Religion in Colonial America

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During the early centuries of what eventually grew into the United States of America Christian religion had a significant role in all the British colonies. Most enforced strict religious laws through the local town rules and the colony governments. For instance, the laws ensured that every person was to attend a place of worship and paid levies, which funded the wages of the minsters. Among these colonies, eight had officials or established church. Dissenters who sought to proselytize or practice a different faith or a modified version of the Christianity were at times persecuted[1]. Although most of these colonists viewed themselves as religious, this did not guarantee that they lived in a culture unified by religion. Different subgroups within Christians believed that their practice and faith offered unique value, which needed protection against those who did not agree, thereby driving a need for regulations and rules.

The Protestant and Catholic nations in Europe

often forbade or persecuted each other’s religion. As a result, British colonists often upheld the restrictions against the Catholics. Moreover, after the spitting of the Protestant Anglican church in Great Britain, which witness a bitter division that contributed to the English civil war of the 1600s between the reforming Puritans and the traditional Anglicans, in the colonial settlement these differences were also upheld. However, around 1680 to 1760 Congregationalism, a sprout from the Puritans, established itself as the chief organized denominations in most of the colonies. As the 17th and 18th century went by, the Christianity protestant part continuously gave rise to small movements including the Methodists, Unitarians, Baptists, and Quakers among others, which were described as the Dissenters. As a result, in zones where an accepted faith had dominated, other congregations were viewed as unfaithful troublemakers who only wanted to upset the social order.

Christianity in American Colonies

The first decades of the colonial era were marked by irregular religious practices, minimal communication among remote settlers and a population of thieves, murderers, adulterers and idle persons despite the effort to govern the society on Christian principles. A single Anglican American parish could cover an area of about 60 to 100 miles. They were also sparsely populated and with the women in some areas only accounting for about a quarter of the inhabitants, there were few typical households coupled with a shortage of clergymen. As a result, religious life was irregular and haphazard for most people. The widespread practice of alchemy, witchcraft, and astrology also Christianity complicated. The fear of these practices could be measured by the public trial held from 1692 to 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts. Astonishingly, in the minds of many precursors of scientists (natural philosophers), these magical practices were not the opposite of Christianity. On the contrary, they viewed these practices as experiments, which could unlock the secrets that they believed surrounded the scriptures. However, established clergymen discouraged their practices.

As the colonies grew in population the clergymen influence as well as their churches grew. In every well-settled community, at its heart was a church and the sabbath – a time of intense religious celebration, which mostly lasts a day long, became the heart of the calendar. After struggling for years to impose uniformity and discipline of Sunday as the selected sabbath day, a selected group of men of Boston could assemble on the street and oblige every person to attend a church service or risk being punished by inflicting pain through stroking or otherwise confinement. During the Sabbath, only a few communities tolerated traveling, gambling, blood sports or drinking.

Religion also shaped slavery

Between 1680 and 1780, slavery was a well-established and an institutionalized practice. However, the violence applied, their discrimination socially, and the colonists’ disdain for all other forms of faith part from Christianity caused a destructiveness of a great extent, which resulted in the loss of values and practices (traditional) among the slaves that were circulated in the mainland colonies between 1680 and the American Revolution[2]. As a result, the slaves remained a silent minority even among the churches that reached out and attempted to convert them to their congregations such as the Baptists. When they received any Christian religious instruction, it was mostly from their masters instead of Sunday school.

Over time, ethnic difference and local disparities in protestant observes among the settlers fostered diversity in religious activities. Poor transportation and communication, clerical shortage, vast distance, and the lousy weather began to dictate religious variety from one place to another. With Catholics, German Reformed priests, French Huguenots, Quakers, Presbyterians, Dutch Calvinists, Baptists and Jews as well as the influx of other subgroups in growing numbers, most colonies with Congregational or Anglican establishment were left with little choice and had display some level of acceptance to these groups. It was only in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island where this tolerance was rooted in principle, and indeed the first Pennsylvania constitution noted that all “those who believed in God and agree to live under the civil government peacefully will not be prejudiced or molested for their religious practice”. However, this was not always the case in reality.

New England

The resident of the New England met for religious service on a congregationalist meetinghouse. These were small wood building situated in the town centers and also served as meeting place secular functions. The congregation used hard wooden benches as sits. As time went by, these grew bigger and much less crude as the number of people increased. Bells were introduced, towers were raised, and some grew big enough to accommodate a great multitude of about 1,000 worshippers.

Contrary to other colonies every New England town had a meetinghouse. Boston, in 1750 had a population of about 15,000 citizens and 18 churches. In previous centuries, attendance of churches was inconsistent, but after the 1680s, clerical bodies and churches emerged and Christianity in New England acquired more participation, which was uniformly enforced and therefore became more organized. In an even more significant distinction to other colonies, the New England newborn babies were baptized in the churches. On some areas, the attendance in churches rose by about 70 percent in population. By the 18th century, vast majority of all colonial residents went to church.

Most of the colonists except for Rhode Island in New England were largely puritans who and by large upheld a strict religious policy. The clergies were very devoted and educated to the teachings and the study of both the natural science and scriptures. The gentry and puritan leadership specifically in Connecticut and Massachusetts, unified into their political structure their version of the Protestantism. As a result, the government in these colonies were formed with some elements of theocracy, declaring that the officials and the leaders acquired their authority through divine guidance. Therefore, the civil power was to be applied to enact to enact conformity in religion. The rules set assumed that the people who went astray from the traditional religious custom imposed a menace to civil order and ought to be punished for their non-conformity.

However, despite the affinity of the New England church and the Church of England these institutions operated quite inversely as compared to the older Anglican system in England. Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay did not have church courts to levy fines toward the religious offender, leaving this function to the civil magistrate. Moreover, congregational churches did not have any ownership of property. The local meetinghouses were owned by the town and could be used both for religious services and town meetings. The church ministers, although often summoned to advice the magistrates in civil courts, had no official tasks in the colony or town administration. In the colonies, the civil authority harshly punished with dissenters and exiled some for their outspoken criticism of puritanism. They also cropped the ears of the Quakers and whipped the Baptists for their determined effort to evangelize. The persecution of officials reached its peak when the Massachusetts Bay’s Puritan magistrate hugged four Quaker missionaries between 1659 and 1661.

Despite the severe reputation of the Puritanism the dissenter’s experiences widely varied and the punishment for the religious difference was not even. However, after the intervention of England in 1682, the physical punishment toward the dissenters was ended, and the Toleration Act was enacted in 1689 by the English parliament. This gave other denominations including the Quakers the right to build churches and conduct public worship in these colonies. Although the dissenters continued to experience financial penalties and discrimination up to the 18th century, those who did not question the authority of the Puritans were not molested and were legally not punished for their belief.

The Southern and Mid-Atlantic Colonies

The southern and middle colonies inhabitants attended churches whose decoration and style looked much similar to that of modern American as compared to the New England meetinghouses. The development of the remote stations also accelerated the growth of the southern church in size and glory into towns and the bustle of commercial centers in the backwoods settlements. After the 1680s, the attendance at church became a more consistent practice. Similar to the North, this could be attributed to the formation of many churches, new clerical bodies and codes, and a more uniform and organized religion. Church-going had attained at least the 60 percent mark in all the colonies toward the end of the colonial period.

The middle colonies experienced a religious mixture that included the Catholics, a few Jews, Quakers, and Lutherans among others. The southern colonies similarly experienced a mixture of denominations as well including the Anglicans and the Baptists. In Maryland, Virginia, and Carolinas, the England church was identified by the law as the state church, and thus a portion of the taxes was directed toward the support of the priests and the parish. Virginia imposed laws that mandated everyone to attend an Anglican place of worship. After the 1750s, the Baptist ranks grew in this colony, which compelled the colonial Anglican elites to use force as a response to their presences. Other residents physically assaulted the Baptist sect, prayer meetings were broken up, and their preachers were arrested frequently.

Consequently, these saw a rise of discord and discontent within the colony between the 1760s and 1770s. In the Carolinas, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, the majority of the residents did not comprise of the Anglicans. As a result, there were few limits on the new colonists’ influx, and thus the Anglican citizens needed to accept, although grudgingly, the ethnical diversity of the Quakers, Presbyterians, Baptists, of the Dutch Reformed Church as well as the German Priests. In 1634, Cecilius Calvert founded Maryland as a haven for the Catholics. In 1649, the Catholic leaders enforced a law of religious toleration that was later repealed when the Puritans took over the assembly of this colony. A general tax subsidized the Building and clergy belonging to both the Puritans and the Catholics. Quakers, on the other hand, founded the state of Pennsylvania. Their beliefs impacted the manner in which they treated others such as the Indians, and they were the first group to abolish slavery in America.

Religious Revival

Between the 1730s and 1740s, a religious revival swept through the colonies. Shortly after George Whitefield – an English revivalist and evangelist, completed his tour in America, Jonathan Edwards gave a sermon that would stir up a wave of religious zeal and the birth of the Great Awakening. By holding open-air sermons, the attendance of people could reach up to 15,000[3]. The movement challenged the colonial establishment and the clerical elite by focusing on the sinfulness of individuals as well as their salvation through emotional and personal conversion, that is, being ”born again”. By focusing on emotional transformation rather than reason and discounting the worldly achievement as a sign of the favor of God, the movement appealed to the uneducated and the poor, including the Indians and the slaves.

Retrospectively, this awakening led to the revolutionary movement in various ways it allowed the believers to follow their beliefs even when it meant breaking from the church. It questioned the civil authority’s right to intervene in all religious matters. It compelled the Awakeners to petition, mobilize, organize and provided them knowledge of politics. And it also discarded clerical authority in the case of conscience. Surprisingly, these principles conformed very well the rational Protestants fundamental beliefs.


Despite the influence of the Great Awakening, by the end of the colonial era, Protestant rationalism remained as the dominant religious power among the leaders of the colonies. Whether deist, Unitarian, or congregational/Anglican, rationalism focused on the aspect of religious ethics. Rationalism also discouraged many superstitious elements of the Christian ritual[4]. The political stand of their claim was that no human institution was entitled to divine authority.

Moreover, in the rationalist quest for the truth rationalist such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson esteemed the study of nature over the study of the scriptures. At the center of their belief was the idea that ”God had gifted humans with intellect so that they could identify the distinction between right and wrong”. Understanding this distinction also meant that humanity had the liberty to choose on what is moral and immoral (sin). This belief led many rational dissenters to agree that the involvement of civil authority in human decisions destabilized the special covenant between humankind and God and as a result, many advocated for the separation of the state and church.

Further, the sense behind these claims caused many to dismiss the divine authority held by the English kings and the blind obedience that was obligated by this rule. As a result, two-pronged attacks were directed toward England in the 1760s. After the association between divine authority was shattered, the revolutionaries turned to Milton, Locke, and others, including that a government that hurts the interest of its subject and abuse its power was tyrannical and therefore needed to be replaced.


Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the cope of heaven: Religion, society, and politics in Colonial America. Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.

Capaccio, George. Religion in Colonial America. Cavendish Square Publishing, LLC, 2014.

Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: the roots of evangelical Christianity in colonial America. Yale University Press, 2008.

Pyle, Ralph E., and James D. Davidson. ”The origins of religious stratification in colonial America.”Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42, no. 1 (2003): 57-75.

[1]. Patricia U Bonomi. Under the cope of heaven: Religion, society, and politics in Colonial America. Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.

[2]. Ralph E. Pyle, and James D. Davidson. ”The origins of religious stratification in colonial America.”Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42, no. 1 (2003): 57-75.

[3]. Thomas S Kidd. The Great Awakening: the roots of evangelical Christianity in colonial America. Yale University Press, 2008.

[4]. George Capaccio. Religion in Colonial America. Cavendish Square Publishing, LLC, 2014.

November 24, 2023




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