American Religion - History of Religion in America answers questions

American Religion

Utah rock art
Rock Art from Utah, about 1700 AD

In 1500 AD, there were many different religious faiths across North America. Each group of people worshipped their own gods. All of these faiths did have some things in common though. All of them were polytheistic (they worshipped many gods). All of them thought of some of their gods as being representatives of natural things like rain or the sky or the earth. In these ways, these religions were like Chinese religion, or Hinduism, or African traditional religion, or Greek or Roman religion.

Once most of the people in North America had died of smallpox and measles, though, there were not very many people to carry on these traditions and worship these gods. And many people thought that the gods must be angry with them, or the gods must have left them and gone away, or why would so many people have died? During the 1500s AD, Spanish Catholic priests came from Europe to North America and converted some people in the south to Catholicism.

By 1630, many Pueblo people had converted to Catholicism.
Around 1600 AD, Protestant missionaries began to come from Europe to North America to try to convert people to their own kind of Christianity. Some people did convert, while others decided to stick with their own religion. Meanwhile, more and more Christian settlers began to arrive in North America, especially on the East Coast and the West Coast. These groups included Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, and other Protestant groups. Jewish settlers also came to the East Coast, looking for freedom from persecution, in 1654.

In the 1700s, many more settlers came to North America. Most of them were Protestant Christians, but others were Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist. Some of the people from Africa who came as slaves were Muslims, and some followed traditional African faiths. When men wrote the Constitution of the United States at the end of the 1700s, the Bill of Rights said that all of these religions were allowed, and the United States government could not treat any religion better than any other religion.

During the 1800s, most of the African people who had been enslaved converted from Islam or their traditional African faiths to Christianity. Some became Catholics, but most of them became Protestants, especially Baptists. Also, more and more settlers came to North America from all over Europe and Asia. Many of the people who came from Ireland, Italy, and Poland were Catholics.

There was a lot of fighting between the Protestant and the Catholic Christians in North America. They celebrated Christmas in different ways - for instance, only Protestants had Christmas trees, while Catholics built nativity scenes. But the Bill of Rights' call for religious freedom mostly prevented the government from getting involved. Also in the 1800s, several new religions began in North America. Some important ones were Mormonism, Christian Science, and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Ghost Dance
Ghost Dancers

In the last part of the 1800s, as European and Asian settlers spread out and conquered all of North America, fewer and fewer people followed traditional North American religion. Most Native American people converted to Protestant Christianity. A lot of people followed Wovoka, a Paiute man who believed that he was the Messiah come to save the native people of North America through the Ghost Dance. At the same time, there were a lot of new movements within Protestant Christianity among the white people, where people tried to get closer to God with various different kinds of worship. Some examples are the Shakers and the Oneida community. As women were forced to stop going to public parades, private, home celebrations like Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day became more popular. To make Christmas more of a home holiday, people tried to stop Christmas caroling, and the begging moved first to Thanksgiving, and then back again to Halloween.

In the early twentieth century, many young people moved away from their families and into the big cities to find work in the factories there. A lot of them stopped going to church, or went less often than before. While religion was still very important to most people, many people prayed alone, at home, instead of in churches.

By the 1950s many Protestants began to try to get people to go back to church with new churches. At these new churches, the ministers said that what was really important was your own personal connection with God, and reading the Bible, but they organized Bible study groups and church meetings to help you do that. This movement became very popular, and many people did begin going to church more. This movement is often called Fundamentalist or Evangelical - "Fundamentalist" because it goes back to earlier versions of Christianity, and "Evangelical" because it tries to convert people and get them to go to church.

On the other hand, other people who had been Protestant converted to other religions. Many black people decided in the 1960s to go back to Islam or to traditional African religions. Many white people decided to become Buddhists or Hindus or Taoists. Generally, more people in the South and the center of North America became Fundamentalists or Evangelicals, while more people along the East and West coasts became Muslim, Buddhist, or Taoist, or became atheists and followed no religion at all.

More about the Puritans
More about Native American religion

Bibliography and further reading about American religion:

American History
Native Americans home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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With the Presidential inauguration this weekend, it's a good time to review the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and all the Constitutional amendments since the Bill of Rights. Also check out our articles on people who have been excluded from power in the United States - Native Americans, people of color, Mormons, Quakers, women...