American Religion

Religion, which is to say, essentially, Christianity, figured mightily in the European settlement of North America. Personal commitments to build a godly society, escape persecution, or proselytize the heathen impelled individuals by the tens of thousands to cross the Atlantic, while national religious identifications helped fuel monarchs’ determination to quash the imperial ambitions of their heretical or papist rivals. Nevertheless, in none of the territories claimed by the major European combatants did organized churches resembling those of the homeland appear quickly, if at all, although the Catholic powers Spain and France erected systems of missions and reserves for converted natives. In seventeenth-century Anglo-America, the spawn of Protestant England, only New Englanders erected a stable church order; in the South, most settlers lived outside any congregation. That situation changed significantly during the eighteenth century.

The migration of non-English Europeans increased the colonies’ ethnic diversity and, concurrently, their religious pluralism; scattered churches consolidated themselves into permanent denominations; a major mechanism for recruiting the mass of unchurched settlers the evangelical revival took root; church membership grew apace; and an increasing percentage of European Americans styled themselves true Christians. Pluralism and Christian identity had their limits, however; colonists dismissed the faiths of Native Americans and of African slaves. For their part, most native peoples rejected the cross and militantly defended their own faiths. African Americans, struggling to salvage what shards of their traditions the Middle Passage had spared, remained almost entirely outside Christian orbits until the nineteenth century. Religion also played a role in the American Revolution. Many churchgoers understood rebellion as the godly duty to defend themselves from British corruption and perceived the republic as the political embodiment of Protestant values. At the same time, the framers of the Federal Constitution and Bill of Rights took pains to recognize the rights of religious minorities. The colonial and revolutionary experience deeded to future Americans the dual and potentially discordant images of the United States as both a nation under God and a haven for religious freedom.

American Religion Photo Gallery

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