"They knew they were pilgrims," wrote William Bradford, one of their first governors, of the little group of English men and women who set sail from the city of Leyden, Holland, in 1620. Though the people of Holland had welcomed them, the little group of English Protestants had never felt really at home there. Now they were sailing for England on the first step of their journey to the New World.
The Pilgrims left behind them a continent torn by religious quarrels. For over a thousand years, Roman Catholic Christianity had been the religion of most of Europe. But by the 16th century, many people had grown to resent the richly decorated churches and ornate ceremonies of the Catholic Church. They resented the power of the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, as well as the bishops, many of whom lived as magnificently as civil rulers.
Early in the 16th century, Martin Luther, a
Since the United States became a nation, Americans have insisted upon the right to practice the religion of their choice freely. Religious freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Here, a baptismal ceremony at a Methodist Church in Carlisle, Ohio.
German monk, broke with the Catholic Church. Luther's teaching emphasized direct personal responsibility to God, challenging the role of the Church as an intermediary. A few years later, John Calvin, a French lawyer, also left the Catholic Church. One of his basic concepts was the idea of God as absolute sovereign, another challenge to the Church's authority.
As a result of their protesting of widely accepted teachings, Luther, Calvin and other religious reformers soon became known as Protestants. Their ideas spread rapidly through northern Europe. Soon established Protestant Churches had arisen in several European lands.
The modern concept of religious tolerance was not widespread. People were expected to follow the religion of their king. Catholics and Protestants fought each other and many religious people on both sides died (for their beliefs.
In England, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) formed a national Church with himself as its leader. But many English people considered the Church of England too much like the Catholic Church. They became known as Puritans, because they wanted a "pure" and simple Church. The ideas of John Calvin particularly appealed to these Puritans.
When James I became King of England in 1603, he began to persecute the Puritans. Many went to prison or left the country. The Puritans could not always agree among themselves either. Many small Puritan groups formed in
England. The Pilgrims who went to the New World belonged to one of them.
The Pilgrims left England with a patent, or permission to settle land, from the Virginia Company, a private company which already owned another colony at Jamestown, Virginia. The Pilgrims landed at Cape Cod, a sandy hook of land in what is now the state of Massachusetts. Their patent gave them no authority to settle there—they were too far north. The Pilgrims turned south, but they ran into waves and storms. So they turned north again and anchored in the cape harbor.
Some of the people who had joined the Pilgrims in London began to complain. They said the Pilgrim leaders had no right to govern land not controlled by the Virginia Company. The Pilgrim leaders were faced with a governmental crisis. How could they unite their people to face the dangers of the wilderness?
As religious believers, the Pilgrims had formed a congregation, or small group of church members, by joining themselves together and choosing a minister. They did this through a covenant, or contract, and they considered such congregations the basic unit of the Church.
When the Pilgrims assembled on their ship, the Mayflower, they formed a government in the same way they had formed their congregation. They made a contract, which became known as the "Mayflower Compact."
With this contract, they agreed to form a "civil body politic" which could make "just and equal laws" for the colony. Most of the grown men of the group signed the compact. Then they began the search for a place to build their homes.
Other Puritans soon followed the Pilgrims to Massachusetts and established towns there. Like other Protestants, they read the Bible often and claimed the right to interpret or explain the meaning of the Holy Book for themselves. The Puritans were particularly interested in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament describes the history of the Jewish people as a contract between God and Israel. God's contract with the Jewish people was the model for the covenants by which the Puritans formed their congregations. The Puritans thought of themselves as a special people. "We shall be as a city upon a hill," wrote John Winthrop, (1588-1649) another Puritan leader. "The eyes of all people are upon us."
Like other followers of Calvin, the Puritans considered worldly success a sign of being saved. They considered their increasing prosperity a sign that God was pleased with them. They generally assumed that those who disagreed with their religious ideas were not saved and therefore should not be tolerated.
In 1636, Roger Williams (1603-1683) was forced out of Massachusetts for disagreeing with the ministers there. He founded a colony in what later became the state of Rhode Island. Rhode Island allowed religious freedom to everyone, and it became a refuge for people persecuted for their religion.
Two other American states began as havens of religious freedom. Maryland was founded as a refuge for Catholics. And Pennsylvania was founded as a refuge for Quakers, a religious group which adopted a very plain way of life and refused to participate in war or to take oaths.
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY FOR ALL
By the middle of the 18th century, many different kinds of Protestants lived in America. Lutherans had come to America from the Palatinate in Germany. The Dutch Reformed Church flourished in New York and New Jersey. Presbyterians (one of the largest Calvinist groups) came from Scotland and Huguenots (French Protestants who subscribed to Calvin's doctrines) from France. Congregationalists, as the Puritans came to be called, still dominated in Massachusetts and the neighboring colonies, an area which came to be known as New England.
Although the Church of England was an established Church in several colonies, Protestants lived side by side in relative harmony. Already they had begun to influence each other. The Great Awakening of the 1740s, a "revival" movement which sought to breathe new feeling and strength into religion, cut across the lines of Protestant religious groups, or denominations.
At the same time the works of John Locke (1632-1704) were becoming known in America. John Locke reasoned that the right to govern comes from an agreement or "social contract" voluntarily entered into by free people. The Puritan experience in forming congregations made this idea seem natural to many Americans. Taking it out of the realm of
social theory, they made it a reality and formed a nation.
It was politics and not religion that most occupied Americans' minds during the War of Independence (1775-1783) and for years afterward. A few Americans were so influenced by the new science and new ideas of the enlightenment in Europe that they became deists, believing that reason teaches that God exists but leaves man free to settle his own affairs.
Many traditional Protestants and deists could agree, however, that, as the Declaration of Independence states, "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights," and that "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" entitled them to form a new nation. Among the rights that the new nation guaranteed, as a political necessity in a religiously diverse society, was freedom of religion.
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States forbade the new federal government to give special favors to any religion or to hinder the free practice, or exercise, of religion. The United States would have no state-supported religion. In this way, those men who formulated the principal tenets of the newly established political system hoped to insure that diversity of religious belief would never become the source of social or political injustice or disaffection. But Protestant Churches kept a privileged position in a few of the states. Not until 1833 did Massachusetts cut the last ties between Church and State.
The First Amendment insured that the American government would not meddle in religious affairs or require any religious beliefs of its citizens. But did it mean that the American government would have nothing at all to do with religion? Or did it mean that the government would be religiously neutral, treating all religions alike?
In some ways, the government supports all religions. Religious groups do not pay taxes in the United States. The armed forces pay chaplains of all faiths. Presidents and other political leaders often call on God to bless the American nation and people. Those whose religion forbids them to fight can perform other services instead of becoming soldiers.
But government does not pay ministers' salaries or require any belief—not even a belief in God—as a condition of holding public office. Oaths are administered, but those who, like Quakers, object to them, can make a solemn affirmation, or declaration, instead.
The truth is that for some purposes government ignores religion and for other purposes it treats all religions alike—at least as far as is practical. When disputes about the relationship between government and religion arise, American courts must settle them.
American courts have become more sensitive in recent years to the rights of people who do not believe in any God or religion. But in many ways what Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote in 1952 is still true. "We are a religious people," he declared, "whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."
In the early years of the American nation, Americans were confident that God supported their experiment in democracy. They had just defeated Great Britain—probably the most powerful nation in the world at that time. Protestant religion and republican forms of
government, they felt, went hand in hand. America had a divine mission to make her unique combination of political freedom and "Yankee" thrift and ingenuity a model for the world to follow.
In the early 19th century, another Great Awakening, or revival, swept through New England. By no means were all of New England's clergymen happy with this upswelling of religious feeling.
Many had given up Calvin's idea of predestination, which is the belief that God chooses those who will be saved, and that man cannot win salvation through good works or other means—salvation can only come from God, and then, only to the "elect." Some Protestant clergy now preached that all men had free will and could be saved. Others moved on to positions yet more liberal, giving up many traditional Christian beliefs.
In this liberal setting, poets and philosophers flourished. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) developed a Transcendental philosophy, which stressed the presence of Spirit in man and nature. Individual experience and Puritan virtues like self-reliance received a new spiritual foundation. The writings of Emerson and other Transcendentalists are read by millions of schoolchildren in American elementary and high schools.
The idea of progress was appealing to liberal Protestants of the 19th century. Why should religious doctrines not become more rational as science made the natural world more open to human understanding?
In Europe, and particularly in Germany, scholars were reading and studying the Bible in a new way. They questioned the reality of Bible miracles, and challenged traditional beliefs about Bible authors. Moses, it was said, could not have written the first books of the Old Testament. Not all the Pauline letters had been written by Paul.
These and other opinions of Bible scholars frightened many religious people. But liberal Protestants believed that if Christianity were to continue to appeal to educated people, it must accept these ideas.
In the same spirit, liberals wrestled with the problems which Charles Darwin's theory of evolution presented. If human beings had descended from other animals—an idea which almost all scientists quickly accepted—then the story of Adam and Eve, the Biblical first parents of human beings could not be literally true.
To the many questions raised by the progress of science, Protestants sought and found answers. These answers stressed the moral and spiritual meaning of the Bible but did not depend on its reliability as a book of factual history.
What set apart 19th century liberal ministers from their descendants in the 20th century was their optimism about man's ability to make progress. Some, like Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), still held that poverty and sin went hand in hand. Some liberal ministers were not very critical of the excesses of capitalism. But others, like Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), thought that the Church should concern itself with reforming society. They discovered a "social message" in
the Gospels, the Biblical accounts of Christ's life, and began to concern themselves with the problems of workers and the city poor.
Modern liberal clergymen are less optimistic about the speed and extent of social reform. But they are still convinced that the Church must fight for the rights of poor people. They manage shelters for homeless people. They feed the poor, run day-care centers for children and speak out on social issues. They seek areas of agreement with other Christians, with Jews and with those of other world religions. Many are active in the ecumenical movement, which seeks to bring about the reunion of Christians into one church.
While some New England clergymen embraced the rational side of Puritanism, others turned toward the emotional or spiritual side. These ministers welcomed the "Second Awakening" of the early 19th century. They preached the message of man's sinfulness and Christ's redeeming grace. Evangelical religion, a conservative kind of Protestantism which relies on the authority of the Bible, spread rapidly.
Evangelical preachers spoke simply and directly about the Christ of the New Testament Gospels who died to save mankind. The religious enthusiasm which this preaching aroused often led to the forming of associations, or groups, to carry on the work of reforming morals or spreading the gospel. These groups were often interdenominational; all Protestants were welcome to join them.
Some groups were formed to fight sin; others were formed to spread God's word around the world. Missionaries were sent to Africa, the Far East and to the American Indians in the western United States. Religious tracts, or books, were printed. Some of these groups, such as the American Bible Society, exist today.
Evangelical religion was fervent throughout America and especially on the frontier. Methodist and Baptist preachers competed with each other to win the settlers' souls for Christ.
The Methodists, beginning as an evangelical society of the Church of England, became established as an American church in 1784, sending traveling preachers, or circuit riders, into the Appalachian mountains and beyond. The Baptists, like the Methodists, used "lay" preachers (unordained, dedicated, laymen, who did not have the benefits of formal seminary educations) who preached to small frontier congregations on Sunday. The Baptists believed in adult baptism by immersion, symbolizing a mature and responsible conversion experience. Traveling evangelists preached at camp meetings, revival gatherings which became a regular part of life in the American West.
Settlers would ride many miles to hear a famous revival preacher or evangelist. They would camp for days in the open fields, hearing sermons, and staying up, sometimes all night, to pray, sing hymns and talk with each other. "Conversions," or religious experiences of God's grace and remorse for sin, were often very dramatic. In some cases, people wept, fainted and danced about as if in a trance.
The Methodists and Baptists grew rapidly in numbers. As both denominations matured their pastoral leadership was assumed by ordained pastors with formal seminary educations. They are still the chief denominations in the southern United States. They have many members in other parts of the country as well.
Evangelical religion won over black slaves as well as their white masters. On some plantations, or large farms, black preachers held their own services. In the North, free blacks organized two different African Methodist Episcopal Churches early in the 19th century.
Most religious people were slow to condemn slavery, though from the earliest days the Quakers opposed it and risked their lives helping black slaves to freedom. By the 1850s, however, northern ministers of many denominations were preaching that slavery was a national sin.
In the South, however, many clergymen defended slavery and even owned slaves. They said that both the Old and New Testaments treated slavery as a normal part of society. The slavery question and the Civil War caused a splitting of the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations which lasted into the 20th century.
Northern victory in the Civil War (1861- 1865) meant freedom for the slaves. In the war- damaged South, most of the freed slaves became poor farmers, working land they did not own for a share of the crop. Segregation, or racial separation, became a way of life.
Many whites were just as poor as blacks. Black and white alike sought comfort in a conservative, evangelical form of religion. The South became a stronghold of "old time religion." In 1925, a biology teacher, John Scopes, was convicted under a Tennessee state law which forbade teaching the theory of evolution in a public school. Scopes' conviction was overturned on a legal technicality. But a number of other states in the South passed laws against teaching Darwin's theory. Even today, teaching the theory of evolution to the exclusion of religious teachings is controversial in parts of the United States.
After the Civil War, northern factories grew rapidly. American Protestants did not give up trying to help the poor or convert non- Christians. But they spent a major part of their moral energy for the next 50 years on the temperance movement—an attempt to make all alcoholic drink illegal. Finally they succeeded, and for over ten years (1920-1933) it was illegal to buy beer, wine or liquor in the United States.
But America was changing. By the late 19th century, a kind of Protestant consensus, or agreement, about God's place in American life and government had developed. The arrival of large numbers of Catholic and Jewish immigrants challenged that consensus.
By the Civil War, over a million Irish Catholics, many driven by hunger, had come to the United States. Most were working people. Anti- Catholic prejudice was so strong that, on a few occasions, it broke out in mob violence. In 1844, two Catholic churches were burnt and 13 people died in rioting that swept through the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. More often prejudice took the form of discrimination, particularly at the polls. By 1960, however, John F. Kennedy's presidential election victory put to rest the Catholic religion as an issue in national politics. (Kennedy was a Roman Catholic.)
Catholics were not shut out of public schools and hospitals but they wanted their own institutions. So they built their own schools, colleges and hospitals. Catholics believed that these institutions were needed to preserve their faith. Many Catholics now attend public schools and secular colleges. But Catholic institutions, especially in large cities, still serve large numbers of Catholics and a growing number of non-Catholics, who are attracted by the discipline and education offered in these schools.
By the 1950s, many Catholics had risen to positions of leadership, not only in labor unions, but in business and politics as well. As Catholics grew more confident about their place in American life, they began to challenge, not the basic idea of separation of Church and State, but the way American courts interpreted it. The costs of modern education had made their schools very expensive to maintain. Catholics began to seek some way in which they could obtain public funds to help meet these expenses. Other private schools, not necessarily religious in origin or concern, also sought this help.
The lawmaking bodies of many states were sympathetic to these demands. But most attempts to provide help for religious schools were ruled unconstitutional (declared to violate the Constitution) by the Supreme Court of the United States. Giving public money to a religious school was held to violate the clause, or part, of the First Amendment which prohibits the establishment of religion. Public money for religious schools remains an issue in American politics in the 1980s.
If Catholics feel that government should support the non-religious aspects of private education, other American groups call for even less government connection to religion. Sunday closing laws were a real hardship to Jews and Seventh Day Adventists. In effect, they were forced to observe two Sabbaths, or days of rest—their own and the majority Christian one as well. Non-believers, and some religious people as well, objected to prayer and Bible reading in public schools. They thought that a modern government in a free society should be basically secular.
In 1962, the Supreme Court declared that prayer and Bible reading could not be used to start the day in public schools. Such activities, the court ruled, amounted to an establishment of religion. The Court decision was extremely unpopular. In 1983, a survey showed that eight out of 10 Americans favored amending the Constitution to allow prayer in school.
Like Catholics, Jews were a small minority in the first years of the American republic. Until the late 19th century, most Jews in America were of German origin. Many of them belonged to the Reform movement, a liberal branch of Judaism which had made many adjustments to modern life. Anti-Semitism, or anti-Jewish prejudice, was not a big problem before the Civil War. But when Jews began coming to America in great numbers, anti- Semitism appeared. At first Jews from Russia and Poland, who as Orthodox Jews strictly observed the traditions and dietary laws of
Judaism, clustered in city neighborhoods.
Usually, Jewish children attended public schools. The children of the immigrants moved rapidly into the professions and into American universities, where many became intellectual leaders. Many remained religiously observant. Others, while they continued to think of themselves as ethnically Jewish, adopted a secular, non-religious outlook.
When faced with prejudice and discrimination, Jews responded by forming organizations to combat prejudice. The Anti- Defamation League has played a major role in educating Americans about the injustice of prejudice and making them aware of the rights, not only of Jews, but of all minorities.
By the 1950s, a kind of "three faiths" model of the United States had developed. Americans were considered to come in three basic varieties: Protestant, Catholic and Jewish, the order reflecting the strength in numbers of each group. In 1990, Protestants of all denominations numbered about 79,000,000 people. Catholics, the largest single denomination, numbered 55,000,000. Over 5,900,000 Jews lived in the United States. But an increasing number of Americans did not fit into any of these categories. And some who could be considered Protestant had styles of life and beliefs that did not fit into "mainstream" America.
The United States has always been a fertile ground for the growth of new religious movements. Frontier America provided plenty of room to set up a new church or found a new community. For example, the ancestors of the Amish, very strict Protestants who live in rural areas and scorn modern life, came from Germany in the 18th century to escape persecution.
Many religious communities and secular Utopias, or experiments in new forms of social living, were founded in 18th- and 19th-century America. Most did not last long. But some prospered for a while and a few are still in existence. Twentieth century Americans who follow the impulse to withdraw from society and "join a commune" are following in an old American tradition.
Small sects and "cults" do have certain tendencies in common. Often they regard the larger society as hopelessly corrupt. Prohibition of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine are common. Sometimes dramatic expectations about the future—predictions of the end of the world or the dawning of a new age—form the main tenets, or doctrines, of the group. Often the founder is a charismatic person, a dynamic personality who claims some special revelation or relationship with God. Some groups never win a large following. Others grow smaller or disappear when the founder dies or his prophecies fail to come true. Still others prosper, win large followings and "graduate" into the ranks of the "respectable" denominations.
Some groups, like the Amish of Pennsylvania, simply want to be left alone in their rural communities. They wish to keep their children out of high school so they will not be affected by modern society.
A few prefer faith healing to modern medicine or object to certain medical practices.
What should society do when a Jehovah's Witness refuses a blood transfusion for himself or his child?
Questions like these often come before the courts in the United States. They are generally settled according to a principle the Supreme Court established when it ruled that the Mormons, a large and prosperous Christian sect which settled the state of Utah, could not marry more than one wife. Individuals may believe anything they please in America, but they may not do anything they want, even if the action is based on a religious belief. Such questions do not usually cause great controversy, because they do not reflect basic divisions in American society. The Mormons, for example, continue to flourish, and are one of the fastest growing church groups in the United States.
But other questions reflect continuing conflicts in American life. When a 1973 Supreme Court decision made abortion legal in America, many Catholics were shocked. Many evangelical Protestants and Orthodox Jews also objected. Yet more liberal Protestant and Jewish clergymen joined nonbelievers in maintaining that abortion is a basic right in a pluralistic, or religiously varied, society.
Open religious prejudice is relatively rare in America today. Inter-religious meetings and discussions are frequent. One major cause of the new harmony between members of the "three faiths" has been the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church (1962). This Council modified many Church rules, including burdensome restrictions on interfaith marriages. Catholics felt much freer to participate in interdenominational worship services than they had before the Council.
Other world religions are increasing their numbers and influence in America. Over two million members of the Islamic religion live in America. Some are immigrants or the children of immigrants; others are Americans, including some black Americans who have converted to Islam.
Buddhism is a growing faith in America. Recent immigration from Asia has raised the number of Buddhists in America to several hundred thousand—no one seems quite sure how many. Several hundred thousand Hindus have also come to America. In recent years, young native-born Americans have shown great interest in these and other Eastern religions and philosophies.
American pastors are as varied as the flocks they serve. Some of them are women. The Protestant Episcopal Church now ordains women as priests, although the Catholic Church continues to have an all-male clergy. The United Methodist Church has appointed women as bishops. Women can also be ordained as rabbis among some Jewish congregations. Contemplative monks like the Trappists spend their lives in prayer and labor in the monastic tradition of the Middle Ages. Catholic nuns teach and manage large hospitals. Chaplains of all faiths visit the sick in hospitals and nursing homes.
Pastors of churches are expected to be active in the civic affairs of their communities. Often they have psychological training and spend part of their time counseling people with personal problems. They preach to congregations assembled in small chapels and huge city cathedrals, in modern synagogues, and even sometimes in drive-in churches, where people can worship without leaving their cars! Some evangelical preachers reach a television audience of millions.
How do Americans of so many different religions manage to live together under common laws and pursue common goals? Mc Americans are proud of America's religious variety. They consider it a natural result of religious freedom. On public occasions they stress the ideas most religious people share— belief in God and the importance of living a good life.