The story of religion in America’s original 13 colonies often focuses on Puritans, Quakers and other Protestants fleeing persecution in Europe, looking to build a community of like-minded believers. Protestants were indeed in the majority, but the reality was far more diverse. Colonial America attracted true believers from a wide array of backgrounds and beliefs, include Judaism, Catholicism and more.
And that’s just the European émigrés. Myriad groups of Indigenous Americans who already lived along the Eastern seaboard had their own beliefs, many of which forged connections between the living, the departed and the natural world, according to Yale emeritus professor Jon Butler in his book New World Faiths: Religion in Colonial America. And African people transported to the colonies as part of the transatlantic slave trade brought their own multiplicity of spiritual practices, which included polytheistic, animist and Islamic beliefs, before merging into new variants of Protestantism.
In 1630, English Puritan lawyer John Winthrop, a founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, invoked the phrase “the city on the hill” to describe the new Christian religious community he and his fellow colonists should aspire to build in service to “God Almighty." But the various believers drawn to, or brought to, the colonies built many proverbial cities, on many hills. Five generations later, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence without mentioning the word “Christ,” and neither the word “God” nor “Christ” appears in the U.S. Constitution, written and ratified a decade later. Both documents have come to enshrine the ideals of a new nation that had a religious foundation—but developed a secular soul.
17th Century: An Emphasis on Religious Uniformity
North America’s English colonies were founded as distinct Protestant societies, with their own charters and, with a few exceptions, an emphasis on religious uniformity.
In Virginia, the oldest of the original 13 colonies, religion was a major topic in the first meeting of the first colonial assembly, the House of Burgesses, in 1619. The representatives passed laws requiring citizens to do “God’s Service,” including mandatory attendance in the Church of England (a.k.a. the Anglican church, Britain’s state-established Protestant denomination that had pulled away from Europe’s long-dominant Roman Catholicism).
After the Pilgrims arrived in New England in 1620, Puritans followed in the 1630s. Both had splintered from Anglicanism, believing in the strict Protestant teachings of John Calvin, who criticized England’s church as still tainted by Catholicism. Once in the New World, Puritans gave their version of Protestantism a new name: Congregationalism.
Anglicans and Congregationalists became the two dominant forces in American religious life for much of the 17th century, with nearly all the new colonies having one or the other as their established faiths. By the early 18th century, American colonies were a place where “religion was basically the culture,” says Alan Taylor, professor of history at the University of Virginia. In spite of geographic and linguistic diversity, he says, the colonies were dominated by the near uniform “conviction that there will be more social peace and a better moral order if everyone goes to the same church.”
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A Handful of Colonies Promote Religious Diversity
There were notable exceptions to this attitude among the colonies.
One was in Rhode Island, where a breakaway Puritan named Roger Williams, who’d been expelled from Massachusetts in 1635, imagined his new colony on Narragansett Bay as a “shelter for persons distressed of conscience.” He promoted the idea of a society where religion should not be regulated by the state.
The other took root in 1680, when King Charles II paid off a debt by granting 45,000 square miles on the west side of the Delaware River to William Penn, son of an English admiral Penn. A follower of Quakerism, the radical and reviled Protestant sect that rejected nearly all the trappings of church ritual and hierarchy, Penn went on to found Pennsylvania, a new, tolerant colony that attracted not only Anglicans, but a variety of German Protestants, from Lutherans to Pietists, and even some Catholics.
For its part, Maryland was founded in 1634 as a refuge for English Catholics fleeing religious wars in Europe.
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The 'Great Awakening' Ushers in Even More Diversity
Then, in the mid-18th century, came the most important religious event of pre-Revolutionary America: the 'Great Awakening.' That’s when an evangelical style of preaching upended religious traditions and helped reinvigorate America’s religious culture, making it more energetic, more diverse and more independent—especially outside New England. The movement’s key figure, an Anglican minister named George Whitefield, made several tours through the colonies between 1739 and his death in 1770. With an actor’s voice and a vivid stage manner, writes Butler, he attracted huge crowds, addressing the greatest concern among all Protestant believers: eternal salvation.
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Whitefield and other inspired preachers helped establish new communities of Protestants, including Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians.
The Great Awakening led to greater participation of women in the new Baptist movement, and the first significant attempts to convert enslaved Africans.
It also enshrined the act of choice in American life. Before the Great Awakening, says Taylor, what was normal in the colonies was “everyone in a community going to the same church.” What was normal after the Great Awakening, he says, “is the individual making choices.”
Enslaved Africans Bring Their Own Beliefs; Some Become Baptists
As the transatlantic slave trade dramatically grew, nearly 1 in 5 of the 1.1 million people living in the 13 colonies was Black by the mid-18th century.
Enslaved Africans brought with them a range of religious beliefs. Some practiced Christianity, which had found converts on the western African coast starting in the 16th century. Some were Muslim. Most practiced animist beliefs, worshipping spirits that infuse people, animals and inanimate objects. They kept those beliefs alive through music, dance, healing arts and other types of cultural expression.
Relatively little is known about the religious life of the enslaved during early colonial America, says James Sidbury, a professor of history at Rice University. “North American slave owners didn’t care about their slaves’ beliefs,” he says, and “a deeply paternalistic interest in slaves’ religious development” didn’t take hold until the 19th century.
Following the Great Awakening, Black church membership, including enslaved and the freed, increased dramatically, says Sidbury, as Baptists, Methodists and some Presbyterians sought out converts of all races.
The first handful of Black Protestant churches were Baptist, founded in the 1770s in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. But most enslaved people would have been worshiping alongside whites, or carving out spiritual spaces on their own.
Religious life on southern plantations, says Sidbury, “must have been a very complicated mix of true Christian converts and a lot of curious folk and others who were holding onto more traditional ways of living.” Tolerance in this world was important, he adds, because the deep oppression and violent reality of chattel slavery meant cooperation among the enslaved was a matter of survival.
Small Pockets of Islam and Judaism
Islam was the dominant religion in the upper reaches of sub-Saharan Africa, and there is evidence of Muslim believers among North America’s enslaved Africans— in particular, in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Runaway slave ads from the region sometimes made reference to Muslim origins.
Jews became a permanent part of colonial life starting in the second half of the 17thcentury, when Sephardic Jews with origins in Spain and Portugal arrived in New Amsterdam (later renamed New York). Jews also settled in Philadelphia, Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia and Newport, Rhode Island, where the Touro Synagogue, dedicated in 1763, survives as the oldest surviving synagogue building in the United States.
The Founders’ Faiths
On the eve of the American Revolution, no single Protestant denomination could claim more than one-fifth of the colonies’ religious adherents, according to Butler. The Church of England—once dominant, and gradually reconvened as Episcopalianism following the break with England—was down to about 15 percent.
The leading Founders—including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison—were all nominal Christians, but scholars have noted that they tended to eschew doctrinal beliefs. And the American Revolution itself is regarded as a “profoundly secular event,” writes Butler.
Many Founders were followers of Deism, a set of Enlightenment ideas, vaguely grounded in opposition to religious orthodoxies, that was marked by skepticism, rationalism and the close observation of nature. Some Deists, such as Thomas Paine, rejected Christianity outright.
The former colonies, now new states, typically still had established religions. (The Congregationalist Church remained the Massachusetts state religion until the 1830s.) But the founding documents of the Revolutionary period recalibrated the role of religion away from government—starting at the national level, with the states following.