- United States of America
- The United States is the largest predominantly Protestant country in the world. That dominance began with the establishment of colonies along the Atlantic coast by British, Swedish, and Dutch settlers. The initial settlements brought with them the Church of England and Puritan Congregationalism in the British colonies, the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) in Delaware, and the Reformed Church of the Netherlands in New York and New Jersey.As the British took control of the land, a Con-gregationalist establishment dominated New England, though a dissenting minister, Roger Williams, left Massachusetts to establish Rhode Island, where he helped found the first Baptist congregation in the colonies and allowed broad religious liberties. Farther south, William Penn,a member of the society of Friends, created a colony in which the beleaguered sectarian groups from across Europe were welcome. Not only Quakers, but Mennonites and Brethren made Pennsylvania their home. With the exception of Pennsylvania, Anglicanism came to dominate in the colonies south of New England, at least among the ruling elite. As the British took over Delaware and New York, the Lutheran and Reformed Churches were disestablished, while Roman Catholics were pushed out of power in Maryland, where Lord Baltimore had tried to create a Catholic haven of religious freedom.The great majority of colonists were not religious. They represented the most alienated groups of European society, including former residents of debtor's prison, disinherited sons seeking opportunity, and failures seeking a new start. Then, in the 1740s, the evangelist George Whitefield toured the colonies and helped spark the Great Awakening, a wide wave of spiritual enthusiasm that swept many people into the existing churches while providing a sense of national unity. it was the first intimation of America's future religious character, in comparison with Europe.The War for American Independence (1776-81) led to dramatic changes in the religious community. Two denominations existed in strength in the new country, the Congregational-ists in New England and the Anglicans in the southern colonies. Anglicanism was closely identified with England, but there was no support south of New England to establish Congregationalism as the new American church. The leading figures in the revolution, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, were pragmatic politicians as well as deists. They had little attachment for the various churches (though Washington was a regular attendee at his local Anglican parish and Franklin shared his wealth with several religious communities in Philadelphia), and they feared the power of an established church. As a result, they came to support a bold new experiment - a country without a state religion. They left the option for individual states to establish a state religion, though most did not. Only Massachusetts continued its Congregational establishment for a while; by the early 19th century, every state had an antiestablishment clause in its constitution.When the United States was born, most of the several hundred Native American nations remained intact, though some had been destroyed by disease and war brought by the Europeans. Congregationalist John Eliot (1604-90) had founded the first mission to Native Americans and created the famous towns of "praying Indians" in Massachusetts. In the 1700s, the Moravian Church sent missionaries to the colonies specifically to woo the indians, and indeed future Methodist founder John Wesley originally came to Georgia in the 1730s in part to preach to the indians. A variety of churches opened missions among Native Americans in the 19th century, but their efforts were undermined by their identification with the U.s. government, with its record of treaty violations and Indian "removals" to barren lands in the West.Following the American Revolution, slavery expanded in the south, and antiblack legislation was adopted by most free states. Most slaves became Christians, initially within the existing churches of European origin. The country fought a civil war in the 19th century (1860-65) that ended slavery but did not prevent the passage of "Jim Crow" laws to segregate and discriminate against blacks. American religious life was strongly shaped by racial issues, both in its race-based Protestant denominational patterns and in the struggles to free slaves and protect free blacks. Both abolitionism and the 20th-century Civil Rights movement were ideologically and organizationally based in Protestant churches.When George Washington was inaugurated the first president in 1789, there were some 17 religious groups among those of European origin: 15 Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church, and Judaism. Church of England parishes quickly reorganized to become the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. (now simply the Episcopal Church). Most of the country's early presidents were members.Congregationalists soon found Reformed allies against Anglican domination. Presbyterians began moving to the United States following the Restoration of the monarchy in England in 1660, and in even larger numbers as a result of problems in the Church of Scotland beginning in the 18th century Together, the various groups of Puritan origin came to dominate higher education, founding many of the most respected universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Throughout the 19th century, the majority of the nation's leading theologians came from one of these churches, from Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) to Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) and Horace Bushnell (1802-76).As the nation expanded westward, Baptists, Methodists, and Roman Catholics showed the most growth, leaving the formerly dominant Con-gregationalists and Anglicans behind in the eastern states. The Baptist and Methodist Churches were minuscule at the time of the American Revolution, but their programs of evangelism and their ability to place ministers in the emerging communities won them many followers among the largely unchurched and irreligious settlers. A Second Great Awakening occurred in the early 19th century as waves of religious excitement and activity passed across the frontier. revivalism and camp meetings survived right through the 20th century. By the 1830s, the Methodists had become the largest church in the nation, though the Baptists surpassed them later in the century Frontier religion produced the Cumberland Presbyterians and the Restoration movement led by Barton Stone (1772-1844) and the Campbells, Thomas (1763-1854) and Alexander (1788-1866). The movement produced three new "nondenomina-tional" denominations, the Churches of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Churches of Christ and Christian Churches.in the 1840s, the Methodists divided over the issue of slavery, leaving the Roman Catholic Church the largest single ecclesiastical body in America. While the American religious community remained decidedly Protestant, the Catholic Church has remained the largest single organization, claiming between 20 and 25 percent of the public among its members. The church grew both by evangelizing the public, steady immigration from Catholic countries in Europe and more recently Latin America, and the annexation of former French and Spanish territories.The number of religious groups multiplied in each decade of the 19th century, in part thanks to continued immigration. Without a controlling state church, factionalism thrived. innovation also fueled a continuing number of new religious movements. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church of Christ,Scientist, and the Unity School of Christianity grew up on the edge of the Protestant community, using traditional Christian language but pouring very different content into it. Following the death of their founder, the Latter-day Saints relocated to the Rocky Mountain region. They became the majority body in Utah and the surrounding states, and retain that dominance to the present. By the end of the 19th century, there were more than 300 Protestant and Free Church denominations.Another major new movement was launched when William Miller (1782-1849) publicized his view that Christ would return in 1843. Though his prophecy failed, it inspired several of the most successful religious groups of the 20th century, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Jehovah's Witnesses.With the end of slavery, African Americans were free to develop their own religious institutions. in the early 19th century, two independent groups that would later become large national bodies had been established - the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. After the Civil War, the scattered African-American Baptists began to organize nationally, and by the end of the century, they had formed the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., out of which three additional national organizations would form: the National Baptist Convention of America, the Progressive National Baptist Convention of America, and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America.The introduction of so many divisions within the religious community ensured that no one religious organization would dominate. some Protestants, however, deplored the disunity and joined with other Protestants worldwide in seeking to reunite via the Ecumenical movement. Their efforts resulted in 1908 in the Federal Council of Churches, which included most of the older and larger denominations. They also promoted the merger of many closely related church bodies within the Lutheran, Presbyterian/Reformed, and Methodist family of denominations.While one group envisioned a united Protestantism, another group disapproved of the theological drift it discerned among the ecumenicists, who were trying to respond to the social and intellectual challenges of contemporary culture. Modernists had absorbed German biblical criticism, which questioned the authorship and authenticity of the Old Testament. They were also willing to modify christian beliefs in light of scientific claims about the age of the earth and the origin of humans. Conservatives accused church leaders of rejecting the fundamentals of the faith, including the authority of the Bible, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the doctrine of creation. That concern would be focused in the 1920s in the arguments over the biblical account of creation in Genesis, which the Fundamentalists (as they had come to be known) insisted should be taken literally.The controversy between Fundamentalism and Modernism split the American Protestant community into three factions, which remain to the present. The largest group, which gained control of most of the major denominations, was the Modernists, who sought to restate traditional faith within the contemporary context. The Fundamentalists focused on reaffirming traditional theological ideas and called on like-minded Christians to leave the denominations where apostasy reigned. The tendency of the third group, composed of theological conservatives who saw the value of participating in the existing church bodies and remaining in dialogue with the broader culture, came to be called Evangelicalism.These three groups eventually organized their own ecumenical bodies, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., the National Association of Evangelicals, and the American Council of Churches. Internationally, these three groups would associate, respectively, with the World Council of Churches,the World Evangelical Alliance, and the International Council of Christian Churches.The process of merging closely related churches continued under the aegis of the National Council (formed in 1950). During the late 20th century, a number of the largest churches in America were formed by the new unions: the United Church of Christ (1957), the United Methodist Church (1968), the Presbyterian Church (USA) (1983), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1988). The largest Baptist churches, the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Churches in the United States, had drifted to opposite ends of the theological perspective and have not seriously considered merging.The churches of the Eastern Orthodox tradition were barely present in the united states until the mid-19th century, when they were swelled by immigration. in the years since World War ii, they have joined the National Council of Churches and had a workable if shaky alliance with liberal Protestants. The Orthodox-Protestant dialogue has provided an important new element affecting the development of American Protestantism.Next to the Fundamentalist-Modernist split, by far the most important development in American Protestantism was the emergence of the Holiness churches, Pentecostalism, and the Charismatic movement. In the last decades of the 20th century, the Charismatic movement surged in the United states both within and outside of the Roman Catholic Church and the large Protestant churches, while Pentecostalism exploded in size in South America and Africa. The Charismatics have led a swing back toward a more conservative form of Protestantism as the 21st century begins.As America emerged as the wealthiest country in the world, and Protestants developed a global missionary ethos, the United States contributed to the global spread of Protestantism in ways only partially understood. Beginning with the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which drew support from the older Puritan churches, most denominations large and small have established mission boards and sent missionaries around the world. By the end of the 19th century, many nondenomina-tional missionary-sending agencies had also arisen. These missions founded and nurtured numerous church bodies in almost every country of the world and transformed Protestantism into a truly global faith. In the 20th century, the missionary effort drew new strength from the Pentecostal movement, which joined the world missionary endeavor from the moment of its emergence in America. The Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God, the Church of God (Cleveland,Tennessee), and the Church of God of Prophecy have become vast international fellowships.Finally, throughout the 20th century, the same innovative impulses that gave birth to the Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science, continued to produce new American forms of Christianity. These groups often considered themselves part of the Protestant community, but were largely pushed aside because of doctrinal or behavioral unacceptability. Included would be groups that denied essential traditional doctrines, such as the non-Trinitarian Apostolic or Jesus Only Pentecostals. The adoption of nontraditional sexual mores pushed such groups as the Children of God (now known as The Family) to the fringe, while the Universal Fellowship of the Metropolitan Community Churches, serving the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community, was denied entry into the National Council of Churches.By the end of the 20th century, there were more than 1,000 Christian denominations operating in the United States, the overwhelming majority of them Protestant, representing about half the total population. The largest percentage are Baptists, and the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest single denomination, almost twice as large as it closest rival, the United Methodist Church. Following behind are the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Church of God in Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., the National Baptist Convention of America, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Missionary Convention of America, and the Episcopal Church. More than 20 other Protestant denominations have around a million members. Collectively, these large denominational bodies show every sign of continuing to dominate American religion in the next generations.See also African-American Methodists.Further reading:■ Catherine Albanese, American Religion and Religions, 2d ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadworth, 1992)■ Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America, 6th ed. (New York: Scribner, 1998)■ Martin E. Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984)■ J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of American Religions, 7th ed. (Detroit: Gale Research, 2002)■ ----, The Encyclopedia of American Religions: Religious Creeds, 2 vols. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1988, 1994)■ Larry G. Murphy Jr., J. Gordon Melton, and Gary L. Ward, eds., Encyclopedia of African American Religion (New York: Garland, 1993)■ Mark A. Noll, et al., eds., Eerdmans' Handbook to Christianity in America (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1983)■ Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout, eds., Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, ill.: interVarsity, 1990)■ Peter Williams, America's Religious Traditions and Culture (New York: Macmillan, 1990).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.