Religion in Colonial America: “Early Heroes of Religious Liberty” (Pt 1/5)

Unbelievably, after 400 years, freedom of religion is still controversial in America.

In the beginning, religious issues permeated colonial America. Members of various sects immigrated to the New World seeking a safe haven for worship.  Some of these religions flourished, some stagnated, some evolved, some fragmented, and some failed.

Colonial Denominations

  • Calvinists dominated early Massachusetts
  • Congregationalists dominated New England
  • Anglicans controlled Virginia.
  • Maryland was initially established by Catholics
  • Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers
  • Presbyterians built New Jersey
  • Dutch Reform established New York.

Established Religions

The colonists experienced, first hand, life with and without established religions.  Many of the countries from which they emigrated had established churches. In Virginia, the state controlled the church, while in Massachusetts the church controlled the state. 

Religious Prejudice and Persecution

The colonists personally witnessed religious prejudice and persecution. Ironically, some of those who fled religious persecution in Europe, and came to America for religious freedom, began persecuting and denying others’ religious freedom, when they became the dominant religion

Major American Denominations in 1660

  • The largest denomination in America was the Congregationalists, with 75 churches.
  • The Anglicans were second with 41 churches.
  • The Dutch Reformed had 13 churches.
  • Roman Catholics had 12.
  • Presbyterians had 5.  
  • Lutherans and Baptists had 4 each.
  • Jews had one synagogue.

Religious Laws

Throughout this time the colonies enacted a multitude of religious lawsSabbath observance was required.  Blasphemy was forbidden.  Days of prayer and fasting were mandated.  Religious qualifications were required for office holders. Laws were also enacted for the financial support of the clergy.

The Great Awakening

Startling growth and diversity impacted the colonial denominations during the next 120 years. The Great Awakening, the mid-eighteenth-century religious revival, had swept the land. The colonists had won the Revolution.

Major American Denominations in 1780

  • The largest denomination was still the Congregationalists, with 749 churches. 
  • The Presbyterians had 495 churches;
  • The Baptists had 457;
  • The Anglican/Episcopalians had 406
  • The German Reformed Church had 201 churches;
  • The Dutch Reformed Church had 127 churches.
  • The Catholics now had 56 churches.
  • The Jews had 6 synagogues.

No Single National Denomination

With such a depth and diversity of sects in America, it was impossible to agree on a national established church. Therefore, the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from establishing a religion.

State Constitutions

The state constitutions were a different matter.  In the seminal text, Church and State in the United States, Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer describe the setting.

  • “Two out of thirteen, Virginia and Rhode Island, conceded full religious freedom.
  • “One, New York, gave full freedom except for requiring naturalized citizens to abjure foreign allegiance and subjection in all matters ecclesiastical as well as civil.
  • “Six, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Georgia, North and South Carolina, adhered to religious establishments. 
  • “Two, Delaware and Maryland, demanded Christianity.
  • “Two, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, imposed a belief in heaven and hell.
  • “Three, New York, Maryland, and South Carolina, excluded ministers from civil office.
  • “Two, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, emphasized belief in one eternal God.
  • “One, Delaware, required assent to the doctrine of the Trinity.
  • “Five, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina, insisted on Protestantism.”

Pioneers of Religious Freedom in America

Originally, 150 years before the embodiment of the Free Exercise and Establishment Religion Clauses in the First Amendment, countless courageous religious men and women laid the foundation of religious freedom. A handful of early American religious leaders are especially noteworthy.  These include:

  • Anne Hutchinson
  • Lord Baltimore
  • Cecil Calvert
  • Roger Williams
  • William Penn

We owe these religious pioneers and heroes a huge debt. At the very least, we should remember them and honor them.

(I will be posting future articles to remind us about these great individuals.)

(Sources: London, Religion and Law: Cases and Materials, pgs. 5-10 (1998); Stokes and Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, pgs. 3-9 (1964); Kosmin and Lachman, One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, pgs. 1-10 (1993)   Martin, Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America, (1984); Mead & Hill, Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 9th ed. (1990); Rosten, Religions of America: Ferment and Faith in an Age of Crisis, (1975).)

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