Sunday, October 21, 2012

America's Religious Origins


Americans were from their very beginning a religiously diverse people. Pockets of non-English settlers such as the Swedish Lutherans in the Delaware Valley, Dutch Reformed Christians in the Long Island area, and the Presbyterian Scotch-Irish and western Pennsylvania and the backcountry contributed in varying degrees to the religious mosaic of British North America. More important, however, was the religious diversity among the English people themselves who constituted the first and most numerous of the North American colonists. They reflected the religious diversity of England.

England's religious diversity emerged from the spread of the ideas of the Protestant Reformation and crude power politics.

Like most of Europe, England was a Catholic nation whose rulers enforced the commonly accepted idea of religious uniformity. For reasons of both “truth” and “social order,” the English government enforced conformity to Catholic worship and the annual religious holy days. And, like most of Europe, England also faced the challenge of the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther and John Calvin. King Henry VIII of England earned an informal title of “Defender of the Faith” for his own writings in opposition to Luther.

Disputes with the Pope over his request for divorce and the question of the extent of the Pope's temporal powers led to the break from Rome. In 1534, Parliament passed an Act of Supremacy declared that Henry Tutor was “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England.”


After Henry's death in 1547, advisers to his minor heir Edward VI continued the gradual process of creating a new state church. The Act of Uniformity of 1549 replaced the traditional Catholic Latin Missal with the Book of Common Prayer. A second Act of Uniformity in 1552 replaced the original Book of Common Prayer with a revised, more Protestant version.

When Edward died, his Catholic sister Mary inherited the throne. She sought to roll back these changes. Upon her own death, however, the Reformation continued.

Under Elizabeth, I, Parliament enacted an Act of Supremacy (1559) that reinstated the English monarch as head of the Church of England. It also required an oath recognizing that fact from anyone who served in a church or public office. Another Act of Uniformity (1559) set the order to be followed in the Book of Common Prayer and required attendance in church every Sunday under penalty of fines. The Church created the 39 Articles expressing the general doctrines of the Church of England.

Some English remained unhappy with the progress of reformation. The self-styled Church of England retained an episcopal structure and preserved many traditionally Catholic worship practices. Many dissenting groups began forming independently, applying their own version of Protestantism. Some of these, especially Presbyterians and Congregationalist followers of John Calvin's theology, became generally known as Puritans. In addition, groups of General Baptists, Particular Baptists, Quakers, and large numbers of Catholics dissented from the Church of England.

Government persecution of Puritans led to tens of thousands of them to settle in the Massachusetts Bay colony of North America. It also contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War which resulted in the triumph of the Army loyal to Parliament and dominated by Puritan officers. Puritan officer Oliver Cromwell led a new English commonwealth called the Protectorate. Parliament replaced the Church of England's episcopal structure with a Presbyterian one. They replaced the Church of England 39 Articles of Faith with the Westminster Confession.


The brief period of Puritan rule came to an ignominious end in 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy. After the Restoration, Parliament clamped down on religious dissenters and reestablished the uniformity of the Church of England. It passed several laws that restricted their religious liberties:

The Corporation Act (1661) required that all office holders to take Anglican communion in order to retain their offices. This effectively purged Puritans from public office.

The Act of Uniformity (1662) reestablished the Church of England and required the use of a new Book of Common Prayer.

The Conventicle Act (1664) prohibited private worship meetings of more than five persons who were not part of the same household. It basically abolished dissenting or non-conforming religious churches from meeting.


The Five Mile Act (1665) prohibiting dissenting ministers from living within five miles of any incorporated town or their former congregations.

Only after the Glorious Revolution of 1689 did the government grant toleration to religious dissenters. The Act of Toleration permitted worship by dissenters along as they registered their meeting houses, kept the doors unlocked during worship services, and licensed their ministers through the local justice of the peace. They still remained responsible for payment of tithes to the Church of England parish to which they legally belonged.

English settlers brought the above traditions with them to the New World: religious diversity (and sometimes hostility) accompanied by a belief that governments should enforce religious uniformity. While attempts at religious uniformity were attempted on the local level with varying degrees of success, the early diversity of religious beliefs among the inhabitants of British North America stood as an insurmountable barrier to anyone who envisioned establishing national uniformity in the newly independent United States. This partially contributed to the idea of "separation of church and state."

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