The First Religions of Colonial America

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Are you curious about what religions were around in Colonial America? The focus of this article is on the more common religions represented in the New England area during the time of Roger Williams as documented in writings of the time, from 1631 through his death in 1683. To be clear, there were literally hundreds of religions in America during this period of time. The 1784 book “An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects” documents hundreds of Christian sects many of which had representations in America.

Roger Williams proved the concept of modern American society by creating a multi-religion multicultural secular colony. With this overview, you will see that many religions were represented. Finally, I’ll touch on a few of the popular existing religions of today and how they fit in with America’s history.

To set the stage, let’s start in 1655 when the Providence colony surprised the other colonies by welcoming Jewish settlers. Roger Williams visited them in Newport, and in response to the charge that he advocated infinite liberty of conscience, he wrote a famous letter. The story in the letter has become known as the Parable of the Ship and is used as an illustration of separation of church and state.

The American Tradition of Separation of Church and State

Here is the relevant passage–edited for clarity:

“…There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, …and is a true picture…[of a] society. …papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; …All …I pleaded for… [were these] two hinges –

[FIRST] that none of the papists, protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.

[SECOND] …the commander of this ship ought to command the ship’s course, …and also command that justice, peace, sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help…towards the common …defense; if any refuse to obey the common laws …if any shall mutiny …if any should preach…that there ought to be no commanders or officers…the commander …may judge…and punish such transgressors…” –Roger Williams, 1655.

First, let’s talk about non-believers:

Agnostics and Atheists

In the Parable of the Ship story illustrated above, Roger Williams’ uses the phrase “if they practice any” to indicate that the government should not force non-believers to join a church. You can try to persuade them, but you cannot force them.

Seekers

A seeker is someone who is unsure about their religion, opens their mind, and researches various religions using some merit system to determine which best fits their beliefs.

To be clear, there are types of Seekers. A Christian Seeker is someone who still believes in Christ, but is not sure the sect they currently belong to is correct. For example, some like the pomp and circumstance of the Roman Catholic church, and some do not. Roger Williams, for example, did not because he did not like the rituals.

The following quote from 1654 talks about Seekers.

“…Seekers, who deny the Churches and Ordinances of Christ.” –Ch. 5, Wonder-Working Providence, Johnson, 1654

Here is a footnote from the same book, but this is from the 1910 edition:

“The Seekers, with whom Roger Williams had become identified as early as 1638, were men who had come to doubt or to deny that there were, or had been since the apostles’ day, any true church, divine sacraments, or valid ordinances, and who waited for more light.” –Wonder-Working Providence, Johnson, 1654.

Imported Religions

This first section of religions were common during this time. I’m starting with Roman Catholics because the relationship of Roman Catholics and the Protestant Reformation are key. The Protestant Reformation lead to many new religions of which many found home in the American Colonies.

Throughout time, and in every city, there are always people who challenge religion by supporting an opposing viewpoint. Authorities usually tamp down opposing viewpoints in one way or another, but sometimes an event takes place that allows new ideas to take hold. In 1534 such an event took place at the direction of King Henry the VIII. He split the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church because the pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The King put himself as the leader of the Church of England.

This separation or protest is known as the Protestant Reformation. A  few decades that gave birth to several branches of Protestant religions — notably Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican. Anglican is by definition the version of the Protestant religion practiced by the Church of England and it has evolved over time. This time period of great unrest in Christianity opened the door for Puritans. For example, the Parliament repealed the King’s act in 1555, and put it back in 1559.

Roman Catholic, Papist, Papacy, or Popery

Catholics were despised in America from the very beginning. Puritans barely tolerated protestants and occasionally murdered those that refused to believe as they believed. Catholics were not welcome in America and were a very small faction during the first couple centuries rising to about 1% in 1776. They started gathering momentum in about the 1840s long after all our Founding Fathers were dead. Today about 22% of Americans identify as Catholic.

Origins start in Rome, Italy about 4 to 6 centuries after Jesus and about a century after the bible was put together from the various religious books of the time. The first pope was either Leo I (440-461 A.D.) or Gregory I (590-604 A.D.). Roman Catholics ushered in the darkest time in mankind called the Dark Ages from about 500 A.D. to 1,500 A.D. Their arrival in North America was likely with the Spanish and French around the same time as the Puritans who wanted to purify the Christian religion of all popery.

“…the Papist, who with (almost) equal blasphemy and pride prefer their own Merits and Works of Supererogation as equal with Christs unvaluable Death, and Sufferings.” –Ch. 5, Wonder-Working Providence, Johnson, 1654.

Roman Catholics were known as Papists during this time for their adherence to the Pope.

From “Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects”, Hannah Adams, 1784.

Protestant

Throughout time, and in every city, there are always people who challenge religion by supporting an opposing viewpoint. Authorities usually tamp down opposing viewpoints in one way or another, but sometimes an event takes place that allows new ideas to take hold. In 1534 such an event took place at the direction of King Henry the VIII. He split the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church because the pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The King put himself as the leader of the Church of England.

This separation or protest is known as the Protestant Reformation. A  few decades that gave birth to several branches of Protestant religions — notably Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican. Anglican is by definition the version of the Protestant religion practiced by the Church of England and it has evolved over time. This time period of great unrest in Christianity opened the door for Puritans. For example, the Parliament repealed the King’s act in 1555, and put it back in 1559.

Anglican Church of England: The Protestant Church of England. An Anglican minister is a minister of the Church of England.

Important Types of Protestants During Colonial American:

  • Puritans: sought to “purify” the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices.
  • Separatists: a protestant who wanted to separate from the Church of England, but stay in the Protestant religion. This included the 102 Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620 of which 57 were alive one year later.

Puritan

Puritans were Protestants but wanted to purify the religion. The Protestants of the time included Presbyterians and Baptists. There was much overlap among the Protestant religions. A primary goal of Puritans was to purify the religion of Catholic influences.

Separatist, Non-conformists

Separatists were Puritans that gave up on changing the Church of England and wanted to separate from them.

Gortonist

The theology of prophet Samuel Gorton1. His theology taught that Christ was simply a manifestation of God, and that God is in a similar sense manifested in the true believer.

“…the Gortonists, who deny the Humanity of Christ, and most blasphemously and proudly profess themselves to be personally Christ.” –Ch. 5, Wonder-Working Providence, Johnson, 1654

Familist

“…the Familist, who depend upon rare Revelations, and forsake the sure revealed Word of Christ.” –Ch. 5, Wonder-Working Providence, Johnson, 1654

Antinomian

“…Antinomians, who deny the Morrall Law to be the Rule of Christ.” –Ch. 5, Wonder-Working Providence, Johnson, 1654

Anabaptist, Baptist

“…Anabaptists, who deny Civill Government to be proved of Christ.” –Ch. 5, Wonder-Working Providence, Johnson, 1654

Prelacy

“…The Prelacy, who will have their own Injunctions submitted unto in the Churches of Christ.” –Ch. 5, Wonder-Working Providence, Johnson, 1654

Quakers

See the great quaker debates of 1662.

Judaism, Jewish, Jews

RW met with and welcomed Jews in Providence, Rhode Island.

Islam, Turks, Muslim

Roger Williams in his famous parable


Native American Religions in the New England Area

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Misc. Overview

Arrived Later

The following list of religions arrived in America after Roger Williams’ death in 1683. To be clear, these religions were likely around, but I have not run into them in the limited scan of early colonial history books, journals, and letters…yet.

  • 1750, Confucianism: Origins start in China with Master Kong in about 500 BC. One can think of confucianism as a philosophy or a religion. It’s arrival in America was likely long before 1750 and likely influenced some of the founding fathers.
  • 1790, Hinduism: Origins start in India and is the oldest existing religion with origins going back 5,000 years. It is commonly accepted that Hinduism arrived on the shores of America in the 1790s.
  • 1820, Buddhism: Origins start in India with Prince Siddhartha in the sixth century B.C. It is commonly accepted that Buddhism arrived on the shores of America in the 1820s with Asian immigrants, with significant increase after 1849 with the CA Gold Rush.
  • 1820, Taoism: Origins start in China back to shamanism and nature religion in China about 142 C.E. Like Buddhism, it likely landed in America in the 1820s.

Not Created Yet

Here is a list of various popular religions today, the earliest of which was created seven decades after Roger Williams’ death in 1683.

  • 1738, Evangelicals (to America about 1890): Origins start with various methodists in 1738 including English Methodism, the Moravian Church (in particular Nicolaus Zinzendorf), and German Lutheran Pietism. The arrival of Evangelicals occurred about a century after the Founding Fathers passed.
  • 1830, LDS: Origins start in New York with Joseph Smith in 1830 where he dictated the Book of Mormon from a set of golden plates buried near his home in upstate New York by an indigenous American prophet.

Footnotes:
1See footnote on page 31 of 1910 edition of Johnson's "Wonder-Working Providence". The 1910 edition added footnotes to the 1654 book.
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