The Impact of Religion in Colonial America

In many elementary schools across the United States, young children are taught that the Pilgrims sailed to Plymouth Rock. It’s usually not until they’re a little older they’re taught how the Pilgrims’ religious beliefs led to their exodus to the faraway land that would eventually become the United States of America. Through the spread of religion in Colonial America, different colonies adopted different systems of faith that impacted how they viewed themselves, neighboring colonies, their relationship to England, and their relationship with indigenous peoples.

Relationships Between Colonies

To begin with, many of the colonies attempted to mandate strict religious practices. According to one source, “Eight of the thirteen British colonies had official, or “established,” churches, and in those colonies, dissenters who sought to practice or proselytize a different version of Christianity or a non-Christian faith were sometimes persecuted.” (1). This led to strict divisions between an already segmented colonial system. Despite the fact that most of the colonists held Christian beliefs, this mindset of segmentation left some Christian groups believing that their own faith needed legislative protection from outside incursion. This led to the passage of laws that often persecuted religious minority groups, some of which were more restrictive than these minority groups had experienced back in England or elsewhere in Continental Europe. European animosities and practices carried over into the colonies with bitter divisions between Catholics and Protestants, as well as between various Protestant identities. In effect, religion in Colonial America resembled the state of religious beliefs in Europe. 

Groups coalesced based upon their religious beliefs. Generally speaking, The New England colonists were largely Puritans, and the Southern colonies were largely Anglican. The Middle colonies became a mixture of religions which included Quakers, Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, and others. Religion in early America led these groups to new homes, where similar ideas began to spread until confronted by fiery new forms of thought and practice in the 1730s and 1740s.

The First Great Awakening

Throughout the 1730s and 1740s, preachers such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards invigorated the colonies with a revival of religious fervor. Colonial Americans were confronted with a style of religion that placed a greater emphasis on human sinfulness and the necessity that each individual pursues a dramatic conversion experience described as being “born-again.”Fiery sermons such as Edwards’s famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” drove tens of thousands of colonists to adopt this “evangelical” style of Protestantism, which changed the way colonists attended church, lived day-to-day, and sought entertainment (2).

In the eyes of many interpreters, the First Great Awakening planted the seeds of a more individualistic and egalitarian style of religion that would blossom into the revolutionary spirit. Many of the new Christian denominations carried democratic traits and preached empowering populist messages. Common people exercised new authority in their congregations, changing the way that both laypeople and clergy thought about democracy in church and state.

Relationships With Racial Minorities

Contemporary preachers’ focus on the spiritual transformation of being “born-again” led many groups to adopt Protestantism who hadn’t before, such as African American Slaves and Native Americans. George Whitefield made special emphasis on preaching towards these groups and giving them a chance at salvation, despite being a large slave-holder himself (3). Religion in early America allowed disenfranchised groups such as these to take on a larger role in local communities, even if they weren’t fully embraced as equal members of society. Many African American converts became preachers and led independent African American congregations of their own (4).  

From the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620, religion in Colonial America shaped the way colonists lived their lives, interacted with others, and formed their personal beliefs.

As time went on, these shifts in religious identity laid a foundation for a broader shift in identity across the colonies from “British citizens” to independent Americans.