The Development of American Religion: An Interpretive View

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The Development of American Religion: An Interpretive View

Essay 1
















IMMIGRATION, 1880–1924





The United States is currently home to more than 2,000 different primary religious organizations—churches, sects, cults, temples, societies, missions—each seeking to be the place of expression of the religious allegiances and sentiments of its members and adherents. The majority of these organizations are Christian churches, and the overwhelming majority of Americans who engage in any outward religious activity are members of one of the more than 1,000 Christian denominations. Prior to the 1880s, the Christian churches had little competition, except from the Native American religions, which Christians saw at best as dying faiths soon to be replaced by Christianity. The Christian churches enjoyed the favor of the influential elite of society. They had the support of the government, the approbation of the press, and the control of education at all levels. At the same time, however, the churches also faced a public, the majority of which regarded religion with attitudes that varied from indifference to open hostility. Simply expressed, the church existed as an instrument of the state, another element in the overall system of social control.

That situation began to change dramatically at the time of the American Revolution (1775–1783). With the exception of several New England states, formal ties between church and state were cut, and each succeeding decade brought an end to more and more of the numerous informal ties. For many congregations, the Revolution included the loss either temporarily or completely of their buildings. The Anglican Church lost the most, and its situation was made all the more severe by the sudden departure of the majority of its ministers to England and the loss of its legal status.

After the war, the groups that had assumed the controlling positions in American religious life began to take second place to groups that had played little prior role. The changes became evident during the Second Great Awakening, a period marked by the rise of the Methodists, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and Cumberland Presbyterians and the evangelistic endeavor that led to their churching of the western frontier. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the church has moved from a position of disestablishment in the midst of an indifferent public to the creation of what amounts to a powerful new religious establishment through its ownership of ever-increasing sums of real estate and stock and its steady penetration of the indifferent public, the majority of which it has finally won to its membership. Every decade of the last two centuries has seen Christian church membership increase in both numbers and percentage of the population. Since 1900, while the nation’s population increased three and a half times, church membership grew sevenfold. At the same time, the church has step-by-step relinquished control of education, lost its favored status in the press, and must fight for its right to criticize the government or lobby for what it considers just laws. The church has also been rent with schism (from 20 denominations in 1800 to more than 1,000 in 1988), while at the same time having to face competition from the hundreds of different varieties of the great world religions and an imposing assortment of innovative new American faiths, including a revived and assertive Native American spirituality.

This encyclopedia covers the story of American religion, from the entrance in the sixteenth century of Europeans determined to convert Native Americans, to the pluralistic religious situation of the early twenty-first century. It is a story of religious conquests and losses, the search for simply a place to be alone, the rise and fall of utopian dreams, and the attempts by different religions to find ways to exist in close proximity with constant war and rumor of war.


Ten thousand years ago, 40,000 years ago, or even more than 100,000 years ago, depending on which source is consulted, the first human settlers arrived in what today is called North America. They may have walked, or they may have built a crude boat, but they crossed the Bering Strait (periodically in the past a land bridge) and moved across the continent to establish their residences, learn the arts of survival and culture, and generally claim the land for their people. Over the years they differentiated themselves as separate peoples (clans, tribes, nations, etc.), emphasizing hunting, agriculture, trading, or fishing in their conquests of the very different environments, climates, and resources the land provided. They also developed religion, which took at least as many forms as there were tribes.

Possibly 30 million Native Americans inhabited North America in 1500. They were divided into groups that spoke more than 200 languages. They also showed such immense variation in religion as to make it improper to speak of an Indian religion; rather, there were a number of Indian religions.

Native American religion was distinct relative to the faith later brought to North America by the Europeans. Religion was embedded in the close communal life of fairly small groups. Native American life was organized in such a way that the distinctive realms of life so characteristic of modern society—sacred-secular, work-leisure, political-economic— did not operate. Life within a single Native American group maintained a holistic cast so that those elements we commonly think of as religion permeated every segment of existence. It was a common European activity to observe Native life and pick out the “religious” elements and describe in the abstract a particular Native people’s religion, an act that in itself pulled Native life into the European world.

However, the white people who began their conquest of North America in the sixteenth century paid little attention to the Native Americans’ religions. Beyond the writing up of accounts of them by a few missionaries (later superseded by ethnographers) with varying levels of sophistication, the European program was to totally replace the Native Americans’ religions with the observance of Christianity. For this reason, the religions of the Indians and the faiths of European origin, until recently, rarely interacted. Once the Europeans took control, Indian religions were offered no role in the conquering culture and to a large extent were eradicated, either by the deaths of their adherents or their conversion to some form of Christianity.


In the movement from the religious situation in 1500 to that of the late nineteenth century, four factors arise as dominant elements in the shaping of American religious patterns: immigration, religious freedom, proselytism, and denominationalism. Of the more than 2,000 religious groups that presently exist in the United States, the overwhelming majority originated by the direct immigration of their members or practitioners to the United States. These immigrants established centers for worship and for the recruitment of new members among the general population. Most of the remaining groups are schisms of those immigrant groups. The actual number of new religions that have developed in America, apart from Native American faiths, is small, and such indigenous American religions are all the more noteworthy for that fact: Adventism (which includes both Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses), Spiritualism, the new metaphysical religions (Christian Science and New Thought), the new forms of esotericism (from Theosophy to Scientology), and Pentecostalism.


Understanding immigration as the first of the four factors shaping American religious life also underscores the role of ethnic-national settlements in setting the initial patterns of American religious life during the colonial period. Spanish Catholics came to Florida, New Mexico, and California. French Catholics settled the Gulf Coast from Mobile to New Orleans and the Mississippi River Valley north to St. Louis and St. Paul. The British settled New England and the southern colonies. The Dutch came into New York (formerly New Netherlands), the Swedes colonized Delaware, and the Germans made up a substantial portion of the colony established by William Penn (1644–1718). In the nineteenth century, the patterns of immigration would again change the face of American religion as, for example, Germans and Scandinavians moved into the area north and west of Chicago to create the still-dominant Lutheran belt from Milwaukee to Butte. Newly arrived Italians and Irish would take control of New England from British Congregationalists and place it in the hands of Roman Catholics. The influx of Hispanics into the area north of the Rio Grande would return that area lost to Protestants at the time of the gold rush to Roman Catholic hegemony.

Immigration laws, especially after 1882, also helped shape religious patterns in America. For example, the normal growth of Asian religions, which were being established among immigrants in the last half of the nineteenth century, was thwarted by the imposition of a series of immigration laws from 1882 to 1924. The 1924 law, which all but stopped immigration from Asia, also blocked the flow of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Thus, while the law slowed the growth of Eastern religions, it also strongly affected the growth of Judaism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Islam. In like measure, the lifting of the 1924 restrictions in 1965 contributed directly to the massive expansion of these religions since then, completely altering the overall shape and structure of the American religious community.


Religious freedom, both in concept and practice, has expanded in America. Credit for the first accomplishments in that direction must go to the early colonists in New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. An early expression of that expanded freedom was the colonists’ reception of Jewish settlers. Generations before most Europeans were thinking about religious toleration, the Dutch had become the most religiously tolerant nation in Europe. In their American colonies, that tolerance was demonstrated by the welcome given to fleeing Brazilian Jews, who established the first synagogue in North America in New York. Rhode Island, which had been founded by Roger Williams (c. 1603–c. 1683) after he fled the intolerance of the Massachusetts Puritans, welcomed the second congregation of Jews. It is not surprising to find one of the other colonial congregations in Philadelphia.

Religious liberty was, of course, greatly advanced by the American Revolution and the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. That the 1787 Constitutional Convention refused to grant any group, in this case any Christian church, the power, prestige, and privilege of being the nation’s established religious body was both an important experiment and a significant act of infidelity. As an experiment, it tested a major axiom of European thought: that a nation needed one religious body (i.e., a state church) as a necessary force in uniting the population and assisting in social control. America’s post-Revolutionary success proved the untruth of the assumption. At the same time, America’s experiment in religious liberty would not have been possible had not the delegates to the Constitutional Convention also recognized both that no religious group served more than a small fraction of the population, and that the great majority of the public did not support any religious organization. This twofold observation was amply verified in the decades after the Revolution when, in total, American churches could only claim on their roles somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the now-free people.

The freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment has been steadily broadened during the last two centuries. Within a few decades, all of the states dropped the last remnants of their formal religious establishments. The implications of the First Amendment for unpopular religions have gained increasing attention and clarity. And the society itself tolerates an ever-increasing variety of religious beliefs and practices. The heightened toleration experienced during the twentieth century was disseminated from the large impersonal urban complexes, which both permitted divergent religious groups to develop apart from the watchful and critical eyes of small-town society and provide a concentrated pool of the potential recruits needed by any new religion in its critical first years of existence.


The freedom to practice a new religion includes the freedom to proselytize (i.e., to invite someone to convert to one’s faith). From 1800 to the present, no activity apart from immigration has so altered the pattern of American religion as the evangelical efforts of religious groups. Following the American Revolution, the older colonial churches dominated religious life. However, they were prepared neither in theology nor organization to respond to the irreligious public that confronted them at the end of the eighteenth century. The Methodists and Baptists, both of whom were evangelically oriented, were prepared, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, they replaced the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians as the dominant church bodies, a position they have never relinquished.

At the same time, in the religiously free situation, innovative religious movements, movements that would have been suppressed by the government under a state-church regime, were permitted to grow and proselytize as well. Thus, early in the nineteenth century, new Christian churches, such as the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Disciples of Christ, broke from older bodies, and representatives of completely new ways of doing religion appeared, from Swedenborgians to Latter-day Saints (Mormons), from Spiritualists to Transcendentalist free religionists. The number of new religious gestalts multiplied decade by decade. Soon after each new religious movement organized, if it showed signs of popular success, it further divided, producing an array of similar organizations and eventually new religious denominational families. Throughout the nineteenth century, almost all of the major new divergent religious thrusts were Christian. However, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam were introduced into American life and looked for converts among a public only 35 percent of whom had joined a church.

During the twentieth century, the role of proselytizing activity was spectacular. As the nation’s population multiplied three and a half times (from 75 million to 250 million), Christian church membership multiplied seven times, and the percentage of church members doubled from slightly more than 30 percent to more than 65 percent. Religious affiliation climbed even higher as the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and occult-metaphysical communities, minuscule at the turn of the century, each developed constituencies numbering in the millions.


The dual effect of freedom of religion and proselytizing activity leads directly to the consideration of denominationalism. In a religiously free society, denominations—voluntary religious associations of like-minded (and like-spirited) people—are the basic form of religious life. In spite of the various predictions of the fading of denominations (through the ecumenical movement) or the decline of their importance (through increasing individualized religion), they remain, and for the foreseeable future will remain, the bedrock of American religion. Denominations are the stable primary religious associations formed in those societies that do not impose a single dominant religious structure. In a state-church society, for example, there is one “religion” and may be a number of dissenting “sects.” In a free society, there are a number of more or less competing religious organizations, no one of which has a majority of the population in its membership. Some organizations, because of such factors as their many years in existence, their inherent appeal, or their aggressive programs for conversion, have many members. Others, primarily because they are new, lack substantial appeal, or limit proselytizing efforts, remain small.

Denominations, whatever their size, provide the primary religious identification for most religious people. They offer regular times and facilities for the affirmation of beliefs in group activity, worship, study, and service. Often associated with and supported by the denominations are a variety of what might be termed secondary or paradenominational religious organizations. These organizations usually specialize in one limited task in relation to one or a small group of similar primary religious organizations. Thus, while large denominations may support several seminaries for the training of ministers, smaller denominations may send their ministerial candidates to an independent seminary or Bible college whose perspective is supportive or compatible with their theological outlook. Included among the paradenominational organizations are independent publishers, missionary organizations, evangelical ministries, and social service agencies. On occasion, a secondary or paradenominational structure (especially evangelical ministries engaged in the conversion of individuals) will begin forming congregations and make the transition into a new primary group. It will subsequently enlarge its services to include all of those normally provided by a primary religious group. Within an evangelical group, such a transformation can be noted when the group stops sending its recruits to the supporting denominational structures and begins forming congregations of its converts. Such a transformation occurred in the 1970s among some Jewish-Christian evangelical groups, which began to form ethnic Jewish-Christian synagogues.

Within the pluralistic environment of the early twenty-first century, the formation of so many new competing religious groups has eroded the exclusive and dominant positions of some of the older and more-established religious organizations. This erosion of position has been most evident in the major defeats suffered by conservative Christian groups on such issues as abortion legislation, the ban on corporate prayer in public schools, the display of religious symbols in government-owned facilities, and the elimination of the Christian facade that had been placed over many facets of public and social life. Interpreted by many as signs of secularization, the defeats are more adequately understood when seen as manifestations of (1) the growing seriousness with which dissenting religious positions are treated, and (2) an increasing sensitivity toward religious concerns that has developed within the public sphere. Coupled with this new sensitivity is the loss of ability by even the most powerful religious bodies to enforce their own ideas in the populace at large, especially at the national level. What power remains is largely a veto power.

With these forces in mind, we can now turn to a brief consideration of the movement of religion from the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and padres to the complex pluralistic religious environment of today. That development will be considered in six overlapping periods. The Native American period began in prehistory and extends to the nineteenth century. The Catholic era began around 1500 and continued in parts of the country until the nineteenth century. The period of western European (primarily British) conquest began around 1600, with the arrival of settlers in Virginia. The Revolutionary era began with the disruptions of the 1770s and carried through the transitions into the new religious environment established by the Constitution. The period of the churching of the nation can be said to begin in 1801 and to continue to this day. The period of transition from Christian dominance into a pluralistic society of shared religious hegemony began in the 1880s and has also continued to the present.


The first human settlers came into North America during the prehistoric past and moved across the continent, eventually settling almost every niche. By the time of the coming of the Europeans, the differing peoples manifested a wide variety of governmental structures, economic systems, and family forms. The structure of their religious life was equally varied, and there are few threads that run through all the Indian religions. As is true of most religions prior to the segregation of life into the modern distinction between secular and sacred, Native American religions tended to be at one with the whole life of the people. Religion was intimately tied to tribal survival, the self-identity of individuals as tribal members, and the organization of tribal routine.

Just as the religious aspect of life was integrated into other aspects of tribal life, so tribal life was integrated into the natural environment chosen by the tribe for its home, including the climate, terrain, and the animal and plant life. Indians took the land seriously and lived by its seasonal changes. Survival demanded an intense and intimate relationship with nature, which appeared to be permeated with life power, sometimes viewed as one force but often differentiated into many particular powers.

Some Europeans thought of the Indians as being without religion, an opinion that highlights some essential truths about Native American spirituality. There was, for example, no word in any Indian language that could be translated “religion.” There was also, generally speaking, a lack of what might be considered worship, since in most Indian religions, ceremonies and actions were not a matter of supplication of a deity so much as the development of a working relationship with the sacred realm. Ceremonies and actions created a matrix within which life moved, and that movement tended to be circular, following the coming, going, and return of the seasons. The sacred realm was the realm of the pervasive powers.

Living with the powers that existed in and sustained the world led many tribes to develop forms of magic—the art and practice of manipulating the spirit powers. Most tribes had functionaries who practiced the arts of magic and used them for good or ill. These “religious” leaders were among those most threatened by the arrival of Christianity and its priests.

The life and beliefs of the different tribes were articulated in a variety of myths that described in story format the underlying structure of reality. These verbal expressions of life, which ranged from the sacred to the mundane, embodied the Indians’ sophisticated understandings of both the immediate environment and the larger world, gave a rationale for the accepted behavioral standards for the tribe, and supplied the answers to the basic religious questions.

The coming of the Europeans had little immediate impact for the great majority of Indian tribes, who encountered white people only with the push to settle the interior of the continent in the nineteenth century. However, those tribes located on the lands first colonized frequently faced disaster. Not an insignificant amount of damage was done by the spread of new diseases, in defense of which the Native American had no weapons of immunity or medicine. Measles and smallpox were especially deadly. At the very least, those Indians residing in close proximity to the new settlements became the targets of missionary efforts. Almost every church group, soon after its arrival in the New World and its establishment of a stable presence among the white settlers, turned its attention to missionary activity among the Indians. The most extensive missions were established by Roman Catholics in the St. Lawrence River Valley, Florida, the Gulf Coast, and across the Southwest from Texas to California. John Eliot (1604–1690) is remembered as the primary missionary supported by the New England Puritans. The desire to support his work inspired the formation in England in 1649 of one of the first of the voluntary missionary societies, soon to become so popular in evangelical circles. Anglican missions to the Indians were promoted by one of these societies, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in Foreign Parts.

Despite the dedication of the missionaries, their efforts often fell victim to seemingly unrelated forces that tended not only to destroy the missions but the Native American’s entire culture. For example, King Philip’s War (1675–1676) led to the destruction of the towns of the “Praying Indians” established by Eliot’s converts. Other missions were destroyed when the lands upon which they were established changed hands from one nation to another, usually after a war. In such a manner, many of the Catholic missions were lost as French domains were taken over by the British.

However, the missions themselves tended to intrude in most destructive ways into the Indians’ culture. Typical of the disruption of Indian life caused by the Europeans was the Spanish movement into the land of the Chumash Indians who inhabited the California coast from present-day Malibu to San Luis Obispo. The Spanish found the Chumash organized into numerous villages, each ruled by a chief, termed a wots, who provided moral authority and general guidance. The wots was assisted by a paha, who presided at the principal festivals and ceremonies. The Chumash had established a hunting-fishing-gathering-trading economy, which had in turn produced an artistic culture of high standards. When the Spanish first arrived in 1769, the Chumash welcomed the new settlers and provided them needed items from their abundant supply.

The missionaries who accompanied the Spanish explorers discovered that the Chumash saw themselves as living in a larger universe permeated with power that had been scattered through the world at the point of creation. Individuals were allowed to use the power, if they possessed the proper knowledge. They could also gain access to the powers through a dream helper, a personified form of a natural reality, such as a bear, an eagle, or even a plant such as datura. Important to Chumash “religion” was the balancing of all the powers that existed. Special people, antaps, knew the secret knowledge to keep the powers balanced.

However, with the arrival of the Spanish, the village organization, the economy, and the religious tradition were attacked at the core. The Indians were invited to convert to the Roman Catholic faith and to abandon the villages for the mission. At the mission, an alternative economy was established that included candle making, agriculture, ironworking, and masonry. The missions and pueblos provided a new economy that soon involved enough Indians that it undercut the older economy still maintained by those who refused to accept mission life. But those Indians who did move to the pueblo were often blocked in their participation in the new economy. They were trapped between the long-term goals of the missionaries and the immediate objectives of the colonial government. In the 60-plus years of their existence, the missions completely obliterated the old village life of the Chumash. The mission period ended in 1833 with secularization—the removal of the missions from the control of the Franciscans and the redistribution of their lands to Mexican settlers. The Chumash were thus left with neither the villages of their ancestors nor the new life forced upon them by the missions. Those who survived retained but a remnant of their original beliefs and practices.

Other Indian peoples in those lands first invaded by Europeans in the seventeenth century reacted in a variety of ways toward their new neighbors. Most at first accepted the Europeans and allowed Christian priests to move among them. Others, some following an initial acceptance, found themselves at war with both the white settlers and their ministers. The settlers increasingly wanted the Indians’ territory and resources, and the ministers wanted to change their religious perspective (which implied altering almost every aspect of their lives). As the Indians fought the encroachments of Christianity, the churches counted the victims of such fighting as martyrs.

In the end, however, the Indians were forced to seek some means of accommodating the reality of a permanent European presence. Some accepted the settlers, even to the point of taking sides in the periodic wars, while at the same time resisting the missionaries’ pressure to change their thoughts and ways. They signed treaties and gave concessions. But the trends were against them, and gradually they were forced into designated parcels of land and targeted for conversion by the various churches. As the dust of the American Revolution settled, there was still hope that the Indians’ life and religions could survive to some extent, but the new nation on the East Coast of the continent had caught a vision of the West and eagerly rushed to claim it as its own. In the process, it was quite willing to push the Indian out of the way.


The largest religious body in the United States today and throughout the twentieth century has been the Roman Catholic Church. Its members were also the first to arrive, conquer, and colonize parts of the land now making up the United States. Shortly after the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), the rulers of Spain appealed to Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) to settle the dispute between Spain and Portugal over their claims to the new lands. In 1493 the pope drew a line in the middle of the Atlantic, east of which Portugal would have hegemony and west of which Spain would operate. The line would have left Portugal with Africa and the islands off the Atlantic Coast, but without any access to the New World. In 1494 the line was moved farther west, and as a result Portugal received Brazil. From Cuba and then Mexico, Spain began a program of conquest and settlement that included North America. The governmental drive to develop the Spanish Empire and the church’s desire to convert and Christianize the native populations often came into conflict. While the church won many smaller victories in its attempts to champion the cause of humane treatment, in the end the government usually dominated the situation.

The actual movement of Spain into what is now the United States was occasioned by the settlement in Florida of a group of French Huguenots (Protestants) along the St. Johns River (near present-day Jacksonville) in 1564. Having previously claimed Florida as its own, the offended Spanish established a settlement at St. Augustine and quickly moved to destroy the St. Johns River colony. From there, Spanish missionaries established missions that at one point reached as far north as South Carolina and briefly the Chesapeake Bay area. The missions in Florida, in spite of their ups and downs, were most successful through several generations.

The second movement of Spain into what is now the United States was from Mexico in the Southwest. In 1540 Francisco Vasquez de Coronado (c. 1510–1554) began his famous trek that took him from New Mexico to central Kansas. In his easternmost exploration, he came upon the village of Quivera. Returning to his advance base in New Mexico, Coronado ordered his expedition members home. The Franciscans, however, decided to stay. Two of their number, Brother John of the Cross and Brother Luis Descalona, settled in the Bernalillo-Pecos area of New Mexico. Father Juan de Padilla journeyed back to Quivera. Brother John and Brother Luis were successful to the point of angering the Indians’ own religious functionaries. They eventually disappeared and are believed to have been killed. Father de Padilla was successful at Quivera, but was killed when he tried to extend his work to other tribes.

Further movement into the Southwest was to wait a generation. In 1598 an expedition headed by Juan de Oñate (c. 1550–1626) moved into New Mexico and established a settlement along the Rio Grande. The church built at this settlement, called San Juan and later San Gabriel, was the second oldest church in America. The site now is in ruins, for in 1609 a new capital for the territory was established at Santa Fe, and San Gabriel was abandoned. Missionary work led to the founding of some 11 missions by 1617 and 43 by 1625. The work of the missions was not without its problems. There was much resistance by many of the New Mexico tribes to the missionary efforts, and a number of priests were killed. The Indians’ resentment of both the efforts to destroy their culture and the cruelty of the Spanish rulers boiled over in 1680. Led by a medicine man, Popè, the Indians revolted and drove the Spanish south of El Paso. Twelve years later, the Spanish moved back into New Mexico and established a permanent presence. About this time, a Jesuit priest, Father Eusebio Kino (c. 1644–1711), was traveling through northern Mexico and Arizona. In 1697 he founded San Xavier del Bac, the beginning of a small but continuous Roman Catholic presence in the territory.

The Spanish government and the Franciscan missionaries moved into Texas in 1691 but abandoned the work in 1693, after an Indian revolt. A permanent presence was established in 1703 at a mission along the Rio Grande. In 1715, following the development of a plan to conquer the land and convert the Indians, the original missions were again occupied, and under the capable leadership of Father Antonio Margil de Jesus (1657–1726), the missionary work extended throughout the territory.


While Spain and Spanish Roman Catholicism were occupying Florida and establishing their hegemony from Texas to California in the Southwest, France was moving from its original settlements in the St. Lawrence River Valley of Canada to claim territory along the Atlantic Coast, in the Great Lakes region, through the Mississippi Valley, and along the Gulf Coast west of Florida. Actually, the first Roman Catholic chapel in the New World was erected on an island off the coast of Maine in 1604, though the colony on the island soon failed. The French initiated their more permanent settlement in 1608 at Quebec, which they used as a base for Jesuit missionaries who fanned out to work among the tribes in the land along what is now the Canada–United States border, primarily the Mohawk, Iroquois, Algonquin, and Huron. The Indian mission became famous more for the martyrs it produced than the numbers it converted. In the 1640s, a number of priests, including Isaac Jogues (1607–1646) and Jean de Brèbeuf (1593–1649), were tortured and killed. The work was lost in the 1700s as the British took over the territory from the French.

In 1669 a Jesuit priest, Jacques Marquette (1637–1675), began the French push into the Great Lakes region. His initial exploratory trip was followed by a career working among the Indians of Illinois and Wisconsin, the first mission being established in 1684. Marquette was followed by others. The work initiated by Marquette was balanced by exploration and settlement along the Gulf Coast as early as 1685 when Renè-Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle (1643–1687), who had followed Marquette’s explorations by some of his own in the Great Lakes in 1678 and in the Mississippi Valley in 1682, sailed into the Gulf of Mexico in 1685 and founded Fort St. Louis on the coast of what is now Texas. His actions also established Spain and France as competitors in east Texas. Following La Salle’s short-lived experiment, others established Biloxi (1697), Mobile (1702), and New Orleans (1718). New Orleans would become the major dissemination point for Catholicism northward along the Mississippi River. In New Orleans, the New World’s first religious institute for women, the Ursuline Convent, was built, and from there the missionary work among the southern Indians was launched.

The progress of the Roman Catholic work in North America, indeed of religion in general, was greatly altered in the 1760s by events on the other side of the world. The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), which involved the three major powers in North America, was concluded, and on February 10 the Treaty of Paris was signed. Britain received most of the territory claimed by France, including Canada and all of France’s American territory east of the Mississippi River (except New Orleans). From Spain, Britain received Florida, in partial exchange for Cuba. Except for Quebec, Catholic influence was radically curtailed for several generations in the colonies ceded to Britain. The ceding of Louisiana to Spain in 1769 did little to assist the spread of Catholicism there, which continued with a predominantly French constituency. Spanish Catholicism was expanding in only one place—California. While the first Spanish expedition led by Juan Rodrìguez Cabrillo (d. 1543) had sailed along the California coast in 1542, it was not until 1769, that settlement and the opening of a mission in California began at San Diego. Following the establishment of Spanish towns, Father Junìpero Serra (1713–1784) founded nine missions along the coast of California, the first of 21 such missions opened as far north as Sonoma. Unfortunately, the push into California came just as Spain was weakening at home; hence it was unable to properly exploit the new colony.

The Catholic work west of the Mississippi grew slowly through the arrival of new settlers and the conversion of the Indians, but was increasingly thwarted by the westward push of the new American nation. First, in 1800 France again took control of Louisiana, but sold it to the United States three years later. Further westward expansion climaxed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), in which Mexico ceded Texas, New Mexico, most of Arizona, and California to the United States. With quick and massive movement of predominantly non-Catholic settlers into the formerly Catholic Southwest, the Catholic era can be said to have come to an end.


The movement of western and northern Europeans and their religions into the North American continent, apart from the Viking explorations, began in the late fifteenth century with the arrival of John Cabot (c. 1450–c. 1499). On his first voyage (1497), he probably reached as far south as Maine, and on his second (1499), he seems to have sailed along the coast from Maine to Maryland. However, it was not until 1584 that exploitation of the American coast began with the attempted settlement of a colony on Roanoke Island and the more important and subsequently successful colony at Jamestown in 1606. With the establishment of Jamestown, the Church of England came to North America (though previously services had been held by chaplains assigned to the explorers’ ships). To a largely unknown priest of the Church of England, Robert Hunt (c. 1568–c. 1608), goes the honor of having been the first non-Catholic Christian minister to reside and pastor in North America. He came to Jamestown in the spring of 1607. His career was short and the date of his death never recorded, although he died along with the majority of the early Jamestown settlers. The more substantial career of Alexander Whitaker (1585–1617), who arrived in 1611 to serve the church at the new settlement of Henrico, is more illustrative of the progress of the Church of England. Whitaker served the colony for several years and actively promoted increased migration by Britons.

Virginia became the first of the British settlements along the Atlantic Coast. In 1620 a group of Puritan Separatists, popularly called the Pilgrims, landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. They were followed a decade later by a second group, this time non-Separatists, called simply the Puritans, who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony and began to spread out across Massachusetts, Connecticut, and most of New England. The range of opinions represented by the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and the Church of England is the product of a whole era of post-Reformation church life in Great Britain.

England had gone through the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century in a much different manner from most of the countries on the continental mainland. England had emerged during the reign of Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) with a church that drew major components from both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Church of England, Anglicanism, was the inheritor of Elizabeth’s via media. However, there were Protestants who were not content with anything less than a fully Protestant church. The union of Scotland and England strengthened their cause in 1607 with the ascension of James I (r. 1603–1625) to the throne. Scotland had gone through a reformation and established Presbyterianism.

Puritanism is the name given to the movements whose goal was to purge the Church of England of its remaining unwanted Romanish elements. The different Puritan sects disagreed as to the priorities for a purification of the church. One group looked for minor changes, mostly of a pietistic and worshipful nature within the Church of England, but sought no basic changes in its government. Others looked to the Presbyterians of Scotland for their model. They sought the establishment of Presbyterianism as the state church of England. The most radical of all, the Separatists, wished to separate from any state church and to call only committed disciples of Christ into a visible and voluntary fellowship. Alexander Whitaker was a mild Puritan, loyal to the established church, but with definite Presbyterian tendencies. The Pilgrims of Plymouth were Separatists. The Puritans of Massachusetts and Connecticut were neither Presbyterians nor Separatists. In their new setting, they developed an innovative form of Puritanism: Congregationalism. Like the Separatists, these Puritans wanted a congregation of converted believers; they also wanted to place authority for the governance of the church in the local congregation. Unlike the Separatists, however, they wished to remain in close association with the state, to be the established church for their colonies, to identify as much as possible church membership with membership in the political community. Only church members could vote or hold government office. Puritans sought to possess all of the prerogatives of the Church of England, since they were but its purified branch, not a separate schismatic body. And the Puritans in at least one important aspect copied the church of the homeland: They were as intolerant of those who deviated from the Puritan path as the Elizabethan bishops in England had been of the Puritans.


While Anglicanism was spreading from its base in Virginia and Congregationalism was spreading through New England, other colonies were being formed with quite different religious bases. Early in the seventeenth century, the Dutch had begun to explore the coast of America. In 1609 Henry Hudson (c. 1570–c. 1611) sailed up the river that now bears his name as far as the present city of Albany, New York, and staked a Dutch claim for the area. The Dutch established the colony of New Netherlands in 1624, and two years later founded New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island. As tolerant as the Dutch were, they still retained a state church that, since the overthrow of the Spanish, had been reformed. Thus, at the beginning of the colony’s life, two lay officers, called in the Dutch Reformed structure “comforters of the sick,” were among the earliest settlers. Peter Minuit (1580–1638), director general of the colony, famous for his purchase of Manhattan, was a French Reformed lay elder who led services until 1628, when Jonas Michaelius (b. 1577), an ordained Reformed minister, arrived in the New World to begin a three-year pastorate. Michaelius immediately organized a congregation, still in existence today and known as the Marble Collegiate Church, the oldest continuously existing Protestant church in North America. The term collegiate referred to the collegial relationship that developed among the early Reformed congregations in New Netherlands. Reformed congregations spread to Long Island and northward along the Hudson River. In 1642 the church at Fort Orange (now Albany) was organized by Johannes Megapolensis (1603–1670).

The colony enjoyed its most prosperous period during the governorship from 1646 to 1664 of Peter Stuyvesant (c. 1612–1672). Stuyvesant administered the company’s religious policies, which included both discouraging the establishment of competing worship centers and encouraging very diverse groups to migrate to the colony. Thus, Stuyvesant recognized the chaos created by the adherents of so many different churches in his colony, but continually refused to let them organize. For example, in 1649, when a group of Lutherans called a minister from Holland, Stuyvesant forbade him to preach and eventually forced him to return to Europe. Interestingly, the company took a different perspective on Jews, who, over Stuyvesant’s protests, were welcomed as refugees in 1654 from the former Dutch colonies in Brazil. In New Netherlands, they organized the first Jewish congregation and built the first synagogue.

In 1638 Swedes founded Fort Christiana (now Wilmington, Delaware), and the following year Reorus Torkillus (d. 1643), the first Lutheran minister in America, arrived to establish true and befitting worship in the Lutheran mode. Lutheranism spread among the Swedish and Finnish settlers until 1655, when the Dutch overran the colony and took control. They permitted one Lutheran pastor to remain and Lutheran worship to continue.

Conditions changed considerably in 1664 when the British took over New Netherlands and changed its name to New York. While opening an Anglican chapel, the government was forced to adopt a policy of liberal toleration toward a variety of forms of worship among its new predominantly non-Anglican subjects. A generation later, the government imposed an Anglican establishment on the colony, although the Dutch were allowed to continue their distinctive worship and survive today as the Reformed Church in America.

A new life for Roman Catholicism began in Maryland. Two Jesuits arrived in 1634 with the first colonists that included both Catholics and Protestants. Struggling with the problems of continued actions against the Catholic community (the Jesuits were expelled in the early 1640s), the colony passed a Toleration Act in 1649, which granted freedom of worship to all Christian sects. That act stayed in effect until 1692, when the Church of England was officially established. However, by that time the presence of so many dissenters kept the establishment weak and allowed the strong Catholic presence to remain largely unmolested.

Rhode Island originated in the dissenting views of Roger Williams, a teacher in the Congregational Church in Massachusetts. Unhappy with Williams’s Separatist tendencies, in 1635 the authorities banished him from the colony. Finding temporary shelter among the Pilgrims at Plymouth, he moved on in 1636 to found Rhode Island. Drawing on his experience with Puritan intolerance and on his Separatist views, he established a colony and society far ahead of its time. Government and religion were separated, and persecuted sects, such as the Quakers, were welcomed. Like many who adopted a Separatist perspective, Williams became a Baptist and is generally credited with founding the first Baptist congregation in America, though he soon withdrew from the Baptists and thereafter labeled himself a mere “seeker.”

As important as Williams is to Rhode Island and Baptist history, his real import is in the development of the sectarian tradition of church-state relations. Williams is the ultimate source and Rhode Island the ultimate example for the perspective on religious freedom that would eventually come to the fore in America. In 1644 Williams authored one of the great classics of religious liberty, The Bloody Tenant of Persecution, which would voice in full the ideals of religious freedom, far earlier than those Puritan voices in the next century who would begin to grapple with the breakdown of Congregationalist authority among New Englanders. In 1663 his ideals would be written into the Rhode Island charter.

Following the example of Williams, William Penn created Pennsylvania as a haven for Quakers and other religious minorities. The first settlers into Penn’s colony were Welshmen who arrived in 1682, but they were soon followed by the Quakers and representatives of numerous German groups, Penn having recruited heavily among Germany’s persecuted sects. As a result, Pennsylvania not only became the originating point for groups such as the Mennonites, Amish, German Rosicrucians, and the Church of the Brethren, but also for the German Lutheran and Reformed churches.

Thus, by the last decades of the seventeenth century, the southern and middle colonies (except for Pennsylvania) had an Anglican establishment, and the New England colonies (except for Rhode Island) were still dominated by Congregationalism. Throughout the 1600s, the Congregational establishment remained strong enough to deal with (banish, imprison, or execute) most dissidents. In contrast, the Church of England’s establishment was weak in most areas, there being no bishop in the colonies and many parishes lacking priests. This weakness was due primarily to the presence in significant numbers of both the irreligious and the dissenting sects, especially the Presbyterians and the Baptists, and in Maryland the Roman Catholics, none of which had anything to gain from a strong Church of England presence.


Toward the end of the seventeenth century, changes in England were causing people to look more positively at the church in what was emerging as the British Empire and to promote means to strengthen it. Initial efforts were made to extend the church into areas where it had little or no presence. King’s Chapel was forced upon Boston in 1692. The next year, New York passed an establishment act, even though there had been no call for Anglican worship. The minuscule Anglican community of Philadelphia organized Christ Church in 1694.

The most important step in the revival and extension of the Church of England in the colonies followed the appointment of Thomas Bray (c. 1656–1730) as commissary for Maryland in 1696. Bray, unable to travel to America immediately, devoted his time to the organizing of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, which began sending libraries to the New World. After a brief sojourn in the colonies in 1699, Bray returned to England and organized the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in 1701. With backing at the highest levels of the church, the society recruited priests for America and sent more than 300 men to staff the churches during the next three-quarters of a century. The SPG put the Church of England in a position to compete with the other churches, but much of its gains were countered by the growth of Presbyterians, Baptists, and, later in the century, the influx of Pietism.

Presbyterians had been coming into the colonies throughout the seventeenth century but had been overwhelmed and in many cases, especially in New England, absorbed by the Congregationalists. Scattered Presbyterian churches were formed in New Jersey as early as 1667, but it was not until the arrival of Francis Makemie (1658–1708) in 1683 that the church began to assume a significant presence. Makemie traveled through the middle colonies organizing churches among the Scottish, Irish, and British settlers. The first presbytery was organized in Philadelphia in 1706 and included churches in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. It soon reached out to congregations in New York and New Jersey, and by 1716 was able to divide into four presbyteries and form a synod. The continued immigration from Scotland and Ireland promoted the rapid increase of the church’s membership during the first half of the century and its spread throughout the colonies.

The development of Presbyterianism in the American colonies coincided with the emergence of a new movement in Germany. Philip J. Spener (1635–1705), a Lutheran minister at Frankfurt, began to appeal for a deeper Christian life through prayer, Bible study, loving service, and the informal gatherings of Christians. These issues were addressed in his 1675 dissertation, Pia Desideria, out of which the Pietist movement was born. Forced out of Frankfurt, he found his way to Berlin, where he received the support in 1694 to found the University at Halle, which became the institutional center of the movement. The movement received a considerable boost in the early 1700s when Moravian refugees, Czechoslovakian Protestants, settled on the estate of Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), which they renamed Herrnhut.

Pietism was spread to America primarily by the correspondence of American ministers with the Pietist leaders and became visible through the development of an evangelistic thrust among Presbyterians. The beginnings of this “revival” party is usually attributed to German-born Theodore J. Frelinghuysen, (c. 1691–1748), who came to America as a Dutch Reformed minister, and William Tennent (1673–1746), founder of the “log cabin” college in Bucks County, near Philadelphia. Among his most capable students were his three sons, Gilbert (1703–1764), John (1707–1732), and William Jr. (1705–1777). The development of the Presbyterian revivalists began to split the Presbyterians over the acceptance and rejection of the new emphases.

Moravian Pietism was brought to the United States in 1735 by a group under the direction of Bishop August G. Spangenberg (1704–1792). On the voyage across the Atlantic, Spangenberg had a most important encounter with a young Anglican minister, John Wesley (1703–1791). The event led Wesley to worship with the Moravians upon his return to London and became integral to the series of events leading to his spiritual awakening in 1738. Wesley would go on to lead the most important phase of the Pietist Movement in England, Methodism. Among Wesley’s close friends and associates from college days was George Whitefield (1714– 1770). In 1739 Whitefield called Wesley to Bristol, England, to take charge of his ministry among the miners. The move was, for Wesley, an important step in the development of Methodism. Whitefield’s trip to America became a major event in the development of American religion.

George Whitefield began his evangelistic tour of the American colonies in Georgia. As he moved northward he rallied his support and each stop involved more people in what became a national revival of religion. It would later be called the Great Awakening. By the time he reached New England in the fall of 1740, the revival had drawn many unconverted into the churches; it sparked the Presbyterian and Baptist membership, which soared at a spectacular rate between 1740 and 1780. But the Awakening would also lead directly to major splits among the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and even the Baptists, many of whom rejected what they saw as the emotional excesses of the meetings led by Whitefield and his imitators. People would often react in seemingly uncontrolled fits in the process of responding to the preacher’s call to turn from sin. There is evidence that rejection of revivalism was strongest among the wealthier and educated classes in the cities, and the most acceptance was found among the poorer and less-educated peoples in the countryside.

In 1741 the Presbyterians divided into New School (accepting of revivalism) and Old School. The Congregationalists of New England experienced measurable losses as a new wave of Separatist congregations was formed by those persons most affected by the revival. The Separatists insisted on a converted regenerate membership and tended to accept adult baptism as a sign of the regeneration. While some would eventually return to the Congregationalist fold, most of these congregations would become Baptist. Meanwhile, the Regular Baptists also split, as new Separate Baptists demanded that church members give clear evidence of a conversion experience. In their enthusiasm for the revival, they developed what seemed to the older Baptists to be an informal and noisy worship style, led by preachers who spoke in a distinctive, shrill, singsong manner.

As the revival progressed among the English-speaking colonists, at least one new group that was to take on some importance in the next century appeared. German Lutherans began to filter into New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York in the first half of the century. The first congregation was organized in Hackensack, New Jersey, around 1704. By 1750 there was a string of congregations along the Hudson River through New Jersey into southeast Pennsylvania.

Attempts to organize were stifled in New York by the Dutch regime (which favored the Reformed church) and slowed in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where German settlers were slow to adapt to a government that would supply tax money for neither the building of churches nor the support of the ministry. The most prominent minister among the Lutherans was Henry Muhlenberg (1711–1787). Muhlenberg arrived in 1742 from the Pietist center at Halle, and brought some of that spirit with him. In 1748 he organized the Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania, regarded as the first Lutheran synodical organization in America. The second synod, the New York Ministerium, was not created until after the Revolutionary War, in 1786.

All churches were assisted by the attention given religion by the Great Awakening, and those who most readily adopted the revivalistic techniques began a generation of growth. By the beginning of the American Revolution, though almost totally confined to New England, the Congregationalists retained their status as the largest church in the colonies, with approximately 675 congregations. They were followed by the Presbyterians with 450, the Anglicans and Baptists with approximately 400, and lesser numbers of Lutherans (more than 200), Quakers (190), Reformed (180), and Roman Catholics (50). Had it not been for the American Revolution, there is every reason to believe that the churches in the American colonies might have developed much as they did in Canada. Because of the Revolution, a different course would be taken.

And because of the Revolution, it is important to make note of Methodism, the main organization in the British phase of the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening. In the 1750s, Methodism spread through England and reached Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. At about the same time, Methodists began to migrate to the American colonies, and by 1766 the first Methodist chapel was established by Robert Strawbridge (d. 1781) at Leesburg, Virginia. In 1769 Methodist founder John Wesley sent the first two preachers to oversee and promote the work in America. While centers were being established in the cities and at a few plantations along the coast, Methodism had barely begun when its work was interrupted by the Revolution. No one was aware of the difference in American religion the war was to make once peace returned.


The churches in the colonies had gone through wars before. After each war, they had merely resumed their work and returned to normal. But the American Revolution was different. It was not just another war. It destroyed a whole way of life and produced a new society. Religiously considered, the new nation that arose out of the success of the Revolution provided a distinct way of structuring religion, in which religious bodies became voluntary associations cut off both from official state support and public revenues. Each church would have to adjust to the new ways, and as might be expected, some would do it with far greater acumen than others. Necessary to the coming of this new world was a new religious-philosophical element that began to intrude upon the thinking of America’s social and literary elites in the decades prior to the fight with the British homeland.


Nurtured within the bosom of Anglicanism as the Revolution approached was a new philosophy that denied the major affirmations of orthodox Christianity and set itself against the churches’ leadership role. The new perspective was called deism, and its importance lay not so much in the number of its adherents (which seems to have been small), but in: (1) its acceptance by many of the men who were to provide the theoretical framework for the Revolution and the Constitution of the new nation; (2) the compatibility of its major affirmations with the irreligious elements of the American public; and (3) the role it played in further diluting the strength of the Church of England.

Such leading figures as Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), George Washington (1732– 1799), and James Madison (1751–1836), while retaining their formal affiliation with the established church, had left it in their hearts and begun to speak against it. Striking at the heart of Anglican control in the colonies, they opposed the designation of the Church of England (or any church) as the established church in the new nation.

Deists undergirded their attack on established religion with a general attack on traditional Christianity. They derided theologians for creating complicated and speculative cosmologies beyond the comprehension of the people. They focused especially on the concept of particular revelation, that God revealed certain truths to one person and not everyone, and the dogmas (such as the Trinity) that were derived from those claims of revelation. They argued that real religion was centered on issues of reason and morality. They elevated reason above all religious speculation and demanded a rational Christianity.

The passing of the First Amendment with its clauses on religious freedom, though hammered through by the deists, represents the coming together of the sectarian Protestant arguments for religious liberty that had developed out of persecution, and the deist arguments that had developed out of their theological speculations and general anticlericalism. While Roger Williams had argued for freedom from persecution and the creation of a free environment for proselytization of unbelievers, the deists bemoaned the evils of speculative systems imposed by clerics on an unwilling public. They had despaired of finding theological truth around which to unify amid the variety of opinions everywhere espoused. Such religious speculation was of little consequence. All religions agreed on the need for moral behavior, and a rational moral code included most everything that was important religiously. Given the deist stance, no reason remained for persecuting people or even for demanding conformity on matters of mere religious opinion and speculation.


The Revolution, or more directly, the resulting Constitution of the new nation, served to free religion within the republic. While apologists for state-established religion have argued for its role in promoting religion in general and have cited disestablishment as a sign of societal secularization, religious establishments have done as much to suppress religious expression as they have to support it. Established religions, such as colonial Congregationalism in New England, were organized in accord with the wishes of the social elite. Through the state religion, the government controlled, regulated, and limited religious expression, and discouraged the formation and expression of religion, especially among those most alienated from the ruling class. It thus kept or drove many otherwise potentially religious people into a state of irreligion, by limiting their choice to a religion in which they did not believe or no religion at all.

In situations dominated by a state religion, only the most committed (in New England’s case, the Quakers) persisted in their religious alternative as the state attempted to bring them into conformity. The volumes on religious persecution are filled with accounts of those who did resist, and American colonial history has its chapters in such volumes.

In freeing those formerly persecuted for their religious impulses, the First Amendment also created a situation in which new innovative religious gestalts could emerge. And as new varieties of religion became available, greater numbers became involved with the religious life. In the United States, the long-term result of religious freedom has been the steady growth of the percentage of the population who claim membership in a religious group (beginning with little more than 15 percent in 1790) and, in the last half of the twentieth century and after, the voluntary movement of the overwhelming majority of Americans into religious organizations (more than 85 percent by 2008). The destruction of government-backed religious controls has produced the most religious nation on earth.


The American Revolution, significant battles of which occurred in every part of the colonies, thoroughly disrupted the entire country. For the churches, it meant disruption of services, confiscation, and even destruction of church buildings and loss of members. Congregations were divided by conflicting loyalties, though interestingly enough, no new church bodies appeared as a result of the war.

In one sense, the Congregationalists were least affected by the war. A number of ministers were identified with the Patriots’ cause, and in spite of the church’s identification with the state prior to the Revolution, its conflicts with the British government (such as its resistance to the planting of a Church of England congregation in Boston) left it in good standing when peace returned. Congregationalism did not, however, remain unscathed. First, it suffered an immediate loss of membership and a membership drain through the remainder of the century as British Loyalists left New England to resettle in Canada. Also, even though Congregationalism was the country’s largest church body and had its membership concentrated in New England, it had to recognize that the majority of New Englanders were not church members. Out of that recognition, Connecticut passed a Toleration Act in 1784, a prelude to complete disestablishment in 1818. Massachusetts, the last to separate church and state, disestablished the church in 1833.

In the long run, Congregationalism suffered more severely from the spread of the deistic religious spirit in New England. Harvard had already become infected with anti-Trinitarian thought, and by the time Massachusetts disestablished, the church was in the midst of the Unitarian controversy that would result in the loss of many of its most prominent parishes. In spite of the losses to Canada and to the Unitarians, Congregationalism continued to grow at a slow pace, but it steadily fell in the ranking of Protestant churches. It continued to exert a significant influence for another century primarily through its educational leadership and the allegiance of New England’s elite to its ranks.

As the war ended, there was some doubt as to whether Anglicanism could ever find a place in American life. Identified as the church of the enemy, it existed in an extremely hostile atmosphere. The SPG missionaries deserted it. Of the few who remained, many were not allowed to serve their parishes because of their Loyalist sympathies. The rector at Boston’s King’s Chapel defected to the Unitarian cause and took the church with him.

Disestablishment also came swiftly and harshly to the Church of England in the colonies. The church had been so intricately tied to secular structures, disestablishment destroyed both its financial base and legal status. Formerly somewhat dependent on the leadership of bishops, of which it now had none, it lost almost a decade in the search for episcopal authority. The need for a bishop led the Connecticut parishes to reorganize and select one of their number, Samuel Seabury (1729–1796), as their bishop-elect. He was able to obtain apostolic orders from the nonjuring Scottish bishops (bishops whose church rejected the established Presbyterian church of Scotland), but the ministers and parishes in the southern and middle colonies did not want Scottish orders. They reorganized and elected William White (1748–1836), Samuel Provoost (1742–1815), William Smith, and David Griffith as their bishops-elect and waited for an opening in England. White and Provoost were finally able to obtain orders in London in 1787. They proceeded to organize the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. and rebuild its work among the still-loyal members located primarily in southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. They also were able to bring the work under Seabury in New York and Connecticut into the larger fellowship. Like the Congregationalists, the new church kept the allegiance of many of the new nation’s more wealthy citizens.

Entering the country in the 1760s, the number of Methodists was almost too small to count as the Revolution began. However, they were solidly identified with the Church of England, having constituted themselves as a religious society within that church. Because of Wesley’s political tracts, they were also identified with the Tory cause. Like the Anglican priests, the Methodist preachers, except for Francis Asbury (1745–1816), returned to England as a result of the Revolution. Methodism was largely shut down, and Asbury was forced to live in retirement during the war years. After the war, the Methodists were the first to greet Washington with protestations of loyalty, and then quickly turned to the task of reorganizing in the light of the changed situation. In 1784 the American preachers met at Barrett’s Chapel in rural Maryland to organize the Methodist Episcopal Church. They elected Asbury their first bishop and began to develop their organization now free of the Church of England. They were, along with the Baptists, to receive the greatest benefits from the changes that occurred.

Presbyterians, primarily identified with the Revolution, lost little, considering that their churches, concentrated in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, were in close proximity to much of the fighting. They benefited greatly from the continued influx of Scottish and Scottish-Irish immigrants, and membership grew substantially from 1770 through the end of the century.

Few groups so benefited from the Revolution as did the Baptists. They had been the most vocal of the two major dissident churches in colonial America, especially on the issues of religious freedom and disestablishment, and had become as a whole strong supporters of the Revolution. After the war, they led the fight in New England for disestablishment and when it occurred, they were quick to claim the spoils.

Like the Baptists, the Quakers held their own during the war years. As a group, the pacifist Society of Friends did not participate, a perennial source of community hostility during wartime, but the war did not seem to stop their growth. They began the nineteenth century as one of the larger colonial bodies.

The Dutch Reformed and the German groups (Lutheran, Reformed, Mennonite, etc.) of Pennsylvania were basically dependent on immigration for growth. The war seemed but a momentary pause in the slow growth of the Dutch and the rapid growth of the German groups, with the Reformed and Lutherans receiving the most increase. The German Lutherans had begun to arrive in the colonies early in the eighteenth century. They came from all sections of the still divided nation-to-be and were only beginning to be organized as the war began. Leading spokespersons represented a wide spectrum of opinion on the Revolution, from those opposed to the colonists’ cause to those who defended the German king who sat on the British throne. When the war ended, the Lutherans resumed their basic task of learning to build churches, print religious literature, and provide pastoral leadership in a land that refused to support their church in ways they had been taught to expect.


By the turn of the century, all of the churches had recovered from the war and reorganized for work in the new United States. The new country presented them with a monumental task. Within the first generation, the geographical area of the United States greatly expanded, first to the Mississippi River and then by the Louisiana Purchase to the Rockies and beyond. Along with the geographical expansion, the population exploded due to immigration. Beginning with almost four million in 1790 (when the first census was taken), the population tripled by 1830 and almost doubled again by the time of the Civil War (1861–1865). After the war, the numbers increased even more dramatically, growing by more than 12 million in each of the last two decades of the century.

Throughout the century, no religious group was able to adequately cope with the massive population growth. Few, other than the Roman Catholics, could cross the language barrier from the English majority to the German minority (the only significant minority through the early nineteenth century). In their attempts, however, religious groups could essentially adopt one of three programs. First, some religious groups sought out those immigrants who shared their Old World country of origin and defined their basic task as providing them with the American version of the same familiar church that they had left at home. Many groups, mostly the non-English-speaking ones, such as the Lutherans, received most of their growth in this manner, the Roman Catholic Church being most successful.

Second, many immigrant groups, both English-speaking and not, brought their religion with them and established a new branch of the church of their homeland in America. Thus the number of new denominations increased steadily as most of the European sects were transplanted to America. In the establishment and growth of the predominantly immigrant/ethnic churches and religions lies half the story of American religion in the next century.

Third, the majority of the population had left behind a situation in which church membership and citizenship were largely synonymous, and in their new free situation they chose to support no religion, profess no religious affiliation, and join no church. Churches could begin massive efforts to bring the population into the religious life they offered. Most churches engaged in evangelism, some limited to one language or ethnic group. In the success of their evangelistic endeavors lies the other half of the story of the next phase in American religion.


Symbolic of the changes that were to occur in the new nation was a conference of Methodist ministers in Lexington, Kentucky, on April 15–16, 1790. Though still establishing itself along the eastern seaboard, Methodism was already reaching out to the new settlers on the other side of the mountains. Under Bishop Asbury’s direction, 12 preachers departed the conference to ride their circuits throughout Kentucky and into Tennessee. Six years later, the church had recruited enough members and preachers to justify formally designating the area as a new conference, and in so doing, the general conference further enlarged the new conference to include all of the yet-unchurched territory to the west and north.

While Methodists were directing their circuit riders into the newly settled land, the lay-oriented Baptists were migrating in large numbers, setting up worship in private homes, and establishing chapels led by part-time farmer preachers. By 1800 they had no less than ten associations (of congregations) west of the mountains.

Like the Methodists and the Baptists, the Presbyterians and Congregationalists felt the responsibility to plant Christian churches in the West. To some extent they had been influenced by the revivalistic fervor that had been present throughout the eighteenth century. Very soon after the war they began to form missionary societies and recruit ministers to pastor among their members who had migrated westward, to gather new converts, and to establish missions among the Indians. At least theoretically realizing the scope of the growing task, in 1801 the two theologically similar groups laid aside their organizational differences to unite efforts to convert the West. Missionaries were recruited and sent west to establish congregations, build colleges, and civilize the wilderness.

In the expanding frontier, measures as dramatic as the expanding country were needed. Some means of attracting the attention of the scattered and irreligious populous had to be found. The program of the Plan of Union led to the establishment of some churches among groups of transplanted easterners. These new congregations called the available seminary-trained pastors, and developed the familiar forms of parish life. Following such a plan, both Congregational and Presbyterian churches began to appear in the new population centers in the West. Because of their more efficient organizational structure, the Presbyterians were better equipped to plant congregations systematically, and soon turned the earlier situation around and received many of the scattered Congregational churches into their membership.

The program of the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists was simply inadequate for the West. They could not train ministers fast enough to serve the growing population. They could not move fast enough to keep up with the expanding frontier. Most importantly, they could not adapt fast enough to the new society being created in the West. The two churches, especially the Congregationalists, began to be left behind.

In contrast, the Methodists and the Baptists seemed perfectly suited to the new land. They were extremely mobile. Since they emphasized their preachers’ willingness and ability to preach apart from any formal educational credentials, they could train and deploy new circuit riders with great speed. They gave revivalistic and evangelistic activity their highest priority. They stood ready to exploit a wide variety of tools to winning the unsaved.

The first new tool for churching the frontier was the camp meeting. The idea grew out of a sacramental conference among Presbyterian churches under the leadership of James McGready (c. 1758–1817) in the Red River area of Kentucky. McGready was a graduate of the “log cabin” college and an enthusiastic preacher. At a four-day sacramental meeting held for the Red River church he served in 1800, emotions flowed freely, and many were converted, especially by the unplanned exhortations of a visiting Methodist, John McGee. McGready, noting the excitement, publicized the next meeting, and news of the events at Red River spread across the region. The next summer, more than 10,000, including preachers of a variety of denominations, attended the gathering at Cane Ridge, Kentucky. The event became a turning point. The camp meeting combined entertainment, a break in the loneliness of farm life, and religion.

The Methodists and Baptists, and those Presbyterians associated with McGready, lost no time in integrating the camp meeting into their regular program. In 1801 alone, the Methodists organized more than 400 of them. But the Presbyterians in the East were not as enthusiastic. They condemned the excesses of the camp meetings in 1805, and rejected McGready’s work in the newly formed Cumberland Presbytery. In no small part, the church simply could not supply ministers fast enough to keep up with the new churches created out of the evangelistic efforts of McGready. Unable to reconcile his differences with the church, McGready and his colleagues formed the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

The Cane Ridge meeting also changed the thinking of Presbyterian minister Barton Stone (1772–1844), who came away not only with a revivalistic mission but a conviction that the churches that gathered at Cane Ridge should put away their differences and unite in the task of converting the frontier. Stone and his followers left the Presbyterian Church and assumed the simple designation of Christian. In a similar action, Thomas Campbell (1763–1854) and Alexander Campbell (1788–1866) withdrew from the Baptists in western Pennsylvania and took the name Disciples of Christ. Finally discovering each other, the two groups united in 1832.

Thus, present on the frontier were four groups ready to evangelize the land, and evangelize they did. The Baptists, already among the larger church bodies due to their revival-istic efforts in the previous century, quickly moved to become the largest church body in America during the decades immediately after the Revolution. However, the Methodists moved even more quickly. From a few thousand members in 1784, they jumped ahead of the Baptists in the 1820s and during the rest of the century never looked back. The Cumberland Presbyterians were able to keep pace for most of the time, and after the 1832 merger of the Stone and Campbell movements, the Disciples of Christ enjoyed spectacular growth.

About the same time that Methodist membership surpassed the other churches, a new phase of revivalism began with the introduction of the “new measures.” Developed by Congregationalist evangelist Charles G. Finney (1792–1875), the new measures were designed to create a climate for revival and to promote the crisis of decision, and in the hands of Finney and those who learned his techniques they brought millions into the churches. The techniques included the use of protracted meetings in the form of community-wide evangelistic campaigns with no announced ending date; testimony meetings in which people (even women) told of their conversion experience; the anxious bench, a place to counsel with individuals wrestling with a decision; and cottage prayer meetings. The new measures, rejected by Finney’s church, but adopted with great success by Baptists and Methodists, institutionalized revivalism.


While the evangelistic endeavors of the Methodists and Baptists were altering the shape of the religious community, immigration was having an equal effect. Of the millions that immigrated prior to the Civil War, the single largest group was Irish, followed by the Germans. The Irish were predominantly Roman Catholic, and while most Germans were Lutheran, many were also Roman Catholic. In addition, with the purchase of Louisiana, the French Roman Catholics of the territory were brought into the American Church. By midcentury, Roman Catholic membership rivaled that of the Methodists and Baptists. By the end of the century, with additional immigration from Poland and Italy, the church had jumped out ahead of both and emerged as the largest religious group in America.

The growth of the church is easily traced through the development of its hierarchy. Following the Revolution, John Carroll (1735–1815) was appointed in 1784 as superior of the American mission, and in 1790 he was consecrated as the first bishop for the United States with his see in Baltimore. In 1808 Baltimore was made an archdiocese, and New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Bardstown, Kentucky, received bishops. In 1846, 1847, and 1853 respectively, archdioceses were named in Oregon City (later Portland) for the American Northwest, St. Louis, and San Francisco. During the second half of the century, the sites of the early bishops on the East Coast would be elevated to metropolitan (archdiocese) status, as would Chicago, Dubuque, St. Paul, and Milwaukee.

Second only to Roman Catholicism in receiving positive results from immigration were the Lutherans. First from massive German immigration in the first half of the nineteenth century and then from Scandinavian immigration in the last half, the Lutherans grew in spite of their overall rejection of revivalism. The impact of Lutheranism on the country was, however, severely limited by the splintered condition of the church. As groups of Lutherans flocked to the country and settled in the frontier, they retained their linguistic and national boundaries, tended to organize separate synods in each region of the country, and were further split by internal doctrinal discord. Of major concern for the German community were issues of pan-Germanism (i.e., union with the German Reformed Church) and the confessional-doctrinal emphasis championed by Charles P. Krauth (1823–1882), who was opposed to the Pietist-experiential emphasis supported by Samuel S. Schmucker (1799–1873). By midcentury, the Lutherans were divided into more than 100 autonomous bodies. Since the end of the Civil War, they have pursued a process of union that has seen that number reduced to fewer than 20, with the overwhelming majority now in one denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, established in 1988.

The Presbyterians, apart from the Cumberlands, were able to hold their own in the growing nation because of significant immigration from Scotland and Northern Ireland. Like the Lutherans, the Scots brought with them the problems of the homeland, and in America the Presbyterians split into a number of bodies reflective of the Scottish divisions.

During the nineteenth century, the Quakers received no significant immigrant support, faced a major schism just as the western movement came to the fore, and abandoned growth in the South over the slavery issue. Most importantly, Quakers quickly discovered that aggressive revivalism conflicted with their emphasis on the inner light. Early in the century, they simply ceased to grow in real numbers. They remain as a small body whose importance lies in its idealistic dissent on a number of issues, such as peace and social justice, which has placed the Quakers outside the mainstream of American life but given them a remarkable role as an agent for change in society.


In the nineteenth century, one issue seriously split the American religious community: slavery and its accompanying racial attitudes. The slavery issue, considered in its broadest aspect, had two overarching influences on the development of religious life in America. First, it split several of the older predominantly white denominations so deeply that the divisions have yet to be healed. Second, it led to the development of a number of separate, predominantly black, denominations.

As the division between the white people of the North and South widened over the institution of slavery, the churches that included those people felt the same tension. The largest of the Protestant groups, the Methodist Episcopal Church, divided first. It had originally tried to keep the peace in the family by pushing the abolitionists out into the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1843. But the next year, it opened the general conference with the scandal of a bishop from Georgia who had inherited slaves. Bishop James O. Andrew (1794–1871) refused to move from his home state, was unable by Georgia law to free his slaves, and planned to continue as an active traveling bishop. The church, unable to resolve the issue, voted to divide itself into two jurisdictions. The outcome was a division of the church into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

The Baptists faced a similar problem precipitated by the refusal of the American Baptist Foreign Missionary Convention to accept slaveholders for positions as missionaries. In 1844 the Alabama and Georgia state conventions had forced the issue. After their rebuff in 1845, the southerners formed the Southern Baptist Convention. The Presbyterians waited until the war began, but in 1861, they too split into two bodies.

The issues raised by the slavery debates in the middle of the nineteenth century had been argued by the Methodists in the northern states soon after the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Staunchly abolitionist at its beginning, African Americans had been a significant part of its membership since the 1860s. After the formal organization of the church, however, step by step it backed away from its original position as it grew in the South. Northern congregations that had been integrated instituted segregationist policies. Blacks were relegated to balconies, were the last to be served communion, and were generally treated as second-class citizens. Only a few were admitted to ministerial orders. Through the 1790s, black members from Charleston to Boston walked out and formed all-black congregations. Then, early in the nineteenth century, some congregations of free black people in the North left the Methodist Episcopal Church to found three African-American denominations: the African Union Church (1813), the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church (1816), and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church (1820). Richard Allen (1760–1831), the first bishop of the AME Church, became one of the most prominent American black leaders through the 1820s.

The first black Baptist churches in the North were organized in Boston (1804), New York (1808), and Philadelphia (1809). It was not until the 1830s that the first associations were formed: the Providence Baptist Association in Ohio and the Wood River Association in Illinois. Missionary work by blacks led to the formation of the most substantial organizations. The American Baptist Missionary Convention, formed by blacks in 1840, not only sent foreign missionaries, but directed the organization of Baptist freedmen after the Civil War.

In the South, black Baptists appeared as the church spread among slave owners. The first congregations of Baptists were not organized until just before the American Revolution, however, as most slave owners were reluctant to allow independent organizations, including religious ones, among the slaves. The Methodists were the primary church that systematically approached slave owners on behalf of their slaves and recruited members from among the slave population. This effort was institutionalized in the South in the 1830s, and over the last years of the slavery era, some 200,000 African Americans joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. After the Civil War, most of these members joined the AME Church, the AMEZ Church, or the newly formed Colored (now Christian) Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church.

After the Civil War, the black Baptist and Methodist churches enjoyed a period of growth as they expanded their work among the freedmen. Neither the AME or AMEZ Church, under the control of northern freed blacks, had been allowed to recruit in the South, and quickly made up for lost time. With the addition of the CME Church, the African-American Methodists enjoyed an unprecedented period of growth and several million former slaves became Methodists. The problem of slavery was succeeded by that of widespread poverty and segregation, the need for education, and the imposition of a spectrum of Jim Crow laws. Black Baptists, lacking the organizations of the Methodists, were slower to get started after the war, but soon made up for the slow start. They quickly formed a number of regional and national organizations that merged in the 1890s to become the National Baptist Convention. By the end of the century, they approached the Methodists in membership and soon surpassed them. Today, most African Americans are Baptists—approximately 60 percent according to some estimates—with the several million Methodists forming the second largest bloc.

In lesser numbers, African Americans have been proselytized by and have responded to most religious traditions found in America, and have formed religious organizations representative of those different religious families. After the Civil War, most of the larger denominations established missions among the freedmen. Unfortunately, apart from their views toward slavery, northerners exhibited the same racial attitudes concerning black people that were prevalent in the South. Even so, some African Americans became (northern) Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics. While welcoming black members as a whole, these churches instituted a pattern of racial segregation at the congregational and regional levels. On the other hand, in joining the predominantly white denominations, black church members brought into the African-American community all of the diverse religious commitments, theological tensions, and variation in worship of white society. As in the white community, the black denominational structures became the stable organizational units that shaped the larger religious community and set the pattern of belief and action at the congregational level. The varying response to issues facing the black community—the Ethiopianism of the 1930s, the civil rights movement in the 1960s (which split the Baptists), and the attempt to identify a common black religious experience in the 1970s—has largely followed denominational biases.


Originally, the policy of the newly formed United States focused on the “civilization” of Native Americans and envisioned the Christian churches as the main agent in that process. In 1819 the government passed a measure creating a “Civilization Fund,” through which it subsidized church missions that aimed not only at conversion but Americanization of the Native Americans. Even prior to the 1819 legislation, pressures were mounting for the removal of Native Americans to the far west. A major step in that program followed the discovery of gold in Georgia, and the subsequent passing of the Removal Act of 1830 that pushed most of the members of Five Tribes out of the Southeast.

Following the Civil War, as serious settlement west of Independence, Missouri, expanded, the settlers’ demands for Indian lands led to a series of Indian wars and the confinement of Native Americans to designated reservations. The pressures on Native Americans in the face of the overrun of the land by whites and the development of the dependency of the Indian people on the government and the churches had two significant religious consequences. First, many Native Americans responded to the evangelical efforts of the hundreds of missions established by Christian churches and converted to Christianity.

Almost all of the larger church bodies have Native American members, the result of missions established in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. In recent years, the majority of the older Christian churches have also moved to remove the Native American congregations from any stigma as a mission and to integrate them into the total life of the denomination. However, many smaller churches and independent missionary agencies continue to support “missions” on or near the reservations and have, since World War II (1939–1945), developed additional missions in the urban centers where many Indians migrated.

As Native American life was disrupted by the westward rush of white society, some who did not accept Christianity developed alternatives that attempted to go beyond the tradition of any particular tribe and reach all Native Americans with a combination of religious fervor and political protest. Of the several movements that developed, the Ghost Dance movement was by far the most important. Born among the Paiute in the 1870s, the movement found its great prophet in Wovoka (c. 1858–1932), a Paiute who lived most of his life in Nevada. Near his thirtieth birthday, he had a revelation during a solar eclipse. To those who practiced the distinctive circular dance already a part of the movement, the revelation promised a return of the Indian dead, the eradication of sickness, and a time of prosperity. A date during 1891 was set for the change. In the meantime, he urged followers to drop any overt hostility to the whites and become “civilized.” The prophecy found immediate support among the Plains peoples, especially among the Oglala Sioux (the Lakota). They introduced the holy shirt, the design of which had been received in a vision, which would protect the wearer from any harm, even the bullets of the U. S. Army.

The Ghost Dance movement climaxed at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, where 300 Ghost Dance participants were killed by the U.S. Army in 1890, a clear demonstration of the inability of the shirts to provide the promised protection. While the dance survived into the middle of the twentieth century, it lost its mass appeal and left a vacuum soon to be replaced with another movement developed in Mexico. The peyote religion spread as the Ghost Dance receded, and offered a mystical alternative to the earlier apocalyptic movement. Drawing on both Christian and Native American themes, it added the strong psychological impact of peyote’s ability to alter consciousness. While preaching many of the values that the white culture wished to spread among Native Americans, the peyote religion, in addition, offered a note of defiance in its use of a hallucinogenic drug. After the formal incorporation of the movement as the Native American Church in 1918, it spread among numerous Indian tribes and became a powerful force in building an identity among Native Americans as one people. The Native American church also enjoyed an interesting history in the courts as it established its right to use the sacred substance.


In the last half of the nineteenth century, the major North American Protestant groups were rent with controversy. Tensions became evident as a new set of issues that demanded a response confronted the churches. The challenges of the new issues were qualitatively different from those at the beginning of the century that had demanded an increase in activity and endeavor. These issues appeared in the form of new ideas that carried the force of scientific and academic backing. They also demanded acceptance of a totally new worldview.

From Germany came a new way of looking at the Bible. Critical scholars had begun to question the accuracy of the biblical texts in several ways. Some challenged the legitimacy of the miracle stories in the name of science. What could not happen within the boundaries of the known laws of the universe, probably did not happen. Others challenged the integrity of the texts, especially the first five books of the Bible. They denied the Mosaic authorship and suggested that these books were a complex edited narrative created by combining into a single text several older texts that had been written by different people in different circumstances. The new scholarship was seen by many as defying the authority of the Bible, which most Christians understood literally.

For many, the challenge to biblical authority by the German critics seemed to resonate with the new claims in the sciences of geology and biology. Geologists studying the nature of various earth-building processes, such as volcanoes, concluded that the earth was not a few thousand years old, but hundreds of thousands, even millions of years old. Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and his colleagues concluded that not only had life forms evolved from one species to another but that even humanity was a product of evolution from other primates. The new sciences presented a complete alternative to the literal biblical account of God creating the species and separately creating the first man and woman.

Also, as the overseas mission programs of the churches expanded, interest in and information about religions in foreign lands grew. To some, it became evident that Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and the other great world religions offered a sophisticated spirituality and would not simply capitulate in the face of the presentation of the Christian message. Some voices arose to suggest that Eastern religions could possibly teach the West something vital and important. The impact of the other religions was brought home at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions where Hindu Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), Theosophist Annie Besant (1847–1933), and Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) drew huge audiences.

While new ideas challenged church leaders’ thoughts, immigration was producing unprecedented growth in American urban centers, which were ill-equipped to deal with sudden heavy population increases. Industrialists looking for cheap labor exploited the new urbanites. Slums appeared as many immigrants were crowded into inadequate housing. Drunkenness was common. Churches could not (or would not) expand fast enough to serve the immigrants (many of whom spoke no English or came from Roman Catholic countries). Scholars and activists began to suggest that older solutions to social problems, usually directed toward reforming individuals through hygiene, education, and hard work, were inadequate. What America needed was a change in the system that allowed slums and exploited workers to exist. Answers were suggested by the new science of sociology, which suggested that social problems could be solved by human manipulation of social structures. Among the most popular overall solution was some form of socialism.

Church leaders responded to these intellectual and social challenges in two ways. A growing number of them suggested a positive response to the new ideas and began to seek ways of reconciling Christianity to biblical criticism, evolution, the existence of sophisticated world religions, and the crises in the cities. Those who took such a positive stance, yielding to the demands of the modern age, came to be called modernists. Other church leaders saw in the modernist revisions of the faith not just an adaptation to a new situation but the destruction of traditional Christianity and its replacement by a different gospel. They responded by calling their ministerial colleagues and the churches of the land to once again affirm the nonnegotiable fundamentals of the faith, and in so doing they became known as fundamentalists.

Modernism, the progenitor of contemporary liberal Protestantism, came to be identified with a variety of opinions. Modernists accepted biblical criticism and redefined the nature of biblical authority. In the process, they discarded the literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis and the biblical miracle stories and emphasized instead the eternal lessons to be drawn from them. Modernists accepted the opinions of geologists and biologists about the age of the universe and the evolutionary origin of humanity. However, they suggested that evolution was not a process without obvious purpose, that it did not follow natural selection but derived from the constant action of God, drawing life and humanity to higher levels of attainment. This perspective was called theistic evolution.

In their encounter with world religions, modernists such as James Freeman Clarke (1810–1888), a Unitarian professor teaching at the University of Chicago, attempted to make the case for the superiority of Christianity, not as the true religion over against the falsehood of all other religions, but as the most true religion in a world of religions of partial truths. Each religion contains elements recognized as good and noble, but only Christianity contains goodness and truth in their fullness. As a major expression of this approach, the League of Liberal Clergymen in Chicago organized the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893.

In their response to the cities, modernists borrowed well-known biblical symbols that they identified with the socialist program of radical changes in late nineteenth-century society. They spoke of building the kingdom of God and ushering in a millennium of peace and justice through the reorganization of social patterns. They called their message the social gospel.

Modernist theology was optimistic in the extreme and based on a positive view of human nature. Humanity, in the opinion of modernists, had evolved beyond its animal nature over many thousands of years. The human condition was not so much due to sin and human depravity. It was an effect of the continued presence of the animal past. Humans had evolved out of the animal world, and they could now evolve mentally and spiritually; they inevitably must evolve into the life of the kingdom of God. Progress became the watchword of modernist perspectives, and a utopian hope for humanity’s future undergirded every action.

Fundamentalists claimed that modernism undercut biblical authority in the name of science and replaced Christian commitments with a new religion, hardly recognizable as Christian. As the nineteenth century moved to its close, they began to see seminary professors spreading modernism in their classrooms and ministers voicing it from prominent pulpits. The most visible erosion appeared in the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches, those older churches with a strong Calvinist confessional heritage. In the first stage of the battle, the conservatives charged individuals with deviating from confessional standards. Beginning in the 1870s, the public was treated to a series of heresy trials, the most famous being the Presbyterian actions against David Swing (1830–1894), Charles Briggs (1841–1913), and Henry Preserved Smith (1847–1927). A variety of denominations took official action (from censoring to dismissal) against instructors in their schools who voiced modernist opinions.

At first, the conservatives showed their strength, but by the turn of the century, sentiment turned against them. The denominations showed a new reluctance to condemn modernists who were filling more and more denominational posts. Sensing a loss of control, the conservatives began to organize. Interdenominational conferences, the most famous being the annual gatherings at Niagara Falls, provided places for conservatives to find strength, strategize, and organize. Out of the Niagara conferences came a series of statements of faith affirming “fundamental” beliefs. The conservatives also began to establish independent schools where fundamental doctrines would be upheld and taught. Among the first were Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and the Philadelphia College of the Bible.

The conservative cause received a significant boost in the first decade of the twentieth century when California oilman Lyman Stewart (1840–1923), a Presbyterian, began to divert money to the conservative cause. In 1906 he helped establish the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, which became the nexus for West Coast fundamentalists. He brought R. A. Torrey (1856–1928) from Moody to be the dean of the college. Withdrawing from Immanuel Presbyterian Church, he donated the initial endowment for the independent Church of the Open Door, the pulpit of which Torrey also assumed. Lyman gave money toward the production of the Scofield Reference Bible (published in 1909), whose notes, written by lawyer turned pastor C. I. Scofield (1843–1921), systematically presented the fundamentalist position. In 1909 Lyman gave the money to produce a series of booklets, The Fundamentals, which were mailed to pastors across the country. These booklets, which gave the conservatives their name, launched a new assertive phase of the conservative cause. That new phase took organizational form immediately after World War I (1914–1918) with the formation of the World Christian Fundamental Association.

Fundamentalism and modernism represent two distinctly different ways of viewing the world and Christianity. The battles of the nineteenth century set the issues and created two camps within each of the affected denominations. In the decades between the world wars, the growing hostility between the camps would lead to showdown battles that finally divided the Presbyterians and Baptists, and left the modernists firmly in control of most of the older denominations. The fundamentalists were pushed out into new denominations, the formation of which permanently institutionalized the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and has kept it alive to this day. The cleavage within the Protestant camp in North America between conservative evangelical Protestants and liberal Protestants shows no sign of being resolved, even as issues have shifted. Both sides have strong support from large denominational bodies.


While Presbyterians and Baptists launched their fights over doctrinal issues, the Methodists had little time for the debate. They believed that heartfelt religion and the living of the Christian life were more important than doctrinal purity. When the early Niagara conferences began to produce doctrinal statements, the Methodists had little sympathy for the emphasis the conservatives placed on human depravity. They championed the possibility of human perfection and the need for sanctified holy living.

After the Civil War, the church had been swept by a revival as evangelists promised the born-again Methodists the possibility of a second encounter with the Holy Spirit as dramatic and almost as important as the first born-again experience. This encounter, this second blessing, as it was termed, would go beyond justifying the sinner and guaranteeing a place in heaven; it would actually make the Christian blessed in perfect love. This theme of Holiness and perfection had been present, with varying emphases, throughout Methodist history. But as it reached a new peak in its acceptance, numerous Holiness camp-meeting associations were established throughout the several Methodist denominations.

In the 1880s, Methodists began to back away from the Holiness emphasis. Prominent leaders championed the cause of gradual growth in grace over a single critical event such as the second blessing. Critics also charged that the associations were placing too much emphasis on the minutiae of the personal habits of Christians. District superintendents struggled to control the otherwise independent Holiness associations. The tension reached a climax in Illinois, where Holiness leaders began to call for members to “come out” of the indifferent and often hostile Methodist church and form independent Holiness congregations. While never leaving in large enough numbers to slow the steadily climbing Methodist membership figures, many Holiness people did separate to found congregations that would soon band together in small regional Holiness associations. A few of these remain today, but most merged into the older schismatic Methodist churches that had retained a Holiness emphasis (the Wesleyans and the Free Methodist Church) or combined with other regional bodies to form national denominations, such as the Church of the Nazarene.

Even before the independent Holiness groups had consolidated their gains, the movement was swept with a new teaching that originated in a Holiness Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, under the leadership of Charles Fox Parham (1873–1929). The teaching promised that not only was there a second blessing available to Christians, there was a third: the baptism of the Holy Spirit. While the second blessing cleansed the heart, the third filled the believer with power. Accompanying Spirit baptism and confirming its truth, proponents asserted, were supernatural manifestations, the gifts of the Spirit, the first and most important being the individual’s miraculously speaking in a foreign language that, under normal circumstances, he or she did not understand. They saw speaking in tongues as a revival of the events of Pentecost described in the biblical book of Acts.

Pentecostalism was taken from Topeka to Houston by Parham and from Houston to Los Angeles by Parham’s student, William J. Seymour (1870–1922), an African-American Holiness preacher. In Los Angeles, Pentecostal manifestations created a sensation, and for over three years Seymour led daily meetings in a building on Azusa Street to which visitors flocked from around the continent. Within those three years, the Pentecostal movement spawned congregations across North America and around the world.

The Holiness and Pentecostal movements attracted the most conservative Methodists, just as fundamentalism would later attract the most conservative Baptists and Presbyterians. By the time of the major schisms in the 1920s, Methodism had already lost many of those who would possibly have aligned themselves with the fundamentalists, especially in their affirmations of biblical authority and creationism. Methodism passed through the heat of the fundamentalist battles with only minor skirmishes. But just as fundamentalism created a major schism in Protestantism, so too did the Holiness and Pentecostal movements, both now claiming millions of adherents in America and still growing.


In the midst of the expansion of religion as the nation was being churched in the nineteenth century, new religious impulses arose among New Englanders who were being subjected to the efforts of revivalists. Though often beginning with issues raised by older religious groups, these groups provided new solutions and in the process created genuinely new gestalts of the religious life. Among the first was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly called the Mormons. Sharing many common roots with the equally indigenous Disciples of Christ, the Latter-day Saints sought a unity of religions of the frontier, and found such unity in a new revelation given to Joseph Smith Jr. (1805–1844). Spiritualism grew up in reaction to scientific critiques of religious hopes for an afterlife. Accepting the critiques, Spiritualists utilized scientific models to claim that Spiritualist phenomena provided “proof” that life after death is real. New England Transcendentalism, centered on the community at Brook Farm in Massachusetts, was among the first American religious movements to draw on Asian wisdom.

While Mormonism and Spiritualism emerged in the countryside, the important late nineteenth-century groups, Theosophy, Christian Science, and New Thought, started their work in the cities, especially New York, Boston, and Chicago. Over the years, each movement produced numerous splinter groups (more than 100, for example, can be traced to Theosophy) that would result in the formation of a new family of religions. Each would also build its own agenda without particular reference to the continuing life of the Christian churches and the ideas deemed important in their centers of learning.

The impulse that produced the nineteenth-century sectarian movements was similar to impulses that had sought expression in previous centuries. Only in the nineteenth century, the promise of religious freedom allowed these groups to emerge, proselytize, and, to a relative degree, prosper. In previous centuries, their founders would possibly have been outlawed and the groups hounded out of existence. In nineteenth-century America, they had only to withstand the press of popular opinion.

IMMIGRATION, 1880–1924

By 1880 the population of the United States had reached more than 50 million. During the next 25 years, before the brakes were applied to immigration, the population would double. People from many nationalities, previously represented by only scattered individuals, now came in large numbers. In colonial times, immigration had brought those religious groups that still dominate the patterns of American religious life. After the American Revolution and through most of the nineteenth century, immigration would continually add members to the older groups and steadily bring new groups, most of which were variations of the older groups. The spurt of immigration between 1880 and 1924 would substantially alter America’s religious landscape (already bulging with the indigenous innovative religions) by markedly increasing the variety of religious expression. Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Serbians brought all the variations of Eastern Orthodoxy. Russian and Polish Jews overwhelmed and recreated the small German-dominated Jewish community. The Japanese added their expressions of Buddhism to the Chinese forms. Indians brought Sikhism and Hinduism.

Eastern Orthodoxy had been introduced into California in the early nineteenth century and into Alaska even earlier. However, it remained small and the few parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church housed believers of every national-ethnic group. In the late nineteenth century, immigration brought people from predominantly Orthodox lands in such numbers that each was in turn able to organize separate parishes and eventually form separate dioceses. Some groups, such as the Ukrainians, were able to create autonomous jurisdictions for the first time in the free climate of North America. After the Russian revolution of 1917, and again after World War II, the Orthodox churches would further divide along political lines, creating even more new church groups.

Jews had come to America in three waves. In the seventeenth century, a small number of Sephardic Jews (Jews with a Spanish background) emigrated to the colonies. The first synagogue, Congregational Shearith Israel, was organized in New York in 1728. The second synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, still stands, but its members were driven out by the British capture of the city during the Revolutionary War. There were approximately 3,000 Jews in America as the colonial era ended.

During the nineteenth century, enough German Jews came to the United States to dominate the small colonial Jewish community. By 1840 there were approximately 15,000 Jews. Most importantly, the new immigrants were heirs of a liberalizing influence that had grown among German synagogues. They wanted revision of the traditional forms of Jewish life and worship, stripping away nonessential items that tended to alienate the non-Jewish community. By the middle of the century, in religiously free America, they created a new way of doing Judaism: Reform Judaism. In response, the more traditional Jews organized to defend their traditional ways; traditionalists became known as Orthodox Jews.

The wave of Eastern European Jews that began in the 1880s would in turn overwhelm the German Jewish community as completely as German Jews had attained hegemony over the colonial community. More than three million came, and both Orthodox and Reform communities vied for the immigrants’ allegiance. In the midst of this tension, a new form of Judaism that attempted to mediate between the two camps appeared. Conservative Jews respected the tradition, but made mild reforms of what were considered less-essential items. Over several decades, each group attained approximately the same number of adherents, and each organized both rabbinical and congregational associations on a national level.

Religiously, the Jewish community is built around the three ways of doing Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Equally important, standing outside of these three groups, were the large number of Jews who adhered to none of the three. As with the settled Gentile community, approximately one-half of the Jewish immigrants acknowledged no religious affiliation. Over the years, in the pluralistic climate of the United States, many of those unattached Jews found their way into the wide variety of non-Jewish religions, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Islam, and some became prominent leaders. Others created Jewish versions of non-Jewish religions, such as Christian Science and humanism.

No groups were so affected by the immigration laws as were the Asians. In the 1850s, the Chinese began to arrive in America in large numbers. While many were Christians, a large number followed the several Chinese faiths, especially Buddhism. After anti-Chinese feeling led to the passage of an exclusion act in 1882, Japanese and Filipinos began to move into the West Coast to replace the Chinese as cheap labor. These new immigrants brought their Buddhism and Catholicism respectively. However, public opinion began to turn against the Japanese, and in 1908 a “gentleman’s agreement” was reached with Japan to limit further immigration. During the first decade of the twentieth century, East Indians, mostly Punjabi, also came into Washington, Oregon, and California. Like the Japanese, they found themselves the object of public hostility. In 1917 Congress passed an Asian Exclusion Act that largely stopped immigration from all of Asia, except Japan. Prior to the 1917 act, several forms of both Hinduism and Buddhism had been introduced into America and had attracted non-Asian converts. After the 1917 act, that growth, now slowed considerably, continued through the development of non-Asian Hindu and Buddhist groups, most of which were small, with membership limited to a single urban center. They often existed quietly for years, relatively unknown even by their immediate neighbors.

However, in 1924 an omnibus immigration quota act, which assigned strict limits to the number of immigrants from each country, stopped significant immigration not only from Asia, including Japan, but also from southern and eastern Europe. Thus, not only was the spread of Buddhism and Hinduism stifled, but the growth of the Eastern Orthodox and Jewish communities slowed. Since each of these communities possessed strong ethnic bonds that prevented evangelism outside of the ethnic group, further growth depended on the community’s birthrate.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, between 30 and 40 percent of the American population was affiliated with a church or religious group. The majority of Americans remained unchurched, but tremendous growth had been experienced by religion in general and the Christian churches in particular. The percentage of the population that was religiously affiliated doubled. While the population had grown by three and a half times, church membership had grown by more than double that rate. In the process, the number of different religious denominations also expanded greatly. There were fewer than 40 denominations in 1800. By the beginning of the twentieth century, some 200 different religious bodies representing 16 different denominational families could be found. By 1990 there were more than 2,000.

Most religious people were affiliated with one of the major Christian bodies, the largest of which was the Roman Catholic Church. Over against Catholicism, the major Protestant churches found unity and saw themselves collectively as the majority party in the land. In 1908 they gave expression to that unity by creating the Federal Council of Churches. The creation of the Federal Council occurred as the churches were facing the great conservative-liberal split between fundamentalists and modernists and between Methodism and the Holiness and Pentecostal churches. The council became the forum of liberal Protestantism. Among its first acts was the adoption of a slightly altered version of the Methodist Social Creed, an early statement of social concerns that incorporated important elements of the social gospel.

The council became the first successful expression of the ecumenical movement. Holding aloft the ideal of the unity of Christianity, in stark contrast to the numerous denominational divisions of the church, especially in America, ecumenists expressed the desire for the organic unity of Protestantism. The movement generated periodic waves of enthusiasm throughout the twentieth century, and can claim major accomplishments in the uniting of churches within the several Protestant families, highlighted by the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America through mergers in 1918, 1930, 1960, and 1988; the United Methodist Church through mergers in 1939 and 1968; the Presbyterian Church (USA) through mergers in 1906, 1958, and 1983; and the United Church of Christ through mergers in 1931 and 1948.

Rejection of the council and the liberal ecumenical movement became an additional affirmation for the fundamentalists as they pulled out of the larger denominations. In their place, fundamentalists organized two councils—the American Council of Christian Churches (1941) and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) (1942)—the former being the more conservative of the two. Fundamentalist Christians limited their ecumenical activity to those with whom they were in essential doctrinal agreement. Pentecostals gave outward expression both to their growth and their distinctive presence in the American community by the organization of the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America (disbanded and reformed as the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America in 1994). Years earlier, at the beginning of the Holiness revival, a National Holiness Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness had been created. During the twentieth century, it went through a process of reorganization to emerge as a council of Holiness churches, and in 1970 the organization took the name Christian Holiness Association (now the Christian Holiness Partnership).

The first half of the twentieth century continued the pattern of growth for the various religious groups, in the midst of which liberal Protestants extended the ecumenical ideal to open contacts and build bridges of understanding with the Roman Catholic and Jewish communities. Those contacts were fruitful enough in the public sphere that by the middle of the century, sociologist Will Herberg (1901–1977) could rightfully speak of America’s three faiths—Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism.

But other groups were also growing. The nineteenth-century religious groups whose members spoke a language other than English went through a process of Americanization and were ready to interact with the larger community. Eastern Orthodox leaders formed the Standing Council of Orthodox Bishops in 1960. The International New Thought Alliance formed earlier in the century had grown up with the metaphysical churches.


The gradual restructuring that had been occurring throughout the twentieth century was given a new impetus in 1965. That year, the U.S. Congress rescinded the Asian Exclusion Act and redistributed immigration quotas, allowing Asian, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern countries to send immigrants as never before. In the decades since its passing, this single act has done more to readjust the religious community in America than any other force. This action once again allowed the flow of immigrants from countries that had been excluded in 1917 and 1924. The result has been twofold.

First, American religious communities with roots in eastern and southern Europe have been strengthened. Second, immigration from Islamic countries has for the first time occurred in significant numbers, with believers from throughout the diverse Muslim world settling in America. Eastern religions have extended their presence in America through both first-generation immigrant organizations and the unexpected conversion of thousands of young adult Americans to both Buddhism and guru-led Hindu religions. More than 100 different Hindu “denominations” have been planted in America since 1965, and more than 75 forms of Buddhism currently exist. Each community now claims between three and five million adherents. Their rate of growth continues to be among the highest in the country.

During the twentieth century, the New Thought metaphysical churches (Religious Science, Divine Science, and the Unity School of Christianity) became a familiar sight on American street corners. Now with hundreds of thousands of adherents, their influence has permeated the mainstream of American culture through the spread of their literature. Unity material, especially its devotional monthly, Daily Unity, enters millions of homes. Even more noticeable was the spread of metaphysical thought through the extensive ministry of such preachers as Norman Vincent Peale (1898–1993) and more recently Robert Schuller (b. 1926) and Oral Roberts (b. 1918), all of whom have been heavily influenced by New Thought ideas.

Esoteric religions, among the least understood religious options, have broken out of the small esoteric groupings that were so typical at the beginning of the twentieth century. Spiritualism, often thought of as merely a nineteenth-century fad, experienced noticeable periods of revival after every war, and perpetuated itself in all of the major urban complexes. Theosophy, based on teachings delivered to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891) by what she maintained were ascended masters of wisdom, while never claiming more than a few tens of thousands of members, multiplied its influence through the more than 100 organizations it spawned. Esotericism can now claim more adherents that either Buddhism or Hinduism, and can point to the twentieth century as a period of esoteric revival. Astrology also reaches a steadily growing segment of the public. One needs no better indicator of the penetration of public consciousness by esoteric (as well as related Eastern) ideas than the late twentieth-century surveys that revealed that almost one-fourth of Americans believe in the concept of reincarnation, the idea that human souls inhabit a series of physical bodies over several lifetimes.

While the number of people attracted to metaphysics and the occult has increased with each generation, the distrust of organization that permeates both movements has stymied the growth of metaphysical groups to the extent that the spread of metaphysical ideas would seem to warrant. To perpetuate itself, the community must rely on periods of revival of its major concerns within the larger secular community, as it has yet to develop structures that can pass its teachings to the next generation through more traditional family structures, and has yet to form schools for the training of leaders. The New Age movement of the 1980s was the latest period of revival. It raised public awareness of metaphysical and esoteric ideas, brought millions into the previously established esoteric and metaphysical fellowships, led to the formation of many new fellowships, and supported the emergence of a network of metaphysical bookstores across North America.


At the turn of the new century, American religion can be seen as divided into 10 recognizable groups of denominations, each of which claims a substantial number of adherents. Each group is united by common beliefs and commitments, and separated from other groups by adherence to a distinct way of doing religion. Six of these groups are Christian and together can claim both a majority of American citizens and the bulk of America’s religious adherents. The Christian community is divided into Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, liberal Protestant, conservative evangelical, Holiness, and Pentecostal-charismatic.

There are more than 60 million Roman Catholics in America, making the group three times larger than its closest competitor, the Southern Baptist Convention. The American Roman Catholic Church exists both as a single organization, and as an inclusive mixture of ethnic parishes, religious orders, and diverse theologies. The church assumed an important role in the nineteenth century. It grew to become the nation’s largest religious body in the 1840s, and in many cities claimed the allegiance of the majority of citizens. Its earlier attempts to integrate into the American fabric and become an active participant in shaping social policy were thwarted by strong anti-Catholic sentiments, one of the few concerns around which competing Protestant sects could unite. In addition, at the end of the nineteenth century, prominent Catholic leaders proposed a program for realigning the church in America with certain important American values. They called on the church to emphasize its similarities with Protestantism, rather than its differences. Unfortunately, this program, which became known in Europe as Americanism, was denounced in a papal encyclical in 1899, and the American church pulled back from what appeared to be a new era of broad cultural engagement in favor of concentration on more internal concerns. Only since World War II, with the generation of new leadership, the changes wrought at the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), and the election of John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), a Catholic, as U.S. president, has the church enjoyed a more positive image and been accepted as a stable and legitimate part of the American religious landscape. Its new role in American society is manifest in the thoughtful attention now given the regular pronouncements on public policy made by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Similar to, but in many ways essentially distinct from, Roman Catholicism, is Eastern Orthodoxy. Emerging to prominence in America in the early twentieth century, the Orthodox groups have been committed to the preservation of both the Orthodox faith and the ethnic heritage of their constituencies. After the Russian revolution of 1917, and with the spread of communism following World War II, they were united by the problems resulting from the emergence of governments hostile to religion in many of their ethnic home-lands. In the wake of World War II, they have emerged as vocal participants, as well as a force with which to be reckoned, in the wider debates and ecumenical discussions. Many of the Orthodox groups, besides uniting in the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops, have extended their influence through affiliation with the National Council of Churches (NCC).

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Protestantism split into at least four major camps, each united enough and distinct enough from the others to be considered a separate religious grouping. Aligned within the NCC (which superseded the Federal Council of Churches) are the major liberal Protestant denominations. They include the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Church in the U.S.A., and the six major black Protestant groups (three Methodist churches and three Baptist conventions). As a whole, these are the older and larger Protestant bodies, the most socially oriented, the most accepting of contemporary scholarship (both secular and sacred), and the most visible religious bodies in America.

One measure of the prominence of religious groups in a society is the role given particular religious groups in a public setting, and during most of American history, Protestantism’s leadership in religiously shaping the nation was unchallenged. Liberal Protestantism assumed the leadership position as it took control of the older, larger church organizations. Through the NCC and its constitutive bodies, liberal Protestantism continues that tradition of leadership and guidance to the nation on important national and international social issues. Slowly, the liberal Protestant churches have acknowledged that they now share leadership with, at least, the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish community.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, that primal leadership role was actively challenged, especially by the three dissenting conservative Protestant groups: the evangelical conservatives (whose most conservative element is fundamentalism), the Holiness churches, and the Pentecostals (including the newer charismatic churches). These conservatives have rejected the leadership of the older Protestant groups. Counting the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention as a part of the evangelical-conservative grouping (as its most liberal wing), this group claimed a constituency of some 40 million, equal in size to the combined membership of the affiliates of the NCC. Based on that assessment of support, evangelical conservatives emerged in the 1980s as a group claiming the Protestant heritage of leadership against that of the NCC and their member organizations. Evangelical conservatives have claimed additional support from the membership of the liberal Protestant churches, which has been repeatedly shown to be out of step with their churches’ public pronouncements. Liberal Protestantism has also been unique in its steady loss of members since the 1960s. Evangelicals claim, with some justification, that those members have been lost to evangelical churches, which in fact adhere more closely to the American Protestant tradition.

As the new century begins, some softening of attitudes between the churches supportive of the NAE and those holding membership in the NCC has emerged. In 2000 the NAE abandoned its long-standing rule against member churches also holding membership in the NCC. There have also been talks between NAE and NCC leaders looking toward possible cooperation and even merger (though a merger seems unlikely as of 2008). This dialogue has become possible as NAE leadership has recognized the wide variance of theologies that have appeared among evangelical spokespersons.

The Holiness and Pentecostal churches have been identified with the conservative-evangelical camp on basic issues such as the mutual affirmation of the authority of the Bible, and on important public positions such as opposition to abortion, support of prayer and the teaching of creationism in public schools, and support for the state of Israel. While some churches have joined the NAE, the Holiness and Pentecostal groups have remained distinct bodies within the evangelical consensus due to intense doctrinal differences, such as their support for a female ministry. Both Holiness and Pentecostal groups grew throughout the twentieth century, but since the mid-1980s Pentecostalism has made spectacular strides. It has, for example, come to dominate the airtime given religion on radio and television. The Church of God in Christ, with more than five million members, has led Pentecostalism in overtaking Methodism in the number of African-American adherents. The Assemblies of God claims more than two million adherents, and both the United Pentecostal Church and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) have more than a half a million members.

The various major groups of Christians follow what are described in the chapters of this Encyclopedia as denominational families. But among Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists, the split between liberal and conservative groupings rivals the denominational family structures in importance. That split, however, relates to a limited (though important) number of theological and social issues, which together constitute only a small part of the churches’ religious life. Conservative and liberal Lutherans, for example, still agree on the majority of issues that make them Lutheran. The same could be said for the other denominational families. And while they align on certain issues along liberal and conservative lines, they also participate in family traditions that have both national and international organizational expression. In that regard, liberals and conservatives will join together to support fellowship groups such as the Lambeth Conference of bishops of the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (Presbyterian and Congregational), the World Methodist Council, and the Baptist World Fellowship.

The larger denominational communities still have responsibility for congregational life, worship, pastoral care, the production of educational materials, and the continuing of the family traditions. The family traditions remain very much alive, and attempts to unite groups across family lines in either liberal or conservative Protestant churches have failed time and again because of strongly held denominational differences. The Consultation on Church Union, so promoted in the 1970s, is merely the most recent example of such failure. The commitment to denominational distinctions provides stability amid shifting perspectives on various social issues and ephemeral ecumenical enthusiasms.

The American Jewish community is the most prominent religious community in America apart from the several Christian groups, and the only community with a continuous presence since the colonial period. In the public sphere, George Washington acknowledged the Jewish presence after the Revolution, and Jewish chaplains served on both sides during the Civil War. During the twentieth century, Jewish rabbis were invited to preside equally with Protestant and Catholic leaders in public religious celebrations, such as Thanksgiving.

New openness toward the Jewish community came in the wake of the Holocaust (a reference to the six million Jews killed in Europe during the Nazi era), the establishment of the state of Israel, and the new position toward the Jewish community articulated by the Roman Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council. The Vatican statement, promulgated in 1965, refuted a once-popular Christian position that blamed the Jews for Christ’s death, and it has created a new basis for Jewish-Christian dialogue. That dialogue has focused on two issues: the Middle East and the evangelization of Jews by Christians. In the last generation, Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants have largely withdrawn support for missionary activities directed toward the Jewish community, but have been most supportive of Palestinians in the Middle East. Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, have continued to increase support for Jewish missionary endeavors, while at the same time supporting the U.S. government’s complete backing of Israel.

In the new dialogue, the major speakers for the Jewish community have been the American Jewish Committee and the now-defunct Synagogue Council of America. The former provides a meeting ground for both secular and religious Jews, and the latter represented the different Jewish congregational and rabbinical associations in a manner similar to the NCC. Since the dissolution in the late 1990s of the Synagogue Council, its cooperative voice has been picked up by the North American Board of Rabbis.

Arising to challenge the Jewish position in America, the Islamic community has, since World War II, paralleled the spectacular growth of Methodism after the American Revolution. It now nearly equals the Jewish community in size and has emerged as a potent political force balancing the Jewish-allied support for Israel in public debates on the Middle East. Awareness of the size of the American Islamic community was low until recently because of public images that identified it solely with the Arab world. In fact, the Islamic world stretches from Indonesia through China and India, through the Arab world, and across the African continent. In America, it is strongly represented in the Indo-Pakistani community and has received the additional support of a significant number of black Americans (who now constitute more than 20 percent of its total). Only in the 1970s did impressive mosques (the Islamic houses for prayer and worship) become visible in most American cities.

The Islamic community gained a heightened presence in the American consciousness following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, by individuals identified as Muslim extremists. Following an immediate and hostile reaction by Americans toward their Muslim neighbors, a process of getting to know the Muslim community and the life of Muslim believers who also participate in American life has occurred—a process strongly supported by government policy.

Though trends suggest that Islam will soon stand beside Judaism as the second-largest religious community in America, it shows no sign of challenging Christianity in size. However, its growth is taking place within a new understanding of religious pluralism, and Islam’s agenda will be taken with increasing seriousness by the general public and politicians, a fact that is already becoming manifest in public statements from both the Christian community and the U.S. government.

The presence of Buddhists and Hindus in significant numbers in America is leading to an additional shift in American religion. Accommodation to the presence of Jews in an otherwise Christian-dominated society was made from an appeal to a shared heritage as the children of Abraham and Moses. Islam is also a product of that heritage. However, Hinduism and Buddhism provide the most complete alternative to the basic perspective of Christianity. Dismissed for many decades as “cults,” Hindu and Buddhist groups began to rise above that negative label as large Asian immigrant communities emerged following the change in immigration laws in 1965. Asians can now be found at every level and in every power center in American culture, and they are forcing the encounter of Asian and non-Asian Americans at every level of society.

The Buddhist community matured the quickest. Two signs of that maturity appeared in 1987 with the naming of the first Buddhist chaplain in the armed forces and the formation of the American Buddhist Congress. Operating much like the NCC, the American Buddhist Congress provides a vehicle for Buddhism’s engagement with American society, actively works for a more adequate understanding of Buddhists and Buddhism in American life, and gives voice to the Buddhist community’s opinions on matters of public policy. Less organized nationally, American Hindus have been represented by a chapter of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an international Hindu intrafaith organization, but are in the process of forming additional pan-Hindu organizations without the political identifications of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Not to be forgotten in the massive pluralism so evident in contemporary American life is the continuance and the revival of Native American religions and religious traditions. While most Native Americans are now members of Christian churches, the traditional religions were never totally abandoned, and in many tribes a core of people who practice the old religions survives into the present. In the 1970s, along with the spread of numerous young-adult-oriented new religions, a variety of new Native American religions, drawing heavily on traditional themes and traditionalist movements within particular tribes, arose. These new movements have a double importance. Not only have they given new life to traditional faiths, they have produced the first influx of traditional Native American religion into the white culture. During the 1980s, non–Native Americans who identified with environmental concerns, the occult, and transpersonal psychology found parallel concerns in Native American themes of oneness with the sacred land, shamanism, and the transformative power of Native American rituals.

Besides the large families of religious groups described above, America is home to a number of other diverse religious groups, from the five-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the small Wicca and Pagan covens of 10 to 15 members. There is also a small but vocal atheist humanist community—the religiously irreligious, so to speak—important far beyond its size because of its strong support within the academic world. While the relative sizes of the individual communities vary, America, and to a lesser extent Canada, have become microcosms of world religion. Every major world religious community is now present in strength. While a majority of Americans have become Christian (and the community as a whole shows no evidence of declining), the climate of mutual respect and honor demanded by pluralism in a free religious society has given the world religions and interfaith issues the highest priority on the agenda of the older Christian bodies, which had until a generation ago largely limited interfaith contact to Jewish-Christian dialogue. The results of this new pluralism are only beginning to be discerned.


Further listings related to each religious family group are given at the end of each chapter. Besides including some of the latest and best general works on American religion, the sources listed below include some of the more prevalent books produced during the past the seventy years.

Albanese, Catherine L. America: Religions and Religion. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2006. 326 pp.

Baer, Hans, and Merrill Singer. African American Religion: Varieties of Protest and Accommodation. 2nd ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002. 328 pp.

Butler, Jon, Grant Wacker, and Randal Balmer. Religion in American Life: A Short History. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 496 pp.

Carmody, John Tully, and Denise Lardner Carmody. Exploring American Religion. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1990. 376 pp.

Carroll, Bret E. The Routledge Historical Atlas of Religion in America. New York: Routledge, 2000. 143 pp.

Corbett, Julia Mitchell. Religion in America. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1999. 344 pp.

Corrigan, John, and Winthrop S. Hudson. Religion in America: An Historical Account of the Development of American Religious Life. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004. 450 pp.

Eck, Diana L. A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. 416 pp.

Forbes, Bruce David, and Jeffrey H. Mahan, eds. Religion and Popular Culture in America. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 339 pp.

Gaustad, Edwin Scott. Dissent in American Religion. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 190 pp.

Gaustad, Edwin Scott, and Leigh Schmitt. A Religious History of America. Rev. ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002. 464 pp.

Gaustad, Edwin Scott, with Mark A. Noll. A Documentary History of Religion in America. 3rd ed. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.

Griffith, R. Marie. American Religions: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 672 pp.

Handy, Robert T. A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. 269 pp.

Hutchinson, William R. The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976. 347 pp.

Johnson, Douglas W., Paul R. Packard, and Bernard Quinn. Churches and Church Membership in the United States: An Enumeration by Region, State, and County, 1971. Washington, DC: Glenmary Research Center, 1974. 237 pp.

Johnson, Paul E., ed. African American Christianity: Essays in History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. 189 pp.

Marsden, George M. Religion and American Culture. 2nd ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt, 2000. 337 pp.

———. Fundamentalism and American Culture. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 351 pp.

Marty, Martin E., ed. Our Faiths. Royal Oak, MI: Cathedral, 1975. 236 pp.

———. Pilgrims in Their Own Land: Five Hundred Years of Religion in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984. 500 pp.

———. Protestantism in the United States. New York: Scribner’s, 1986. 290 pp.

Mead, Sidney E. The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. 220 pp.

———. The Nation with the Soul of a Church. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. 158 pp.

Melton, J. Gordon. Religious Leaders of America. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1999. 724 pp.

———. American Religions: An Illustrated History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2000. 316 pp.

———. A Will to Choose: The Origins of African American Methodism. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006. 315 pp.

———. Nelson’s Guide to Denominations. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007. 620 pp.

Morris, Richard R. Encyclopedia of American History. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953. 776 pp.

Moyer, Elgin S., with Earle Cairns. The Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1982. 449 pp.

Murphy, Larry G., Jr., J. Gordon Melton, and Gary L. Ward, eds. Encyclopedia of African American Religions. New York: Garland, 1993. 926 pp.

Myers, Gustavus. History of Bigotry in the United States (1943). New York: Capricorn, 1960. 474 pp.

Noll, Mark, et al., eds. Eerdmans’ Handbook to Christianity in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983. 507 pp.

Noll, Mark A., and Luke E. Harlow. Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 520 pp.

Penn, Anthony B. The African American Religious Experience in America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. 384 pp.

Piepkorn, Arthur C. Profiles in Belief: The Religious Bodies of the United States and Canada. 3 vols. New York: Harper & Row, 1977–1979.

Quinn, Bernard, et al., eds. Churches and Church Membership in the United States, 1980: An Enumeration by Region, State, and County, Based on Data Reported by 111 Church Bodies. Atlanta, GA: Glenmary Research Center, 1982. 321 pp.

Smith, H. Shelton, Robert T. Handy, and Lefferts A. Loetscher. American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation with Representative Documents. 2 vols. New York: Scribner’s, 1960.

Sweet, William Warren. Religion in Colonial America. New York: Scribner’s, 1942. 367 pp.

———. The Story of Religion in America. 2nd ed. New York: Harper, 1950. 656 pp.

Wentz, Richard E. Religion in the New World: The Shaping of Religious Traditions in the United States. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990. 370 pp.

Williams, Peter. America’s Religions: Traditions and Culture. New York: Macmillan, 1990. 478 pp.

———. America’s Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-first Century. 3rd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. 800 pp.

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The Development of American Religion: An Interpretive View

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The Development of American Religion: An Interpretive View