion, especially Protestantism.

For example, the field of religious education has provided prominent focus, suggesting both problems and theories. Especially among Protestants in the early decades of this century, as sudden adolescent conversion became less normative, those concerned with religious education required that more attention be paid to the processes of religious development. This was encouraged by an optimistic, “liberal” theology which anticipated (in harmony with other progressive ideologies of the time) the possibility of developing ideal Christians, with the aid of scientifically discoverable principles. More recent “existential” concerns, emphasizing the role of “experience” in Christian nurture, as distinguished from intellectual instruction, has again brought new urgency to psychological questions.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century there has also been concern, especially among Protestant and Jewish clergymen, with finding sound psychological bases for dealing, as pastors, with personal and family crises. The acceptance of “depth psychology” has coincided with the development of a less optimistic “neo-orthodox” theology which emphasizes the darker side of human existence rather than its progressive improvement.

Furthermore, the general loosening of traditional religious institutions and roles has sometimes left clergymen searching for a clearer pragmatic basis for defining, and perhaps even justifying, their role. This concern has coincided with greater institutional concern with recruiting, screening, training, and evaluating clergymen. The resulting research on the role, personality characteristics, and motivation of clergymen (Menges & Dittes 1965) has represented a new focus for the psychology of religion. [SeePsychiatry, article onthe religio-psychiatric movement.]

A second impetus, beyond the bounds of institutionalized religion, is a single frequently replicated empirical finding in social psychology: the positive correlation between indices of religion and of prejudice, authoritarianism, or other conservative attitudes. This finding has occasioned a continuing sequence of empirical and theoretical work for two decades. This has perhaps been provoked in part by the conflict in values aroused by the finding: religion is commonly regarded as a desirable value, and prejudice is not, and the official doctrines of organized religions generally repudiate prejudice.

The third impetus arises from the intrinsic connections between religion and psychology, especially clinical psychology. In many ways, religious and psychological enterprises have parallel, if not overlapping, concerns. Both call attention to, and offer conceptualizations about, human aspirations and apprehensions, about the relation of an individual to his total environment, about the processes of coping with stress, and about ameliorating the human condition. It is not surprising, then, that each should be intrigued by the prospective insights of the other.

Contemporary theologians (e.g., Roberts 1950; Tillich 1952) have systematically attempted to make theology take account of psychological formulations. Relatively little “adaption” in the other direction—exploitation of theological formulations for psychological research—has been attempted, although it would seem profitable (Hiltner & Rogers 1962). Theological formulations frequently include implicit or explicit psychological theories, including propositions about both the antecedents and the consequences of particular beliefs or other religious behavior.

Philosophical and logical distinctions

Some methodological attention must be paid to the important distinctions between religion and psychology. Psychological analysis of religion operates within certain clear and logically necessary, but not always understood, restrictions which distinguish it from other intellectual disciplines related to religion. There is sometimes a special problem in relating, or distinguishing between, the psychology of religion and both philosophy and theology.

Logically, the distinction seems clear and has been made in similar terms by writers in the psychology of religion; James devoted an eloquent chapter to the point (1902). Psychology, philosophy, and theology may all be concerned with the same phenomenon, such as a particular belief or a particular ritual, but they ask different questions about the phenomenon. Psychological analysis is concerned with the psychological development and the functions of the belief or ritual. Philosophy is concerned with the correspondence between the belief or ritual and some criterion of truth, logic, or goodness, and theology, with its correspondence with such criteria as the will of God or other given norms of faith. The answers to the psychological questions do not necessarily imply or presuppose answers to the philosophical or theological questions. Even a thorough assessment of the psychological history and functions of a particular belief carries no ordinary implications for the “truth” or “faithfulness” of the belief; these must still be ascertained by the criteria appropriate to philosophy and theology. Both “true” and “false” beliefs may develop out of a particular pattern of social influences or personal motivation. The “genetic fallacy“—the evaluation of belief or behavior in terms of an analysis of its origins—has been soundly discounted by every major writer in the psychology of religion, including Freud (1927), who carefully used the term “illusion,” when applied to religion, to refer to certain wish-fulfilling functions, not to religion’s objective validity. Freud even acknowledged that science, a preference for which he argued on other grounds, was an “illusion” in this same sense.

Yet, despite the logical distinction—well accepted in principle—between psychology, on the one hand, and philosophy and theology, on the other, there remain at least two psychologically understandable grounds for the continuing confusion and blurring —-perhaps more among the audience of the psychologist than by the psychologist himself.

One of these grounds for confusion is an unfamiliarity with, or a mistrust of, discrete disciplines of thought which claim correspondence, not with the “whole truth,” but only with an abstracted and limited segment. Most socializing and reality-orienting processes accustom persons to regard reality as unitary and therefore to expect statements about reality to be similarly unified. Discrete disciplines or systems of thought are expected to be integrated. Differing statements—for example, psychological and philosophical statements about the same belief—are perceived as mutually implicative. If mutual implications cannot be recognized, the statements are perceived as necessarily inconsistent.

The attempt to integrate different statements into a single statement or system often leads to an unwarranted syncretistic identification of terms (for example, “neurosis” and “sin” or “psychological anxiety” and “ontological anxiety“) drawn from discrete psychological and theological systems (e.g., Roberts 1950; Tillich 1952). When such integration is not easily accomplished, then the psychological and philosophical (or theological) systems are seen as antagonistic, competing for the status of the one valid approach. With respect to Copernican astronomy, geology, and biological evolution, the result of long battles is the general acknowledgment that statements about history and function and statements about meaning and truth may both be true without having to be consistently integrated. But this acceptance is not yet universally accorded to psychological analysis. The view commonly persists that a belief must be either psychologically motivated or true (e.g., Havens 1961; Outler 1954).

A second psychological basis for confusion is a persistent notion in our culture, apparently related to Greek philosophy and perhaps to America’s Puritan roots, that psychological history and motives are “unworthy” vehicles for truth. Epistemologically and theologically, it may be argued, in principle, that truth may readily arise through such psychologically discernible processes as social or motivational influences, as well as through pure reasoning; such a view would seem especially consistent with Christian notions of incarnation or Jewish emphasis on the importance of the community. But psychologically, the distinction between rational and emotional aspects of man doggedly persists in our culture and, hence, in psychologies of religion (e.g., Allport 1950; Clark 1958), with higher status accorded the rational aspects. Thus, a discipline, such as philosophy, that is concerned with intellectual processes and criteria may be accorded a superior role, to which the contributions of psychology must be accommodated [e.g., Outler 1954; see also Knowledge, Sociology of].

Phenomena-based approaches

The search within the phenomena of religion for useful descriptive and analytical categories has, ironically, been impeded by the dramatic strikingness of the phenomena. It has been found expedient to conceptualize religion largely in terms of particular phenomena: for example, conversion experience, church attendance, personal prayer, assent to a particular dogma. These phenomena are so insistent and attention to them becomes so entrenched that it becomes difficult to break away from phenomena-based ad hoc categories, into the isolation of more genotypical and psychologically relevant variables.

For example, it is possible that some conversion, some church attendance, some prayer, and some belief—but not all of such instances—may share guilt-coping obsessional characteristics. Scientific progress may be gained by the development of such a category, cutting across groups of behaviors. But such progress has been slow because of the seeming dramatic insistence of the phenomena to be studied in their own terms—just as the descriptive, diagnostic categories of abnormal psychology have only slowly yielded to more “dynamic” variables, cutting across the phenomenological descriptions.

”Religion” as a single variable

The attempt to regard all religion as an integral phenomenon or as a single variable is the most significant and awkward illustration of the persistence of culturally convenient, but scientifically dubious, categories. A society finds it convenient and possible to group a great variety of behavior and institutions within the single category of “religion.” To its own frustration, psychological inquiry has commonly followed this practice.

Argyle (1958), for example, explicitly regards religion as a single quantifiable variable, with institutional membership or attendance, devotional practice, and orthodoxy of belief used as interchangeable indices. Other measures frequently used uncritically as a single index of “religion” are the religious-interest scale of the Allport-Vernon Scale of Values, scales such as Thurstone’s for assessing attitudes toward church, God, and Sunday observances, various tests of religious information, and self-ratings of religiosity.

Most attempts to define religion as a single variable also emphasize the uniqueness of religion as compared to other psychological and cultural phenomena. Such definitions tend to identify religion with mystical characteristics and also serve to exclude, by implication, the application to religion of psychological analyses applied to other types of behavior (Airport 1950; Clark 1958; James 1902).

But the usefulness or validity of such a global, single-variable definition of religion is not easily defended against a sophisticated theoretical viewpoint. As Johnson has dramatically argued:

In the name of religion what deed has not been done? For the sake of religion men have earnestly affirmed and contradicted almost every idea and form of conduct. In the long history of religion appear chastity and sacred prostitution, feasting and fasting, intoxication and prohibition, dancing and sobriety, human sacrifice and the saving of life in orphanages and hospitals, superstition and education, poverty and wealthy endowments, prayer wheels and silent worship, gods and demons, one God and many gods, attempts to escape and to reform the world. How can such diametrical oppositions all be religious? ([1944] 1959, pp. 47-48)

Several recent factor-analytic and correlational studies have suggested a single prominent factor, but it is a factor defined almost exclusively by attitudes toward religious institutions, the visible factor by which Western culture generally identifies religion. The few studies which have used more subtle indices than attitudes toward the church, and more sophisticated samples of persons more familiar with elements of religion other than institutional affiliation, have suggested that religion be considered as reflecting a multiplicity of factors (Dittes 1967).

Furthermore, empirical studies of “religion” defined as a single variable—primarily church affiliation and participation—have not tended to produce consistent, meaningful relations with other variables (perhaps because other variables are also grossly defined, in terms of such easily accessible measures as personality variables, age, education, diagnosis of pathology). Studies using such data typically show that religious involvement is “greater” among women, among young adolescents and those past middle age, among the less educated and less intelligent (when class differences are held constant), among members of the middle class, and among those scoring higher on measures of ethnocentrism and authoritarianism.

Definitions and descriptions which attempt to embrace in a single statement the religions of diverse cultures invariably seem to lose the critical and significant characteristics of any one. The number of facets of religious phenomena increases so greatly as one crosses cultural lines that cross-cultural definition and generalization are exceedingly treacherous. One perhaps ought to be pessimistic about developing a psychology of religion in general and perhaps instead learn more from studying cultural group and individual differences.

Descriptive distinctions

Among those committed to description of phenomena, the use of typologies has represented one attempt to define somewhat less global variables. These types are characteristically taken from those established by practitioners themselves—for example, distinctions between mystic, prophet, priest (e.g., see Clark 1958, chapters 12 and 13).

James (1902) proposed the much-quoted distinction between the religion of the healthy-minded and of the sick soul—perhaps more a distinction between personality types than between religious orientations per se. The distinction appears related to the manic-depressive continuum, with one end representing the extroverted personality (”positive thinking” in Norman Vincent Peale’s terms) and the other a more depressed, introverted, openly conflicted person.

Pratt’s (1920) distinction between subjective and objective worship has persisted, perhaps more as a haunting methodological dilemma than as a genuine phenomenal distinction. Objective worship, typified by the Roman Catholic mass, refers to intention and reference beyond the worshiper; subjective worship refers to self-conscious awareness of the effects of worship on the worshiper, as typified by much Protestant worship.

These typologies have not lent themselves to easy operational definitions, nor have they found themselves as part of more elaborate theoretical statements. Users of typologies have been content with typologies per se, rather than curious about the relation of the type with other variables.

Differing beliefs suggest another variable of potential psychological significance. But when these are taken in the language and the dimensions of the practitioners, they tend to emerge along a single conservative-liberal dimension, highly correlated with general “nonreligious” conservatism-liberalism and its known determinants. Other categories suggested by research in attitudes and perception outside religion, such as suggestibility, conformity, or dogmatism, may be more useful.


Many writers have suggested the important distinction between “authentic” intensive inner religious experience, on the one hand, and routine peripheral religious activity, on the other. The distinction has been labeled internal-extrinsic by Adorno and others (1950), interiorized-institutionalized by Allport (1954), intrinsic-extrinsic by Allport (1959; Allport & Ross 1967), primary-secondary by Clark (1958), committed-consensual by Allen (1965; Allen & Spilka 1967), and religion-religiosity by many. The distinction reflects a value judgment and is analogous to one commonly made by religious participants themselves—especially by those regarded as prophets and reformers—who frequently call attention to the inverse relation between the two types of activity.

In empirical studies most measures used are of explicit, objective religiosity, usually involving participation in, or attitudes toward, the formal religious institution, its overt activities, and its official doctrines. On the other hand, most theoretical efforts, including attempts at establishing distinctions between, and categories of, phenomena, are concerned with the more intrinsic, subjective religion—the inner “spiritual” life, personal attitudes and orientations, values, loyalties, and commitments. Indeed, assuming the present distinction, a major methodological weakness of most empirical research in the psychology of religion is the use of instances of extrinsic religiosity as indices of an intrinsic religious orientation (e.g., Argyle 1958).

Factor-analytic studies (e.g., Cline & Richards 1965; Allen 1965; Allen & Spilka 1967) tend to support the distinction between the explicit institution-oriented religiosity and more personal intrinsic religion. Most attempts to provide scales or other indices for each of these two elements have foundered on the likelihood that each is not a discrete variable but, like “religion” itself, a general rubric covering many independent variables. Allen (1965) and Allport and Ross (1967) report scales of extrinsic and intrinsic religion that have some construct validity (extrinsic religion was correlated with prejudice, but intrinsic religion was not).

Psychoanalytic description

Much psychoanalytic writing is essentially descriptive. It has been a common practice among psychoanalytical writers to identify themes thought to be of psychological significance in religious material. Religious symbols, activities, and legends have provided fertile ground in which both Freudian and Jungian adherents could discover disguised symbolic “meaning.” A recent example (La Barre 1962) argues at length for the phallic symbolism of the snake in contemporary and historical cults and legends, including the Garden of Eden story. This work is classified here as largely descriptive because it focuses on the identification of a single variable rather than on the advancement of a theoretical understanding of the relation between that variable and others.

Freud’s first writing on religion (1907) called attention to several descriptive similarities between religious ritual and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. The theoretical implications of common etiology and common functions have been extrapolated from this observation by others, for example, Ostow and Scharfstein (1954) and Jones ([1923] 1964, chapter 9).

Theory-based approaches

The two major psychological theories generally used in analyzing religious phenomena are both associated with Freud, although neither was fully originated or developed by him. One theory emphasizes the psychological motive of dependence, the position of the mother, and the solicitous aspects of religion. The other theory emphasizes the psychological motive of hostility, the role of the father, and the demanding aspects of religion. Both theories reflect the fundamental hypothesis that the “religious life represents a dramatization on a cosmic plane of the emotions, fears, and longings which arose in the child’s relation to his parents” (Jones [1923] 1964, p. 195).

The general distinction between the more solicitous and more demanding modes of religion has long been noted by many observers both within and without religion. Examples are the common adage of clergymen that their aim is to “comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable” or the distinction between the creative, redemptive, justifying attributes of God—or the “saving,” healing functions of religion—and the wrathful attributes of God—or the demanding, law-abiding, sanctifying functions.

Fromm (1963) has sharply contrasted these two theoretical orientations and has attempted to invoke them sequentially, in relation to changing social conditions, to account for changing emphases in early Christian centuries. Erikson (1958) has both distinguished and blended the theories in an intensive “case study” of Martin Luther’s developing religious convictions. Bakan (1966) has proposed that religion represents the projection and management of parents’ conflicts between personal “agency” motivations—including hostility to children—and nurturant motives.

Theories based on dependence

Dependence-based theories associated with Freud’s second book on religion (1927) emphasize religion as a source of comfort, solace, or assurance in the face of external stresses and frustrations. A protective and projective parent is associated with deferred or fantasied satisfactions, especially in relation to keenly experienced frustrations. The religious response is one of submission, in imitation of such a figure as Jesus, the dutiful son.

Supporting data, beyond general reflections, are not overwhelming. Especially missing are what would be the most convincing data—correlations between evidence of significant life frustrations and submissive reliance in the framework of this particular kind of religious formulation. Some general evidence has accumulated suggesting generally “greater” religious involvement among groups such as the less intelligent and the economically deprived, who, one might infer, experience deprivation, frustration, and a sense of inadequacy. Evidence along these lines has been surveyed by Cronbach (1933), by Argyle (1958, pp. 145-154), and by Dittes (1967).

Theories based on hostility

Freud applied to religion the full range of his Oedipal theory and apparently believed that this application was confirmed by anthropological and historical materials he cited (1913; 1934–1938). Emphasis is placed on relations with a paternal god-figure and on coping with largely “inner” stresses generated by this relation, particularly hostility and rebellion. Various elements of belief and of practice are analyzed as allowing for the expression of such hostility, for its control, and for the consummating receipt of punishment and forgiveness. A prototype is the identification with a Christ-figure who assumes the role of God, yet submits to the father, is crucified, and reconciled through resurrection and ascension.

The subtle and complex variables of motivation and of religion with which this theory is concerned have so far eluded controlled empirical study.

Projection and wish fulfillment

Projection to God of attitudes toward a father are assumed by both theories. This assumption has given rise to empirical tests of various designs to discover whether there is a similarity between attitudes toward God and attitudes toward the actual father. The degree of correspondence discovered has varied widely, perhaps because the research has not carefully taken into consideration the theories’ proposal that such projection takes place under conditions of particular personal motivation.

Wish fulfillment, or perhaps more accurately, “rationalization,” is a general process postulated especially by the theories based on dependence. The degree and process by which conceptualization follows and is made consistent with motivation and practice has attracted varying formulations (e.g., Dunlap 1946). All tend to assume an independent “need to conceptualize” or a “need for consistency” among conceptualizations and between conceptualizations and behavior.

Religion and ethnocentrism

Perhaps the most effective fusion of empirical and theoretical work has developed from the repeated empirical finding of correlations between indices of religion and of conservative social attitudes—especially, because of the cultural importance given them in the mid-twentieth century, attitudes of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. This correlation was brought into sharp focus and most of the subsequent developments were given direction by the work of Adorno and others (1950).

The finding has, among other things, stimulated attention to definitional problems, cited above, especially to the distinction between religiosity, which Adorno’s measures reflected, and religion. Most theories, guided by an understanding of official religious doctrine, might expect religion to be directly related to liberal attitudes. [SeeAnti-SemitismandPrejudice.]

Beginning with data in the Adorno volume, studies have regularly reported suggestions of a curvilinear relation between ethnocentrism and frequency of church attendance, with both non-attenders and the most faithful attenders showing more liberal attitudes than occasional attenders. If the most regular attendance can be interpreted as an index of more personal internalization of religious norms, beyond perfunctory institutional loyalty, then this may be some evidence of the theoretically expected relation between intrinsic religion and liberalism. Other evidence awaits the definition and measurement of such elements of intrinsic religion as faith, hope, love, trust, freedom, etc.

Personality variables

The relationship between religion and ethnocentrism has led to theory and research aimed at designating the personality characteristics that underlie both variables and mediate the relation. Research findings suggest that a person for whom both conservative ideology and conventional, institution-based religion are functional is a person with a “weak ego” or “severe superego,” who is threatened by external circumstances or internal impulse and therefore likely to be responsive to the unambiguous external controls, structures, and supports provided either by a religious institution and its ideology, rituals, and moralisms or by the strict categorizing and self-enhancement provided by ethnocentric doctrines.

Such an interpretation of the function of religion is supported by a wide range of empirical reports of the correlation between religion (especially as measured by institutional loyalty and adherence to conservative doctrines) and lower intelligence, disrupted emotional life, suggestibility, constricted personality, and awareness of personal inadequacy (Dittes 1967). These findings, suggesting that religion may attract the relatively inadequate and helpless, may be less shocking than first supposed to the exponents of religious traditions whose highest religious celebrations commemorate a captivity or a crucifixion and who generally preach man’s fallen state and fundamental helplessness.

An extension of this general view also seems to account for a range of dramatic phenomena, such as glossolalia, sudden emotional conversion, faith healing, and trance states. Reports, though meager, of personality characteristics and of environmental characteristics associated with such participation suggest the existence of a general trancelike, regressive “ego constriction” that produces greater expression of impulses and greater responsiveness to suggestion and social influence. [SeeHypnosis; Hysteria; Persuasion; Suggestion.]

Finally, the relation between religion and ethnocentrism has stimulated further attention to defining cognitive variables and especially to making the distinction (e.g., Rokeach 1960) between the content characteristics of a belief or attitude and the content-free or structural characteristics of the style, such as the openness or the dogmatism with which it is held. This has led to the hypothesis that religion is related more to elements such as the need for closure than to the conservative elements of ethnocentrism. [SeePersonality, political, article onconservatism and radicalism; Systems analysis, article onpsychological systems.]

James E. Dittes

[Directly related are the entriesAttitudes; Ideology; Myth and symbol; Ritual. Other relevant material may be found inAnalytical psychology; Defense mechanisms; Fantasy; Obsessive-compulsive disorders; Psychoanalysis; Psychology, article onexistential psychology; and in the biographies ofFreud; James; Jung.]


Adorno, T. W. et al. 1950 The Authoritarian Personality. American Jewish Committee, Social Studies Series, No. 3. New York: Harper.

Allen, Russell O. 1965 Religion and Prejudice: An Attempt to Clarify the Patterns of Relationship. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Denver.

Allen, Russell O.; and Spilka, Bernard 1967 Committed and Consensual Religion: A Specification of Religion-Prejudice Relationships. Unpublished manuscript.

Allport, Gordon W. 1950 The Individual and His Religion: A Psychological Interpretation. New York: Macmillan.

Allport, Gordon W. 1954 The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. → An abridged paperback edition was published in 1958 by Double-day.

Allport, Gordon W. 1959 Religion and Prejudice. Crane Review 2:1-10.

Allport, Gordon W.; and Ross, J. Michael 1967 Personal Religious Orientation and Prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5:432-443.

American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education. → Published from 1904 to 1911.

Archiv für Religionspsychologie und Seelenführung. → Published from 1914 to 1915, from 1918 to 1930, and from 1962 onward.

Argyle, Michael 1958 Religious Behaviour. London: Routledge. → A compendium of social-psychological research relating religion, conceived as a single quantifiable variable, with various social and social psychological indices.

Bakan, David 1966 The Duality of Human Existence: An Essay on Psychology and Religion. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Catholic Psychological Record. → Published since 1963.

Clark, Walter H. 1958 The Psychology of Religion. New York: Macmillan. → A textbook primarily surveying early descriptive material.

Cline, Victor B.; and Richards, James M. Jr. 1965 A Factor-analytic Study of Religious Belief and Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1:569-578.

Cronbach, Abraham 1933 The Psychology of Religion. Psychological Bulletin 30:327-361. → A comprehensive survey of 361 publications of varying methodology.

Dittes, James E. 1967 The Social Psychology of Religion. Unpublished manuscript. → Projected for publication in the revised edition of Gardner Lindzey (editor), Handbook of Social Psychology.

Dunlap, Knight 1946 Religion: Its Function in Human Life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Erikson, Erik H. (1958) 1962 Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. Austen Riggs Monograph No. 4. New York: Norton.

Freud, Sigmund (1907) 1959 Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices. Volume 2, pages 25-35 in Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers. International Psycho-analytic Library, No. 10. London: Hogarth; New York: Basic Books. → First published as “Zwangshandlungen und Religionsübung.”

Freud, Sigmund (1913) 1959 Totem and Taboo. Volume 13, pages ix-162 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth. → First published in German.

Freud, Sigmund (1927) 1961 The Future of an Illusion. Volume 21, pages 5-58 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth. → First published in German.

Freud, Sigmund (1934–1938) 1964 Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays. Volume 23 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth. → First published in German.

Fromm, Erich 1963 The Dogma of Christ. Pages 3-91 in The Dogma of Christ, and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology, and Culture. New York: Holt. → Summarizes the various psychoanalytic theories of religion and applies them to changing social conditions in the early Christian centuries.

Havens, Joseph 1961 The Participant’s vs. the Observer’s Frame of Reference in the Psychological Study of Religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1:79-87.

Hiltner, Seward; and Rogers, William 1962 Research on Religion and Personality Dynamics. Religious Education 57, no. 4. → Both summarizes and evaluates a number of more recent studies; especially urges psychoanalytic and theological sophistication.

James, William (1902) 1963 The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature. Enlarged edition with appendices and introduction by Joseph Ratner. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books. → Based largely on literary records; discusses conversion, mysticism, saintliness, and other phenomena. Establishes typologies which have endured; sets a mood and a philosophic context for the psychological study of religion.

Johnson, Paul E. (1944) 1959 The Psychology of Religion. Rev. ed. New York: Abingdon. → A textbook; includes a good history of the field.

Jones, Ernest (1923) 1964 Essays in Applied Psychoanalysis. Volume 2: Essays in Folklore, Anthropology and Religion. New York: International Universities Press. → Includes 8 chapters on religion summarizing compactly the fundamental psychoanalytic views of religion, plus some intriguing excursions; more compact and less polemic than Freud’s own writings.

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. → Published since 1961.

La Barre, Weston 1962 They Shall Take Up Serpents. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Lumen Vitae Studies in Religious Psychology. → Published irregularly since 1959, by the Lumen Vitae Press in Brussels. These volumes contain empirical and theoretical studies which originally appeared in the journal Lumen vitae.

Meissner, William W. 1961 Annotated Bibliography in Religion and Psychology. New York: Academy of Religion and Mental Health.

Menges, Robert J.; and Dittes, J. E. 1965 Psychological Studies of Clergymen: Abstracts of Empirical Research. New York: Nelson.

Ostow, Mortimer; and Scharfstein, Ben-ami 1954 The Need to Believe. New York: International Universities Press. → An elementary but fairly comprehensive statement of Freudian theories of the social-controlling and guilt-reducing functions of ritual and other aspects of religion.

Outler, Albert C. 1954 Psychotherapy and the Christian Message. New York: Harper.

Pratt, James B. 1920 The Religious Consciousness: A Psychological Study. New York: Macmillan.

Review of Religious Research. → Published since 1959.

Roberts, David 1950 Psychotherapy and a Christian View of Man. New York: Scribners. → An attempt by a theologian to integrate theological and psychological conceptions.

Rokeach, Milton 1960 The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations Into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems. New York: Basic Books.

Strunk, Orlo Jr. (editor) 1959 Readings in the Psychology of Religion. Nashville: Abingdon. → A fairly comprehensive, condensed collection; emphasizes early descriptive work.

Tillich, Paul 1952 The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1959. Illustrates an explicit attempt to incorporate psychological insights into theology.

Zeitschrift für Religions-psychologie. → Published from 1907 to 1913.


views updated May 29 2018


Leo P. Ribuffo

For national leaders and specialists in the study of diplomacy alike, the notion that religion has affected United States foreign policy is familiartoo familiar. Whereas the Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop's charge in 1630 to build an inspiring "city upon the hill" came to be quoted almost routinely by presidents as different as John F. Kennedy, James Earl Carter, and Ronald Reagan to sanctify one version or another of American mission, students of diplomacy rarely go beyond citing such rhetorical conventions to explore the complicated influence of religious ideas or denominational interests.

Thus, any discussion of religion and foreign relations must begin with an appreciation of the diversity of American faiths, their development over the centuries, and the problematical nature of their connection to international affairs. Contemporary liberals who celebrate a "Judeo-Christian tradition" and contemporary conservatives who conflate all "people of faith" both homogenize American religion, past and present. Not only have people of faith differed among themselves about domestic and foreign policy issues, but they have also often done so precisely because they took their respective faiths seriously. Nonetheless, even the most devout among them were also affected, usually without any sense of contradiction, by political, economic, strategic, racial, and ethnic considerations, as well as by personal feelings about worldly success, power, and glory. Furthermore, American foreign policy decisions, especially those relating to expansion, war, and peace, have affected religious life as well as the other way around.

Nor has a high level of religious commitment been constant throughout American history. Both the intensity of belief in the aggregate and the strength of particular religious groups have waxed and waned. So have interdenominational tolerance, competition, and cooperation. Religious groups have proliferated for reasons ranging from constitutional disestablishment to theological disagreement to mass immigration. In this contextand much to the consternation of clergy committed to one orthodoxy or anotherindividual Americans have always tended to create their own syncretic belief systems.


Few of the Europeans who settled North America in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries held the contemporary liberal view that all faiths were essentially equal before God. On the contrary, divergent religious doctrines bolstered imperial rivalries. For the British subjects in North America, almost all of whom were heirs in some respect to Reformation-era Protestantism, Spain and France represented not only economic rivals and strategic threats, but also tyrannical "popery." During the French and Indian War, anti-Catholic sentiment rose and some of the colonies forbade "papists" to bear arms.

Although residents of the thirteen colonies that formed the United States in 1776 were over-whelmingly Protestant, the religious situation already showed signs of the complexity that would become an American perennial. Roughly half of the colonists were at least pro forma Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, but there were also large numbers of Baptists, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed Calvinists, Quakers, and German pietists. Differences among these Protestants may look insignificant to the contemporary secular eye, but they bulked large at a time when taxes were levied to support established churches in most of the states. In addition, the Great Awakening of the 1740s had left a legacy of division in several denominations between evangelical "new lights" and more stolid "old lights." There were also roughly 25,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews. Equally important, by several criteria the era in which the United States was formed qualifies as the least religious period in the country's history. Fewer than 20 percent of Americans were church adherents. Many of the foremost Founders, including the first four presidents, were influenced to some extent by deism and viewed God as a distant force in human affairs.

Recent religious developments influenced the first and foremost event of American foreign policy: the decision to separate from Great Britain. These also affected the shape of the revolutionary coalition, the size of the country, and the form of the new government. While dividing denominations, the Great Awakening had fostered colonial unity as men and women saved by the same itinerant evangelists hundred of miles apart felt a common bond. To the British government, the Awakening provided further evidence that the colonists needed a resident Anglican bishop to limit their religious autonomy. None was named, but even colonial deists viewed such an appointment as part of the comprehensive British "conspiracy" to strangle American freedom, religious as well as political and economic. The Quebec Act of 1774, which granted civil rights to French Catholics and all but established the Roman Catholic Church in that province, underscored the threat of "ecclesiastical slavery." Now, many American Protestants concluded, British tyranny had allied with papal absolutism. On balance, religious forces and issues speeded the momentum toward independence.

Religious factors also influenced decisions to support the Revolution, remain loyal to King George III, or try to avoid the conflict altogether. Adherents to the Church of England frequently sided with the Crown but there were many notable exceptions, including George Washington. Evangelical heirs to the Great Awakening disproportionately joined the patriot cause; Scots-Irish Presbyterians were particularly zealous. New England Congregationalists, the clearest spiritual heirs of John Winthrop, frequently framed the cause as part of a divine mission. On the other hand, the Declaration of Independence reflected Enlightenment republicanism rather than evangelical Protestantism. Jews usually favored independence. In general, however, religious minorities feared the loss of royal protection. Catholics were wary of living in an overwhelmingly Protestant republic. Yet Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, expectedcorrectly, as matters turned outthat independence would foster disestablishment. Neither Carroll's diplomacy nor military force convinced Quebec Catholics to join the United States. French Canadian bishop Jean-Olivier Briand denounced the invading "Bostonians" and threatened to withhold sacraments from Catholics who aided them.

Decisions about the war were particularly difficult for adherents to what are usually called the historic peace churches. The Society of Friends (Quakers) and the predominantly German pietistsnotably, the Mennonites, Moravians, and Dunkersare best known for their repudiation of violence. But also, instead of building ever larger cities, states, or imperial republics "upon a hill," they hoped to change the world, if at all, through a separatist moral example. During the Revolution, as in all future wars, they struggled to determine the right mix of cooperation and resistance.

Members of all of the peace churches faced some degree of ostracism, seizure of property, loss of employment, and imprisonment when they refused to pay taxes or swear allegiance to the new government. The German pietistspredominantly rural, further from the political mainstream, and generally willing to pay fines in place of military servicesuffered less than the Quakers. The Society of Friends contained some strong loyalists and was suspected of shielding many more. Other members were expelled for fighting in the Revolution; a prowar contingent seceded to form the Free Quakers. Quakers also began their practice of providing humanitarian assistance to all victims of the war

Just as religious affiliations influenced the Revolution, both the war and the ultimate victory decisively affected the religious scene. The departure of loyalist Anglican clergy left the successor Episcopal Church weakened. The alliance with France dampened fears of "popery," much to the benefit of American Catholics. The Constitution precluded religious tests for federal office and the First Amendment banned an "establishment of religion." Religious minorities, sometimes in alliance with Enlightenment deists, began a long but ultimately successful campaign for disestablishment in the states. Thus, although religious denominations would continue to influence foreign policy, they enjoyed no constitutional advantage over secular lobbies. A treaty with Tripoli in 1796 assured the Muslim ruler of that country that the government was "not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." The absence of a federal establishment prompted competition, which in turn encouraged both religious commitments and a proliferation of faiths as clergy from rival denominations competed to win adherents. Also, the grassroots egalitarianism nurtured by the Revolution provided a hospitable environment for the theologically and institutionally democratic Baptists and Methodists.

The victorious revolutionary coalition began to fall apart almost immediately. Disagreements about faith and foreign affairs shaped the development of acrimonious party politics starting in the 1790s. The Jeffersonian Republicans were religiously more diverse and tolerant than the Federalists. Looking abroad, the Republicans tilted toward revolutionary France, while the Federalists typically admired Great Britainwhich they viewed as a bastion of Christianity rather than French infidelity. During the War of 1812, Federalist Congregationalists and Presbyterians reiterated their admiration of British Protestantism and characterized impressed seamen as runaway Irish Catholics unworthy of sympathy. Baptists and Methodists denounced the autocratic Church of England and hailed the Republican President James Madison as a friend of religious liberty.

Above and beyond these controversies was the broad consensus that the United States must expand its territory, trade, and power. Expansion often received but did not require a religious rationale. Thomas Jefferson, who held the least conventional religious beliefs of any president, arranged the Louisiana Purchase, the largest single land acquisition in American history. Even Protestant clergy who viewed expansion as part of a divine plan often supplemented Scripture with economic and geopolitical arguments.

John L. O'Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, captured the dominant expansionist theme of republican mission when he famously proclaimed the "manifest destiny" of the United States in 1845. The continent was destined to be American by a nonsectarian Providence for a great experiment in freedom and self-government.

Even so, religious controversies relating to foreign policy proliferated between the 1810s and the 1850spartly because the United States was expanding its territory and international interests. Equally important, this era of manifest destiny coincided with another revival among Protestants that lasted at least through the 1830s and the first mass immigration of non-Protestants. By the 1850s the three largest religious groups were the Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics; the population also included 150,000 Jews, most of them recent immigrants from German states.

The second Great Awakening energized virtually every reform campaign of the first half of the nineteenth century. Two in particular intersected with the history of foreign policy: the creation of an organized peace movement and a systematic Protestant missionary effort.

Northern Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians provided most of the leadership and rank-and-file strength of the peace movement. In 1815, David Low Dodge, a devout Presbyterian, founded the New York Peace Society, perhaps the first such organization in the world. There were many other local stirrings in the wake of the War of 1812. In 1828 the most important among them coalesced into the American Peace Society.

Historical accounts of Protestant missionaries typically begin with the creation of the first "foreign" mission board in 1810 and then trace evangelical activities in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. This perspective has a certain plausibility, not least because many missionaries viewed the story that way. Yet it obscures the essential fact that for several generations U.S. foreign policy also occurred on the North American continent. The Africans and Asians encountered overseas were no more alien to bourgeois Protestant missionaries than were the Native Americans whom their precursors had been trying to convert since the 1600s. Moreover, mission boards sent evangelists to American Indian "nations" well into the nineteenth century. As the historian Kenneth Scott Latourette observed in The Great Century in the United States of America (1941), the conquest of the American West was a "vast colonial expansion, nonetheless significant because it was not usually regarded as such."

Missionaries played three major roles in this continental colonialism. First, their glowing descriptions of the land drew settlers westwardsometimes to disputed territory. Oregon was such a case, where the U.S. advantage in population helped secure a peaceful division with Great Britain in 1846. Second, along with Methodist circuit riders and countless local revivalists, missionaries instilled bourgeois traits useful for developing and holding the frontier. Third, they worked to christianize the Indians as part of an effort to assimilate them. In 1819 the federal government began funding churches to inculcate the "habits and arts of civilization" among Native Americans. Missionary successes in this area did not save the Native Americans from the inexorable forces of expansion. The Cherokees in the southeastern United States accepted Christianity and their leader adopted the name Elias Boudinot, after the first president of the American Bible Society. Even so, they were forcibly removed beyond the Mississippi River in the 1830s.

Overseas missions ultimately became, as the historian John K. Fairbank wrote in The Missionary Enterprise in China and America (1974), the nation's "first large-scale transnational corporations." The institutional beginnings were modest. Spurred by the awakening at Williams College and Andover Seminary, Congregationalists took the lead in 1810 in founding the (temporarily) interdenominational American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Within a decade, missionaries were sent to India, Hawaii, and the Middle East. Although diverse denominations soon created their own boards, the ABCFM remained the leading sponsor of overseas missions for the next fifty years.

The fields of activity were determined by opportunity as well as theology. The ABCFM established missions in India and Ceylon because Great Britain barred their establishment in Burma. Not only did the Holy Land have an obvious appeal, but also the Ottoman Empire permitted missionaries to work with its Christian communities (although they were quite willing to offer Protestantism to Muslims and Jews as well as Coptics, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox believers when those opportunities arose).

While rarely advocating racial equality, white religious leaders were nonetheless eager to send black missionaries to sub-Saharan Africa. According to prevailing medical theory, blacks were less susceptible than whites to tropical diseases. Whatever the motives of their (usually) white sponsors, black missionaries often felt a special calling to save Africa from paganism and Islam. In addition, thriving African Christian communities might serve as a refuge from persecution and show the world that blacks could build civilized societies.

The first missionaries concentrated on bringing individual men and women to Christ, perhaps as a prelude to his imminent Second Coming. Always few in number, they hoped to establish indigenous congregations to carry on the work. At first, too, they paid close attention to the quality of faith among aspiring converts. Missionaries and their sponsoring agencies frequently agonized over the question of how much they should modify indigenous cultures. Some evangelical Protestants thought a large measure of "civilization" necessary for Christianity to take hold. In theory, most wanted to change local ways of life as little as possible consistent with the demands of the gospel. In practice, both the prevailing definition of civilized morality and their own personal traits undermined missionary restraint. Inevitably, they fostered values esteemed by middle-class Protestants: hard work, efficiency, technological innovation, sexual propriety, and respect for "true womanhood." The missionaries were usually ignored, often opposed, and sometimes physically attacked. Even converts mixed Protestant precepts with aspects of their previous religious faiths. Missionaries learned to simplify Christianity and relax their requirements for spiritual rebirth.

PreCivil War missionaries did not see themselves as agents of American economic expansion. Frequently they set out for places where trade was negligible and unlikely to develop. They often assailed merchants for their chicanery, sale of alcohol, and promotion of prostitution. Yet Charles Denby, Jr., U.S. minister to China later in the nineteenth century, was correct to see missionaries as "pioneers of trade." Businessmen who contributed to missionary societies and provided free passage on ships agreed. In many cases missionaries were the only translators available to entrepreneurs trying to open foreign markets.

Government officials saw the missionary enterprise as a means to extend American political influence. Writing on behalf of the ABCFM to King Kamehameha of Hawaii, President John Quincy Adams declared that "a knowledge of letters and of the True Religionthe Religion of the Christian's Bible" were the only means to advance any people's happiness. Despite such endorsements, the U.S. government offered less direct help than overseas missionaries wanted.

The Middle East, which attracted the largest number of missionaries before the Civil War, provides a case in point. Commodore David Porter, the American chargé d'affaires in the Ottoman Empire from 1831 until 1843, urged Turkish officials at all levels to safeguard the missionaries, worked to establish consulates in places where they operated, and occasionally arranged visits by the navy as quiet demonstrations of American strength. At the same time, Porter repeatedly warned against offending Muslims. From the perspective of the Turkish government, missionaries were welcome as long as their activities were not disruptive. But their proselytizing inevitably offended not only Muslims, but also Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians. Disruptive responses included riots, destruction of property, and occasional murders.

The missionaries in the Middle East and their patrons at home worked diligently to influence government policy and enjoyed mixed success. Missionaries themselves received consular or diplomatic appointments in Athens, Beirut, and Constantinople. Encouraged by an ABCFM lobbyist, Secretary of State Daniel Webster wrote Porter in 1842 that missionaries should be assisted "in the same manner" as merchants. Indeed, in the Middle East they seem to have received slightly more direct assistance than businessmen. Still, government action fell short of their hopes. Warships were dispatched only to "show the flag," not to fire their cannon in retribution for attacks on missionaries, and the Turkish-American treaty of 1862 contained no provision guaranteeing the right to evangelize.

The worldwide Christian missionary campaign was confined neither to Protestants nor to Americans. From the perspective of the Vatican, the United States itself remained a mission field under the supervision of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith until 1908. While this subordinate status should not obscure the American hierarchy's quest for influence and autonomy, Catholic bishops, priests, and nuns necessarily concentrated on preservingor creatingfaith among millions of immigrants and their children. Thus, few Americans participated in the Vatican's far-flung missionary efforts. Among Protestants, the largest number of overseas missionaries came from Great Britain until roughly 1900. Friendly contacts between Protestant and Catholic missionaries were rare in the early nineteenth century. More typical was the complaint by ABCFM representatives in the Middle East that agents of popery allied with Islamic infidels to thwart their efforts. On the other hand, American Protestant missionaries not only cooperated with their British counterparts, whose efforts predated their own by at least two decades, but also sought protection from British diplomats and warships. This cooperation was both a sign of and modest contribution to the rapprochement that proceeded fitfully between the two countries.

Although no more than two thousand American missionaries had been sent abroad by 1870, their impact on indigenous cultures was occasionally extraordinary. Nowhere was their influence more apparent than in the Hawaiian Islands. When the first missionaries, from the ABCFM, arrived in 1820, Hawaii was already enduring rapidand usually destructivechange through contact with the outside world The missionaries were appalled by many Hawaiian practices, including polygamy, incest, and the "licentious" hula dance. To some Hawaiians, however, these evangelical Protestants seemed preferable to the merchants and sailors who had introduced alcohol, prostitution, and deadly diseases. The missionaries' shrewdest tactic was to cultivate Hawaiian royalty. By 1840 they had transformed the islands into a limited monarchy with a legislature, judiciary, and constitution barring laws "at variance with the Word of Lord Jehovah."

Although the ABCFM initially cited Hawaii as an example to emulate, success there was neither problem-free nor permanent. Many pro forma converts lapsed into what the missionaries considered sin. Despite zealous efforts to exclude religious rivals, advocates of Catholic and Mormon "idolatry" established footholds. Even Hawaiian Christians prayed for relief from white "mission rule." The ABCFM reprimanded its representatives for going beyond their charge to bring the gospel. Yet the political and social changes were irreversible. By the 1850s former missionaries, their children, and protégés had established themselves as Hawaii's elite.

No field offered less promise than China in the early nineteenth century. The population was indifferent. The Manchu dynasty barely tolerated missionaries (often disguised as businessmen) along with other foreign "barbarians" in an enclave near Canton. In 1858 the Reverend Samuel Wells Williams judged the Chinese "among the most craven of people, cruel and selfish as heathenism can make men." Thus, the gospel must be "backed by force if we wish them to listen to reason."

Force came primarily in the shape of the British navy. American missionaries enthusiastically backed Britain's frequent assaults and regretted only that U.S. warships rarely joined the fray. The Opium War that began in 1839 was a turning point for China and the missionaries there. With few exceptions they cheered the British victory, even though it meant continuation of an illegal narcotics trade the Chinese were trying to suppress. Perhaps, they reflected, God was using naval bombardments to open China to the gospel.

The Sino-British agreement that ended the Opium War in 1842 and established five treaty ports was the first of many "unequal treaties" that provoked Chinese resentment. In 1844 the Treaty of Wanghia granted the United States access to these ports and most-favored-nation status. The pact was largely the work of three missionaries, one of whom, Dr. Peter Parker, became U.S. commissioner in China a decade later.

The Taiping Rebellion, led by Hung Hsiuchuan, again showed that evangelism could be a catalyst for extraordinary and wholly unanticipated consequences. After living briefly in the house of a missionary, Hung baptized himself and created a religious movement combining elements of Christianity, Confucianism, his own mystical visions, and a reformist social program. In 1851 he led an uprising against the Manchu dynasty; by the time he was defeated, at least twenty million Chinese had been killed.

Although missionary influence certainly did not cause the Taiping Rebellion, and both Protestants and Catholics repudiated Hung's syncretic faith after an initial show of interest, the revolt made the Manchu court more wary than ever of Western religion. At the same time, the revolt rendered China less able to resist Western power. After further British bombardment, in a few instances aided by the U.S. Navy, China agreed in the late 1850s to new and increasingly unequal treaties with the West. Thus, unlike their colleagues in the Middle East, missionaries in China were guaranteed the right to spread the gospel.

A second Great Awakening at a time of mass non-Protestant immigration energized prejudice as well as domestic reform and missionary activity. Slurs against Jews routinely included the charge that their ancestors had crucified Christ. Nonetheless, Jews seemed less threatening than the more numerous and raucous Catholic immigrants. Neither the nativists who burned convents nor the Catholics who fought back with equal vigor were moved by the fine points of theology. Even so, well-publicized attacks on "popery" by prominent clergy hardly served the cause of tolerance. No clergyman was more prominent than Congregationalist Lyman Beecher. In A Plea for the West (1835), Beecher accused the Vatican of flooding the frontier with ignorant immigrants who were easily manipulated by priests. Unlike anti-Semitism, hostility to Catholics affected national politics. In the mid-1850s the nativist American Party, popularly called the Know-Nothings, became a powerful force in Congress.

As the population grew more diverse during the first half of the nineteenth century, so too did diplomatic personnel and political controversies involving religion and foreign policy. Starting with the Jeffersonian Republicans, Jews served as diplomatic and commercial representatives abroad, notably in Scotland and the Caribbean. The first major post went to Mordecai Noah, appointed consul at Tunis in 1813. Removing Noah two years later, Secretary of State James Monroe claimed that his Judaism had been an "obstacle" to performance of his duties. It seems doubtful that the Muslim ruler of Tunis was discomfited by Noah's religion. Indeed, Noah's appointment continued a diplomatic tradition in which Jews often served as mediators between Christians and Muslims. Responding to inquiries by Noah's political backers of various faiths, Secretary Monroe backtracked to say that his religion, "so far as related to this government," played no part in the recall. Many Jews remained unconvinced.

In 1840 the persecution of Jews in parts of the Ottoman Empire attracted widespread attention. Officials in Damascus charged Syrian Jews with killing a Catholic monk and his servant in order to use their blood in Passover services, arrested dozens of Jews, and tortured some of them to secure spurious confessions. Both the "blood libel" charge and attacks upon Jews quickly spread to other parts of the empire. French diplomats apparently encouraged the persecution in order to maximize their own country's influence. Great Britain led the international protests and the United States joined in. American diplomats were instructed to use their good offices "with discretion" to aid Jewish victims of persecution. According to Secretary of State John Forsyth's instructions, the United States was acting as a friendly power, whose institutions placed "upon the same footing, the worshipers of God of every faith."

Public meetings by Christians and Jews alike encouraged government action. Some Jewish leaders hesitated to rally behind their Eastern coreligionists; others doubted the prudence or propriety of seeking government action. Ultimately, however, the Damascus affair brought American Jews closer together and legitimated demonstrations against anti-Semitism abroad. Six years later they organized protests against the persecution of Russian Jews. During the 1850s, along with such Christian allies as Senators Henry Clay and Lewis Cass, they denounced a treaty that recognized the right of Swiss cantons to discriminate against Jews. The administration of President Millard Fillmore negotiated cosmetic changes in the agreement.

Foreign policy issues prompted animosity as well as cooperation among religious faiths. Many Protestants supported Jewish protests not only because they valued the republican principle of equal treatment of all white citizens, but also because they wanted to set a precedent for receiving equal treatment in Catholic countries. John England, the Catholic archbishop of Charleston, attended a mass meeting condemning the Ottoman persecution of Jews in 1840. Conversely, Jews and Catholics were bitterly divided over the Mortara affair in the 1850s. Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child in Bologna, Italy, was secretly baptized by a servant and then removed from his family by the church. Caught between Catholic and Jewish constituencies, President James Buchanan claimed that he could not intervene in the affairs of another state.

The Mexican War was the most controversial foreign policy event between the War of 1812 and World War I. Although sectarian religious arguments were not absent, rival interpretations of the nation's nonsectarian republican mission predominated among proponents and opponents alike. According to opponents, President James K. Polk had provoked an illegitimate war with a fellow Christian republic. According to proponents, not only did the United States need to defend itself in an undemocratic world, but also the corrupt Mexican state resembled European autocracies rather than a true republic. Therefore, an American triumph would help to purify Mexico and inspire the forces of liberty everywhere. Instead of fostering freedom, opponents countered, such a victory would increase the territory open to slavery.

In this complicated ideological context, the major denominations took no official stand on the war. The Disciples of Christ, which had just begun to emerge during the awakening, called it a crime. Presbyterian leaders showed the most enthusiasm, especially about the prospect of saving Mexico from Catholic "idolatry." Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Quakers, the strongest foes of slavery, were also the most ardent opponents of the war.

The issue of Catholic loyalty to the United States engaged American nativists, Mexican military strategists, and the Polk administration. Circulating lurid tales of seductions by Mexican nuns, nativists feared that the Catholic troops, roughly 1,100 in number, would spy for or defect to the enemy. The Mexicans hoped so. Despite their propaganda efforts, only a few Irish-American soldiers switched sides to join the Battalion of Saint Patrick.

As president and leader of the Democratic Party, which received a disproportionate share of the Catholic vote, Polk declined to make the war an anti-Catholic crusade. Emissaries to the Mexican Catholic hierarchy emphasized that their church was not endangered by the U.S. invasion. Polk asked the American bishops to recommend Catholic chaplains for the army. In addition, Moses Beach, Catholic editor of the New York Sun, served as one of Polk's numerous agents seeking to secure a peace treaty. Many American soldiers accepted the ready-made stereotype that Catholicism had corrupted the Mexican government and rendered the population docile, yet some found the priests surprisingly amiable and enjoyed the romance of billeting in monasteries.


The Civil War era affected the American religious life in important ways. What some scholars consider a third Great Awakening began in the 1850s and continued during the war itself. Indeed, the conflict looked much more like an evangelical Protestant war than had the Revolution, the War of 1812, or the Mexican War. Union and Confederate clergy called upon God to aid their respective causes, military camps hosted revival meetings, and soldiers sometimes marched into battle singing hymns. Thoughtful supporters of the Union from President Abraham Lincoln on down framed the war as a time of testing. For many northerners, victory in 1865 proved that the test had been passed and that God truly blessed America and its mission in the world.

The consequences for Catholics were mixed. On the one hand, service for the North and South brought new legitimacy; on the other hand, erstwhile Know-Nothings found a home in the Republican Party. Although Jews served disproportionately in both the Union and Confederate armies, rising evangelical fervor combined with venerable stereotypes about Jewish profiteering to provoke notable anti-Semitic incidents and accusations. Finally, except for the historic peace churches, the war decimated the organized antiwar movement as even fervent pacifists were tempted to acquiesce in violence to end slavery.

Important as these developments were, the Civil War affected the religious scene much less than the powerful trends of the following four decades. Starting in the 1880s, millions of poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants began to arrive from eastern and southern Europe. Although the population remained predominantly Protestant and the elite institutions overwhelmingly so, politics and popular culture were soon affected. For the Catholic and Jewish minorities, the problem of defining and defending their Americanness acquired fresh urgency. Moreover, the "new immigration" coincided with a rapid industrialization rivaled only by that of Germany. Both the benefits and liabilities were obvious. On the one hand, unprecedented wealth was available to a few Americans and upward mobility possible for many. On the other hand, the gap widened between the rich and poor, frequent economic busts interrupted the long-term boom, and violent social conflict escalated. Perhaps God was once again testing rather than blessing America.

Worse yet, perhaps God did not exist at allor at least His mode of governing the universe may have differed from what Christians had taken for granted since the ebbing of the Enlightenment. Amid the social turmoil, Protestants in particular faced serious intellectual challenges. The Darwinian theory of evolution undermined the Genesis account of creation. Modern science raised doubts about all biblical miracles. Less known to the praying public but especially distressing to educated clergy, archaeological discoveries and "higher criticism" of the Bible suggested that Scripture was in no simple sense the word of God.

The religious responses to this social and intellectual turmoil included insular bigotry and cosmopolitan reflection, apocalyptic foreboding and millennial optimism, intellectual adaptation and retrenchment, withdrawal from the world and expanded efforts to perfect it. The choices made by individual men and women involved anguish, ambivalence, and inconsistency. In the aggregate, their decisions transformed American religious life.

By the 1890s Protestantism was entering a fourth Great Awakening, which, like its predecessors, was marked by heightened emotions, stresses and splits within existing denominations, and the founding of new faiths. Among believers in new faiths were the followers of former Congregationalist Charles Taze Russell (known since 1931 as Jehovah's Witnesses), whose teachings required separation from a world ruled by Satan. Other spiritual searchers, convinced that God's grace brought a second blessing with such signs as the gift of speaking in tongues, formed their own Pentecostal churches. Doctrinal differences strained relations within the major denominations. Theological liberals, who often called themselves modernists, viewed the Bible as a valuable but not necessarily infallible book, emphasized Jesus's humanity and moral example, and aspired to build God's kingdom on earth. Theological conservatives, most of whom called themselves fundamentalists after World War I, championed the "inerrancy" of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, and the expectation that God's kingdom would be established only after His miraculous return. While staunch modernists and conservatives occasionally confronted each other in heresy trials, moderates from both camps usually continued to work together until World War I.

Although theological conservatives were not necessarily politically conservative, they emphasized that the church as an institution must above all else save souls. While modernists stressed the church's role in improving this world, their earthly version of God's kingdom fell far short of twenty-first-century political liberalism. Indeed, sophisticated religious ideas coexisted in the typical theological liberal's worldview with routine affirmations of laissez-faire economics. A few theological liberals preached an explicitly "social gospel" in support of workers' rights, a regulatory state, and (occasionally) moderate socialism. Yet even social gospelers were susceptible to anti Semitism, anti-Catholic nativism, and ostensibly scientific theories of "Anglo-Saxon" superiority.

By the 1880s affluent and assimilated American Jews experienced growing social discrimination. By that point, too, anti-Catholic activism was again on the rise. The American Protective Association (APA), founded in 1887, attracted 100,000 members who pledged not to hire or join strikes with Catholics. In countless tracts, efficient, fair, and democratic Anglo-Saxon Protestants were celebrated at the expense of tricky Jews, drunken Irish, sullen Poles, and impulsive Italians. Despite this emphasis on racial or cultural superiority, religious motifs were not absent from this latest form of nativism. Jewish chicanery came naturally, many Christians believed, because Jews had crucified Jesus. Ignorant Catholic peasants from eastern or southern Europe, like the Mexicans defeated in the 1840s, looked dangerously susceptible to clerical manipulation. The affirmation of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1869 and 1870, the increasingly insular papacy of Pope Leo XIII, and the Holy See's suspicion of the American Catholic Church suggested that Protestant fears were not entirely fanciful.

The behavior of Jews and Catholics was much more complicated than even tolerant Protestants supposed. On the one hand, many immigrants were rapidly acculturated and their native-born children considered themselves Americans. On the other hand, rivalry among "nationalities" within the same religious community was commonplace. Sephardic and German Reform Jews viewed Judaism as a religion akin to liberal Protestantism; for the Orthodox eastern European Jews who outnumbered them by the early twentieth century, Judaism was central to cultural identity. Catholic bishops disagreed among themselves about their religion's place in a democracy devoid of a state church but nonetheless dominated by an informal Protestant establishment. Nationalists like Cardinal James Gibbons and Archbishop John Ireland expected Catholicism to thrive in such circumstances. They warned, however, that strict Vatican control would only fuel Protestant animosity.

All of these developments not only affected the immediate relationship between faith and foreign policy, but also left a long legacy of beliefs and institutions. Most obviously, sermons, articles, and books by mainstream clergy put a religious imprimatur on postCivil War expansion. In 1885 the Reverend Josiah Strong's Our Country, the most widely read of these tracts, was published. The book itself was a mixture of nativist themes, popularized Darwinism, apocalyptic fore-boding, and millennial hope. Our Country also reflected Strong's participation in both the home and overseas mission movements. Strong believed that authoritarian religions threatened the political freedom and "pure spiritual Christianity" that Anglo-Saxons had nurtured in the United States. Echoing Lyman Beecher's earlier "plea for the West," he considered the heartland particularly vulnerable. Not only were ignorant European Catholics settling there, but the Mormon heresy was also firmly established.

If the peril was great, so were the opportunities. Despite his ethnocentrism, Strong did not consider eastern and southern European Catholics inherently inferior. If converted to Protestantism and Americanized in the public schools, these ersatz Anglo-Saxons would make the country stronger than ever. "Our country" could then fulfill its destiny. As the fittest nation in the international struggle, the United States would easily impress its institutions on the world.

Beyond tracts and sermons, the fourth Great Awakening sparked a resurgence of overseas missions, which had been suffering from a lack of recruits. In 1886 the cause struck a nerve among hundreds of young people attending a conference under the auspices of Dwight L. Moody, the fore-most evangelist of the day. The next year some of those present took the lead in founding the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM). The Reverend Arthur Pierson, a theological conservative who expected an imminent Second Coming, gave the group a millenarian motto: "The evangelization of the world in this generation." John R. Mott, a Methodist layman, became SVM executive secretary and master organizer. Mott recruited educated missionaries, built a network of supporters on college campuses, and fostered interdenominational and international cooperation. Ties to Canadian Protestants were particularly strong.

The SVM was only the most striking manifestation of growing interest. Once again, diverse religious groups founded mission boards, auxiliary societies, and umbrella organizations. Between 1890 and 1915 the number of overseas missionaries rose from roughly one thousand to nine thousand. This was the largest group of Americans living abroad on a long-term basis. By 1920 Americans and Canadians together made up half of the Protestant missionary force worldwide. Equally important, the campaign to "evangelize the world" became a vivid presence in thousands of congregations. Many Americans first learned something about life in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East, however ethnocentric the perspective, from a returned missionary's Sunday sermon.

The expanding movement reflected general social and cultural trends. Appropriating the military analogies that abounded for two generations after the Civil War, missionaries framed their task as a religious "war of conquest." In an era of scientific racial theories, legal segregation, and disfranchisement of African Americans, denominations led by whites ceased sending black missionaries to Africa. As middle-class women sought to bring the benefits of "social housekeeping" to a corrupt and sinful world, some found careersas well as adventure and fulfillmentin missionary work. By 1890, 60 percent of overseas missionaries were women. Confined to working within their own gender, they focused on such "female" issues as seeking to end the crippling binding of women's feet in China.

The expanding movement also reflected prevailing religious animosities. Isolated Westerners in alien lands, American Protestant and European Catholic missionaries now occasionally fell into ad hoc cooperation during medical or military emergencies, but suspicion continued to characterize their relations in calmer times. The international missionary war of conquest led to increased cooperation among Protestants in other areas. At the same time, the doctrinal differences spreading within most major denominations produced disputes about what exactly overseas missionaries were supposed to do. Theological liberals, especially those with a social gospel bent, emphasized the improvement of living standards both as an ethical imperative and an effective evangelical strategy. According to theological conservatives, preaching of the unadorned gospel was both a Christian duty and a better way to attract sincere converts. Ironically, the cosmopolitan modernists usually sanctioned greater intrusion on indigenous ways of life. A few of them, however, edged toward the position long held by Quakers and Unitarians that no people should be evangelized into surrendering their historic religion.

Indigenous peoples were not passive recipients of the missionary message. In many cases, missionary activity responded to local demands for medical care and education. As early as 1885, eight colleges had been founded in the Ottoman Empire; by the 1910s a majority of missionaries in China were no longer involved in directly spreading the gospel. Moreover, Western learning was sometimes seen as a way to resist further Western encroachments.

As was the case before the Civil War, missionaries sometimes significantly influenced the countries in which they served. A few did so by switching from religious to diplomatic careers. No one followed this path with greater success than Horace N. Allen, who arrived in Korea as a Presbyterian medical missionary in 1884. After tending to a wounded prince, Allen became the royal family's favorite physician and began giving a wide range of advice to the king and queen. After representing Korean interests in the United States, Allen served as secretary to the American legation and then as minister to Seoul from 1897 until 1905. Often evading State Department instructions against meddling in Korean affairs, he secured mining and lumbering concessions for American investors as well as contracts to install trolley, electric, and telephone lines. And while warning missionaries against offending Koreans' sensibilities, Allen used his influence at court to protect them.

Allen's career underscores a major development in late-nineteenth-century foreign policy: an intensified interest in Asia by merchants and missionaries alike. Indeed, religious leaders now frequently stressed the confluence of conversion and capitalism. Lecturing on the "Christian Conquest of Asia" at Union Theological Seminary in 1898, the Reverend J. H. Barrows, president of Oberlin College, envisioned the Pacific Ocean as the "chief highway of the world's commerce." By the 1890s missionaries in the Far East outnumbered those sent to the Middle East for the first time.

The convergence of evangelism, commerce, and politics should be no surprise. Much as merchants sought foreign markets to relieve economic stagnation, and as political leaders thought expansionism an antidote to real class conflict or alleged cultural decline, Protestants looked overseas to solve their particular domestic problems. Indeed, well-publicized missionary campaigns did reinvigorate the churches at home.

Symbolic of an era marked by strong religious hopes, fears, and tensions, the two major political parties in 1896 nominated the most devout pair of presidential candidates in American history: Methodist Republican William McKinley and Presbyterian Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Two years later, McKinley, the winning nominee, ushered in a new phase of "manifest destiny" (a term then still in common use) when he reluctantly led the United States to war against Spain.

As the United States moved toward war, religious leaders followed the general trajectory of opinion with two notable variations. They worried less than businessmen about the domestic side effects and kept a watchful eye on the interests of their respective creeds. Even after the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor, most urged caution, though some Protestant editors could not resist openly coveting Spanish colonies as mission fields. Catholics felt special misgivings because Pope Leo XIII was actively seeking a peaceful settlement. The church hierarchy and press found Protestants altogether too bloodthirsty. Despite his devout Methodism and opportunistic flirtation with the American Protective Association, McKinley was no more eager than Polk had been to start an anti-Catholic crusade. He made at least a show of pursuing papal mediation. Archbishop Ireland, McKinley's emissary to the Vatican, believed that patient diplomacy could have preserved the peace. Pressed by Republican hawks, however, the president decided on war in April 1898 and told Conegress that intervention in Cuba was the duty of a "Christian, peace loving people."

Clergy and laymen outside of the peace churches joined in the patriotic surge. As had been the case with Mexico five decades earlier, Protestants frequently framed the war as a symbolic battle against the Spanish Inquisition and a few warned of treacherous Catholic soldiers. Catholics once again rallied to the flag, urged on by bishops who kept doubts to themselves. In the end, many citizens joined McKinley in viewing the quick victory with few casualties as a gift from God.

Nationalists in the Catholic hierarchy thought they saw a silver lining in the war clouds: now that the United States had clearly emerged as a world power, the American church would have to be respected by the Vatican and allowed to adapt to its special situation. The reaction in Rome was just the opposite. The U.S. military victory provided an additional reason, if any were necessary, for the Vatican to curb these bishops before their tolerance of democracy and religious pluralism spread to Europe. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII condemned an incipient "Americanist" heresy that challenged Vatican authority. Although the Pope did not explicitly accuse any churchmen of "Americanism," his encyclical signaled a turn toward tighter control over Catholic institutions and intellectual life in the United States.

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the major Protestant denominations supported the wartime annexation of Hawaii and acquisition of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines via the peace treaty. Except among white southerners, qualms about ruling nonwhites deemed unfit for citizenship were generally overshadowed by a sense of missionary duty. Congregationalists and Presbyterians expressed the fewest reservations; Methodists tended to trust their coreligionist in the White House on this issue.

Religious adversaries quickly exported their conflicts to the Philippines, the most Christian land in Asia. While Protestants viewed the over-whelmingly Catholic population as potential converts, Catholic editors asked with sarcasm if they planned to replicate the Hawaiian pattern of bringing disease and disruption. Catholics credited priests with protecting the indigenous population; Protestants portrayed "greedy friars" clinging to their estates. This controversy subsided after the McKinley administration negotiated with the Vatican to purchase the land. Another followed when the superintendent of the new public school system hesitated to hire Catholics. On other fronts, Protestants assailed the army for distributing liquor, sanctioning prostitution, and acquiescing in polygamy among the Muslim minority.

These struggles for religious influence paled beside the squalid little war to defeat the Filipinos seeking independence. Yet only a handful of prominent clergy joined the antiwar movement. The Reverend Leighton Parks, a noted Episcopalian, repeatedly denounced atrocities committed by the American military. Although the Catholic hierarchy sought primarily to evade this controversy lest its church appear unpatriotic, Bishop John Spalding broke ranks to address an antiwar meeting. Protestant expansionists considered suppression of the insurrection a necessary evil on the way to spreading Christian civilization to Asia. The Philippines looked like an ideal base for capturing the great China market in souls.

During the late nineteenth century Christian missionaries, including the substantial American contingent, became the largest group of foreigners in China. Increasingly, too, they were subject to attack as flesh-and-blood symbols of Western intrusion. In 1900 the secret society of Boxers rose up to kill hundreds of missionaries and thousands of Chinese converts. An attack on the legation compound in Peking followed. A combined Western and Japanese military expedition marched to the rescue, engaging in murder, rape, and looting en route. A few missionaries joined in the looting; most at a minimum justified the brutality with the familiar contention that the Chinese only understood force.

The use or threat of force became commonplace during the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Indeed, both presidents illustrate that the American pursuit of world power required no evangelical Protestant motivation. Roosevelt was a pro forma member of the Dutch Reformed Church who may have doubted the existence of God and an afterlife. Yet no president sounded more fervent calls to enforce "righteousness." His endorsement of overseas missionaries was grounded in what he considered practicality. For example, he believed, mistakenly, that missionaries brought stability to China. Taft's Unitarian rejection of the Trinity elicited criticism from grassroots theological conservatives, but he felt none of his denomination's doubts about forcing American ways on others.

Taft's administration was marked by one of the most successful instances of religious activism in the history of American foreign relations: the campaign by Jews and their gentile allies to abrogate a Russian-American trade agreement that had been on the books since 1832. The State Department often investigated and sometimes politely complained about the anti-Semitic acts that increased abroad in the late nineteenth century. The motives behind these diplomatic initiatives were mixed: humanitarian concern; protection of American citizens; responsiveness to Jewish voters; and fears that victims of persecution would immigrate to the United States. The results were mixed, too. Benjamin Peixotto, a Jewish consul appointed to Bucharest in the 1870s, negotiated a temporary remission in Romanian anti-Semitism. The Russian situation grew steadily worse. In 1903 a pogrom in Kishinev left dozens of Jews dead while police stood aside. Similar outbreaks followed elsewhere. Still, the Russian government blandly rebuffed Roosevelt administration inquiries and refused to receive a petition of protest forwarded by Secretary of State John Hay. Nor would Russia guarantee the safety of visiting American Jews.

After discrete lobbying failed to secure action by Taft to revise or abrogate the commercial treaty, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) led an effective public mobilization. As had been the case with the Damascus blood libel persecution in 1840, anti-Semitism abroad inspired cooperation among American Jews, who were now more diverse in national background than ever before. The AJC stressed the "sacred American principle of freedom of religion." Amid widespread hostility to czarist autocracy, thousands of gentiles in civic organizations, state legislatures, and Congress joined the call for abrogation. In December 1912 the Taft administration informed the Russians that the treaty would be allowed to expire the next year.

During the two decades before World War I, religious leaders helped to build a new peace movementa peace movement adapted to an era in which the United States assumed the right to enforce righteousness. Almost all participants in the proliferating peace groups shunned pacifism, a term just coming into general use, often as a slur; many celebrated American and Christian expansion as the best ways to assure global amity in the long run. They typically emphasized prevention of war between "civilized" countries through arbitration and international law. Although a handful of noted Catholics and Jews joined secular peace societies, the religious wing of the movement was overwhelmingly Protestant and disproportionately modernist. For instance, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (FCCCA), formed in 1908 by thirty-three liberal-leaning denominations, sponsored both the Commission on Peace and Arbitration and the Church Peace Union.

The notion that religion influenced the actions of President Woodrow Wilson and his first secretary of state, fellow Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan, is familiar to students of American diplomacytoo familiar. Standard accounts stress their respective religious styles, often in caricature, at the expense of substance. In fact, their lives illustrate the divergent responses to the Protestant intellectual crisis of their time. Equally important, their disagreement about World War I underscores the peril of tracing an unambiguous American conception of mission from John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" to the early twentieth century and beyond.

Both Wilson and Bryan felt some religious skepticism during their college years. Wilson's father, a modernist Presbyterian minister, urged him to cease worrying about doctrine and simply love Jesus. Thereafter, Wilson lived comfortably as a religious liberal, sometimes poking fun at orthodox assaults on Darwinism and at visions of hellfire. Along with other liberal Protestants, he saw the world improving under the amorphous guidance of "Divine Providence." With few exceptionsnotably, his own election as presidenthe rarely credited God with direct intervention. As the "people's book of revelation," the Bible inspired human action to achieve high personal and social standards but contained little practical advice. Among the actors Wilson lauded were "my missionaries." Unlike Roosevelt, he sensed their role as agents of change rather than stability. China, a republic after the revolution of 1911, had been "cried awake by the voice of Christ," Wilson said.

Although Bryan followed the theologically conservative path, he was initially undogmatic on many doctrinal issues. For example, he corresponded with Leo Tolstoy, whose heterodox Christianity he thought compatible with his own conception of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Like many of his fellow citizens, Bryan was torn between peace and world power. As secretary of state he both negotiated "cooling-off" treaties with two dozen countries and supported military intervention in the Mexican Revolution. Bryan resigned in 1915 because he considered Wilson's strictures on German submarine warfare a lapse from neutrality. Yet Bryan went beyond the secular crisis at hand to affirm a restrained sense of American mission at least as old as the president's internationalist activism. Rather than descending into European-style power politics, the United States should "implant hope in the breast of humanity and substitute higher ideals for the ideals which have led nations into armed conflict."

After Congress declared war in 1917, religious leaders supported the cause at least as strongly as did other elites. With customary flamboyance, conservative evangelist Billy Sunday declared that Christian pacifists should be left to the lynch mob and the coroner. Although usually less blunt, liberal Protestants maintained that German militarism must be destroyed as a prerequisite for international peace. With customary prudence the Catholic hierarchy stepped carefully from neutrality to "preparedness" to patriotic cooperation. Cardinal Gibbons dutifully forwarded Pope Benedict XV's peace proposals to the White House, fended off plausible allegations of a papal tilt toward the Central Powers, and headed an interfaith League for National Unity. All of the major denominations mobilized to offer religious and social services to their men in uniform. Churches and synagogues conducted war bond drives and disseminated propaganda for the Committee on Public Information. Few discouraged the zealous rhetoric that sometimes did lead to the lynch mob and the coroner.

Grassroots skepticism was greater than might be inferred from the behavior of mainstream clergy and congregations. Pentecostals, still on the fringe of theologically conservative Protestantism, were especially unenthusiastic. Roughly 65,000 draftees claimed conscientious objector status; overwhelmingly, these men came from the peace churches. In the Selective Service System and in the courts, Jehovah's Witnesses fared worse than the less strident and more familiar Quakers and Mennonites.


Missionaries, representatives of the Federal Council of Churches, and delegates from the newly formed American Jewish Congress converged on the Versailles peace conference in 1919. Like their secular counterparts, religious interest groups discovered that a humane international order was more easily promised than attained. The fate of Armenians in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire provided a brutal case in point. Protestant missionaries had tried unsuccessfully in 1894 and 1895 to secure Western military action to halt Turkish pogroms. They pressed their case again after the Ottoman government orchestrated the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during World War I. Wilson rejected armed intervention but would accept Armenia as a U.S. mandate under the League of Nations mandate. Congress quickly dismissed this proposal.

No event associated with religion during World War I proved more consequential for U.S. foreign policy than the British promise in the Balfour Declaration to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The question divided Zionists and non-Zionists within Judaism. Reform Jews in particular thought a full-fledged state might prejudice their status as U.S. citizens. Protestant missionaries were adamantly opposed because they expected a hostile Arab reaction that would, in turn, disrupt their own efforts. According to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Christians would resent control of the Holy Land by the "race credited with the death of Christ." Nonetheless, Wilson gave early and repeated support to the Zionist cause.

Ultimately, World War I changed American religion much more than religious beliefs or activities affected the conduct of the war or the shape of the peace. There were noteworthy organizational consequences. The Federal Council of Churches asserted itself as the premier voice of the de facto Protestant establishment. More convinced than ever of human sinfulness and Jesus's imminent return, theological conservatives founded the World's Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA) in 1917. The National Catholic War Council, renamed the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC), remained in operation after the armistice. So did the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which had been a haven for conscientious objectors and pacifist social gospelers.

Even more important, the emotional charge of the war and its offspring, the Red Scare of 1919 and 1920, fueled religious anxieties and animosities. The main clashes involved domestic issues, especially Prohibition, looser sexual mores, and the possibility of a Catholic president. Yet several domestic developments intersected with foreign policy. In 1924 the prevailing nativist zeitgeist eased passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, which sharply curtailed immigration. Amid a nationwide surge of anti-Semitism, the Foreign Service joined other elite institutions in rejecting Jewish applicants on the basis of their religion.

Except for strongly separatist sects, clergy and churchgoers still paid attention at least to some portion of the outside world. Although bitterly disappointed by the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles, liberal Protestants persisted in urging American affiliation with the League of Nations. A handful of social gospelers expressed cautious interest in the "Soviet experiment." Catholic clergy used their pulpits to denounce Mexican anticlericalism as well as atheistic communism. Influenced by a form of Bible prophecy called premillennial dispensationalism, fundamentalists became avid if unconventional students of foreign affairs. They found in Zionism fulfillment of the prophecy that the Jews would regather in the Holy Land shortly before Jesus's return and speculated that the Antichrist might be on earth already in the person of Benito Mussolini.

The evident decline of the Protestant missionary movement during the 1920s looks in retrospect like a pause and an adaptation to domestic and international trends. Few now thought that the world could be converted within a generation and some doubted the right to convert anybody. A Chinese student movement directed specifically against Christianity left many missionaries disheartened; others responded to rising Chinese nationalism by urging renegotiation of the "unequal treaties" granting special privileges to westerners. The modernist philosopher William Ernest Hocking, head of a layman's inquiry into missions that was completed in 1932, recommended against attacking "non-Christian systems" of thought. Theological conservatives in the major Protestant denominations felt no such qualms. Nor did Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, all of whom hoped to save at least some portion of humanity. Moreover, in 1912 the American Catholic Church finally authorized an overseas mission society, popularly known as the Maryknolls.

Thus, in religion as in commerce, the United States was not isolated from the rest of the world during the interwar era. What is usually misconstrued as isolationism is the pervasive belief that the United States must keep out of any future European war. This sentiment needed little encouragement to flourish, but no group encouraged it more actively than the Protestant clergy. Of 19,372 ministers polled by a pacifist magazine in 1931, 12,076 said they would never sanction a war. Few of these ministers were absolute pacifists themselves. Rather, most were making symbolic amends for their martial ardor in 1917 and 1918.

The coalition Franklin D. Roosevelt created during his presidency was as complex in its religious dimensions as in its explicitly political aspectsand foreign policy was central to the complications. Roosevelt himself was an Episcopalian with an uncomplicated faith in God and a genuine commitment to religious tolerance. His supporters included a large majority of Catholics and Jews, southern theological conservatives still loyal to the Democrats as the party of segregation, and a small but vocal minority of Protestant modernists attracted to the Soviet Union and the Popular Front. Opponents included a distinctive religious right. These Protestant and Catholic theological conservatives viewed the Roosevelt administration as a subversive conspiracy and some of them considered it the American arm of an international Jewish plot.

Roosevelt's strongly anticommunist Catholic constituency required constant attention. The hierarchy and press in particular opposed the president's recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933. The Good Neighbor Policy appealed as an entrée for the American church in Latin America, but complications soon arose. The administration seemed too neighborly to the Mexican revolutionary government, whose anticlericalism sometimes turned into outright persecution. Moved by ten thousand letters, a probable congressional investigation, and the approaching 1936 election, Roosevelt quietly urged Mexico to curb its anti-Catholicism.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Americans overwhelmingly favored neutrality and legislation banning arms sales to either side. The Catholic clergy pointedly preferred a victory by the insurgent general, Francisco Franco, despite his alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Lay opinion was less monolithic. According to a Gallup poll in 1938, 42 percent of Catholics sided with the Spanish republic. Nonetheless, wariness of Catholic political power reinforced Roosevelt's decision in 1938 not to seek an end to the arms embargo, an action that would have benefited the loyalists. Meanwhile, liberal Protestants criticized Catholic priests for tilting toward Franco and far right fundamentalists discerned hitherto unobserved merit in the Roman church. Similarly, religious appeals, loyalties, and animosities affected the tone of the debate about American participation in World War II. In urging aid to the Allies in the 19391941 period, Roosevelt saidand perhaps half believedthat Germany planned to abolish all religions and create an international Nazi church. Even clergy, however, typically framed the argument in terms of geopolitics and general morality rather than religious ideas or interests. Protestant ministers who had recently vowed to stay aloof from any European war now endorsed administration policies that undermined neutrality. Nor was there a clear correlation between theology and foreign policy positions. For instance, the anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin, numerous far right fundamentalists, and the social gospelers at Christian Century magazine all chastised Roosevelt as he moved from efforts to repeal neutrality legislation in 1939 to undeclared naval warfare against German submarines in late 1941. After Pearl Harbor, the major denominations rallied to the flag. They did so with fewer rhetorical excesses than during 1917 and 1918, however, and some prominent mainstream Protestants remained pacifists.

As had been the case with the Spanish-American War and World War I, Catholics trod a distinctive path to the same patriotic destination. They feared from the outset that the European war would promote communist expansion; most also initially rejected aid to the Soviets after Germany invaded in June 1941. Here, too, clergy were less flexible than their parishioners. Responding with varying degrees of finesse, Roosevelt urged Joseph Stalin to ease restrictions on religion, professed to see signs of religious freedom in the Soviet Union, and tried to convince Pope Pius XII to soften his strictures against communism. Some bishops came around to the position that the Soviet people, as opposed to the regime, deserved help in their resistance to nazism. In striking contrast to the prudence of the World War I years, the hierarchy displayed its divisions in public. One bishop spoke under the auspices of the noninterventionist America First Committee, another joined the interventionist Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, and several sniped incessantly at the president.

In December 1939, Roosevelt named Myron Taylor, an Episcopalian, as his personal representative to the Vatican. Roosevelt hoped simultaneously to court Catholic voters, establish a listening post in Rome, and influence papal pronouncements on the war. Taylor's mission had no significant impact on the pope but did revealand probably exacerbateddomestic religious tensions. Only a few Protestant leaders managed to express grudging acquiescence. On the whole, Roosevelt was accused of religious favoritism and chided for violating the First Amendment; theological conservatives discerned a capitulation to satanic popery.

No foreign policy question associated with religion has elicited greater controversy than whether or not more European Jews could have been saved from the Holocaust. American Jews denounced Adolf Hitler's regime from 1933 onward. Once again they found gentile alliesbut not enough of them. The level of American anti Semitism reached a peak during the interwar years. Limits on immigration were strictly enforced, often at the behest of anti-Semites in the State Department and the foreign service. Reports that the Nazis had begun to exterminate European Jewry were readily available by late 1942. The president was urged to bomb the death camps, announce plans to punish genocide, and extricate Jews from such inconstant Axis satellites as Romania and Bulgaria. The latter two tactics showed the most promise. Nonetheless, Roosevelt took no effective action until he created the War Refugee Board in January 1944. In short, even after the United States entered the war, greater effort could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.


World War II catalyzed the revival evangelical Christians had been praying for since the 1920s. Like its four predecessors, this fifth Great Awakening reshaped religious life in unanticipated ways and influenced the relationship between faith and foreign affairs. Three aspects of the revival stand out. First, while modernist churches stagnated, theologically conservative Protestantism flourished, with Billy Graham leading one branch of the movement from fundamentalism toward a less separatist and less strident "evangelicalism." Second, Catholics grew more assertive and (especially after the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965) more cosmopolitan. Third, the bulk of the awakening coincided with the Cold War, which officials from the White House on down described as a spiritual battle against "godless communism."

The relationship between Cold War faith and foreign policy is often misconstrued in ways comparable to clichés about the Wilson era. Once again, standard accounts render the religious beliefs of policymakers in caricature and postulate an unambiguous sense of mission from John Winthrop to John Foster Dulles. Despite his image as a Puritan avenger, Dulles himself was a theologically liberal Presbyterian who began in the 1930s to use the Federal Council of Churches as a convenient forum for publicizing his foreign policy prescriptions. Insofar as he became a dogmatic cold warrior by the time he was named secretary of state in 1953, Dulles was moved by Republican partisanship rather than religious doctrine.

Unlike Dulles, Reinhold Niebuhr applied serious religious ideas to foreign policy. Yet Niebuhr's image as the premier theologian of the Cold War needs refinement. In Niebuhr's view, because human beings are fallible and sinful (at least in a metaphorical sense), even their best actions fall short of altruism and yield ironic results. This "neo-orthodox" worldview is consistent with any number of conflicting positions on foreign policy. Indeed, without changing his theology, Niebuhr had moved from the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation to the interventionist Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. In The Irony of American History (1952), he sounded more reflective than the typical Cold War ideologist. Applying neo-orthodox premises, he warned the United States against international arrogance and described communism and American capitalism as arising from the same "ethos" of egotism. Niebuhr was less dispassionate in dayto-day polemics against those whose skepticism about the Cold War exceeded his own. Moreover, valued for his intellectual reputation rather than his ideas, Niebuhr had no discernible impact while serving as a State Department consultant.

Religious interest groups, rather than serious religious ideas, did affect foreign policy. Yet here, too, we must beware of exaggerating their influence or their uniformity. For instance, while many in the missionary movement lobbied on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek during the Chinese civil war, others initially hoped to arrange a modus vivendi with the communists. Although a remarkable mobilization by American Jews nudged President Harry S. Truman toward quick recognition of Israel in 1948, prominent Reform Jews organized the American Council for Judaism to lobby against a full-fledged Jewish state.

The Catholic role in the Cold War especially needs to be extricated from folklore. Certainly priests, nuns, and lay leaders mobilized against international communism, particularly after Soviet satellites suppressed Catholicism in Eastern Europe. Yet, following a long tradition, non-Catholics overstated the church's power and understated the autonomy of its adherents. When Catholics joined in urging Italians to vote against communism in 1948, they were advancing Truman administration policy rather than vice versa. And contrary to legend, Cardinal Francis Spellman was not responsible for Ngo Dinh Diem's appointment as prime minister of the Republic of Vietnam.

On balance, international events between Pearl Harbor and the mid-1960s fostered increased tolerance as well as surface religious consensus. Partly as a reaction against Nazi genocide, anti-Semitism began a steady decline in the late 1940s. Ubiquitous invocations of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" not only legitimated Judaism, but also minimized differences within Christianity. Nonetheless, division and animosity persisted beneath the rhetorical conventions. The National Council of Churches, which superseded the Federal Council in 1950, appeared to be the authoritative voice of Protestantism, yet its leaders barely noticed the extraordinary revival among theological conservatives.

The tension between Catholics and Protestants was harder to ignore. Most clashes concerned such domestic questions as birth control and federal aid to education, but foreign policy was involved too. Yielding to Protestant complaints, Truman in 1951 abandoned his attempt to establish formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the country's best-known Catholic politician during the early 1950s, provoked even greater controversy. Although their attitudes ranged from pride to disgust, Catholics disproportionately considered McCarthy an admirable anticommunist. His zeal furthered the rapprochement between the Catholic and Protestant political right begun during the 1930s. Conversely, prominent liberal Protestants considered McCarthy the latest personification of Catholic authoritarianism; some chided the church for failing to condemn him. Ironically, such attacks reinforced defensiveness among Catholics struggling to break out of their insularity. In 1960, John F. Kennedy proved that a cosmopolitan Catholic could be elected president. Equally important to his victory, however, Kennedy combined secular urbanity with wartime heroism and public commitment to winning the Cold War.

The next two decades revealed both the fragility of Cold War orthodoxy and the superficiality of the domestic religious consensus. Indeed, the collapse of the former during the Vietnam War hastened the deterioration of the latter. American escalation in 1965 not only reinvigorated the pacifist remnant that had survived World War II; in addition, between 1965 and 1970 roughly 170,000 draft registrants applied for conscientious objector status. In contrast to the Korean "police action," mainstream religious figures opposed the war. In 1966 prominent liberal Protestants and Jews took the lead in founding Clergy and Layman Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV), a nondenominational coalition whose arguments against escalation usually echoed those of secular doves. Members ranged from chastened cold warrior Reinhold Niebuhr to African-American social gospeler Martin Luther King, Jr. Ultimately, the Vietnam conflict widened the split between Protestant theological liberals and conservatives. Most evangelicals and fundamentalists either stood aloof from this worldly issue or supported American policy.

For the first time, numerous Catholics remained part of a peace movement after the United States entered a war. Indeed, the radical priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan became vivid symbols of nonviolent resistance for doves and hawks of all faiths. In 1968, when Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy sought the Democratic presidential nomination as antiwar candidates, only strict fundamentalists worried about their Catholicism. In 1971 the bishops reversed their earlier endorsement of the war to advocate a "speedy" peace.

The Catholic left remained active following the war. By 1970 roughly half of all American Catholic missionaries served in Latin America, where many joined local clergy in opposing brutal dictatorships. Some of these priests and nunsalong with a few bishopsbecame proponents of "liberation theology," whose advocates adapted Marxist analysis and urged the church to champion the Third World poor.

Clearly, many Catholic liberals now felt sufficiently secure to risk accusations of disloyalty. Yet ironies abounded. These allegations often came from within their own church. Reversing the historical pattern, working-class Catholics pushed rightward by the turmoil of the 1960s often thought their priests too liberal. Liberals themselves came face to face with questions that had perplexed Protestants earlier in the centuryfor example, whether anyone should be converted from an ancestral religion. Finally, Catholics looked increasingly American to the rest of the country because they, too, were obviously divided among themselves.

In 1976 the two major political parties nominated the most devout pair of presidential candidates since McKinley and Bryan. Both Episcopalian Gerald Ford and Baptist Jimmy Carter considered themselves "born again" Christians. A competent lay theologian, Carter stands out as the only modern president whose foreign policy was affected by serious religious ideas. Simply put, he took to heart Niebuhr's warning against national egotism. Thus, within limits set by prevailing Cold War assumptions, Carter was distinctive in his calls for national humility, wariness of military intervention, and respect for poor and nonwhite countries. For a growing number of his constituents, stunned by the lost Vietnam War and wary of Soviet exploitation of détente, humility seemed a source of the country's diplomatic problems.

Many of Carter's harshest critics were moved by religious concerns. After helping him defeat Ford, evangelical voters discovered that Carter was theologically, culturally, and politically more liberal than they had thought. By 1979 clergy were organizing a militant minority of theological conservatives into a "new Christian right." Interested primarily in domestic issues, they routinely adopted the foreign policy prescriptions of staunch Republican cold warriors, with one important twist: the strong belief that Israel deserved special protection because it fulfilled the Biblical prophecy that Jews would regather in the Holy Land on the eve of Jesus's return. This philo-Semitic interpretation of Scripture was one aspect of the new Christian right that actually was new.

A Jewish political right began to form at roughly the same time, with deep concerns about foreign policy. As early as 1967, some Jews had begun to reconsider their political alliances when Protestant and Catholic liberals sharply criticized Israel's attack on Egypt. Then, Soviet limits on the emigration of Jews seemed to illustrate the failure of détente. Despite initial misgivings, Jewish groups rallied behind the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which in 1974 denied most-favored-nation trade status to communist countries restricting emigration. Carter not only continued détente, but also pushed Israel harder than Egypt during the peace negotiations of 1978 and 1979. By that point, prominent Jewish intellectuals were helping to formulate an influential "neoconservative" critique of détente in general and Carter's diplomacy in particular. Losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter received only 45 percent of the Jewish vote.

Reagan never wavered in his conviction that God blessed America. Nor did he doubt the nation's missionor his ownto end the Cold War by bringing down the Soviet "evil empire." A Protestant with a Catholic father and eclectic religious interests, he was well suited to manage a religious coalition as complex as Franklin Roosevelt's. In addition to moderate Protestants, the Republican base since the 1850s, his backers included Jewish neoconservatives as well as evangelicals and fundamentalists on the right. Furthermore, Reagan was the first Republican to win the Catholic vote twice.

Despite Reagan's frequent denunciations of communist evil before evangelical audiences, Catholics played a larger role in his Cold War diplomacy. No Catholic was more important in this respect than Pope John Paul II. The pope and the president coordinated efforts to weaken communism in Eastern Europe; their tactics ranged from public denunciations to covert Central Intelligence Agency funding of the anticommunist underground via the Vatican. When Reagan established full diplomatic relations with the papacy in 1984, Protestant theological conservatives in his coalition barely complained.

Cooperation across denominational lines also marked the opposition to Reagan's foreign policy. The grassroots movement to hold nuclear arsenals at their current levelsthe "nuclear freeze"became a powerful symbolic challenge to the administration's military buildup during the early 1980s. Advocates of the freeze included veteran pacifists in FOR and AFSC, theological liberals in Clergy and Laity Concerned (as CALCAV was renamed after the Vietnam War), and half of the Catholic bishops. Catholics were particularly active in providing humanitarian aid and opposing military intervention in Central America. Victims of rightist "death squads" in the El Salvador civil war included missionary nuns. While the U.S. Catholic Conference urged peace talks between the Salvadoran government and leftist rebels, numerous parishes assisted refugees who reached the United States. These actions were particularly impressive because Pope John Paul II gave de facto support to Reagan's anticommunist intervention in Central America.

By the 1990s the Cold War had ended but the effects of the fifth Great Awakening continued to be felt. In numbers, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics (as Pentecostals increasingly called themselves) constituted the religious mainstream. To an unprecedented degree, theological liberalism and conservatism correlated respectively with political liberalism and conservatism. Conservatives especially sponsored a resurgence of overseas missions; fifty thousand Americans lived abroad as missionaries or representatives of faith-based humanitarian organizations, often working closely with strong indigenous churches. To some extent the dream of the earliest missionaries had come true. At the end of the 1990s, there were 258 million Christians in Africa and 317 million in Asia.

Although references to the Judeo-Christian tradition lingered, use of this phrase to describe American religious life was even more problematic than during the 1950s. Significant numbers of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists came to the United States after immigration law was liberalized in 1965. Astute political leaders took notice. President Carter denied any animosity toward Islam during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980; President George H. W. Bush stressed the same point during the war against Iraq in 1991. Moreover, the appearance of yet another "new immigration" reinforced the American identity of those Catholics and Jews descended from earlier immigrants.

As Israel became both more secure and less central to their own identity, American Jews no longer felt obliged to defend all Israeli foreign policy. From the time President Carter negotiated the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, the United States served as primary mediator in what was called (with undue optimism) the Middle East "peace process." The Oslo Accords signed at the White House in 1993 established a quasi-independent Palestinian National Authority in territory contested by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. As with Protestants and Catholics, Jewish approaches to foreign policy increasingly correlated with their religious beliefs. While Conservative and Reform Jews overwhelmingly endorsed negotiations in general and the Oslo agreements in particular, Orthodox Jews were skeptical or hostile. In 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton prodded the Israelis at the Wye River negotiations to surrender more disputed territory to the Palestine Authority. Once again, Conservative and Reform Jews responded favorably while Orthodox Jews joined Israeli hawks in opposition. Like Protestants and Catholics, Jews were now openly divided on a foreign policy issue.

The expansion of missionary activity overseas may have stirred increased persecution of Christian minorities around the world. Religious conservatives had no doubts about it and sought legislation mandating a diplomatic response. Humanitarian motives aside, these activists hoped to keep evangelicals and fundamentalists politically involved in the postCold War era. Furthermore, recalling the impact of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, they thought religious freedom could be used to undermine Chinese communism. Still wary of imposing Christianity on non-Christian cultures, liberals hesitated to join the campaign. Even so, in 1997 and 1998, 100,000 Protestant and Catholic congregations sponsored annual days of prayer to "shatter the silence" about persecution. Ultimately, a broad coalition extending beyond the ranks of Christians and Jews supported the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which passed Congress unanimously in 1998. The IRFA established an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department, a comparable position in the National Security Council, and an independent commission to monitor persecution.

Both the breadth of the coalition and the constitutional ban on preferential treatment of any religion required officials to concern themselves with small sects as well as large denominations, and with minor harassment as well as with serious violations of human rights. For instance, the commission's reports criticized European democracies for treating Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Scientologists (products respectively of the second, fourth, and fifth Great Awakenings) as second-class faiths. The chief concern, however, was the arrest, torture, or killing of believers, usually Christians but sometimes Muslims, too, in communist states and Islamic republics. American government responses ranged from public denunciations to behind-the-scenes diplomacy. No country attracted greater attention than the People's Republic of China, which persecuted both the Falun Gong, an indigenous mystical religion, and Christian churches unwilling to register with the government. Religious activists, including some Protestant liberals and the Catholic bishops, joined the unsuccessful campaign to deny China permanent normal trade relations status. Indeed, despite the passage of the IRFA, American policy toward religious persecution abroad in the early twenty-first century resembled that of the early nineteenth century: a mixture of popular protest and diplomatic inquiries without direct economic or military intervention.


Five generalizations can be made about the history of religion and foreign policy. First, notwithstanding the frequent, formulaic references to John Winthrop's "city upon a hill," the impact of Reformation era Protestantism is typically over-simplified and exaggerated. Appeals to an amorphous Providence and Enlightenment republicanism rather than invocations of a Puritan mission were the main motifs of nineteenth-century manifest destiny. Similarly, Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt needed no Christian doctrine to bless their efforts to extend American power. Even those devout Protestants who tried to apply religious beliefs to foreign affairs not only disagreed about specifics, but also disputed the overall nature of the national mission. Although less often acknowledged than international Wilsonian activism, a visceral Bryanismthe sense that the United States should lead the world by separatist moral examplehas been and remains a powerful force.

Second, religious beliefs and interests did not change the outcome of any first-rank foreign policy decisionfor example, whether or not to declare independence, expand westward, develop an "informal empire" abroad, or fight a war. These factors, however, have affected the ways in which Americans framed and debated such major questions.

Third, religious concerns have influenced the outcome of some second-level foreign policy decisions. Abrogation of the Russian-American commercial treaty in 1912 and passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in 1974 serve as cases in point. Awakenings and immigration have rendered "people of faith" increasingly diverse. In this pluralist context, religious interest groups have been most effective when they found allies outside of their own communities and invoked widely held American values.

Fourth, the role of missionaries merits special attention. As has been the case with businessmen and soldiers, a relatively small number of Americans were able to exert great influencefor good or illin a few distant lands. Missionaries not only facilitated political and economic expansion, either deliberately or inadvertently, but also inspired, educated, and infuriated foreign elites.

Fifth, major foreign policy decisions have affected domestic religious life more than the other way around. Often the effects were unanticipated. For instance, the revolutionary war with France undermined fears of "popery"; World War I exacerbated the multisided conflict among Catholics, Jews, Protestant modernists, and theological conservatives; and World War II sparked a religious revival that defied cosmopolitan predictions of secularization. These five general trends will probably persist for the foreseeable future, though with no diminution of ironic results.


Abrams, Elliott, ed. The Influence of Faith: Religious Groups and U. S. Foreign Policy. Lanham, Md., 2001. Essays on the contemporary situation by authors from diverse ideological perspectives.

Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, Conn., 1972. Still the best one-volume survey.

Chatfield, Charles. The American Peace Movement: Ideals and Activism. New York, 1992. Historical survey from a sociological perspective.

Ehrman, John. The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs, 19451994. New Haven, Conn., 1995. The best study of the neoconservatives and foreign policy.

Fairbank, John K., ed. The Missionary Enterprise in China and America. Cambridge, Mass., 1974. Excellent collection of essays with implications beyond China.

Feingold, Henry L. The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 19381945. New Brunswick, N.J., 1970. Still the most insightful study of Roosevelt's policy.

Field, James A., Jr. America and the Mediterranean World, 17761882. Princeton, N.J., 1969. Much material on missionaries.

Flynn, George Q. Roosevelt and Romanism: Catholics and American Diplomacy, 19371945. Westport, Conn., 1976. The standard work on the subject.

Fogarty, Gerald P. The Vatican and the American Hierarchy from 1870 to 1965. Stuttgart, Germany, 1982. Good coverage of the hierarchy's role in American politics and foreign policy.

Gribbin, William. The Churches Militant: The War of 1812 and American Religion. New Haven, Conn., 1973. The standard work on the subject.

Hall, Mitchell K. Because of Their Faith: CALCAV and Religious Opposition to the Vietnam War. New York, 1990. Standard account of the main religious group opposing the war.

Harrington, Fred Harvey. God, Mammon, and the Japanese: Dr. Horace N. Allen and Korean American Relations, 18841908. Madison, Wis., 1994. Biography of an important missionary and diplomat.

Hennesey, James. American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States. New York, 1981. Still the best one-volume synthesis.

Hero, Alfred O., Jr. American Religious Groups View Foreign Policy: Trends in Rank-and-File Opinion, 19371969. Durham, N.C., 1973. Good use of survey data.

Hunter, Jane. The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn of the Century China. New Haven, Conn., 1984. Fine social history with implications beyond China.

Jacobs, Sylvia M., ed. Black Americans and the Missionary Movement in Africa. Westport, Conn., 1982. An anthology that approaches the subject from varied angles.

Johannsen, Robert W. To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination. New York, 1985. Places the religious response in broad cultural context.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. The Great Century in the United States of America A.D. 1800A.D. 1914. Volume 4 of The Expansion of Christianity. New York, 1941. Insightful pioneering work.

Marchand, C. Roland. The American Peace Movement and Social Reform, 18981918. Princeton, N.J., 1972. The best treatment of the Progressive-era religious peace movement is in chapter 9.

May, Ernest R. Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America As a Great Power. New York, 1961. New edition, Chicago, 1991. Good on religious aspects of 1898 diplomacy.

Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation. New York, 1963. An astute essay on the varied conceptions of American mission in the nineteenth century.

Pierard, Richard V., and Robert D. Linder. Civil Religion and the Presidency. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988. The best single account of the subject.

Piper, John F., Jr. The American Churches and World War I. Athens, Ohio, 1985. The standard work on the subject.

Pratt, Julius W. Expansionists of 1898: The Acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish Islands. Baltimore, 1936. Chapter 8 is still a valuable analysis of religious opinion.

Ribuffo, Leo P. "God and Jimmy Carter." In his Right Center Left: Essays in American History. New Brunswick, N.J., 1992. The connection between Carter's Niebuhrian beliefs and his foreign policy.

Rosenthal, Steven T. Irreconcilable Differences: The Waning of the American Jewish Love Affair with Israel. Hanover, N.H., 2001. Thorough treatment of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel.

Sachar, Howard M. A History of the Jews in America. New York, 1992. Comprehensive survey.

Sarna, Jonathan. Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah. New York, 1981. Biography of an important early diplomat and politician.

Silk, Mark. Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II. New York, 1988. Insightful essay on religion and politics.

Toulouse, Mark G. The Transformation of John Foster Dulles: From Prophet of Realism to Prophet of Nationalism. Macon, Ga., 1985. The fullest examination of Dulles and religion.

Welch, Richard E., Jr. Response to Imperialism: The United States and the Philippine-American War, 18991902. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979. Good account of religious opinion and conflicts in chapter 6.

Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 19411945. New York, 1984. A broad look at American attitudes.

See also Colonialism and Neocolonialism; Continental Expansion; Cultural Imperialism; Dissent in Wars; Immigration; Nativism; Pacifism; Race and Ethnicity; Wilsonian Missionary Diplomacy.


"Christ deserves to be called the Prince of Peace because He has given us a measure of greatness which promotes peace.

"Christ has also led the way to peace by giving us a formula for the propagation of good. Not all of those who have really desired to do good have employed the Christian methodnot all Christians even. In all the history of the human race but two methods have been employed. The first is the forcible method.

"The other is the Bible planbe not overcome of evil but overcome evil with good. And there is no other way to overcome evil.

"In order that there might be no mistake about His plan of propagating good, Christ went into detail and laid emphasis on the value of example'so live that others seeing your good works may be constrained to glorify your Father which is in Heaven.'

"It may be a slow processthis conversion of the world by the silent influence of a noble example, but it is the only sure one, and the doctrine applies to nations as well as to individuals. The Gospel of the Prince of Peace gives us the only hope that the world hasand it is an increasing hopeof the substitution of reason for the arbitrament of force in the settling of international disputes."

William Jennings Bryan, "The Prince of Peace" (1908)


views updated Jun 27 2018


The United States is a nation of religious believers. National surveys consistently find that nine in ten Americans affiliate with a religion or religious denomination. This is true regardless of age. Older adults, however, participate on average in certain religious activities more frequently than younger individuals. Religion also appears to represent a more salient influence in the lives of older adults. A possible explanation for this may be found in the differing life experiences and developmental trajectories of todays older Americans, unique features characteristic of their period of religious socialization, and anticipation of forthcoming challenges associated with aging. Both personal and social resources provided by religious belief and participation, and by religious institutions, can prove valuable as adults age through the life course and face the physical and interpersonal changes that often accompany old age.

This entry will explore these and other issues, particularly as they relate to the consequences of religious involvement in the lives of older adults. After describing the field of religious gerontology, the area of study devoted to the relationship between religion and aging, existing research that characterizes the role of religion in older adulthood will be summarized. This includes scientific findings documenting (a) patterns of religious participation; (b) determinants of religious participation; (c) the role of religion in preventing illness and promoting health, longevity, and psychological well-being; and (d) the social and psychological functions and benefits of both formal participation in organized religious activities and private religious involvement.

Religious gerontology

The field dedicated to the study of religion among older adults and across the life course is known as religious gerontology. This large field of study encompasses basic and applied research and writing on a wide range of topics, including human services delivery, pastoral counseling, theology, ministry, congregational programming, community intervention, health services research, behavioral and psychiatric epidemiology, and social and health indicators related to quality of life.

Systematic empirical research in religious gerontology dates to the early 1950s, when the sociologist David O. Moberg began a series of investigations into the impact of religious participation on the general well-being of older adults. He found that indicators of personal adjustment to aging were higher among people who were involved in organized religious activities. These included active church membership, attending worship services, and serving in church leadership roles. Small-scale studies on similar topics continued to appear throughout the next two decades.

Beginning in the middle 1980s, religious gerontology experienced a period of dramatic growth that has continued to this day. Both qualitative and quantitative research has flourished, with an emphasis on the identification of factors that are associated with positive life circumstances in older adulthood. Qualitative research using a variety of historical, literary, and phenomenological methods has been instrumental in fashioning a deeper understanding of the critical significance of meaning and context as adults move through the stages of the life course, from youth to senescence and death. Much of this research is cross-cultural and takes a comparative approach. The best of this work is in Aging and the Religious Dimension and Religion, Belief, and Spirituality in Late Life (Thomas and Eisenhandler, 1994, 1999).

Another key development has been recognition of the importance of religion in the lives of older adults by public and private institutions that fund research studies. Foremost among these is the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the National Institutes of Health. Throughout the 1990s the NIA funded several large studies of religion, aging, and health by leading scientists, including the psychiatrist Harold G. Koenig, the sociologist Neal Krause, the epidemiologist Jeff Levin, and the team of the sociologist Robert Joseph Taylor, and the psychologist Linda M. Chatters. Findings from these studies provide considerable support for the idea that active religious involvement is both an epidemiologically and a therapeutically significant factor in the lives of older adults, regardless of gender, social class, race or ethnicity, or religious affiliation.

Many other signs point to the institutionalization of religious gerontology as a defined field of study. These include establishment of the Forum on Religion, Spirituality, and Aging within the American Society on Aging, and a Religion and Aging special interest group within the Gerontological Society of America; publication of the large edited volume Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook (Kimble et al.), and of a scholarly journal, Journal of Religious Gerontology ; and funded academic centers for education and research, notably the Center for Aging, Religion, and Spirituality at Luther Seminary, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, North Carolina.

Patterns of religious participation

Many studies in religious gerontology have sought to document how often older adults engage in various kinds of religious expression. Through this research gerontologists typically differentiate among several discrete dimensions of religious participation. These include formal or organizational religiousness, informal or nonorganizational religiousness, and what is termed subjective religiousness.

Gerontologists define organizational religiousness as public participation in organized activities of churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions. Indicators of organizational religiousness include affiliating with a denomination or congregation, regularly attending worship services, taking a leadership role in ones congregation, and volunteering at ones place of worship. According to data from the 1990 General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, attendance at religious services at least once per week is increasingly common among successively older age groups. Among adults age sixty-five and older, at least weekly attendance exceeds 46 percent. This represents a rise of nearly 10 percent over data collected in the 1970s.

Gerontologists define nonorganizational religiousness as participation in private religious activities, most typically at home or with ones family. Nonorganizational religious indicators include regular prayer, participation in study of the Bible or other scriptures, watching religious television or listening to religious radio, and saying grace at meals. Findings from the 1988 General Social Survey paint a picture for many of these activities that is similar to that for organizational religiousness. Daily prayer, for example, is considerably more common in older than in younger adults. Nearly three-quarters of adults age seventy-five and over pray at least every dayalmost twice the frequency of adults age eighteen to twenty-four.

Besides organizational and nonorganizational religiousness, both of which have to do with religious behavior, religious gerontologists are interested in self-assessments of personal religious attitudes, beliefs, and motivations. These are sometimes classified under the heading of subjective religiousness. Indicators of subjective religiousness include self-ratings of overall religiousness, reports of the importance of religion, intense feelings of religiousness, and professions of belief in God or a higher power. National survey data are less consistent for this type of religiousness than for public or private religious behavior, but still show markedly higher ratings among older adults.

An important issue that arises in interpreting data on age patterns in religious participation is the need to address aging, period, and cohort effects. The disentanglement of these possible effects is an issue that arises frequently in gerontological research. It concerns identifying the underlying explanation for age differences observed in a particular phenomenon, such as the age differences that exist in patterns of religious participation. Only through multiwave longitudinal studies lasting many decades can these three types of effects begin to be separated. Until such studies are conducted in religious gerontology, the best that scientists can do is to rely on reasoned speculation.

The presence of a cohort effect in religious participation is suggested by generational differences in religious socialization experienced by older age cohorts. Examples include religious formation before Vatican II among Catholics, during the flourishing of Classical Reform Judaism, and prior to the decline of mainline Protestantism in the face of evangelical inroads. Not all of these trends, however, imply greater religious training in prior generations. Further, as Moberg noted, if a cohort effect were present, then we would expect to observe less religious participation among each successive generation of older adults. There is little evidence for this; as trends toward greater religiousness in older age have persisted for decades.

This might be explained by the presence of a period effectthat is, an influence of a past epoch or event of religious or societal history that significantly impacted all people living at a certain period of time, but exerted a differential or diffused impact across subsequent periods. Examples, both secular and religious, include the Great Depression, World War II, and the charismatic movement. Evidence of a period effect in religious participation, however, is weak. Not only have trends toward greater religiousness in older age persisted, but absolute levels of religiousness have persisted as well. For example, in the United States national survey data on the frequency of weekly attendance at religious services, across all groups, has hovered just above 40 percent for decades.

Cohort and period effects on religious participation may still be present to a limited extent in certain subgroups of the population, but the most acceptable explanation for greater levels of religiousness observed among older adults is the presence of an actual aging effect. This means a trend toward greater religiousness throughout the life course, signifying increasing reflection on matters of ultimate concern as people age. The psychologist Sheldon S. Tobin, writing from psychoanalytic and developmental perspectives, explains that religion offers continuity across the life course through emphasizing the enduring meaning of life, engendering a sense of being blessed, and providing personal and community resources that enhance coping with age-related losses.

Determinants of religious participation

In contrast to the many national probability-sample studies of patterns of religious participation, research on the determinants or predictors of religiousness in older adults has drawn mostly on small, nonrandom samples of patients, community-center attendees, church members, or students. Since the advent of research funding by the NIA in the 1990s, this has begun to change. Reliable national findings pointing to differences in religious participation by age, gender, race or ethnicity, social class, and other sociodemographic variables are starting to accumulate.

Taylor and Chatters have presented quite a bit of evidence for significant sociodemographic differences in religious participation among older adults, especially older African-Americans. Older age, more education, greater income, being married, female gender, and living in the southern United States each has been found in multiple studies to predict greater levels of organizational, nonorganizational, and subjective religiousness. These important findings firmly contradict commonly held assumptions that religious people, especially religious older people and older African-Americans, tend to be poorer and less educated.

In one NIA-funded study, Levin, Taylor, and Chatters analyzed data from four separate national probability-sample surveys of older adults conducted from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. Collectively these surveys examined twenty religious indicators of all three types (organizational, nonorganizational, and subjective) of religiousness in a total of over six thousand respondents. Significant racial differences were found for sixteen of these variables; significant gender differences were found for twelve variables. In every instance greater levels of religiousness were found among African-Americans and females. Gerontological research among older Hispanics, Jews, and Asian-Americans has focused less on religion, but sociodemographic correlates of religious participation have been identified in these groups.

Religious participation and health

Since the middle 1980s research findings have begun to accumulate on the salutary effects of active religious involvement on objective and subjective indicators of quality of life among older adults. Foremost among these are studies of the impact of organizational and nonorganizational religious participation on a host of psychosocial and health-related outcomes. Scientific investigations by medical sociologists, social epidemiologists, health psychologists, and physicians have confirmed a generally positive effect of religion in relation to physical health and to measures of mental health and psychological well-being. Much of this research has been funded by the NIH and has been conducted by prominent scientists at leading universities and academic medical centers.

Various dimensions of religious participation have been found to be positively associated with a wide range of health indicators in older adults. These include global self-ratings of health, functional disability, physical symptomatology, prevalence of hypertension, prevalence of cancer, and even rates of death. Many studies, for example, have found that active participation in organized religion seems to be associated with greater longevity. In epidemiologic terms both public and private religious behavior seems to be a protective factor against morbidity and mortality.

Likewise, religious dimensions have been shown to have protective effects in relation to a wide variety of measures of mental health and psychological well-being in older adults. These include self-esteem, self-efficacy or mastery, coping, life satisfaction, happiness, addictive behaviors, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Longitudinal research by Koenig and colleagues at Duke University suggests that religious participation not only exerts a protective or preventive effect, but also may be therapeutic, hastening recovery from clinical depression in hospitalized medically ill patients.

An important issue in social, psychiatric, and epidemiologic research on religion, aging, and health has been the differential saliences of organizational, nonorganizational, and subjective religiousness as sources of protection. Reviews of existing research findings have reached the following consensus: (a) organizational religious involvement is fairly stable throughout the life course, and then declines on average among the very old or disabled; (b) nonorganizational and subjective religiousness also remain stable throughout the life course, then increase slightly on average, perhaps to offset existing declines in organizational religiousness; (c) organizational religiousness is positively associated with greater physical and mental health and well-being; and (d) nonorganizational religiousness seems to be inversely related to health and well-being.

This latter observation is surprising and seems contrary to expectations, yet it has been observed, off and on, for many years. Only with the advent of good longitudinal studies has this anomalous finding been interpretable as a methodological artifact of the cross-sectional nature of most gerontological research on religion. In short, among very old or disabled respondents, nonorganizational religiousness may increase in response to health-necessitated declines in public worship. This would show up in analyses of study data as an inverse or negative effect of nonorganizational religious behavior on health. It does not mean, of course, that private religious practices cause illness; rather, illness or disability leads to an increase in certain types of religious expression as compensation for the inability to practice others. The complexity of this issue exemplifies the importance of longitudinal research for religious gerontology.

Functions of religion among older adults

Research findings such as those summarized above provide the who, what, where, and when of religions influence in the lives of older adults. With few exceptions religion has consistently been found to be an important source of meaning, coping, and adjustment with positive consequences for health and well-being. Understanding the how and why of this seemingly beneficial impact of religion is another matter altogether. The question that needs to be asked is what are the functions, characteristics, expressions, or manifestations of being religious or practicing religion that account for its being a protective factor? Or, in simpler terms, just what is it about religion that explains its impact on health and other outcomes?

Gerontologists have pursued efforts to answer this why question. A variety of sophisticated theoretical perspectives, frameworks, and models have been advanced to explain why religious participation is so vital for the well-being of older adults. For example, the sociologist Christopher G. Ellison discusses how religious participation benefits older adults by (a) reducing the risk of acute and chronic stressors, such as marital problems or deviant behavior; (b) offering institutional or cognitive frameworks, such as a sense of order, meaning, or coherence, that serve to buffer the harmful effects of stress and lead to successful coping; (c) providing tangible social resources, such as religious fellowship and congregational networks; and (d) enhancing personal psychological resources, such as feelings of worthiness. In addition, Koenig outlines ways that religious faith helps older adults who are suffering physical challenges by emphasizing interpersonal relations, stressing the seeking of forgiveness, providing hope for change, emphasizing the forgiveness of oneself and others, providing hope for healing, providing a context and role models for suffering, engendering a sense of control and self-determination, promising life after death and ready accessibility to God, and providing a supportive community.

Another approach to understanding the salutary functions of religion comes from a more epidemiologic perspective. Levin and the sociologist Ellen L. Idler, among others, have described those biobehavioral and psychosocial functions of religion that could account for its positive effects on rates of morbidity and mortality. The key here is to identify the factors that mediate a religion-health relationshipfactors that, independently of religion, are known to prevent illness and promote health. These include healthy behaviors and lifestyles (promoted by active religious affiliation and membership); socially supportive resources (offered by regular religious fellowship); physiological effects of positive emotions (engendered by participation in worship and prayer); health-promoting beliefs and personality styles (consonant with certain religious and theological beliefs); and cognitions such as hope, optimism, and positive expectation (fostered by faith in God or a higher power).

In summary, religion is a key feature and salient force for good in the lives of older adults. Both public and private religious activity is common throughout the life course, and increasingly engaged in by older people. Attendance at worship services and the practice of prayer are especially representative expressions of religiousness. Research has identified age, gender, race or ethnicity, and other sociodemographic factors as important sources of variation in religious expression. Other research points to both organized religion and private or informal religious involvement as epidemiologically significant sources of protection against physical and mental illness and mortality. These findings can be explained by the salutary functions of religious participation, including the provision of personal and interpersonal resources and of a context and meaning for age-related changes in life circumstances such as health.

Jeff Levin

See also Social Support.


Atchley, R. C. Religion and Spirituality. In Social Forces and Aging: An Introduction to SocialGerontology, 8th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1997. Pages 294315.

Clements, W. M., ed. Religion, Aging and Health: A Global Perspective. Compiled by the World Health Organization. New York: Haworth Press, 1989.

Ellison, C. G. Religion, the Life Stress Paradigm, and the Study of Depression. In Religion in Aging and Health: Theoretical Foundations and Methodological Frontiers. Edited by Jeffrey S. Levin. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994. Pages 78121.

Fecher, V. J. Religion & Aging: An Annotated Bibliography. San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 1982.

Idler, E. L. Religious Involvement and the Health of the Elderly: Some Hypotheses and an Initial Test. Social Forces 66 (1987): 226238.

Kimble, M. A.; McFadden, S. H.; Ellor, J. W.; and Seeber, J. J., eds. Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1995.

Koenig, H. G. Aging and God: Spiritual Pathways to Mental Health in Midlife and Later Years. New York: Haworth Press, 1994.

Koenig, H. G. Research on Religion and Aging: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Koenig, H. G.; Smiley, M.; and Gonzales, J. A. P. Religion, Health, and Aging: A Review and Theoretical Integration. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Krause, N.Religion, Aging, and Health: Current Status and Future Prospects. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 52B (1997): S291S293.

Levin, J. S. Religion. In The Encyclopedia of Aging, 2d ed. Edited by George L. Maddox. New York: Springer, 1995. Pages 799802.

Levin, J. S., ed. Religion in Aging and Health: Theoretical Foundations and Methodological Frontiers. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994.

Levin, J. S.; Taylor, R. J.; and Chatters, L. M. Race and Gender Differences in Religiosity among Older Adults: Findings from Four National Surveys. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 49 (1994): S137S145.

Maves, P. B. Aging, Religion, and the Church. In Handbook of Social Gerontology: Societal Aspects of Aging. Edited by Clark Tibbitts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Pages 698749.

McFadden, S. H. Religion and Spirituality. In Encyclopedia of Gerontology, vol. 2. Edited by James E. Birren. San Diego: Academic Press, 1996. Pages 387397.

McFadden, S. H. Religion, Spirituality, and Aging. In Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, 4th ed. Edited by James E. Birren and K. Warner Schaie. San Diego: Academic Press, 1996. Pages 162177.

Moberg, D. O. Religion and Aging. In Gerontology: Perspectives and Issues. Edited by Kenneth F. Ferraro. New York: Springer, 1997. Pages 179205.

Taylor, R. J., and Chatters, L. M. Religious Involvement among Older African-Americans. In Religion in Aging and Health: Theoretical Foundations and Methodological Frontiers. Edited by Jeffrey S. Levin. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994. Pages 196230.

Thomas, L. E., and Eisenhandler, S. A., eds. Aging and the Religious Dimension. Westport, Conn.: Auburn House, 1994.

Thomas, L. E., and Eisenhandler, S. A., eds. Religion, Belief, and Spirituality in Late Life. New York: Springer, 1999.

Tobin, S. S. Preserving the Self Through Religion. In Personhood in Advanced Old Age: Implications for Practice. New York: Springer, 1991. Pages 119133.


See Age; Age-period-cohort model; Biomarkers of aging; Cohort change; Epidemiology; Evidence-based medicine; Developmental psychology; Fruit flies; Gerontology; Life cycle theories of aging and consumption; Life events and stress; Narrative; National Institute on Aging; Neurospsychology; Panel studies; Personality; Physiological changes; Primates; Psychological assessment; Psychosocial-behavioral interventions; Reaction time; Rodents; Roundworms; Qualitative research; Surveys; Veterans care; Yeast


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Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, wrote in 1939: "A definitive history of the Negro Church would leave practically no phase of the history of the Negro in America untouched." Understanding African-American religionor more accurately, the religious history of peoples of African descent in North Americais crucial for any rounded view of the African-American experience. Religion is often inseparable from culture, as was the case in traditional Africa, and encompasses more than institutional expressions. B. B. King once said that he felt closest to God when he was singing the blues, and African-American art, dance, and literature incorporate and reflect symbols, values, and themes. This essay will focus primarily on some of the principal issues, institutional and intellectual developments, and periods in the study of African-American religious history and culture.

A guiding principle for understanding this topic is that African-American religion is not simply an extension or form of Euro-American Christianity. Early historical work on African-American religion, such as that of Carter G. Woodson on "the Negro Church," focused almost exclusively on the institutional history of Protestantism. Yet to view African-American religious history as merely another chapter in the expansion of European Christianity would be to ignore the special circumstances of the religious pilgrimage of African Americans and gloss over the impact of other religious traditions.

A second guiding principle is that African-American religion is an evolving phenomenon that has taken shape over three centuries of slavery and that has continued to develop since the late nineteenth century. Today African-American religion takes on a variety of expressions, institutional and intellectual, creative and mundane, yet always acknowledging the past, while addressing the present and envisioning the future.

A final guiding principle is the fact that African-American religion is not monolithic. The differences within African-American religious culture are as important as the similarities. The religious outlook of someone of African descent in the Low Country of Carolina and Georgia about 1710, before the impact of the Great Awakening, might understandably be different from that of someone subject to the religious instruction of a white Presbyterian clergyman active in organized plantation missions after 1829. The religious profiles of a member of the Mother Bethel African Methodist Church in Philadelphia in 1880, a communicant of St. Cyprian's Roman Catholic Church in Chicago in 1924, of Zion Baptist Church in rural Mississippi in 1954, and of the Pentecostal C. H. Mason Temple in Memphis today will have significant differences. Generalizations about African-American religion must account for changes over time, including changing demographics and geographic variables.

Indeed, regional geography is an important qualifying factor in understanding the uniqueness of the African-American religious experience in the United States. Vaudou in Haiti, the Trinidadian cult of Shango, the practices of Santería in Cuba, and the Candomblé rituals found in Brazil exemplify a high degree of syncretism, or perhaps better what James Noel calls "creolization," between West African traditions and Euro-Christian, principally Roman Catholic, culture. In contrast, Africans who were brought or born into the predominantly British environment of North America were more likely to adapt or remodel their religious beliefs and practices in terms of the prevailing regional religious culturelow church Protestant Evangelicalism. Except for the Sea Islands of the Georgia coast, and a few other places where African slaves were isolated from the dominant white society, the children and grandchildren of those who survived the ordeal of the Middle Passage created a new syncretic religious worldview in America.

Slave Religion

Most Africans who were brought into the colonies of British North America originated from the coast and interior of West and West Central Africa. Approximately 60 percent of the slaves imported into the territory later known as the United States arrived between 1720 and 1780. Legal United States involvement in the international slave trade ended in 1808. Unlike what occurred in much of the Americas, the growth of the slave population in the United States, particularly in the American South, was by natural increase. The end of the slave trade did little to retard the increase of this population. In fact, in 1825 the United States had approximately 36 percent (1,750,000) of the slaves in the Americas, despite the dramatic increase in the arrival of new imports. For many of these individuals, knowledge of Africa was acquired indirectly and was only one of many cultural influences. Therefore, an understanding of the formative influences on the religious experience of African-American slaves, while recognizing the importance of the African cultural base, must take into account the New World cultural experience.

Traditional African languages had no single word for religionreligion was synonymous with a way of life. The importation of Africans into the Americas marked a transference of African ways of perceiving and responding to the spirit world, but just how strongly African influences or Africanisms survived is subject to debate. Proponents of the retention of African beliefs and practices, such as Melville Herskovits, Lawrence Levine, Sterling Stuckey, and Albert J. Raboteau point to spirit possession, musical forms, dance patterns such as the "ring shout," mounded-grave decorations, conjuring practices, and the identification of African divinities with specific saints in Roman Catholic folk piety as evidence of the survival of African traditional religion in the New World. The slaves' preference for the baptismal ritual of total immersion ("river baptisms") is often cited as an especially strong link with the West African river cults.

Other scholars, such as the early Herskovitz, E. Franklin Frazier, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Robert E. Park, have taken the view that traditional African beliefs and practices gradually weakened and in some cases died as the result of the complex interplay of forced acculturation, voluntary adaptation, and assimilation. The terrors of the Middle Passage called into question the omnipotence of the African gods and the ability of the ancestors to come to the aid of the distressed. Dealers in slaves intentionally broke up families and kinship groups and sought to create cultural anomie and linguistic confusion among the new arrivals. Slave buyers shunned the purchase of individuals who had operated as religious specialists in Africa and waged a destructive campaign against all religious practices, including the use of ritual drums that might serve as the focal point for the reconstruction of traditional African social groups on the plantations.

A third group of scholars navigate the complex issue of African influences by interpreting African-American religion as a modern phenomenon that emerges from the encounter of African slaves with European slave traders and slave holders. Charles Long, a historian of religion and the preeminent proponent of this view, maintains that African-American religion is black people's collective awareness of their own autonomy and experience of a divine other, not just a version of Christianity or any other faith tradition. This communal experience is also not confined to institutions. It is a way of being, a perspective on life that allows African Americans to liberate themselves from the oppression of Euro-Americans and to seek new and authentic expressions of human consciousness and community that take into account their value and origins. What is specifically African in African-American religion, then, is a religious consciousness that emerged out of the encounter of African slaves with Europeans.

The Christianity of Europeans is the faith tradition with which African Americans are most associated. African slaves in the Americas did not receive intensive indoctrination in Christianity for several generations. Europeans at first doubted that Africans had souls worth saving, and owners of slaves in the English colonies initially opposed the introduction of Christianity, not only because of lingering doubts about the religious capacity of the African but also because of fears that offering baptism to Africans implied spiritual equality and might spark resistance. European missionaries, such as those of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, who sponsored preaching among Africans in the Carolinas, persisted, and over time converts were made. The conflict between proponents of chattel slavery and the church diminished after the mid-1600s, when new laws partially relieved owners' anxieties by stating that baptism did not alter the civil estate of a slave. By 1706 at least six colonies had legislation stipulating that baptism did not make any change in the slave's status "as to his bondage, or freedom."

In the New World environment, Africans adapted and transformed European language and religious beliefs and in the process created a new African-American identity. The southern-born children and grandchildren of the Africans who participated in the transatlantic passage had to find religious meaning and seek religious expression within the predominantly white Protestant evangelical environment. The outburst of religious revivals in the 1740s and again in the early 1800s helped dismantle the colonial establishment of Anglicanism in the South and Congregationalism in New England and proved attractive to many African Americans, slave and free. Black converts and lower-class whites shared in the evangelical emphasis on conviction of sin, individual salvation, ecstatic worship, and the recompense of heaven.

An African-American Christian population of significant size and, in some places, of surprising independence developed during and after the American Revolution. Most black Christians belonged to mixed congregations where the egalitarian legacy of the Great Revival lingered on, despite inroads made by white racism among evangelicals. Independent African-American preachers, such as the Rev. Andrew Bryan of the First African Church of Savannah, established in 1788, planted numerous congregations, mostly Baptist, until a frightened white South curbed the religious freedom of blacks in the wake of the Denmark Vesey insurrection of 1822 and that led by Nat Turner in 1831. No reliable figures exist for the number of African Americans who became Christians during the era of the pioneer black preachers, but it is important to acknowledge that this experience of relative religious independence and a shared evangelical ethos provided a benchmark by which blacks could judge later efforts to use Christianity as a means of social control.

Although growing numbers of blacks, slave and free, had embraced Christianity by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the camp meetings and other mechanisms used by the evangelical preachers were limited in scope. In some places, such as among the Gullah peoples of the Sea Island district of South Carolina, and in Louisiana, where Roman Catholicism and West Indian-derived practices of voodoo intermixed, religious syncretism or creolization was so strong as to violate mainstream Christian sensibilities. Even in parts of the South, where free blacks and whites experienced common fellowship in local churches, little effort was made to reach the plantation slave.

Although many slave owners were made uneasy by some of the radically egalitarian implications of Christianity, many became convinced that Christianity, properly catechized, could make slaves more docile. In 1829, the Reverend William Capers appealed to plantation owners in South Carolina to allow him to go to their slaves. Supporters of the plantation missions were motivated by the biblical mandate to share the gospel, but they also wanted to rid the slaves of their "heathen" ways, and, as Capers argued, improve plantation efficiency on the premise that a Christian slave would be more obedient.

Nat Turner's insurrection in 1831 cast doubt on Capers's assertion, but gradually many in the white South were won over to the notion that "lessons on salvation and lessons on duty" were compatible and that the South had a divine mandate to convert and civilize the "children of Ham"as Africans were often called because of the pro-slavery interpretation of the story told in Genesis 9. When abolitionists chastised southerners for the sin of slavery, the apologists of "the peculiar institution" pointed to plantation missions as evidence of their fulfillment of the Christian duty to civilize and convert and of the legitimacy of their custodial rule over "the darker race."

Just how strongly, if at all, African-American slaves internalized the religious model placed before them by whites is a difficult question. Was the Christian slave successfully indoctrinated with the notion that piety and obedience were inseparable? Or did Christianity, as expressed in the secret or "hush arbor" meetings of slaves, in their prayers and in their songs (spirituals), offer a basis from which both individual psychological independence and organized resistance could spring forth? Frederick Douglass reported that he observed fellow slaves who scoffed at the religious pretensions of whites; personally he found hypocrisy at the root of slaveholding Christianity, which he termed "bad, corrupt, and wicked." But he thought of the Christianity of Christ as impartial and "good, pure, and holy." If we are to judge by the testimony of ex-slaves, many of whom eagerly sought to read the Bible for themselves once freedom came, they had successfully appropriated Christianity in order to give meaning to their lives and cope with systematic efforts to deny their humanity. Estimates are that one in seven of the adult slaves belonged to an organized church, primarily Baptist or Methodist, by the time of the Civil War, and many more had been exposed to the influence of Christianity.

The religious outlook of the African-American slave was a complex and highly creative adaptation of European Christianity and African traditional religion to everyday needs. A few rejected Christianity altogether and retained Islam or their traditional African religion, or became persistent skeptics. Many slaves originally sought the protection and power of the conjurer, but after a period of religious instruction and Christian baptism, many came to the conclusion that conjuration was the work of the devil. Although masters attempted to enforce discipline through the use of Christianity, the slaves heard the sermons preached in the plantation chapels with a critical ear, sorted out the wheat from the chaff, and constructed a religious story in which they were the chosen of God. Although they might have, as the spirituals reflect, trouble and sorrow in this world, they could hope for the joys of heaven where "de' bottom rail become de' top rail."

Labeled as "otherworldly" and "compensatory," this use of Christianity has been judged dysfunctional by those who emphasize the need for radical political and social transformation. Discussed in the manner of Gary Marx and others, the "opiate-versus-inspiration debate," as it is sometimes referred to, forces our view of the religious culture of the African-American slave into opposing and limiting channels. By recognizing the multiple dimensions of the sacred cosmos operative in the slave quarters and "hush-arbors," we come close to understanding what the African-American slaves meant when they spoke of their beliefs in God as helping them to "keep on keeping on." They testified that they had a "home in glory land" and that no earthly master could close them out of God's house. As historian John Boles wrote, "There was a fateful ambiguity at the heart of the slave response to Christianity, and the fervent rebel, and the passive, long-suffering servant were equally authentic expressions of black religion." Once they had been "killed dead" in the spirit and were reborn, African-American Christian slaves became participants in another community than that which numbered them with cattle and cotton. This suggests Charles Long's view that African-American religion is black people's awareness of their own autonomy and experience of a divine other independent of whites.

Christianity in the Antebellum North

By focusing too exclusively on the South, we run the risk of missing important facets of the antebellum African-American religious experience. There were individual African-American Christians of note in the North, such as Lemuel Haynes, the first African American officially ordained to the Christian ministry and who served as pastor of white congregations in New England; Phillis Wheatley, who wrote religious verse read in both America and Europe; and Jupiter Hammon, a slave on Long Island, New York, who counseled Christian endurance in the hope of heaven. Though few in number until after 1800, independent black churches were organized in the North. Separated from the bulk of the country's black population, African-American Christians in the North kept the plight of their sisters and brothers in chains in their prayers; supported causes such as temperance and education, so as not to provide the apologists for slavery with an argument that freedom would ruin the slave; served as Underground Railroad stations; and assisted in the cause of abolition. They organized voluntary associations to support educational endeavors and to care for widows and orphans, and they served as the focal points of black life in the northern city, where prejudice and discrimination were prevalent.

The northern religious landscape took on more definition with the formation of the first black denominations. Following the pattern of white Christians in the post-Revolutionary era, black Christians organized into denominations. Sometimes the struggle for denominational independence was a particularly dramatic one, as was the case with black Methodists in the Philadelphia area led by Richard Allen. A former slave and convert to Christianity, Allen was convinced that the plain and simple gospel as preached by the spiritual heirs of John Wesley, the English founder of Methodism, was best suited to the unlettered black. However, white authorities resisted when Allen and other Philadelphia black Methodists in the 1790s sought greater control over their own religious affairs by establishing their own church. Armed with a decision from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1816, to the effect that Allen and his coadjutors had a legal right to the church property and self-governance, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination was organized in 1816. About six years later, black Methodists in New York City likewise achieved denominational independence under the banner of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. As suggested by the label "Methodist," both groups replicated much of white Methodist ritual, doctrine, and polity while seeking to liberate themselves from the prejudicial control of white Methodists.

By the Civil War, the AME church had about twenty thousand members and had planted new missions as far west as California. Urged on by the zealous efforts of Daniel Alexander Payne, the AME church established its first institution of higher education, Wilberforce College (now Wilberforce University) and theological school, Payne Seminary, at Xenia, Ohio. The AME Zion denomination numbered about five thousand and would not expand significantly beyond the Northeast until after the Civil War, when the denomination's representatives worked aggressively among the freedmen. Eventually the denomination transferred most of its central operations to North Carolina, where it established a church newspaper and publishing house, and at Livingstone College in Salisbury.

The earliest separate black Baptist congregations appeared in northern cities in the early 1800s. Blacks customarily worshiped with white Baptists, but the "Negro Pew" was tolerated and eventually blacks sought to organize their own congregations. In 1805, Thomas Paul became the first pastor of the First African (or Joy Street) Baptist Church of Boston, and in 1808 he assisted in the organization of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. Independent black Baptist congregations eventually emerged in most northern cities, but the traditional Baptist emphasis on local autonomy retarded the development of regional associations until the formation of the Providence Association in 1834 and the Union Association in 1836, both in Ohio, and the Wood River Association in 1839 in southwestern Illinois.

Sparked by interest in developing missions in Africa, black Baptists gradually moved toward more national organizations. The American Baptist Missionary Convention became the first such cooperative arrangement in 1840. In the decades after the Civil War, black Baptists debated whether or not to continue partnerships with northern white Baptists in foreign missions and the publication of religious literature. The nationalist or independent spirit finally triumphed in the formation of the first truly national black organization, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. Inc., in 1895. The cooperationists formed the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention in 1897.

Because of Baptist disunity during most of the nineteenth century, the African Methodist story tends to assume center stage in accounts of the institutional history of African-American religion. Better organized than the Baptistsand fortunate to have denominational historians such as Bishop Daniel A. Payne and Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tannerthe northern-based African Methodists dominate the documentary record. But statistics of denominational membership published by the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that black Baptists outnumbered black Methodists as the century drew to a close. This was largely due to expansion in the South after Emancipation when the ex-slaves, though heavily recruited by agents of the northern-based denominations, black and white, elected to form new congregations in which they could hear preachers familiar with the religious style found in the antebellum plantation congregations.

Civil War to World War II

When slaves deserted their masters during the Civil War or became contraband as Union troops advanced on Southern soil, a new religious landscape began to emerge. Eager to read the Bible on their own and worship without white oversight, the freed slaves were convinced that their emancipation was tantamount to the deliverance of the Children of Israel from the pharaoh of Egypt. African-American Christians seized the moment and left the denominations of their former masters in large numbers. The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1870 at Jackson, Tennessee, and was comprised principally of former members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, who did not desire to join the northern-based African Methodists. As if by spontaneous combustion, black Baptist congregations appeared in great numbers throughout the South. These Baptist churches and their Methodist counterparts in the small towns and rural areas represented the core religious culture of African Americans in the South between the Civil War and World War I. Heavily influenced by the folk practices of the "invisible institution" and often criticized for its demonstrative religious stylewith emphasis on dramatic conversion experiences, emotional preaching and "testifying"southern African-American religion developed its own internal dynamic. African-American churches in the North, with their educated ministers and more formal worship styles, developed differently. On the eve of World War I, therefore, two African-American religious cultures existed: one northern and urban, the other mostly southern and rural.

Despite the cultural differences between the northern and southern black religion, most observers agreed that the church was central to African-American life as the twentieth century dawned. "The Negro Church," Booker T. Washington wrote in 1909, "was the first institution to develop out of the life of the Negro masses and still retains the strongest hold upon them." "The Negro church of today," W. E. B. Du Bois had written six years earlier, "is the social center of Negro life in the United States, and the most characteristic expression of the African character." An institution so central to African Americans could not escape internal discussion of the prevailing social and political issues raised in the larger society.

One of the most important issues concerned the role that women should play in male-dominated institutions such as the church, where the pulpit had been traditionally defined as "men's space" and the pew as "women's place." The AME Zion church authorized the ordination of women in the 1890s, the AME church in 1948, and the CME church in 1954. Appealing to the principle of congregational autonomy, the major black Baptist conventions avoided legislating policy on the ordination of women. Conservative attitudes at the congregational level, where gender bias among the male clergy is strong, has proved to be an obstacle to many women who have sought ordination. The Church of God in Christ, the largest black Pentecostal body, prohibits the ordination of women.

Historically, women have been in the majority in the mainline black denominations, yet men have dominated the leadership. Women serve as "mothers of the church," are active in missionary societies, educational efforts, and a wide variety of charitable causes, and serve local congregations in numerous capacities, such as teachers, stewardesses, and deaconesses. Yet men hold denominational offices and monopolize the clergy rosters to a greater degree than in the more liberal white Protestant churches. Women who wish to exercise the gift of the spirit have had to operate as independent evangelists, such as Jarena Lee did after an originally futile appeal to Richard Allen and

the African Methodists in the early 1800s. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Rebecca Cox Jackson (who eventually joined the Shakers) possessed spiritual gifts that the established black denominations did not formally recognize. Amanda Berry Smith left the AME Church in order to exercise her ministry more freely, joined the Holiness Movement, and thereby served as a precursor for the many women who found the freedom to develop their own ministries within the orbit of the burgeoning Pentecostal and Holiness movement, which flourished in the "sanctified" storefronts of the urban North. For example, Elder Lucy Smith (18741952) founded All Nations Pentecostal Church in Chicago and conducted a multidimensional ministry that dealt with the material as well as the spiritual needs of her members.

African-American women such as Maria W. Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Ida Wells-Barnett channeled their gifts for ministry into social justice causes outside of the male-dominated churches. Stewart and especially Watkins Harper became well known in their time as champions of abolition, temperance, the civil rights of African Americans and women, and the education of African-American children. In the late nineteenth century, Wells-Barnett championed these causes, and also became well known for her anti-lynching campaign. Although working independently of established black churches, these women nevertheless remained affiliated with them, particularly African Methodism. Watkins Harper, whom Carla Peterson calls a "poet-preacher," published her poetry, stories, and essays in the major papers of the AME church throughout her long career.

The majority of reform- and ministerially-minded black women, however, formed auxiliary organizations in churches that maintained and supported the financial and spiritual health of these institutions. For example, the Women's Parent Mite Missionary Society of the AME Church, founded in 1874, supported new churches in the western United States and in South Africa. Sarah Elizabeth Miller Tanner, an active member of this group whose son was active in AME missions in South Africa, and whose husband was Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, witnessed to the efforts of these churchwomen in an 1896 article in the A. M. E. Church Review. Black Baptist women also founded organizations that served as the "backbone" of their churches and communities. Baptist women led by Nannie Helen Burroughs formed the Women's Convention of the National Baptist Convention in 1900, and operated the National School for Girls in Washington.

Many of these church womenAME, Baptist, and otherwisewere also active in the club movement, which stressed self-help, charitable, and civic work, and served as a focal point for women's independent identity. Beset by racism in the larger society and confronted by patriarchal attitudes within their denominations, African-American churchwomen had to confront multiple challenges. They played an especially important role in bridging the gap between church work as traditionally defined and secular reform activity. The demands upon them intensified with the outbreak of World War I.

The centrality of women in the local congregation became all the more apparent because of external social forces in the flight from field to factory once the call for labor went out from the North. After 1910, in the early years of the Great Migration, males, particularly young males, went north lured by the promise of better jobs. Women and the young were left to carry on congregational life. Urbanization proved to be no panacea. Indeed, in poor urban areas, church adherence was increasingly the sphere of women and children. This is especially true of the independent churches, known as "storefronts." In an extensive study done in the 1980s, researchers found that in 2,150 black churches, of various denominations, women outnumbered men by a factor of 2.5 to 1. Some observers have spoken of the "feminization of the black church" because of the relative absence of males, especially young males, in urban congregations.

The urbanization of African-American religion also precipitated an institutional crisis in the existing black churches. In 1910 nearly 90 percent of the nation's black population lived in the South, mostly in rural regions and small towns. Since the end of the Civil War, the church had assumed a dominant position in the life of southern blacks, whose institutional development in other areas was restricted by racial apartheid. By default, then, the churches served multiple purposesworship, education, recreation, and socialization. Northern black leaders, as well as some Southern leaders (e.g., Booker T. Washington) pointed to such problems as overchurching, undereducated ministers, pastors with multiple charges, congregations too small to maintain programs and property, and too little emphasis on the social and political problems of the day. Carter G. Woodson referred to rural churches as "mystic shrines" while writing approvingly of northern urban churches as progressive centers of "social uplift." This debate over the mission of the black church was heightened by the Great Migration because it placed new demands upon existing denominational and local church resources and programs.

The population shift put severe strains upon existing denominational structures. Home missionary boards lacked adequate resources to cope with the need in the North, and congregations in the South were left depleted and deserted. Competition among the three major black Methodist bodies prevented a cooperative effort in addressing the needs of the migrants. The National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., underwent a contentious division in 1915, which resulted in the formation of a rival body, the National Baptist Convention of America Unincorporated, later named National Baptist Convention of America in 1916. The internecine war continued for years, draining away critically needed resources. The secretary of the Home Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., reported in 1921: "We have quite a number of destitute fields both North and South and in many cases no opportunity for religious worship."

The regional shift in America's black population portended difficulties because as World War I began the black denominations were heavily weighted to the South. In 1916 the U.S. Census of Religious Bodies credited the National Baptists with 2,939,579 members, 89 percent of whom were in the South. The AME Church had 548,355 members and was 81.2 percent southern. The AME Zion Church was 84.6 percent southern with a total membership of 257,169. The CME Church, composed principally of the descendants of ex-slaves, was 95.5 percent southern and 245,749 members strong. None of the Pentecostal or Holiness bodies, which became so important in the urban North after the Great Migration, receive recognition in the 1916 religious census.

In addition to placing strains upon ecclesiastical structures inherited from the nineteenth century and oriented primarily toward the small town and rural church, urbanization offered African Americans new religious options. Baptist and Methodist preachers now had to compete with the agents of the Pentecostal and Holiness churches. These churches put great emphasis on an intense personal experience of the Holy Spirit. The Church of God in Christ, led by Charles Harrison Mason, held its first Pentecostal general assembly in 1907. Having started as a rural church in Mississippi, the denomination grew to become a fixture in the northern city. Ill at ease in the more formal worship services of the established northern churches, many migrants organized prayer bands, started house churches, or moved into the storefronts where speaking in tongues (sometimes referred to as the practice of glossolalia) received the blessing of the Pentecostals. The Church of Christ (Holiness), U.S.A., under the leader-ship of Elder C. P. Jones, likewise expanded as a result of the burgeoning black populations of urban industrial America. Other Holiness and Pentecostal churches were founded by denominationally independent religious entrepreneurs who recognized that the migrants from the South desired something that the northern black middle class churches did not offer.

Many of the migrants wanted religious environments that reminded them of their churches back home, where they were known by and part of an extended family. The ecstatic worship services and musical styles favored by the Pentecostal and Holiness preachers caught the attention of these ex-southerners. When hard times befell them in the North, migrants sought out spiritual havens in the urban wilderness. Holiness and Pentecostal churches multiplied everywhere, and existing Baptist and Methodist churches split or sponsored daughter congregations as the migrant population swelled. On occasion, northern black Christians criticized their "brothers and sisters" from the South for falling short of northern cultural expectations and the existing class norms. In turn, migrants shunned some northern black churches, where the elaborate and elegant services made them feel out of place. Some fell away from organized religion all together. Others responded to their crisis of faith in the city by transplanting churches from the South led by the pastors who had followed them northward.

The tension between the two cultural streams that came together after the beginning of World War I is illustrated by the reluctance of the older African-American congregations in Chicago to accept gospel music. Gospel music was popularized by Thomas Dorsey, the "father of gospel music," who joined Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in 1921. Unlike the purveyors of commercialized gospel today, early gospel music was church centered. Yet as Mahalia Jackson, the best-known singer of gospel, learned while growing up in New Orleans, the musical distance between the honky-tonk and a Holiness revival with its beating and tambourine shaking is not that great. Dorsey, building on the work of predecessors such as Charles Albert Tindley, was the principal force behind the introduction of blueslike gospel songs into the northern black churches. About 1930, observers of the Chicago scene reported that "Negro churches, particularly the storefront congregations, the Sanctified groups and the shouting Baptists, were swaying and jumping as never before. Mighty rhythms rocked the churches. A wave of fresh rapture came over the people." Jackson earned worldwide acclamation for her solo renditions of gospel classics, and the pioneering touring groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi helped make gospel so popular that today it is rare to find a black church, of whatever denomination or class composition, that closes its doors to the gospel sound.

Religious diversity, even dissonance, resonated from the large, densely crowded, black urban centers after World War I. After examining data from the 1926 Federal Census of Religious Bodies, Miles Mark Fisher exclaimed: "Almost in every center, particularly urban, is some unorthodox religious group which makes a definite appeal to Negroes." The Jamaican-born black nationalist Marcus Garvey discouraged talk of founding a new church, but he and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (19181927) had many followers who sought collective redemption in the back-to-Africa ideology. There were also some supporters, such as George Alexander McGuire, the founder of the African Orthodox Church, who did initiate Garveyite-inspired demonstrations. The UNIA collapsed after the deportation of its "Black Moses" in 1927, but other charismatic personalities came forward offering often exotic visions of heaven on earth. Father Divine set up a series of Peace Missions during the Great Depression, offering his devotees the unusual mix of "God" in the flesh and a refuge from society's problems. Scores of religious entrepreneurs opened shop in the black ghettos, where they competed with the mainline denominations. Frequently referred to as cults and sects, the groups led by these new messiahs often died when their founders did, but some managed to survive under different leadership, as, for example, the one led by Daddy Grace (the United House of Prayer for All People). Representatives of the mainline churches frequently decried the proliferation of these alternative groups, arguing, as the Baptist Miles Mark Fisher did, that the principal message of the cults and sects was "Let us prey," not "Let us pray."

The appearance on urban street corners of black adherents of Islam and Judaism added to the perception that African-American religion was undergoing a radical reorientation in the interwar period at the expense of the historic black denominations. The first black Jewish group recognized by the federal religious census was founded in 1896 by William S. Crowdy, a Santa Fe Railroad cook, in Lawrence, Kansas. African Americans wearing the yarmulke and speaking Yiddish came to the attention of a wider public in the 1920s. Located primarily in the boroughs of New York City, these teachers of black Hebraism appropriated and adapted the rituals and teachings of Orthodox Judaism. Though never large in number, the followers of Rabbi Arnold Ford and other proponents of Black Judaism generated a great deal of interest among the curious and the skeptical.

Islam was not entirely unheard of among African Americans before the mysterious figure of Wallace D. Fard appeared in the "Paradise Valley" of Detroit in 1930 to wake up the sleeping "Lost-Found Nation of Islam." There is increasing evidence that a small but not insignificant number of enslaved Africans brought knowledge of the Qur'an and Islamic law to North America. But modern Islam among African Americans begins with the career of Noble Drew Ali, a native of North Carolina and founder of Moorish Science in Newark, New Jersey, about 1913. However, the man who most popularized Islam for African Americans was the one-time disciple of Wallace Fard, Elijah Muhammad, who capitalized on the interest of urbanized blacks in the religiously exotic. Himself a migrant from Georgia, Muhammad (formerly Elijah Poole) assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam after Fard's disappearance in 1934, and moved its headquarters to Chicago. The Nation's version of Islam did not fare well under the scrutiny of orthodox scholars of the Qur'an, and eventually the sect broke into rival factions. Nevertheless, it has had a significant impact upon many African Americans, chiefly the young and angry like Malcolm X who believed that traditional black Christianity was a "pie-in-the-sky" religion.

Attention to the new religious options that appeared in black urban America during the period between World War I and World War II should not be at the expense of the story of the mainline black churches. Stimulated by the crisis brought about by the influx of thousands from the South, the established churches struggled with a redefinition of mission during these decades. Richard R. Wright, Jr., examined the record of black church involvement within the public sphere in 1907 and concluded that only a few churches had "attacked the problems of real city Negroes." His own work in Chicago's Institutional Church and Social Settlement, founded by Reverdy Ransom, and later at Chicago's Trinity Mission and Culture Center, which Wright organized in 1905, convinced Wright that black churches needed a more compelling definition of urban mission than presently at hand. Prior to World War I outreach primarily involved mission and charity work with the intent of recruiting new members. As Wright and Ransom discovered for themselves, pastors who addressed contemporary social problems born of urban and industrial growth were deemed too radical by denominational officials.

Most black preachers, urban and rural, still thought of sin and salvation in individualistic terms. The black denominations lagged behind their white counterparts in adopting the theological message of the social gospel movement with its focus upon the problems of urban America. Beginning with the era of the Great Migration, however, many more black churches incorporated programs into their understanding of "church work" that went beyond the traditional emphasis on praying and preaching. They assisted with needs in housing, employment, education, recreation, and health care. The instrumentalist use of the church to better the community is today so widely accepted that black clergy or congregations who show no interest in everyday problems have little appeal or credibility among African Americans.

Although black denominations were spared the bitter internecine battles that erupted in the 1920s between the white fundamentalists and modernists over such issues as the interpretation of the Creation story in Genesis, their efforts to merge have failed. Concerned about institutional inefficiency and lost opportunities to influence the larger society and motivated by the ideal that Christ's church be one, representatives of the three principal branches of black Methodism began meetings in 1915 to discuss the possibility of merger. But leaders of the CME church (formerly the Colored Methodist Episcopal church and since 1954 the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church), balked at union because of fears of being dominated by the two larger northern black Methodist bodies: the AME and the AME Zion churches. Division among black Methodists was widened by the segregation of 315,000 in the Central Jurisdiction, a nongeographical entity, of the predominantly white United Methodist Church in 1939 after the merger of the northern and southern branches of Methodism (the segregated structure was abolished in the 1960s). Black Baptists likewise have been unable to heal the divisions within their ranks. The National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., remains the largest of all black church connections, claiming about 7.5 million members and 30,000 local churches in the late 1980s.

The contemporary black Baptist story is still best told in terms of the local congregation. Ministerial alliances at the local level have fostered interdenominational cooperation where there has been sufficient need for common action. In many congregations, the minister is still the dominant personality. Critics have argued that the domineering role played by the pastor in black congregations has retarded the development of lay leadership. The preeminence of the black minister in African-American religious culture has historical roots. Because of the class and caste attitudes of whites in the South, the ministry remained one of the few professions accessible to blacks. Even in the North, where political boundaries were defined by patterns of residential segregation and black political participation was restricted, black ministers were called upon to speak for their community before local authorities. Participation in electoral and protest politics has engaged the energies of many contemporary black clergy, but they have had to divide their time between their civic roles and their pastoral roles.

Civil Rights Era to the Present

The internal life of African-American churches probably escaped the attention of most of white America until the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to catch the eye and ear of the news media. Rooted deep in the black Baptist tradition, King was schooled in the preaching tradition of the black church of the South. While doing advanced theological training in the North, he became proficient in the major currents of thought among liberal, socially aware Protestants. This made it possible for him to appeal to the conscience of white America during the civil rights struggle and to enlist the aid of allies from the more liberal white denominations. Yet the grassroots participation of thousands of black churchgoers who marched and sang and prayed transformed King's protest of racial segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, into a mass movement. From the vantage point of these people of faith, a civil rights march was as much a religious crusade as a social movement. While the cause of civil rights united black religious leaders across denominational lines and cemented alliances with progressive forces in the predominantly white Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities, there were disharmonious chords. The Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, who served as president of the National Baptist Convention from 1953 to 1982, resisted the attempt of King and others to move the largest Protestant denomination in the world into activist or protest politics. As a result, King, with the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Gardner C. Taylor, and others, formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention in 1961 under the motto: "Unity, service, fellowship, peace."

One of the most important influences on King's thought and activism was Howard Thurman, an African-American churchman of major stature in his own right. A theologian, mystic, professor, and founder of the first interracial church in the United States, Thurman knew King informally through his father. Like many others in the civil rights movement, though, King was compelled by Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited, a small but powerful book that Thurman wrote in the late 1940s in the wake of his meeting with Mohandas K. Gandhi.

The civil rights movement, of course, was not confined to institutional church circles. Nor are its religious dimensions fully measured by focusing, for example, on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King. Organizations with a more secular orientation, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), also had crucial roles to play. But even the members of SNCC were animated by a vision of the grassroots black church, especially in the South, an institution that propelled the crusade that eventually broke down the barriers of legalized segregation. While a form of religious sectarianism among many African Americans has led to withdrawal and isolation from the public sphere, orthodox or mainline black churches have for the most part been instrumental in bringing America closer to Dr. King's dream of the "beloved community."

A dramatic scenario for the re-envisioning of America unfolded in the decade of the 1960s, when the call for Black Power was heard. Originating among young radicals, many of whom were estranged from the traditional black church, the largely secular Black Power movement quickly drew a theological response. It came first from individuals such as James Cone, who were situated in academic environments, but it eventually engaged the thinking of denominational representatives. Their statements revealed both agreement with the diagnosis of the wrongs of American society as portrayed by advocates of Black Power, but also some uneasiness regarding the means necessary to achieve a just society. King had taught that nonviolence was ethically essential given the witness of the New Testament. During the civil rights crusade, local churches served as training grounds in nonviolent resistance. In contrast, the more strident advocates of Black Power carried weapons and, rhetorically at least, endorsed their use in conflicts with the police and others in authority. Steeped in the traditional Christian doctrine that the use of violence is a betrayal of the ethics of Jesus, most black Christians remained skeptical of the means the militants justified.

Nevertheless, the Black Power advocates made a lasting impact on black churches. By raising cultural awareness, black nationalistsas Garvey had done in the 1920s and earlier back-to-Africa proponents such as Bishop Henry M. Turner of the AME church did in the 1880sstimulated interest in and debate over the essential question of "how black is black religion?" Black Muslims also played a significant role in this challenge to black Christian churches. African-American clergy in the predominantly white Protestant groups organized caucuses in which they examined their historic and contemporary relationship with their host denominations. This analysis led to demands for representation in the higher echelons of institutional life, for more black clergy, and for the incorporation of distinctively African-American religious styles in worship. Black Roman Catholics also experienced a renaissance of pride in "blackness," variously defined. Representations of a Black Jesus appeared in Roman Catholic sanctuaries, and the refrains of gospel music could be heard during Mass sung in English following the reforms of Vatican II (19631965). In other religious traditions such as the Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Lutheran, African Americans also pressed for a greater appreciation of the rich African and African-American religious heritage.

Womanism is one of the most important intellectual and activist traditions of the black Christian churches to emerge from the civil rights, black theology, and women's movements of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In the late 1980s Jacquelyn Grant, Katie Geneva Cannon, Delores Williams, and Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, some of the major figures of this black feminist movement, confronted the paternalism of the black churches, the racism of white feminist theologians, and the sexism, racism, and classism of American society at large. Recognizing their roots in the struggles of generations of black women, and taking their name from an expression in Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, they identify themselves as thinkers, teachers, activists, and preachers with a commitment to the well being of African-American women, men, and children. These pioneering women have initiated a powerful and growing movement in seminaries and divinity schools throughout the United States. By training both male and female ministers to think more holistically, they have made an impacthowever modeston both black and white denominations.

One of the most prominent and successful ministers in this tradition is the Reverend Vashti Murphy McKenzie. A graduate of Howard University's divinity school and a member of a prominent black Baltimore family, McKenzie is the first black woman preacher to speak at the democratic national convention. She is one of a few female ministers to lead a large AME congregation, and more important, one of the few black women to be appointed to the office of bishop in the AME church. McKenzie is also a much sought-after speaker.

For all of the gains of womanists such as McKenzie, Grant, Cannon, and othersincluding being part of the leadership of mainline African-American churches, sitting on the faculty of major seminaries and divinity schools, heading venerable professional organizations such as the Society for the Study of Black Religion, and sitting on the boards of powerful educational organizations such as the Association of Theological Schools and the Fund for Theological Education, African-American women still fight for recognition in black churches. Obtaining such recognition means getting congregants to revise their sense of a male, preacher-centered culture.

At the core of the complex religious pilgrimage of peoples of African descent in America is the importance of the local congregation of believers who celebrate together the rites of passage of its members from baptism to Christian burial. Most black churches, however, emphasize preaching over the sacraments, in contrast to liturgical traditions such as Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. The spoken word, whether in sermon or song, is at the core of black worship, and the male preacher remains the embodiment of the word. Indeed, the roster of celebrated black preachers is long. The Rev. C. L. Franklin of Detroit is but one example. Called "the most imitated soul preacher in history" by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Franklin shepherded more than ten thousand members of Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church at the height of his popularity. He carried the sermon to an art form, was heard on the radio by a large audience, and sold millions of records.

In spite of their paternalism, black churches historically have served as the centers of African-American life and identity. Benjamin Mays, the distinguished educator in Atlanta and mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote of the church of his youth in rural South Carolina: "Old Mount Zion was an important institution in my community. Negroes had nowhere to go but to church. They went there to worship, to hear the choir sing, to listen to the preacher, and to hear and see the people shout. The young people went to Mount Zion to socialize, or simply to stand around and talk. It was a place of worship and a social center as well. There was no other place to go."

The black mainline denominations so central to the lives of persons like Benjamin Mays experienced a renewal in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s that was largely spawned by a growing black middle class. Churches such as Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago under Jeremiah Wright reinterpreted the ongoing issues of civil justice and economic empowerment in terms appropriate to an African-American laity with college and graduate degrees, middle-class aspirations, and professional careers. This educated and upwardly mobile laity, also known as buppies, demanded an equally educated and professionalized ministry with graduate degrees from prestigious institutions such as the University of Chicago Divinity School. By the same token, this prosperous laity itself brought resources of its own to these churches. As Cheryl Gilkes and Beverly Hall point out, such churches, many of them large complexes or megachurches, have health and wellness programs, day care and fitness centers, job training, and men's, women's, and youth's programs staffed by qualified professionals from among the laity.

The nondenominational Word of Faith Movement, which exploded in the 1980s, and continues to thrive into the twenty-first century, also draws adherents from the black middle class. This movement, however, appeals to a larger cross section of African Americans, and preaches a theology of prosperity. According to its adherents, God wants his people to be prosperous, even wealthy. But in order for one to obtain material prosperity, one must have unwavering faith in God's promises and follow God's commands. While not exclusively an African-American phenomenon, blacks nevertheless constitute a large part of the leadership and the membership of these Word churches. Fred Price of South Central Los Angeles is one of the most prominent black ministers in this movement. Milmon Harrison notes that blacks are attracted to this movement because it foregrounds the material well-being that has always been a part of black religious traditions.

In spite of their differences, the Word of Faith churches and revitalized mainline churches share a common criticism. Critics contend that neither the revitalized mainline black denominations nor the Word of Faith churches are concerned about poor blacks. Both groups succumb to the lure of middle-class America and leave the poorest of the poor behind. Such critics often credit the Nation of Islam with being able to reach into the ranks of the youthful street gangs and to make converts among African Americans in the country's prisons. While there is some truth to their criticisms, they overlook the various street ministries sponsored by mainline black churches or independent evangelical preachers and the extensive community services such as "meals on wheels" programs, Head Start schools, and recreational facilities, found in most places where black churches are active.

The work that black churches do to meet the needs of African Americans often entails a kind of grassroots ecumenism. In his study of a group of small congregations in northern California, theologian and pastor James Noel noted that "it is quite common for members of a particular Marin City congregation to have members of their immediate or extended family represented in other Marin City congregations. Consequently, when it comes to things like pastoral care, and even more self-conscious corporate efforts such as economic development, Marin City pastors [of different denominations] have been involved in 'an ecumenical team ministry' directed toward the community." This kind of collaborative effort and pooling of resources across denominational lines has always characterized black religious institutional life, and is even carried on in the academy, where, as Cheryl Gilkes rightly observes, African-American seminarians in field education placements regularly work across denominations. In professional organizations, African Americans of different denominations and faiths also collaborate with their Hispanic, Asian, and Euro-American colleagues. Examples of the latter are exemplified in anthologies such as Inheriting Our Mothers' Gardens, edited by Katie Cannon, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Kwok Pui-Lan, and Letty Russell, and The Ties That Bind, edited by Anthony Pinn and Benjamin Valentin.

Formal expressions of ecumenism on the order of Euro-Christian institutions, however, have been minimal. The major black denominations have indeed been involved in ecumenical agencies such as the National Council of Churches. But there exists no national organization made up exclusively of representatives of the black denominations that could work for a reduction in competition and redundancy at the local level, as well as speak more authoritatively on matters of public concern. The partially successful attempts at African-American ecumenism include: the Fraternal Council of Negro Churches (1934early 1950s); the Black Poweroriented National Conference of Black Churchmen (19671973); the Congress of National Black Churches (1978present). One of the most successful formal ecumenical efforts by the black church is the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of six primarily black denominations at the Atlanta University Center.

However successful these ecumenical efforts might be, whether formal or informal, they do not diminish the fact that the needs and issues facing most black churches are often overwhelming. HIV/AIDS, troubles facing black youth, especially black males, women and welfare reform, and the like outstrip the resources of these institutions, and often exacerbate the churches' own inability to address the sexuality and gender issues at the core of many of these social ills. Recently, financial assistance has come from the conservative wing of the federal government. Only time will tell whether this kind of support will fuel the biblical conservatism dogging these churches and testing their fifty-year-old identity as grassroots civil-rights organizations. Robert Franklin, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Cornel West bring these matters to the fore and offer fresh assessments and challenges.

During the 1950s, when the crusade to break down the walls of prejudice and discrimination crested, some observers wondered what the fate of the black churches would be if racial assimilation replaced racial apartheid. Since the historic African-American denominations had originated in protest to the exclusionary policies prevalent among white Christians, so the argument went, the rationale for separate black religious institutions weakened as the predominantly white denominations became more egalitarian. That African-American religious institutions continue to expand some four decades after Martin Luther King Jr. trumpeted the call for a new day in the relationship between black and white America should signal that African-American religion has been more than a simple reaction to the religious experiences and practices of Americans of European descent. It stands as an enduring witness to the multicultural texture of the entire American experience.

See also African Methodist Episcopal Church; African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; African Orthodox Church; African Union Methodism; Baptists; Black Power Movement; Candomblé; Catholicism in the Americas; Christian Denominations, Independent; Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Frazier, Edward Franklin; Gospel Music; Gullah; Islam; Judaism; Nation of Islam; National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.; National Black Evangelical Association; Protestantism in the Americas; Santería; Tanner, Benjamin Tucker; Voodoo


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When Europeans began arriving in North America in the sixteenth century, they encountered Native American traditions that dated back thousands of years. Although native peoples observed a wide variety of religious practices, they all believed in a supreme creator who was present in every aspect of nature. For instance, Native Americans in eastern North America (known as the Eastern Woodland tribes) believed they were only a small part of a harmonious world created by the Great Spirit. All of nature contained this divine spirit and was to be respected. Thus they changed their environment as little as possible, taking only what they needed. They thanked a tree for dying and providing them with wood for a fire. They thanked an animal they had killed for giving up its flesh to feed them and its skin to clothe them. The European view—that humans dominated nature and could change it for their advantage—made no sense to these people. Access to the spirit world came through dreams, which shamans (priests) interpreted for them. Often these shamans were women, who seemed to be more in contact with the spiritual realm because of their role in the miraculous event of childbirth.

Europeans did not recognize the basic similarities between Native American beliefs and their own Christian religions. Therefore most European colonists attempted to convince native peoples that the Christian God was the one true god and only European religious practices were correct. They also promoted the European way of life, which made it easier to convert Native Americans to Christianity and suppress their traditional religious practices. (Conversion was also a way to acquire more land and expand European settlement.) Native Americans who did convert usually practiced their own religion as well, producing a blend of native traditions and Christianity.

Spanish introduce Roman Catholicism

Roman Catholicism (also known as Catholicism) was the first European religion in North America. The Spanish introduced it in the sixteenth century, after they had conquered wealthy empires in Peru and Mexico and moved north in search of more riches. One of their other main goals was to convert Native North Americans to Christianity. At that time, Catholicism was the only church in western Europe (the term catholic means universal), and leaders of nations were determined to spread their religion to non-Christian lands. Spain was especially dedicated to this goal, and the pope (the head of the church) granted so much power to the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand (1452–1516) and Queen Isabella (1451–1504), that they virtually became "vice-popes." Seized by religious enthusiasm, they were determined to promote Catholicism in the New World (a European term for North and South America) after Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) discovered it in 1492 (see Chapter 2).

Roman Catholicism has undergone many changes since the sixteenth century, but its major characteristics have remained the same. The Catholic Church (officially titled the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church) is a Christian religion based in Rome, Italy, and headed by the pope (the bishop of Rome), who is considered Jesus's representative on Earth. (Jesus of Nazareth, also called the Christ, was the founder of Christianity.) Catholic doctrine is based on the Bible (the Christian holy book), which the pope interprets with the advice of a council of bishops (leaders who govern church dioceses, or regions). The pope, either alone or in consultation with his bishops, determines matters of faith and morality, and Catholics must accept his word as absolute truth. Catholics honor the Virgin Mary (the mother of Jesus) and other saints (those who have been declared holy by the church), who each have a special day that is celebrated by the church.

Catholic worship services are based on the sacraments, or rituals through which God directly conveys forgiveness of sins. The principal sacraments are penance (confession and punishment of sins) and the Eucharist (holy communion). In the sacrament of penance, the penitent (one who has sinned) is required to confess his or her mortal (serious) sins at least once a year to a priest (an ordained clergyman of the church). The priest determines penances (punishment), which usually involve the penitent saying certain prayers. The sacrament of the Eucharist involves church members consuming bread and wine, which are considered the body and blood of Christ. This central ritual of the Roman Catholic Church is performed during the mass (religious service).

"the blessings of being a Christian"

Spanish Franciscan friars (priests) eventually succeeded in converting the Pueblo to Christianity. Nevertheless they met resistance along the way, especially among the older generation. In 1634 Fray Alonso de Benavides wrote an account of the missionaries' efforts to Christianize the Native Americans. He told the story of one priest, Fray Martín de Arvide, who had been cruelly treated by an old Pueblo priest at the village of Picuries two years earlier:

[Fray Martín de Arvide] converted more than two hundred Indians, suffering great hardships and personal dangers, as these people are the most indomitable [hardest to subdue] of that kingdom. He founded a church and convent large enough to minister to all the baptized [those admitted into the church]. Among the newly converted, there was a young man, a son of one of the principal sorcerers [Pueblo priests]. On a certain occasion, the latter undertook to pervert his son and dissuade him from what the padre [Father Arvide] taught. When the father was informed of it, he left the convent with a crucifix [cross bearing the likeness of the crucified Jesus] in his hands and, filled with apostolic [missionary] spirit, he went to the place where the infernal minister [the Pueblo priest] was perverting that soul and began to remonstrate [express objections] with him, saying, "Is it not sufficient that you yourself want to go to hell without desiring to take your son also?" Addressing the young man, he said, "Son, I am more your father and I love you more than he, for he wants to take you with him to the suffering of hell, while I wish you to enjoy the blessings of being a Christian." With divine zeal, he advanced these and other arguments. The old sorcerer arose, grasped a large club near by, and struck the blessed father such a blow on the head that he felled him and then he and others dragged him around the plaza and illtreated him cruelly. Miraculously he escaped from their hands; although very eager to offer his life to its Giver, God preserved him for a later occasion.

Reprinted in: Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 42–43.

Missionaries find easy converts

The first Spanish settlement in North America was a Catholic mission at present-day Saint Augustine, Florida, which prospered for many years after its founding in 1565. Jesuits and Franciscans (men who belong to Catholic religious orders) established missions, hospitals, and convents in Spanish territory, called La Florida, which extended north from Saint Augustine to present-day South Carolina and Alabama. After 1598 the Spanish ventured into New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, where they slowly established the largest concentration of missions in North America. By 1634 there were thirty-four Franciscans maintaining forty-four missions and ministering to more than twenty-five thousand Native American converts. They conducted most of their mission work among the Pueblo, a group of tribes who lived in apartment-like structures. These farming people eagerly adapted the agricultural technology of the Spaniards and welcomed the Franciscans, showing great respect for the European spiritual leaders.

Pueblo Creation Myth

Like all major religions, the Pueblo's spiritual philosophy had at its center a creation myth to explain the phenomenon of life. They believed they had once lived in the center of the Earth (called the middle cosmos) with their mother and all other living creatures. When it was time to leave, she gave them corn to take the place of her nourishment and appointed a priest to take care of them. With aid from the birds, insects, and animals, the Pueblo and their gods climbed up to the surface of the Earth. They entered into the "White House," from which they could view the sky, the third level of the cosmos (universe). In the sky, two sisters were contending to see who was stronger. They fought to a draw. One sister then went east and became the mother of the white people, while the other went west and became the mother of the Native Americans. The Pueblo remained with their gods at the White House, where they were taught how to farm, how to honor the gods, and how to perform the sacred rituals and ceremonies that would integrate humans with the forces of the cosmos. Upon completing their instruction, the people left the White House and established their villages.

Pueblo observe ancient traditions

Like the Spanish, the Pueblo kept religion at the center of their culture. Pueblo rituals were performed by spiritual leaders (priests; also called medicine men); it was believed they were sent to Earth by the gods, who instructed them before their descent into this realm. The kiva was the most sacred place in all of the Pueblo villages, for it represented the hole in the Earth through which they came, a hole that extended into the underworld, the first level of the cosmos. It was through the kiva that they could communicate with their gods. The kiva was located at the center of each village, from which all else was measured—the apartments, fields, and boundaries of the village. In this circular area was a partially underground room where all the ceremonies that marked the phases of the year took place. This was the time during the ceremonies when it was necessary to enlist the help and advice of the gods and cosmic forces. Next to it was a room where sacred masks and other religious paraphernalia were stored. A chief priest cared for these objects and oversaw the rituals, aided by trained assistants.

Pueblo absorb Catholicism

At first the Pueblo had no difficulty incorporating Catholicism into their traditional religion because they considered the white friars the priests or assistants of the eastern sister (the mother of the white people). The Christian god therefore took his place among their own gods. The Pueblo added to their rituals such Catholic practices as kneeling in prayer and chanting. They included chalices (cups used for drinking wine during communion) among the objects in their sacred warehouse. In addition, they found similarities between Catholic crucifixes (crosses bearing the image of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, also called Christ) and their own prayer sticks, and the use of incense (a material used to produce a fragrant odor when burned) in Catholic worship services resembled their own rituals in which they smoked pipes. The friars welcomed this blending of traditions and even formed Pueblo boys' choirs to perfect their chanting.

Catholics driven out of Southwest

However, the Pueblo became increasingly resentful of the missionaries. In 1680, after eighty-two years of Spanish occupation, the Pueblo revolutionary leader Popé (c. 1625–1690) led a revolt against Catholicism. Defying Spanish laws, Popé urged the Pueblo to return to their traditional religion and way of life. Organizing a massive force at Santa Fe, New Mexico, he led a siege in which four hundred Spanish missionaries and colonists were killed. The survivors fled hundreds of miles south, into Mexico. As the new leader of the Pueblo, Popé set about removing all traces of Spanish influence: he outlawed the Spanish language, destroyed Catholic churches, and cleansed people who had been baptized by missionaries. Within a decade, however, Popé's power was weakened by Apache raids, internal Pueblo dissension (discord), and his own harsh rule. In 1692, less than two years after Popé's death, the Spaniards once again conquered the Pueblo.

French bring Catholicism to Canada

While Spanish missionaries were spreading Christianity in the southeastern and southwestern regions of North America, the French were introducing Catholicism in New France (present-day Canada; see Chapter 3). French explorers were attracted to the New World by the promise of a profitable fur trade in the Great Lakesregion of Canada and the present-day United States (territory bordering a chain of five lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario). Like the Spanish, the French combined conquest with conversion. Leading the effort were members of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, who arrived in New France in 1615 to minister to the Hurons, a mighty nation of thirty thousand who inhabited the region around Lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario. The Jesuits were known throughout the world for their ability to adapt to foreign cultures in a campaign to draw converts to Catholicism. Attired in distinctive black tunics, they were called the "Black Robes" by the Hurons. The Jesuits stayed in New France until the fall of Quebec, the main settlement, four years later. The French then moved south into territory that is now the United States. (The province of New France was restored in 1632.)

When the French ventured south, however, they encountered hostility from the Spanish and the English. Spreading Christianity therefore became less important than expanding French territory and protecting trade routes. The Jesuits also met resistance from several Huron and Iroquois groups who did not want to adopt European customs. In 1647 the Jesuits therefore relaxed their requirements for baptism (initiation into Christianity through anointment with water) and became more tolerant of traditional Native American religious practices. They also took advantage of the natives' belief in the supernatural. For instance, the priests claimed the Catholic crucifix had the power to heal simple diseases. They made a great show of their ability to read and write and predict solar eclipses (the total or partial obscuring of one celestial body by another), which seemed magical to the Native Americans. The Jesuits also capitalized on their own practical skills, their willingness to share belongings, and their ability to endure hardship—all characteristics that Native Americans admired and respected. The Jesuits ultimately had little impact on the culture of the Hurons, but they left a legacy of Christian commitment among French settlers in Canada and along the northern boundaries of the present-day United States.

Catholics start Maryland colony

Catholics were also among the early English settlers in New York, Pennsylvania, and other colonies. They were often denied political rights and found the most freedom in Maryland. In 1632 King Charles I granted a proprietary charter (a privately held contract granting the right to form a self-governing colony) to George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, to found the Maryland colony (named for Queen Henrietta Maria, the king's wife). Calvert died soon thereafter, so his son Cecilius Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, developed the colony as a place of refuge for his fellow Catholics. At that time England was embroiled in a conflict that culminated in the English Civil War (1642–48) and the execution of Charles I. The complex political situation was fueled by a religious struggle, primarily between Puritans (a religious group that believed in strict moral and spiritual codes) and Catholics. The Puritans had an intense hatred of Catholics, whom they persecuted, and they especially feared Charles because Queen Henrietta Maria was Catholic.

In 1634 a group of settlers—both Catholics and Protestants—arrived in Maryland. Calvert remained in England, but he told the Maryland governor not to offend the Protestants and advised the Catholics to worship privately. Such toleration of other denominations (organized religious groups) was the only way the Catholics could have any rights at all. A church building was immediately erected in Saint Mary's, the first settlement, and within five years at least four other Catholic parishes had been started. For the first decade the conduct of church affairs was in the hands of Jesuit priests, who converted both Protestants and Native Americans. However, their success provoked the growing numbers of Protestant settlers, and the Calverts quietly began to limit Jesuit activities and invite the ministries of other orders.

In 1649 the Catholic-dominated assembly (lawmaking body) passed an Act Concerning Religion, putting into law the long-practiced policy of toleration. Protestants briefly held power from 1689 to 1691, after Protestant monarchs King William III and Queen Mary II took the English throne during the Glorious Revolution. Maryland then became a royal colony (came under direct rule of the English Crown). The Calverts regained control in 1715, but by this time they had converted to Anglicanism (the official religion of England). Nevertheless, they maintained their earlier policy of toleration, and a small core of Catholics continued to practice their faith in spite of increasing Protestant threats. As moderately wealthy landowners, Catholics enjoyed sufficient social status to sustain their churches.

Church of England

The Church of England (also called Anglicanism) was founded as the official religion of Great Britain in 1534. The church was indirectly a result of the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant movement began in England in 1531 when King Henry VIII decided to annul (make legally invalid or void) his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. A staunch Roman Catholic, Henry wanted to marry again because Catherine had not borne him a son and he was determined to father a male heir to the throne. He encountered strong resistance from the Catholic pope, who had the final authority to nullify marriages. Since Catherine was a Spanish princess and the Catholic Church depended on Spain to fight Protestantism in Europe, the pope could not afford to alienate the Spanish by granting the annulment.

Henry formally broke with the Catholic Church in 1534 and declared himself head of the Church of England. But his quarrel with Catholicism was political, not religious. Although he closed monasteries (houses for monks, or men who take religious vows) and seized Catholic lands, he retained bishops and priests. Henry actually did not want to change the church because he loved the rituals, especially the elaborate ceremonies and fancy vestments (robes) worn by bishops and priests during the mass.

Anglicanism in the Chesapeake

With the English founding of Jamestown in 1607 (see Chapter 4), Anglicanism was possibly the first Protestant religion introduced in North America. It became a dominant force, especially after all of the colonies came under English control in the late 1600s and early 1700s. For many years, however, the church was mostly a social organization. The first Anglican churches were clustered around the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia, where settlers lived far apart on plantations. They were under the jurisdiction of church authorities in London, who paid them little attention. Making matters worse, Anglican clergymen, who were educated and ordained (officially appointed) in England, did not want to exchange their comfortable positions at home for the poor pay and primitive conditions in the colonies. Most clergymen therefore came to the colonies because they were unable to find a parish (area served by a church) in England. They offered hardly any religious instruction and discipline and rarely bothered to provide a moral example to their parishioners.

Church serves gentry

In the seventeenth-century South, the Anglican Church supported the power of the gentry (upper class), who were the vestrymen of the parish (congregation members who administered the business of the church). These men handled church finances, determined who was to receive public assistance, investigated complaints against the minister, and generally conducted the day-to-day business of the parish. A vestry position was the first rung on the ladder to political power that members of the gentry climbed on their way to colony-wide offices. Taxpayers were assessed a fixed amount to pay for the minister and parish activities. Often the tax was figured in tobacco, which almost everyone grew (tobacco was the main crop of Virginia and Maryland) and which the ministers could sell to support themselves.

Anglican worship services consisted of prayers from the Book of Common Prayer (the official text for church rituals), reading of the Scriptures (the Bible, or Christian holy book), and the minister's sermon. Communion (a ritual in which bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ; also known as the Lord's Supper) was served four times a year, and anyone who had been confirmed as a church member and seemed to be of sound moral character could participate. Clergymen benefitted from supporting the upper classes (mainly plantation owners), so they frequently used their sermons to remind the lower classes (servants and laborers) to pay proper respect to the gentry. Attending church was mainly an opportunity for colonists to exchange news and conduct business. Once the lower classes had settled down for worship, the gentry paraded into the church and took their seats in the best pews. Sometimes they did not even bother to enter at all.

Renewal of Anglicanism

The arrival of minister James Blair (1656–1743) in 1689 marked the beginning of improvements in the Anglican Church. He was the commissary, or personal representative, of the bishop of London, who supervised parishes in the colonies. Blair was determined to centralize all church authority and administration into his own hands and then mold the clergy into true spiritual leaders. Although vestrymen resisted his efforts, he managed to improve the conduct of existing clergymen and attract more educated ministers to the colonies. As a result of Blair's efforts, Maryland established Anglicanism as the main religion in 1702. Carolina followed suit in 1706, creating ten new parishes and building the elegant St. Philip's Church in Charleston.

African religions

Africans were among the earliest immigrant groups in North America, arriving as slaves in Virginia in 1619. Most came from the western areas of Africa and held a variety of religious beliefs. There were some common patterns, however. Africans believed in one High God, who created the world. He was often associated with the sky and remained somewhat uninvolved in the lives of humans. Lesser gods and ancestral spirits, however, were actively involved with people's daily lives. Groups of gods were associated with aspects of nature, such as thunder, the earth, and especially water. Gods of nature resided in trees, hills, and animals. They could be kind or cruel and had individual personalities.

Ancestral spirits honored

Humans had to maintain proper relationships with the gods by constructing shrines, wearing certain colors, eating certain foods, and conducting religious ceremonies that pleased them. Ancestral spirits were more varied and personal than gods. Whether they had lived long ago or recently, they were honored as founders of villages and kinship groups. The spirits served as custodians (one in charge) of culture and laws and as mediators between humans and gods. They could grant or deny fertility (the ability to bear children) and health. The spirits were reincarnated (reborn in another human form) in one of their descendants, but their souls returned to the High God after that human died.

Africans respected the elderly because they preserved the memory of the dead and because they were closer in age to the ancestors. Burial rites ensured that the dead entered the spirit world and did not linger in the natural world as restless and evil ghosts. Funerals were long affairs. After death the ancestors demanded offerings of food and drink in ceremonies that often became quite complex. Priests served as mediators, able to read the fates of individuals, to divine the wills of gods and ancestral spirits, and to identify witchcraft. They prescribed amulets, or charms, that contained magical powers to protect and help humans and knew of the natural herbs and roots that promoted healing. Priests also conducted the religious ceremonies devoted to individual gods and ancestral spirits. Interwoven with these rituals were music, dancing, drumming, and singing.

Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

In 1701 the Anglican Church founded the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England. The goal of the organization was to reverse the embarrassment that the colonial Anglican Church had become to the mother church in England. The society sent out missionaries to start congregations and convert Native Americans and African slaves. Although the missionaries had mixed success with the southern Yamasee and northern Iroquois tribes, they made more progress in converting and baptizing slaves. In New England the society spent much of its energy trying to weaken the dominance of Puritans. The middle colonies proved an exceptionally fertile ground, with their large population of recent immigrants who were hungry for religious services conducted by any Protestant minister.

Islam and Catholicism merged with traditions

Some Africans who came to North America were Muslims. Trade networks in northwest Africa had brought the Islamic religion, which drew on Jewish and Christian history and scripture. The Muslims (followers of Islam) viewed Jesus of Nazareth as a minor figure, however, and they believed that Muhammad (the founder of Islam) was the true prophet. Muslims followed the teachings of the Koran (the holy book of Islam), observing dietary restrictions and praying in the direction of Mecca (their holiest city) five times a day. Africans had also been converted to Catholicism by Portuguese explorers.

During the early colonial period many Africans intermingled Islam and Catholicism with their own belief systems. To them, God (the Christian supreme spirit) and Allah (the Muslim supreme spirit) were just different names for the High God (God and Allah are actually the same deity). Mary (the mother of Jesus), Jesus, and Muhammad served the same purpose as lesser gods, and Catholic saints were similar to ancestral spirits. The importance of water in African religious ceremonies prepared them for the sacrament of baptism.

African Americans adapt Protestantism

White masters increasingly pressured their African slaves to accept Christianity—in most cases Protestantism (a branch of Christianity formed in opposition to Catholicism). Nevertheless the masters had no control over how the Africans practiced their new faith, so second- and third-generation African Americans began adapting Protestant teachings to their own traditional religions. They were drawn to Old Testament (the first part of the Bible) stories, such as the captivity of the Hebrews in Egypt, which mirrored their own experience. Africans also embraced the New Testament (the second part of the Bible) image of Christ as the savior of the oppressed. During the Great Awakening, a widespread revival of Protestantism in the mid-eighteenth century, a small percentage of African Americans were converted to Christianity. By this time black preachers were also spreading the Christian message among slaves.


From the earliest years of the colonial period, Puritans dominated all aspects of life in New England, the northeast region of the present-day United States (see Chapter 4). The Puritans were a Protestant Christian group that advocated reform of the Church of England and stressed strict moral and religious codes. They objected to elaborate church rituals that were derived from Roman Catholicism. Puritans adopted many of the teachings of sixteenth-century French reformer John Calvin (1509–1564), who elaborated on the Reform movement started by Martin Luther. Because of their efforts to reform the Anglican Church, the Puritans were subjected to extreme persecution in England. In the early 1600s they began leaving England in search of religious freedom. Many Puritans made their way to America and founded two colonies—Plymouth in 1620 and Massachusetts Bay in 1630—side by side in the southeastern part of New England. However, they held differing views about the Church of England. The Plymouth settlers were Nonconformists (also known as Separatists), who advocated complete separation from the church. The Massachusetts Bay colonists wanted to reform the church and saw no reason to declare total independence.

Puritans follow Calvin

The Puritans immediately put Calvin's teachings into practice. Towns were organized around Puritan congregations (separate groups of church members) that controlled all aspects of life in the colony. The Puritans adopted covenants (solemn and binding agreements), which were patterned on covenants God had made with humans. In the covenant of works, for instance, Adam and Eve (the first man and woman on Earth, according to the Christian Bible) agreed to achieve salvation (the state of being saved from sin) by their own good works (moral behavior). Adam and Eve broke this covenant by sinning, however, and lost God's grace (goodwill). Through the covenant of redemption, Jesus of Nazareth agreed to take upon himself the guilt and sins of all other human beings, thereby restoring them to God's grace. In the covenant of grace, God's spirit entered certain people, called the "elect," who had been predestined (chosen by God) for salvation.

According to the Puritans, God also made covenants with groups of people, such as Abraham (an important Hebrew leader in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible) and his descendants. He looked upon these people with special favor if they tried to obey his will. The Puritans believed they were one of these favored groups—they often referred to themselves as "saints"—so they created their own covenants that regulated every function of society. Taken together, these separate covenants formed society's covenant with God, who was quick to punish anyone who violated the agreement.

Simplicity stressed by Puritans

Puritan leaders were a few "elect" men who had achieved salvation, and church membership was limited to those who could prove they had been saved. The Puritans believed that people could be saved by hearing and understanding the word of God with the help of an ordained minister. A Puritan church (also called a meetinghouse) was a plain, square building without a steeple (a tall structure, or tower, on the roof), stained-glass windows, or ornaments of any kind. The Puritans rejected these features, which could be found in Anglican churches, as being too much like the elaborate cathedrals built by the Roman Catholic Church. Worshipers sat on hard, wooden benches (pews) facing the minister, who often stood on a raised platform. Although worship services were held throughout the week, the major service was on Sunday. It was a lengthy and formal event with a two-hour sermon (minister's lecture) that opened and closed with long prayers. Worshipers stood during the prayers and throughout much of the service. Sometimes the congregation would take a lunch break after the morning service and return for another session in the afternoon. Singing or chanting psalms (songpoems from the Bible) was allowed, but with no musical accompaniment (an instrumental or vocal part designed to support a melody). A person called a "liner" would sing a line, and the congregation would repeat it in whatever tunes individuals chose to follow.

Community enforces covenants

Since the Puritans lived close together, they observed one another to make sure everyone obeyed the covenants. As a result, there was no privacy in Puritan communities. If trouble arose in a family, church elders (leaders who were not ordained ministers) would take action. They had the authority to remove children and servants from households that did not meet community standards. The husband was the head of the household and represented the family at public and church events. He was also responsible for raising his children in a strict manner to save them from the temptations of Satan (another name for the Devil). A woman obeyed her husband and supervised private household affairs. Puritans assumed that the Bible provided all necessary laws for a moral society, so they did not write an official set of laws until 1641. They also established schools to ensure that everyone could read the Bible. In 1636 Harvard College opened its doors in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to prepare Puritans for the ministry. (It was the first institution of higher learning in the colonies.)

Since Puritans frowned on any activities that did not glorify God, they had strict rules against dancing, card playing, drinking alcohol, and other "immoral" or "frivolous" pastimes. They did not observe the holy days traditionally celebrated in the Catholic Church and the Church of England—not even Christmas (the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth) and Easter (the commemoration of Jesus's resurrection, or rising from the dead). They thought the Catholic Church had simply made up religious holidays to fit the dates of pagan (non-Christian) rituals so it would be easier to convert nonbelievers to Christianity.

Influence declines

The Puritans' strict rules often caused conflicts with those who did not share their beliefs. Challenges to Puritan control gained momentum with the arrival of new colonists. By 1660 non-Puritans were pouring into New England in greater numbers, seeking economic opportunity rather than joining the religious community. Church membership declined rapidly, and soon few could claim to be saved. In desperation, some Puritan churches adopted the Half-Way Covenant, whereby children of any baptized person could be admitted to the church regardless of whether their parents were church members. Others took the Presbyterian position that anyone who led a moral life could join the church. In 1692 Massachusetts Bay was placed under a royal charter (direct control of the English monarch) with Plymouth, forming the single colony of Massachusetts. The Puritans were now New Englanders, and their religion became known as Congregationalism.

"the young brood doth much afflict me"

Puritan children were brought up in a strict religious environment. Parents were responsible for teaching their children to read and write so they could understand the Bible, and the community enforced rigid moral codes. Nevertheless church leaders worried about the "ungodliness" of young people. For instance, in 1657 Ezekiel Rogers, a Puritan preacher, expressed dismay over the behavior of the "rising generation" in a letter to a fellow minister in England. Rogers confided that he could not find any servants—most of whom were fourteen to eighteen or nineteen years old—who would set a good moral example. He wrote:

Do your children and family grow more godly? I find the greatest trouble and grief about the rising generation. Young people are little stirred [to godly behavior] here; but they strengthen one another in evil by example and by counsel [talking among themselves]. Much ado have I with my own family; hard to get a servant that is glad of catechizing [receiving religious instruction] or family duties. I had a rare blessing of servants in Yorkshire [England], and those that I brought over were a blessing, but the young brood doth much afflict me. Even the children of the godly here, and elsewhere make woful proof [of following Puritan teachings].

Reprinted in: Earle, Alice Morse. Child Life in Colonial Days. New York: Macmillan, 1899; reprinted, Stockbridge, Mass.: Berkshire House Publishers, 1993, p. 235.


Traditional Puritanism had declined by the early 1700s and was replaced by Congregationalism. The

Praying Villages

New England colonists made a widespread effort to convert and "civilize" Native Americans during the seventeenth century. Most of the activity took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where English Puritan missionary John Eliot established fourteen "praying villages" for Christian natives. He initiated his project in 1649, with funding from A Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel among the Indians of New England, a missionary organization based in London, England. Eliot had an ambitious mission. He believed converted Native Americans should become independent and adopt the European way of life—live in houses, wear European-style clothes, and own land. He envisioned the settlements as self-governing Puritan villages, where Native Americans would be free to manage their own affairs under Massachusetts Bay laws. In 1651 the first town of "praying Indians" was established at Natick. The first Native American church was also founded at Natick in 1660 and was active until 1716. In 1663 Eliot published a Bible in the Algonquian language. Native American conversion thrived in Massachusetts until it was stifled by Metacom's War (1675–76; also known as King Philip's War). This devastating conflict between the colonists and the Wampanoag broke out when a Christian Native American was murdered, possibly on orders from the Wampanoag chief Metacom. Although many Christian natives fought for the English colonists, they were mistrusted by Puritans and other Native Americans. Eliot himself came under suspicion for his efforts at segregation. As a result, the number of Christian natives began to decline. In 1674, before the war, there had been about thirty-six hundred converts in the fourteen settlements. When the war ended two years later, the number of "praying villages" had dropped to four and the population of Christianized Native Americans had significantly decreased.

original ideal of the Puritan fathers was that separate congregations would all share the same beliefs and promote the same practices in following church covenants. Yet over time Puritans had broken into separate congregations with different views, and it was difficult for church leaders to maintain unity. Another problem was that congregations no longer placed the welfare of the community above self-interest. They also relaxed standards for admission into church membership—some did not even bother to observe the Half-Way Covenant. In New England coastal cities, merchants chose churches that emphasized leading a private moral life but required no commitment to the community. These churches accepted anyone who professed a Christian belief as members. Even the physical appearance of church buildings had changed, reflecting the growing wealth and sophistication of the congregations. Structures became larger and more luxurious and even featured steeples. Balconies had more seats for worshipers, and tall windows flooded the interior with light. Altars appeared in the front of the church, with an elaborate, winding staircase that led to a pulpit (an elevated platform used in church services) high above the worshipers' heads.

Faced with these dramatic changes, church leaders were worried that Christians had lost their way and salvation was no longer possible. They thought the solution was to impose basic requirements on Congregational churches. One such effort was the Saybrook Platform, which a Connecticut group called the clerical party enacted into law, with the support of the governor, in 1708. It created a Presbyterian-type church organization, with a central council that would oversee county districts. The main council would set standards for local churches, appoint supervisors to implement the standards, and ordain ministers. Yet the colony still had to abide by English law and tolerate other religions, so the Connecticut legislature grudgingly passed a Toleration Act, which few communities actually followed.

Revivalism sweeps congregations

Despite an appearance of order and formality in the churches, many Congregationalists longed for conversion, or an intense personal commitment to the teachings of Jesus. This longing increased with news of the exciting revivals staged by Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729), a pastor in western Massachusetts. Stoddard had abandoned all Puritan church covenants and offered the Lord's Supper (holy communion) as an opportunity for conversion. He also advocated a Presbyterian-style organization. But he was most famous for his powerful sermons, which inspired a spiritual awakening in his listeners. The urge for a new kind of religious experience was heightened by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), Stoddard's grandson, who motivated other ministers to stir the souls of their congregations. By 1737, when Edwards published Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, which described his revivals, awakenings were regular occurrences throughout New England. However, it took the appearance of English evangelist (a minister who preaches conversion) George Whitefield (1714–1770) in 1740 to fan these scattered flames into a roaring fire called the Great Awakening.


Many Puritans in New England called themselves Presbyterians. Presbyterianism was a democratic system (demonstrating social equality) of church organization in which ministers and elders formed the governing body in a district. Like Puritanism, Presbyterian beliefs were based on the teachings of French reformer John Calvin. From the beginning Presbyterian leaders worked closely with other Protestant denominations in worship, ministerial education, and mutual support. Congregation members came from Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Sweden, Germany, and France. By the early eighteenth century Presbyterians were the fastest-growing religious group in the colonies, primarily because of a large number of Irish immigrants (people who move from one country to another). Waves of Irish Presbyterians first flooded into the middle and southern colonies, which tolerated their religious beliefs, and then flowed into the unoccupied western regions.

Churches isolated

Most of these immigrants lived on isolated farms, so they had to travel some distance to attend services. They usually formed small congregations that often had trouble supporting a minister. Before a congregation could hire a minister, each family pledged a contribution to his salary in the form of food, firewood, or money. If this was not sufficient, two or three congregations shared a minister and conducted their own worship services when he was visiting another church. Larger congregations relied on pew rents (rental of church benches), with more desirable pews going for a higher fee. Worship services were similar to those of the early Puritans in New England, except that several congregations might join in the Lord's Supper. Sometimes this event lasted for two days. One minister would preach a sermon of preparation, after which local clergy would dispense communion tokens to worthy members. The tokens were used as tickets to sit at chosen tables, which were roped off to keep out the "undeserving."

Struggle to define beliefs

Forming an American denomination was a great challenge. Presbyterians found themselves divided on such

Makemie Organizes

The Irish Presbyterian minister Francis Makemie (c. 1658–c. 1707) is credited with joining scattered American congregations into an organized denomination. A tireless traveler, he first journeyed throughout the colonies and down to Barbados in 1683, preaching and organizing churches as he went. In 1706 he organized the first presbytery (a representative gathering of ministers and church elders) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was attended by seven local ministers and their elders. Within ten years there were four presbyteries and a synod (central council) operating in the colonies. A few months after the first presbytery meeting, Makemie became the center of attention when Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury—the governor of New York—had him arrested for preaching without a license. Makemie's defense was that he had been granted a license as a dissenting minister in Barbados, which was valid in all British domains. The court acquitted him, but a vengeful Cornbury ordered him to pay the entire cost of the trial. New Yorkers were so incensed that the assembly passed a law prohibiting such assessments and Cornbury was recalled in disgrace. By this time Makemie had died, but many dissenters had moved into the Presbyterian fold.

issues as whether to adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith (or creed) was established by the Presbyterian-controlled British Parliament (lawmaking body) at the Westminster Assembly (1643–49) as the basis of church doctrine (policy and teachings). The creed recognized the absolute authority of God and the Bible in government, morality, and religion. English Presbyterians accepted baptism and communion, but they opposed the intervention of the church in state affairs. Many American colonists accepted these views, while others objected to having a man-made creed, as opposed to one from God (i.e., the Bible). Debates raged from 1721 until 1729, when the American synod (central council) adopted the Westminster Confession as a guide to church government, but they did not require individual congregations to adopt it.

Presbyterians spark revivals

Presbyterians remained loosely organized into the 1720s, but they were united in their desire to convert others to their beliefs. Around 1726, a young minister in New Jersey named Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764) became acquainted with Theodorus Frelinghuysen, a neighboring Dutch Reformed clergyman. Frelinghuysen was holding religious meetings called revivals, where he preached emotional sermons and urged personal conversion. Tennent wanted to start his own revivals and was soon joined by his brothers and a few others who had been tutored by Gilbert's father, William Tennent (1673–1746), in what was later known as the "Log College." Along with Frelinghuysen they intruded on the congregations of neighboring churches, accusing clergymen of being unqualified to lead others to salvation. Several of Tennent's followers could not meet the educational requirements for ministers set by the Westminster Directory in England, so they fought to have the requirements abolished.

Many sympathized with their position, since lowering standards would make more ministers available for vacant Presbyterian churches. In 1738 the synod compromised by passing the Examination Act, which required ministerial candidates without a university degree to be approved by a synod committee. In 1746 the Presbyterians founded the interdenominational (open to all religious groups) College of New Jersey at Elizabethtown for the training of Presbyterian ministers. The school was moved to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1754 and was officially named Princeton College in the 1760s. (It is now Princeton University.)


In 1639 Roger Williams (1603?–1683) and fellow refugees from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony founded the first Baptist (a shortened form of Anabaptist) church in America. They rejected infant baptism, which was practiced in all Christian churches at that time. Williams and his followers believed that only adults were capable of understanding the true meaning of the commitment to lead a life according to the teachings of Christ. They therefore advocated adult baptism, which involved immersion in a river or stream as a way to be cleansed of past sins and start a new life.

Diverse groups formed

By the 1700s the Baptist Church was composed of several groups. Among them were the General Baptists (also known as Six Principle Baptists) from England, who believed in free will (the idea that all people can make voluntary choices or decisions independently of God). They settled mainly in Rhode Island and formed a yearly meeting in 1700 to serve as an advisory board for their numerous churches. Another group, called Particular Baptists, came from Wales and advocated a doctrine of predestination (belief that God has determined one's earthly fate by divine decree). They worked closely with the Presbyterians, who also believed in predestination. The Philadelphia Baptist Association soon attracted other newly organized churches in Virginia and North Carolina. These churches had a strong representation of General Baptists, who later changed their name to Regular Baptists.


In 1639 Roger Williams and fellow refugees from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony formed what is called the first Baptist church in America. The name originated from the baptismal experience, which was the center of Baptist beliefs. After an individual had undergone a spiritual conversion, or awakening, the congregation would witness as he or she was submerged in a river or stream. Upon emerging from the water, the person would be cleansed of past sins and ready to start a new life and relationship with God. This practice had its roots in biblical accounts of John the Baptist, the Jewish prophet who preceded Jesus. He was baptizing people as they awaited the new Messiah, whom Christians believed was embodied by Jesus.

Baptists support Great Awakening

Baptist congregations remained small and relatively weak until after the Great Awakening, a series of revivals (intensely emotional religious meetings) in the early 1740s. This movement had a profound impact on all Protestant denominations in the colonies. The message of the Great Awakening was that conversion (a personal commitment to the teachings of Jesus) was the only genuine Christian experience. A true religious conversion, revivalists argued, is the result of a new spiritual awareness that comes when an individual can understand the meaning and importance of a religious life. Revivalists also protested against requiring churches to hire educated and ordained ministers and supporting the ministers with taxes. These views struck a responsive chord in New England, Virginia, and other areas where established (officially organized) churches were the center of society. In New England groups calling themselves the "New Light" separated from established congregations and formed voluntary churches. The Baptists adopted this new style of church formation, creating an environment that encouraged the revivalists. The most influential "New Light" leader was New Connecticut clergyman Isaac Backus (1724–1806), who was converted in 1742 and launched a half-century of service. He was instrumental in educating Baptists about their history and the cause of religious freedom. His efforts bore fruit throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as traveling evangelicals took their message to the southern colonies.


Lutheranism arose as a result of the Protestant Reformation initiated by German reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) in the 1520s against the Roman Catholic Church. Charging that Catholicism was corrupt, he left the church when he realized that reform was not possible. According to Luther, salvation comes only to those who have faith in God's mercy (willingness to forgive sins), which leads to a new life based on the teachings of Christ. Luther argued that the Bible was the only source of knowledge about God, so Christians had to be able to read the Scriptures for themselves. Therefore salvation could not come from being moral, doing good works, or relying on the assistance of priests. All of these ideas were contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church, which relied on priests, bishops, and rituals for interpretation of the Scriptures, forgiveness of sin, and rewards for doing good works.

Although Luther rejected Catholicism, his new religion retained some of the same beliefs. Like the Catholics, for instance, Luther considered all human institutions, including government, to be ordained by God. Luther also accepted the Catholic view that during the sacrament of the Eucharist (holy communion; the Lord's Supper), Christ was actually present in the bread and wine taken by church members. (In holy communion, bread represents the body of Christ and wine is his blood.) Luther's reform movement quickly spread throughout Europe, inspiring numerous sects (small religious groups) that became Protestant denominations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Luther's ideas strongly influenced the French reformer John Calvin, whose system of religious doctrines was adopted by the Puritans.

Lutherans among earliest settlers

The first Lutherans in America were Swedes who settled New Sweden, which was founded by the West India Company on the banks of the Delaware River in 1638. New Sweden was served by a continuous line of ministers, the most famous of whom was John Campanius (1601–1683), a missionary to Native Americans who translated Luther's catechism (religious instructions) into the Delaware language. The church went into decline after Dutch colonists in New Netherland drove the Swedes out of New Sweden in 1655. The English took over New Netherland and renamed it New York in 1664, and the Swedes then came under the control of the English. When the king of Sweden realized Lutheran churches in the colonies had no ministers, he sent a large supply of books and three ministers, who arrived in 1697. They established the Holy Trinity at Tranhook Church near Wilmington, Delaware, and Gloria Dei at Wicaco near Philadelphia. For seventy-five years all national branches of the Lutheran Church were supervised by a provost, or personal deputy of the archbishop of Sweden, who was allowed to ordain ministers.

By 1719 fourteen Lutheran churches had been established in America, but there was only one minister for all of them. Deacons and overseers (church leaders who are not ordained ministers) were running congregations when a great wave of German immigrants began arriving in the colonies. Most of them settled in Pennsylvania. The loosely organized congregations were prime targets for small religious sects that appeared in the colonies around the same time. American Lutherans appealed to Europe for more ministers, but their requests went unheeded. Finally, Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf (1700–1760) arrived in 1741. Although he was an ordained Lutheran minister, he was more interested in promoting Moravian beliefs, and he placed Moravian ministers in Lutheran churches.

Mühlenberg unites Lutherans

In 1742 Henry Melchior Mühlenberg (1711–1787), a German Lutheran missionary, arrived in Pennsylvania to take over three congregations. He found them occupied by others, including von Zinzendorf. Within a month Mühlenberg had reclaimed all three, and within six years he had organized Swedish and German pastors and delegates in the Pennsylvania Ministerium. This central organization had the authority to ordain ministers, form churches, and prepare a book of common prayer (the text used in all Lutheran worship services). At the next meeting the group elected Mühlenberg as overseer of all Swedish and German Lutheran churches. He held this office for many years, expanding Lutheranism in America. The shortage of ministers continued, however, and congregations often held simple services in homes and barns.

Dutch Reformed Church

The Dutch Reformed Church was the state church of Holland (the Netherlands) and was governed by the Classis of Amsterdam (main church council). Like Puritanism, the church was based on the teachings of French religious reformer John Calvin. The first Dutch Reformed congregation arrived in America when the Dutch West India Company established trading outposts in New Netherland in 1624. However, the first ordained minister did not reach the colony until five years later, so the congregation was led by laymen (unordained church leaders) called Krankenbesoeckers (comforters of the sick). For several years the church coexisted with other denominations in the interest of attracting settlers. When the English took over New Netherland and renamed it New York in 1664, there were twelve struggling Dutch Reformed congregations and six ministers, three of whom left immediately. Yet the church grew, spreading into New Jersey and Pennsylvania and welcoming Dutch Reformed or Presbyterian preachers. In the early 1740s the American church seriously considered joining with the Presbyterians. The union did not take place, however, because Dutch Reformed leaders insisted that services be conducted in the Dutch language. Yet in New York several Dutch ministers used the English language and even adopted the worship service of the Anglican Church.

Dutch Reformed churches in New Jersey went in a new direction after the arrival of Dutch preacher Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen. In 1735 he and two other preachers spurred a series of spontaneous revivals with evangelical (being in agreement with the Christian gospel) sermons in Dutch and a minimum of ritual. They also criticized established clergymen as "lifeless formalists" (those who rely too much on set rituals and teachings). Dutch Reformed congregations began to split into two warring factions—those who supported the traditional church and others who were attracted to the revival movement. This development forced the Amsterdam Classis in 1748 to establish a coetus (governing council) in America with the power to ordain its own ministers. The church was granted more independence after 1750.


Judaism (the religious beliefs, practices, and way of life of Jews) was introduced in America by Dutch Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. (New Amsterdam was renamed New York city by the English when they took over New Netherland in 1664; see Chapter 4.) Jews share many traditions with Christians, but they do not view Jesus of Nazereth as the Messiah and son of God. Jewish laws and customs are based on the Torah (the five books of Moses). Thirty-four other books were later added from the Hebrew Bible (called the Old Testament by Christians). Jews had been active in the Dutch West India Company settlement in Brazil but were expelled when the Portuguese retook the post. The Netherlands had provided a place of refuge for Sephardic Jews (those of Iberian, or Spanish, descent) after they were expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1496. In the Netherlands they flourished as merchants and tradesmen. Initially there were no rabbis (Jews trained and ordained for professional religious leadership) among the Jews who emigrated to America. This fact did not present an obstacle, however, because only ten adult males were needed to form a synagogue (congregation).

As soon as Jews were granted the right to public worship in New York City in the late 1600s, they established a congregation. By 1729 they had built a house of worship. Other Jews arrived in small groups, especially after 1740, when the British Parliament allowed them to become naturalized citizens. They moved to other colonies, but were declined political rights because they were not Christians and could not take oaths on the Bible. They settled primarily in coastal cities and practiced their faith quietly. Cantors (chief singers during Jewish worship) took on the role of ministers, and well-educated congregation members preserved the teachings and traditions of Judaism. Many settled in Rhode Island, where they organized a synagogue, built a school, and started a social club. At the end of the colonial period the Jewish community in Rhode Island included about two hundred people. The first of the English colonies to provide religious toleration for Jews was Carolina (later South Carolina; see Chapter 4). Four shop-keepers were granted citizenship between 1697 and 1698. Sephardic Jews from London, England, and the West Indies arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1730s. In 1740, they were joined by Jews fleeing Savannah, Georgia, who had heard rumors of a Spanish invasion (see "Georgia" in Chapter 4). In 1749, the Jewish community organized a Sephardic-rite synagogue, Beth Elohim. Around two hundred Jews lived in Charleston by the end of the colonial period.

German Reform Church

The German Reform Church was a Protestant religion similar to the Dutch Reformed Church, and their histories were intertwined. The German church was established in the Palatinate and Rhineland provinces and overseen by a council called the Heidelberg Reform Group. European wars in the early eighteenth century drove many Germans to the middle colonies, mainly Pennsylvania. Because few of the immigrants came to America as organized religious groups, they had no ministers. For instance, an early German Reform Church was started in 1719 in Germantown, Pennsylvania, but it operated without a minister. Other churches were built as community centers, with schoolmasters and laymen conducting services.

In 1727 the Amsterdam Classis took responsibility for the German Reform Church. In 1746 the Classis sent German minister Michael Schlatter to the colonies to organize the church. Within a year he had brought together four ministers and twenty-seven elders representing twelve churches to form a coetus that would meet annually. Although the German Reform Church could not ordain ministers and was still under the control of Dutch Reformed headquarters in the Netherlands, it was on a firmer foundation. Schlatter went on to organize congregations from northern New Jersey to the backwoods of Virginia.

Society of Friends

The Society of Friends (also known as Quakerism) was founded during the mid-1600s by English religious leader George Fox (1624–1691). The name "Quaker" reportedly originated when Fox was ridiculed for telling a judge to "tremble [quake] at the words of the Lord." Quakers were persecuted in England, so they sought religious freedom in other countries. The first Quakers in America settled in the tolerant Rhode Island colony, and from there they sent missionaries to Puritan New England. They preached and paraded in the streets, mocked the clergy, and challenged the Puritan way of life. Quakers believed that all humans possessed the "Inner Light" of Christ, which was more important than the Scriptures. They ordained no ministers, held no formal worship services, and recognized no sacraments (holy rituals such as baptism and communion). Instead, men and women alike gathered and spoke at the prompting of the Inner Light. Believing in the equality of all people, the Friends recognized no hierarchy (social class system) and refused to engage in customary social rituals, such as tipping their hats in the presence of their betters. They dressed plainly without any ornamentation to signify that the material life was unimportant. They refused to bear arms (carry weapons in war) or to take the oaths required in courts of law.

Pennsylvania founded for Quakers

In 1681 William Penn (1644–1718), a prominent English Quaker, founded Pennsylvania as a model colony based on the Friends' beliefs (see Chapter 4). Penn traveled throughout Europe, inviting Quakers to settle in Pennsylvania and offering generous grants of land. He guaranteed freedom of thought with his Frame of Government and, later, the Charter of Liberties. The right to vote and hold office in the assembly (lawmaking body) was open to almost every free man, and oaths were not required. Penn also set the tone for relations with Native Americans, treating them with the same respect he accorded fellow colonists.

Quaker meetings

Friends gathered at least once a week, usually in simple meetinghouses but also in private homes and barns. The meetinghouses were plain, rectangular buildings with windows high in the walls, which were often whitewashed to heighten spiritual intensity. They were also sparsely furnished, with no pulpit, altar, or ornaments of any kind. Members arrived quietly, with men and women entering through separate doors and sitting apart. Seating was by order of arrival, not rank, except for the elders (church leaders). A time of silence allowed everyone to turn inward and listen to their Inner Light. As the spirit moved them, men, women, and children stood and spoke. When there seemed to be no more messages, the elders rose and shook hands, and the meeting ended. Those who had a gift for speaking of the spirit and leading others to contact the Inner Light were called Public Friends (ministers). These men and women traveled around the colonies, ministering to Quakers and non-Quakers alike.

Quaker Children

Quaker families relied on spiritual love rather than strict discipline to maintain harmony in the home. Parents were openly affectionate toward their children, whom they regarded as innocent and incapable of sin until at least eleven years old. Then they used rewards and reason to encourage proper behavior. Quakers devoted little attention to giving children a formal education, other than teaching them to read and write so they could work in practical trades. Quakers felt that too much book learning might obscure the Inner Light. Adolescence was the most dangerous time, for Quakers viewed sexual desire as a sin. Young people were watched closely by the elders and forbidden to have physical contact. They could marry within the faith, but only with their parents' consent.

A crisis among Friends

In 1689 the Society of Friends underwent a crisis when Scottish Quaker George Keith (c. 1638–1716) arrived in Philadelphia from New Jersey. He set out to purify the faith by imposing stricter discipline. He demanded that Quakers adopt a creed, test the religious faith of members who attended meetings, and rely more directly on the Scriptures. His followers even organized separate meetings, calling themselves Christian Quakers and causing a split among the Pennsylvania Quakers. In 1692 Penn denounced Keith, who went back to England, where he was forced out of the Society of Friends. After becoming an Anglican, he returned to Pennsylvania as a missionary with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (see box on page 297).

Keith's charges struck a nerve among the Friends, however, who responded by acting on many of his suggestions. Meeting groups appointed overseers who asked members standardized questions to test their faith. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting prepared papers on discipline and practice, which all of the lower meetings (congregations) were directed to follow. Special quarterly meetings were instituted where children were to be drilled in their duties. "Weighty Friends" (wealthy and respected elders) took a greater role at meetings where Public Friends had once been dominant.

Prosperity changes way of life

By the 1740s prosperity was taking a toll on the Quaker way of life as wealthy merchants built bigger homes and purchased finely crafted household furnishings. They acquired wardrobes made with the best and most expensive fabrics—but still in dark colors and with no ornamentation. Young people began engaging in more games and social activities, often with non-Quakers, and some married outside the faith. Although Friends refused to bear arms, government officials were under increasing pressure to vote for military spending to defend the western frontier from Native American attacks. The resulting political conflict led the Quakers to withdraw and let non-Quakers govern the colony.


Many American colonists belonged to pietist sects, or small groups that rejected formal religion. They emphasized individual study of the Bible and intense spiritual experience. Generally the pietist sects were offshoots of Lutheranism, and most started coming to the colonies from central European countries, such as Switzerland and Germany, in the late 1600s. These groups were welcomed by the Quakers of Pennsylvania, who were committed to religious toleration.

Among the more prominent pietist sects were the Moravians, or the Renewed Church of the United Brethren. It is difficult to categorize Moravians, but they seem to have functioned like a sect. They concentrated on awakening Christians to a spiritual awareness that transcended denominations. According to the Moravians, once people had had the ecstatic experience of union with God, they could be assured of salvation. The first Moravian immigrants arrived in Georgia in 1735 to minister to Native Americans and slaves. Because they were pacifists (those who oppose war), they were forced to leave and moved into Pennsylvania. Zinzendorf joined them in 1741 and founded several missionary towns. Over the next decade many Moravians went to North Carolina.

Embrace early Christian practices

Moravians revived such early Christian practices as the love feast and foot washing. They held land and property in common and worked in small groups organized by age and sex. Women had considerable control over their own lives, an unusual practice for the time. Moravians supported extensive missionary networks that ministered to Native Americans with great success. Initially they enjoyed good relations with other pietist sects and Reformed denominations because they were willing to follow local religious customs wherever they were preaching. Later, however, they were suspected of trying to steal members from established congregations. The Moravians joined early revivalists (those preaching a renewal of Christian commitment) in the 1730s prior to the Great Awakening but then split with them over philosophical issues. The Moravians increasingly turned their focus inward toward their own settlements, eventually separating themselves from neighboring communities.

Great Awakening

The Great Awakening was the most significant religious event in the American colonies during the eighteenth century. It was sparked by George Whitefield (pronounced Whitfield), an English Anglican minister who had become famous for sermons in which he attacked the Anglican Church. In his electrifying speeches he hurled charges at the Anglican clergy, accusing them of relying on outdated doctrines and neglecting the spiritual welfare of their congregations. Soon after being ordained he was barred from preaching in Anglican churches. He therefore held outdoor revival meetings (religious events based on spontaneous spiritual awakening) in England, Scotland, and Ireland, where he attracted huge crowds.

Whitefield was a marvelous performer. He acted out his speeches and created imaginary dialogues with biblical characters in tones that carried to the farthest edges of the crowd. He shouted, stomped, sang, and always wept. People regarded his cross-eyed stare as a sign of a supernatural presence that enabled him to keep one eye on heaven and the other on hell. Whitefield's message was simple: "Repent and you will be saved." He did not understand theology (religious philosophy), which he considered unimportant to his mission of driving people to seek salvation.


The Church of the Brethren, a pietist sect, received the name "Dunkers" because they believed in complete immersion in a stream or river during baptism. They arrived in Pennsylvania from Germany in 1719. A prominent Dunker leader was Christopher Sower, who established Sunday schools and a printing press that issued a German-language newspaper and an edition of Martin Luther's Bible. It was the second Bible printed in America; the first was John Eliot's Bible in the Algonquian language. Perhaps the most colorful Dunker was Johann Conrad Beissel, who established the Ephrata Cloister in 1720. Beissel's group believed that Adam originally had the feminine quality of wisdom and the male attribute of divinity in equal proportions. This balance was disturbed, however, after Eve was created from one of Adam's ribs. The result was that men and women were doomed to having sexual desires. The Ephrata Dunkers believed that only by rising above sexuality could humans return to unity with God. Therefore, Ephrata brothers (men) and sisters (women) lived separately, performing their unique but equal tasks. The group ran a printing press, painted illuminated manuscripts, and composed and performed musical works. The Ephrata Cloister also served as a cultural center for Germans in Pennsylvania.

Colonies eager for rebirth

In 1739 Whitefield embarked on a tour of the colonies, where revival efforts were already under way in New England and the middle colonies. One of the first to use publicity to his advantage, Whitefield had sent out press releases (notices printed in newspapers) that described his miraculous conversion of masses of people. (Conversion is a personal commitment to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity). By the time Whitefield arrived in Philadelphia, he was already a celebrity among eager revivalists who were clamoring to hear his message. Philadelphians rushed to meet this "boy preacher" (he was only twenty-five years old). He toured through Pennsylvania and New York, usually preaching outdoors and attacking the clergy of established denominations. Whitefield then set out for the southern colonies, traveling through Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, where he started an orphanage. He was greeted enthusiastically wherever he went—the Great Awakening had swept America.

Famous Sermon

New England preacher Jonathan Edwards was one of the leaders of the Great Awakening. His "fire and brimstone" approach to salvation reached a peak in 1741, when he delivered his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Edwards stunned his listeners with a graphic picture of the uncertain nature of life and the eternal punishment awaiting unrepentant sinners. Now considered a masterpiece of public speaking, "Sinners" bombarded the audience with frightening images of a hell filled with tormented souls who burned eternally like live coals. Edwards compared sinners to a spider dangling from a single silken thread held fast only by God, who had every reason to let them drop unless they asked him for forgiveness. During George Whitefield's tour throughout the colonies, Edwards was invited to preach, and each time he presented "Sinners." His audiences were convulsed in "great moaning," crying out, "What shall I do to be saved—oh I am going to Hell!" So intense was their anguish that Edwards had to stop several times whenever he delivered the sermon. He eventually published "Sinners" to great acclaim.

Edwards fuels revival

On a return trip to New England, Whitefield went to Boston, Massachusetts. There he met Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), the famous Congregationalist preacher, who soon moved to the forefront of the Great Awakening. Impressed by Whitefield's success in lifting Christians out of their "lethargy" (lack of religious fervor), Edwards invited the reformer to preach to his congregation at Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards's own "fire and brimstone" approach to salvation reached its peak in 1741, when he delivered his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

Whitefield causes splits

By the time Whitefield returned to England in 1740, evangelical magazines had sprung up throughout the colonies to praise his amazing success. He had had the most effect on Presbyterians in the middle colonies and the Congregationalists in New England. Eventually Whitefield became notorious for his abusiveness, however, and critics accused him of engaging in self-promotion. In fact, he had been instrumental in splitting congregations and producing wounds that would not be healed for years. On a later trip to the colonies Whitefield actually apologized for his excessive behavior.

Awakening changes America

By 1743 the emotionalism of the revivals had already begun to die down. Yet the Great Awakening had an impact on all of the colonial denominations and sects. It created a new awareness of individual religious experience, as people began defining their own beliefs rather than accepting the views of church authorities. Churches formed interdenominational networks that helped break down isolation. Baptists and Presbyterians spread into New England and the South, which had once been strongholds of Congregationalism and Anglicanism. There was an outburst of missionary activity among Native Americans and African slaves, as well as a growing movement against slavery. The Great Awakening also led to the founding of several colleges, such as Princeton, which were initially intended to educate ministers and then became liberal-arts institutions. Perhaps one of the most significant developments was increased opposition to the Anglican Church, which represented English control of the colonies. A democratic spirit was emerging in religion, and this spirit soon rippled into other aspects of colonial life. In fact, some historians regard the Great Awakening as the key to the society that later started the American Revolution.


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This article is concerned with the basic nature of religion as such and with the common elements found in the various religions of mankind.

Problems of Definition

A precise but comprehensive definition is difficult. The problem can be examined best by considering religion from several different points of view or under several distinct aspects.

Nominal Definition and the Universal Fact of Religion. The etymology of the Latin word religio is disputed. Some have tried to connect religio with other Latin terms (relegere, religare, reeligere, relinquere ), but each scholar has been influenced by his personal ideas, and no accord has been reached. Philological investigation of the use of the word has revealed some interesting aspects of Roman religiosity, which was characterized by a scrupulous attention to all signs or manifestations of invisible powers or forces. But the problem becomes much more complicated when one wishes to examine the phenomenon of religion in cultures that do not use the Latin word. The languages that have an equivalent general term are rare, and the terms selected for comparison have turned out, ordinarily, to be descriptions merely of one of the duties considered essential by the respective civilization. In fact, there are very few cultures in which the question of the essence of religion has been formally raised; as a general rule, each takes its own religion as an obvious norm. Furthermore, the same thing happened in the development of the science of religions itself. In the 19th century some scholars maintained that there were peoples without religion, until it was recognized that such investigators had simply failed to find religion, as they themselves conceived religion, among certain primitive tribes.

Empirical Definition. Even when it was once admitted that all peoples have a religion, the question remained: how could investigation be carried on if the investigators had no precise idea of the object of their research? This was a purely theoretical question, which in practice did not hamper scholarly investigation. As in the case of other sciences, the science of religions began with working hypotheses, which were more or less exact and which were gradually corrected in the process of research itself. In the end it was possible for this science to isolate and delimit empirically a specific object proper to it.

In the totality of human experiences and activities the religious phenomenon presents itself as irreducible to any other category save its own and as definitely and always belonging to its own category and no other. At the same time every religion implies a choice that is so total and exclusive, affecting as it does the personal destiny of every human being in irrevocable fashion even where no clear notion of a transcendent absolute exists, that no religion seems able to tolerate its inclusion in the cadre of a general definition. Therefore, for the religious man, the definition of religion could be only that of his own religion. Actually the disagreement or diversity is such that the outsider can operate only with a selection of a minimum of statistical religious data that will be admitted by any of the existing religions.

Religious-minded men, concerned with the problem of general accord, will appeal instinctively to a revelation. It is clearly established that there are civilizations, however, among which it is necessary to include all the "primitives" and also the major polytheistic groups, that profess theoretical and practical relativism in matters of religion and affirm that no one religion in particular, but all religions together, fulfill the religious function of mankind in the world and before God. And those who, like Plato and the Aztecs, awaited a future revelation adopted the same attitude regarding their contemporary world. Accordingly, to come to closer grips with the problems, it seems necessary to distinguish between the religions founded on a revelation in the strict sense and other religions.

Theological Definition. In the case of revealed religions, which are at the same time religions of salvation, the problem of definition seems simple, for it is given by revelation itself, at least implicitly. Revelation indicates specifically under what conditions a man can fulfill his destiny and be saved. The theology of the salvation of unbelievers indicates precisely under what conditions the individuals who do not know the revelation can participate in salvation. But the interpreters of the revelation do not say whether there are really any nonrevealed religions that deserve the name of religion. The special polemical character of the inspired writings that criticize the pagan religions do not permit on the basis of their arguments a definitive judgment to be passed on the religions in question.

The revealed religions, however, do not make salvation the primary end and immediate object of religion. From the subjective point of view, religion is a virtue that leads man to render to God the homage that is due to Him. As an objective manner of behavior and concrete manifestation of virtue, it comprises belief in one God, personal and infinite in His attributes; an attitude of absolute respect and submission; exterior acts that express this belief and this attitude in worship; and, as required by all exterior human activity, institutions to regulate that activity.

Historical Definition. There is a science of religions, however, that is a branch of anthropology. This science does not teach the norms of the true religion, and it is not occupied solely with the institutions that have come from revelation. It includes within its scope what men have come to employ, so to speak, as substitutes for revelation, along with many contradictions that baffle science itself. Yet it is precisely the tentative efforts of science in themselves that make possible a better grasp of the whole amplitude of the problems of man and religion.

On the level of the collection of documents to be studied, science ought to begin, then, with a very broad conception of its object and thus let nothing escape it that may sometime be able to clarify an aspect of the religious phenomenon. The definition of the latter, accordingly, will be entirely pragmatic, and will embrace belief, rite, and institution that occupy in a group the place that revelation reserves for religion. Furthermore, it is well known how difficult it is to enter into the spirit of an environment in which one has not been reared. Hence it is rash to try to decide too quickly whether this or that conception is closely connected or not with what other religions believe and practice. This kind of judgment and distinction can be made only after long work and study.

Phenomenological Approach

It is possible, it seems, to employ a criterion that is less pragmatic, negative, or exterior, for marking out or defining the object of research. A specific domain may be circumscribed, once that is distinct, e.g., from metaphysics and techniques, by a characteristic aspect inherent in all that is religious in the broadest sense of the term and that is proper to itself. This is the concept of "the sacred."

The Sacred. The sacred is opposed to the profane. Although the majority of primitive and ancient peoples never separated the two domains in their interpretations and usages, they distinguished them sharply enough by their different psychological reactions. The sacred, as distinct from the profane, represents an order of reality, the presence of which commands man's attention and at the same time escapes him; it is simultaneously desired and regarded with awe. In other words, it possesses an essentially ambivalent character, which makes man feel at once irresistibly attracted by its grandeur and frightened by its superiority.

This double character of the sacred, which R. Otto called fascinans and tremendum, is one of the keys to the discovery and interpretation of religious phenomena. But research becomes science only from the moment it occupies itself with putting order into the material collected and when it succeeds, by comparison and distinction, in producing a classification. It is then necessary to select from the categories obtained that which should be called religion. The discussions that have agitated the science of religion for more than a century demonstrate clearly that all that was believed "to take the place of religion" cannot be included in its essence and its history. Many essential facts of history have changed category as progress has been made in understanding.

Religion and Magic. One of the facts to emerge clearly from the constant revision of ideas mentioned is this: two kinds of phenomena exist that can indeed occupy the place of religion but that assume conceptions of the world and of the position of man that are diametrically opposed, namely, religion and magic. The fact that so many theories have been advanced to explain the hypothetical passage of one to the other by an evolutionary process and the fact also that the civilizations that claim to include magical practices in religion had to invent myths to explain this inconsistency show that both science and religions perceive an essential difference between religion and magic.

The opposition between them is clearly evident from both their respective conceptions of the order of the world and of man's attitude in this world. Magic believes in an ensemble of automatic forces that gives the man who knows their techniques an unconditional efficacy or power independent of every other will except his own. Religion, on the other hand, acknowledges a universe that always remains, and one in which man always remains, dependent on a good will that is absolutely beyond the reach or power of techniques effective in themselves. Even if man, in order to reconcile the two conceptions, claims that he has received his knowledge and power from the divinity, who then loses control over them in such cases, there is an implication that the feeling of an ultimate dependence that one tries to avoid is still present. This distinction made, the inductive work required to determine the constituent elements of religion becomes feasible.

Double Usage of the Term "Religion." The science of religions always studies religion and magic together because their opposition clarifies problems. For the sake of simplification, the two continue to be studied under the one heading, religion, and the specific religion studied is even defined according to the proportion and combination of the two in the theory and practice of its environment. This is the pragmatic usage, the broad sense of the term, and it is so employed in the expression science of religions.

But on a different level of research, science is not merely concerned with each "religion." It tends to make comparisons and then to distinguish and establish constants in order to define religion more precisely as a system of coherent phenomena, distinct from other concurrent phenomena, and in opposition to magic in particular. It is not yet a philosophy of religion but rather a synthesis of historical data. Few peoples have produced a conscious and critical elaboration of these elements. Therefore, it is precisely the function of the science of religions to explain in their name, without misrepresenting them, what they conceive implicitly, namely, the precise content and trends of their religious feeling, which is often complex but coherent in practicetheir religion in the strict and exact sense.

Content of Religions

At the outset it is essential to consider a matter of basic importance, namely, the object of religion and the conception of this object.

Object of Religion. Religion is opposed to the anarchy of magic by an attitude of dependence that is felt and accepted within definite limits. This attitude itself, therefore, assumes a certain conception of its object. Investigation shows that this attitude is always directed to a reality superior to man, a reality that is beyond the control of man's will and all the forces of nature. Those who maintain that this reality is merely the projection of the attitude itself emphasize at least that such an attitude and such an object are connected and that man does not have the choice or decision.

This reality belongs to the category of the sacred, with its characteristic ambivalence. But while magic tries, in spite of the fear it provokes, to make itself master of the sacred in order to use its power, religion sees in fear a reason for respect because it sees in the attraction of the sacred a reason for acknowledgment or surrender. This is accepted dependence. The difference, however, is not only in the subjective attitude, but in the object itself, because it is conceived in a different manner.

Specialists in the science of religions believed for some time that there were two successive attitudes in the history of religion. According to this view man first tried to control the sacred by "incantation," and often-repeated failure then forced him to resign himself to "invocation." This is the theory of "From Spell to Prayer," according to the formula of R. R. Marset (18661943). A knowledge of the facts, which was less distorted by evolutionary theory, then suggested that man in all periods felt inclined to try one method or the othera procedure that is closer to the historical and psychological truth. But invocation, prayerthe religious act par excellenceassumes that the sacred is conceived as having ears for hearing, a heart for understanding, and a freedom to replyin brief, that the sacred is regarded as a person. Furthermore, it may be noted in passing that an act such as prayer implies that man by his reason did not merely construct an object of thought as a logical response to a question on existence, a first principle. It was necessary also that, in some manner, he should "feel" it as living, for otherwise, he would not have prayed to it. As U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (18481931) once said, "Zu einem Begriff betet kein Mensch" (No man prays to a concept).

Vagueness in the Concept of Divinity. It must be kept in mind, however, that religion finds expression not only in prayer but also in sacrifice, purifications, and consecrations, whose mechanism of efficacy and objective presuppositions are much more ambiguous than in the case of prayer. They can leave the personal character of the divine very vague. Likewise, the much Divine (Θε[symbol omitted]ον), the One, the Logos, the Brahman, etc., may well inspire a strong feeling of complete dependence; but all these seem to be limited to the representation of a transcendent order that is hardly favorable to dialogue, but an order that men seek to recognize and to venerate by a strict submission.

In this case, however, one notes quickly a discord between speculative conceptions and the religious attitude in which the personal representation unfailingly reappears. Whether this situation results from psychological need or is due to the power of religious experience is not clear. Yet this Absolute, the alleged impersonal divine force, is prayed to in moving fashion by the Sioux as Wakonda, by the emperor of China as Heaven, or by the Stoic Cleanthes as Zeus. Perhaps this inconsistency exists only for modern Westerners, who find difficulty in thinking of the personal except in anthropomorphic terms. More deeply, however, it is perhaps the religious sense itself that perceives that this lofty Reality is so different from all other human experiences that it cannot be included in any of the contradictory categories of Western thought. On the other hand, the knowledge that man has of this Reality is so closely connected with the immensity of the universe and its orderimpressive even for a primitive in his own little universewith this All that is at once calm and agitated, that man, as the whole history of religions bears witness, is led to hesitate constantly between the personal and the impersonal, looking now at the one and now at the other according to the circumstances in which he believes that he encounters, or desires to approach, the one or the other. The religious sense itself influences him to respect what he knows of the nature of the sacred reality without imposing his own ideas upon it. Nevertheless, a historical description of the manner in which men conceive the object of their acts of submission and homage cannot assume a rigorous and exclusive precision. In any case, the inclusion of a strict notion of person would limit to an extreme degree the range of a historical definition of the object of religion. On the other hand, the personal aspect always makes itself felt.

Transcendence and Unicity of the Object of Religion. The same ambiguity marks the question of the transcendence and unicity of the object of religion. These are two interdependent aspects, and in their regard the majority of religions are uniformly vague. Just as very few cultures are concerned about the absolute origin of the universe, although they consider it vitally important to fit man into the totality of the universe that actually exists, so also, like the ancient philosophers, they are much more conscious of the sovereignty of divinity than of the need of defining its internal nature. The chief preoccupation of religions that are not strictly and aggressively monotheistic is the multiplicity of the elements or relations that mark man's dependence. Concrete expression is given to these relations under the form of spirits or gods.

At first sight it would seem rather easy to oppose polytheism and monotheism. But when one begins to interpret images and names, this opposition between the one and the many frequently eludes precise analysis. The Great Gods of many African peoples can bear collective names and not belong to the grammatical class of animate beings, and yet they are treated as persons. Similarly, in the most highly developed religions of the Greco-Roman world and the ancient East there is a constant intermingling of notions of many individual gods and of unique divinity. One gets the impression that the sovereignty of the gods, which is their essential prerogative, is a collegiate sovereignty, with or without hierarchy, in which each god is absolute ruler of a part of reality, and all the gods together are absolute Master of the universe in its totality. In worship each god, when he is invoked, seems to be regarded as the momentary expression of all divinity (Kathenotheism), and in popular piety one god is in practice given a place above all others as the equivalent of all (henotheism). Accordingly, many ethnologists in dealing with very primitive peoples do not hesitate to state that some of their gods appear as "hypostases" of the cosmic God, as a remote foundation or beginning from which they do not separate themselves completely. Perhaps a total manifestation of Divinity, always identical with itself, is beyond the range of human experience. In fact, the knowledge of the divine that men have is always acquired through perception in depth of particular aspects of the universe. Hence the transcendence of the divine is never perceived except through its immanent manifestations.

Philosophy is primarily concerned with examining thoroughly and describing precisely each and every aspect of experience. Religion, on the other hand, is concerned essentially with taking a thing just as it thinks that it perceives it, and it adopts practical behavior to it in accordance with this perception. But even the ancient philosophers, although deliberately remaining very close to myth, which among ancient peoples gave expression to constructions of reality actually experienced, were always tempted by the idea that impersonality and indetermination were characteristic of transcendence, while its manifestations in the universe could only be limited and therefore multiple.

On the basis of historical investigation, apart from revelation, it must be concluded as very probable that transcendence and a certain unicity are consciously present even when a multiplicity of gods is recognized and that, in spite of its various manifestations in the universe, divinity remains entirely other and, above all, sovereign. It is only as a result of reactions of very complex origin that the monotheistic religions rejected other systems and thus opposed in a consistent and strict manner every tendency that would lead to involvement in cosmic manifestationsespecially biological and immanent manifestationsof the absolute Reality, transcendent and unique, and regarded before all as sovereign.

Attitudes. It is easy to see that the manner in which religion is conceived determines man's attitude toward it. As a matter of fact there is necessarily a reciprocal reaction between religious representations and attitudes, and scientific observation can hardly do more than note a complex ensemble in which it is difficult to distinguish what is tendency or trend and what is experience. But to suppose that everything in religion is merely a subjective projection is an opinion that is not based on science but reflects rather philosophical criticism. On the contrary, the fact that the divine is represented as personal, endowed with consciousness, freedom, and initiative, seems to indicate clearly that men feel themselves really at grips with objective forces of a spiritual character: religiously minded men have thought even that God is not so much the object of religion as its subject, the active agent who determines even man's own initiative. In revealing Himself in a certain manner, He actually directs even man's reaction. It is very likely for this reason that in religions that are strictly theistic there is recourse also to divination in order to know exactly in a given case what the Divinity expects of man or will, on His side, accept.

Submission to a person considered as superior and free necessarily includes respect in the state of dependence. But some pagans have gone even further. Sometimes they give feminine titles to God without, however, making him a mother goddess. But the great majority of those who believe in a Sky God, i.e., the most transcendent form of the divine, call him Father. This name, however, does not allude to creation or to any kind of filiation but rather to the nature of his general comportment toward man and that of man toward him. Again, fear can be dominant when the transcendence of the divine is associated with cosmic manifestations like the great calmness of the sky and its violent storms. Yet one should not forget that a terrible mother goddess, such as the Hindu goddess Kali, is at the same time a beloved mother. Reasoning is certainly not the determining factor in such cases, but rather man's experience in his daily life in the world. At a lower level, yet very close to the one just mentioned, God can be conceived in a manner little different from the spirits of nature, those manifestations of multiple and contradictory forces that are anthropopathic, i.e., having the same feelings or passions as man. In this case even respect disappears, and transcendence is reduced to a low level. Magic can take the upper hand.

These last phenomena mark the limit of religious facts and go even beyond it. If there were not other nuances and other conceptions, which come into play at the same time, it would no longer be possible in these instances to speak of religion in the strict sense of the term.

Expression by Religious Rites. An interior attitude, especially if it is felt with at least some intensity, is expressed normally by gestures, words, or actions. These manifestations should be the starting point for the observer who wishes to study the spiritual content of religions. At any rate, they are of prime importance for verifying the affirmations obtained by questions, discussions, or literary speculations in which the presence of the stranger and the judgments that are unconsciously suggested by his attitudes exercise a marked influence on the spontaneity and sincerity of statements made.

It is well established that there are no civilizations without religious rites. These rites may be reduced to the minimum, even to the point that many inexperienced observers do not perceive them, especially if they are spontaneous, and have little that is formalistic or ceremonial about them. Such is the case in the majority of the religions of the primitives with regard to the Supreme Heavenly Being.

Prayer. Prayers are found everywhere and range from spontaneous invocations without fixed formulas to hymns of literary character, which cannot always be successfully distinguished from incantations. They are addressed to all entities that a religion conceives as representing the divine in any manner. They relate to all needs and desires and may include moral and spiritual values. Even among the pagans, and perhaps especially among the primitives, there are prayers stressing social justice, individual virtues, and unity.

Sacrifice. But the rite that is most significant and at the same time most difficult to analyze is sacrifice. The term is often employed to designate rites that are very dissimilar and ambiguous. But in such a phenomenon, since it is a human act, what ought to be decisive respecting a definition is the interior attitude of the subject and then, indirectly, the nature of the Being to which appeal is made. The sovereign gods only, either alone or on a sharing basis, are objects of sacrifices. These sacrifices are direct offshoots of the primitive offerings of first fruits of the chase or gathering. Accordingly, they are acts whereby man deprives himself of his goods in order to recognize by so doing the absolute rights of divinity over his property and over himself. But when excessive anthropomorphism enters into the representation of the divine or when the destruction of goods is made to satisfy inferior beings, eventually there is no longer any idea of true sacrifice. There is then a question rather of gifts that are sent on their way by death or fire to the world of spirits. Between these two extremes all ambiguities are possible. If the same word is applied to all cases in which there is destruction of property or offering, it loses all precise meaning and designates an aspect that is merely exterior and material. Hence it is necessary to distinguish sacrifices, offerings, gifts, presents, contracts (do ut des ), magic, blackmail, etc.

Passage Rites. Another rich category of rites comes from the ambivalence of the sacred, namely, passage rites, i.e., purifications, consecrations, and other precautions that are intended to protect the man who approaches the sacred or who leaves the domain of the sacred to return to the profane world. In this case, especially, it is difficult to draw the line between religion and magic because the interested parties themselves do not try to define precisely their interior attitude. This is the situation particularly respecting "confessions," "taboos," or interdicts, the meaning of which depends entirely on the circumstances and on the mentality of the milieu.

Feasts and Ceremonies. Finally, the extremely important category of rites, or rather of cycles of rites, namely, that of feasts and ceremonies, is difficult to classify as religious in the strict sense. But these rites must be studied carefully if one wishes to get a precise idea of the religious phenomenon. They are passage-rites in one of their aspects, but the passage in question is no longer that from the sacred to the profane or vice versa. They celebrate and effect rather the passage of an individual or of a group, or of all nature, from one state to anotherage, religious or social function, or season. Their internal structure leads scholars to classify them more and more as mystery rites because of the parallel with the Hellenistic mysteries. From the religious point of view it is to be noted that these rites disregard, but do not exclude, the idea of homage or invocation to a divinity. On the other hand, they express a deep and strongly felt submission to a superior cosmic order, which is often characterized by greater intensity than submission to God. Their function is to subject all growth in man and nature to a process of total renewal of being. This process is carried out ordinarily under the form of various symbols of death and rebirth. The complete acceptance of the conditions of human existence exhibits subjectively all the characteristics of the religious attitude. But, objectively, these rites are marked by the absence of the worship of divinity, for the sovereign will and intervention of divinity are not evoked. The "gods," if mentioned at all, are only models who were the first themselves to experience the operation of the cosmic law of renewal.

These rites, despite their aspect of dependence, are easily exposed to magic interpretations and deformations, which are all the more dangerous because they corrupt a highly spiritual element. Their danger is inherent in the fact that the universal structure to which man recognizes that he belongs and to which he wishes to be closely joined is not explicitly represented as an order willed by God. On the other hand, it seems that religious life can gain in depth only where, as in Christianity, the mysterical rite is an integral part of the worship of God. There is then no longer question of mysteries but of sacraments.

Mythology. A separate place must be given to mythology. At the outset it is necessary to understand "myth" in the correct sense that has only recently become clear. myth is the normal form for expressing the content of religion before the elaboration of philosophical definitions, and even side by side with them. Myth is also rite. It cannot be said that a myth is always the explanation of a rite or that every rite postulates a myth. The recitation itself of the myth is a rite, as is shown by the conditions required for communicating it: secrecy, night, ceremonies, etc. The myth seeks to give expression to religious experience without separating it from the concrete elements of that experience. To maintain this connection is properly the function of symbols. Only the myth projects this experience beyond actual and profane time in order to emphasize the absolute value attributable to it.

Religion in Relation to the Individual and Society

After the explanation of the objective elements (representations) and subjective elements (attitudes) of religion, which are both expressed by exterior acts (rites), it must now be emphasized that because of the importance of the social factor in the life of men, especially in the realm of expression, religions necessarily have a social aspect. The significance of the social expression of religion is brought out by the latest classification of types of religion into tribal, national, and universal. The first two types show clearly that the religious experience of individuals, which is the basis of all religious life, becomes a religion, i.e., an institution that leaves a trace in history, only if other individuals participate in it. This participation is the guarantee and necessary sanction of the objectivity and authenticity of the private experience. In the two types mentioned the collectivity whose sanction is decisive is the natural collectivity (cultural or political) whose exclusive solidarity encompasses strictly the life of the individuals concerned.

But the need of collective sanction, even outside the revealed religions, is much more evident in the universal religions that rise in some way on the ruins of the natural collectivities whose authority has been shattered by the contact and mingling of cultures. Religious experience and its exigencies remain, but they seek their collective guarantee in a collective organization proper, founded on the one religion only, and with its specialized officers.

Priesthood. Priesthood, however, is earlier than the universal religions. It is not found, it is true, at the tribal stage, at which there are specialists for the efficacious rites of magic and animism, while the relation with the supreme divinity remains the prerogative of tribal members, each acting for himself and for the natural groups for which he is responsible. Priesthood appears first in the national religions as a specialization of all religions functions, after the manner of specialization of political functions. Just as the nation develops out of the political centralization occasioned by foreign aggression or by the initiative of individuals who, in order to assure their domination over their group and neighboring groups, make use of a power that was acknowledged in their case as needed for the protection of tribal territory, so this new unity embraces generally a nonhomogeneous collection of cultural groups that had traditionally been independent.

This new situation calls for a religious justification in accordance with the mentality of tribal cultures. Political power, which is of profane origin, seeks an alliance with the natural representatives of these groups. These representatives are stripped of their political functions, but by way of compensation they are invested, in the name of these groups, with the specialized religious function. A universal reflex is to be noted in ancient civilizations in this respect: a religious solidarity is reestablished when the cultural solidarity is destroyed. At the tribal stage secret societies then have their birth. At the national stage, the sacerdotal function comes into being. In the universal religions the priesthood becomes completely independent, at least in essence, of the political power, and vice versa. Even in these religions, however, some mutual understandings are necessary and are deliberately sought in order to take into account the religious mentality of the masses and to regulate the conflicts of authority and interest between specialists.

Prophetism. Yet in this evolution of the sociology of religions toward specialization of functions, reactions in an opposite direction are not lacking. On the religious plane prophetism makes its appearance, and its characteristic note is universality. prophetism may be described as a protest of the individual conscience against the excesses of specialization. The prophet himself, however, needs collective sanction. If he gets it within his own group, he becomes a reformer; if not, he will become the founder of a new religion more independent of the cultural or political structures of his milieu.

But in this connection it is necessary to correct the sociological classification of religions since the term "universal religion" is ambiguous. In fact, universality is inherent in genuine religious experience. Hence, even in the most primitive religions, as soon as they give an important place to the personal Sky God, universality is present, since they consider, often in a touching manner, that their cult is necessary for the maintenance of the whole universe, including other religions and cultures. This kind of thinking, however, does not limit itself to the creation of a single universal religion, but it continues to regard every religion as charged with a function in the whole. It has a prophetic tendency, but this confines itself to stressing the necessity of individual religious experience by visions (Native North Americans) or by ecstasy (shamanism; see shaman and medicine man).

The prophet is not only universal in his outlook but tends to pass beyond the national religion into a single universal religion by the deepening of his experience in respect to the transcendent Creator or Sky God. Such a universal religion is opposed to the utilitarian or egoistic preoccupations of the specialists or of societies closed in upon themselves.

Morality. The problem of the relations between religion and morality must be situated in a similar perspective (see religion and morality). If morality is identified with fidelity to the individual conscience to the point of excluding all collective sanctions and all objective norms, one may be tempted to consider tribal or national religions as completely amoral. Correspondingly, universal religions will be relegated to the domain of strictly private life. But if it is considered that tribal and national religions arise in groups in which the individual feels that he is truly himself, both in security and defined by function only in the perfect solidarity of the group, it follows that the group's religion and its morality are completely identified. The one expresses and effects the desired integration of the individual into the human group; and the other, his integration and that of the group into the universe. Man and society regard themselves as members of this universe. It should be noted, furthermore, that the individual desires this integration intensely, for it gives him a meaning. And this integration is not purely passive or impersonal, since even in the most strictly clannish religions the protest of the individual expresses itself in his beliefso surprising to the ethnologistin the "distant god," who is invoked in precise terms as a recourse against the community that has become unjust. There is no effective revolt but solely an appeal to the transcendent witness because the experience of life teaches daily the necessary reality and practical primacy of group solidarity.

On the other hand, if it is true that the apparent history of human societies is that of a "progressive laicization," there are grounds for questioning the rationalistic optimism of the 19th century and for observing, furthermore, that the so-called rational system of morality influences consciences only to the extent that they are sustained, however unknowingly, by religious values still widespread in the milieu that follows it. Such a system of morality collapses as soon as individuals change their milieu without taking their religion with them, just as every detribalized individual finds himself without moorings and lost.

Salvation. The sociological classification of religions and the corrections required have been covered sufficiently. It is necessary to pass to other distinctions that, strictly, concern aspects only of religions. These aspects are wrongly regarded as being capable in themselves of defining a religion, such as monotheism, polytheism, and animism. They are only ingredients, however, the combination of which characterizes each particular religion. Yet there is one aspect that appears to be more specific, namely, the idea of salvation. Some think that every religion is a salvation religion, while others hold that only universal religions can be salvation religions. The former, however, can find the idea of salvation in all religions only on condition that they recognize that, in tribal religions in particular, the idea of salvation is entirely implicit. The tribal religions do not have a pessimistic metaphysics that would teach the necessity of a savior since they propose and effect a perfect integration of individuals into their group and into their universe, in order that they may participate in their values, without separating the sacred and the profane. The attitude of these religions is not one of preoccupation with saving or transforming their world but of maintaining it, and themselves with it, by adhering scrupulously to its actual structures.

It is to be emphasized that Christianity does not belong in either category. It is not solely a religion of salvation, but a religion of redemption.

Origin and Evolution of Religion

The analysis presented above has eventually led to the questionat least in simplified formof the origin and historical variations in religion. Since the prehistoric documentation is obviously inadequate by its very nature, it is necessary to employ ethnological comparisons as much as possible to clarify origins. It may be stated without qualification that no culture, however primitive and backward, has been found that does not have ideas on divinity, spirits, human survival, and supernatural forces, along with corresponding rites. The problem of religion seems indeed to be identical with the problem of man (hominization).

The whole evolution of religion seems to be summed up in a diversification of syntheses and proportions of the same universal elements. Apart from a few notable exceptions, a certain parallelism is evident between the inordinate development, on the one hand, of magic, animism, fertility rites, and finally, polytheism, and on the other, the cultural changes that have produced civilizations that became more and more complex in their economic and political techniques. The great civilizations belong to general history rather than to the history of religions since they, in particular, have only developed further a political and philosophical heritage that was constituted in its entirety before history. Revealed religions alone pose specific problems, since they constitute conscious reactions against the tendencies of evolution. The Bible, and to some extent Zarathushtra, go very definitely against the trend of their contemporary milieus. All else that can be said on these subjects falls in the sphere of philosophy and theology, and not in that of sciences such as anthropology and sociology.

See Also: religion (in primitive culture); religion, philosophy of; religion, sociology of.

Bibliography: General works. h. pinard de la boullaye, L'Étude comparée des religions, 3 v. (3d ed. Paris 1931). g. mensching, et al., Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 5:961975, 986991, with good bibliog. f. kÖnig, ed., Religionswissenschaftliches Wörterbuch (Freiburg 1956). f. kÖnig, ed., Christus und die Religionen der Erde: Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte, 3 v. (2d ed. Vienna 1961). p. tacchi venturi, Storia delle religioni, 2 v. (4th ed. Turin 1954). m. brilliant and r. aigrain, eds., Histoire des religions, 5 v. (Paris 195356). f. heiler, Erscheinungsformen und Wesen der Religion (Stuttgart 1961). a. brunner, Die Religion (Freiburg 1956). m. eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, tr. r. sheed (New York 1958). m. eliade and j. kitagawa, eds., The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology (Chicago 1959). j. wach, The Comparative Study of Religions (New York 1958). p. schebesta, Der Ursprung der Religion (Berlin 1961). w. schmidt, Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, 12 v. (Münster), v. 1 (2d ed. 1926), v. 212 (192555). Special works. r. caillois, L'Homme et le Sacré (2d ed. Paris 1953). b. hÄring, Das Heilige und das Gute (Freiburg 1950). m. eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, tr. from Fr. w. r. trask (New York 1959); Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, tr. from Fr. p. mairet (New York 1960); Birth and Rebirth, tr. from Fr. w. r. trask (New York 1958). r. otto, The Idea of the Holy, tr. j. w. harvey (2d ed. New York 1958). r. allier, Magie et religion (Paris 1935). c. h. ratschow, Magic und Religion (2d ed. Gütersloh 1955). t. ohm, Die Liebe zu Gott in den nichtchristlichen Religionen (Krailling, Ger.1951). a. kirchgÄssner, Die mächtigen Zeichen: Ursprünge, Formen und Gesetze des Kultes (Freiburg 1959). b. malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (New York 1955). r. will, Le Culte, 3 v. (Paris 192535). f. heiler, Das Gebet: Eine religionsgeschichtliche und religionspsychologische Untersuchung (5th ed. Munich 1923). a. vorbichler, Das Opfer auf den uns heute noch erreichbaren ältesten Stufen der Menscheitsgeschichte (Mödling 1956). a. e. jensen, Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples, tr. m.t. choldin and w. weissleder (Chicago 1963). j. de vries, Forschungsgeschichte der Mythologie (Freiburg 1961). p. radin, The World of Primitive Man (New York 1960).

[j. goetz]


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The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The first part of this provision is known as the Establishment Clause, and the second part is known as the Free Exercise Clause. Although the First Amendment only refers to Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the fourteenth amendment makes the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses also binding on states (Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 60 S. Ct. 900, 84 L. Ed. 1213 [1940], and Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 67 S. Ct. 504, 91 L. Ed. 711 [1947], respectively). Since that incorporation, an extensive body of law has developed in the United States around both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

To determine whether an action of the federal or state government infringes upon a person's right to freedom of religion, the court must decide what qualifies as religion or religious activities for purposes of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has interpreted religion to mean a sincere and meaningful belief that occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to the place held by God in the lives of other persons. The religion or religious concept need not include belief in the existence of God or a supreme being to be within the scope of the First Amendment.

As the case of United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78, 64 S. Ct. 882, 88 L. Ed. 1148 (1944), demonstrates, the Supreme Court must look to the sincerity of a person's beliefs to help decide if those beliefs constitute a religion that deserves constitutional protection. The Ballard case involved the conviction of organizers of the I Am movement on grounds that they defrauded people by falsely representing that their members had supernatural powers to heal people with incurable illnesses. The Supreme Court held that the jury, in determining the line between the free exercise of religion and the punishable offense of obtaining property under false pretenses, should not decide whether the claims of the I Am members were actually true, only whether the members honestly believed them to be true, thus qualifying the group as a religion under the Supreme Court's broad definition.

In addition, a belief does not need to be stated in traditional terms to fall within First Amendment protection. For example, Scientology—a system of beliefs that a human being is essentially a free and immortal spirit who merely inhabits a body—does not propound the existence of a supreme being, but it qualifies as a religion under the broad definition propounded by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has deliberately avoided establishing an exact or a narrow definition of religion because freedom of religion is a dynamic guarantee that was written in a manner to ensure flexibility and responsiveness to the passage of time and the development of the United States. Thus, religion is not limited to traditional denominations.

The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion has deeply rooted historical significance. Many of the colonists who founded the United States came to this continent to escape religious persecution and government oppression.

This country's founders advocated religious freedom and sought to prevent any one religion or group of religious organizations from dominating the government or imposing its will or beliefs on society as a whole. The revolutionary philosophy encompassed the principle that the interests of society are best served if individuals are free to form their own opinions and beliefs.

When the colonies and states were first established, however, most declared a particular religion to be the religion of that region. But, by the end of the American Revolution, most state-supported churches had been disestablished, with the exceptions of the state churches of Connecticut and Massachusetts, which were disestablished in 1818 and 1833, respectively. Still, religion was undoubtedly an important element in the lives of the American colonists, and U.S. culture remains greatly influenced by religion.

Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from interfering with individual religious beliefs. The government cannot enact laws aiding any religion or establishing an official state religion. The courts have interpreted the Establishment Clause to accomplish the separation of church and state on both the national and state levels of government.

The authors of the First Amendment drafted the Establishment Clause to address the problem of government sponsorship and support of religious activity. The Supreme Court has defined the meaning of the Establishment Clause in cases dealing with public financial assistance to church-related institutions, primarily parochial schools, and religious practices in the public schools. The Court has developed a three-pronged test to determine whether a statute violates the Establishment Clause. According to that test, a statute is valid as long as it has a secular purpose; its primary effect neither advances nor inhibits religion; and it is not excessively entangled with religion. Because this three-pronged test was established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S. Ct. 2105, 29 L. Ed. 2d 745 (1971), it has come to be known as the Lemon test. Although the Supreme Court adhered to the Lemon test for several decades, since the 1990s, it has been slowly moving away from that test without having expressly rejected it.

Jesus, Meet Santa

Christmas and the first amendment have had a rocky relationship. A decades-long battle over the place of worship and tradition in public life has erupted nearly every year when local governments sponsor holiday displays on public property. Lawsuits against towns and cities often, but not always, end with the courts ordering the removal of religious symbols whose government sponsorship violates the First Amendment. Since the 1980s, however, the outcome of such cases has become less predictable as deep divisions on the Supreme Court have resulted in new precedents that take a more nuanced view of the law. In such cases, context determines everything. Placing a nativity scene with the infant Jesus outside a town hall may be unconstitutional, for example, but the display may be acceptable if Santa Claus stands nearby.

On the question of religious displays, the First Amendment has two broad answers depending on the sponsor. Any private citizen can put up a nativity scene on private property at Christmas time: citizens and churches commonly exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of speech to do so. But when a government sets up a similar display on public property, a different aspect of the amendment comes into play. Governments do not enjoy freedom of speech, but, instead, are controlled by the second half of the First Amendment—the Establishment Clause, which forbids any official establishment of religion. All lawsuits demanding that a crèche, cross, menorah, or other religious symbol be removed from public property allege that the government that put it there has violated the Establishment Clause.

The Supreme Court has reviewed challenges to government sponsored displays of religious symbols under the Lemon test. Based on criteria from several earlier decisions and named after the case Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S. Ct. 2105, 29 L. Ed. 2d 745 (1973), the test recognizes that government must accommodate religion but forbids it to support religion. To survive constitutional review, a display must meet all three requirements or "prongs" of the test: it must have a secular (nonreligious) purpose, it must have the primary effect of neither advancing nor inhibiting religion, and it must avoid excessive entanglement between government and religion. Failing any of the three parts of the test constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Starting in the 1980s, the test began to divide the Supreme Court. Conservative justices objected because it blocked what they saw as a valid acknowledgment of the role of religion in public life; opposing them were justices who believed in maintaining a firm line between government and religion. In significant cases concerning holiday displays, the Court continued to use the Lemon test but with new emphasis on the question of whether the display has the effect of advancing or endorsing a particular religion.

This shift in emphasis first emerged in 1984 in a case involving a Christmas display owned and erected by the City of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in a private park. The display included both a life-sized nativity scene with the infant Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and secular symbols such as Santa's house, a Christmas tree, striped poles, animals, and lights. Pawtucket residents successfully sued for removal of the nativity scene in federal district court, where it was found to have failed all three prongs of the Lemon test (Donnelly v. Lynch, 525 F. Supp. 1150 [D.R.I. 1981]). The decision was upheld on appeal, but, surprisingly, in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 104 S. Ct. 1355, 79 L. Ed. 2d 604 (1984), the Supreme Court narrowly reversed in a 5–4 vote and found the entire display constitutional.

The majority in Lynch stressed historical context, emphasizing that the crèche belonged to a tradition "acknowledged in the Western World for 20 centuries, and in this country by the people, by the executive branch, by the Congress, and the courts for two centuries." The display, ruled the Court, passed each prong of the Lemon test. First, the city had a secular purpose in celebrating a national holiday by using religious symbols that "depicted the historical origins" of the holiday. Second, the display did not primarily benefit religion. Third, no excessive entanglement between government and religion existed. Perhaps most significantly, the Court saw the crèche as a "passive symbol": although it derived from religion, over time it had come to represent a secular message of celebration.

Lynch laid bare the deep divisions on the Court. By emphasizing context, the majority appeared to suggest that the ruling was limited to circumstances similar to those in the case at hand: religious symbols could be acceptable in a holiday display if used with secular symbols. The majority did not enunciate any broad new protections for governments eager to sponsor crèches. Nonetheless, the opinion did not satisfy the dissenters, who sharply criticized the majority for failing to vigorously apply the Lemon test. They noted that the city could easily have celebrated the holiday without using religious symbols, and they saw the crèche as nothing less than government endorsement of religion.

The emphasis on context became even more pronounced in a 1989 case, County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573, 109 S. Ct. 3086, 106 L. Ed. 2d 472. In Allegheny, a Pennsylvania county appealed a lower court ruling that had banned its two separate holiday displays: a crèche situated next to poinsettia plants inside the county courthouse, and an eighteen-foot menorah (a commemorative candelabrum in the Jewish faith) standing next to a Christmas tree and a sign outside a city-county office building. Each religious symbol was owned by a religious group—the crèche by the Catholic Holy Name Society and the menorah by Chabad, a Jewish organization. Viewing the displays in context, the Court permitted one but not the other, and its reasoning turned on subtle distinctions.

The Court deemed the crèche an unconstitutional endorsement of religion for two reasons. First, the presence of a few flowers around the crèche did not mediate its religious symbolism in the way that the secular symbols had done for the crèche in Lynch. Second, the prominent location doomed the display. By choosing the courthouse, a vital center of government, the Court said the county has sent "an unmistakable message" that it endorsed Christianity.

But the menorah passed constitutional review. Like the crèche in Lynch, its religious significance was transformed by the presence of secular symbols: the forty-five-foot Christmas tree and a sign from the city's mayor that read, "During this holiday season, the city of Pittsburgh salutes liberty. Let these festive lights remind us that we are keepers of the flame of liberty and our legacy of liberty." Even so, members of the majority disagreed on precisely what message was sent by the display. Justice harry a. blackmun read it as a secular message of holiday celebration. In a more complicated view, Justice sandra day o'connor said it "acknowledg[ed] the cultural diversity of our country and convey[ed] tolerance of different choice in matters of religious belief or non-belief by recognizing that the winter holiday season is celebrated in diverse ways by our citizens." Whatever the exact message, the majority agreed that it did not endorse religion.

Since the 1980s the thrust of Supreme Court doctrine has been to allow publicly sponsored holiday displays to include religious symbols. This expansive view of the First Amendment grew out of the Court's acknowledgment that local governments can accommodate civic tradition. Religious symbols on their own are unconstitutional. A display including such symbols may pass review, however, if it features secular symbols as well. Context is the determinant: to avoid violating the Establishment Clause, a crèche or menorah may need a boost from Santa Claus.

The Court has stated that the Establishment Clause means that neither a state nor the federal government can organize a church. The government cannot enact legislation that aids one religion, aids all religions, or prefers one religion over another. It cannot force or influence a person to participate in, or avoid, religion or force a person to profess a particular religious belief. No tax in any amount can be levied to support any religious activities or organizations. Neither a state nor the federal government can participate, whether openly or secretly, in the affairs of any religious groups.

Federal and state governments have accepted and implemented the doctrine of the separation of church and state by minimizing contact with religious institutions. Although the government cannot aid religions, it can acknowledge their role as a stabilizing force in society. For example, religious institutions, along with other charitable or nonprofit organizations, have traditionally been given tax exemptions. This practice, even when applied to religious organizations, has been deemed constitutional because the legislative aim of a property tax exemption is not to advance religion but to ensure that the activities of groups that enhance the moral and mental attitudes of the community will not be inhibited by taxation. The organizations lose the tax exemption if they undertake activities that do not serve the beneficial interests of society. Thus, in 1983, the Supreme Court decided in Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574, 103 S. Ct. 2017, 76 L. Ed. 2d 157, that nonprofit private schools that discriminated against their students or prospective students on the basis of race could not claim tax-exempt status as a charitable organization for the purposes of federal tax laws.

It is also believed that the elimination of such tax exemptions would lead the government into excessive entanglements with religious institutions. The exemption, therefore, is believed to create only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state—less than would result from taxation. The restricted fiscal relationship, therefore, enhances the desired separation.

Religion and Education The many situations in which religion and education overlap are a source of great controversy. In the early nineteenth century, the vast majority of Americans were Protestant, and Protestant-based religious exercises were common in the public schools. Legal challenges to these practices began in the state courts when a substantial number of Roman Catholics arrived in the United States. Until 1962 when the U.S. Supreme Court began to directly address some of these issues, most states upheld the constitutionality of prayer and Bible reading in the public schools.

In the 1962 case of engel v. vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 82 S. Ct. 1261, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a prayer that was a recommended part of the public school curriculum in the state of New York. The prayer had been approved by Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders in the state. Although the prayer was nondenominational and student participation in it was strictly voluntary, it was struck down as violative of the Establishment Clause.

Agostini v. Felton

In June 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back restrictions that it had imposed twelve years earlier on federal aid to religious schools. In a 5–4 decision in Agostini v. Felton, 117 S. Ct. 1997 (1997), the Court ruled that public school teachers can teach remedial education classes to disadvantaged students on the premises of parochial schools—a dramatic reversal of the Court's earlier hard line.

Federal law provides funds for such services to all children of low-income families under title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C.A. § 6301 et seq.). But in 1985 the Court barred public school instructors from teaching title I classes on parochial school premises. In Aguilar v. Felton (473 U.S. 402, 105 S. Ct. 3232, 87 L. Ed. 2d 290), the majority ruled that the mere presence of public employees at these schools had the effect of unconstitutionally advancing religion. To comply with the order, New York parked vans outside of parochial school property to deliver the services, a system that cost taxpayers $100 million between 1985 and 1997.

In a 1995 challenge, New York City argued that intervening cases had invalidated the Supreme Court's earlier ruling. Upon accepting the case on appeal in 1997, the Court agreed. In her majority opinion, Justice sandra day o'connor held that Aguilar had been overruled by two more recent cases based on the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind, 474 U.S. 481, 106 S. Ct. 748, 88 L. Ed. 2d 846 (1986), and Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, 509 U.S. 1, 113 S. Ct. 2462, 125 L. Ed. 2d (1993). O'Connor said that the two cases—permitting a state tuition grant to a blind person who attended a Christian college, and allowing a state-employed sign language interpreter to accompany a deaf student to a Catholic school, respectively—made it clear that the premises in Aguilarwere no longer valid.

Although limited specifically to title I programs, the decision added fuel to another long-standing controversy. Proponents and opponents of school vouchers—a system under which parents would be able to allocate their tax dollars to their children's private school education—disputed whether the case indicated that the Court was moving toward embracing the voucher idea.

In 1963, the Supreme Court heard the related issues of whether voluntary Bible readings or recitation of the Lord's Prayer were constitutionally appropriate exercises in the public schools (abington school district v. schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L. Ed. 2d 844). It was in these cases that the Supreme Court first formulated the three-pronged test for constitutionality. In applying the new test, the Court concluded that the exercises did not pass the first prong of the test: they were not secular in nature, but religious, and thus they violated the Establishment Clause because they violated state neutrality requirements.

Although students in public schools are not permitted to recite prayers, the practice of a state legislature opening its sessions with a nondenominational prayer recited by a chaplain receiving public funds has withstood constitutional challenge. In Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 103 S. Ct. 3330, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1019 (1983), the Supreme Court ruled that such a practice did not violate the Establishment Clause. In making its decision, the Court noted that this was a customary practice and that the proponents of the bill of rights also approved of the government appointment of paid chaplains.

The Supreme Court has also held that a religious invocation, instituted by school officials, at a public school graduation violates the Establishment Clause (lee v. weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 112 S. Ct. 2649, 120 L. Ed. 2d 467 [1992]). Subsequently, the Court made clear that even indirect school support of a prayer given by students violates the First Amendment. In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 120 S.Ct. 2266, 147 L.Ed.2d 295 (2000), the Court held that a Texas public school district could not let its students lead prayers over the public address system before its high school football. The school district's sponsorship of the public prayers by elected student representatives was unconstitutional because the schools could not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion.

In 1980, the Supreme Court overturned a Kentucky statute requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments, copies of which were purchased with private contributions, in every public school classroom (Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 101 S. Ct. 192, 66 L. Ed. 2d 199). Although the state argued that the postings served a secular purpose, the Court held that they were plainly religious. Four of the Supreme Court's nine justices dissented from the Court's opinion and were prepared to conclude that the postings were proper based on their secular purpose.

Because the Establishment Clause calls for government neutrality in matters involving religion, the government need not be hostile or unfriendly toward religions because such an approach would favor those who do not believe in religion over those who do. In addition, if the government denies religious speakers the ability to speak or punishes them for their speech, it violates the First Amendment's right to freedom of speech. The Supreme Court held in 1981 that it was unconstitutional for a state university to prohibit a religious group from using its facilities when the facilities were open for use by organizations of all other kinds (Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 102 S. Ct. 269, 70 L. Ed. 2d 440). The principles established in Widmar were unanimously reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384, 113 S. Ct. 2141, 124 L. Ed. 2d 352 (1993). In 1995, the Supreme Court held that a state university violates the Free Speech Clause when it refuses to pay for a religious organization's publication under a program in which it pays for other student organization publications (Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 115 S. Ct. 2510, 132 L. Ed. 2d 700).

Facing another education and religion issue, the Supreme Court declared in Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 68 S. Ct. 461, 92 L. Ed. 649 (1948), that public school buildings could not be used for a program that allowed pupils to leave classes early to receive religious instruction. The Court found that this program violated the Establishment Clause because the tax-supported public school buildings were being used for the teaching of religious doctrines, which constituted direct government assistance to religion.

However, the Court held that a release-time program that took place outside the public school buildings was constitutional because it did not involved religious instruction in public school classrooms or the expenditure of public funds (Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 72 S. Ct. 679, 96 L. Ed. 954 [1952]). All costs in that case were paid by the religious organization conducting the program.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also held that states may not restrict the teaching of ideas on the grounds that they conflict with religious teachings when those ideas are part of normal classroom subjects. In Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 89 S. Ct. 266, 21 L. Ed. 2d 228 (1968), the Court struck down a state statute that forbade the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools. The Court held that the statute violated the Establishment Clause because its purpose was to protect religious theories of creationism from inconsistent secular theories.

In Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 107 S.Ct. 2573, 96 L.Ed. 2d 510 (1987), the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana "Creationism Act" which prevented any teaching of evolution in public schools unless the course was also accompanied by the teaching of biblical creationism. In his majority opinion, Justice william brennan wrote that the Lemon test had to be used to judge the constitutionality of the Creationism Act. The state contended that the law was simply designed to promote academic freedom by ensuring that students would hear about more than one theory on the origins of life. However, the Court noted that teachers were permitted to present more than one such theory before the law had been passed. The actual purpose of the law, then, had to be to make sure that creationism was taught if anything at all was taught. Brennan ruled that the act did not have a secular purpose and that it did not advance academic freedom. To the contrary, it restricted the abilities of teachers to teach what they deemed appropriate. Brennan also pointed out that Louisiana provided instructional packets to assist in the teaching of creationism but did not provide similar materials for the teaching of evolution. This demonstrated an interest in promoting creationism and religion.

In a 1993 case, the Supreme Court held that the Establishment Clause did not prevent a public school from providing a sign language interpreter for a deaf student who attended a religiously affiliated school within the school district (Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, 509 U.S. 1, 113 S. Ct. 2462, 125 L. Ed. 2d 1). Commentators have noted that this case demonstrates the Court's willingness to uphold religiously neutral government aid to all school children, regardless of whether they attend a religiously affiliated school, where the aid is designed to help the children overcome a physical or learning disability. As of 2003, it was not clear, however, whether the Court would extend this holding to more general forms of aid to children in religious and public schools alike.

Government and Religion The closing of government offices on particular religious holidays is unconstitutional if no secular purpose is served (Mandel v. Hodges, 54 Cal. App. 3d 596, 127 Cal. Rptr. 244 [1976]). But if employees won the closing through collective bargaining, it is permissible even without a secular purpose (Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Kent County, 97 Mich. App. 72, 293 N.W. 2d 723 [1980]).

Government display of symbols with religious significance raises Establishment Clause issues. In the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 104 S. Ct. 1355, 79 L. Ed. 2d 604, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a city to erect in a park a Christmas display that included colored lights, reindeer, candy canes, a Santa's house, a Christmas tree, a "SEASONS GREETINGS" banner, and a nativity scene. The Court decided the inclusion of the nativity scene along with traditional secular Christmas symbols did not promote religion to an extent prohibited by the First Amendment.

Since the mid-1990s, displays of the Ten Commandments in public buildings other than schools has become more common. Several judges drew national attention when they posted the Ten Commandments in their courtrooms, thereby triggering litigation. Alabama trial judge Roy Moore used the publicity from his refusal to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom to run for and be elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in November 2000. After taking office in January 2001, he briefly avoided controversy by posting the Ten Commandments in his chambers rather than in the Supreme Court's courtroom. However, Moore installed a 5,300 pound Ten Commandments monument in the judicial building on a summer night in 2001. A group of citizens objected and filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court. In November 2002, the federal court issued an order directing Moore to remove the monument. Moore refused and vowed to appeal the decision (Glassroth v. Moore, 242 F.Supp. 2d 1068 [M.D.Ala.2002]). In 2003, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision in Glassroth v. Moore, 335 F. 3d 1282. Despite a federal court order to remove the monument, Moore refused. Finally, in September 2003, the other members of the Alabama Supreme Court had the monument removed. Moore was suspended from office while a judicial inquiry commission reviewed his conduct.

Free Exercise Clause

The Free Exercise Clause guarantees a person the right to practice a religion and propagate it without government interference. This right is a liberty interest that cannot be deprived without

due process of law. Although the government cannot restrict a person's religious beliefs, it can limit the practice of faith when a substantial and compelling state interest exists. The courts have found that a substantial and compelling state interest exists when the religious practice poses a threat to the health, safety, or welfare of the public. For example, the government could legitimately outlaw the practice of polygamy that was formerly mandated by the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) but could not outlaw the religion or belief in Mormonism itself (Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 25 L. Ed. 244 [1878]). The Supreme Court has invalidated very few actions of the government on the basis of this clause.

Religious practices are not the only method by which a violation of the Free Exercise Clause can occur. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 63 S. Ct. 1178, 87 L. Ed. 1628 (1943), the Supreme Court held that a public school could not expel children because they refused on religious grounds to comply with a requirement of saluting the U.S. flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. In that case, the children were Jehovah's Witnesses, and they believed that saluting the flag fell within the scope of the biblical command against worshipping false gods.

A more recent decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ignited a firestorm of controversy. The appeals court, in Newdow v. U.S. Congress, 292 F.3d 597 (9th Cir. 2002), ruled that Congress had violated the Establishment Clause when, in 1954, it inserted the words "Under God" into the pledge. Therefore, a California school district's daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance injured the daughter of an atheist father, for the pledge sent a message to her that she was an "outsider" and not a member of the political community. The defendants vowed to petition the Supreme Court to review the case. The Ninth Circuit stayed its ruling until the Supreme Court resolved the issue by either denying review or taking the appeal.

In Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 92 S. Ct. 1526, 32 L. Ed. 2d 15 (1972), the Supreme Court held that state laws requiring children to receive education up to a certain age impinged upon the religious freedom of the Amish who refuse to send their children to school beyond the eighth grade because they believe that doing so would impermissibly expose the children to worldly influences that conflicted with Amish religious beliefs.

In 1993, Congress passed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which provides that "[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, "unless the government can demonstrate that the burden advances a compelling governmental interest in the least restrictive way. This statute was enacted in response to the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 110 S. Ct. 1595, 108 L. Ed. 2d 876. The Smith case involved a state law that denied unemployment compensation benefits to anyone who had been fired from his or her job for job-related misconduct. This case involved two individuals who had been fired from their jobs for ingesting peyote, which was forbidden by state law. The individuals argued that their ingestion of peyote was related to a religious ceremony in which they participated. The Supreme Court ruled that the Free Exercise Clause did not require an exemption from the state law banning peyote use and that unemployment compensation could therefore lawfully be denied.

RFRA directly superseded the Smith decision. However, soon after it was enacted, many courts ruled that RFRA violated either the Establishment Clause or the separation of powers doctrine. In the 1997 case of City of Boerne v. P. F. Flores, 1997 WL 345322, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6–3 to invalidate RFRA on the grounds that Congress had exceeded the scope of its enforcement power under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment in enacting RFRA. Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment permits Congress to enact legislation enforcing the Constitutional right to free exercise of religion. However, the Court held that this power is limited to preventative or remedial measures. The court found that RFRA went beyond that and actually made substantive changes in the governing law. Because Congress exceeded its power under the Fourteenth Amendment in enacting RFRA, it contradicted vital principles necessary to maintain separation of powers and the federal-state balance and thus was unconstitutional.

Although the Free Exercise Clause protects against government action, it does not restrict the conduct of private individuals. For example, the courts generally will uphold a testator's requirement that a beneficiary attend a specified church to receive a testamentary gift because the courts refuse to question the religious views of a testator in the interest of public policy. Similarly, the Free Exercise Clause does not protect a person's religious beliefs from infringement by the actions of private corporations or businesses, although federal and state civil rights laws may make such private conduct unlawful.

The government cannot enact a statute that wholly denies the right to preach or to disseminate religious views, but a state can constitutionally regulate the time, place, and manner of soliciting upon the streets and of conducting meetings in order to safeguard the peace, order, and comfort of the community. It can also protect the public against frauds perpetrated under the cloak of religion, as long as the law does not use a process amounting to a prior restraint, which inhibits the free exercise of religion. In a 1951 case, the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional for a city to deny a Baptist preacher the renewal of a permit for evangelical street meetings, even though his previous meetings included attacks on Roman Catholicism and Judaism that led to disorder in the streets, because it constituted a prior restraint (Kunz v. New York, 340 U.S. 290, 71 S. Ct. 312, 95 L. Ed. 280).

State laws known as Sunday closing laws, which prohibit the sale of certain goods on Sundays, have been declared constitutional against the challenge of Orthodox Jews who claimed that the laws created an economic hardship for them because their faith requires them to close their businesses on Saturdays and who therefore wanted to do business on Sundays (Braunfield v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599, 81 S. Ct. 1144, 6 L. Ed. 2d 563 [1961]). The Supreme Court held that, although the law imposed an indirect burden on

religion, it did not make any religious practice itself unlawful.

In United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, 102 S. Ct. 1051, 71 L. Ed. 2d 127 (1982), the Supreme Court upheld the requirement that Amish employers withhold social security and unemployment insurance contributions from their employees, despite the Amish argument that this violated their rights under the Free Exercise Clause. The Court found that compulsory contributions were necessary to accomplish the overriding government interest in the proper functioning of the Social Security and unemployment systems.

The Supreme Court has also upheld the assignment and use of Social Security numbers by the government to be a legitimate government action that does not violate the Free Exercise Clause (Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S. 693, 106 S. Ct. 2147, 90 L. Ed. 2d 735 [1986]).

In the 1989 case of Hernandez v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 490 U.S. 680, 109 S. Ct. 2136, 104 L. Ed. 2d 766, the Supreme Court held that the government's denial of a taxpayer's deduction from gross income of "fixed donations" to the Church of Scientology for certain religious services was constitutional. These fees were paid for certain classes required by the Church of Scientology, and the Court held that they did not classify as charitable contributions because a good or service was received in exchange for the fee paid.

In Jimmy Swaggart Ministries v. Board of Equalization, 493 U.S. 378, 110 S. Ct. 688, 107 L. Ed. 2d 796 (1990), the Court ruled that a religious organization is not exempt from paying a state's general sales and use taxes on the sale of religious products and religious literature.

Similarly, the Court decided in Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness(ISKCON), 452 U.S. 640, 101 S. Ct. 2559, 69 L. Ed. 2d 298 (1981), that a state rule limiting the sale or distribution of merchandise to specific booths was lawful, even when applied to ISKCON members whose beliefs mandated them to distribute or sell religious literature and solicit donations in public places.

Military regulations have also been challenged under the Free Exercise Clause. In Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503, 106 S. Ct. 1310, 89 L. Ed. 2d 478 (1986), the Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise Clause did not require the U.S. Air Force to permit an Orthodox Jewish serviceman to wear his yarmulke while in uniform and on duty. The Court found that the military's interest in discipline was sufficiently important to outweigh the incidental burden the rule had on the serviceman's religious beliefs.

However, a law that places an indirect burden on the practice of religion so as to impede the observance of religion or a law that discriminates between religions is unconstitutional. Thus, the Supreme Court has held that the denial of unemployment compensation to a Seventh-Day Adventist who was fired from her job and could not obtain any other work because of her refusal to work on Saturdays for religious reasons was unconstitutional (Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 83 S. Ct. 1790, 10 L. Ed. 2d 965 [1963]). The Sherbert case was reaffirmed and applied in the 1987 case of Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida, 480 U.S. 136, 107 S. Ct. 1046, 94 L. Ed. 2d 190.

In the 1993 case of Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 113 S. Ct. 2217, 124 L. Ed. 2d 472, remanded on other grounds, the High Court overturned a city law that forbade animal slaughter insofar as the law banned the ritual animal slaughter by a particular religious sect. The Court found that the law was not a religiously neutral law of general applicability but was specifically designed to prevent a religious sect from carrying out its religious rituals.

In Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 92 S. Ct. 1079, 31 L. Ed. 2d 263 (1972), the Supreme Court affirmed that prisoners are entitled to their rights under the Free Exercise Clause, subject only to the requirements of prison security and discipline. Thus, the Court held that a Texas prison must permit a Buddhist prisoner to use the prison chapel and share his religious materials with other prisoners, just as any other prisoner would be permitted to so act.

States have been allowed to deny disability benefits, however, to applicants who refuse to submit to medical examinations for religious reasons. Courts have held that this is constitutional because the state has a compelling interest in verifying that the intended recipients of the tax-produced assistance are people who are legitimately entitled to receive the benefit. Likewise, states can regulate religious practices to protect the public health. Thus, state laws requiring the vaccination of all children before they are allowed to attend school are constitutional because the laws are designed to prevent the widespread epidemic of contagious diseases. Public health protection has been deemed to outweigh any competing interest in the exercise of religious beliefs that oppose any forms of medication or immunization.

A number of cases have involved the issue of whether there is a compelling state interest to require that a blood transfusion be given to a patient whose religion prohibits such treatment. In these cases, the courts look to the specific facts of the case, such as whether the patient is a minor or a mentally incompetent individual, and whether the patient came to the hospital voluntarily seeking help. The courts have generally authorized the transfusions in cases of minors or mentally incompetent patients in recognition of the compelling government interest to protect the health and safety of people. However, the courts are divided as to whether they should order transfusions where the patient is a competent adult who steadfastly refuses to accept such treatment on religious grounds despite the understanding that her or his refusal could result in death. As of 2003, the Supreme Court had not ruled on this issue, and therefore there was no final judicial opinion on the propriety of such orders.

The use of secular courts to determine intra-church disputes has raised issues under both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court decided in the 1871 case of Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 20 L. Ed. 666, that judicial intervention in cases involving ownership and control of church assets necessarily had to be limited to determining and enforcing the decision of the highest judicatory body within the particular religious group. For congregational religious groups, such as Baptists and Jews, the majority of the congregation was considered the highest judicatory body. In hierarchical religions, such as the Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, the diocesan bishop was considered the highest judicatory authority. The Supreme Court consistently applied that principle until its 1979 decision in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 99 S. Ct. 3020, 61 L. Ed. 2d 775. In that case, the Court held that the "neutral principles of law developed for use in all property disputes" could be constitutionally applied in intra-church litigation. Under this case, courts can examine the language of the church charters, real and personal property deeds, and state statutes relating to the control of property generally.

Religious Oaths Prohibited

The Constitution also refers to religion in Article VI, Clause 3, which provides, "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." The provision is binding only on the federal government.

In early American history, individual states commonly required religious oaths for public officers. But after the Revolutionary War, most of these religious tests were eliminated. As of 2003, the individual states, through their constitutions or statutes, have restrictions similar to that of the U.S. Constitution on imposing a religious oath as a condition to holding a government position.

Freedom to express religious beliefs is entwined with the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression. The federal or state governments cannot require an individual to declare a belief in the existence of God as a qualification for holding office (Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 81 S. Ct. 1680, 6 L. Ed. 2d 982 [1961]).

Congress took an unprecedented step when it passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. (Pub. L.105-292, 112 Stat. 2787). The law seeks to promote religious freedom worldwide. It created a special representative to the secretary of state for international religious freedom. This representative serves on a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory organization. The act gives the president authority to take diplomatic and other appropriate action with respect to any country that engages in or tolerates violations of religious freedom. In extreme circumstances, the president is empowered to impose economic sanctions on countries that systematically deny religious freedom.

further readings

Blomquist, Robert F. 2003. "Law and Spirituality: Some First Thoughts on an Emerging Relation." UMKC Law Review 71 (spring).

Haarscher, Guy. 2002. "Freedom of Religion in Context." Brigham Young Univ. Law Review 2002 (spring).

Semonche, John E., ed. 1985. Religion and Law in American History. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Skotnicki, Andrew. 2000. Religion and the Development of the American Penal System. Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America.

Spiropoulos, Andrew C. 1997. "The Constitutionality of Holiday Displays on Public Property (Or How the Court Stole Christmas)." Oklahoma Bar Journal (May 31).

Williams, Cynthia Norman. 2003. "America's Opposition to New Religious Movements: Limiting the Freedom of Religion." Law and Psychology Review 27 (spring).


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This entry is not a survey of the various forms that "religion" has taken in human history; rather, it treats the nature of religion as a problem in the philosophy of religion. It will be concerned with attempts to develop an adequate definition of religion, that is, to make explicit the basic features of the concept of religion.

General Definition and Characteristics

examination of definitions

A survey of existing definitions reveals many different interpretations.

"Religion is the belief in an ever living God, that is, in a Divine Mind and Will ruling the Universe and holding moral relations with mankind."James Martineau

"Religion is the recognition that all things are manifestations of a Power which transcends our knowledge."Herbert Spencer

"By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of Nature and of human life."J. G. Frazer

"Religion is rather the attempt to express the complete reality of goodness through every aspect of our being."F. H. Bradley

"Religion is ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling."Matthew Arnold

"It seems to me that it [religion] may best be described as an emotion resting on a conviction of a harmony between ourselves and the universe at large."J. M. E. McTaggart

"Religion is, in truth, that pure and reverential disposition or frame of mind which we call piety."C. P. Tiele

"A man's religion is the expression of his ultimate attitude to the universe, the summed-up meaning and purport of his whole consciousness of things."Edward Caird

"To be religious is to effect in some way and in some measure a vital adjustment (however tentative and incomplete) to whatever is reacted to or regarded implicitly or explicitly as worthy of serious and ulterior concern."Vergilius Ferm

If we take these definitions as attempts to state necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be a religion, it is not difficult to show that none of them is adequate. With respect to necessary conditions, consider Martineau's definition. It is clear that such a belief does not have to be present in a religion. No polytheistic religion recognizes a single divine ruler of the universe; and there are religions, such as Hinayana Buddhism, in which beliefs in personal deities play no role at all. Bradley and Arnold identify religion with morality, but there are primitive societies in which there is no real connection between the ritual system, with its associated beliefs in supernatural beings, and the moral code. The latter is based solely on tribal precedent and is not thought of as either originating with or sanctioned by the gods. If, as would commonly be done, we call the former the religion of the culture, we have a religion without morality. As for McTaggart and Tiele, it seems likely that if we specify "piety" or "feeling of harmony" sufficiently to give them a clear and unambiguous meaning, we will be able to find acknowledged religions in which they do not play an important role. It would seem that we could avoid this only by construing "piety," for example, to cover any state of feeling that arises in connection with religious activities. It does seem plausible to regard some of the definitions as stating necessary conditions, as in Caird and Ferm. However, it is doubtful that these are sufficient conditions. Does any "ultimate attitude" or any "vital adjustment" constitute a religion? As William James points out (The Varieties of Religious Experience, Ch. 2), it seems doubtful that a frivolous attitude toward life constitutes a religion, even if it is the fundamental attitude of a given person. And Ferm's overcarefully worded statement would seem to admit any attitude with respect to anything considered important to the ranks of the religious. This would presumably include one's attitude toward one's spouse, toward one's vocation, and, in many cases, toward one's athletic activities. At this point one wonders what has happened to the concept of religion. Many of the definitions are deficient on grounds of both necessity and sufficiency. To return to Martineau, it is quite conceivable that such a belief might be held purely as a speculative hypothesis, without affecting the believer's feelings and attitudes in the way that would be requisite for religious belief. And as for McTaggart, it seems clear that one could from time to time have such a sense of harmony without this being integrated into anything that we would call a religion.

It is noteworthy that most of these definitions stress one aspect or another of religion to the exclusion of others. Thus, Martineau and Spencer represent religion as some sort of belief or other cognitive state; Frazer, as ritual (conceived in a utilitarian fashion); Bradley and Arnold, as a kind of moral attitude and activity; and McTaggart and Tiele as a certain kind of feeling. One might attribute the failings of these definitions to their one-sidedness. One could hardly expect to get an adequate statement of the nature of so complex a phenomenon as religion, essentially involving, as it does, all these forms of human activity by restricting oneself to belief, feeling, ritual, or moral attitude alone. Caird and Ferm escape this particular failing by concentrating on a comprehensive term such as attitude or adjustment, which itself embraces belief, feeling, and moral attitude. But, as we have seen, these formulations do not come measurably closer to providing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions.

There are other ways of construing definitions of religion. Instead of taking the above statements as attempts to specify features that are common and peculiar to cases of religion, we might take each of them as an attempt to state the essence of religion, that central feature in terms of which all religious phenomena are to be understood. This approach to the matter is explicit in the following statements:

"The essence of religion is a belief in the persistency of value in the world."Harald Høffding

"The heart of religion, the quest of the ages, is the outreach of man, the social animal, for the values of the satisfying life."A. E. Haydon

"The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence."Friedrich Schleiermacher

There are two distinguishable interpretations of claims of this type. They might be interpreted genetically, as accounts of the origin of religion. The claim would then be that what is specified as the essence of religion is the original root from which all phenomena of religion have sprung. Thus, Julian Huxley, like Schleiermacher working with a conception of the essence of religion as a kind of feeling, says, "the essence of religion springs from man's capacity for awe and reverence, that the objects of religion are in origin and essence those things, events, and ideas which arouse the feeling of sacredness" (Religion without Revelation, p. 111). Similarly starting with Høffding's formulation, we might try to show how typical religious doctrines, rites, and sentiments grew out of an original belief in the persistency of value. However, since we know virtually nothing about the prehistoric origins of religion, speculation in this area is almost completely unchecked by data, and it seems impossible to find any rational basis for choosing between alternative genetic accounts.

However, we might also give a nongenetic interpretation. Saying that the essence of religion is a feeling of absolute dependence, for example, might mean that the full interrelatedness of the various features of religion can be understood only if we view them all in relation to a feeling of absolute dependence. This claim would be independent of any view of the origin of religion. The difficulty with this is that there would seem to be several different features of religion that could be taken as centralsuch as ritual, a need for reassurance against the terrors of life, or a need to get a satisfactory explanation of the cosmosand it is illuminating to view the rest of religion as related to each of these. How is one to settle on a unique essence?

characteristic features of religion

Despite the fact that none of the definitions specifies a set of characteristics which is present when and only when we have a religion, or gives us a unique essence, it does seem that they contribute to our understanding of the nature of religion. It appears that the presence of any of the features stressed by these definitions will help to make something a religion. We might call such features, listed below, religion-making characteristics.

  1. Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  2. A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  3. Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  4. A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  5. Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  6. Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  7. A worldview, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an overall purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  8. A more or less total organization of one's life based on the worldview.
  9. A social group bound together by the above.

Interrelations of characteristics

Religion-making characteristics do not just happen to be associated in religion; they are intimately interconnected in several ways. Some of these connections have been indicated, but there are others. For example, the distinction between sacred and profane objects is based on other factors mentioned. It is not any intrinsic characteristic of a thing that makes it a sacred object; things of every conceivable kind have occupied this positionanimals, plants, mountains, rivers, persons, and heavenly bodies. Certain objects are singled out as sacred in a given community because they typically arouse such feelings as awe and a sense of mystery, and thus the members of that community tend to respond to these objects with ritual acts. Again, the emotional reaction to sacred objects may be rationalized by conceiving the object to be the habitation or manifestation of a god. The awe aroused by the wild bull led to its being identified with the wild god of intoxication, Dionysus. The very special impression made by Jesus of Nazareth on certain of his contemporaries was expressed by calling him the Son of God. These examples make it sound as if emotional reactions to sacred objects come first and that these reactions are then explained by positing gods as their causes. But it can also happen the other way round. The acceptance of beliefs about the gods and their earthly habitations can contribute to the evocation of awe and other feelings in the presence of certain objects. The members of a religious community are taught to hold certain objects in awe by being taught various doctrines about the gods. Thus, Christians are taught to regard the cross and the consecrated bread and wine with reverence by being told of the Crucifixion and the Last Supper.

A similar reciprocal relationship holds between ritual and doctrine. A doctrine can be introduced as the justification of an already established ritual. Thus, the myth of Proserpine being carried off to the underworld and remaining there half the year seems to have been introduced as an explanation of a preexisting magical fertility cult, in which an ear of grain, perhaps called the corn maiden, was buried in the fall and raised sprouting in the spring. On the other hand, changes in doctrine can engender, modify, or abolish rituals. Beliefs about the divine status of Jesus Christ played an important role in shaping the Christmas festival.

Definition in terms of characteristics

If it is true that the religion-making characteristics neither singly nor in combination constitute tight necessary and sufficient conditions for something being a religion, and yet that each of them contributes to making something a religion, then it must be that they are related in some looser way to the application of the term. Perhaps the best way to put it is this. When enough of these characteristics are present to a sufficient degree, we have a religion. It seems that, given the actual use of the term religion, this is as precise as we can be. If we tried to say something like "for a religion to exist, there must be the first two plus any three others," or "for a religion to exist, any four of these characteristics must be present," we would be introducing a degree of precision not to be found in the concept of religion actually in use.

Another way of putting the matter is this. There are cultural phenomena that embody all of these characteristics to a marked degree. They are the ideally clear paradigm cases of religion, such as Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, and Orphism. These are the cases to which the term religion applies most certainly and unmistakably. However, there can be a variety of cases that differ from the paradigm in different ways and to different degrees, by one or another of the religion-making characteristics dropping out more or less. For example, ritual can be sharply de-emphasized, and with it the demarcation of certain objects as sacred, as in Protestantism; it can even disappear altogether, as with the Quakers. Beliefs in supernatural beings can be whittled away to nothing, as in certain forms of Unitarianism, or may never be present, as in certain forms of Buddhism. And, as mentioned earlier, in certain primitive societies morality has no close connection with the cultic system. As more of the religion-making characteristics drop out, either partially or completely, we feel less secure about applying the term religion, and there will be less unanimity in the language community with respect to the application of the term. However, there do not seem to be points along these various dimensions of deviations that serve as a sharp demarcation of religion from nonreligion. It is simply that we encounter less and less obvious cases of religion as we move from, for example, Roman Catholicism through Unitarianism, humanism, and Hinayana Buddhism to communism. Thus, the best way to explain the concept of religion is to elaborate in detail the relevant features of an ideally clear case of religion and then indicate the respects in which less clear cases can differ from this, without hoping to find any sharp line dividing religion from nonreligion. (Cf. Ludwig Wittgenstein's notion of "family-resemblances" among the things to which a term applies.)

An adequate definition of religion should throw light on the sorts of disputes and perplexities that typically produce a need to define religion, such as disputes over whether communism is a religion, and whether devotion to science can be called a man's religion. So long as we are dealing with definitions of the simplistic type that we have criticized, these problems are not illuminated. Each party to the dispute will appeal to a definition suited to the position he is defending, and since none of these definitions is wholly adequate, there is an irreducible plurality of not wholly inadequate definitions to be used for this purpose. Person A, who claims that communism is a religion, will give, for instance, Caird's statement as his definition of religion, and person B, who denies this, will choose Martineau's. Obviously, the position of each is upheld by his chosen definition. Hence, it would seem that the only way to settle the dispute is to determine which is the correct definition. However, we have seen that this gets us nowhere; no such definition is wholly adequate.

At this point there is a temptation to brand the dispute purely verbal, a reflection of different senses attached to the word religion. It may seem that the disagreement can be dissolved by persuading all parties to use the word in the same sense. But this is a superficial reaction that does not adequately bring out how much the parties to the dispute have in common. In fact, Martineau and Caird represent two contrasting emphases within a common framework. Suppose that A and B begin with the same paradigm, orthodox Protestant Christianity. But A gives greatest weight to the moral-orientationemotion elements in this paradigm. As long as anything strongly manifests these elements, as long as it serves as a system of life orientation for the individual who is bound to it by strong emotional ties, he will call it a religion. B, on the other hand, gives greatest weight to the belief in a personal God and the complex of emotions, ritual, and devotional acts that is bound up with that belief. Thus, although they have basically the same concept of religion, they will diverge in their application of the term at certain points. Once we realize that this is the true situation, we can state the problem in a more tractable form. We can enumerate the religion-making characteristics and determine which of them communism has and in what degree. Then we can proceed to the heart of the disputethe relative importance of these characteristics. Insofar as there is a real issue between A and B, once both are in possession of all the relevant facts, it is whether communism is similar to clear cases of religion in the most important respects, that is, whether the respects in which it is like Protestant Christianity are more important than those in which it is different.

Types of Religion

In the case of so complex a concept as religion, it is desirable to supplement the very general portrayal of basic features with some indications of the varying emphases placed on them in different religions. To do this, we must develop a classificatory scheme.

William James has reminded us that in every religion there is some sort of awareness of what is called divine and some sort of response to this divinity. This being the case, a very fruitful way of classifying religions is to ask in the case of each: "Where is the divine (the object of religious responses) primarily sought and located, and what sort of response is primarily made to it?" In answering these questions for a given religion, the religion-making features most stressed in that religion will also come to light. According to this principle of division, religions fall into three major groups: sacramental, prophetic, and mystical.

location of the divine

In sacramental religion the divine is sought chiefly in thingsinanimate physical things like pieces of wood (relics of saints, statues, crosses), food and drink (bread and wine, baptismal water), living things (the totem animal of the group, the sacred cow, the sacred tree), processes (the movements of the sacred dance). This does not mean that the thing itself is responded to as divine, although this can happen in very primitive forms of sacramental religion, called fetishism. Usually the sacred thing is conceived to be the habitation or manifestation of some god or spirit. Thus, the ancient Hebrews treated the elaborate box that they called the Ark of God as the habitation of their god, Yahweh; the Hindus consider the river Ganges sacred to the god Shivathey believe that Shiva is in some specially intimate relation to that river, and they bathe in its waters to benefit from his healing power. The Roman Catholic finds the presence of God concentrated in the consecrated bread and wine, which, he believes, has been transformed into the body and blood of Christ. At a more sophisticated level the material thing may be taken as a symbol of the divine rather than as its direct embodiment, as in the definition of a sacrament given in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace."

In prophetic religion the divine is thought to manifest itself primarily in human societyin the events of human history and in the inspired utterances of great historical figures. It is not denied that nature issues from the divine and is under divine control, but it is not in nature that God is most immediately encountered. The divine reality is to be discovered in great historical eventsthe destruction of cities, the rise and fall of empires, the escape of a people from bondage. The hand of God is seen in these matters because God is encountered more immediately in the lives and the inspired words of his messengers, the prophets, who reveal in their utterances God's nature, his purposes and commands, and derivatively in the sacred books that contain the records of these revelations. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the three chief prophetic religions, are sometimes called religions of the book. Here the key term is not sacrament but revelation. Prophetic religion, unlike the others, stresses the word as the medium of contact with the divine. (An example is the opening of the Gospel of John.) For the ritualist, and still more for the mystic, whatever words he may use, the consummation of his endeavors is found in a wordless communion with the divine. In prophetic religion, however, the linguistic barrier is never let down; it is not felt as a barrier at all.

The center of mystical religion is the mystical experience, which at its highest development dominates the consciousness, excluding all awareness of words, nature, even of the mystic's own self. In this experience the individual feels himself pervaded and transformed by the divine, identified with it in an indivisible unity. The world and all its ordinary concerns seem as naught as the mystic is caught up in the ineffable bliss of this union. It is not surprising that those who have enjoyed this experience, and those who aspire to it, should take it to be the one true avenue of contact with the divine and dismiss all other modes as spurious, or at least as grossly inferior. Rituals and sacraments, creeds and sacred books, are viewed as paltry substitutes, which are doled out to those who, by reason of incapacity or lack of effort, miss the firsthand mystic communion; or else they are external aids that are of use only in the earlier stages of the quest, crutches to be thrown away when direct access to God is attained.

response to the divine

In sacramental religion, where the divine is apprehended chiefly in material embodiments, the center of religious activity will be found in ritual acts centering on these embodiments. The sacred places, animals, statues, and such, must be treated with reverence, approached and made use of with due precautions; and around these usages tend to grow prescribed rites. Since the sense of the divine presence in certain objects is likely to be enhanced by participation in solemn ceremonials centering on these objects, the religious activity becomes a self-perpetuating system, embodying what is currently called positive feedback.

In sacramental religion, the ritual tends to absorb most of the religious energies of the adherents and to crowd the other elements out of the center of the picture. Primitive religion, which is strongly sacramental in character, is often unconcerned with moral distinctions; and we might speculate that the progressive moralization of religion is achieved at the expense of ritual preoccupations. We can see this conflict at many points in the history of religions, most notably in the denunciations that the Hebrew prophets directed against the ritual-minded religionists of their day, and in their exhortations to substitute thirst for righteousness for the concern for niceties of ceremony. Even in its highest developments, sacramental religion tends to slacken the ethical tension that is found in prophetic religion. Where sacramentalism is strong in a monotheistic religion, the natural tendency is to take everything in nature as a divine manifestation. If everything is sacred, then nothing can be fundamentally evil; and thus the distinction between good and evil becomes blurred. One of the elements in the Protestant Reformation was a protest against tendencies to blurring of this sort, which took place in the largely sacramental medieval form of Christianity.

The typical response of prophetic religion to the divine is also nicely coordinated with the chief form in which the divine is apprehended. The reaction naturally called for by a message from the divine is acceptance. This involves both an intellectual acceptance of its contentsbelief that whatever statements it makes are trueand obedience to the commands and exhortations it contains. Hence, in prophetic religion faith is the supreme virtue, and affirmations and confessions of faith play an important role. This is illustrated by the insistence of such great Christian prophetic figures as Paul and Martin Luther on faith in Christ as both necessary and sufficient for salvation and by the Muslim practice of repeating daily the creed "There is no God but Allah, and Muammad is his prophet." It is important to realize that faith in this sense means far more than the intellectual assent to certain propositions. It also involves taking up an attitude on the basis of that affirmation and expressing that attitude in action. The Jewish prophet Micah expressed the essence of prophetic religion when he said, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" Thus, it would not be incorrect to say that the emphasis in the prophetic response is ethical, providing we do not separate ethics from the believing acceptance of the divine message that is its foundation.

To understand the typical response of mystical religion, we must remember that for the mystic, immediate identification with the divine is of supreme importance. Therefore he concentrates on an ascetic and contemplative discipline that will be conducive to the attainment and maintenance of that condition. He tends to become involved in abstentions and self-tortures designed to wean him from his attachment to things of this world, and in contemplative exercises designed to withdraw the attention from finite things, leaving the soul empty and receptive to influences from the divine. He will make use of ceremonies and will accede to moral principles insofar as he believes them to be efficacious in furthering his ultimate goal. But ultimately they must go; when union with God has been achieved, they are of no more significance. Thus, like sacramentalism, mysticism tends toward the amoral. Only rarely does either become completely amoral, and then for different reasons. For the sacramentalist, conventional moral distinctions may come to seem unimportant because he views everything as equally saturated with the divine; they seem unimportant to the mystic because every finite object or activity is outside the mystic union, and so all are, in the end, equally worthless. The righteous and the wicked are equally far from the true religious goal. While united with God, one does not act.

place of doctrine

Finally, we may compare the three types of religion with respect to the status of beliefs and creeds. Since faith is central for prophetic religion and since the word is stressed as the primary medium of divine manifestation, it is not surprising that in prophetic religion, creed and doctrine are emphasized more than in the others. Mystical religion, at its purest, is indifferent to matters of belief and doctrine. The mystical experience and the divinity it reveals are often regarded as ineffable, not to be expressed in human language; hence, mystics tend to reject all doctrinal formulations as inadequate. At best, a mystic will admit that some formulations are less inadequate symbols of the unutterable than are others. Thus, in such predominantly mystical groups as the Sufis and the Quakers, little or no attempt is made to enforce doctrinal conformity. And in an extreme form of mysticism, like that of Zen Buddhism, any doctrinal formulation is discouraged. Sacramental religion occupies a middle ground in this respect. In its more primitive forms, it is often extremely indefinite about belief. It has been said that primitive man "dances out his religion." Certainly the elaboration of ritual in primitive religion far outstrips the associated theory. The primitive will often possess an incredibly detailed set of ritual prescriptions but have only the haziest idea of what there is about the nature or doings of the gods that makes them appropriate. In its more developed forms, sacramental theology becomes more definite, but it is still true that to the extent that a religion is preoccupied with a sacramental approach to the divine, it is more impatient than prophetic religion with doctrinal subtleties.

We can coordinate this classification with the list of religion-making characteristics by pointing out that sacramental religion stresses sacred objects and ritual, prophetic religion stresses belief and morality, and mystical religion places chief emphasis on immediate experience and feeling.

concrete application

When we come to apply our scheme to particular cases, we must not suppose that any religion will fall completely in one class or another. In fact, it is better not to think of types of religions, but of religious tendencies that enter in varying proportions into the makeup of any actual religion. However, we can usually say that one tendency or another predominates in a given religion. Thus, Buddhism and philosophical Hinduism are predominantly mystical; Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism are primarily prophetic; and popular Hinduism, in company with all polytheistic and primitive religions, is primarily sacramental. Often a religion that begins with a definite bent will admit other elements in the course of its development. Islam, which began as the most severely prophetic of religions, has developed one of the world's most extreme group of mystics in the Sufis, who are completely out of harmony with the spirit of Muammad, no matter how they may continue to express themselves in his phrases. Again, in Tibet, Buddhism has undergone a development quite foreign to its founder's intentions, blossoming into an extremely elaborate sacramentalism.

Christianity furnishes a good opportunity to study the intermingling and conflict of the different tendencies. It began as an outgrowth of Jewish prophecy, but in the process of adapting itself to the rest of the Western world it took on a considerable protective coloration of both the sacramental and mystical, and these aspects have remained with it throughout its career. Christian mysticism presents a good example of an element existing in a religion that is dominated by another element. As the price of toleration, Christian mystics have had to pay lip service to the official theology and to the prophetic moral element; and as a result, mystic thought and practice in Christianity have seldom received the extreme development found in India. In those cases where the mystical spirit has burst the fetters, as with Meister Eckhart, official condemnation has often resulted.

Looking at Christianity today, it can be said that although it is predominantly a prophetic religion, as compared with Hinduism and Buddhism, with respect to its internal divisions the Catholic wing (both Roman and Greek) tends more toward the sacramental, while the Protestant is more purely prophetic, with mysticism appearing sporadically throughout. In Catholicism the elaborateness of prescribed ceremonies, the emphasis on the necessity of material sacraments for salvation, and the insistence on a special status for consecrated priests are all typically sacramental. In Protestantism the emphasis on the sermon (the speaking forth of the Word of God) rather than on ritual, the emphasis on the Bible as the repository of divine revelation, and the moral earnestness and social concern are all earmarks of the prophetic spirit. "Religion" new copy p. 235:

See also Buddhism; Chinese Philosophy: Religion; Christianity; Creation and Conservation, Religious Doctrine of; Epistemology, Religious; Islamic Philosophy; Jewish Philosophy; Philosophy of Religion, History of; Philosophy of Religion, Problems of; Philosophy of Religion; Religion and Morality; Religion and the Biological Sciences; Religion and the Physical Sciences; Religion, Naturalistic Reconstructions of; Religion, Psychological Explanations of; Religious Experience, Argument for the Existence of God; Religious Experience; Religious Language; Theism, Arguments For and Against.


Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion, translated by John Oman (New York: Harper, 1958), and The Christian Faith, translated by H. R. Mackintosh (Edinburgh, 1956), contain classic statements of the view that religion is essentially a mode of experience. A more recent statement of this point of view that emphasizes mystical experience is in W. T. Stace, Time and Eternity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952). The moral aspect of religion is stressed in Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, translated by T. M. Greene and H. H. Hudson (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1934), and in John Baillie, The Interpretation of Religion (New York: Scribners, 1928). Conceptions of religion from the standpoint of philosophical naturalism are to be found in Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism (London, 1865); Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, translated by George Eliot (New York: Ungar, 1957); George Santayana, Reason in Religion (New York: Scribners, 1905); John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1934); and Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950).

Stimulating discussions, not so easily classified, are Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, translated by R. Ashley Audra (New York: Holt, 1935); William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longman, 1902); Josiah Royce, The Sources of Religious Insight (New York: Scribners, 1912); John Oman, "The Sphere of Religion," in Science, Religion and Reality, edited by Joseph Needham (New York: Macmillan, 1925); and Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926). Important discussions from the social sciences include Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, translated by J. W. Swain (London: Allen and Unwin, 1915), and Bronisław Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954). James H. Leuba, A Psychological Study of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1912), and Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation (New York: Harper, 1958), provide extensive critical discussion of a wide variety of definitions, as well as presenting original conceptions.

other recommended titles

Banton, Michael, ed. Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. Reprint edition, London: Routledge, 1990.

Batson, C. Daniel et al. Religion and the Individual: A Social-Psychological Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Berger, Peter. The Social Reality of Religion. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1967.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Reprint edition. New York: Basic, 2002.

Braun, Willi, and Russell McCutcheon, eds. Guide to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell, 2000.

Byrne, Peter. Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion. London: Routledge, 1989.

Clarke, Peter, and Peter Byrne, eds. Religion Defined and Explained. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Derrida, Jacques, and Gianni Vattimo, eds. Religion. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Godlove, Terry. Religion, Interpretation, and Diversity of Belief: The Framework Model from Kant to Durkheim to Davidson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Guthrie, Steward. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hick, John. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Lawson, E. Thomas, and Robert McCauley. Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Phillips, D. Z. Religion without Explanation. Oxford: Blackwell, 1976.

Smart, Ninian. The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Yinger, J. Milton. The Scientific Study of Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

William P. Alston (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


Antebellum literature and culture reflected the energy and diversity of American religious experience. The era began with religious forms largely inherited from Europe, but its events placed a uniquely American stamp on both mainstream denominations and new faiths. The dominant tone was triumphant Protestant evangelicalism, but the religious diversity that erupted eluded any comprehensive theological label. For most Americans from 1800 to 1865 spiritual reality permeated everyday life in conscious and unconscious ways. Powerful conservative and liberal religious movements jostled for influence, stirring deep debates about the nature of God and the divine-human relationship. Dramatic religious revivals inspired some and appalled others and the era produced an unprecedented outburst of religious experimentation and innovation. American history has not seen anything like it since.


American Congregational and Presbyterian Puritanism provided a long foreground for antebellum American literature and culture. Although Puritanism's institutional relevance ended with the death of the revivalist Jonathan Edwards in 1758, its thought, already cultivated for more than a century in New England and elsewhere, lived on in the imaginations and intellectual habits of orthodox and unorthodox Christians as well as those who had come to doubt the existence of God.

Puritanism was survived by its capacity to connect the literal and the symbolic. Puritan typology fused literal objects in nature with spiritual concepts, and it influenced much of the writing of American Romantics, including Herman Melville's (1819–1891) symbolic vision, Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804–1864) self-conscious use of types and allegories, Henry David Thoreau's (1817–1862) observations of nature, and Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803–1882) linguistic theory.

Puritan views of human nature and theodicy, the problem of evil, emphasized the fallen condition of humans and their inability to achieve salvation through individual effort. Early-nineteenth-century writers responded vigorously, either through the elevation of a more hopeful view of human self-reliance, as articulated by Emerson, or in Hawthorne's grudging acknowledgment that only depravity, albeit without salvation, could explain the darkness he saw in the human soul. Puritans perceived God as an active agent in his creation, a preoccupation shared by Emerson and other transcendentalists, Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), and orthodox antebellum poets such as William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878).

One of the most enduring intellectual and aesthetic legacies of Puritanism was its jeremiad rhetoric. Spoken by the first Puritan immigrants and honed in the pulpits of second- and third-generation divines in the seventeenth century, the jeremiad vividly painted sublime terrors awaiting the unrepentant. Its underlying tenor, however, was optimistic, picturing the rewards available when the sinning stopped. This ability to criticize American culture harshly from within while alluding to the rewards awaiting clarified vision and reformed behavior pervaded works by leading nineteenth-century writers such as Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville.

Puritan orthodoxy, formed by an ethical rationalism inherited from Plato and a pietistic awareness of religious experience, underlay the mainstream Protestantism that Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) learned from her Presbyterian father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher (1775–1863). This worldview was reflected in novels such as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and The Minister's Wooing (1859). The colonial religious heritage of New England also provided a broadly familiar context for works such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's (1807–1882) poem "The Courtship of Miles Standish" (1858).

While Puritanism cast a long shadow over early-nineteenth-century literature, competing beliefs left lingering effects as well. The rites and practices of free-masonry allowed rationalism to cohabit with occultism. The mid-eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg taught that the world of spirits posited by orthodox Christianity could be entered by living humans. Franz Mesmer, the Austrian father of hypnosis, insisted that "animal magnetism" and hypnotic suggestion could restore physical health and reveal the answers to cosmic mysteries. The "Rochester Rappings" described by Margaret and Catherine Fox in 1848 encouraged many Americans that the world of spirits was capable of talking back. The spiritualist writer Andrew Jackson Davis, who had studied Swedenborgianism and practiced mesmerism, published The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation and a Voice to Mankind (1847). The practices of some spiritualists were related to Native American shamanism and some early mediums were of Indian descent. These preoccupations held particular appeal during the great age of sentimentalism in the 1840s and 1850s when families disrupted by disease and infant mortality sought comfort in spiritual reunion. Many believed that continued communication with the spirit world would lead to spiritual progress and even closer ties between heaven and earth.


The more liberal, rationalistic side of Puritanism embodied in the preaching of Charles Chauncy underlay the development of Unitarianism in America. Its confidence in the ability of human reason to unravel scriptural mysteries, its emphasis on the morality and ethics of God as exemplar rather than judge, and its reliance on Christ as a model for humans rather than as a substitutionary savior appealed to intellectuals who were uneasy about revivalism and religious enthusiasm.

Not long after Unitarianism acquired a defining articulation of beliefs (William Ellery Channing's 1819 sermon at Jared Sparks's ordination) and an organizational structure (the American Unitarian Association, founded in Boston in 1825), a group of Unitarians led by Emerson expressed dissatisfaction with its underlying empiricism and sought more reliance on intuition, founding the Transcendentalist Club in 1836. According to Perry Miller, transcendentalist literature is "a protest of the human spirit against emotional starvation" (p. 8). Emerson led the transcendentalists to embrace Swedenborg's ideas about the correspondence between spiritual ideas and natural facts, a pantheistic view of God's presence in nature, and familiarity with Eastern religions. While it never became a denomination, transcendentalism was emphatically religious. Its adherents were few, but its emphasis on nature and individualism resonated throughout the antebellum period and set the tone for American liberalism.

The transcendentalist heyday coincided with a broader movement that cultivated American Romanticism in religion. Inspired by the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher's assertion that religious faith was based on immediate experience of the presence of God, American theologians such as Horace Bushnell (1802–1876), the "American Schleiermacher," reinvigorated Congregationalism by providing an alternative to revivalism and asserting a Romantic theory of language emphasizing its symbolic, literary aspects. While disavowing Unitarian rationalism, Bushnell welcomed its emphasis on the moral influence of Jesus Christ rather than on the forensic function of the atonement. Although he rejected transcendentalist pantheism, Bushnell held that the natural world was infused with supernatural influences. Bushnell brought religious liberalism to conventional pulpits much as Emerson introduced philosophical liberalism to audiences in drawing rooms and lecture halls. To some extent, the religious world of Bushnell touched the lives of American writers such as John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892), Dickinson, Hawthorne, and Melville. Other Romantic writers, including Longfellow, James Russell Lowell (1819–1891), Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809–1894), and Bryant, were nurtured in Unitarianism but evolved a Romantic concept of nature.


Revivalism in the nineteenth century was another debtor to eighteenth century Puritanism, particularly as it was modeled by Jonathan Edwards during the Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening, germinating in Connecticut, swept New England at the turn of the nineteenth century and encouraged a series of revivals in the frontier. Edwards's own grandson, Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), and Dwight's student, Nathaniel William Taylor (1786–1858), shaped the theology underlying the revival: humans were sinful because of their own acts, not because of an existing state they had inherited. Such departures from earlier Puritan understandings placed more emphasis on the power of the individual to choose freely and to accept accountability for his or her actions, creating an orthodox religious basis for individualism. Lyman Beecher took Taylor's theology west to the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati.

Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) migrated westward from his Connecticut roots to absorb a rural version of Presbyterianism and become the prototype of modern revivalists. Revival focus moved away from attempts to discover the mysterious will of God and toward emphasis on the potential of human effort to reach out toward God. Finney and others also stressed the human potential to achieve holiness that had shaped Wesleyan faith in the eighteenth century. The human capacity of choosing to keep Christ dwelling in the human heart made possible the victory over sin. This availability of salvation to vast numbers of humble urban dwellers and frontier folk coincided with the broad new vistas of Jacksonian democracy. On the frontier, Kentucky led the vanguard of revivalism, with large camp meetings in 1800 and most notably at Cane Ridge in 1801, where 20,000 congregants experienced dramatic conversions. Movements sparked by these revivals made the antebellum period a triumphant era for Protestant evangelicals.

As the Second Great Awakening settled down, wave after wave of diverse religious revivals continued to spread over upstate New York, which became known as the "burned-over district." Millennialism, an emphasis on the Second Coming of Christ and a thousand-year reign of peace and prosperity, dominated many of these movements. Premillenialists saw a gloomy future dominated by accelerating evil behavior and cataclysmic events until Christ intervened at the Second Coming to rescue a righteous remnant, who would then enjoy the millennium. Postmillennialists, who tended toward a liberal outlook interested in social improvement, believed that humanity would better itself until it achieved the millennium, after which Christ would return.

Several new religious denominations emerged from this fertile period. Alexander Campbell (1788–1866) and his Christian restorationist, or Campbellite, followers held that their scrupulous adherence to New Testament Christianity would hasten the millennial age. The group, initially cool toward formal organization, eventually took the name Disciples and later, Disciples of Christ. Postmillennialist optimism helped to shape the American notion of Manifest Destiny, a vision of progress that encouraged Christian settlement of the entire North American continent in hopes of ushering in the millennium.

Into this environment around 1818 stepped a lay preacher, William Miller (1782–1849), whose prophetic biblical interpretations led him to establish a time for the second coming of Christ, finally determined to be 22 October 1844. After preaching to hundreds of thousands and converting thousands in the 1830s and 1840s, Miller and his followers endured the Great Disappointment of 1844. Many Millerites, although disillusioned with attempts to set an exact date for the return of Christ, maintained their premillennialist beliefs and eventually became Advent Christians, members of various branches of the Church of God, or Seventh-Day Adventists. The latter group, one of the most successful products of the burned-over district, enthusiastically embraced temperance and reform movements but maintained an ambivalent stance toward the United States and its role in biblical prophecy. Adventists feared that American freedoms and opportunities could be threatened by groups ranging from Catholics to labor unionists.

Another product of the burned-over district in New York was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The most successful product of American religious innovation, Mormonism was intended to build on Christianity as Christianity had built on Judaism. Its founder, Joseph Smith (1805–1844), translated the Book of Mormon from "reformed Egyptian" in 1827–1829. The book provided an American context for the faith, describing how the Jaredites emigrated from the Tower of Babel, and later how the Lamanites (Native Americans) extinguished all of the virtuous Nephites except for Mormon and his son Moroni, who buried the scriptures Smith later translated. Smith's followers saw themselves as the spiritual progeny of the Nephites. When Smith's successor, Brigham Young (1801–1877), led the faithful to the Great Salt Lake basin and founded the colony of Deseret, a succession of new towns thrived, with Utah achieving statehood in 1896. Mormon beginnings reflect many currents of the innovations in American religion in the early nineteenth century: revivalism, communitarian experiments, alternative social structures (including, for a time, polygamy), millennial intensity, and the expectation of a special role during earth's final days.


Postmillennialist expectation and the holiness aspects of revivalism also reflected hope for the perfectability of human behavior. The antebellum years were characterized by many reform movements tied to various religious groups and reflected in American literature and culture. The goals of the temperance movement, women's rights activists, and abolitionist groups often intersected, and underlying them all was a desire to achieve widespread moral reform. The ethical stance of the Quaker faith led to prominent action on behalf of temperance, labor rights, peace, and abolition.

Reform movements encouraged religious denominations to develop interdenominational voluntary associations in many fields: The American Bible Society (1816), the American Sunday-School Union (1824), and the American Tract Society (1825) sought to evangelize America and the rest of the world with a flood of publications emphasizing the belief that the United States and its religious culture were agents of the millennium.

Some reformers sought to express their idealism in new social combinations and new ways of life. The antebellum period teemed with communal experiments dedicated to a vision of social progress. The United Society of Believers, the Shakers, saw their industrious, celibate colonies as the vanguard of the millennium. Drawn by religious intensity and economic security, several thousand members populated eighteen colonies from Maine to Kentucky by 1826, and the group became the most sustained communal experiment in the United States.

Attempts to restructure society in a communal way drew criticism from established churches in the United States. Robert Owen (1771–1858), an advocate of communal living, bought a colony from a German group, the Rappites, at New Harmony, Indiana, and opened several additional colonies. Like the socialist colonies built by the followers of Charles Fourier (1772–1837), Owen's communities were basically secular, but the opposition they stirred up among American churches aided in their demise by 1830. A longer-lived experiment was the Oneida Community, founded in New York by John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886) in 1848. Noyes's singular religious doctrine held that once perfection was attained, it could never be lost. He rejected conventional practices and incorporated socialism and complex marriage into his colony. The colony was jeopardized in 1879 when Noyes fled to Canada ahead of legal inquiries into his marriage practices, and it closed in 1881.

Transcendentalists also devised communal experiments. A disenchanted Unitarian minister, George Ripley (1802–1880), founded a transcendentalist commune, Brook Farm, in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841. Hawthorne participated in its early, experimental phases, later fictionalized in his novel The Blithedale Romance (1852). By 1844 Hawthorne had moved on and Brook Farm was restructured as a Fourierist phalanx, but the experiment was abandoned in 1847. In the meantime, Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) had attempted another transcendentalist commune, Fruitlands, in Harvard, Massachusetts, from 1843 to 1844.

Energies stirred by revivalism, reform, and doctrinal innovation perhaps inevitably led to vigorous reactions. Competing notions of a chosen people singled out by God also suggested that some would never be chosen. In such an environment, nativist groups flourished, and recent immigrants who were distinctly other than Anglo-Saxon (and Protestant) were singled out for exclusion. Secret societies such as the Masons came under suspicion both because of their rumored rites and their distance from orthodox Protestant Christianity; anti-Masons scoured the burned-over district in the 1820s and 1830s. Protestant luminaries such as Lyman Beecher and Horace Bushnell, perhaps anticipating the moment at the end of the Civil War when Catholics outnumbered any other single denomination in the United States, led a fervent wave of anti-Catholicism. Beecher's well-known Plea for the West (1835) urged Protestants to exclude Catholics from western settlements. The Catholic Church's official silence on the subject of slavery (large Catholic populations lived in New Orleans and other areas of the deep South) also rankled many suspicious northern Protestants. Intolerance became more than an attitude on 11 August 1834, when a mob set fire to an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Protestant reformers were also suspicious of much of American popular culture during the antebellum years. Melodramatic theatrical productions and countless suspenseful novels captivated a vast audience, and fiction authors were suspected of subversion or worse. In the preface to The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne half-seriously worried that his Puritan ancestors would not have approved of his vocation. Some authors, however, saw a serious purpose for plays and literature. William H. Smith's drama The Drunkard; or, The Fallen Saved (1844) was both popular and seriously moral. Harriet Beecher Stowe insisted that Uncle Tom's Cabin was a combination of divine inspiration and nonfictional journalism, not to be confused with ordinary novels. She thought long and hard before approving and attending the wildly popular dramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin staged by George L. Aiken (1852). Millions of evangelical Protestants followed Stowe to that production, which became their introduction to the previously suspect practice of theatergoing.

Many women authors capitalized on the interest in moral reform and the hope that useful lessons could be taught in story form. Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1851), Augusta Evans Wilson's St. Elmo (1867), and Elizabeth Payson Prentiss's Stepping Heavenward (1870) were successful best-sellers and achieved a degree of popularity that mystified and eluded Hawthorne, who as early as 1855 had grumbled about "scribbling women" (Works 17:304).

Attempts by American Protestants to improve and reform society through temperance and moral education, however, were dwarfed by the movement to end slavery. Religious groups impatient for the beginning of the millennium found no greater impediment to its advent than slaveholding. Theodore Dwight Weld (1803–1895), an acolyte of Charles Grandison Finney, was moved by his millennial expectations to fight the institution in 1830. Influenced by the impassioned antislavery preaching of Lyman Beecher, the journalist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) delivered a Fourth of July philippic against slavery at Boston's Park Street Church in 1829. Within a few months Garrison repented of his momentary support for gradual emancipation and launched his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator (1831–1865). In 1854, fed up with his inability to rouse a majority of Americans to abolitionism, he publicly burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution at an abolitionist meeting in Framingham, Massachusetts, on the Fourth of July.

Garrison allied for a time with Weld and the wealthy merchant Lewis Tappan (1788–1873) to found the American Anti-Slavery Society, an abolitionist organization, in 1833. For evangelicals like Tappan, belief in the sinfulness of slavery made immediate repentance and repudiation imperative. These notions sifted the uncompromising stance of abolitionism from the more gradual, flexible approach of earlier antislavery movements and provoked an equally intransigent response in the South.

The Quaker faith produced several eloquent women who led the fight against slavery and other social ills. Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), a northern Quaker schoolteacher and reformer, traveled to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. Refused recognition as a delegate because she was a woman, she worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) to organize the first convention on women's rights in the United States, at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Charleston, South Carolina, produced two influential Quaker sisters who became abolitionists in 1835: Sarah Moore Grimké (1792–1873) and Angelina Emily Grimké (1805–1879). Angelina took a courageous public stand against slavery the following year in her book An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. The two sisters relocated to New York City and began speaking publicly at abolitionist meetings. Angelina developed a reputation for eloquence and is remembered as one of the first American women to speak in public. Her marriage to Theodore Dwight Weld in 1838 created a powerful abolitionist alliance.

Abolitionism found its greatest cultural inspiration in the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. Although Stowe feared her story would be too timid to suit abolitionists, with its displaced northern villains Haley and Legree, its benign southern slave owners (except for Mrs. St. Clare), and its concluding solution of African colonization, the South erupted in rage and abolitionists embraced the book. Whittier, the Quaker abolitionist poet, realized that Stowe's story had done more to advance the cause against slavery than two decades of abolitionist rhetoric. Noting that no mainstream best-selling author since Stowe has written a book claimed to be dictated by God, the contemporary critic Alfred Kazin has observed that "Uncle Tom's Cabin was New England's last holiness" (p. 85).


The Civil War era became a backdrop for religious conflicts. The slavery question, which split every major Protestant denomination into northern and southern versions before the war began, openly encouraged disputants to connect armed combat and religious belief. More subtly reflected in the conflict was the argument between orthodox Protestantism and more liberal views. Such disputes were described in Harriet Beecher Stowe's prewar novel The Minister's Wooing (1859) and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's postwar novel The Gates Ajar (1868). Although the trauma of civil war sent many forward-leaning Protestants back to the familiar images of their Calvinist childhood, it also became a watershed for the debate about whether God intervened in human history. When it was all over, the skeptical, more liberal view was significantly more influential.

The war evoked strong responses from religious groups in both the Confederacy and the Union. Confederates identified many signs that they were God's chosen people, noting in particular their spectacular early successes. Defending what they asserted was a legitimate, scripturally ordained way of life, some Confederate theologians and politicians portrayed the North as a coercive, enslaving power tantamount to the Antichrist in the Apocalypse.

Early Union religious response to the war was more chastened than assertive, particularly after the debacle at the first battle of Manassas. The civil religion of the North tended to internalize guilt for Union military failures, ultimately explaining them as God's judgment for tolerating slavery. Optimists looked beyond the disastrous present toward a bright postmillennial future once the evil of slavery had been expunged. Unionists and Confederates alike sought divine reassurance in government-ordained days of fasting and prayer. Both, as Lincoln famously remarked in his second inaugural address, "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

If Uncle Tom's Cabin was New England's last holiness, the Civil War was the United States' last holy war—the last conflict imbued with the confidence that God was personally involved. Herman Melville perfectly captured that moment and its ebbing in his collection of war poems, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of theWar (1866). Other leading writers of the day also grasped the significance of the war in American civil and religious life, including Walt Whitman (1819–1892) and the lesser-known Henry Howard Brownell (1820–1872) in the North, and William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870) and Henry Timrod (1828–1867), the foremost Romantic writers in the South. The purest essences of the war's scope and meaning, however, were distilled by writers not regarded during their lifetimes as leading literary lights: Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910) in "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1861) and Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) in his second inaugural address (1865).

The Civil War devastated Romanticism and religious expectations of God's involvement in human affairs. However, in the South a persistent strain of faith in underlying Confederate motives developed into the potent postwar civil religion of the Lost Cause. Reasons for taking up arms were valorized, and devout military leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson became the cause's patron saints. Reverence for the literal meaning of the biblical text, exercised so frequently in prewar arguments about the relationship between slavery and the Bible, was put to use again when fundamentalism sprouted throughout the country in the early twentieth century.

In the postwar North, conservative Christians found meaning in holiness movements such as the camp meetings in Vineland, New Jersey, in July 1867. In general, holiness practices kept alive the early Methodist tradition of religious leadership for women. Phoebe Palmer (1807–1874), for example, reminded her audience in The Promise of the Father (1859) that the Old Testament had predicted prophesying by both sons and daughters. Holiness expectations of engagement in good works led to expanded social gospel efforts.

Liberal religion in the North became increasingly diverse. In 1866 the Unitarians stated that they were indeed liberal Christians. Religious liberals who resided outside the realm of orthodox Christianity included members of the Free Religious Association, founded in 1867 by Octavius Brooks Frothingham (1822–1895), who melded transcendentalist ethics and social gospel concerns. Felix Adler (1851–1933), who had been a Reform Jewish rabbi, founded the Ethical Culture movement in 1876. These movements reflected the erosion of antebellum Christian religious expectations.

The wane of postmillennial theology brought into question earlier notions of conversion, and newly applied higher biblical criticism questioned biblical certainties about the Apocalypse, heaven, and hell. Theologians and literary writers grappled with the implications of Darwinian evolution. Another challenge was posed by secularism. Robert G. Ingersoll (1833–1899), a Republican politician, peerless orator, and the "great agnostic," publically skewered conventional religion in front of the largest audiences any American speaker achieved before the age of radio and television. Mark Twain (1835–1910) demolished platitudes about God and country that had seemed unassailable before the Civil War. Religious and literary culture in the United States emerged from the Civil War more diverse, at times more defensive, and always less capable of a consensus about the relevance of God than it had been in the antebellum years. The possibility of the universe harboring a God who watched over and participated in earthly affairs became more problematic and unlikely.

In his second inaugural address Abraham Lincoln noted the pervasive reliance both the Union and the Confederacy placed on scripture, prayer, and the certainty of divine approval. He also described a view of God more comprehensive than the deity envisioned by either side.

If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."

The Portable Abraham Lincoln (New York: Viking Penguin, 1992), p. 321.

See alsoThe Bible; Catholics; Jews; Methodists; Mormons; Protestantism; Reform; Transcendentalism; Unitarians; Utopian Communities


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Terrie Dopp Aamodt