Front cover of The Four-Fold Gospel

Christianity in America

Dr Chuck Lippy explores Christianity in America, considering the separation of church and state, the emphasis on personal experience and the impact of immigration. He also touches on the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening, as well as the development of the Mormons, the Shakers, and the Pentecostal church.

Since the European conquest of the Americas, religion has characterised American life. That influence continues even in an age when fewer Americans claim association with a religious group. Many factors help to explain this pivotal role that religion plays. Among them are the American ideal of separation of church and state, an emphasis on personal religious experience and the impact of immigration on American religious culture.

What are the roots of Christianity in America?

Beginning with the 16th-century Spanish missions, virtually all of the Europeans who settled in colonial America came from nations with a prominent ‘state church’; indeed in some countries there was only one lawful church. Examples include the Church of England, the Lutheranism represented by various Scandinavian state churches and the Roman Catholic tradition in Spain. Many Christians who left those countries for America wanted nothing to do with any legally established state church. The close association which such churches had with political power made them seem like arms of the state that corrupted true religion.

Separation of church and state

The Constitution adopted after the US gained its independence in the later 18th century made no mention of a state church. Further, the First Amendment prohibits the Congress from establishing any particular religion and from interfering with individuals’ religious practice. This provision meant that people were free to promote their own religion without governmental interference; religion became a marketplace commodity.

Consequently, the US became fertile ground for the formation of hundreds of new religious movements over the centuries, many short-lived but some now with long histories. By the beginning of the 21st century, anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 different Christian denominations had carved a niche for themselves.

Not all Christian groups welcomed the lack of formal ties between church and state. Roman Catholic leaders, accustomed to powerful backing by European state churches, initially believed that separation of church and state would lead to heresy. In the 19th century, as Catholicism flourished in the US, Catholic leaders adapted to the marketplace approach fostered by the First Amendment.

Controversies over the separation of church and state continue to this day. More recently these concern issues such as violations of the separation clause (e.g. religious displays on public property), intervention in religious matters (e.g. mandating that a minor receive medical treatment despite parents’ religious objections) and the application of the ‘free exercise’ clause (e.g. whether it permits business owners to refuse service to a gay clientele based on religious beliefs).

The centrality of religious experience

At the heart of American Christianity is a complex insistence that Christianity is experienced; individuals and their personal experiences are the final authority, not any formal statement of belief and practice.

Many European settlers, especially those in colonial New England, understood Christianity through the teachings of John Calvin. Central to Calvin’s thinking was the idea of ‘predestination’, that God alone determined who would receive salvation. Persons of faith received signs from God that they were chosen, often in the form of a deeply felt inner experience. An emphasis on religious experience, of faith as something one felt, became a hallmark of much American Christianity, especially where the English assumed control. For the influential late 17th-century pastor and theologian Increase Mather, for example, those seeking to become church members had to recount in detail their experience of conversion.

An 18th century guide to the principles and practices of New England’s churches

An 18th century guide to the principles and practices of New England’s churches. Title Page announces 'A faithful account of the discipline professed and practiced in the Churches of New England'

The principles and practices of New England’s churches, as laid out by Cotton Mather, with an introduction by Increase Mather.

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In the 18th century the ideas of the Enlightenment spread across the ocean to the American colonies, where rationalism took root. This made personal experience central to religion in different ways. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, for example, saw reason as basic to religion. The rationalist approach, like the Calvinist one, promoted individual experience: for rationalists, it was up to individuals to discern truth. However the rationalist approach undermined Calvinism and the way advocated by Mather and Jonathan Edwards, for the rational pursuit gave human agency the central role, negating the idea of predestination.

The Great Awakening

In response to this shift, a series of religious revivals swept through English areas of North America in the 1730s–1740s, later called the Great Awakening. These revivals cemented the place of personal experience as central to American Christianity. Many of those revivals had roots in New England, where Jonathan Edwards preached powerful sermons that propelled listeners to examine the state of their souls and strive for an experience of conversion through prayer and holy living.

Essays based on Jonathan Edwards’s sermons

Title page for Essays based on Jonathan Edwards’s sermons announces 'Discourses on various important subjects, nearly concerning the great Affair of the Soul's Eternal Salvation'

A collection of essays based on Jonathan Edwards’s sermons from his preaching at his church in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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Travelling or itinerant preachers like English cleric George Whitefield carried the message of experience and conversion throughout the different colonies, from Georgia to Nova Scotia. Both Edwards and Whitefield communicated with like-minded Christians in the UK, and evangelical revivals occurred in Scotland, and also in industrial areas of England where Methodists gained ground.

New churches are formed: The Mormons

It was against this backdrop that nearly a century later one of the most well-known new religious movements was born in the US: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons.

In the 1820s in upstate New York, then a hotbed of religious enthusiasm, Joseph Smith had several visions of a new form of religious truth with its own revealed scriptures, the Book of Mormon, in addition to the Bible.

Book of Mormon

title page from a 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon

In 1823, Joseph Smith received a vision of an angel instructing him of plates containing a Judeo-Christian history of an ancient American civilisation. Smith translated of these plates and published them as The Book of Mormon.

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Opposition to Smith’s teaching often centred on the Saints’ early practice of polygamy. Persecution and the lynching of Smith propelled the Saints to migrate westward to Utah. That migration illustrates how having land on which to settle was a catalyst for the growth of some religious communities. Claims of indigenous Native Americans to much of this land were generally ignored.

What role did women play in the development of Christianity in America?

The Saints were only one of many new religious movements to take advantage of this freedom for religious experimentation; women founded many of these movements. For example, beginning in the later 18th century, Ann Lee and the Shakers who followed her teaching established several American communities.

A collection of Shaker hymns

A typed page from 'Millenial Praises'

An early example of a U.S. utopian community that emphasised gender equality, revelation and ecstatic worship.

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Since the colonial era, two to three times as many women have sought membership or affiliation with a Christian congregation as have men. Denied positions of power in these churches, as in wider society, women found starting a new religious movement a way to exercise leadership and power otherwise denied them. In the 19th century, the Fox sisters in western New York trumpeted their form of spiritualism, Mary Baker Eddy advanced the teachings of Christian Science and Ellen G Harmon White added a passion for diet and healthy living to the teachings that shaped the Seventh-Day Adventists.

In the 19th century, the Calvinistic underpinnings of religious experience continued to erode, replaced by the idea that persons of their own free will chose to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. Methodists and Baptists both made an often emotional experience of conversion the mode of entry into the ranks of the faithful. Their numbers skyrocketed, making them the largest of the scores of Protestant denominations in the US.

When did the Pentecostal Church begin?

By the end of the 19th century and early into the 20th, some evangelicals – Protestant Christians who took the Bible seriously and also emphasised personal religious experience – gave special attention to biblical passages that talked about ‘gifts’ of the Spirit as a mark of true faith. Such gifts included glossolalia (speaking in tongues), faith healing and, in some Appalachian mountain areas, serpent handling. At the start of the 20th century in both the North Carolina mountains and Los Angeles (then still a frontier town) people took a keen interest in these spiritual gifts, first experienced by believers on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2 in the New Testament). Hence they became known as Pentecostals. Once seen as radicals on the margins or as ‘holy rollers’, by the beginning of the 21st century Pentecostals comprised one of the largest pan-Christian movements and the expression of Christianity growing most rapidly globally.

Many new religious groups emerged from the Pentecostal surge. Among them was Sister Aimee Semple McPherson’s Church of the Foursquare Gospel, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) and the Church of God in Christ (a predominantly African American body).

The Four-Fold Gospel

Contents page from the Four-Fold Gospel

The four pillars of this unique gospel are: Christ the Saviour, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming Lord.

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Many Pentecostals remained within other denominations. A significant number of Roman Catholics also identified as charismatics, or those who believed that they could receive the spiritual gifts first bestowed at Pentecost.

Over the last 150 years or so, evangelical Christians have continued to emphasise personal experience. Some have identified with fundamentalism, a movement stressing not only orthodox belief (i.e. doctrines ‘fundamental’ to Christianity), but also a distinct experience of abandoning a life of sin. Some spoke of conversion; others used the phrase ‘born again’ to denote a spiritual birth distinct from physical birth. As in the Great Awakening, fundamentalists looked to revivals and enthusiastic preachers to promote their message.

What impact has immigration had on American Christianity?

The primacy of personal experience in shaping American religion is reinforced by another important element: the interplay of Christianity with indigenous religious expressions. Immigration is key to Christianity in the US. The impact of colonial European settlers on American Christianity is well documented, yet there are other groups who also shaped the religious environment which are often overlooked. One such group is enslaved Africans. Perhaps less than 5 per cent of the more than 12 million enslaved Africans forced to immigrate to the Americas came to what is now the US, many coming by way of Barbados and other Caribbean areas, but their impact has been lasting. Some were already Christian, some were Muslim, many practised traditional African religions. When in America, many adopted a form of Christianity that was fused with dimensions of tribal religious expression and local indigenous religiosity. The Great Awakening of the 18th century sparked efforts to bring slaves into the orbit of evangelical Christianity. Part of evangelicalism’s appeal was its emphasis on affective experience, something that augmented the role of song and dance in African tribal religiosity.

As intimated earlier, immigrant groups often found both the absence of government involvement in religion and the vast expanse of land in the Americas helpful in finding places where they could settle and worship according to their own styles. Ignored in the process were the indigenous peoples already inhabiting much of the land, which was also sacred to them. Quakers came to Pennsylvania and Catholics to Maryland (though they were quickly outnumbered by Protestant Christians). French immigrants brought a distinctive Catholic style to Canada. So, too, Spanish immigrants in Latin America and then in areas of western North America ensured that Spanish-influenced Catholicism had an enduring presence. In the first half of the 19th century, a surge of immigrants from Ireland and from Catholic areas of Europe swelled the ranks of American Catholicism, making Roman Catholicism the largest single Christian group in the US by 1850. Yet some Catholic leaders remained uncertain that a hierarchical church like the Catholic Church could flourish in a democratic environment.

Immigration between the end of the American Civil War and World War I brought mass movements of people from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe to the US. Populations swelled, but living and working conditions were often far from ideal. Some Christian leaders, such as the Protestants Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden and the Catholic John Ryan, insisted that a Christianity focussed only on individual salvation, such as that promoted by many revivalists of the day, was becoming irrelevant. They talked about a 'Social Gospel'. It represented an understanding of Christianity that highlighted moral, ethical and religious dimensions to such issues as factory working conditions and wages paid to workers. In other words, there was a social component to Christianity. After World War I, the US began to restrict immigration, using a quota system favouring immigrants from Northern and Western Europe that remained in place until the 1960s.

By the middle of the 21st century, the majority of Americans may not identify as Christians. Yet separation of church and state, the primacy of personal experience and immigration sustain a tradition that has impacted every area facet of American life.

  • Charles Lippy
  • Charles H. Lippy is the LeRoy A. Martin Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. A past president of the American Society of Church History, he has published widely on topics in American religious history. Most recently, he has written Introducing American Religion and Religion in Contemporary America (with Eric Tranby) and edited the Encyclopedia of Religion in America with Peter Williams.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.