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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Colonial Religion and the Enlightenment 

The Church of England


The use of the American colonies as a pressure valve for Great Britain meant that the official faith was poorly represented there, despite the presence of The Book of Common Prayer. The Church of England had prelates: the Church of England in America had none. Even in colonies such as Virginia, which were officially Anglican, the churches were what later ages would call "low," without incense or great pomp. No Bishops reminded them of Church authority. The weak religious ties of England and America were like one more mile added to the miles of ocean between them.


Great Awakening


The Great Awakening was a period of religious revivalism in America. Historians view the Great Awakening in four distinct stages. The first stage started in New England in the 1730s and lasted roughly thirty years.[1] There were two parts of the movement, the Puritan and the Methodist.


One of the major figures of colonial America, a scientist, a humanist, and a divine, was the Puritan minister Johnathan Edwards. Like his peers, he was upset about what was seen as a drifting away from the faith of the Pilgrims. More English immigrants were bringing more lukewarm observance, and a greater adherence to form, rather than feeling. Unlike many of those contemporaries, he embraced evangelism, an attempt to convert others to his own faith. Some of his sermons sent people to their knees in tears, or to their feet, cheering for joy. One of his most notable sermons is titled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," where he used his scientific knowledge (he had written a treatise on spiders) and his spectacular gift for delivery to woo his audience.


The Methodist side of this Awakening was ignited by John Wesley, and his former schoolmate, George Whitefield. Wesley came to Georgia in 1735, and first met with disappointment. However, Whitefield, friend to both Edwards and Wesley, was able to hazard seven trips to America. He also preached to African-American slaves, unlike many of his contemporaries.



At the invitation of William Penn, some Mennonites came in 1683 to settle in Pennsylvania. This group was another attempt to get to the truth of the Bible. They angered their contemporaries in German-speaking countries by not baptizing infants, but only confessing adults. They also practiced a radical form of pacifism, not paying taxes, bearing arms, or serving in any army. Later groups of Mennonites came to the U.S. and Canada from Switzerland, Prussia, the Ukraine, and Russia, with their own hymns and Psalters. Among the branches of the Mennonites are the Amish, who like their coreligionists use shunning as a form of discipline.




John and Charles Wesley are credited with creating Methodism in the 18th century. John Wesley was a cleric for the Church of England. He and his brother led groups of Christians throughout England, Ireland, and Scotland. These groups were part of what is called the Wesleyan Movement. These small groups came to form what is known as Methodism. It began as a society of the Church of England, not a church in itself. It was resented and feared because it put its emphasis on the laity, rather than a church hierarchy, and because it saw emotional conviction as a confirmation of conversion. "Who is a Methodist[ . . .]?"


John Wesley asked in a sermon. "I answer: A Methodist is one who has 'the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him' [. . .]"[2] Methodists focused on bible study and living a life free of frivolity and luxury. They were called Methodists because of their methodical approach to religious study.


Methodism in Colonial America


Methodism spread to America in the late 1760's. Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore were both preachers appointed by John Wesley, that traveled to the new world in 1769 to start American Methodist societies. Pilmore started working in Philadelphia, while Boardman worked in New York to spread Methodism. Pilmore was more effective spreading the cause in Philadelphia and even traveled into the south to preach and promote the society. Others traveled across the Atlantic as well; Robert Williams and John King came to America without being appointed by Wesley. Francis Asbury and Richard Wright arrived in 1771. Francis Asbury went onto become a very prominent leader in American Methodism. George Shadford and Thomas Rankin came to America in 1773.[3]


Unlike their Church of England contemporaries, Methodists were willing to preach in fields, especially in areas where no church had yet been built. Also unlike them, most of the missionaries named above were lay ministers, men ordained after a period of heartfelt conviction, rather than years of seminary training. These helped spread Methodism along the east coast leading up to the American Revolution.




The Moravians arrived with John and Charles Wesley in America in 1735. The group left Moravia and Bohemia due to harsh persecution for their religious beliefs and practices. The Moravians wished to serve as Christian Missionaries for the different ethnic groups in America. They first settled in Georgia, then moved to Pennsylvania, and also North Carolina. The Moravians were deeply involved with music. They practiced hymn singing daily, and some even wrote instrumental music.


John Antes was the first American born Moravian composer. Antes was born in 1740 in Pennsylvania. He composed several religious anthems. The anthems were more complex than hymns, with the intentions of a trained choir or soloist performing them, rather than the congregation.



The first group of non-Christians to enter the American colonies were Sephardic Jews. This group of emigrants from Spain and Portugal had first settled in Recife, Brazil, then landing in New Amsterdam (the Dutch colony which later became New York City) in 1654. Though Holland had a well-regarded Jewish minority, the governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, did not want these Jews on his land. He wrote a letter to the Dutch West India Company stated that the Jews threatened to "infect and trouble this new colony." In response, the Jews wrote a letter to the company explaining that Jews respected the Dutch and were long-established citizens of their homeland. Indeed, some of the Company were Dutch Jews. The Company ruled that the Jews could stay, as long as they took care of their own poor and did not expect Christians to give them charity.


During the colonial period, Jews settled along the East Coast and in several southern colonies. There were established communities of Jews in Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Newport, Rhode Island. The oldest synagogue to this day was built by the Sephardi Jews from the community in Newport. This Touro Synagogue, sanctified in 1763, is still extant today. This building houses the Jeshuat Israel congregation.


The Jewish people found it hard to maintain education, worship, and dietary practices with so few people. A woman by the name of Rebecca Samuel even wrote to her parents explaining that "Jewishness is pushed aside here. There are here [in Petersburg, Virgina] ten or twelve Jews, and they are not worthy of being called Jews. . . . You can believe me that I crave to see a synagogue to which I can go." More Jews did come to America, and all of them learned English and found their places in American society. Yet they found it hard to go to Sabbath on Saturday when their neighbors were going to church on Sunday. In some colonies, they could not vote, hold public office, or own property. They stood out, and they were afraid of persecution as in Europe. But here they could earn some money. There was no knock at the door at midnight, no torture or forced conversion by the Christian authorities



Catholicism first came to the colonies in the Maryland Experiment. After the British civil war, King Charles I issued a generous charter to Lord Cecil Calvert, a prominent Catholic convert from Anglicanism, for the colony of Maryland. That colony's tolerance of Catholics was preserved by Calvert until 1654, when Puritans from Virginia overthrew Calvert's rule. However, he regained control of the colony four years later. In Great Britain in 1689, the Glorious Revolution overturned Charles's successor, bringing in the reign of William and Mary. A new anti-Catholic revolt was ignited in Maryland, and the rule of the Calverts was ended. In 1692 the Religious Toleration Act officially ended, and the assembly of Maryland established the Church of England as the official state religion, supported by tax levies.[5]


Though no Catholic was known to have lived in the Massachusetts Bay in the first twenty years of the colony's existence, this did not deter the Puritan government from passing an anti-clerical law in May of 1647. This threatened with death "all and every Jesuit, seminary priest, missionary, or other spiritual or ecclesiastical person made or ordained by any authority, power or jurisdiction, derived, challenged or pretended, from the Pope or See of Rome.” When Georgia, the 13th colony, was established in 1732 by a charter granted by King George II, it's guarantee of religious freedom was promised to all future settlers of the colony, "except papists."[6] Restrictions were immediately restrictions were imposed on Catholics for public worship. and it was a punishable offense for a priest to say Mass. Catholics were denied the right to vote or otherwise participate in the government of the colony that their ancestors had founded.[7].


Neither the Dutch nor English were pleased when, in 1672, the Duke of York converted to Catholicism. The Duke's appointment of Irish-born Catholic Colonel Thomas Dongan as governor of the colony of New York was followed by the passage of a charter of liberties and privileges for Catholics. Proceeding the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, Jacob Leisler, a staunch anti-Catholic, began to spread rumors of "Papist" plots and false stories of impending French and Native American attacks upon the English colonies. By the end of 1688 Leisler had overthrown Dongan and taken the post of lieutenant governor for himself. He then ordered the arrest of all "papists", abolished the franchise for Catholics, and suspended all Catholic public office holders.




There was another faith which was influential, despite being hard to see by its contemporaries. Many of the institutions of American society were influenced by the English belief of Deism. Yet, "In fact, most early deists opposed attempts to disseminate their views[ . . . ], because they felt that only the intellectually qualified could understand religion rationally."[9] Some of the tenets of Deism were also held by many Christian churches, including the belief in a well-ordered nature which revealed its Creator, and belief in human reason.


  But unlike Christians, Deists did not believe the Bible had any relationship to the Divine. They believed that God did not speak to anyone; that nature was set up like a watch, and set to run without further intervention; and that belief in miracles was madness. The list of known American Deists is short. Benjamin Franklin was one for a brief time. Others include James Madison, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine. (A notable writing of this last-named is The Age of Reason, which said that it was idiotic to believe in miracles.) Thomas Jefferson was influenced by Deism, as we can see from the Declaration of Independence's referral to "Nature and Nature's God."


The Enlightenment


During the 1700s, the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that began in Europe, and the Great Awakening, a colonial religious movement, influenced peo- ple’s thinking throughout the thirteen colonies.




During the Renaissance in Europe, scientists had begun looking beyond religious beliefs and traditional assumptions for answers about how the world worked. Careful observation and reason, or rational thought, led to the discovery of some of the natural laws and principles governing the world and human behavior. The work of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Sir Isaac Newton established that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa. This observation, which challenged the traditional assumption that the earth was the center of the universe, was at first fiercely resisted. It was thought to contradict the Bible and other religious teachings. The early scientists also concluded that the world is governed by fixed mathematical laws rather than solely by the will of God. These ideas about nature led to a movement called the Enlightenment, in which philosophers valued reason and scientific methods.


Enlightenment ideas spread from Europe to the colonies, where people such as Benjamin Franklin embraced the notion of obtaining truth through experimentation and reason. For example, Franklin’s most famous experiment—flying a kite in a thunderstorm—demonstrated that lightning is a form of electrical power. Enlightenment ideas spread quickly through the colonies by means of books and pamphlets. Literacy was particularly high in New England because the Puritans had long supported public education, partly to make it possible for every- one to read the Bible. However, Enlightenment views were disturbing to some peo- ple. The Enlightenment suggested that people could use science and logic—rather than the pronouncements of church authorities—to arrive at truths. As the English

poet John Donne had written, “[The] new philosophy calls all in doubt.”


The Enlightenment also had a profound effect on political thought in the colonies. Colonial leaders such as Thomas Jefferson reasoned that human beings are born with natural rights that governments must respect. Enlightenment prin- ciples eventually would lead many colonists to question the authority of the British monarchy.

Questions For Review:


1. Link each of these individuals to his faith: John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Cecil Calvert.


2. Name a minority Christian faith from German-speaking countries. Name a minority Christian faith from Great Britain. Name a minority Christian faith from the modern-day Czech Republic.


  • Jump up↑ Norwood, Frederick A. The Story of American Methodism
  • Jump up↑ "Character of A Methodist" (title assigned by the anthology), extract from a sermon by John Wesley. Kerr, Hugh E., Editor, Readings In Christian Thought. Second Edition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990(1966).
  • Jump up↑ Norwood, Fredrick A. The Story of American Methodism
  • Jump up↑ Judaism- Stone, Amy. Jewish Americans. Milwaukee: World Almanac Library, 2007.
  • Jump up↑ Greeley, Andrew M. An Ugly Little Secret. 1928
  • Jump up↑ Horvat, Marian T. Let None Dare Call it Liberty.
  • Jump up↑ Horvat.
  • Jump up↑ Horvat.
  • Jump up↑ Bedell, George C., Leo Sandon, Jr., Charles T. Wellborn. Religion in America. Second edition. New York: Macmillan, 1982 (1975). P. 231.

Wikibooks contributors, "US History/Colonial Religion," Wikibooks, The Free Textbook Project, (accessed November 14, 2014).