Religious Diversity in America

Religion, Race, and American Politics from the Founding to Scopes (1789-1925)

Religion, Race, and American Politics from the Founding to Scopes (1789-1925)

Founding and Expanding the Nation (1789-1820s)

Religious diversity has always been a fact of American life. We begin here immediately after the American Revolution. What would the government’s attitude be toward religious freedom and religious diversity? Did the new nation live up to its ideals of religious tolerance?

Religious diversity, at first mostly in the form of inter-Protestant difference, was a reality from the beginning of European life on the continent. Religious toleration was thus of great importance to the framers of the constitution. After the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others set out on the massive project of constructing a legal and political framework for the new nation. At this moment of constitutional framing, the relationship between the government and religious institutions was of primary significance.

The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, passed in 1791, famously states that the government shall make no law that infringes on the practice of religion, nor can the federal government establish a national religion or instate religious tests that would bar any group from attaining office on account of their faith. The Amendment’s capacious language signaled the wide latitude of religion apart from government interference. This amendment, however, only applied to the federal government; the final state to disestablish, Massachusetts, did not adopt the law until 1833. Those who did not fit the dominant Protestant mold were especially enthusiastic about such a separation: deists, like Jefferson and Madison, as well as Baptists like Isaac Bacchus, all agreed that the government should favor no religion over another, nor perhaps favor religion at all. Today, what Jefferson famously described as a “wall” between church and state is a powerful motivating idea that continues to reverberate in modern political discourse. For instance, since the end of the nineteenth century in particular, religious minorities (and the anti-religious) have used the first amendment as a strategy to defend their autonomy against incursion by the Protestant majority.3

The ideal of the free practice of religion did not extend to all groups in America. Native American peoples used indigenous religion as a means of contesting territorial expansion by the government. Resistance, military conflict, and religious belief frequently intersected. For example, indigenous involvement in the War of 1812, fought between Indian confederacies, the United States, and Great Britain, was owed in part to the Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa. Formerly a hapless drunk, Tenskwatawa4 (a name he adopted, translating to “The Open Door”) experienced a vision of a deity he referred to as the Master of Life, and thereafter became a prominent religious leader among Indians in the Old Northwest territory. He encouraged followers to reject alcohol, Anglo-American agriculture, and political relations with the United States. With his brother, the famous military leader Tecumseh, he helped form an Indian confederacy that allied with the British to resist American encroachment on the West. At the end of the nineteenth century, another major indigenous religious movement primarily associated with the Lakota, the Ghost Dance, similarly encouraged pan-Indian unity and resistance to white expansionism. American anxiety about this movement was one factor in the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee.

Classroom resource 1, titled "The First Amendment," includes an image of George Washington and the first introduction of the bill of rights into Congress.

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While Native Americans used religious movements to mount political resistance against the United States, white missionaries similarly used Christianity to assimilate indigenous people to Anglo-American civilization. Missionaries founded schools like the Brainerd Mission in Tennessee (1817-1838), designed to integrate Native American children with mission families and households.5 For children, life among the missionaries included both educational and religious training. The school day lasted from sunrise to 9 o’clock in the evening, ending the day with prayers. While missionary schools were most certainly an agent of US expansionism and designed to eradicate Indian cultures and ways of life, missionaries did not think of themselves as conquerors, complicit in cultural genocide. Rather, they thought of themselves as benevolent and sympathetic teachers saving the souls of indigenous children. At the Brainerd school, for example, missionaries spoke in Cherokee as well as English and opposed the forced removal of Eastern tribes. Still, the Brainerd Mission primarily targeted the Cherokees and, like other missionary schools, attempted to erase Native American identities and cultures. 

Revival and Reform

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, American society saw massive changes as a result of industrial development, territorial expansion, and technological changes/advents in communications technology. Religion was impacted by larger realities. How did the majority religion, Protestantism, change in response to social transformations? How did marginalized groups, like women and African Americans, experience religion in the nineteenth century? What about non-Christian groups, like Mormons or Jews?

Religious life shifted immensely in this period, with the massive growth of evangelical Christianity, a broad swelling of religious feeling, and a large-scale rethinking of accepted Protestant theology. This phenomenon is usually referred to as the Second Great Awakening, in reference to the earlier revival movement of the 1730s and 1740s.6 The scale and scope of this awakening outstripped the first, and drastically changed the religious landscape of the nation. It is estimated that church membership doubled in proportion to the population between 1800- 1835.7 The awakening contributed to the growing diversity within Protestantism, as so-called "upstart" sects like Methodism and Baptism exploded in this period. This era also saw the advent of some of the most famous “homegrown” religious movements, like Mormonism.8 Although there were regional differences in the form and effects of revival, the Second Great Awakening was a national event that touched Americans of different genders, races, and political orientations. In the north, evangelical preachers like Charles Grandison Finney popularized a brand of religious perfectionism, which rejected Calvinist notions of predestination and encouraged the perfecting of the individual soul through the reform of society. 

Theologically, evangelicalism promoted a direct relationship to the divine, rather than one mediated by traditional church hierarchies. This egalitarian implication was not lost on marginalized groups: the Second Great Awakening saw a flourishing of religion and religious participation among women and African Americans.

In addition, northern reform movements such as temperance, abolitionism, and a burgeoning women’s rights movement were largely led by evangelicals, and seen as in confluence with the mission of evangelical religion. Women made up a bulk of revival attendees and those testifying to a spiritual rebirth. In this period, they also gained more control over the religious life of the family, as the doctrine of separate spheres dictated that religion was the in the purview of the woman-run private, domestic world. Some women mobilized this cult of domesticity to advocate for their own rights. 

Classroom resource 2, titled "The Second Great Awakening," includes an image of "Camp Meeting" by H. Bridport and "Religious Camp Meeting" by J. Maze Burbank.

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Classroom resource 3, titled "Mormonism," includes an image of mormon pioneers crossing the Mississippi on the ice and John C. Fremont's map.

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Mormons and First Amendment 

African American Christianity also flowered in this period, though a majority of African Americans would not identify as Christians until after the Civil War, when the black church as it is known today would emerge in its more modern form. The first half of the nineteenth century saw not only the conversion of many slaves and free blacks, but the establishment of some enduring institutions of black Christianity.9 Large waves of conversion among black Americans also speaks to the attraction of upstart branches of Christianity, such as Methodism, over long-established sects. Methodists preachers sought to reach nonwhites in addition to white converts, and emphasized lay preaching and challenged the hardened social hierarchies that pervaded many older sects. This appealed greatly to free blacks and slaves, and in 1794 Richard Allen, who had converted to Methodism as a slave, founded the Bethel Church in Philadelphia, a hub of the free black community.10 But Methodism, like many sects of Christianity, was wrought by racial discrimination, and in 1816 Allen formed the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E), the country’s oldest black-founded denomination. Religion was also very important in the formulation of anti-slavery ideologies: many abolitionists, for instance, held the view that slavery itself was a sin, and that in order to bring about the second coming of Christ, America needed to be purged of slavery.11 John Brown, Sojourner Truth, and Nat Turner, all famed anti-slavery crusaders, saw their mission as one of divine providence.12

The South was a different story. A lack of urban centers made associational reform movements less feasible, and this culture threatened some white southern values. Evangelical religion did, however, make inroads in the South, though it muted some of its more egalitarian and reformist implications, molding itself to fit white southern cultural norms.13 Further, the large-scale participation of women in northern reform movements clashed with southern gender norms, as men remained the spiritual heads of the household as well as the managers of the home and family, even as family norms in the North changed. Though some aspects of revival evangelicalism clashed with entrenched hierarchies of Southern life, Black southerners still managed to create some independent religious spaces and congregations, though not on the scale that they would after Reconstruction.14

Simultaneously, American Judaism in the mid-nineteenth century saw the advent of Reform Judaism. This represents another strategy that has been deployed by minority religions—where Mormons moved west to create a separate society, some Jews had a desire to create a form of Judaism that remained true to their faith while also adapting to social and cultural needs of modern American life. The first Reform synagogue was founded in Philadelphia in 1842. Not all Jews supported this modernizing shift, and many turned to Conservative and Orthodox forms. The decision of whether to negotiate with mainstream American society, or to turn inwards and try to reinvigorate a separate Jewish culture, language, and religious orthodoxy continues to divide American Jewry. Most Jews follow the Reform tradition, though thousands still live in Yiddish-speaking, religiously orthodox communities, the largest of which is in Brooklyn, New York.15

Civil War and Reconstruction

Christian belief played an important role in the Civil War. As noted above, evangelical Christianity was central in the formation of the abolition movement. During the war, both the Union and Confederate sides expressed the purpose of the battles in epic, biblical terms, as an existential struggle for the soul of America and the fate of the continent. This theological understanding of the war is apparent in many realms of culture and discourse of the time. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” one of the most important songs of the era, likened the Jesus’s sacrifice to the war effort: “as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free.” With its refrain of “glory, glory, hallelujah!,” “Battle Hymn” exalted the Union cause.16 Abraham Lincoln himself often used prophetic imagery to frame his speeches and to inspire Americans for the Union cause. For him, questions of the Union and American destiny were paramount. Lincoln is now frequently touted as a symbol of American Civil Religion, a martyr and savior of the nation.17

Classroom resource 4, titled "The Jewish Split (1824)," includes an image of John Rubens Smith and the Constitution of the Reformed Society of Israelites.

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American Jews

Reform and Conservative Judaism 

Photos and Media 

The end of slavery meant African Americans in the South could form their own independent religious communities. Black churches spread rapidly, bolstering the unique religious and political culture of African American Christianity. In the post-emancipation South, black preachers were pillars of both political and spiritual life. On one hand, whites persuaded black preachers to instruct their flocks to remain subservient and dutiful. On the other, given the number of black churches burned and black preachers beaten, ministers and church-goers were motivated to take more adamant and vocal stances on freedom and politics. The reverend James Lynch was one of many African Americans who served as both a spiritual and political leader. In 1867 he settled in Mississippi after working as a missionary in the South for several years. There, he greatly expanded his church, helped organize Mississippi’s Republican Party, and became the state’s first African American Secretary of State.18 Independent Southern black churches caused whites no small degree of consternation. Racist whites became anxious about the political activity and community black churches fostered, and worried that the churches would promote degeneracy and recklessness among blacks as well as hatred for whites. In spite of obstacles posed by white supremacy, black churches served as important sites of community and political organization in the years following emancipation, and would continue to do so throughout the twentieth century.19

Turn of the Century Changes in American Protestantism

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century also saw many Americans interrogating familiar forms of Christianity, as questions about science, technology, and the place of the Bible created schisms in Protestantism that continue today. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Protestant Christianity found itself riven by fierce theological, political, and social debates. American Protestantism at this time was split in two, and this period of conflict is often known as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. On the one hand fundamentalists—much like in our modern usage—were theologically more conservative/ orthodox, insisting on a literal reading of the bible and doctrinal strictness. Modernists, on the other hand, felt that Christian theology should be updated to better relate to new technological, scientific, and social realities. Evolution was one major issue cleaving Protestants apart. Darwin’s theory had been seeping into mainstream culture since the 1860s, and that had become increasingly troubling to fundamentalists, while it was more and more accepted by modernists. The most famous moment in this controversy came in 1925 with the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which William Jennings Bryan argued passionately for keeping the teaching of evolution out of schools, but is generally remembered as having been embarrassed in this effort. After the trial and decades of strife, it appeared by the 1930s that the modernists had won, and most mainline Protestant churches adopted a theologically and socially liberal stance.20 Fundamentalists, on the other hand formed independent congregations, publishing houses and publications, and colleges, creating a parallel Christian culture (discussed in a later section of this paper). They are considered in large part the precursors to modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who remain politically active and highly visible today.21

Classroom resource 4, titles "'John Brown's Body' and 'The Battle Hymm of the Repbulic"

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Audio Recordings 



Classroom resource 6, titled "Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address," includes an image of Abraham Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address as president and Lincoln taking the oath at his second inauguration.

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The first years of the twentieth century also saw the emergence of Pentecostalism. Charles Parnham is credited with starting the movement, when he convinced his students of the significance of the second baptism (a baptism of the spirit rather than water), in which the holy spirit would make itself known by speaking through the believer. This practice, glossolalia (or speaking in tongues), is a hallmark of Pentecostal religion. In 1906, William Seymour, an African American Holiness preacher, began preaching at a former AME church on Azusa street, in Los Angeles, which is widely considered the birthplace of the Pentecostal movement.22 Pentecostalism has since become a massive religious movement that has experienced its own schisms, and is comprised of many different denominations, including COGIC (Church of God in Christ) and Assemblies of God. By the century’s end, Pentecostalism would become one of the fastest growing religions in the world, with an estimated 35,000 new converts each day, largely from Africa and South America. Pew estimates that there are 279 million Pentecostals in the world today, comprising about 4 percent of the world’s population.23

Classroom resource 7, titled "Pentecostalism," includes an image of services at the Pentecostal Church of God and the Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn, New York.

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  • 3. For more on religion and the First Amendment, see: Nicholas Patrick Miller, The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012; Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003; Vincent Phillip Muñoz, God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • 4. See also: Adam Jortner, The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012
  • 5. For more, see: Hilary E. Wyss, English Letters and Indian Literacies: Reading, Writing, and New England Missionary Schools, 1750-1830, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
  • 6. See also: Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990; Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in Nineteenth-Century America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995; Anne Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth Century America, 2nd ed, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
  • 7. David Henkin and Rebecca McLennan, Becoming America: A History for the 21st Century, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2015, p. 262.
  • 8. For secondary sources on Mormonism, see: Kenneth H. Winn, Exiles in a Land of Liberty: Mormons in America, 1830-1846, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989; J. Spencer Fluhman, A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
  • 9. For more on African American Christianity in early American history, see: Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • 10. 0 See Richard S. Newman, Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers, New York: New York University Press, 2008.
  • 11. 1 See John Stauffer,. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • 12. For more on these figures, see: Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, WW Norton, 1996; Stephen Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood: a Biography of John Brown, University of Massachusetts Press, 1971; Kenneth Greenberg, ed., Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • 13. See Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • 14. See Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978
  • 15. For more on Orthodox Jews, see: Jeffrey S. Gurock, Orthodox Jews in America, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. For a more general history, see Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. See also: Michael R. Cohen, The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter's Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
  • 16. See also, John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis, Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On, Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • 17. See also: Mark A. Noll, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002; Stewart Winger, Lincoln, Religion, and Romantic Cultural Politics, DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002.
  • 18. 8 See Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, Vintage Books, 1980.
  • 19. For more on religion and Reconstruction, see: Daniel W. Stowell, Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863- 1877, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • 20. 0 For more on the Scopes Trial, see Edward Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, Basic Books, 1997.
  • 21. For more on Protestantism in this period, see: George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980; Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970; Robert Handy, Undermined Establishment: Church-State Relations in America, 1880-1920, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • 22. 2 See Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • 23. Richard Vijgen and Bregtje van der Haak, Atlas of Pentecostalism.