The 18th century is notable for two major trends in religious views in the American colonies: During this time, religious freedom and tolerance for minority religions was firmly entrenched in American culture. These values were an integral part of the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. But there was also a trend toward renewed religious fervor which came about through the Great Awakening.
The Great Awakenings
The Great Awakenings were a religious movement that called people to develop a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Meetings were held not just in churches, but in fields and town squares, bringing together people of different denominations and thus loosening the hold of the traditional church. The First Great Awakening, led by Anglican priest George Whitefield, began in Western Massachusetts and lasted from 1734 through the 1760s. Jonathan Edwards, noted theologian and preacher, was another important leader; he is best known for his essay, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The Second Great Awakening began in 1790 and lasted until 1840. It led to the development of new religious denominations, utopian communities and preparations for the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The Revolutionary War
The desire for religion freedom was a strong motivation in the formation of the colonies. People had fled their native European countries so they could practice religion in their own ways without fear of punishment for not following the established state religion. Colonists who felt oppressed by English rule rebelled, and their ministers often encouraged them to see revolution as God's will for America. The Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England, saw a decline in membership because of its linkage to what Americans saw as the oppressive British rulers. The colonies went to war against the British and signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
The Bill of Rights
In 1789, the First Congress of the U.S. unveiled amendments to the Constitution. These amendments came to be known as the Bill of Rights. According to the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." American colonists made the decision that there would be no state religion in the U.S. such as there was in England. They also decided that everyone in the U.S. would be free to practice religion as they saw fit.
Due to America's independent spirit and commitment to religious liberty, many diverse religious groups thrived in the colonies. As the 1700s drew to a close, Baptist and Methodist influence overtook that of Anglican influence and other traditional churches. Catholics enjoyed religious liberty, although they were not allowed to hold public office in many states, as that privilege was only given to white Protestant males. Christian African-Americans melded traditional African practices with Christianity. Muslim slaves taken from Africa brought the Quran and Islam to the U.S. Jewish colonists in New York freely practiced their faith. Deists, such as Thomas Jefferson, believed in reason over dogma: Jefferson said, "Call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion."
- PBS: God in America
- Library of Congress: Religion in Eighteenth-Century America
- American Religous Experience, West Virginia University: From Many, One: The Religious Origins of American Identity
- National Archives and Records Administration: Bill of Rights
- Library of Congress: Religion and the American Revolution
- Cornell University Law School: First Amendment
Janet Clark has written professionally since 2001. She writes about education, careers, culture, parenting, gardening and social justice issues. Clark graduated from Buena Vista University with a degree in education. She has written two novels, "Blind Faith" and "Under the Influence." Clark has received several awards from the Iowa Press Women for her work.