Christianity in America
The discovery of North and South America
created many new challenges for Europe. The wealth of the central and south American
civilizations catapulted Spain to the forefront of world powers and had a profound
impact on the European economy. All western European states were soon clambering
to establish their own American colonies and experimented with a variety of cash
crops to find an economic basis for them. Most also sent Catholic missionaries
to convert the natives.
Because of its relatively late arrival
on the scene, Britain got the colder eastern coast of North America, which offered
few opportunities for gold and no native urban civilizations to conquer. A major
problem it faced was finding colonists willing to leave their native land for
potential poverty and death far from family and friends. Britain solved the problem
by charting private companies to send out profit-making colonies. The first successful
enterprise was the Virginia Colony, which established Jamestown in May 1607. Within
the wooden palisade were a storehouse, a number of houses, and a church. The colony,
established by wealthy Anglican merchants, only recognized the Church of England,
but for many years the company paid for no priest to settle there. Immediately
attacked by the local Indians, the colony had no economic basis for years, made
no profit, and the colonists suffered an immensely high death rate from warfare,
disease, and starvation. Eventually the arrival of African slaves, the raising
of tobacco, and the importation of London criminals (who faced execution or extensive
imprisonment if they refused to emigrate) caused the colony to expand. A series
of incompetent or unpopular governors chosen by the company's wealthy London owners
cause the colonists to establish an elected legislative body in 1619 to establish
the colony's laws. But the Virginia Colony had no printing press for over half
a century; the first university in Virginia, the College of William and Mary,
was not established until 1696.
In Virginia and later in the Carolinas
and Georgia, the Church of England was the only recognized church; but priests
didn't want to leave warm and comfortable England to settle in the swamps, Indian-infested
woods and crude hamlets of England's south Atlantic colonies. As a result, there
was about one priest for every four or five churches in the American south, and
the priests were often of low quality. The Church of England is an episcopal church,
that is, power resides in bishops. The bishops appoint and direct the priests,
and traditionally the lay people had very little to do with the running of a local
church. But in the South there was no bishop at all and few priests, so the laymen
ran the churches and often administered communion or performed baptisms, which
was against church law. Because of the shortage of priests, even in the south
the congregational form of church organization became the dominant one. As the
population of the colonies grew, the local Anglicans themselves opposed the appointment
of an American bishop, lest he take away privileges they had grown used to.
Thirteen years after the founding of Jamestown,
a colony of a different sort formed four hundred miles to the north. A group of
separatist Puritans, disillusioned by Anglicanism's refusal to reform, first emigrated
to the Netherlands (a good Calvinist nation) in 1608, but as their children began
to become Dutch, they decided to emigrate to "northern Virginia" instead. They
landed in what today is Massachusetts in December, 1620. They learned how to raise
corn from the Indianswhose numbers had been decimated by European illnesses
brought by fishermen a few years earlierreceived some additional settlers
from England in the next decade, and survived fairly well in their new environment.
In 1630 King Charles I appointed a new Archbishop
of Canterbury (the head of the Anglican Church), who favored a middle path to
reforming the English church. This entailed rejecting the much more extreme demands
of the Puritans, whom he began to persecute severely. Puritan ministers were deprived
of their churches; Puritan laypeople were discriminated against. In response,
a group of Calvinist businessmen organized the Massachusetts Bay Company and obtained
a charter for it from the King, which included a claim over a large stretch of
land. Like the Virginia Company, the company was a joint stock company; individuals
who invested in the company owned shares and had voting privileges in choosing
a governor. Unlike the Virginia Company, however, the company bylaws did not require
the annual meeting to be held in London (the place of the annual meeting was unspecified).
Stock was mainly sold to hundreds of middle class Puritan artisans and small businessmen,
who then used the company proceeds to purchase ships for their own emigration.
As a result, in 1630 four ships loaded with a thousand colonists arrived in Boston
harbor and had the legal framework for electing their own governor, setting up
their own government, and making some changes in the ways the company's charter
would be interpreted.
The Puritan colonists decided their colony
that would demonstrate the truth of their beliefs by example; it would be a utopian
society proving the superiority of their understanding of Christianity. As Calvinists
they believed that some people were chosen by God to be saved; these people could
more or less be known by their good character, their good works (which were a
fruit of salvation, not a cause of it), and by the experience of receiving God's
grace. Since they were sure their senior clergy were among God's elect, they formed
a committee of the saved to interview the others for evidence of election. Since
those who fled to Massachusetts were among the most determined of the Puritans,
most were found to be saved. Those who were determined to be saints were made
full members of the churches; their children could be baptized and they could
receive communion. The others were to pray, attend church every Sunday, follow
God's laws (include complete abstinence from labor on the Sabbath) and await God's
act of saving grace. Only those judged to be among God's elect could vote in elections
and be voted for; in this way the civil government of the colony, based on the
royal charter, was secured from gross immorality and corruption.
The flood of immigration continued for
a decade, until the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1640 and his replacement
by a man less opposed to Puritanism. Over ten thousand Puritans arrived and spread
out over Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, founding towns. Each town
used the church as its meeting hall, all male members of the church as its legislative
body (the New England town meeting), and elected officers to carry out various
executive functions. Every town organized schools to educate boys (girls were
not sent to school until the eighteenth century). In order to assure themselves
a reliable supply of ministers, one of the first things the Puritans did was to
establish Harvard College (1636; far sooner than any college in Virginia).
Those who found Puritan theological uniformity
stifling moved to Rhode Island, a colony established by dissenters from strict
Calvinism. Roger Williams, the founder of the town of Providence, became a Baptist
and gave that town a Baptist character. He later withdrew even from Baptism, but
not before declaring that complete religious freedom reigned in Rhode Island and
that even Turks (Muslims) would be welcome there.
In the Middle Colonies, many different groups settled
and the area acquired considerable religious diversity. William Penn, who founded
Pennsylvania, was a Quaker, and he settled many Quakers there. Because there weren't
enough Quakers willing to move to the New World, Penn invited many persecuted
German sects to settle in Pennsylvania, such as the "Pennsylvania Dutch"
(Mennonites and Amish). Often the sects were part of Germany's radical Reformation,
just as the Quakers were part of England's; thus the groups often felt an affinity
with each other. Other Germans came over to settle near their countrymen; they
established the Lutheran church in America and the German Reformed (Calvinist)
New York was first settled by the Dutch, who brought
the Calvinist Dutch Reformed church (the national Dutch church) to America. Later
when the English conquered New Amsterdam they introduced Anglicanism and declared
it the official faith, but found it impractical to persecute the Dutch and English
Calvinists. New England Puritans migrated south to Long Island, New York, and
northern New Jersey and brought the their church; many of them later joined the
Scots, who had especially settled in New Jersey, to establish the Presbyterian
church. Delaware was first settled by Swedes who established Lutheran churches.
Maryland was established as a colony for Roman Catholics, though Anglicans quickly
became the majority.
Because there was effectively no national church,
Calvinism soon became the dominant form of Christianity in British North America,
spreading into the rural south from New England and the Middle Colonies and replacing
Anglicanism. This is in sharp contrast to Europe, where the Calvinists usually
were in the minority.
No sooner were the various Protestant groups established
in America than they began to change, and often to split. The American environment
and Protestantism's basic assumptionsa stress on the individual's relationship
with God and on the Bible as the only ultimate source of guidance to the individualcaused
the changes. When one makes the Bible and the individual's consciousness the standards
of personal growth, the conscience can insist on unusual interpretations of the
Bible. In Europe the Calvinist sects were small and often subject to persecution
by the state and the state church; but in America, generally, there was freedom
of religion, and thus there was no external force to control unusual interpretations.
In Massachusetts the Puritans did hang several women for being Quaker missionaries
in 1659 and 1661, but they were isolated cases. As a result of religious freedom,
religious imaginations ran wild, new interpretations of the Bible were set forth,
and new sects began to appear in America.
American culture was different from the culture of
late medieval Europe in several crucial respects. In America a white man could
always acquire land simply by packing up his wagon and riding to the frontier.
In England few owned land, and property ownership defined whether one could vote;
in America virtually all white men owned land and thus could vote. In New England
virtually all white men could read and write also, which was practically unprecedented
in human history. The country had no hereditary aristocracy and very little poverty.
By and large, there was rule of law. In colonial America there were no European-style
wars; wars with the American Indians rarely resulted in extensive destruction
to European settlements. There was no starvation after the first decade, and because
the population was scattered, no plagues. Medical care, while rudimentary, was
no worse than in Europe; Boston was one of the first towns to use vaccination
to combat smallpox. A typical New England farmer and his wife would have eight
to twelve children, and three quarters survived to adulthood. Thus America experienced
a population explosion nearly unprecedented in human history.
One result was a culture that was extremely optimistic
about the ability of individuals. The average person was seen to have "common
sense"an idea that in Europe did not immediately become a commonly accepted
assumption because of the hierarchical nature of society. Because the average
American could read the Bible himself and had "common sense," he was
capable of making up his own mind about the truths in religion; this further encouraged
the tendency toward sect formation and individualism. The doctrines of TULIP,
which stress the complete powerlessness of the individual to change his own situation,
came to be seen as unnecessarily pessimistic and harsh. Gradually the Protestant
churches moved away from it.
New England Puritans, because of their congregational
organization, had very few mechanisms above the local church level that could
control the theology of the ministers, and consequently they underwent the most
theological diversification and drift. One of the biggest issues that arose among
the Congregational churches concerned whether infants should be baptized, or only
confessing adults; the churches baptized infants, but Jesus never did. Those who
insisted that baptism was a sacrament reserved only for the born again gradually
withdrew to form Baptist churches.
Anglicans moved in a liberal direction as well. Presbyterians
had a hierarchy of ministers and elders who controlled ordination and could discipline
errant clergymen, so they resisted the efforts to modify Calvinism more successfully.
To combat a tendency toward laxity, many
churches sought to create conditions in which God's grace could more easily be
given to souls and they could become saved. In spite of Calvinism's emphasis on
the absolute sovereignty of God to decide who would receive the gift of eternal
life and on the complete helplessness of the individual before God's power, some
Calvinists began to promulgate doctrines of "preparation" whereby souls could
prepare themselves for grace and preachers could create conditions where people
yearned for salvation. The first large-scale revivals occurred in the 1730s in
Massachusetts, and subsequently in all the other colonies. Thousands accepted
Christ and joined churches. Revival was the first pan-American experience; denominational
leaders traveled between colonies to foster revival and established contacts and
networks; the thirteen colonies acquired common experiences and forged a modicum
of common culture. In many ways, the First Great Awakening (1730-60) laid the
foundation for the American Revolution.
The American Revolution proved to a religious
revolution as well. The big loser was Anglicanism; after the war was won, it was
impossible for an American to be a member of the Church of England. Many members
had already joined lay-organized Methodist "societies" within Anglicanism, and
on the frontier the Methodist societies were the only religious organization available
to many; it became a separate Methodist denomination soon after the end of the
Revolution. With its itinerant bishops to coordinate lay-organized local churches,
Methodism was perfectly organized for chaotic frontier conditions. It soon became
America's largest denomination. The older, more established Anglican churches
formed the Episcopal Church of America and sent several men to Britain to be ordained
as bishops, thereby acquiring the leadership the church had sorely lacked in the
colonial period. The New England Puritansnow known as the Congregational
Churchthe Presbyterians and the Baptists were the ones who supported the
American cause the most and who gained the most prestige as a result.
But as the eighteenth century yielded to the nineteenth,
America was on the moveto the westand American religion had to change
to accommodate. Most religious innovation occurred on the frontier. This was partly
because churches had not yet been established there, so new ideas faced less resistance.
Furthermore, most frontiersmen had come from small settled towns where everyone
had known everyone else; in contrast, the frontier was a place where complete
strangers were thrown together. Because they experienced considerable personal
upheaval on the frontier, people had to think in new ways, and yearned to establish
homes and churches where the familiarity of settled life back east could be duplicated.
As a result, many sects arose on the frontier or came
there and flourished. The Universalists said that no one was damned eternally
to hell, but everyone eventually would be saved (their name comes from their doctrine
of "universal" salvation). Free Will Baptists championed free will over
total depravity and unconditioned election. Both of these sects first became strong
in northern New England right after the Revolution, when that area was undergoing
rapid settlement. Both opposed the doctrines of TULIP with more optimistic views
of human nature. Baptists grew along the New England frontier and spread south.
The Methodists stressed free will and the perfectibility of human beings, ideas
very appealing to frontiersmen.
The need to convert the frontier population
to Christ and organize it into local churches often caused Baptists, Presbyterians,
Congregationalists, and Methodists to band together to plan revivals. These four
denominations, and a few smaller regional churches (like the Disciples of Christ)
came to be called the "evangelical" or "mainline Protestant"
churches because of their theological affinities.
However, revivals often created as much disunity as
unity and furthered the tendency toward religious individualism. In western New
York state in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, sect creation
became unusually common. Most of the people settling there had been born into
New England Puritan families and were reacting against its strictness. So many
evangelists toured the area, holding "camp meetings" in order to save
souls, that the area came to be called the "Burned Over District." Joseph
Smith started Mormonism there, partly in reaction against all the conflicting
revivals and theological claims. William Miller lived on the edge of the Burned
Over District and preached there; he proclaimed that Christ would return in 1844,
starting a movement that would eventually produce the Seventh Day Adventists.
The Oneida colony experimented with eugenics and a religious-based socialism.
The Fox sisters heard the rappings of spirits in their house in western New York
state and started Spiritualism, with its seances, communication with the dead,
and ouija (pronounced "wee-jee") boards. Ann Lee, the founder of Shakerism,
settled there, and the movement (which advocated communal living and strict celibacy)
In the cities, especially in New England, new ideas
from Europe also brought new sects into existence. In Boston, European philosophy
caused many to reject total depravity, the trinity, and other traditional Calvinist
doctrines, and become Unitarians (the name refers to their rejection of the trinity
and their belief in the unity of God). Later, Unitarianism spawned Transcendentalism,
which rejected all Christian dogmas in favor of an individual mystical relation
with nature and with God. The Transcendentalists studied Hindu and Confucian texts,
helped to introduce the study of world religions in America, and were among the
first to do modern higher biblical criticism. Unitarianism, by the end of the
nineteenth century, came to include a large number of persons who did not consider
themselves Christiansonly theistsand a few who, rejecting belief in God, considered
Late nineteenth-century Boston also became the center
of Christian Science, which stresses spiritual healing. Toward the end of the
nineteenth century millions of rural Americans began to move to the cities to
get manufacturing jobs. Among them were many Methodists, who were shocked by how
lax Methodism had become in the cities. To protect their children against the
sins of liquor and dancing these people formed the Church of the Nazarene. Other,
poorer Methodists, stressing the ideas of personal perfection and speaking in
tongues, spawned the Pentecostal and Holiness churches.
Confrontation with New Ideas
After the Civil War, new issues arose which were unlike any that Christianity
had ever faced before, and which eventually proved fatal to the unity of mainline
Protestantism. The first was Darwinism. The Origin of Species was published
in 1859, but not until after the Civil War did it become widely read and debated
in the United States. The initial reaction was quite favorable, and by the turn
of the century most Protestants had accepted evolution. It was only after World
War One, when conservative Protestantism became increasingly vocal, that it became
The second issue was comparative religion. Western
Europeans and Americans, before the nineteenth century, had virtually no contact
with non-Christians, except occasional Turks (in Europe) and Indians (in America).
With the creation of factories, steam ships, railroads, and the telegraph, imperialistic
empires were established that brought westerners in contact with nonwesterners
on a large scale. Western missionaries went out to enlighten the poor, ignorant,
immoral heathen (as they believed), and discovered that the nonwesterners were
considerably more intelligent, sophisticated, and capable than they had imagined.
The naive view that everyone would convert to Christianity as soon as the non-Christians
were exposed to true religion quickly proved naive. Chinese and Japanese immigrated
into the western United States as early as the 1870s and quietly established Buddhist
temples for their own use. By the 1890s Hindu swamis and Buddhist teachers were
touring the United States and publicly criticizing Christian missionaries. Middle
Eastern Muslims began to settle in American cities and even on the prairies as
farmers and built America's first mosques. This is the time the Bahá'í Faith arrived
in America as well. American Christians had to reevaluate their view of other
religions, and in the process had to face the question of the uniqueness of Christianity.
The third issue was biblical criticism. Careful, rigorous
examination of the Bible in its original languages took a new turn in the early
nineteenth century. Scholars became increasingly certain that none of the gospels
were accounts by eyewitness, that Isaiah did not write all of the Book of Isaiah,
and that Moses did not author the Pentateuch. These and other similar conclusions
undermined the assumption that the Bible was a revelation from God. Before the
Civil War, no one worried about whether the Bible was inerrant or literal; its
reliability was assumed, and adjectives were rarely used to define its reliability.
But after the Civil War debate about the nature of the Bible became increasingly
sharp. Since the Bible was the basis of Protestantism, the debate cut to the very
core of the movement.
Mainstream Protestantism began to bifurcate over these
three issues into liberals and conservatives starting in the 1880s and 1890s.
The debate became more sharp after 1900 and became a schism after World War One.
At that time the conservativeswho were dubbed Fundamentalists by their opponents,
and who accepted the namebecame vocal in their opposition to biblical criticism
and Darwinism. They moved to take over the Protestant denominations from the liberals,
who had controlled them. The Scopes trial, where a high school biology teacher
was put on trial for teaching evolution in 1925, made conservative Protestantism
the laughing stock of the nation, even though Scopes was found guilty and fined.
At the same time fundamentalism completely failed to conquer the denominations.
As a result, fundamentalism as a movement dropped out of the limelight after 1925.
However, it did not disappear. The mainline denominations
continued to have liberal and conservative factions and they continued to struggle;
the liberal/conservative split is one of the most fundamental aspects of American
religion in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Conservative Protestant
colleges grew rapidly during the depression and conservatives soon dominated the
new fields of radio and television evangelism. After World War Two a more moderate
evangelical Protestantism became respectableBilly Graham was its primary spokesman.
Starting about 1970 a new, more vocal evangelicalism emerged; the Moral Majority
and Jerry Falwell were manifestations of this movement. As the twentieth century
yielded to the twenty-first, a vocal and active evangelical Protestantism came
to dominate the conception of American religion in the minds of many, and acquired
enormous political influence. Liberal Protestantismwhich had been a major
voice in the civil rights movementremained active, but its churches were
losing membership and its voice was less influential culturally.
Sect formation has occurred rampantly in Protestantism
because of its concept of authority: authority is invested in the individual's
interpretation of the Bible. The Protestants have tried hard to curb variant interpretations
with catechisms and creeds, but ultimately they recognize no external authority
that can control the individual's interpretation beside the judgment of God. As
a result, Protestant sects have formed over every conceivable question. Some are
separated over the right form of church government (whether it should be congregational,
presbyterian, or episcopal); some are separated over the nature of the Christian
sacraments (such as the importance of baptism); others divide over theology (such
as universal salvation and free will). Some go beyond the Bible entirely: the
stress in Protestantism on individualism leaves open the possibility of a personal
revelation; thus the Mormons and Christian Scientists claim a new holy book, a
"third testament," revealed through a new prophet. Other churches have split over
seemingly irrelevant matters; the "Christian church" in the Midwest
split into two sects in 1906 over the question of whether local churches could
The United States was only the first example of a
country with rampant and continuous Christian sect formation. In the twentieth
century many Christian sects have formed in Africa as African Christians, reading
the Bible themselves, have rejected the European assumptions of their missionary
teachers and have interpreted the Bible in a way consistent with African culture
and experience. The spread of freedom of religion around the world has resulted
in many new Christian sects in Latin America and Asia as well.
Study of the process of sect formation helps Bahá'ís
appreciate the power of the Covenant in maintaining unity in belief and practice,
as well as the sense felt by all Bahá'ís of being members of one giant world-wide
family. It demonstrates clearly the difference between Christian heresy and Bahá'í
Covenant-breaking. Finally, it gives us a vision of what the Bahá'í Faith would
be like, if it did not have the Covenant to hold the believers together; in the
twenty thousand sects of Christianity we have a glimmer of those "thousand
sects" that 'Abdu'l-Bahá says would form in a day.