Religion in Colonial America: Trends, Regulations, and Beliefs

To understand how America's current balance among national law, local community practice, and individual freedom of belief evolved, it's helpful to understand some of the common experiences and patterns around religion  in colonial culture in the period between 1600 and 1776.

In the early years of what later became the United States, Christian religious groups played an influential role in each of the British colonies, and most attempted to enforce strict religious observance through both colony governments and local town rules.

Most attempted to enforce strict religious observance. Laws mandated that everyone attend a house of worship and pay taxes that funded the salaries of ministers. Eight of the thirteen British colonies had official, or “established,” churches, and in those colonies dissenters who sought to practice or proselytize a different version of Christianity or a non-Christian faith were sometimes persecuted.

Although most colonists considered themselves Christians, this did not mean that they lived in a culture of religious unity. Instead, differing Christian groups often believed that their own practices and faiths provided unique values that needed protection against those who disagreed, driving a need for rule and regulation. 

In Europe, Catholic and Protestant nations often persecuted or forbade each other's religions, and British colonists frequently maintained restrictions against Catholics. In Great Britain, the Protestant Anglican church had split into bitter divisions among traditional Anglicans and the reforming Puritans, contributing to an English civil war in the 1600s. In the British colonies, differences among Puritan and Anglican remained.

Between 1680 and 1760 Anglicanism and Congregationalism, an offshoot of the English Puritan movement, established themselves as the main organized denominations in the majority of the colonies. As the seventeenth and eighteenth century passed on, however, the Protestant wing of Christianity constantly gave birth to new movements, such as the Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians and many more, sometimes referred to as “Dissenters.”  In communities where one existing faith was dominant, new congregations were often seen as unfaithful troublemakers who were upsetting the social order.

Despite the effort to govern society on Christian (and more specifically Protestant) principles, the first decades of colonial era in most colonies were marked by irregular religious practices, minimal communication between remote settlers, and a population of “Murtherers, Theeves, Adulterers, [and] idle persons.”1 An ordinary Anglican American parish stretched between 60 and 100 miles, and was often very sparsely populated. In some areas, women accounted for no more than a quarter of the population, and given the relatively small number of conventional households and the chronic shortage of clergymen, religious life was haphazard and irregular for most. Even in Boston, which was more highly populated and dominated by the Congregational Church, one inhabitant complained in 1632 that the “fellows which keepe hogges all weeke preach on the Sabboth.”2

Christianity was further complicated by the widespread practice of astrology, alchemy and forms of witchcraft. The fear of such practices can by gauged by the famous trials held in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and 1693. Surprisingly, alchemy and other magical practices were not altogether divorced from Christianity in the minds of many “natural philosophers” (the precursors of scientists), who sometimes thought of them as experiments that could unlock the secrets of Scripture. As we might expect, established clergy discouraged these explorations.

In turn, as the colonies became more settled, the influence of the clergy and their churches grew. At the heart of most communities was the church; at the heart of the calendar was the Sabbath—a period of intense religious and “secular” activity that lasted all day long. After years of struggles to impose discipline and uniformity on Sundays, the selectmen of Boston at last were able to “parade the street and oblige everyone to go to Church . . . on pain of being put in Stokes or otherwise confined,” one observer wrote in 1768.3 By then, few communities openly tolerated travel, drinking, gambling, or blood sports on the Sabbath.

Slavery—which was also firmly established and institutionalized between the 1680s and the 1780s—was also shaped by religion. The use of violence against slaves, their social inequality, together with the settlers’ contempt for all religions other than Christianity “resulted in destructiveness of extraordinary breadth, the loss of traditional religious practices among the half-millions slaves brought to the mainland colonies between 1680s and the American Revolution.”4 Even in churches which reached out to convert slaves to their congregations —the Baptists are a good example—slaves were most often a silent minority. If they received any Christian religious instructions, it was, more often than not, from their owners rather than in Sunday school.

Local variations in Protestant practices and ethnic differences among the white settlers did foster a religious diversity. Wide distances, poor communication and transportation, bad weather, and the clerical shortage dictated religious variety from town to town and from region to region. With French Huguenots, Catholics, Jews, Dutch Calvinists, German Reformed pietists, Scottish Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and other denominations arriving in growing numbers, most colonies with Anglican or Congregational establishments had little choice but to display some degree of religious tolerance. Only in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania was toleration rooted in principle rather than expedience. Indeed, Pennsylvania’s first constitution stated that all who believed in God and agreed to live peacefully under the civil government would “in no way be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion of practice.”5  However, reality often fell short of that ideal.

New England

Most New Englanders went to a Congregationalist meetinghouse for church services. The meetinghouse, which served secular functions as well as religious, was a small wood building located in the center of town. People sat on hard wooden benches for most of the day, which was how long the church services usually lasted. These meeting houses became bigger and much less crude as the population grew after the 1660s. Steeples grew, bells were introduced, and some churches grew big enough to host as many as one thousand worshippers.

In contrast to other colonies, there was a meetinghouse in every New England town.6 In 1750 Boston, a city with a population of 15000, had eighteen churches.7 In the previous century church attendance was inconsistent at best. After the 1680s, with many more churches and clerical bodies emerging, religion in New England became more organized and attendance more uniformly enforced. In even sharper contrast to the other colonies, in New England most newborns were baptized by the church, and church attendance rose in some areas to 70 percent of the adult population. By the eighteenth century, the vast majority of all colonists were churchgoers.

The New England colonists—with the exception of Rhode Island—were predominantly Puritans, who, by and large, led strict religious lives. The clergy was highly educated and devoted to the study and teaching of both Scripture and the natural sciences. The Puritan leadership and gentry, especially in Massachusetts and Connecticut, integrated their version of Protestantism into their political structure. Government in these colonies contained elements of theocracy, asserting that leaders and officials derived that authority from divine guidance and that civil authority ought to be used to enforce religious conformity. Their laws assumed that citizens who strayed away from conventional religious customs were a threat to civil order and should be punished for their nonconformity.

Despite many affinities with the established Church of England, New England churches operated quite differently from the older Anglican system in England. Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut had no church courts to levy fines on religious offenders, leaving that function to the civil magistrates. Congregational churches typically owned no property (even the local meetinghouse was owned by the town and was used to conduct both town meetings and religious services), and ministers, while often called upon to advise the civil magistrates, played no official role in town or colony governments.

In those colonies, the civil government dealt harshly with religious dissenters, exiling the likes of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams for their outspoken criticism of Puritanism, and whipping Baptists or cropping the ears of Quakers for their determined efforts to proselytize. Official persecution reached its peak between 1659 and 1661, when Massachusetts Bay’s Puritan magistrates hung four Quaker missionaries.

Yet, despite Puritanism’s severe reputation, the actual experience of New England dissenters varied widely, and punishment of religious difference was uneven. England’s intervention in 1682 ended the corporal punishment of dissenters in New England. The Toleration Act, passed by the English Parliament in 1689, gave Quakers and several other denominations the right to build churches and to conduct public worship in the colonies. While dissenters continued to endure discrimination and financial penalties well into the eighteenth century, those who did not challenge the authority of the Puritans directly were left unmolested and were not legally punished for their “heretical” beliefs.

Mid-Atlantic and Southern Colonies

Inhabitants of the middle and southern colonies went to churches whose style and decoration look more familiar to modern Americans than the plain New England meeting houses. They, too, would sit in church for most of the day on Sunday. After 1760, as remote outposts grew into towns and backwoods settlements became bustling commercial centers, Southern churches grew in size and splendor. Church attendance, abysmal as it was in the early days of the colonial period, became more consistent after 1680. Much like the north, this was the result of the proliferation of churches, new clerical codes and bodies, and a religion that became more organized and uniformly enforced. Toward the end of the colonial era, churchgoing reached at least 60 percent in all the colonies.

The middle colonies saw a mixture of religions, including Quakers (who founded Pennsylvania), Catholics, Lutherans, a few Jews, and others. The southern colonists were a mixture as well, including Baptists and Anglicans. In the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland (which was originally founded as a haven for Catholics), the Church of England was recognized by law as the state church, and a portion of tax revenues went to support the parish and its priest.

Virginia imposed laws obliging all to attend Anglican public worship. Indeed, to any eighteenth observer, the “legal and social dominance of the Church of England was unmistakable.”8 After 1750, as Baptist ranks swelled in that colony, the colonial Anglican elite responded to their presence with force. Baptist preachers were frequently arrested. Mobs physically attacked members of the sect, breaking up prayer meetings and sometimes beating participants. As a result, the 1760s and 1770s witnessed a rise in discontent and discord within the colony (some argue that Virginian dissenters suffered some of the worst persecutions in antebellum America).9

In the Carolinas, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, Anglicans never made up a majority, in contrast to Virginia.  With few limits on the influx of new colonists, Anglican citizens in those colonies needed to accept, however grudgingly, ethnically diverse groups of Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and a variety of German Pietists.

Maryland was founded by Cecilius Calvert in 1634 as a safe haven for Catholics. The Catholic leadership passed a law of religious toleration in 1649, only to see it repealed it when Puritans took over the colony’s assembly. Clergy and buildings belonging to both the Catholic and Puritan religions were subsidized by a general tax.

Quakers founded Pennsylvania. Their faith influenced the way they treated Indians, and they were the first to issue a public condemnation of slavery in America. William Penn, the founder of the colony, contended that civil authorities shouldn’t meddle with the religious/spiritual lives of their citizens. The laws he drew up pledged to protect the civil liberties of “all persons . . . who confess and acknowledge the one almighty and eternal God to be the creator, upholder, and ruler of the world.”10

Religious Revival

A religious revival swept the colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. Shortly after the English evangelical and revivalist George Whitefield completed a tour of America, Jonathan Edwards delivered a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” stirring up a wave of religious fervor and the beginning of the Great Awakening. Relying on massive open-air sermons attended at times by as many as 15,000 people, the movement challenged the clerical elite and colonial establishment by focusing on the sinfulness of every individual, and on salvation through personal, emotional conversion—what we call today being “born again.” By discounting worldly success as a sign of God’s favor, and by focusing on emotional transformation (pejoratively dubbed by the establishment as “enthusiasm”) rather than reason, the movement appealed to the poor and uneducated, including slaves and Indians.

In retrospect, the Great Awakening contributed to the revolutionary movement in a number of ways: it forced Awakeners to organize, mobilize, petition, and provided them with political experience; it encouraged believers to follow their beliefs even if that meant breaking with their church; it discarded clerical authority in matters of conscience; and it questioned the right of civil authority to intervene in all matters of religion. In a surprising way, these principles sat very well with the basic beliefs of rational Protestants (and deists). They also helped clarify their common objections to British civil and religious rule over the colonies, and provided both with arguments in favor of the separation of church and state.


Despite the evangelical, emotional challenge to reason underlying the “Great Awakening,” by the end of the colonial period, Protestant rationalism remained the dominant religious force among the leaders of most of the colonies: “The similarity of belief among the educated gentry in all colonies is notable. . . . [There] seem to be evidence that some form of rationalism—Unitarian, deist, or otherwise—was often present in the religion of gentlemen leaders by the late colonial period.”11 Whether Unitarian, deist, or even Anglican/Congregational, rationalism focused on the ethical aspects of religion. Rationalism also discarded many “superstitious” aspects of the Christian liturgy (although many continued to believe in the human soul and in the afterlife). The political edge of this argument was that no human institution—religious or civil—could claim divine authority. In addition, in their search for God’s truths, rationalists such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin valued the study of nature (known as “natural religion”) over the Scriptures (or “revealed religion”).

At the core of this rational belief was the idea that God had endowed humans with reason so that they could tell the difference between right and wrong. Knowing the difference also meant that humans made free choices to sin or behave morally. The radicalization of this position led many rational dissenters to argue that intervention in human decisions by civil authorities undermined the special covenant between God and humankind. Many therefore advocated the separation of church and state.

Taken further, the logic of these arguments led them to dismiss the divine authority claimed by the English kings, as well as the blind obedience compelled by such authority. Thus, by the 1760s, they mounted a two-pronged attack on England: first, for its desire to intervene in the colonies’ religious life and, second, for its claim that the king ruled over the colonies by divine inspiration. Once the link to divine authority was broken, revolutionaries turned to Locke, Milton, and others, concluding that a government that abused its power and hurt the interests of its subjects was tyrannical and as such deserved to be replaced.

[1] Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 16.

[2] Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven, 18.

[3] Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven, 6.

[4] As one historian put it, it was “a holocaust that destroyed collective African religious practice in Colonial America.”Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith, 157.

[5] Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven, 36.

[6] John Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianization of the American People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 57.

[7] Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven, 90.

[8] John A. Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia's Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 3.

[9] Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty.

[10] William Penn, Frame of Government of Pennsylvania  (May 5, 1682)

[11] Bonomi, Under the Cape of Heaven,104.

Colonial-era Meeting House, Sandown, New Hampshire