Religion & Superstition in Colonial America

Religion & Superstition in Colonial America

Religion and superstition went hand in hand in Colonial America, and one’s belief in the first confirmed the validity of the second. The colonists' worldview was completely informed by religion and so everything that happened - good or bad - was open to a supernatural interpretation.

The Anglican settlers who established Jamestown Colony of Virginia in 1607 and the Puritans who settled the New England Colonies 1620-1630 were Protestant Christians who believed deeply in God, the reality of the unseen world of angels and devils and understood, based upon their interpretation of the Bible, that everything – large or small – happened for a reason: either God’s will or the devil’s wiles.

Many of the superstitions which developed in Colonial America arrived with the colonists while others were a reaction to the threats and uncertainties of the New World. Although these superstitions are regarded by many in the modern day as irrational, the colonists – for the most part – understood them as conforming naturally to the world as they recognized it.

The Bible made it clear that the devil and his evil spirits were as much a reality as God and his angels and either – or both – could be at work in one’s life at any given time. Superstitions, therefore, developed naturally from religious belief and confirmed the colonists’ worldview (what is known today as confirmation bias) and directed their responses to the events of their lives. As more superstitions were “confirmed” through experience, they became more deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness and periodically found expression through events such as witch trials, banishments, and various persecutions of marginalized segments of the population. Although people in the modern day may find many of the acts of the early colonists incomprehensible, they were a natural development of the superstitions encouraged by the religious beliefs of the time.

Religion in Colonial America

Although it is commonly believed that the English colonies were uniform in religious thought and behavior, this is not so. The colonies of New England were established by separatists (Plymouth Colony) and Puritans (Massachusetts Bay) but over half of the passengers on the Mayflower, which brought the separatists to Plymouth, were Anglicans who worshipped differently, observed Christmas (unlike the separatists and Puritans), and rejected the separatists’ strict moral and behavioral code.

The New England Colonies each insisted their interpretation of Christianity was correct & others were wrong.

Dissension among the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony was apparent as early as 1633 when Roger Williams (l. 1603-1683) was exiled for contradicting the Puritan magistrates of Boston. He would then establish Providence Colony (modern-day Providence, Rhode Island), which advocated a much more liberal theology, and the colonies of Connecticut and New Hampshire followed this same model as they were also developed by exiles from Massachusetts Bay.

Love History?

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

The New England Colonies each insisted their interpretation of Christianity was correct and others were wrong and the same was true all the way down the eastern seaboard. The Quakers who established Pennsylvania were religiously tolerant, welcoming people of all faiths, but still believed their understanding of the Bible was the only right one.

In Virginia, the Anglican Church was thought to be the true church, rejecting not only Catholicism but any other Protestant sect, while Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics who claimed their church as the original founded by Saint Peter through the authorization of Jesus Christ himself. Religious conflict in Maryland eventually resulted in Catholic persecution and the deportation of Jesuit priests. North and South Carolina followed the Virginian model but, as with all the colonies, not every citizen accepted the view that the 'official' church ordained by God was the Anglican Church and there were invariably conflicts just as there were in the more tolerant and diverse colonies of New York and New Jersey.

All of the colonies could agree on one basic truth of their faith, however, and that was that God was a reality and was ultimately in control of their lives. They could struggle against God’s will, even defy it, but God had the last word. Satan and his demons could try as hard as they liked to disrupt God’s plan but, in the end, according to the assurances of the biblical Book of Revelation, God’s will would prevail.

Omens & Luck

It was not always easy to see God’s hand in daily events, however, especially when these were disappointing or tragic. The death of a young child or a woman in childbirth would be attributed to God’s will but why he should have wanted to take those lives was difficult to understand. Reasons given might range from one’s sins, the community’s sins, diabolic influences, or simply the mysteries of the divine which were beyond human understanding.

Even if one lived the purest of lives as best as one could, one would still experience misfortune, and there seemed little anyone could do about that but accept it. One could catch a glimpse of God’s plan, however, by recognizing omens and acting accordingly. If one avoided crossing the path of a black cat, for example, one was thought to have prevented some minor or major tragedy in the same way throwing spilled salt over one’s shoulder or taking special care on Friday the 13th would.

One especially popular belief in signs and omens was expressed through the practice of moon watching (also known as moon farming) whereby people understood when to plant and harvest crops or engage – or not – in any other activity by observing the phases of the moon. Scholar David Freeman Hawke comments:

A sampling of the lore handed down through the [seventeenth] century reveals that pole beans should be planted when the horns of the moon are up, to encourage them to climb; but a farmer must not roof a building then, for the shingles will warp upward. He should plant root crops during the “dark of the moon” but not pick apples, which will rot regardless how they are stored…No one in the seventeenth century questioned the validity of moon farming, and faith in it persisted far into the future. (159-160)

One could take one’s chances, of course, and plant crops or roof buildings whenever one liked, but it was understood that God had provided the phases of the moon for the benefit of his people and one would do well to recognize and take full advantage of that.

Omens were clearly provided by God to help people make wise choices, it was thought.

The concept of luck was somewhat trickier to define because if luck were understood as chance then it should not exist in a world governed by an all-knowing and all-powerful God. Everything that happened, happened according to God’s will and so where was there room for chance in this? It came to be understood that God had a hand in luck as well as anything else in that he had provided people with the stars and planets, as well as many other common earthly signs, to direct the course of peoples’ lives. Omens were clearly provided by God to help people make wise choices, it was thought, and if one failed to recognize them that was the individual’s, not God’s, fault.

Paying attention to signs and omens even extended to leisure activities. The gentlemen of Virginia, for example, paid special attention to planetary movements and astrology in gauging their chances of success in gambling. This gave rise to the concept of the stars being aligned in one’s favor. If one paid attention to God’s signs, one could walk away from the gaming table a richer man at the end of an evening, and if not, one would suffer loss after loss. It was not luck that dealt a winning or losing hand at cards, it was God. As more and more people provided anecdotal evidence of the truth of various superstitions – such as "beginner’s luck" – more came to find evidence of that truth in their own lives.

Superstitions in Colonial America

These superstitions, like those of any culture, encouraged communal values but they also expressed the community’s guilt and fears. Belief in the so-called "Indian Curse" can be understood as expressing unaddressed guilt over the colonists’ mistreatment of the natives and unconscious recognition of deserved punishment, while the superstition regarding bad luck following the purchase of a horse with white feathering over all four hooves may have originated in an inability to tell at a glance if the horse was healthy. Since horses were expensive, and few colonists had disposable income, paying attention to a sign such as not being able to see the state of a horse’s hooves was considered vital in making a sound purchase. The horse’s feathering, therefore, was interpreted as a sign to purchase or not purchase the animal.

Believing that everything happened according to God’s will, the colonists found reasons for events even when there was no clear connection between the effect and the cause. An example of this is the belief that if a woman allowed a fire to go out while preparing a meal, her husband would become lazy (or if the meal were being prepared by an unmarried woman, then one’s future husband would be lazy). Conversely, if a young, unmarried, woman was skilled at building and maintaining the hearth fire, she would find a good husband. Superstitions like this one encouraged women to become skilled in making and keeping a fire going on the hearth which was important in a time when, lacking matches, starting a fire could be difficult and keeping it going was important both for heating, making meals, and preparing herbal remedies.

Events which seemed unexplainable to the colonists, such as a fire going out or starting for no reason, found an answer in the supernatural world as depicted in biblical narratives (an angel put the fire out to prevent it from catching the house on fire or a devil started the fire in the haybarn), and once the supernatural was accepted as reality, any seemingly inexplicable event could be ascribed to it. If a piece of wood fell out of the fire onto the hearth once and then a guest knocked at the door, that might just be coincidence, but if it happened more than once – and to more than one person – that was a sure sign of supernatural energies at work and gave birth to the superstition that if a log fell from the fire onto the hearth, it signaled the arrival of a visitor. The number 3 became especially significant in cases such as this, and if an event happened in more or less the same way three times, especially close together in time, it was recognized as a supernatural pattern of significance and led to the belief in bad luck coming in threes.

Many of the superstitions of the colonists of lower North America arrived with them – such as the belief in black cats bringing bad luck, Friday the 13th as particularly inauspicious, a groom not seeing the bride on the wedding day, the dangers of a broken mirror – but others were encouraged by the so-called New World they encountered. The deeply held belief in the "Indian Curse", for example, developed wholly in Colonial America and, most likely, as a subconscious response to guilt over colonists’ treatment of the natives.

Responses to Native American Conflicts

One of the best-known "Indian Curses" is the curse of the Saco River in modern-day Maine. According to one version of the legend, a native chief named Squandro lost his infant son (and in some versions also his wife) when three drunk English sailors threw the child into the river to see how well he could swim. The child drowned (and, in some versions, his mother drowned trying to save him), and the chief leveled a curse that three white people would drown every year in the river to atone for his loss. Although this legend does not appear in written form until the late 19th century, it is thought to have originated in the Colonial Period. Many people in present-day Maine still believe in the curse of the Saco River and the legend serves the same purpose now as it did in the past: to explain an otherwise inexplicable, or unbearably tragic, event.

According to some oral traditions, Squandro was a powerful sachem (chief) of the Sokokis tribe which was allied with the Wampanoag Confederacy under the leadership of Metacom (also known as King Philip, l. 1638-1676) and the deaths of Squandro’s son and wife contributed to the outbreak of King Philip's War (1675-1678). This conflict devastated the New England colonies as well as the Native American tribes of the region. The story of the death of Squandro’s family and his curse may have developed as a way to relieve colonial guilt over the atrocities perpetrated on Native Americans during and after the war when many were sold into slavery, killed indiscriminately, or relocated to reservations, even those tribes which had no part in the conflict. One could find meaning in the drowning death of a loved one by attributing it to the curse.

Witchcraft & Dark Magic

The power of the "Indian Curse" – whether in New England or in Virginia, as in the case of the equally famous Curse of Chief Cornstalk – was considered an irrefutable truth by the colonists because of their belief in the Native Americans as diabolical servants of Satan. This belief was strengthened early on by the Indian Massacre of 1622 in Virginia when, on the morning of 22 March 1622, the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, Opchanacanough (l. 1554-1646) launched a surprise attack on the settlements, killing 347 people. Prior to the attack, the natives had appeared friendly (purposefully so, on Opchanacanough’s orders, to lower the colonists’ defenses), and this, to the colonists, was proof that no native could be trusted and all posed a potential threat.

The belief in natives wielding supernatural powers continued, however, as they became more marginalized, and it was understood that they had grounds for holding a grudge. Other minorities were equally apt to be suspect though, whether African slaves – who were thought to be able to cast spells through their own associations with Satan – or Catholics whose religious beliefs were considered diabolic by the majority of Protestants.

Witchcraft, thought to be practiced by all three of these groups, was understood as an intimate relationship between a person or people with Satan himself, God’s adversary, who continually plotted against those whom the Bible claimed God had made in his own image. Although the Salem Witch Trials are easily the most famous expression of the fear and hysteria generated by a belief in witchcraft, marginalized people – most often women – were charged, convicted, and hanged or otherwise dispatched in colonies from Massachusetts down to Florida.


Superstitions were embraced further during the 1730s and 1740s through the religious revival known as the Great Awakening when Protestant ministers held large open-air services to awaken the Holy Spirit in the people. Thousands attended these gatherings at which they were "born again" and went home full of the conviction that their lives were to be lived as soldiers in God’s army against the legions of darkness. Every demographic in the colonies was caught up in the Great Awakening – colonists, natives, and slaves – and the majority of these were the poor and uneducated, those who had been marginalized by the upper classes.

Intensely emotional and personal in nature, the born-again experience needed no outside corroboration – the believer experienced the power of the Holy Spirit immediately and dramatically – and there was no need to argue rationally for the truth of the experience when its results were so apparent in one’s life. The Great Awakening encouraged people to "fight the good fight" for God whether by becoming more involved in politics or rooting out witches and other evildoers in their local community. In time, however, this religious emotionalism – which encouraged superstitious belief on a deeper level than before – was met by a backlash of rationalism and restraint.

Even so, superstition had become rooted in Colonial American culture and persists even in the present day. People across the United States scoff at the beliefs of the colonists while simultaneously taking special precautions when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday, avoiding black cats, and in many other ways reacting to the unseen world just as the early colonists did.

Religion in Early America

This website is based on an exhibition that was on view at the National Museum of American History from June 28, 2017 to June 3, 2018.

Religious freedom is a fundamental principle of American life. While taken for granted today, its acceptance emerged only gradually in the nation’s history. The many peoples who called early America home represented a great variety of spiritual traditions. Although most colonies had established churches that received state support, the framers of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights determined that the nation as a whole should not follow this precedent, but protect the free exercise of all religions. Rather than limiting belief or practice, religious freedom fostered diversity and growth.

Map of United States, 1830s
Courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Religion & Superstition in Colonial America - History

3913 days since
Next event

1. Religious Intolerance in Colonial America

Religious Intolerance in Colonial America


This introductory chapter provides that the history of America predominately shared is one of religious freedom and tolerance. Many of the earliest colonizing groups fled to the New World to escape religious persecution however, many religious peoples experienced persecution in early America, unless their religious practices aligned with Christian, particularly Protestant, practices. Because accounts of religious intolerance have frequently been omitted from historical discourse and discussions, Corrigan and Neal believe that there is a need for discourse that rewrites American history, including the religious intolerance that that essentially set the foundation of the nation and persists today.

The religious intolerance in Colonial America was a surprising chapter. The concepts that have been instilled in American education provide the concepts that as a country, we were formed through the idea of religious tolerance. This concept is not true according to Corrigan and Neal. Through multiple examples of religious persecution including: Catholicism, Judaism, Quakers, and more. Although the Americas was established through the pilgrimage of Protestants, the same emotion of religious understanding was ignored. The separation of colonies seems to separate a country that would later grow to be a “City on a Hill” of religious freedom. One example listed is the association of the Catholics with the Amalekites. This metaphor carries a deep meaning. The comparison places an entire negative history on the Catholics.

A documented example of intolerance comes from Winthrop’s Journal regarding the fearful persecution of witchcraft. In the article, a woman faces accusations that in modern times would be beyond ridiculous. The woman is accused of having the ability to stroke or touch and apply deafness, vomiting, or other violent pains and sickness. Also, while in jail, a child appeared and was being held by her. The child then got up and ran to another room, which the jailer followed the child, and the child abruptly disappeared. Finally after her execution for witchcraft, a great storm followed the same day. These accusations had no verifiable evidence, but were based on supposed pointed beliefs. The women who were accused of witchcraft followed ambiguous positions in society. Widows, successful women, and women who spoke regarding their dissenting theological positions, were placed on trial for witchcraft.



Corrigan and Neal argue against the established idea that the first Europeans to settle the Americas were seeking religious tolerance, and thus must be tolerant themselves. Instead, each Christian group held strong opinions rooted in the Old Testament that constituted persecution against other religious groups such as the Native Americans and Catholics. The Native Americans especially posed a problem to the colonist community. In an effort to link their existence to Biblical texts, many concluded that they were part of the scattered Jewish tribes, or even lapsed Christians who were in need of reminding and recovering the faith. The ‘implications of these ideas about indigenous heritage were that any perceived slight to the colonists was reacted to emotionally and as if the Native Americans were betraying their religious relatives. While the Spanish held the title of most cruel to the indigenous (though indigenous peoples were targeted by settlers from all over Europe), the English remained mainly preoccupied with internal conflict between Catholics and various Protestant communities. Additionally, the smaller French colony focused on the conversion of Native Americans and anti-Semitic rhetoric. The element I found particularly interesting was the idea that to the colonists, everything that happened was mandated by either God or the Devil, so the interpretation of even daily mundane events could lead to religious tension or warfare, and this influenced the relationships between colonists in that any slight to the settlers was interpreted as an attack on their religion by sinister motives and/or beings.

John Winthrop’s A Modell of Christian Charity (1630)

The Puritan colonists of New England were most often portrayed in the history books of my youth as victims of religious discrimination in Europe who fled to the New World in order to practice freely. While not technically untrue, this portrayal of the Puritans leaves out their own propensity for religious violence when they felt it was warranted. Winthrop’s A Modell of Christian Charity is often cited, with it’s “city on a hill” reference serving as an example of the new America that would stand for freedom and brotherhood for all its inhabitants. Paired with the chapter that introduces this primary source, however, the speech leads to the conclusion that this freedom and brotherhood is reserved for them alone, and should not be extended to the other Christian settlers in the area or to the Native Americans. Winthrop refers to the “commission” given by God to the Israelites regarding the extermination of the Amalekites, and likens it to their own cause of creating their idealized Christian community. I find this particularly interesting because there were other Biblical examples that he could have used to illustrate his point that the community must live according to God’s mandates in this new land, and that failing to do so would end in loss of the Kingdom of Heaven. I submit that an example of an alternative narrative within the Old Testament could be Adam and Eve in Genesis who disobey God and take from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, resulting in their banishment of paradise. Instead, Winthrop uses an especially violent example that perhaps foreshadows the violent treatment of the American indigenous by the hands of Christians that is to come.

George Whitefield

George Whitefield, a minister from Britain, had a significant impact during the Great Awakening. Whitefield toured the colonies up and down the Atlantic coast, preaching his message. In one year, Whitefield covered 5,000 miles in America and preached more than 350 times.

His style was charismatic, theatrical and expressive. Whitefield would often shout the word of God and tremble during his sermons. People gathered by the thousands to hear him speak.

Whitefield preached to common people, slaves and Native Americans. No one was out of reach. Even Benjamin Franklin, a religious skeptic, was captivated by Whitefield’s sermons, and the two became friends.

Whitefield’s success convinced English colonists to join local churches and reenergized a once-waning Christian faith.

History of Religion in America

Introduction The issue of religious freedom has played a significant role in the history of the United States and the remainder of North America. Europeans came to America to escape religious oppression and forced beliefs by such state-affiliated Christian churches as the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. That civil unrest fueled the desire of America’s forefathers to establish the organization of a country in which the separation of church and state, and the freedom to practice one’s faith without fear of persecution, was guaranteed. That guarantee was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution (text) as, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. ”

The splintering of Christianity resulted in more than 900 denominations of that faith currently existing in the United States, of which the vast majority of Americans are members. The U.S. was the first western nation to be founded predominately by Protestants — not Roman Catholics. That fact alone expresses America’s willingness to experiment with the novel and a defiance of tradition. Its history includes the emergence of Utopian Experiments, religious fanaticism, and opening the door to such exotic religions as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Taoism. Such has been the winding road of religious evolution in America.

The role of religion among American Indians For untold generations before Europeans came to America, native peoples celebrated the bounty given to them by the Great Spirit. Across America, such Indian tribes as The Algonquians, The Iroquois, Sioux, and the Seminoles worshiped the Great Spirit, who could be found in animals as well as inanimate objects. Elaborate rituals and such dances as the Sundance, Round, Snake, Crow, Ghost and others were developed and led by such native leaders as Wodiziwob, Wovoka , Black Elk, Big Foot, Sitting Bull , and others. As white colonists drove Indians onto reservations, the fervency of their religious practices increased, even as Christian missionaries made inroads that influenced their spirituality.

Colonial religious splintering

Religious persecution and iron-fisted rule by state-affiliated Christianity in Europe began to loosen its hold in the 16th century when, for the sake of debate, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany.

King Henry VIII founded the Church of England, owing to disagreements regarding papal authority. In later attempts to free themselves from the tie of the state governmental system imposed by the Church of England (Anglican Church), such denominations as the Reformed-Presbyterian churches and the European Free Church were formed.

Those religious parents gave birth to the next wave of Christian denominations. Reforms were brought by the Puritans to the American colonies. Such calls to “purify” the Anglican Church led to the birthing of the Baptists and Congregationalists in America. As later cries for reform and renewal took place, further splintering occurred among the Methodists, Pentecostals, Fundamentalists and Adventists, each bearing a diminished resemblance to their original parents.

Evangelical movement roots and branches

Evangelism has played an integral part in the history of religion in America, from colonial times to the present, while its methods of dissemination have changed dramatically. Spreading the “Good News” during colonial times was accomplished through books printed by the Puritans on the press brought to Boston in 1638, or carried across the Atlantic on ships loaded with colonists. During the Great Awakening of the 1740s, white Protestant evangelists proselytized to black Americans. The Methodists were most successful, owing to their belief in a “near” rather than “distant” god, self help, liberation of sin through conversion, and their lively preaching and singing methods of worship during evangelical revivals. During the 19th century, Methodists held camp meetings in the frontier states.

Evangelism turned to elaborate crusades in the 20th century when such preachers as Billy Sunday attempted to convince nonbelievers that they should "jump ship" from their ancestral Christian denominations. Tent revivals, broadcast by radio and television, were dynamic with charismatic preachers who captured the attention of millions of people.

"Televangelists" of the 1950s through the late 1980s brought a personality-based form of worship to the small screen, until scandals involving Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts, provoked widespread distrust of them. While they were relegated to cable TV networks, evangelistic websites slowly began to crop up on the Internet during the early 1990s. Because of the anonymous nature of that interactive communication tool, people felt more comfortable sharing their personal beliefs and faith over the Internet with a large audience, or with one unknown person. Media evangelists incorporated multimedia presentations with sound, the written word, movies and video technologies.

Major Protestant denominations in the colonies Although they crossed the Atlantic to be free of a state-sponsored religion, settlers' everyday lives were extensively shaped by their religious beliefs and practices. The First Amendment to the Constitution (narrative), which is called the “Establishment Clause,” states, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Also, the relationship between religion and politics was established in Article VI of the First Amendment that states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The definition of the separation of church and state found in the U.S. Constitution has caused more disagreement than any other in the nation’s history. To prevent a return to a centralized, overbearing government, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, without which ratification by Virginia and New York would not have occurred.

To fully understand the impact of the spread of Christian denominations in America, it is important to look at them and their origins individually. Listed below is a brief summary of those denominations, beginning with a proto-denomination, The Puritans.

Puritans The Puritans came to the New England colonies to escape religious persecution. The Puritans later gave birth to the Baptists and the Congregationalists. Led by John Winthrop, 900 Puritan colonists landed in Massachusetts Bay. Managing to endure the hardships of pioneer life and accustomed to caring for each other’s needs, they prospered, and their numbers grew from 17,800 in 1640 to 106,000 in 1700. Their attempt to “purify” the Church of England and their own lives was based on the teachings of John Calvin. Using the New Testament as their model, they believed that each congregation and each person individually was responsible to God. Their belief that their destiny was predetermined, their self-imposed isolation, and religious exclusivity, would later lead to witch hunts beginning in 1688. The expulsion of Roger Williams in 1636 and Anne Hutchinson in 1638 was caused by their neighbors' fear of "evil" in their midst. The Puritans also were responsible for the first free schooling in America and established the first American college, Harvard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Congregationalists Based on the Calvinist (Reformed) tradition and strictly opposed to external authorities, Congregationalists came to New England and established the Plymouth Colony in 1620. As part of the Separatist movement, Congregationalists broke from the Anglican Church and established independent congregations in which God was the absolute authority. Prone to splintering, those congregations experienced a great number of local schisms during the first Great Awakening in the 1740s. During the 1800s, membership declined as their Methodist and Baptist cousins continued to gain strength. Unitarianism developed as an offshoot of COngregationalism, initially due to disagreement over the reality of the Trinity. Over the years, their resistance to dependence and external secular and clerical authority has lessened. Many Congregationalist churches have subsequently merged with other churches from the Reformed tradition. Today their membership in the U.S. is slightly more than 120,000 members.

Methodists The tap root of Methodism was a group of Oxford University students, amongst whom were its founders, John and Charles Wesley. Begun within the Anglican Church, Methodists were not fleeing religious persecution from the Church of England when they came to the Mid-Atlantic colonies in the 1730s and ‘40s. When Francis Asbury arrived in 1771, Methodism comprised 1,160 members served by 10 preachers in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Asbury promoted circuit riding and thus increased American Methodism to 214,000 by the time of his death in 1816. Together with Philip William Otterbein, Reformed Church pastor Methodist preacher Jacob Albright, and Martin Boehm, Asbury created the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784, and became one of its first bishops. One of the more liberal Christian denominations, the United Methodist Church has become the second-largest Protestant denomination in America with 8.6 million members.

Lutherans In no other American Christian denomination did national origin play such an important role in its history as the Lutheran Church. Members came from Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway. The Lutherans settled on the East Coast and American Midwest, and celebrated worship services in their native tongues. From their first foothold in 1619, Lutherans began to establish a sum total of 150 synods. In the late 19th century, they began to merge as the Americanization process eliminated the language barriers that had previously kept them separate. After many previous mergers, three of the larger Lutheran bodies came together in 1988 to become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which currently counts more than half of the Lutheran membership in the U.S. A more conservative branch is the Missouri Synod.

Presbyterians Bearing little resemblance to the liturgy, structure, and tradition associated with the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian and Reformed churches share a common origin in the teachings of John Calvin and the 16th century Swiss Reformation. By definition, the Presbyterian denomination is anchored in an active, representational leadership style for both ministers and lay members. Presbyterians mostly came from England, Scotland, and Ireland. With an elected body of elders (or presbyters) that work with the congregation’s ordained minister, their belief structure and practices are centered around the Bible and “the sovereignty of God.” Presbyterians make up one of the largest branches of Protestant Christianity today.

Quakers Founded in 1647 by English preacher George Fox, the Society of Friends emphasized a direct relationship with God. One’s conscience, not the Bible, was the ultimate authority on morals and actions. William Penn, whose writings about freedom of conscience (while imprisoned in England) formed the basis of religious understanding for Quakers around the world. Penn established what would later be called Pennsylvania, an American religious sanctuary in the late 17th century. He believed in religious toleration, fair trade with Native Americans, and equal rights for women. Quakers did not have a clergy or dedicated church buildings, and therefore held their meetings in which participants deliberated silently on issues and spoke up when “the Spirit moved them.” Dressed in plain clothes, Quakers preferred a simple life over one enjoyed by the aristocracy of England and the burgeoning merchant class in the colonies. They also shared an abhorrence of violence.

Major liturgical denominations in the colonies

The oldest Christian churches: Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, have left their unique stamp on the history of religion in America. Called "liturgical" for their adherence to an elaborate, set form of ritualistic worship practices, most of those churches observe seven sacraments throughout their members’ lives, whereas later Christian denominations usually celebrated only two. They practice an allegiance to certain creeds or doctrines that originated in the early centuries of the Christian church, and profess a succession of leadership from the founding of the Christian church at Pentecost.

Roman Catholicism Even though it was not the first to arrive in the colonies, Roman Catholicism ranks as the largest Christian tradition in the U.S. with 25.6 million members, or 23 percent of the population. Arriving with the Spanish in what is now Florida in 1513, and in the southwest and on the Pacific coast when Junípero Serra began to build missions in California, they received additional members when a group of colonists settled in Maryland in 1634. Roman Catholics had at one time held tightly to their cultural roots, but later joined the rest of American society. The American church has continued its allegiance to the pope, even though many of its members disagree with him on such issues as birth control, abortion, and women in the priesthood.

Anglicanism The Church of England (later the Episcopal Church in the U.S.) was first planted on American soil at the ill-fated Roanoke colony in Virginia, when their first services were held on August 13, 1687. Since that landing, they grew and experienced numerous schisms, especially in the 1970s when changes in their attitudes towards sexuality, women’s admission to the priesthood, and their Book of Common Prayer, aroused controversy. Their worship services are similar in some ways to those of Roman Catholicism, and their clergy orders are the same: bishops, priests, and deacons. They espouse an inclusive policy toward membership.

Eastern Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy in America consists of more than a dozen church bodies whose national origin is reflected by their names, such as the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America, and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Eastern Orthodox beliefs are based on holy tradition, or doctrines from early Christianity, and the Bible. The decrees of church councils and the writings of early church fathers establish the authority of church beliefs. Their clergy consist of bishops, priests, and deacons. Their worship services are the most elaborate of all Christian traditions.

The rise and fall of utopian communities Utopian communities were established in America as places where adherents could achieve a perfect religious, political and social system. The first community was established by a group of Dutch Mennonites in 1663 near what is now Lewes, Delaware. Between 1663 and the American Revolution, approximately 20 communities were established. Some communal living arrangements were established for religious purposes, and often to withdraw from society. The great Harmonist Society, Christians who came from Germany during the late 1700s and 1800s, fled religious persecution, then flourished in Pennsylvania and Indiana. Other such utopian communities were established by the Amish and the Shakers.

Throughout its history, the U.S. has been fertile ground for such communal living arrangements, and provided an alternative to the mainstream culture, while still reflecting some of that culture’s fundamental values. By far, the most successful in U.S. history has been the Mormons, whose leader, Joseph Smith, established Mormon communities in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. He produced the Book of Mormon and other religious texts, established missionary work around the world, and participated in temple construction, among other things in his brief 39 years.

During the 1960s and 70s, those seeking self-fulfillment and personal growth joined utopian communities, many with Eastern religious masters. The majority of such communities provided an alternative lifestyle that exemplified some of the best attributes that America's original forefathers sought to provide. While most are benign, some utopian-styled communities, such as Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas Charles Manson’s creation of “Helter Skelter” and the Jim Jones ill-fated settlement in Jonestown, Guyana, inflicted a disastrous impact on its members.

Ever-changing tide of 20th-century religious followings

As the fragmentation of Christian denominations accelerated, persons living in the 20th century experienced the ebb and flow of religious conservatism and liberalism. While technology raced to the moon and beyond, the following major events occurred during that fast-paced era:

Fundamentalism. The rise of fundamentalism occurred in reaction to liberal and progressive views of Americans in the mid-19th century, biblical higher criticism, and the influx of non-Protestant immigrants at the beginning of the last century. Fundamentalists became known for their desire to emphasize a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, and time-honored cultural patterns. Distinctive roles for men and women, parents and children, clergy and laity, were defined by readings from the Bible.

Most famously known for their stand against Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection taught in public schools, the Fundamentalist movement also takes credit for birthing the Christian Right in Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the rise of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movements' style of worship of speaking in tongues.

Israel gains statehood After centuries of persecution, the Jewish people carved out a piece of Palestine on May 14, 1948, that became home. According to historians, President Harry S. Truman offered his country’s recognition of Israel’s statehood for the sake of those who had suffered in the Nazi concentration camps, as well as the American Jewish population. Truman’s decision went against a tide of strong opposition as represented by highly respected Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who feared retaliation from Arab countries. America’s continued support of Israel has faced much criticism and support over the years, the latter notably among American evangelical churches.

Black leaders of the Civil Rights movement Forced to take positions of influence in their local churches during America’s Reconstruction era, the Bible Belt’s black ministers emerged before the public, beginning in the 1950s after Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of a public transit bus. During the next 20 years, such impassioned leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X created more change in the public and private sectors than had been seen before. Congregations from African-American Southern churches swelled and created a sustained presence on the American religious scene.

Spiritual hunger of the Sixties and Seventies Young people of the 1960s and 1970s lived during tumultuous times, witnessing the shooting of apresident, fighting the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. In their rebellion against the "establishment," those Baby Boomers and somewhat older confederates participated in the Free Speech Movement, experimentation with psychedelic drugs promulgated by former Harvard professor Timothy Leary, and explored such great world religions as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Communes, run by eastern religious teachers, promised personal enlightenment and an escape from the complexity of modern society. Transcendental Meditation (TM) swept through America as young and old attempted to cope with society’s changing times. Beginning in 1965, the Jesus Movement swept the nation, offering inner transformation and a sense of togetherness not found in the drug culture where some 2,000 “hippies” had sought it.

New Age movement Buried in the psychic mysticism of the 1800s, the New Age movement emerged with clairvoyants and psychics giving advice on past and future lives, beginning in 1968. Having once identified with the wave of Eastern spiritual masters, New Agers began to look for answers in spirituality and the occult during the 1970s. Loosely organized in general, but also containing some highly structured groups and some authoritarian ones, the movement’s vision was one of universal transformation. The movement saw itself as part of a New Age with God as the universal bonding agent for all persons. Many different methods for a personal transformation weakened the efficacy of the movement as a whole, and by the 1980s, the movement had peaked. Hopes of imminent change in the social order faded by the 1990s. Those associated with New Age groups provided the basis for a full spiritual life with religious study and literature, learning experiences, and programs oriented towards spiritual practices and self-discipline. Scientology is the fastest-growing manifestation of the movement.

America continues to be a haven for those seeking religious freedom. Some 3,000 religious groups currently exist in the country. The residue from the New Age movement’s focus on a world view and lifestyle continue to benefit the relaxation of social divisions throughout the world in the new millennium. The fragmentation of Christian denominations has slowed, with a renewed interest in cooperation and ecumenism among many of those denominations. No longer considered a melting pot, the largely Protestant population is being exposed to the world’s “great religions” and multiple ethnic groups with Buddhist neighborhoods, Indian business owners, and Muslim colleagues. A growing antipathy toward the latter among some Americans stems from the infamous attack by terrorists on U.S. targets on September 11, 2001.

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic Religion and the Congress of the Confederation

The Continental-Confederation Congress, a legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, contained an extraordinary number of deeply religious men. The amount of energy that Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion in the new nation exceeded that expended by any subsequent American national government. Although the Articles of Confederation did not officially authorize Congress to concern itself with religion, the citizenry did not object to such activities. This lack of objection suggests that both the legislators and the public considered it appropriate for the national government to promote a nondenominational, nonpolemical Christianity.

Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible, imposed Christian morality on the armed forces, and granted public lands to promote Christianity among the Indians. National days of thanksgiving and of "humiliation, fasting, and prayer" were proclaimed by Congress at least twice a year throughout the war. Congress was guided by "covenant theology," a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people. This agreement stipulated that they "should be prosperous or afflicted, according as their general Obedience or Disobedience thereto appears." Wars and revolutions were, accordingly, considered afflictions, as divine punishments for sin, from which a nation could rescue itself by repentance and reformation.

The first national government of the United States, was convinced that the "public prosperity" of a society depended on the vitality of its religion. Nothing less than a "spirit of universal reformation among all ranks and degrees of our citizens," Congress declared to the American people, would "make us a holy, that so we may be a happy people."

The Liberty Window

At its initial meeting in September 1774 Congress invited the Reverend Jacob Duché (1738-1798), rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, to open its sessions with prayer. Duché ministered to Congress in an unofficial capacity until he was elected the body's first chaplain on July 9, 1776. He defected to the British the next year. Pictured here in the bottom stained-glass panel is the first prayer in Congress, delivered by Duché. The top part of this extraordinary stained glass window depicts the role of churchmen in compelling King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.

The Prayer in the First Congress, A.D. 1774. Stained glass and lead, from The Liberty Window, Christ Church, Philadelphia, after a painting by Harrison Tompkins Matteson, c. 1848. Courtesy of the Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of Christ Church, Philadelphia (101)

Bookmark this item: //

George Duffield, Congressional Chaplain

On October 1, 1777, after Jacob Duché, Congress's first chaplain, defected to the British, Congress appointed joint chaplains: William White (1748-1836), Duché's successor at Christ Church, Philadelphia, and George Duffield (1732-1790), pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. By appointing chaplains of different denominations, Congress expressed a revolutionary egalitarianism in religion and its desire to prevent any single denomination from monopolizing government patronage. This policy was followed by the first Congress under the Constitution which on April 15, 1789, adopted a joint resolution requiring that the practice be continued.

George Duffield. Oil on canvas by Charles Peale Polk, 1790. Independence National Historical Park Collection, Philadelphia (103)

Bookmark this item: //

Military Chaplains Pay

This resolution directed that military chaplains, appointed in abundance by Congress during the Revolutionary War, were paid at the rate of a major in the Continental Army.

Congressional resolution, paying military personnel. [left page] - [right page] Broadside, April 22, 1782. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (102)

Bookmark this item: //

Proposed Seal for the United States

On July 4, 1776, Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams "to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America." Franklin's proposal adapted the biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea (left). Jefferson first recommended the "Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by Day, and a Pillar of Fire by night. . . ." He then embraced Franklin's proposal and rewrote it (right). Jefferson's revision of Franklin's proposal was presented by the committee to Congress on August 20. Although not accepted these drafts reveal the religious temper of the Revolutionary period. Franklin and Jefferson were among the most theologically liberal of the Founders, yet they used biblical imagery for this important task.

Legend for the Seal of the United States, August 1776. [left side] - [right side] Holograph notes, Thomas Jefferson (left) and Benjamin Franklin (right). Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (104-105)

Proposed Great Seal of the United States: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Drawing. by Benson Lossing, for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1856. General Collections, Library of Congress (106)

Bookmark this item: //

Congressional Fast Day Proclamation

Congress proclaimed days of fasting and of thanksgiving annually throughout the Revolutionary War. This proclamation by Congress set May 17, 1776, as a "day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer" throughout the colonies. Congress urges its fellow citizens to "confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his [God's] righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness." Massachusetts ordered a "suitable Number" of these proclamations be printed so "that each of the religious Assemblies in this Colony, may be furnished with a Copy of the same" and added the motto "God Save This People" as a substitute for "God Save the King."

Congressional Fast Day Proclamation, March 16, 1776. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (107)

Bookmark this item: //

Congressional Thanksgiving Day Proclamation

Congress set December 18, 1777, as a day of thanksgiving on which the American people "may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor" and on which they might "join the penitent confession of their manifold sins . . . that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance." Congress also recommends that Americans petition God "to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.'"

Congressional Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, November 1, 1777. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (108)

Bookmark this item: //

The 1779 Fast Day Proclamation

Here is the most eloquent of the Fast and Thanksgiving Day Proclamations.

Congressional Fast Day Proclamation, March 20, 1779. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (109)

Bookmark this item: //

Another Thanksgiving Day Proclamation

Congress set November 28, 1782, as a day of thanksgiving on which Americans were "to testify their gratitude to God for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience to his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness."

Congressional Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, October 11, 1782. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (110)

Bookmark this item: //

Morality in the Army

Congress was apprehensive about the moral condition of the American army and navy and took steps to see that Christian morality prevailed in both organizations. In the Articles of War, seen below, governing the conduct of the Continental Army (seen above) (adopted, June 30, 1775 revised, September 20, 1776), Congress devoted three of the four articles in the first section to the religious nurture of the troops. Article 2 "earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers to attend divine services." Punishment was prescribed for those who behaved "indecently or irreverently" in churches, including courts-martial, fines and imprisonments. Chaplains who deserted their troops were to be court-martialed.

Rules and Articles, for the better Government of the Troops . . . of the Twelve united English Colonies of North America. [page 4] - [page 5] Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1775. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (111)

To all brave, healthy, able bodied well disposed young men. . . . Recruiting poster for the Continental Army. Historical Society of Pennsylvania (112)

Bookmark this item: //

Morality in the Navy

Congress particularly feared the navy as a source of moral corruption and demanded that skippers of American ships make their men behave. The first article in Rules and Regulations of the Navy (below), adopted on November 28, 1775, ordered all commanders "to be very vigilant . . . to discountenance and suppress all dissolute, immoral and disorderly practices." The second article required those same commanders "to take care, that divine services be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays." Article 3 prescribed punishments for swearers and blasphemers: officers were to be fined and common sailors were to be forced "to wear a wooden collar or some other shameful badge of distinction."

Extracts from the Journals of Congress, relative to the Capture and Condemnation of Prizes, and filling out Privateers, together with the Rules and Regulations of the Navy, and Instructions to Private Ships of War. [page 16] - [page 17] Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1776. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (113)

Bookmark this item: //

Commander-in-Chief of the American Navy

Etched on this horn beaker is Esek Hopkins (1718-1802), a Rhode Islander, appointed by Congress, December 22, 1775, as the first commander-in-chief of the American Navy. Hopkins was dismissed, January 2, 1778, after a stormy tenure in which he achieved some notable successes in spite of almost insuperable problems in manning the tiny American fleet.

Horn beaker with scrimshaw portrait of Esek Hopkins. Horn, c. 1876. Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia (114)

Bookmark this item: //

Aitken's Bible Endorsed by Congress

The war with Britain cut off the supply of Bibles to the United States with the result that on Sept. 11, 1777, Congress instructed its Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from "Scotland, Holland or elsewhere." On January 21, 1781, Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken (1734-1802) petitioned Congress to officially sanction a publication of the Old and New Testament which he was preparing at his own expense. Congress "highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion . . . in this country, and . . . they recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States." This resolution was a result of Aitken's successful accomplishment of his project.

Congressional resolution, September 12, 1782, endorsing Robert Aitken's Bible. [page 468] -- [page 469] Philadelphia: David C. Claypoole, 1782 from the Journals of Congress. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (115)

Bookmark this item: //

Aitken's Bible

Aitken published Congress's recommendation of September 1782 and related documents (Item 115) as an imprimatur on the two pages following his title page. Aitken's Bible, published under Congressional patronage, was the first English language Bible published on the North American continent.

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments: Newly translated out of the Original Tongues. . . . Philadelphia: printed and sold by R. Aitken, 1782. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (116)

Bookmark this item: //

Settling the West

In the spring of 1785 Congress debated regulations for settling the new western lands--stretching from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi--acquired from Great Britain in the Peace Treaty of 1783. It was proposed that the central section in each newly laid out township be reserved for the support of schools and "the Section immediately adjoining the same to the northward, for the support of religion. The profits arising there from in both instances, to be applied for ever according to the will of the majority." The proposal to establish religion in the traditional sense of granting state financial support to a church to be controlled by one denomination attracted support but was ultimately voted down.

An Ordinance for ascertaining the Mode of disposing of Lands in the Western Territory, 1785. Broadside, Continental Congress, 1785. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (117)

Bookmark this item: //

Northwest Ordinance

In the summer of 1787 Congress revisited the issue of religion in the new western territories and passed, July 13, 1787, the famous Northwest Ordinance. Article 3 of the Ordinance contained the following language: "Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged." Scholars have been puzzled that, having declared religion and morality indispensable to good government, Congress did not, like some of the state governments that had written similar declarations into their constitutions, give financial assistance to the churches in the West.

An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, 1787. Broadside, Continental Congress, 1787. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (118)

Bookmark this item: //

Christianizing the Delawares

In this resolution, Congress makes public lands available to a group for religious purposes. Responding to a plea from Bishop John Ettwein (1721-1802), Congress voted that 10,000 acres on the Muskingum River in the present state of Ohio "be set apart and the property thereof be vested in the Moravian Brethren . . . or a society of the said Brethren for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity." The Delaware Indians were the intended beneficiaries of this Congressional resolution.

Resolution granting lands to Moravian Brethren. [left page] - [right page] Records of the Continental Congress in the Constitutional Convention, July 27, 1787. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (119)

Bookmark this item: //

A Delaware-English Spelling Book

David Zeisberger (1721-1802) was a famous Moravian missionary who spent much of his life working with the Delaware Indians. His Spelling Book contains a "Short History of the Bible," in the English and Delaware languages, on facing pages.

Delaware Indian and English Spelling Book for the Schools of the Mission of the United Brethren. [left page] - [right page] David Zeisberger. Philadelphia: Mary Cist, 1806. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (120)