In contrast to other colonies, there was a meetinghouse in every New England town.
In 1750 Boston, a city with a population of 15000, had eighteen churches.
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.”
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).
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.”
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.”
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.