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United States of America

Christianity in the United States, like the Christian faith in other ages and lands, reveals the marks of time and space. The discovery of America and the birth of Protestantism were almost contemporaneous events. This fact helps explain the prevailing “protestant” character of American Christianity transplanted from the Old World. The major space factor is found in the fact that for almost three centuries of her history America and her churches were in continuous contact with frontier conditions and frontier needs. This combination of time and space shaped a unique type of Christianity, clearly distinguishable from the Christian faith in other ages and in other realms.

The English policy of private enterprise in establishing new colonies, and the westward spread of America's peoples, gave ample opportunity for the spread of religious diversity in the new land. From the settlement at Jamestown (1607) to the Civil War this denominational diversity was almost altogether within the Protestant, and chiefly the Puritan,* tradition. The second half of the nineteenth century saw much greater variety appear in the emergence of indigenous religious cults and large numbers of immigrants from Europe, most of whom had no part in the Puritan past.

The Founding Fathers of the new nation recognized this religious pluralism in the colonies and wrote into the First Amendment to the Constitution the separation of church and state, “the fair experiment,” as Thomas Jefferson called it: no single church could stake a firm claim to a privileged status in the new nation. Thus the adoption of the First Amendment to the Constitution (1791) safeguarded the freedom for all by granting privileges to none.

The religious needs of the frontier coupled with this disestablishment policy of the new government forced the churches to employ new techniques, based on voluntaryism*, for winning people to the Christian faith. Revivals proved to be the highly successful means of planting vital Christianity across the continent. The Great Awakening,* the successful colonial crusade for souls, became the model for a series of spiritual awakenings spanning America's religious history.

Revivals consisted of appeals for conversions to Christ and His church, They were aimed at individuals. Thus the independent- minded pioneer found a kindred spirit in the leaders of the spiritual awakenings. This expression of individualism in religion, as well as politics, nurtured an almost endless assortment of voluntary societies aimed at bringing the kingdom of God to the American continent.

These characteristics of Christianity in the USA-religious pluralism, separation of church and state, revivalism,* and individualism-are (as well as social activism and ecumenism) the chief marks of America's religious uniqueness.

The history of Christianity on the American shores may be divided into four major periods: the Formative Years 1607-1776, the Frontier or National Years 1776-1860, the Critical Years 1860- 1914, and the Post-Protestant Years 1914 to the present.

(1) The Formative Years 1607-1776. The Protestant Reformation* led to a host of national churches, sects, and dissenters. The refuge for many of those persecuted for conscience in Europe was colonial America. While politics, economics, and social advantage had their part in the early growth of the colonies, religion was responsible for the founding of more colonies than any other single factor. These colonies were English colonies, and the multiplicity of religious bodies within them was largely the result of a policy of toleration pursued by English authorities. The colonies were also commercial ventures. To be profitable they needed people to clear the forests and plant the fields. Thus colonial authorities promoted religious toleration in the New World as an inducement for persecuted peoples.

To this economic advantage we must add the growing religious diversity within England herself. Through the 1600s the British were struggling toward greater religious toleration at home. Many religious minorities, caught up in this struggle, chose the opportunities of the New World over the continued conflicts in their homeland. Although religious diversity early became a fact of life in the colonies, this multiplicity of sects was within an overarching unity. The vast majority of the religious groups stood within a common tradition, British in background and Puritan in theology. The first census in 1790 revealed this British predominance: 70 percent of the population was of English stock, and an additional 15 percent was of Scottish or Scotch- Irish descent. Even among the remaining non-British minorities-Germans, Dutch, French, Swedes-the Protestant background prevailed.

Once firmly rooted, this American Puritanism was naturally subject to change. The Great Awakening, in particular, gave Puritanism in the new land a decidedly evangelical character, even as it helped to create an American religious consensus. New England, where Puritanism first took root, is the best illustration of the difficulties encountered by Christians who attempted to maintain the traditional establishment idea. The first congregation in New England was the little Separatist group at Plymouth, planted in the New World by the 1620 landing of the Mayflower. Eight years later the much larger Puritan immigrations began in and around Boston. By securing a charter for the Massachusetts Bay Company and transporting it to the colony, the early Puritans were able to display to the whole world what a true church “after God's order” was like.

The first General Court of the colony (1631), composed of the governor and the freemen, linked the franchise with church membership. Five years later the court, in order to ensure religious uniformity, gave magistrates power over the churches. The clergy, however, through control of the franchise and through influence upon the magistrates, exerted considerable influence over public conduct. This functional alliance between magistrate and minister was the heart of the “holy commonwealth.”

Dissent, however, was never far removed. Roger Williams,* who arrived in Boston in 1631, was among the first to challenge the Puritan “theocracy.” He spread the idea that civil authority and spiritual authority should be separated. His persistence in this novelty led in 1635 to a sentence of banishment from the colony. By fleeing the colony in the middle of winter he was able, after securing land from the Indians, to settle at the present site of Providence, Rhode Island. After being joined shortly by others, he set up a new colony founded on the separation principle. Thus religious uniformity in New England was gravely threatened almost from the start. Other attempts at religious establishments-the Dutch in New Amsterdam and the Anglicans in the southern colonies-were even less successful than the Puritans in New England.

By the end of the century the shell of Puritan orthodoxy lingered in New England, but much of the spiritual vision of the first generation-a church of “visible saints”-had vanished. The recovery of a vital religious experience is the story of the Great Awakening.

(2) The Frontier Years 1776-1860. When winds of revolution filled the colonial air, many of the churches supported the cause of independence. The Congregationalists, the Presbyterians, and the Baptists were almost universally in favor of it. Understandably the Episcopalian Church suffered most. While more Episcopalians signed the Declaration of Independence than any other colonial denomination, the royal governors and other colonial officials were usually Church of England men and many Loyalists were found within the church. Because of the religious diversity in the colonies, the founding documents of the new nation banned any religious test for public office and separated the spheres of state and church. Although a few state constitutions were slow in following the lead of the national documents, notably Massachusetts till 1833, most Christians regarded the “experiment” in religious freedom a wise course.

The Constitution had hardly been adopted when people began streaming westward. By 1860 states were rapidly forming west of the Mississippi. This movement of population continued until the entire continent had been peopled. The denominations most successful in moving with the people and in establishing churches in the new territories became, understandably, the largest bodies in the new nation. The Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians proved most adaptable to the frontier, while a fourth denomination, the Disciples of Christ, was born in the Ohio Valley through the preaching of Barton W. Stone* and Alexander Campbell.*

The technique widely used in reaching the unchurched masses was revivalism, a type of preaching that sought to make listeners vividly aware of their eternal destiny and of the importance of a thoroughgoing conversion to the Christian faith. A special type of revivalistic meeting also came into being by 1800, the “camp meeting.”* These meetings were great outdoor gatherings for preaching that lasted several days. First employed by Presbyterians, they later became a characteristic Methodist technique for inducing excitement and conversions. The revivalistic spirit was in time tamed and channeled into voluntary societies. These were extra-church agencies, formed for specific purposes by individuals and unrelated structurally to the denominations. Societies were created for establishing Sunday schools, publishing literature, founding academies, and advancing a host of social reforms.

By midcentury this combination of revivals and social reforms had created an evangelical mood that minimized denominational differences before the greater cause of advancing Christ's kingdom throughout the youthful nation. By 1850 the Methodists were the largest denominational body, with a membership nearing 1.5 million, followed by the Baptists with about a million and then the Presbyterians with about a half-million. Major challenges to this evangelical consensus were not long in coming. The generation just prior to the Civil War was marked by controversy and division among the denominations. The Roman Catholic Church, whose roots in America ran back to the founding of Maryland and to the earlier Franciscan missions in the Southwest, received large numbers of immigrants, especially from Ireland. This sudden influx of Catholics aroused Protestant fears. In a similar way Lutherans, who had shown a willingness to adopt the cooperative spirit of the revivalistic denominations, were thrown into new internal tensions after 1830 with the arrival of many conservative Lutherans from Germany.

The greatest cause of controversy, however, was the national slavery issue. By 1830 a far-reaching agricultural revolution in the South made the region dependent upon slave labor. At the same time a radical abolitionist movement in the North contributed to the widening breach between the two sections of the country. Most of the denominations were torn apart by the diverging ideologies. The Presbyterians, owing to the presence of theological problems, divided first in 1837. In 1845 southern Methodists and Baptists split and formed denominations. The divisions among Presbyterians and Baptists have yet to be healed.

(3) The Critical Years 1860-1914. During Reconstruction, various church agencies poured money and men into the South to bring religion and education to the masses of Negroes just released from slavery. A number of independent Negro churches also gave expression to the newfound freedom. Baptist and Methodist churches made the greatest appeal to the Negro; by the end of the century most Negro Christians could be found in the National Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (see American Negro Churches).

The years following 1860 also witnessed continued waves of immigrations destined to change markedly the religious face of the USA. Large numbers of Scandinavians, especially in the upper Midwest, led to the formation of independent Lutheran churches-generally along nationality lines-and made Lutherans the third-largest Protestant denomination. Other immigrations from E and S Europe after 1880 resulted in millions of additional Roman Catholics in the USA.

The critical nature of these years is most evident, however, in the turmoil created by the influx of new ideas relating to the Bible. German Idealism and the evolutionary theory, as set forth by Charles Darwin* in his Origin of Species, had serious implications for the traditional view of God and creation; and higher criticism, which tested the authenticity of the biblical writings by the same methods used in testing other ancient literature, appeared to undermine the foundations of traditional evangelical supernaturalism. Positive or negative attitudes toward these new views of the Bible threatened to divide the evangelical denominations and paved the way for the controversy involving “modernists” and “fundamentalists” after the turn of the century.

A related conflict swirled around the emerging social conscience within the churches. Evangelical denominations, chiefly Methodists and Baptists, which had once been identified with the poor, were rapidly becoming churches of the upper middle class. At the same time, the industrial and urban society that arose after the Civil War was attracting the attention of certain Protestant leaders who called for the application of the principles of Jesus to the new industrial-urban problems. This new concern was labeled the “Social Gospel.”* It found its most persuasive advocate in Walter Rauschenbusch* and its specific goals stated in the Social Creed of the Federal Council of Churches. Nor could traditional revivalism escape these pronounced changes in American society. Revivals became mass, urban, professional, and organized movements through the ministry of D.L. Moody* and Ira Sankey.* Then, supported by Moody's great reputation, the Bible school* and Bible conference movements rallied many conservatives attempting to stem the tide of liberal views of Scripture. This wedding of revivalism and biblical conservatism fashioned the cradle of twentieth-century fundamentalism.*

(4) The Post-Protestant Years 1914-1970. These conflicting views of the Bible and plans of social actions resulted in the fundamentalist- modernist debate of the 1920s. This controversy produced a fundamentalism largely interdenominational in character and major Protestant denominations led by men more concerned with programs of action than theological soundness.

Scarcely had modernism tasted a measure of victory over fundamentalism in the traditional evangelical denominations than it was faced with a new theological challenge. The 1930s disclosed a deepening criticism of modernism's basic affirmations. The new mood was difficult to characterize, but was given an able American statement in the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr.* It was often popularly called “Neoorthodoxy.”* This new theology reasserted the sovereignty of God and repudiated the notion that man has almost unlimited potential for good. Neoorthodoxy also rediscovered the “original sin” of man, not in the sense of an act of disobedience by a man named Adam, but in the sense of man's universal moral failure. Finally, the new theological mood stressed the central importance of the Bible and Christ as indispensable mediators of God's special revelation to man.

The years between the two world wars also witnessed the growth of the ecumenical spirit through interdenominational cooperation, organic reunion, and confederation.* The Student Volunteer Movement* and the formation of the United Presbyterian Church,* USA, illustrate the first two methods. The Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, organized in 1908, was an early example of confederation. But the Federal Council gave way in 1950 to the more comprehensive National Council of Churches. In addition to the Federal Council, the new council embraced the Foreign Missions Conference of North America and the International Council of Religious Education and represented more than thirty denominations. Because of the long-standing differences with the Federal Council's liberal social orientation and doctrinal deficiencies, conservative evangelicals preferred to cooperate along the lines of voluntary agencies. The National Association of Evangelicals* (1942), the National Sunday School Association (1945), and the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association* (1945) were among the host of interdenominational agencies giving continued evidence of conservative cooperation.

The 1960s in the USA found the country filled with social unrest. Racial tensions and war-peace fevers were especially evident in the life of the churches. Churchmen were prominent in the public arena, demonstrating for racial justice or for peace in Vietnam. Against this background a “secular theology” arose which saw Christ as “a man for others” and the church's primary mission in terms of “humanizing” the social order. Conservatives, on the other hand, poured their energies into support of Billy Graham* Crusades or other evangelistic endeavors with the submerged hope that the world could be changed by the conversion of masses of individuals. These two emphases tended to polarize Christians into camps of “social activists” and “individual salvationists.”

Late in the 1960s a rather unusual revival of fundamental Christianity erupted from the youth counterculture. The “Jesus Movement,” as national magazines labeled it, was marked by remarkable conversions of former drug users, Bible study, some “speaking in tongues,” and a lifestyle more in harmony with the earlier hippie culture than that of suburban churches.

C.E. Olmstead, History of Religion in the United States (1960); W.S. Hudson, Religion in America (1965); S.E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (1972).