Religion in the New World exploded into the land with the colonization of thousands of immigrants. It played an important role in the development of thought in the West.
Religion was one of the first concepts to spark the desires of people from other countries to emigrate to the new lands. While many religions blossomed on the American shores of the Atlantic, a basic structure held for most of them, being predominantly derived from Puritanism. Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement, showed the link the new settlers had to God when Sir Thomas Dale said the following in 1610: “Be not dismayed at all For scandall cannot doe us wrong, God will not let us fall. Let England knowe our willingnesse, For that our work is good; Wee hope to plant a nation Where none before hath stood” (Morison, pg. 89).
Originally, when Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of America en route to Asia, he was not interested in discovering new lands. Most Europeans at the time were looking for a way to get to the oldest part of the Old World, the East Indies. An ocean route was sought to the countries that were believed to contain riches beyond European comprehension, thus avoiding having to pay hundreds of miscellaneous middlemen involved with trade, also making for a shorter journey. These motivations were accompanied by the desire to convert the heathen to Christianity, which had been declining since the rise of Islam. By uniting some of the Western Asian countries with Christianity, Europeans hoped to form a formidable team against the Turks and recover the valuable Holy Land (Morison, p. 55). Columbus was sure that God had sent him to complete this task and that he was destined to carry the good Christian ways to heathen lands. A Spanish settlement was made in 1609 named Santa Fe in what is now New Mexico (Curti, p. 167). Hundreds of thousands of Pueblo Indians were then converted to Christianity.
At the same time, across the country, England was establishing its first settlement at Jamestown. Originally, the English, who colonized alongside the French, saw settlements in the New World as strictly trading posts, but they soon realized the valuable opportunities that lay in the virgin lands of America, such as cotton, tobacco, and several other agricultural products that could not be found anywhere else. Many of England’s problems could be solved in America, and so colonization began.
When the earliest settlers came, England had the responsibility to continue the Protestant Church and prevent the Catholic Church from converting the entire Native American population of North America (Morison, p. 105). A potential Protestant refuge could be based therein the threat of civil wars or a change of religion. The first to settle in America were Separatists, or Puritans who had seceded from the Church of England. After having been exiled to the Netherlands and cast into slavery by the overpowering and more economically sound Dutch, the Separatists yearned for a place of their own to live where they could worship as they chose, but at the same time find some financial success.
They intended to locate near the mouth of the Hudson River to set up a trading post and fishing settlement. In 1620, the Mayflower Pilgrims, who brought Puritanism with them to the New World, founded the Plymouth Colony. Puritanism was responsible for the colonization of New England, eventually influencing the existence of the Congregational, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, Quaker, and other Protestant sects in the United States. Since seventeenth-century English and Scottish Puritanism mostly influenced these churches, it is not surprising that Puritan ways of thinking and doing have had a vast effect on the American mind and character, precursors of what is referred to as the Protestant Ethic.
The Puritans who lived in the Plymouth Colony shared some basic doctrines with the Catholic Church. They agreed that man existed for the glory of God, and that his first concern in life should be to do God’s will, and by doing this he would be happy. They disagreed with the Catholic Church because they disagreed with the forms and ceremonies adopted by the congregations. Confession, Penance, Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage, Confession, and Last Rites were all looked upon as invented by man.
The Puritans therefore considered these ceremonies not holy. The Puritans (Johnson, p. 1) also rejected the Catholic and Anglican Church’s hierarchy and even their worship of symbols such as the cross, statues, and stained-glass windows. By 1630, Puritanism ruled New England almost entirely. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were some of the colonies that relied on Puritanism.
As Samuel Eliot Morison states, “New Englanders, however they differed in property and occupation, had a common belief in the Bible as the guide to life, and a uniform method of land division and settlement” (Morison, pg. 167). Governments based on the ideals of the religion represented in the town were emerging all over the newly shaping country. The great majority of emigrants to New England were middle-class farmers, tradesmen, and artisans. Since Puritanism did not condemn manual labor as some religions did, and since every man, no matter how poor, could vote if he joined the church, independent yeoman farmers quickly became the backbone of the community.
In 1632, in the northern part of Virginia, an Anglican colony, Charles I cut a slice of land for his friend, Lord Baltimore. Charles I intended to give Lord Baltimore a monopoly of the commerce and fisheries between the latitude of Philadelphia and the south bank of the Potomac. The area was named Maryland supposedly in honor of Queen Henrietta Maria, but really in honor of the Virgin Mary. Lord Baltimore intended to make this land a refuge for English and Irish Roman Catholics, as New England had become a refuge for Puritans.
Although Catholics had been much more severely discriminated against in England than Puritans, far fewer Catholics were willing to emigrate, thus Maryland never became a predominantly Catholic colony (Morison, p. 133). Other religions that sprouted from Puritanism were also beginning to take shape. Education linked with religion was quickly becoming a parental responsibility. The religious sentiment of the time was basic. The major motive in colonial education was religious as well as humane” (Morison, p.).
114) A popular rhyme of 1647 by Ezekiel Cheever, a beloved schoolmaster who taught for ninety-two years, lightly states: “The lads with Honour first and Reason rule; Blows are but for the refractory fool. But, oh! First teach them their great God to fear; That you, like me with joy may meet them here.” (Morison, pg. 233). Many American settlers also feared that education would not be possible in the New World since English universities had been closed to Puritans. In 1636, Harvard College opened for the benefit of the Puritan colonists.
Virginia had several religious practices in common with New England. The earlier laws of Virginia forbade things like card-playing and dice-throwing, owing to the Puritan notion that it wasted precious time (Morison, p. 136). There was a fine of 50 pounds of tobacco for missing church on a Sunday. A vestryman and two churchwardens, who served as the moral policemen, governed each Virginia parish. These churchwardens presided over all cases involving bastardy, adultery, blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking, slander, backbiting, and other scandalous offenses (Morison, p. 136). The Anglican Church in Virginia, however, desperately needed ministers due to the lack of any official institution, like Harvard, with which to train them. By 1672, four out of five Virginia parishes were vacant. Although Virginia and New England had much in common, they also varied a great deal. Almost all Englishmen in the seventeenth century were interested in religion, and everyone who read anything, read works on divinity. A surprising number of books in private Virginian libraries were devoted to Puritan theology.
Through all this, a fundamental difference between Puritanism in New England and Puritanism in Virginia showed through. In the Northern colonies, it was a positive and prevalent way of life, difficult for anyone to escape. Puritanism in Virginia, however, simply reflected the average Englishman’s desire to support honesty and morality, in the absence of the Anglican ways of discipline and authority (Morison, p. 138).
Farther South, in South Carolina, French Protestants were beginning to settle near Charleston. After the Edict of Nantes was repealed in 1685, religious toleration of the Huguenots went with it. After thousands emigrated from Prussia and England, the English colonies welcomed them. Carolina settlers were eager for Protestant workers who knew how to cultivate olives and vines, and they certainly received ample fulfillment. These liberty-loving French were basically responsible for securing policies concerning slavery in the South, making it a practice that would become widely accepted by 1681 (Curti, p. 189).
Newer, more liberal religions were starting to take shape as well. The Quakers were a left-wing Puritan sect founded by George Fox in England around 1650. Fox differed from the Puritans, who found authority in the Bible, in that he believed that the direct word of God lay in the human soul (Curti, p. 147). His followers believed that all men were created equal. They called themselves the Friends. During the first two years of Charles II’s reign, some 3,000 Quakers were imprisoned because of his opposition to their beliefs. Severe laws opposing Quakers were passed in every colony except Rhode Island. In New York, they were tortured, and in Boston, they were hanged. Finally, in 1670, they received social recognition.
Even though they had finally gained a fair amount of toleration, the Quakers aspired to get away from England’s corrupt society, as the Puritans had done fifty years before. In 1682, William Penn was left a small fortune by his father. He used this to obtain an impressive proprietary province, which he named Pennsylvania. Quakers went on to create Philadelphia, complete with some of the best hospitals and charitable institutions in the English colonies by 1689.
By 1760, Philadelphia had become the principal port of entry for foreigners. The German immigrants belonged mainly to sects which were discriminated against in Europe, such as the Mennonites, Moravians, German Baptists, Puritanic Lutherans, and others. Many of these immigrants settled in the upper regions of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina (Curti, p. 178).
By this time, the once-raging fire for Puritanism had all but burned its last ember. Although people still attended services, they had become more meetings than church sermons. To combat this lax attitude towards the one thing that used to cause such an uproar, in 1734 some New England Congregationalists and Middle-colony and Southern Presbyterians began a revival known as the Great Awakening. This was the first important religious revival in English colonies; no other religious movement had ever created such a stir.
It stimulated fresh interest in Christianity and caused hundreds of new churches to be founded. Most importantly, the Great Awakening brought with it the expansion of Christianity to the American frontier, so that the newly independent frontiersmen carried with them the same zeal for religion as the old dependent colonists had. The newer churches that were established erupted with religious outbursts, extremely unlike the old highbrow Harvard ministers’ way of preaching. These new churches were called New Light churches, many of which later became Baptist or Methodist. New England, in 1763, was racially homogeneous, with few blacks, Irish, Scots, or Germans.
Nearly 90 percent of churches were Congregational. Social life in the country revolved around each Congregational church, and town governments now gave everyone a chance to participate. This lack of variety throughout New England provided unity, and several new cities sprang up and prospered along the Eastern Shore. Following the American Revolution, the common side effects of war plagued the country. Moral and religious standards were declining.
A general spirit of tolerance and religious liberty was in the air. The Presbyterians gathered often from 1785-1788 to form an official faith named the Presbyterian Church of America. In the Anglican Church, another major change was taking place, when Methodists finally broke free of their mother church in 1784. Until that point, the Anglican Church had enjoyed the monopoly it received of performing all marriages in southern colonies and in parts of New York.
Finally, the Protestant Episcopal Church was organized at a series of conventions between 1784 and 1789. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson declared in the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty that ‘No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.’ Religion has been a large part of American life, even from the beginning. Religion was probably the most influential force in the founding of America, creating a sense of unity and purpose among the colonists and also providing a major reason for colonization in the first place. Religious doctrines taught each person to consider themselves a significant, if sinful, unit to whom God had given a particular place and duty, and that they must help their fellow man. Religion, therefore, is an American heritage to be grateful for and not to be given indignity because it required everyone to attend divine worship and maintain a strict code of ethics.