[A version of this post appears at The Immanent Frame]
The furious debate in some quarters over whether America was born a “Christian nation” is ironic. The historical record shows that America was not born Christian, but grew to be very Christian centuries later.
Some Religious Right activists believe that were it to be accepted as a fact that pre-1800 Americans were deeply Christian, a new light would be cast on current debates about where (if anywhere) to draw a line between Church and State today. In the sense of the Supreme Court’s search for “originalist” interpretations of the Constitution, Christian dogma would be an originalist justification for, say, reintroducing prayer into schools. But the story of Early American religion is, in fact, a quite different one.
The impression of great piety among the settlers is a common view of the past, probably rooted in the outsize role that the Puritans play in our mental pictures of Early America. The Puritans, however, were an odd lot in America – the exception, not the rule. (They are a prominent exception, thanks to the cultural power of their New England descendants and the voluminous records they left. One historian has complained that we “know more about the Puritans than any sane person should want to know.”)
Over the wider American landscape, however, colonists were notably “unchurched” and “un-Christian.” Scattered around in separate households (unlike the Puritans who concentrated in villages), most Americans had no church to go to and little connection to what we would call organized religion. Even where there were churches to attend, many went either irregularly or simply because the church was one of the rare places – along with the tavern – to see people in a sparsely-developed society.
Stepahnie Wolf, in her study of Revolutionary-era Germantown, Pennsylvania, estimated that only about half of the residents attended church, and that is probably a high watermark, since the community was urban and well-off, and the period was one of religious enthusiasm.
Such waves of enthusiasm (“Awakenings”) in some places and at some times rallied some people to faith, but the clergy generally despaired of the heathens who had settled the new continent. One minister trying to save souls in the American heartland in the early 1800s wrote that “. . . there are American families in this part of the country who never saw a bible, nor heard of Jesus Christ . . . the whole country, from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico, is as the valley of the shadow of death.”
Most early Americans were not believers in the sense that affirming Christians are today. They were likelier to understand spells, potions, and omens than theological doctrines. Almanacs sold briskly in part because they provided guides to the occult. It took a lot of hard missionary work to displace magic with Christ.
The colonial elites, some of whom became Founding Fathers, themselves tended to be vaguely Christian. Even John Adams, a cultural conservative who struggled against the radical Thomas Jefferson, was “only” a Unitarian.
Evangelical movements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries sent preachers out to Christianize the unorganized settlers. They competed against religious ignorance, but also against each other and the established churches. Their message of a democratic faith, in which the poor, the uneducated, and even the fallen, not just the pre-elected elite, could someday sit at God’s throne eventually brought the upstart Protestant movements, such as Methodism, Baptism, and others, like Mormonism, increasing success.
Later, over the course of the nineteenth century, middle-class Americans in great numbers formed and joined churches and by the twentieth century, they had made church-going a norm. Importantly, it was around 1900, give or take a generation, that religious fundamentalism took form in reaction to the growing role of science. That “old time religion,” ironically, may be only about a century or so old.
The “normal” religious life many Americans seem to remember is the life of the 1950s, when church-building and church-attending boomed – not coincidentally, along with the Baby Boom. Those years were the peak of church membership and attendance in American history – much higher than in Early America – but not that much higher than today.
We err if we project that 1950s culture back to the early days of America. And we underestimate the accomplishment of legions of traveling ministers who eventually, rural hollow by rural hollow, Christianized America.
Several years ago, Roger Finke and Rod Stark gathered together fragmentary evidence on church membership and attendance from 1776 on and estimated what they called “religious adherence.” Their summary of the results appeared in the book The Churching of America as the following chart:
There has been debate over how accurate the earliest numbers are, but they are in the ballpark. The consensus among historians of religion is that the trend was generally toward increasing religious involvement into the 20th century.
If the Texas School Board folks want to justify a more Christian — especially, Protestant — definition of America, they have grounds to do so (perhaps the subject of later post). But they cannot do it by claiming that our ancestors were paragons of faith.
Some overviews of this history are:
Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christiantizing the American People (1990).
Jon Butler et al, Religion in American Life (2008).
Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990 (1992).
Richard Godbeer, The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England (1992).
Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1989).
Martin Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land (1984).