Connect · Religion in America: A Look at its Wildly Varying History

Religion in America: A Look at its Wildly Varying History


With Pope Francis visiting the United States this fall, it’s an opportune time to look at the history of religion in America. My Turner book, A Patriot's A to Z of America, has a chapter devoted to the story of religious belief in the USA.

It shows how tolerance, and the liberty to worship free from the established religions of the kings of Europe, led to a flourishing of faith, and many different religious sects, in the New World. Different groups settled different regions. The Puritans in New England. The Anglican Cavaliers in the middle South. The Quakers and Lutherans in Pennsylvania. Over time, they started mixing together. 

This philosophical freedom allowed the new nation to escape the terrible religious wars that had afflicted the old continent of Europe. Some of these bloody conflicts were occurring as some of the early settlers reached the shores of their new land. For instance, the English Civil War between the Roundhead Puritans and the Catholic King Charles I was raging in the mid-1600s even as the Pilgrims continued to settle Massachusetts. 

The country was helped by the enlightened views of its Revolutionary Era leaders, the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Most of the early statesmen were devout Christians, but they generally didn’t hold it against you if you hailed from a different sect of Christianity. They had observed the ill results of mixing Church with State in England, France, and the German-speaking lands. So they made sure that Church and State were separated in their own country, while encouraging freedom of religion, and while placing restrictions on the power of the State.

The U.S. has had its share of problems, notably in the area of race relations, which took quite some time to address properly.

But faith is a story that American basically got right from the start.


An excerpt from the chapter follows:

“In contrast to its antecedents in Europe, religion in America has consisted of a multiplicity of sects, largely free of kings, clerical elites, and official, state-sponsored faiths.

In fact, America was largely founded--by the Calvinist Dutch in New York, the Puritans in New England, the Catholics in Maryland--by groups who came to the New World in search of freedom of religion as well as from oppressive governments. During the 17th century in which these sects arrived, Europe was undergoing horrific religious wars: between the Protestant Huguenots and Catholics in France; the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics in the German-speaking countries; and the Puritans and Anglicans in the English Civil War. A major question was whether the newly arriving Americans would avoid such sectarian bloodletting.

Some of the original colonies did formally acknowledge the preeminence of Church of England, a Protestant branch of Christianity established by King Henry VIII. Its followers, known as Anglicans, were renamed Episcopalians after the American Revolution’s break with England. Many of the most prominent Americans have been Episcopalians, a generally wealthy and well-established group. They included many “down country” Southern planters, such as George Washington. But even in colonial times, Anglicanism was not the only religion.

An important exception was New England’s Puritans, more properly called Congregationalists. They were Calvinists, followers of theologian John Calvin’s stern, Biblically centered creed who had fought the 17th century English Civil War with the Anglicans. Seeking religious liberty, the Puritans left England for the Netherlands, and then the English colony of Massachusetts. With their successful establishment of a “dissident” theology, and stress on free public schools, the Puritans had a major impact on America’s politics and educational institutions.

Their own sometimes intolerant approach to religious dissidents led to the founding of the nearby Rhode Island colony by Protestant preacher Roger Williams in 1636-37. Williams set up the first Baptist congregation in America, a denomination which became one of the country’s largest.

Calvinist Presbyterians of Scotch-Irish heritage, meantime, came to settle much of Appalachia and the upland South, lending their fiercely independent outlook to those realms. Another important Southern religious group was African-Americans, who fused European religious forms with African cultural traditions. They led over time to institutions like the Southern black Baptist church and Southern-American gospel music.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a great many German-speaking immigrants, many Lutheran Protestants, the so-called “Pennsylvania Dutch,” settled much of Pennsylvania and adjoining colonies. Smaller German sects such as the Amish, with their aversion to modern, non-Biblical ways, were also attracted to this area. Pennsylvania itself was founded by the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, a Non-Conformist Christian sect that stressed pacifism. Nearby, the colony of Maryland was unique for its dominant population of Catholics.

With these kind of precedents, it was inevitable that religion in America, unlike in the more homogeneous European states, would continue to develop with a multiplicity of hues.

And it seems no accident that, in the early 21st century, America remained, among technically advanced nations, the most religious, with 90 percent of the population evincing a belief in God. Unlike the official religions of Europe, discredited by their association with often oppressive regimes, religion in America has been largely free. Worshippers largely chose their own denominations, as they do their own elected officials. Religion has flourished there largely as a result.