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To understand how America's current balance among national law, local community practice, and individual freedom of belief evolved, it's helpful to understand some of the common experiences and patterns around religion in colonial culture in the period between and In the early years of what later became the United States, Christian religious groups played an influential role in each of the British colonies, and most attempted to enforce strict religious observance through both colony governments and local town rules.
Most attempted to enforce strict religious observance. Laws mandated that everyone attend a house of worship and pay taxes that funded the salaries of ministers. Although most colonists considered themselves Christians, this did not mean that they lived in a culture of religious unity. Instead, differing Christian groups often believed that their own practices and faiths provided unique values that needed protection against those who disagreed, driving a need for rule and regulation.
In Europe, Catholic and Protestant nations often persecuted or forbade each other's religions, and British colonists frequently maintained restrictions against Catholics. In Great Britain, the Protestant Anglican church had split into bitter divisions among traditional Anglicans and the reforming Puritans, contributing to an English civil war in the s. In the British colonies, differences among Puritan and Anglican remained. Between and Anglicanism and Congregationalism, an offshoot of the English Puritan movement, established themselves as the main organized denominations in the majority of the colonies.
In some areas, women ed for no more than a quarter of the population, and given the relatively small of conventional households and the chronic shortage of clergymen, religious life was haphazard and irregular for most. Christianity was further complicated by the widespread practice of astrology, alchemy and forms of witchcraft. The fear of such practices can be gauged by the famous trials held in Salem, Massachusetts, in and As we might expect, established clergy discouraged these explorations. In turn, as the colonies became more settled, the influence of the clergy and their churches grew.
Slavery—which was also firmly established and institutionalized between the s and the s—was also shaped by religion. If they received any Christian religious instructions, it was, more often than not, from their owners rather than in Sunday school. Local variations in Protestant practices and ethnic differences among the white settlers did foster a religious diversity.
Wide distances, poor communication and transportation, bad weather, and the clerical shortage dictated religious variety from town to town and from region to region. With French Huguenots, Catholics, Jews, Dutch Calvinists, German Reformed pietists, Scottish Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and other denominations arriving in growing s, most colonies with Anglican or Congregational establishments had little choice but to display some degree of religious tolerance.
Only in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania was toleration rooted in principle rather than expedience. Most New Englanders went to a Congregationalist meetinghouse for church services. The meetinghouse, which served secular functions as well as religious, was a small wood building located in Did european christians build america center of town. People sat on hard wooden benches for most of the day, which was how long the church services usually lasted. These meeting houses became bigger and much less crude as the population grew after the s. Steeples grew, bells were introduced, and some churches grew big enough to host as many as one thousand worshippers.
In contrast to other colonies, there was a meetinghouse in every New England town. After the s, with many more churches and clerical bodies emerging, religion in New England became more organized and attendance more uniformly enforced. In even sharper contrast to the other colonies, in New England most newborns were baptized by the church, and church attendance rose in some areas to 70 percent of the adult population.
By the eighteenth century, the vast majority of all colonists were churchgoers. The New England colonists—with the exception of Rhode Island—were predominantly Puritans, who, by and large, led strict religious lives. The clergy was highly educated and devoted to the study and teaching of both Scripture and the natural sciences.
The Puritan leadership and gentry, especially in Massachusetts and Connecticut, integrated their version of Protestantism into their political structure. Government in these colonies contained elements of theocracy, asserting that leaders and officials derived that authority from divine guidance and that civil authority ought to be used to enforce religious conformity.
Their laws assumed that citizens who strayed away from conventional religious customs were a threat to civil order and should be punished for their nonconformity. Despite many affinities with the established Church of England, New England churches operated quite differently from the older Anglican system in England. Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut had no church courts to levy fines on religious offenders, leaving that function to the civil magistrates. Congregational churches typically owned no property even the local meetinghouse was owned by the town and was used to conduct both town meetings and religious servicesand Did european christians build america, while often called upon to advise the civil magistrates, played no official role in town or colony governments.
In those colonies, the civil government dealt harshly with religious dissenters, exiling the likes of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams for their outspoken criticism of Puritanism, and whipping Baptists or cropping the ears of Quakers for their determined efforts to proselytize. The Toleration Act, passed by the English Parliament ingave Quakers and several other denominations the right to build churches and to conduct public worship in the colonies.
Inhabitants of the middle and southern colonies went to churches whose style and decoration look more familiar to modern Americans than the plain New England meeting houses. They, too, would sit in church for most of the day on Sunday.
Afteras remote outposts grew into towns and backwoods settlements became bustling commercial centers, Southern churches grew in size and splendor. Church attendance, abysmal as it was Did european christians build america the early days of the colonial period, became more consistent after Much like the north, this was the result of the proliferation of churches, new clerical codes and bodies, and a religion that became more organized and uniformly enforced.
Toward the end of the colonial era, churchgoing reached at least 60 percent in all the colonies. The middle colonies saw a mixture of religions, including Quakers who founded PennsylvaniaCatholics, Lutherans, a few Jews, and others.
The southern colonists were a mixture as well, including Baptists and Anglicans. In the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland which was originally founded as a haven for Catholicsthe Church of England was recognized by law as the state church, and a portion of tax revenues went to support the parish and its priest. Virginia imposed laws obliging all to attend Anglican public worship.
Baptist preachers were frequently arrested. Mobs physically attacked members of the sect, breaking up prayer meetings and sometimes beating participants. As a result, the s and s witnessed a rise in discontent and discord within the colony some argue that Virginian dissenters suffered some of the worst persecutions in antebellum America. With few limits on the influx of new colonists, Anglican citizens in those colonies needed to accept, however grudgingly, ethnically diverse groups of Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and a variety of German Pietists.
Maryland was founded by Cecilius Calvert in as a safe haven for Catholics. Clergy and buildings belonging to both 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 Did european christians build america to issue a public condemnation of slavery in America. A religious revival swept the colonies in the s and s. In retrospect, the Great Awakening contributed to the revolutionary movement in a of ways: it forced Awakeners to organize, mobilize, petition, and provided them with political experience; it encouraged believers to follow their beliefs even if that meant breaking with their church; it discarded clerical authority in matters of conscience; and it questioned the right of civil authority to intervene in all matters of religion.
In a surprising way, these principles sat very well with the basic beliefs of rational Protestants and deists.
They also helped clarify their common objections to British civil and religious rule over the colonies, and provided both with arguments in favor of the separation of church and state. The political edge of this argument was that no human institution—religious or civil—could claim divine authority. At the core of this rational belief was the idea that God had endowed humans with reason so that they could tell the difference between right and wrong.
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 intervention in human decisions by civil authorities undermined the special covenant between God and humankind. Many therefore advocated the separation of church and state. Taken further, the logic of these arguments led them to dismiss the divine authority claimed by the English kings, as well as the blind obedience compelled by such authority.
Once the link to divine authority was broken, revolutionaries turned to Locke, Milton, and others, concluding that a government that abused its power and hurt the interests of its subjects was tyrannical and as such deserved to be replaced. Explore the role of leaders and ordinary citizens in the history of religious freedom in colonial Virginia.
Learn about the struggles that religious groups faced in building places of worship in early American history, and consider the parallels to issues of religious freedom today.
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Religion in Colonial America: Trends, Regulations, and Beliefs