The History of Religion in the U.S.

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the history of religion in the United States. We will highlight key developments in American religious history, and we will identify central themes and trends.

The Importance of Religion

Religion is a big deal. It has played a profound role in the development of American history. Think about it. The Pilgrims who came to the New World in 1620 did so for religious reasons: so that they could experience religious freedom, unlike they had been able to do in England.

Through every decade, American society has been shaped by religion. We can't fully appreciate American history without understanding the religious values and ideas that have been foundational to our American way of life. For example, the Temperance Movement and Prohibition were strongly influenced by religious sentiment.

While there's no way we can cover everything in one lesson, we are going to look at the basic of how religion developed in the U.S. throughout history.

Religion in Colonial and Early America

When the Pilgrims came to Plymouth in 1620, they did so in order to escape religious persecution. They wanted to worship God in their own way, free from the interference of the Church of England. Generally the Pilgrims were a separatist group who wanted to break away from the Church of England, while another group called the Puritans wanted to 'purify' the Church of England through reform. Both of these groups were Protestant sects. So from the very beginning, Protestantism took a strong hold in what eventually became the United States.

Further south, in Mexico and South America, Catholicism developed as the predominant religious approach. Even so, pockets of Catholicism popped up throughout Colonial America, most notably in Maryland.

In time, the Puritans began their own persecution of other Christian sects. As a response against this, former Puritan Roger Williams founded Rhode Island in 1636 as a safehaven for people of all religious affiliations. A religious revival called the First Great Awakening broke out during the 1730s and 1740s. This movement emphasized personal guilt over sin and resulted in the decline of ecclesiastical authority in favor of a more personal religious experience.

Throughout the 18th century, Enlightenment thinking spread to the the American Colonies, where it greatly influenced the 'Founding Fathers.' In particular, Thomas Jefferson is remembered as embodying Enlightenment thought.

With the Enlightenment came Deism. Deism is the belief that God exists, but that He does not interact with the universe in a supernatural way. Instead, he leaves the universe to operate according to natural law and cause and effect.

Thomas Jefferson is generally considered a deist. There is considerable debate among historians as to the extent that our 'Founding Fathers' were desists as opposed to orthodox Christians, but the bottom line to remember is that deism was a popular religious alternative to orthodox Christianity during the late 18th and early 19th century.

Thomas Jefferson is widely cited as holding to deism.
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Religion in the 19th Century

In the early 19th century, the Second Great Awakening swept the United States. The Second Great Awakening was particularly strong among Baptist and Methodist circles. The movement stressed the Second Coming of Christ and resulted in reform movements to rid society of social evils.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the abolitionist movement had strong religious underpinnings. The second half of the 19th century was kind of a crazy time in religious history because so many different denominations and sects were born during this time.

Mormonism, also called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which was founded by Joseph Smith in the early 19th century, became increasingly popular throughout the second half of the century. Other groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists also sprang up during this time. Of course, mainline denominations, like the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, had been well-established and were common throughout the United States.

Because the United States had a reputation of being a country with religious freedom, it attracted people of other religious faiths. For example, Jewish immigrants arrived throughout the 19th century. Many settled in large cities where they built Synagogues.

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