The furious debate in some quarters over whether America was born a “Christian nation” is ironic. The historical record shows that America was not born Christian, but grew to be very Christian centuries later.
Some Religious Right activists believe that were it to be accepted as a fact that pre-1800 Americans were deeply Christian, a new light would be cast on current debates about where (if anywhere) to draw a line between Church and State today. In the sense of the Supreme Court’s search for “originalist” interpretations of the Constitution, Christian dogma would be an originalist justification for, say, reintroducing prayer into schools. But the story of Early American religion is, in fact, a quite different one.
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The impression of great piety among the settlers is a common view of the past, probably rooted in the outsize role that the Puritans play in our mental pictures of Early America. The Puritans, however, were an odd lot in America—the exception, not the rule. (They are a prominent exception, thanks to the cultural power of their New England descendants and the voluminous records they left. One historian has complained that we “know more about the Puritans than any sane person should want to know.”)
Over the wider American landscape, however, colonists were notably “unchurched” and “un-Christian.” Scattered around in separate households (unlike the Puritans who concentrated in villages), most Americans had no church to go to and little connection to what we would call organized religion. Even where there were churches to attend, many went either irregularly or simply because the church was one of the rare places—along with the tavern—to see people in a sparsely-developed society.
Stepahnie Wolf, in her study of Revolutionary-era Germantown, Pennsylvania, estimated that only about half of the residents attended church, and that is probably a high watermark, since the community was urban and well-off, and the period was one of religious enthusiasm.
Such waves of enthusiasm (“Awakenings”) in some places and at some times rallied some people to faith, but the clergy generally despaired of the heathens who had settled the new continent. One minister trying to save souls in the American heartland in the early 1800s wrote that “there are American families in this part of the country who never saw a bible, nor heard of Jesus Christ [. . .] the whole country, from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico, is as the valley of the shadow of death.”
Most early Americans were not believers in the sense that affirming Christians are today. They were likelier to understand spells, potions, and omens than theological doctrines. Almanacs sold briskly in part because they provided guides to the occult. It took a lot of hard missionary work to displace magic with Christ.
The colonial elites, some of whom became Founding Fathers, themselves tended to be vaguely Christian. Even John Adams, a cultural conservative who struggled against the radical Thomas Jefferson, was “only” a Unitarian.
Evangelical movements in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries sent preachers out to Christianize the unorganized settlers. They competed against religious ignorance, but also against each other and the established churches. Their message of a democratic faith, in which the poor, the uneducated, and even the fallen, not just the pre-elected elite, could someday sit at God’s throne eventually brought the upstart Protestant movements, such as Methodism, Baptism, and others, like Mormonism, increasing success.
Later, over the course of the nineteenth century, middle-class Americans in great numbers formed and joined churches and by the twentieth century, they had made church-going a norm. Importantly, it was around 1900, give or take a generation, that religious fundamentalism took form in reaction to the growing role of science. That “old time religion,” ironically, may be only about a century or so old.
The “normal” religious life many Americans seem to remember is the life of the 1950s, when church-building and church-attending boomed—not coincidentally, along with the Baby Boom. Those years were the peak of church membership and attendance in American history—much higher than in Early America—but not that much higher than today.
We err if we project that 1950s culture back to the early days of America. And we underestimate the accomplishment of legions of traveling ministers who eventually, rural hollow by rural hollow, Christianized America.
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This story, well-known to historians of religion, casts light on current controversies.
For example, Michael Hout and I have pointed out the growth since about 1990 in the proportion of Americans who answered “none” when asked in surveys what religion they were. Some readers were led to cheer or to bemoan an increase in atheism and agnosticism. That is not what is happening. What may be on the rise is a reorientation away from standard, organized religion. What many people mean by their answers of “none” is that they have no religion in particular, or that they prefer their spirituality outside the walls and rules of an organized institution.
In the history of American religion, such developments would be no more radical than the sorts of orientations Americans of earlier generations had. Many in the nineteenth century, for example, were of whatever faith happened to be preached at this season’s camp revival. Others insisted on combining elements of Christianity with theologically incompatible folk beliefs and superstitions. The history of religion in America puts the perturbations of today’s religious activities in perspective. And thus, also, the debate over Christian Early America.
If people want to justify a larger role for religion in the public square, there are grounds to do so. But appealing to an “original” Christian America is inaccurate and probably unnecessary.
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Another version of this post appears at http://madeinamericathebook.wordpress.com/. Expansion on these points can be found in Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character.—ed.