CHRISTIANITY IN COLONIAL AMERICA
For this class, you will be reading Allitt, Major Problems, chapter 3 (pp 59-90). I offer the following questions as a means of helping you approach the material, and draw out themes that we will be discussing in class.
We think of colonial America as being occupied by “Puritans”, but in fact, the colonies were occupied by a large number of different denominations and movements, with far more co-existing than anywhere in Europe at this time. What were the main groups? Why were there so many?
Churches in the British Colonies in America
1660 1740 1780
Congregationalists 75 423 749
Episcopalians 41 246 406
Dutch Reformed 13 78 127
German Reformed - 51 201
Catholics 12 20/40? 56
Presbyterian 5 160 495
Lutherans 4 95 ?
Baptists 4 96 457
Quakers ? ? 200
Jews (synagogues) 1 ? 6
total (approximate) 150 1200 2500
By 1780, therefore, the Congregationalists have about 30 percent of churches, while the Presbyterians, Baptists and Episcopalians have a total of 55 percent between them. In other words, the four top denominations have about 85 percent of total.
Looking at this table, what can we learn about the groups that did particularly badly or well during these years. Why did this happen? Who did best in the colonial religious economy? Who lagged behind? What decided whether a group flourished or failed? Which groups were best or worst equipped to cope with the coming age of revolution and continental expansion?
By the way, when looking at this kind of material, please remember that this just refers to the British colonies, not to other regions that would later be incorporated into the United States. How different would the religious picture look if we consider the whole continent? What were the other great centers of religious activity?
On a related issue, why are our memories of colonial times so fixated on New England? How and when did this emphasis emerge?
What were the leading British-derived churches? What were their distinctive ideas?
What were the other major ethnic groups, and which churches had they brought with them?
Colonial America looks quite familiar to a modern audience in having a wide range of “denominations” coexisting together, but we need to remember how amazing this would have seemed to a contemporary observer. How did such an amazing phenomenon occur?
What does “Puritanism” mean? In what sense were the churches of New England “Puritan”? How did that affect their attitude towards law and civil society?
Read John Winthrop’s account of the Covenant on 61-62. What does all this mean? What were the implications of these ideas? What were the implications for various groups and populations – for the Native peoples, say? How have these ideas influenced subsequent American history, up to the present? See the important discussion of all this by the great historian Perry Miller on Allitt, pp 75-83.
What does the idea of an “errand into the wilderness” imply?
How far did the ideas of the Puritan clergy reflect popular practice among ordinary people? See especially the account of corruption and depravity (!) on p.79
Early settlers were deeply devoted to education (see pp 64-65). Why? What does this say about their religious traditions? What were they afraid of if they did not develop colleges and schools?
We have a very negative stereotype of “Puritans”. How did that idea arise? In what ways might it be inaccurate? Were the Puritans really that different, or that worse, from religious groups anywhere else in the Christian (or non-Christian) world at this time?
Were the “Puritans” unusual in their attitudes towards witches and witchcraft? Why did they see this as such a major issue? What were they so afraid of? Why has the name “Salem” so defined, and so tainted, the memory of New England? See especially Cotton Mather’s writings in pp 72-75 – read this passage carefully, we’ll be going over it in some detail. How does Mather emerge from this passage?
What would the early Puritans make of modern American churches, were they to reappear in the contemporary world? What would they think of the strength today of Catholicism? Of Pentecostalism? Of Methodism? Where would they find their own successors and heirs?
Why were the churches of the time seemingly so intolerant to other religious groups?
How did ideas of religious toleration and freedom develop?
Why were the Quakers such a controversial group in the colonies, to the point of facing execution and martyrdom?
Why did Catholics represent a kind of absolute evil for early Protestant settlers?
How did readings of the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, affect the practice of government in early America? How did it shape everyday life?
What new religious challenges did New England society face from the end of the seventeenth century? How did the old order gradually break up? Who benefited from this change?
What happened to the established church of old England, the Anglicans? How did they cope in the very decentralized society of America? What particular failures did they face? (see Allitt pp 70-71, and 83-90). How were the clergy regarded in America, compared with European countries?
In short, why did it prove so hard to maintain an established church on the lines familiar from England or Scotland? Having said that - how did they benefit from the crisis of Puritanism?
In short – just what role did religion play in everyday life in colonial America? Was it more or less intrusive than the Catholic church had been in medieval times – and oh, how the Puritans would have hated anyone drawing a comparison like that!
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND TOLERATION
Despite early trends, the achievement of religious freedom would be a major achievement of colonial America. In 1663, the charter of the Rhode Island colony declared that “No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted or called in question, for any difference in opinion in matters of religion; every person may at all times freely and fully enjoy his own judgment and conscience in matters of religious concernment.” How had such a revolutionary doctrine developed?
See also the Maryland act of toleration on 66-67: look especially at the strict penalties against insulting saints or the Virgin Mary. Why are these words here? What were their implications for contemporary religious debate?
What were the consequences of religious freedom? Who was attracted to come to a tolerant land? Why did imperial governments favor generous and tolerant policies in the colonies that they would not grant to residents at home?
Further on the theme of religious persecution, I offer these short documents, mainly on the theme of toleration and its limits in colonial America. Why did Roger Williams want religious freedom? If his ideas seem so obvious to us, why were they so radical in contemporary terms?
Roger Williams to the Town of Providence RI (1655)
That ever I should speak or write a tittle, that tends to such an infinite liberty of conscience, is a mistake, and which I have ever disclaimed and abhorred. To prevent such mistakes, I shall at present only propose this case: There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or a human combination or society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm, that all the liberty of conscience, that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges--that none of the papists, protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship's prayers of worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any. I further add, that I never denied, that notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship's course, yea, and also command that justice, peace and sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help, in person or purse, towards the common charges or defence; if any refuse to obey the common laws and orders of the ship, concerning their common peace or preservation; if any shall mutiny and rise up against their commanders and officers; if any should preach or write that there ought to be no commanders or officers, because all are equal in Christ, therefore no masters nor officers, no laws nor orders, nor corrections nor punishments;--I say, I never denied, but in such cases, whatever is pretended, the commander or commanders may judge, resist, compel and punish such transgressors, according to their deserts and merits. This if seriously and honestly minded, may, if it so please the Father of lights, let in some light to such as willingly shut not their eyes.
I remain studious of your common peace and liberty.
Roger Williams, The Bloody Tenent, Of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644)
All civil states with their officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are . . . essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the Spiritual, or Christian, State and worship. . . . It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of His Son, the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian consciences and worship be granted to all men, in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in Soul matters able to conquer, to wit; the sword of the Spirit--the Word of God. . . . God requireth not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity, sooner or later, is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing consciences, persecution of Christ Jesus in His servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls. . . . An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.
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The Church or company of worshippers (whether true or false) is like unto a . . . Corporation, Society or Company . . . in London; which Companies may hold their Courts, keep their Records, hold disputations; and in matters concerning their Societie, may dissent, divide, breake into Schismes and Factions, sue and implead each other at the Law, yea wholly breake up and dissolve into pieces and nothing, and yet the peace of the Citie not be in the least measure impaired or disturbed; because the essence or being of the Citie, and so the well-being and peace thereof is essentially distinct from those particular Societies; the Citie-Courts, Citie-Lawes, Citie-punishments distinct from theirs. The Citie was before them, and stands absolute and intire, when such a Corporation or Societie is taken down.
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First, That the blood of so many hundred thousand soules of Protestants and Papists, split in the Wars of present and former Ages, for their respective Consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.
Secondly, Pregnant Scriptures and Arguments are throughout the Worke proposed against the Doctrine of persecution for the cause of Conscience.
Thirdly, Satisfactorie Answers are given to Scriptures, and objections produced by Mr. Calvin, Beza, Mr. Cotton, and the Ministers of the New English Churches and others former and later, tending to prove the Doctrine of persecution for cause of Conscience.
Fourthly, The Doctrine of persecution for cause of Conscience, is proved guilty of all the blood of the Soules crying for vengeance under the Altar.
Fifthly, All Civill States with their Officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially Civill, and therefore not Judges, Governours or Defendours of the Spirituall or Christian State and Worship.
Sixthly, It is the will and command of God, that (since the comming of his Sonne the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships, bee granted to all men in all Nations and Countries: and they are onely to bee fought against with that Sword which is only (in Soule matters) able to conquer, to wit, the Sword of Gods Spirit, the Word of God.
Seventhly, The State of the Land of Israel, the Kings and people thereof in Peace & War, is proved figurative and ceremoniall, and no patterne nor president for any Kingdome or civill State in the world to follow.
Eighthly, God requireth not an uniformity of Religion to be inacted and inforced in any civill State; which inforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civill Warre, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisie and destruction of millions of souls.
Ninthly, In holding an inforced uniformity of Religion in a civill state, wee must necessarily disclaime our desires and hopes of the Jewes conversion to Christ.
Tenthly, An inforced uniformity of Religion throughout a Nation or civill State, confounds the Civill and Religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the Flesh.
Eleventhly, The permission of other consciences and worships then a state professeth, only can (according to God) procure a firme and lasting peace, (good assurance being taken according to the wisedome of the civill State for uniformity of civill obedience from all sorts.)
Twelfthly, lastly, true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or Kingdome, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile.
Pennsylvania Charter of Liberty, Laws Agreed Upon in England, etc.1682
XXXIV. That all Treasurers, Judges, Masters of the Rolls, Sheriffs, Justices of the Peace, and other officers and persons whatsoever, relating to courts, or trials of causes, or any other service in the government; and all Members elected to serve in provincial Council and General Assembly, and all that have right to elect such Members, shall be such as possess faith in Jesus Christ, and that are not convicted of ill fame, or unsober and dishonest conversation, and that are of twenty-one years of age, at least; and that all such so qualified, shall be capable of the said several employments and privileges, as aforesaid.
XXXV. That all persons living in this province, who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world; and that hold themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and justly in civil society, shall, in no ways, be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice, in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.
XXXVI. That, according to the good example of the primitive Christians, and the ease of the creation, every first day of the week, called the Lord's day, people shall abstain from their common daily labour, that they may the better dispose themselves to worship God according to their understandings.
XXXVII. That as a careless and corrupt administration of justice draws the wrath of God upon magistrates, so the wildness and looseness of the people provoke the indignation of God against a country: therefore, that all such offences against God, as swearing, cursing, lying, prophane talking, drunkenness, drinking of healths, obscene words, incest, sodomy, rapes, whoredom, fornication, and other uncleanness (not to be repeated) all treasons, misprisions, murders, duels, felony, seditions, maims, forcible entries, and other violences, to the persons and estates of the inhabitants within this province; all prizes, stage-players, cards, dice, May-games, gamesters, masques, revels, bull-baitings, cock-fightings, bear-baitings, and the like, which excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and irreligion, shall be respectively discouraged, and severely punished, according to the appointment of the Governor and freemen in provincial Council and General Assembly; as also all proceedings contrary to these laws, that are not here made expressly penal.
How far does such a law represent religious freedom in any kind of modern sense? Why does the charter include all these seemingly repressive moral laws? (see also the account of William Penn in Allitt pp 68-69)