Paper – “American Religious Freedom”

by David Tillman – May 2011
Class paper: American Religious Histories, United Theological Seminary, MN

      In the new democracy, established after the American Revolution, we saw a growing, pluralist religious society develop. We saw the effects of freedom from British rule enliven Americans’ religious interest and practice. American religious history shows us Americans became, and continued to be, more religious after the separation of church and state was declared in the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States Bill of Rights in 1791.   

      In this paper I will present a brief overview of religion in America before 1791 and then discuss briefly the history behind the separation of church and state in the first amendment. I will show the rates of American religion adherence from 1776 to 2000. I will then examine within each of the eleven religious groups we discussed in class how I believe they have become or not become more religious since 1791. The eleven religious groups are the Evangelist, Deist/Atheist, Native Americans, African Americans, Mormons, Metaphysical/New Thought, Catholics, Jews, Muslims/Buddhist, Liberalist and Fundamentalist.

     Even though the Puritans and other religious groups immigrated to America in the 1600’s and 1700’s for religious freedom, we find that in the 1700’s a majority of the American colonies were unchurched. Overall only ten to fifteen percent of American colonialists were church members.[1] We saw, at that time, some people excluded from the church if they did not have a religious conversion experience. [2] The church was not meeting the needs of the common people.

     According to Nathan O. Hatch, in his book “The Democratization of American Christianity”, we saw people, in the new democracy, shun the religious institutions that were rooted in Europe so they could create a more personal theology based on common sense, relying on biblical scriptures and their life experience.[3]  People wanted to separate from the hierarchical power structure of the Anglican Church that reminded them of the same British power they had fought so hard to get rid of in the American Revolution. Hatch states “In America, established religious institutions linked to the upper class remained too weak to make a whole society accept their language and analysis.”[4] The time was right for change in American religion.

     Hatch points out there were three popular movements in the early years of the new republic. The first movement was the denial of the distinction that had set the clergy apart from the common man. The second movement was the empowerment of the common people to take their spiritual insights at face value rather than dealing with thoughts of clergy and the church. And with the third movement were new freedoms that religious outsiders wanted in order to create a new form of religion that gave hope and equality.[5]  All three of these impacted the political process that was formulating the newly created government and created an environment for Americans to become more religious. Americans now had more freedoms to choose their religious beliefs and communities that went beyond social class, occupation and politics.

    The American Revolution victory for the colonialist created an excitement in the new democracy for Americans to explore their newfound freedoms. As John Gustav-Wrathall shared with us in class, the early discussion of separation of church and state had become a political issue until James Madison changed the discussion around the question: Do you really want your government to tell you who is a Christian and who is not? Madison also argued that religious freedom is the foundation for every other freedom we cherish.[6] This separation of church and state, granted in the first amendment, was another sign of splitting off from the former British government, which thereby opened the door wider for Americans to explore their new religious freedoms. According to Hatch, “the heart of the (American Christian) movement was a revolution in communications, preaching, print and song” which “captured the aspirations of society’s outsiders.”[7] 

      In the new democracy we can see the rise in the more religious trends in America by the increase in the percentage of Americans that belong to a church. In the book “The Churching of America 1776 – 2005”, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, we see the following data:

Rates of Religious Adherence, 1776 – 2000[8]

1776 – 17%     1850 –  34%  1860 – 37%   1870 – 35%   1890 – 45%    1906 – 51%  1916 – 53%      1926 – 56% 1951 – 59%  1980 – 62% 2000 – 62%                 

Note the civil war dislocations of the south caused the decline shown in 1870.[9] By the above rates of religious adherence we see a dramatic growth of religious church membership from 17% in 1776 to 62% in 2000. Now I will look at the eleven different religious groups for evidence that they became more religious after the first amendment in 1791.

      Religious freedom in the new democracy for the newly formed evangelists created a religious fervor to transform the United States into a Christian country. One aspect of Evangelism is having a “dramatic (conversion) experience, you are lost, in despair, then see the life and see Jesus as the Savior. Here’s the way out of darkness and now you choose. You may have a second conversion experience where your heart becomes aligned with Christ” [10]

           We saw the 1800’s evangelistic denominations like the Methodists, Baptist and Disciples of Christ membership growing rapidly. We see Methodist “camp revival” meetings throughout the country, some lasting for weeks. Itinerant preachers on horseback were bringing the Christian message to all who would listen. Nathan O. Hatch states; “The eighteen hundred Christian ministers serving in 1775 (or one minister for approximately every 1,400 people) swelled to nearly forty thousand ministers by 1845” (one for every 500 Americans).[11] As people moved west, the itinerant preachers and camp meetings provided attendees a Christian connection and hope as they were getting settled in their new homes and farms. Hatch states that, Charles Finney, around 1825, called for ministers to preach “the language of common life” that started to get the attention of the middle class  America.[12] By 1850 the Methodists had grown to more than 2,600,000 members which was over a third of all American churched members. [13] Billy Graham, starting in the late 1940’s and continuing today, revived evangelism as membership in the evangelistic churches had been declining since the 1890’s. Billy Graham’s call to accept Jesus Christ has captured the hearts and minds of many worldwide, through a personal relationship and committed life with God and Jesus Christ.

     John Gustav-Wrathall shared in our class that “Once you have the first amendment that separates church and state, religion is put into the realm of individual choice, a choice to believe or not believe at all.”[14] We will now look at Deism and Atheism. In our American religious histories class we learned that Atheism argues why God cannot exist and looks at the world without a concern for God. Deism emerged as a reaction to Atheism and looks at everything through the natural world. Many of the foundering fathers were influenced by Deism such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Paine. They were instrumental in creating the argument to break away from England and writing and lobbying for our Constitution that gives Americans many freedoms, including the freedom of religion. We see free thinkers emerge in America around 1875 that begin to form churches. After wars or after the 1929 stock market crash, we see a revival of free thinkers trying to make sense of why these events have happened which helps to shape our future.[15] I would argue that America has become more religious through the biblical, scientific, evolution and natural religion debate between reason based (deism, free thinkers, unitarianism, universalism, atheism and others) and Christians throughout our history. Public debate and discourse often strengthens one’s religious beliefs.

     Mary R. Sawyer, in her book “The Church on the Margins” tells us the Native Americans had seen their population go from an estimated ten million in the mid 1500’s to one million in the 1840’s to around 300,000 by 1900.[16] Their population decrease was caused by a variety of things, including death from diseases brought to them through contact with the European settlers. Their community continued to decrease in numbers as government agencies and missionaries enforced destructive government policies that included subjugation. [17] The Native Americans had no political rights in the new democracy and were not considered American citizens. The Native Americans did not become more religious after 1791, since they were still fighting for their lives against the white American settlers and the political structure they had created. Their religious freedoms did not really start until the 1924 immigration (national origins) Act, the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act[18] and in 1934 the removal of the 1883 ban on Native American religious practices.[19] Despite the arrival of the white settlers, the Native Americans held true to their relationship with the natural world and cyclical framework of life. They had maintained the belief that this cycle of oppression would end and bring them a new and better cycle.  We do see they have preserved their religious tradition, along with many becoming Christians, which we see in their religious practices today.

     African American slaves were given no freedom under the Bill of Rights. Nathan O. Hatch states that African Americans, whether free or slave, joined the Methodists and Baptists whose message was “fresh, capable of being understood and immediately experienced.”[20] The Methodists and Baptists welcomed the African Americans and condemned slavery. Because of this by 1848 there were almost 125,000 African American members.[21] African Americans assimilation to evangelistic Christianity introduced them to a conversion process of communion with the Holy Spirit, filled with shouting, singing and dancing that had many similarities to their African religious traditions. The African American Christian churches before emancipation offered hope for the slaves and a community to organize and discuss social and political agendas. After the Civil War, African American membership continued to grow. According to Finke and Starr, this growth was spurred by “the conflicts they faced with the dominant culture and the competition they faced from other churches.”[22] “Religious freedoms allowed African Americans to use the churches as institutional safe havens for supporting their members and culture.”[23] In 1890 the religious adherence for blacks was 59% compared to 45% for non-black church membership. [24] We see that African Americans have become more religious in the new democracy. Starting in the late 1800’s, and still growing today, some Evangelistic African American denominations formed into Holiness-Pentecostal churches that I will discuss later.

             Nathan O. Hatch states that Joseph Smith Jr., brought up in poverty, in 1927 began to claim he had gained gold plates and a way to read them to learn of the lost story of God’s plan for America. In 1830 he published the Book of Mormon. Hatch states “The Book of Mormon is a document of profound social protest, an impassioned manifesto by a hostile outsider against the smug complacency of those in power and the reality of social distinctions based on wealth, class and education.”[25] Hatch continues to state that Joseph Smith’s teaching attracted a number of people that had come from poverty. In their early years, they focused on building a spiritual kingdom in opposition to seeking worldly power, wealth and class that was taking place in many other parts of America.[26] From 1904 to 1970 the Mormon leadership stressed the importance to assimilate into the American culture by embracing American values, rejecting theocracy by embracing democracy and rejecting polygamy. Starting in the 1970’s until the present the Mormon leadership have moved the membership in a retrenchment mode that includes re-emphasis on continuing revelation and obedience to church authority, increase of genealogy and temple work, expansion of the missionary system, family renewal program and expanded religious education program.[27] We see a growth in Mormon membership from 1960 with 13 million members to 2000 with 30.8 million members representing over a 150% increase.

     John Gustav-Wrathall shared in our class that “There has always been a metaphysical fringe in American religion.”[28] Catherine L. Albanese, in her book American Religions and Religion, states metaphysical religions, with a focus of the mind, looks at ordinary or extra-ordinary powers to live their life.”[29] Metaphysical religion and New Thought religions that grew out of metaphysical religious thought in the 1800’s, has played an important role in Americans being more religious since 1791 by creating a variety of religious communities for ordinary Americans and acting as a counter-culture to the mainstream American Christian churches.[30]          

     For the immigrant Catholics in America we see the coming together of people from many European countries along with Latinos from Mexico and South America. Albanese tells us, the pluralism of American culture over time has changed the Roman Catholic axis to the American Catholic church we see today.[31] Finke and Starr tell us, “In the United States, the Roman Catholic Church became an extremely effective and competitive religious firm when forced to confront a free market religious economy.”[32] We see Catholic adherents in 1850 at 1,088,000 or 5% of the total population changing in 1927 to 18,605,000 members or 16% of the total population. As a percentage of total American adherents, Catholics went from 14% in 1850 to 28% in 1926. [33] Starting in the 1840’s American Catholics started a massive school building effort to give moral instruction.[34] By 1916 more than one-third of the parishes had schools and by the mid 1960’s two-thirds had schools.[35] Catholics in the new democracy became more religious by “preserving a distinctive religious and ethnic subculture, the enclaves also assimilated immigrants into the larger culture” and “provided education, information, social networks, and training needed for success in the new land.”[36]

       America provided a relatively safe place for the Jewish community to practice their religion.[37] They were able to practice their religion for over 200 years before rabbis arrived in 1840.[38] The holocaust transformed Jews worldwide. They came together to become more militant on their own behalf and in the mid 1900’s with an increase in synagogue participation; they are willing to be more distinctive and willing to challenge anti-Semetism. [39] We are seeing Jews becoming more orthodox since the holocaust emphasizing, strict adherence to the Jewish law. This retrenchment to more traditional teaching and practices is an indication that Jews are more religious today.

      We are seeing in the 1900’s a rise in recent immigrant religions such as Buddhists and Muslims. Many Muslims are immigrating to America from Africa to leave their oppressive homeland. Americans today see a more visible Muslim presence with greater awareness since the September 11th attacks, by seeing Muslim woman wearing the traditional burka in public and in seeing Muslins practice their religion more publicly, especially in the workplace.  

     Liberal Protestantism “does not take the Bible literally, uses a rational view of the world, a freedom of conscience in a sea of unity, focus on ethics and morality, ecumenism, inter-faith and the heart of the gospel is love, justice and mercy.”[40] Liberal Christianity was blending enlightenment, evangelism, Unitarian thought, romanticism and transcendentalism into the American Protestant religious culture.[41] We saw in the 1900’s a further decline in membership for the protestant liberals that tended to be Episcopalians, members of the United Church of Christ and Presbyterians. We also saw a decline in membership for the moderate protestant churches, that had been the mainline churches in the mid 1800’s, which tended to be Methodist, Lutheran and Northern Baptist.[42] We saw membership in liberal and moderate protestant churches from 1940 to 2000 decline by 50% or more.[43] One thought of this decline is that the mainline churches “were failing to offer credible religion, that they had become so accommodated to the secular culture that people could no longer satisfy their need for the sacred by attending” these mainline churches.[44] Americans wanted a different religious experience that these churches were not providing to them.       

     Starting in the late 1800’s and continuing in the early 1900’s the conservative protestant churches could no longer accept being part of the liberal protestant church denomination. They broke from the liberal protestant church and created a fundamentalist church. Fundamentalist holds on to dispensational millennialism and biblical inerrancy. [45] Out of the same frustration with mainline churches we see the holiness–pentecostal churches arise that appealed to African Americans and “demanded from their followers a disciplined and sanctified life.” [46] Pentacostalism is centered around personal salvation, Holy Ghost baptism, divine healing and the Lord will return.[47] We see a dramatic growth in membership with the fundamental churches. These movements, pluralist and decentralized, made the Christian faith accessible to common people, drew on restorationist and millenarian themes, denounced denominations and creeds, and opened educational and leadership opportunities to common people. [48] We see a growth in the Southern Baptists, a fundamental church, from 76.7 million members in 1940 to 104.9 million member in 2000, a 37% increase.[49] We see a growth in Pentecostalism from its start in the early 1900’s to 50 million worldwide in 1965 to 200 million worldwide in 2000.[50] Fundamentalist and the Holiness-Pentecostalist are becoming more religious in America as their numbers grow and they focus on conservative Christian religious beliefs and practices.

     George M. Marsden, in his book “Fundamentalism and American Culture” tells us, out of this freedom we have seen throughout American religious history “the intertwining of Christianity, (and I would contend with other religions), with the various “isms” of the times – nationalism, socialism, individualism, liberalism, conservatism, scientism, subjectivism, common-sense objectivism, romanticism, relativism, cultural optimism, cultural pessimism, intellectualism, anti-intellectualism, self-ism, materialism, and so forth.”[51] Since 1791 we see Americans becoming more religious as they continue to explore, debate and practice these “isms” within their religious and social contexts.

          Roger Finke and Rodney Stark state in the beginning of their book “The Churching of America 1776 – 2005” states, “The churching of America was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness.”[52] In their books closing pages they summarize by stating; “Humans want their religion to be sufficiently potent, vivid, and compelling so that it can offer them rewards of great magnitude. People seek a religion that is capable of miracles and that imparts order and sanity to the human condition.”[53] Finke and Stark find that “mainline churches always decline and theological conservatives have always grown.”[54] We have seen this in American religious history with the quick rise of the Methodist evangelists in the 1800’s and then after becoming a mainline church loosing membership since then, the rise of Fundamentalism in the 1900’s as a response to liberal Christianity and the rapid growth of the Pentecostal and Mormon churches in more recent times. Religious freedom, under the first amendment, continues to create for Americans the freedom to explore, define, debate and practice their individual religious beliefs and practices, and that has made a more religious America since the signing of the first amendment granting religious freedom in 1791.           

Updated Pew Survey – Decline of Christianity between 2009 and 2018/2019 – link (added August 2020):

https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/pf_10-17-19_rdd_update-00-017/


[1] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, February 17, 2011)
[2] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, February 17, 2011)
[3] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1989), p 162.
[4]  Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 8-9.
[5] Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 9-11.
[6] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, February 17, 2011).
[7] Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 226.
[8] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ & London, 2005), p 23.
[9] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 22.
[10] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, February 24, 2011)
[11] Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 4.
[12] Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 197.
[13] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 57.
[14] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, March 3, 2011).
[15] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, March 3, 2011).
[16] Mary R. Sawyer, The Church on the Margins, (Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, London, New York, 2003) p. 43.
[17] Mary R. Sawyer, The Church on the Margins, 43-44.
[18] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, February 17, 2011).
[19] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, March 10, 2011).
[20] Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 104.
[21] Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 102.
[22] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 190.
[23] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 190.
[24] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 191.
[25] Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 116.
[26] Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 122.
[27] Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive, (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1994), p 99.
[28] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, April 7, 2011).
[29] Catherine L. Albanese, America Religions and Religion, p 179.
[30] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, ( New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, April 7, 2011).
[31] Catherine L. Albanese, America Religions and Religion, p 80.
[32] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 117.
[33] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 122.
[34] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 147.
[35] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 148.
[36] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 155.
[37] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, April 28, 2011).
[38] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, April 28, 2011).
[39] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, April 28, 2011).
[40] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, May 5, 2011).
[41] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, May 5, 2011).
[42] Catherine L. Albanese, America Religions and Religion, p 102.
[43] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 246.
[44] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 245.
[45] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, May 12, 2011).
[46] Catherine L. Albanese, America Religions and Religion, p 144.
[47] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, May 12, 2011).
[48] Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 214 – 216.
[49] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 246.
[50] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, May 12, 2011).
[51] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 2006), p 260.
[52] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 1.
[53] Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, p 282.
[54] John D. Gustav-Wrathall, American Religious Histories, (New Brighton, MN, United Theological Seminary, May 5, 2011) referring to Roger Finke and Rodney Starr, The Churching of America  1776 – 2005.

© David Tillman, May 2011, rev. August 2020, all rights reserved. www.lifesjourney.us