Religion in Colonial America: Trends, Precepts, and Beliefs (2023)


Learn about the religious landscape of colonial America to better understand religious freedom today.

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To understand how America's current balance between national law, local community practice, and individual freedom of belief evolved, it is helpful to understand some of the common experiences and patterns surrounding religion in colonial culture in the period between 1600 and 1776.

In the early years of what would later become the United States, Christian religious groups played an influential role in each of the British colonies, with most attempting to enforce strict religious observance through colony governments and local city rules.

Most tried to enforce strict religious observance. Laws required everyone to attend a house of worship and pay taxes to fund ministers' salaries. Eight of the thirteen British colonies had official or "established" churches, and in these colonies dissenters who sought to practice either proselytizing a different version of Christianity or a non-Christian faith were sometimes persecuted.

Although most colonists considered themselves Christians, this did not mean that they lived in a culture of religious unity. Instead, different Christian groups generally believed that their own practices and beliefs provided unique values ​​that needed protection from those who disagreed, leading to the need for rules and regulations.

In Europe, Catholic and Protestant nations often persecuted or banned each other's religions, and British colonists often maintained restrictions against Catholics. In Britain, the Protestant Anglican church split into bitter divisions between traditional Anglicans and reformist Puritans, contributing to an English civil war in the 17th century. In the British colonies, differences between Puritans and Anglicans remained.

Between 1680 and 1760, Anglicanism and Congregationalism, an offshoot of the English Puritan movement, established themselves as the main organized denominations in most colonies. However, as the 17th and 18th centuries progressed, the Protestant wing of Christianity constantly gave rise to new movements such as Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, and many others, sometimes referred to as "Dissenters". In communities where an existing faith predominated, new congregations were often seen as unfaithful troublemakers disturbing the social order.

Despite the effort to govern society with Christian (and more specifically Protestant) principles, the first decades of the colonial era in most colonies were marked by irregular religious practices, minimal communication between remote colonists, and a population of "murderers, thieves, adulterers, [and] idle”. 1An average American Anglican parish stretched from 60 to 100 miles and was generally sparsely populated. In some areas, women represented no more than a quarter of the population, and because of the relatively small number of conventional families and the chronic shortage of clergy, religious life was disorderly and irregular for most. Even in Boston, which was more populous and dominated by the Congregational Church, a resident complained in 1632 that "fellows who accumulate the whole week preach on the Sabbath." 2

Christianity was further complicated by the widespread practice of astrology, alchemy and forms of witchcraft. The fear of such practices can be measured by the famous judgments celebrated in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and 1693. Surprisingly, alchemy and other magical practices were not completely divorced from Christianity in the minds of many "natural philosophers" (the forerunners of the scientists). ), who sometimes thought of them as experiments that could reveal the secrets of Scripture. Unsurprisingly, the established clergy discouraged these explorations.

In turn, as the colonies became more populated, the influence of the clergy and their churches grew. At the heart of most communities was the church; At the center of the calendar was the Sabbath, a day-long period of intense religious and “secular” activity. After years of struggling to enforce discipline and uniformity on Sundays, Boston city councilors were finally able to “parade down the street and force everyone to go to church. 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 under pain of being placed at Stokes or otherwise confined," wrote one observer in 1768. 3At that time, few communities openly tolerated travel, drinking, gambling, or blood sports on the Sabbath.

Slavery, which also became firmly established and institutionalized between the 1680s and 1780s, was also shaped by religion. The use of violence against the slaves, their social inequality, together with the colonists' contempt for all religions other than Christianity "resulted in destructiveness of extraordinary magnitude, the loss of traditional religious practices among half a million slaves brought to the mainland colonies. between the 1680s and the American Revolution. 4Even in churches that endeavored to convert slaves to their congregations - Baptists being a good example - slaves were often a silent minority. If they received any Christian religious instruction, it was, in most cases, from their owners and not in Sunday school.

Local variations in Protestant practices and ethnic differences among white settlers fostered religious diversity. Great distances, poor communication and transportation, bad weather, and a shortage of clergy dictated religious variety from city to city and region to region. With French Huguenots, Catholics, Jews, Dutch Calvinists, German Reformed Pietists, Scottish Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and other denominations arriving in increasing numbers, most colonies with Anglican or Congregational establishments had little choice but to show some degree of religious tolerance. . Only in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania was toleration based on principle rather than convenience. Indeed, Pennsylvania's first constitution declared that all who believed in God and agreed to live in peace under civil government "shall not be molested or prejudiced in any way by the persuasion of their religious practice." 5However, reality has often fallen short of this ideal.

New England

Most New Englanders went to a Congregationalist chapel for church services. The chapel, which served both secular and religious functions, was a small wooden building located in the center of town. People sat on hard wooden pews most of the day, which is how long services usually lasted. These meeting houses became larger and far less rudimentary as the population grew after the 1660s. Bell towers grew, bells were introduced, and some churches grew large enough to accommodate up to a thousand worshippers.

  • 1Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (Nova York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 16.
  • 2Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven, 18.
  • 3Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven, 6.
  • 4As one historian put it, it was "a holocaust that destroyed collective African religious practice in colonial America." Butler, Awash in a Sea of ​​Faith, 157.
  • 5Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven, 36.
Religion in Colonial America: Trends, Precepts, and Beliefs (1)
Religion in Colonial America: Trends, Precepts, and Beliefs (2)


Author unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Unlike other colonies, there was a chapel in every New England town. 1In 1750, Boston, a city with a population of 15,000, had eighteen churches. 2In the previous century, church attendance was inconsistent at best. After the 1680s, with the emergence of many more churches and clerical bodies, religion in New England became more organized and attendance more evenly enforced. In even greater contrast to the other colonies, in New England the church baptized most newborns, and church attendance increased in some areas to 70 percent of the adult population. In the eighteenth century, the vast majority ofallthe settlers were parishioners.

New England settlers, with the exception of Rhode Island, were predominantly Puritans who generally led strict religious lives. The clergy were highly educated and devoted themselves to the study and teaching of both the Scriptures and the natural sciences. The Puritan leadership and nobility, especially in Massachusetts and Connecticut, integrated their version of Protestantism into their political structure. The government of these colonies contained elements of theocracy, asserting that leaders and officials derived that authority from divine guidance and that civil authority should be used to enforce religious conformity. Its laws assumed that citizens who deviated from conventional religious customs were a threat to civil order and should be punished for nonconformity.

Despite many affinities with the established Church of England, New England churches operated quite differently from the old Anglican system of England. Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut had no ecclesiastical courts to impose fines on religious offenders, leaving that role to civil magistrates. Congregational churches generally did not own property (even the local chapel was owned by the city and used for both town meetings and church services), and ministers, though often called upon to advise civil magistrates, played no role.officialrole in city or neighborhood governments.

In these colonies, the civil government dealt hard with religious dissenters, exiling people like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams for their outspoken criticisms of Puritanism and whipping Baptists or cutting off the ears of Quakers for their determined proselytizing efforts. Official persecution reached its peak between 1659 and 1661, when Puritan magistrates in Massachusetts Bay hanged four Quaker missionaries.

However, despite Puritanism's harsh reputation, the actual experience of New England dissenters varied widely, and punishment for religious differences was unequal. England's intervention in 1682 ended corporal punishment of dissenters in New England. The Act of Toleration, passed by the English Parliament in 1689, gave Quakers and a number of other denominations the right to build churches and hold public worship in the colonies. While dissenters continued to endure discrimination and financial sanctions well into the 18th century, those who did not challenge the Puritans' authority directly were not harassed and were not legally punished for their "heretical" beliefs.

Middle Atlantic and South Atlantic colonies

Inhabitants of the Central and Southern Colonies frequented churches whose style and decor were more familiar to modern Americans than simple New England meeting houses. They also sat in church most of the day on Sunday. After 1760, as remote outposts became towns and remote settlements became bustling centers of commerce, Southern churches grew in size and splendor. Church attendance, abysmal in the early days of the colonial period, became more constant from 1680 onwards. As in the North, this was a result of the proliferation of churches, new codes and clerical bodies, and a religion that became more organized. and applied evenly. By the end of the colonial era, church attendance reached at least 60% in all colonies.

The midway colonies saw a mix of religions, including Quakers (who founded Pennsylvania), Catholics, Lutherans, some Jews, and others. Southern settlers were also a mixed bag, including Baptists and Anglicans. In the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland (originally founded as a haven for Catholics), the Church of England was recognized by law as the state church, with a portion of tax revenue going to support the parish and its parish priest.

Virginia imposed laws requiring everyone to participate in public Anglican worship. Indeed, to any observer of the eighteenth century, the "legal and social dominance of the Church of England was unmistakable". 3After 1750, as Baptist ranks grew in that colony, the Anglican colonial elite responded to their presence with force. Baptist preachers were often arrested. Mobs physically attacked cult members, disrupted prayer meetings, and sometimes beat participants. As a result, the 1760s and 1770s saw an increase in discontent and discord within the colony (some argue that Virginia dissenters suffered some of the worst persecution in prewar America). 4

In the Carolinas, New York, New Jersey and Delaware, Anglicans never constituted a majority, unlike in Virginia. With few limits to the influx of new settlers, the Anglican citizens of these colonies had to accept, albeit reluctantly, ethnically diverse groups of Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and various German Pietists.

Maryland was founded by Cecilius Calvert in 1634 as a safe haven for Catholics. The Catholic leadership passed a Religious Toleration Act in 1649, only to have it repealed when the Puritans took over the colony's assembly. Clergy and buildings belonging to the Catholic and Puritan religions were subsidized by a general tax.

Quakers founded Pennsylvania. Their faith influenced the way they treated Indians and they were the first to publicly condemn slavery in America. William Penn, the colony's founder, held that civil authorities should not intrude on the religious/spiritual lives of their citizens. The laws he wrote promised to protect the civil liberties of “all people. 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 who confess and acknowledge the one almighty and eternal God as the creator, sustainer, and sovereign of the world.” 5

religious revival

A religious revival swept the colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. Shortly after English evangelical and revivalist George Whitefield completed a tour of the United States, Jonathan Edwards delivered a sermon titled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," sparking a wave of religious protests. fervor and the beginning of the Great Awakening. Based on massive outdoor sermons, sometimes attended by up to 15,000 people, the movement challenged the clerical elite and the colonial establishment, focusing on the sinfulness of each individual and salvation through personal and emotional conversion, what we now call "being born again." By dismissing worldly success as a sign of God's favor and focusing on emotional transformation (pejoratively referred to by the establishment as "enthusiasm") rather than reason, the movement appealed to the poor and uneducated, including slaves and Indians.

In retrospect, the Great Awakening contributed to the revolutionary movement in several ways: it forced the Awakeners to organize, mobilize, petition, and gave them political experience; he encouraged believers to follow their beliefs even if it meant breaking with their church; he discarded clerical authority in matters of conscience; and questioned the right of civil authority to intervene in all religious matters. Surprisingly, these principles fit very well with the basic beliefs of rational Protestants (and deists). They also helped to clarify their common objections to British civil and religious rule over the colonies and provided both arguments in favor of the separation of church and state.


Despite the evangelical and emotional challenge to the “Great Awakening” motif, at the end of the colonial period, Protestant rationalism remained the dominant religious force among the leaders of most colonies: “The similarity of beliefs among the educated nobility in all colonies is remarkable. 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 [There seems to be] evidence that some form of rationalism - Unitarian, Deist or otherwise - was often present in the religion of the knightly leaders in the late colonial period." 6Whether Unitarian, Deist, or even Anglican/Congregational, Rationalism focused on the ethical aspects of religion. Rationalism also discarded many "superstitious" aspects of the Christian liturgy (although many continued to believe in the human soul and an afterlife). The political advantage of this argument was that no human institution—religious or civil—could claim divine authority. Furthermore, in their quest for God's truths, rationalists such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin valued the study of nature (known as "natural religion") over Scripture (or "revealed religion").

At the heart of this rational belief was the idea that God endowed humans with reason so that they could differentiate between good and evil. Knowing the difference also meant that humans made free choices to sin or behave morally. The radicalization of this position led many rational dissenters to argue that the intervention of civil authorities in human decisions undermined the special covenant between God and humanity. Therefore, many advocated the separation of church and state.

Furthermore, the logic of these arguments led them to dismiss the divine authority claimed by English kings, as well as the blind obedience compelled by such authority. So in the 1760s they mounted a two-pronged attack on England: first, for her desire to interfere in the religious life of the colonies, and second, for her claim that the king ruled the colonies by divine inspiration. Once the link with divine authority was severed, revolutionaries turned to Locke, Milton, and others, concluding that a government that abused its power and harmed the interests of its subjects was tyrannical and, as such, deserved to be replaced.

  • 1John Butler, Awash in a Sea of ​​Faith: Christianization of the American People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 57.
  • 2Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven, 90.
  • 3John A. Ragosta, Fountain of Liberty: How Virginia's Religious Dissides Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Freedom (Nova York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 3.
  • 4Ragosta, Fountain of Freedom.
  • 5William Penn, Structure of Government in Pennsylvania (May 5, 1682).
  • 6Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven, 104.

How to cite this reading

Facing History and Ourselves”.Religion in Colonial America: Trends, Regulations, and Beliefs”, last updated on April 28, 2022.

This reading contains text not written by Facing History and Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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