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Write a 250 word or more response to one of the following questions

(i.e., there are six questions in total below, you only need to answer one of them):

Fowler, “Church and State in the Courts”

(pp. 237-244)

How would you explain the politics behind religious establishment?

Should “God” be removed from the public square?

How would you rank the particular court cases in terms of their importance for governing establishment cases?

Butler, “In God We Trust”

(pp. 343-362)

What is the main idea of the chapter and do you agree or disagree with it?

Does the American form of government make sense unless it is understood in the context of religious faith in your view?

What were you surprised to learn after reading this chapter?

A Short History
Second Edition
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Copyright © 2000, 2003, 2008, 2011 by Jon Butler; 2000, 2003, 2008, 2011 by
Grant Wacker; 2001, 2003, 2008, 2011 by Randall Balmer
First published in hardcover as Jon Butler, Religion in Colonial America (2000);
Grant Wacker, Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (2000); Randall Balmer,
Religion in Twentieth-Century America (2001); Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, and
Randall Balmer, Religion in American Life: A Short History (2003)
Published by Oxford University Press, Inc.
198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016
Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,
without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Butler, Jon, 1940Religion in American life : a short history / Jon Butler, Grant Wacker,
and Randall Balmer.—2nd ed.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
ISBN 978-0-19-983269-9 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. United States—Religion. I. Wacker, Grant, 1945- II. Balmer, Randall
Herbert. III. Title.
BL2525.B88 2011
Frontispiece: Presbyterian Mission School employees and their children head
home after Sunday church in Oklahoma.
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper
To the memory of three wonderful teachers and friends:
Anita Rutman, Darrett Rutman, and Paul Lucas
For Julia, who turned ideals into deeds
Americorps City Year, San Jose 1998–99
For Catharine—wife, lover, interlocutor,
best friend, and fellow-traveler
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Jon Butler
Worlds Old and New
Religion and Missions in New Spain and
New France
Religion in England’s First Colonies
The Flowering of Religious Diversity
African and American Indian Religion
Reviving Colonial Religion
Religion and the American Revolution
Grant Wacker
Prophets for a NeW Nation
Awakeners of the Heart
Reformers and Visionaries
Restorers of Ancient Ways
Sojourners at Home
Warriors for God and Religion
Fashioners of Immigrant Faiths
Innovators in a World of New Ideas
Conservers of Tradition
Adventurers of the Spirit
Randall Balmer
A New Century
The Age of Militancy
In God We Trust
Religion in the New Frontier
Religion in an Age of Upheaval
Preachers, Politicians, and
Coming to Terms with Pluralism
Religion in the New Millennium
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eligion—beliefs in supernatural powers, forces, and
beings—powerfully shaped the peoples and society
that would become the United States. That this happened in
a society lacking any official national church after American
independence in 1776 is one of the central themes of Religion
in American Life: A Short History. This book offers a succinct
and vivid account of religion’s astonishing interaction with
America’s peoples, society, politics, and life from European
conquest and colonization to the beginning of the twenty-first
century. In America, religion would be pursued by an amazing
variety of individuals and groups whose successes and failures
across three centuries not only defined religion in America but
America itself.
The story of religion in America thus stands at the heart
of the story of America itself. It is not the story of just a few.
Quite the contrary. It is a story of natives and immigrants, of
the wealthy, the poor, and those in between, of women, men,
and children in families and out, of powerful political movements and parties to highly introspective individuals, of dreams
realized and aspirations disappointed, of bigotry, yet also of
often tender generosity, kindness, and mutual esteem.
Religion in America, therefore, usually stands with the grain
of American secular history, not against it. In America, religion
has been intertwined with immigration from the sixteenth to
the twenty-first centuries. It deals with the American Revolution
and the Civil War, with abolitionism and the corruptions of the
Gilded Age, with American Progressivism, the rise of big business, and the response of the labor movement, with racism, antiCatholicism, and anti-Semitism as well as with the civil rights
crusade of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, with protest against the
Vietnam War and with the rise of a new American conservatism
and the elections of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
Above all, the narrative of religion in America is a story
about people. It is the story of women—Anne Hutchinson,
Phoebe Palmer, and Dorothy Day—as well as the story of
men—Tenskwatawa, George Whitefield, Isaac Mayer Wise,
and Billy Graham. It is the story of efforts to instruct children
not only in formal religious teachings but also in morals and
ways of behaving, from the Puritans to nineteenth-century
Protestant temperance crusaders, to Buddhist immigrants honoring a traditional infant presentation ceremony. It is a story of
failed preachers—the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart—and of subtly religious laity—Abraham Lincoln. And it is the story of men
and women and, sometimes, children, not only as individuals
but gathered together in that famous American institution, the
“voluntary organization”—religious congregations plus countless religiously directed groups—the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Hadassah, the Moral Majority, Sunday Schools,
the list is nearly endless.
The story of religion in America, then, is not an aberrant
story. In a society so remarkably secular in so many ways—the
American pursuit of wealth, the quest for international leadership, the love of science and technology—religion frequently
stood at the heart of the American experience itself, guiding it,
underscoring its central themes, providing its often most idealistic—and sometimes its most difficult—expressions. Indeed,
religion’s centrality to twenty-first-century America—especially
its complexity and intricacy—is a virtual invitation to understand the rich and fascinating evolution of religion in the American past. In a brief compass, this is the history that Religion in
American Life: A Short History seeks to tell.
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Worlds Old and New
he French Jesuit Pierre de Charlevoix was fascinated
by the religious customs of the Algonquian-speaking
Indians of southern Canada and northern New York and New
England. Charlevoix related many wonderful and strange stories about Algonquian religion in his two-volume Journal of
a Voyage to North-America (1761). Charlevoix was especially
intrigued by Algonquian dreaming and its dramatic effect
among traditional Algonquian believers. He was taken by a
story told to him by French Jesuit missionaries working among
the Algonquian Indians. An Algonquian man dreamed that he
had been a prisoner held by Algonquian enemies. When he
awoke, he was confused and afraid. What did the dream mean?
When he consulted the Algonquian shaman, the figure who
mediated between humans, the gods, and nature, the shaman
told him he had to act out the implications of the dream. The
man then had himself tied to a post while other Algonquians
burned several parts of his body, just as would have happened
had his captivity been real.
For Algonquian-speaking Indians and other eastern woodlands Indians, dreams and visions gave signals about life that must
be followed. The dreams and visions exposed dangers, revealed
opportunities, and explained important principles. Dreams demonstrated that the souls of men and women existed separately
from the body. The souls of others spoke to the living through
dreams, including the souls of the dead. When Algonquians
dreamed about elk, they felt encouraged because elk symbolized
life. But when Algonquians dreamed about bears, they became
afraid because the bear signified death.
The Algonquian dream episodes signaled the compelling
interrelationship between the Indians’ religious life and their
day-to-day existence. Dreams and visions allowed spirits to communicate with Indians who revealed eternal values. Dreams and
visions evoked ordinary emotions and everyday circumstances to
explain how the world worked. They described where each individual fit in a universe that otherwise seemed so often disconcerting and confusing. For Indians, dreams revealed how thoroughly
religion was not merely “belief,” but an intimate and interactive
relationship among humans, the supernatural, and nature. As
Charlevoix put it, “in whatever manner the dream is conceived,
it is always looked upon as a thing sacred, and as the most ordinary way in which the gods make known their will to men.”
Judith Giton did not want to go to America. She was a
French Protestant, or “Huguenot,” in the village of La Voulte
in Languedoc in southern France. But in 1682 the French king,
Louis XIV, began using soldiers to enforce restrictions on Protestant worship in La Voulte, sometimes with violence. As Giton
wrote years later in a memoir, the village “suffered through
eight months [of] exactions and quartering . . . by the soldiery,
with much evil.” With her mother and two brothers, Pierre and
Louis, she decided “to go out of France by night, and leave the
soldiers in bed.” The Gitons fled to Lyon and Dijon, then on
to Cologne, Germany, where they met other refugee Huguenots. Judith, Louis, and their mother fervently believed they
should settle thirty miles from Cologne with another brother.
But Pierre had read a pamphlet advertising a colony in America—South Carolina, a place with many opportunities as well
as freedom of religion. Pierre had “nothing but Carolina on his
thoughts,” Judith wrote.
Pierre won the argument. He took Judith, Louis, and their
mother to Amsterdam and then London to book passage for
South Carolina. The voyage to the New World turned out to be
a disaster. Mother Giton died of scarlet fever. Their ship’s captain left the three Giton children in Bermuda, where they had
to find another ship for South Carolina. Louis died of a fever
eighteen months after arriving in South Carolina. Although
Judith and Pierre survived, she remembered the ordeal as
extremely difficult. She experienced much “sickness, pestilence,
famine, poverty [and] very hard work. I was in this country a full
six months without tasting bread.” Later she married another
Huguenot refugee in South Carolina, Pierre Manigault. “God
has had pity on me, and has changed my lot to one more happy,”
she wrote. “Glory be unto him.”
Sometime in late 1723, the Protestant bishop of London,
who had informal responsibility for Church of England affairs in
America, received a wrenching petition from slaves in Virginia. It
was unsigned, written by a mulatto slave “baptized and brought
up in the way of the Christian faith.” He described how the masters were harsh with him and all other slaves, “as hard with us as
the Egyptians was with the children of Israel. . . . To be plain, they
do look no more upon us than if we were dogs.” Masters kept the
slaves “in ignorance of our salvation . . . kept out of the church,
and matrimony is denied [to] us.” The slaves begged the bishop
for opportunities to learn “the Lord’s Prayer, the creed, and the
Ten Commandments.” They hoped that their children could “be
put to school and learned to read through the Bible.”
The Africans feared for their lives in writing this petition.
If their masters were to discover the document “we should go
near to swing upon the gallows’ tree.” But they wrote anyway.
They hoped that the bishop, “Lord King George, and the rest
of the rulers will release us out of this cruel bondage, and this
we beg for Jesus Christ’s his sake, who has commanded us to
seek first the kingdom of God and all things shall be added
unto us.”
These slaves need not have worried about the effects of
their petition. It was ignored in London and remained unknown
in Virginia despite many rumors about slave dissatisfaction and
rebellions in that colony throughout the 1720s. After being
received in London, the petition was misfiled with papers on
Jamaica; it was discovered by historians only in the 1990s, its
author unknown now as then. And the petition’s eloquent pleas
remained unfulfilled, in Virginia as in the other British colonies.
Through most of the colonial period, religion never disturbed
the advance of slavery.
Nathan Cole had been bothered by religious questions for
some time. Twenty-nine-years old, a carpenter and a farmer,
Cole lived in Kensington, Connecticut. In 1739 he heard that
the British revivalist George Whitefield had arrived in the colonies. When Cole wrote many years later about his experience
hearing Whitefield, he remembered the event vividly.
Now it pleased God to send Mr. Whitefield into this
land. . . . I longed to see and hear him, and wished he would
come this way. I heard he was come to New York and the
Jerseys and great multitudes flocking after him . . . next I heard
he was at Long Island, then at Boston . . . Then of a sudden, in
the morning about 8 or 9 of the clock there came a messenger
and said Mr. Whitefield preached at Hartford and Wethersfield
yesterday and is to preach at Middletown this morning at ten of
the clock. I was in my field at work, I dropped my tool that I had
in my hand and ran home to my wife telling her to make ready
quickly to go and hear Mr. Whitefield.
On high land I saw before me a cloud or fog raising. I first
thought it came from the great [Connecticut] river, but as
I came nearer the road, I heard a noise something like a low
rumbling thunder. . . . It was the noise of horses feet coming
down the road and this cloud was a cloud of dust made by the
horses feet. . . . When we got to Middletown[’s] old meeting
house there was a great multitude, it was said to be 3000 or 4000
people assembled together. . . . The land and banks over the river
looked black with people and horses. . . . I saw no man at work in
his field, but all seemed to be gone.
When I saw Mr. Whitefield come upon the scaffold he
looked almost angelical; a young, slim, slender, youth before
some thousands of people . . . He looked as if he was clothed with
the authority from the Great God . . . and my hearing him preach
gave me a heart wound. By God’s blessing, my old foundation
was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save
me . . . all that I could do would not save me.
Within a year, Nathan Cole had undergone a “born again”
experience, feeling guilt because of his sins but placing all his faith
in God’s forgiveness. He later joined an evangelical congregation
that limited its membership to men and women who had had similar experiences, then left that congregation to join an evangelical Baptist church that limited the rite of baptism to believing or
converted adults. Cole belonged to that congregation for another
forty years until he died in 1783 at the age of seventy-two.
How thoroughly religion affected individuals and society
in early America can be difficult to understand. We have been
taught to believe that our ancestors, especially our colonial
ancestors, were remarkably pious, and indeed many were.
Yet religion’s importance for individuals and societies also produced numerous differences and antagonisms that leave a confusing picture of early American religion. In Europe, Catholics
and Protestants opposed each other and then divided among
themselves as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation that
began in the 1520s, thirty years after Columbus’s discovery of
the Americas. National rivalries separated French Catholics
from Spanish Catholics and Protestants in England from those
in the Netherlands. In turn, theological differences caused many
internal divisions among Catholics and Protestants. In Africa,
language and cultural differences reinforced religious disagreements between different societies, while within the same society
individuals often disagreed about the expression and practice of
religion. The importance of nature in American Indian religions
never guaranteed that all native groups would honor nature in
similar ways; the contrasts in their religious customs produced
discord between individuals and rivalries between societies.
As a result, religious expression complicated colonial American life. In Catholic France and Protestant England, among the
Ibo and Ashanti peoples of Africa, and amid the Micmacs and
Catawbas of America, religious expression emerged in many
different ways. What and how these men and women thought
about religion was important to them as individuals and to their
societies. In crucial ways, their religious beliefs and practices
often accounted for the distinctiveness of their societies. These
differences and similarities—individual and national, linguistic
and theological—became the foundation of diverse, historically
evolving religious experiences in America, both before and after
the American Revolution.
What did religion mean to men and women on the eve of
European colonization in America? Many things, it turns out.
When the British writer Henry Fielding published his comic
novel Tom Jones in 1749, the Reverend Mr. Thwackum, Fielding’s
ludicrous Church of England, or Anglican, clergyman, became
one of Fielding’s most memorable characters. Thwackum’s fussy
description of “religion” exemplified the narrow-mindedness
of Britain’s mid-eighteenth-century Anglican establishment
that Fielding detested: “When I mention religion, I mean the
Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion but the
Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but
the Church of England.”
Unfortunately for Thwackum, reality was—and long would
be—far more complex in Britain and throughout Europe,
Africa, and America. In Europe, state-supported churches formally monopolized public worship and gave each nation an
appearance of unanimity in religion. Clearly, politics played a
major role in determining both national and local religious commitments, as symbolized in the phrase “whose Prince, whose
Church.” Because King Henry VIII willed it, England became
Protestant, and all English men and women legally became
members of the Church of England once it had separated from
the Roman Catholic Church. But then England switched back
to Catholicism under Mary I, after which Elizabeth I brought
the nation back to Protestantism. France and Spain remained
Catholic because their monarchs remained Catholic and used
their faith to expand the power of the state in both religious
and secular life. The numerous German principalities presented
a patchwork of faiths. Most of the northern princes, including
the king of Prussia, chose Protestantism, whereas many of their
southern counterparts, including the rulers of Saxony, chose
In England, the royal command that created the Church of
England fanned further religious debate. Elizabeth I controlled
demands for wider reform of the Church of England better than
any of her successors did. She eliminated practices that seemed
Catholic yet vigorously suppressed radical Protestants. In the
1580s, she simply forbade meetings by Protestant “schismatics”
who sought to separate from the Church of England and
enforced her orders with force and success.
Elizabeth’s successor, King James I, who had previously
been King James VI of Scotland, experienced greater frustration in matters of religion. By his reign reformers were
demanding more changes in the Church of England. As their
numbers multiplied under James, opponents decried them as
“Puritans”—rigorous, overly demanding religious zealots. By
the time King James asked the archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, to suppress the Puritans in the 1620s, they were too
numerous to put down easily. The effort, often poorly planned
and clumsily executed, initiated debates in the 1630s that ultimately produced major parliamentary confrontations, the English Civil War of the 1640s, and the beheading of James’s son,
Charles I, in 1649.
As a result, by the 1690s England possessed a seemingly endless array of religious groups, which helps explain Thwackum’s
prissy bitterness about the meaning of the term religion. Most
English men and women formally remained Anglicans, or
members of the Church of England. But many others were
Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers—all
Protestants, as were the Anglicans—and some even remained
Catholics despite the century-long attack on their church and
the social and political penalties that English Catholics endured.
In addition, England also contained a small number of Jews,
concentrated mostly in London and the port towns, not unlike
the urban pattern of Jewish residence throughout the European
continent. The 1689 Toleration Act grudgingly recognized
this diversity. Although the act did not legitimize Catholics or
Jews and required officeholders to be Anglicans, it permitted at
least some dissenting Protestants to worship, including Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Quakers, and thus marked an
important step toward modern religious freedom.
Important as religious identity was, however, actual participation in public worship in fact varied greatly, not only in England but throughout Europe. In England, for example, religion
sometimes seemed only the indulgence of “enthusiasts.” While
Puritan reformers or Quakers pursued religious truth and the
most adamant Anglicans sought to suppress them, many English men and women seldom participated in worship. A minister
in Hertfordshire, England, complained in 1572 that on Sunday
“a man may find the churches empty, saving the minister and
two or four lame, and old folke; for the rest are gone to follow
the Devil’s daunce.” This apathy was not confined to England.
In the 1590s in Toulouse, France, only 2 to 5 percent of the laity
(as opposed to priests and nuns) attended weekly mass, even
though more than 90 percent of adults took Easter communion.
A 1584 census of Antwerp, Belgium, revealed both significant
religious diversity and considerable apathy: About 9 percent of
household heads said they were Lutheran, 21 percent said they
were Calvinist, some 30 percent claimed to be Catholic, and
about 40 percent failed to specify any religious affiliation.
Individual beliefs also varied. Although open atheism
was uncommon, a surprising number of people expressed not
only criticism of specific groups but also doubt about religion
altogether. Doing so could be dangerous. As late as 1697,
Scottish authorities hanged a boy for denying the truth of the
Bible. Some men and women denied the existence of God, of
heaven and hell, and of heavenly rewards for good behavior.
At least one woman believed in the Devil but not in God: “She
thinks the Devil doth tempt her to do evil to herself and she
doubteth whether there is a God.” A man in Yorkshire called
preaching “bibble babble” and said that he would “rather hear
a cuckoo sing.”
Many Europeans believed in magic. Magic invoked the
supernatural without any necessary reference to God or
Christianity, and Europeans everywhere knew thousands of
magical practitioners. Some were learned scholars, including
John Dee, whom Queen Elizabeth hired to cast horoscopes—
astrological forecasts based on the alignment of the planets
and stars—and William Lilly, who told fortunes and cast horoscopes for more than 4,000 well-paying London clients in
the 1640s and 1650s.
“Wise men” and “wise women,” usually illiterate, practiced cruder forms of magic for the common people. One
official in Lincolnshire described them as using books that contained occult or magical information, “old mouldy almanacks,
and several sheets of astrological schemes, all drawn false and
wrong.” Nevertheless, throughout Europe, they attracted men
and women who wished to know the future, find lost or stolen
objects, know good days on which to conceive children, or who
hoped for cures from diseases of themselves, their children and
relatives, and valuable animals they owned.
Europeans sometimes mixed magic and Christianity—to
the dismay of the Christian clergy. One seventeenth-century
skeleton recovered in a modern archaeological excavation bore
a neck charm with the inscription “Jesus Christ for mercy sake,
take away this toothache.” One Anglican minister recorded in
his diary how he mixed the two himself when, in desperation,
he gave an insane women an amulet with “some verses of John
I written in a paper to hang about her neck, as also certayn
herbes to drive the Devil out of her.”
Amid this variety and confusion, traditional institutional
religion—Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, especially—
provided reassurance to believers and important formal religious structures for society. Above all, traditional institutional
religion dominated the visual landscape. The European countryside, towns, and cities teemed with religious buildings, ranging from small chapels to immense cathedrals and, in the Jewish
ghettos of cities and towns, synagogues. Many sixteenth- and
seventeenth-century church authorities complained that the
buildings outnumbered their priests, ministers, and rabbis and
that they could not staff all the possible pulpits.
Public Christian worship also commanded more sustained
and cohesive loyalty from laypeople than did private practices,
including magic, despite complaints by clergymen about the
influence of magic and popular religious indifference. Throughout Europe, large numbers of men and women served the statesupported churches. In Catholic France and Spain, priests,
monks, and nuns often accounted for as much as 10 to 15 percent of the adult population. Even though Protestants abolished
monasteries, an enormous number of clergymen were needed
to serve Protestant interests. As European colonization began
in America, thousands of Protestant clergymen were working
throughout Europe, from Germany to England and Scotland.
Because most of them served the churches supported by their
governments, their power extended far beyond their individual
Above all, institutional religion explained how and why the
world was the way it was and told believers what they could
expect in this life and the next. Catholics found both order and
relevance in the authority of the pope, in the timeless truth of
the seven sacraments (especially the Mass, in which wine and
bread became Christ’s blood that had been sacrificed so that
all believers could live forever), and in the panoply of the saints
whose shrines dotted Europe and whose miraculous healing of
the sick and injured testified to Christianity’s truth and power.
Protestants celebrated the sovereignty of God and God’s
exclusive grant of salvation, which could not be earned with
money or human labor. They believed they had reconstructed
the worship and theology of the early church, and placed great
stress on the sermon that replaced the ritual of the Catholic
Mass as the central feature of worship. Whereas Catholics
stressed miracles in the cure of disease and injury, Protestants
stressed prayer, although some Protestants, such as the Englishman George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, performed miracles to demonstrate the truth of his new religion.
Jews honored God’s commandments set out in the Torah
for God’s chosen people. These beliefs, duties, and rituals were
further elucidated by centuries of Talmudic scholarship, the
ancient Jewish rabbinical writings, that explicated biblical commandments for modern men and women. The study of the Talmudic writings, developing Jewish theology, and interchanges
among different Jewish communities and with Christians shaped
Jewish life across Europe from Russia to Spain in a continuing
diaspora now almost 1,500 years old.
The New World provided fresh territory for Old World
religious traditions. For Catholics and Protestants alike, the
New World offered millions of “heathen” souls to be converted.
Spanish and Portuguese Catholics saw the native peoples of
South America and Mexico as God’s challenge to Christian
missions. They destroyed as many examples of native culture
as they could (some Aztec and Inca buildings proved impossible to demolish) and imposed the Mass everywhere they could,
thus giving the areas they conquered the new name of “Latin”
America, because the Mass was observed in Latin.
England’s James I chartered the Virginia Company to bring
Christianity to Indians living “in darkness” and in “miserable
ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.” As a
result, the New World presented new arenas for religious and
national contests that had become all too familiar in the Old
World. Who would win the souls of the New World’s peoples,
and who would conquer the territory they occupied?
For Jews, the New World represented something quite
different: another place of exile in the face of persistent and
renewed persecution. In 1492, the year Columbus discovered America, Queen Isabella ordered all Spanish Jews to
leave the country or convert to Christianity, a climax to several centuries of Spanish Christian persecution of Jews. Some
Jews fled the country; others (called Marranos, meaning Jews
forcibly converted to Christianity) converted publicly but
practiced Judaism secretly. Not surprisingly, throughout the
colonial period some Jews also emigrated to America, hoping
not merely for survival but for freedom as well, as would be
true of many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Christian
emigrants to America.
African and American Indian religions exhibited equal complexity, though the literary sources that provide a broad profile
of European religion are seldom available for them. Moreover,
the archaeological evidence usually is insufficient to portray the
vast array of individual and group differences in religion within
societies that were known to exist in America before 1800. Yet
anthropologists and historians have long demonstrated that
the religions of preliterate societies were exceptionally sophisticated, easily rivaling Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other
major world religious systems.
Certainly, the Africans and Europeans of the colonial period
shared beliefs in a finite earthly life and an infinite afterlife.
They also believed that supernatural figures and forces shaped
both lives. Jean Barbot, a European traveler in western Africa
in the 1670s, argued that many Africans believed in a supreme
being who determined when people were born and when they
died, who caused events to happen, and who ruled the afterlife.
A Dutch traveler named William Bosman observed that Africans understood the “idea of the True God and ascribe to him
the Attributes of Almighty, and Omnipresent,” not unlike the
Christians. At the same time, these Africans did not always offer
sacrifices or even prayers to this god, because the god “is too
high exalted above us, and too great to condescend so much as
to trouble himself or think of Mankind.”
West Africans believed in a great variety of spirits that determined what happened in this life and the next. Some believed
that the “high god” or “creator of the world” constructed the
lesser spirits or gods. Many of these gods had specialized characteristics. The Ga peoples of western Africa, for example,
honored no “high god,” and each Ga village was protected by a
god senior to all other Ga deities. The Yoruba peoples honored
Olorun as their high god and performed sacrifices in this deity’s
name to a panoply of minor gods. Gods of the rain, of thunder
or lightning, and of the waterways shaped secular and human
events. And they also sometimes competed with each other like
the spirits that inhabited or governed animals.
Africans fashioned remarkable varieties of religious expression. For example, many societies believed in and practiced
augury or divination that predicted things to come. Religious
leaders of considerable stature discerned revelations in the
arrangements in plants or rocks and interpreted dreams and
visions. In Mbundu society in the area of modern Angola, it
was thought that events might be predicted by understanding
the behavior of animals, the arrangement of leaves, bird calls,
or the configuration of the stars. Although the process might
have been similar to some forms of European magic, the specific
details were unique to each society. In the Yoruba culture, in
the area of modern Nigeria, a priest practicing Whydah threw
cowry shells on a board and asked the spirits to make the shells
land in such a way as to allow him to predict events.
Africans also believed in religious revelations communicated
by supernatural beings to humans. These beings intervened in
human events to teach people important religious lessons. Africans received religious revelations through spirit “mediums”
who passed on messages from supernatural powers and gods.
Indeed, revelations were everyday occurrences in many African
societies. They were not relegated to ancient times, as in the
Christian Old Testament and Jewish Torah. Many revelations
predicted modern events. For example, the king of Allada in
West Africa believed that his vision of a new white childlike god
predicted the later arrival of Europeans.
Other Africans communicated with the souls of the dead,
especially dead ancestors. For example, Africans visited a ngombo,
a spirit medium, when they wanted to know what had made them
sick and what would cure their diseases. They also frequently
believed in spirit possession, in which an evil spirit possessed the
body of a person or animal to make them sick. Spirit possessions
afflicted humans as well as animals and demonstrated the power
of the spirit or god to others, just as early Christians performed
miracles to demonstrate the validity of their faith. Finally, lateseventeenth-century European travelers reported the existence
of occasional atheists and doubters who cast aside particular
religious traditions or rejected religion in general and lent individual variety to the societies in which they lived.
African religions underwent substantial historical change
in the centuries before American colonization. As in Europe,
in Africa wars and peaceful emigrations produced substantial
alterations in the religions and religious practices of the African
peoples. Islam, long a powerful religious force in eastern Africa,
extended its influence into the western part of the continent in
the centuries before the European colonization of America and
the growth of the slave trade. Mosques could be found in western Africa in the seventeenth century, and Christian travelers
were sometimes stunned by the devotion of African Muslims.
“Foolas and Mandingoes attend to the ceremonial duties of
their religion with such strictness as well might cause Christians
to blush,” wrote one seventeenth-century traveler. The kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay became principal centers of
Muslim influence in north central Africa as European colonization developed in the New World.
Christians also began proselytizing in West Africa in the
sixteenth century but with only limited success. Portuguese
Catholics were among the most insistent missionaries. In the
1530s they converted the principal king of the Kongo, Nzinga
Mbemba, and baptized him as Dom Affonso I. The Portuguese
also won converts in the small “creole” or mixed societies of
Europeans and Africans that developed on the West African coast
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a consequence of
the slave trade, although major success in Christian missions in
Africa did not occur until the mid-nineteenth century.
In all, then, African religions were as dynamic and shaped
by human actions in different ways and different times as were
European religions. The African religions evolved substantially in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, even
before the arrival of European missionaries, slave traders, and
conquerors. African religious practices changed as European
encounters with both Africa and America accelerated in the
1500s. The arrival of Christians only complicated the changes
that had already been occurring in African religious beliefs for
centuries, just as the Protestant Reformation brought out tensions that had long existed within European Catholicism for
centuries before the Reformation.
America’s Indians also proved to be deeply religious. It is
not easy to untangle the preconquest religious life of America’s
native peoples from romantic myths and self-serving criticisms
of missionaries and other European observers throughout the
colonial period. Still, archaeological evidence, astute travel and
descriptive narratives, and artifacts collected from the earliest
days of European settlement create a dramatic and nuanced view
of the religious practices and beliefs among American Indians
on the eve of European contact, conquest, and colonization.
America’s Indians had created breathtaking numbers of
different cultures and religions by the late sixteenth century.
Most U.S. historians now estimate that at least 500 independent
cultures, and perhaps more, existed in the area of the modern
United States on the eve of European contact, but it is impossible to count with complete accuracy. Indeed, the area of modern
California alone probably contained more than 200 different
linguistic and cultural groups. Yet these late-sixteenth-century
Indian groups exhibited striking similarities in their religious
beliefs and practices despite their many differences in language,
economy, and society.
Many Indian religious systems understood the world as
whole: They did not separate life into secular and sacred. The
Indians often believed that they shared the world with supernatural beings and forces who rewarded and punished them and
whom they encountered directly and indirectly through nature.
Religion was not a separate entity in their lives, something to
turn to in times of difficulty or joy, but a part of daily existence.
As they moved through the forests and deserts they talked to
spirits, performed rites to honor them, saw them in visions and
dreams, felt their reprobation in bee stings or nettle scratches,
or found themselves cut down by the competing gods of alien
nations sent to kill and conquer. For the Native Americans religion connected with all of life, from the seemingly trivial to the
most consequential.
The Indians’ religion often centered on maintaining intimate relationships with nature. The various Indian tribes typically viewed nature as powerful, all encompassing, and sacred.
For example, the Micmacs of modern-day Nova Scotia and eastern Canada developed a religious system in which the beaver
stood at the center of their cosmos, not as a god but as a symbol
of the deeply spiritual relationship between the Micmacs and
nature. One European missionary described hunting, especially
for beaver, as a “holy occupation” among the Micmacs. The
rules for hunting required strict adherence to honor that people’s special relationship to nature. As a result, beavers were to
be hunted with certain rituals performed in particular ways.
When beavers were trapped, for example, their blood was to be
drawn in a public ritual that expressed the Micmacs’ respect for
the animal. Beaver bones could never be given to dogs, because
the Micmacs believed that doing so would cause beavers to lose
their sense of smell. And as one Frenchman observed, beaver bones never could be thrown away, “lest the spirit of the
bones . . . would promptly carry the news to the other beavers,
which would desert the country in order to escape the same
Shamans, who also acted as medicine men and women,
interpreted the intimate relationship between humans and
nature for the Native Americans. Shamans were individuals set
aside by themselves or the community to serve as intermediaries
among humans, nature, and the supernatural. Their societies’
complex, difficult world needed the skills of sensitive, intelligent guides who understood the foibles of human beings as
well as the mysterious ways of nature and the supernatural. In
some Indian societies, such as the Mohawks, women served as
shamans, in others only men served, and in still others both
women and men served. Shamans often received guidance
through dreams or visions. They demonstrated their status
through cures that combined physical skill and training, such
as setting broken bones, with prophetic and revelatory powers
that provided the force behind secret medicines, prayers, and
magical practices. Thus, American Indians, not unlike Africans
as well as European Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, used
religion not only to shape the way believers thought about the
world but also to defend against injury and sickness brought on
by both human and supernatural causes.
The religious concerns of Europeans, Africans, and Native
Americans did indeed have certain elements in common; moreover, this was already apparent to some men and women of that
time. One of these was William Moraley, a British emigrant who
came to America in the 1720s. Moraley could not accept the Indians’ rejection of the Christian God. Yet he understood many, if
not all, of the functions of Native American religions:
As to their notions of Religion, they are very wild, having none establish’d among them; but believe there is a God,
Creator of all Things, endowed with Wisdom, Goodness, and
Mercy; and believe they shall be judged, punished, and rewarded,
according as they observe the moral Precepts instilled into them
by the Light of Nature, and the Tradition of their Fathers.
What Moraley understood about the American Indians
could be fairly well applied to both Europeans and Africans
at the time. What he did not understand well, however, was
the dramatic change that was transforming religion among all
these peoples even as he wrote. For Europeans, Africans, and
Native Americans, the colonial period from 1580 to 1776 would
witness major upheavals and transformations in the nature and
expression of religion among all of them. European Catholics, Protestants, and Jews witnessed major growth and spread
of their religious traditions in ways not even the most pious of
them could have foreseen on the eve of the European settlement
of America. Africans found many traditional religious beliefs
and practices shattered by the ordeal of New World slavery.
Yet they discovered crucial ways to sustain and practice both
new and old religious convictions under the most wrenching
circumstances. American Indians suffered under immense difficulties as European-induced sickness and warfare destroyed
whole societies and cultures. Their traditional ways of life were
undermined by the work of Christian missionaries. Yet in the
eighteenth century they emerged with new religious configurations that proved to be as crucial to their own future as had been
the religious changes undergone by Europeans and Africans.
Throughout the era of European colonization, religious
practices and beliefs in America shifted in response to changing
circumstances. In turn, changing religious traditions altered the
ways Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans experienced
life. These powerful interactions made religion a major force
everywhere in colonial American life.
Religion and Missions in
New Spain and New France
merica’s native peoples startled the Spanish, Portuguese,
French, and English conquerors, who so ferociously
subjugated the “New World” after Columbus discovered
America in 1492. Natives worshiped gods the Europeans found
incomprehensible but displayed goods the Europeans found
irresistible—gold, crops, plants, and animals. Europeans also
startled natives. Europeans brought new gods—in competing
versions of Christianity—as well as goods that natives found
irresistible—tools, clothing, weapons, and foods. Europeans
and natives proved as serious about their gods as about their
goods, and the interchanges among the Spanish, French, and
North American natives that began in the early 1500s, which
were often deadly, became the foundation for two centuries
of changing religious patterns in northern Mexico, Florida,
and Canada.
The Spanish proselytized heavily in the Caribbean and in
the area of modern Mexico, while the Portuguese established
missions in Brazil throughout the 1500s, a full century before
the English successfully established their permanent settlement
along North America’s eastern shore, in Virginia in 1607.
Then, between 1600 and 1800, the Spanish established missions
in the areas of modern Florida, southern Georgia, Alabama, and
Mississippi and in southwest Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and
California, while the French established missions among natives
along Canada’s eastern shores and the Saint Lawrence River.
Natives everywhere simultaneously resisted and accommodated to the European presence and demands. Many rejected
demands to convert to Christianity by ignoring, openly opposing, and sometimes killing missionary priests. Other natives
converted, but sometimes retained many vestiges of traditional
culture, so that priests worried about the genuineness or depth
of their conversions.
Christians argued among themselves about missions. Did
the missions truly serve religious purposes or were they agents
of secular control? How should natives be taught? Could missionaries use force when converting Indians? Should Indian
converts be treated equally with Europeans?
Indians also argued about the interchange with Christianity.
Was conversion legitimate? Could they receive European goods
but reject European gods? Did the conversion of one Indian
group endanger religion and culture among neighboring groups?
These questions bedeviled Indians and Europeans in
America long after the British had conquered French Canada
(in 1763), after the American Revolution of 1776, and into the
early nineteenth century, when the final control of Florida,
Louisiana, and northwestern Mexico, including California, still
remained unsettled.
Spanish and Portuguese efforts to Christianize Indians in
America stemmed from two overweening drives: a traditional
Christian missionary impulse that now eagerly extended to
the New World, and deep concerns about creating a uniform
version of Christianity in their societies, whether Old World or
New. Heroism and tragedy among both Europeans and Indians
often accompanied the results.
Spanish religious policy in the New World emerged as the
new monarchs of Castile and Aragon, the two kingdoms within
Spain, sought to transform their own pluralistic societies into a
purely Christian kingdom. Muslims (“Moors”) invaded the area
of Castile in 711, and then fought a losing struggle to maintain
their place in Spain against Christians until the 1400s; Jews had
lived in Christian and Muslim Spain for centuries, not without
difficulty, yet in surprising peace. However, in 1492, Ferdinand
and Isabella ordered the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from
their kingdoms of Aragon and Castile unless they converted to
Christianity. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Jews fled
Spain, and those who remained underwent a forced conversion,
a feat Christians regarded as a “success” that earned its sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella, the title “los reyos católicos,” the
Catholic Monarchs.
The pursuit of Christian conversion of Indians in America
by Spanish explorers and conquerors in America mirrored Ferdinand and Isabella’s campaigns to turn all residents of Aragon
and Castile into Christians. Columbus sailed to America on the
Santa Maria under the flag of the Virgin Mary and described his
purpose: “to see the said princes and peoples and lands” and to
determine how to effect “their conversion to our Holy Faith.”
Papal “bulls,” or decrees, entitled Inter caetera (“Among Other
Things”) issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, divided the New
World territories, which were still almost completely unknown,
between the kingdom of Castile and the Portuguese. The pope
hoped that this division of responsibility would create even
more opportunities “to bring [natives] to the Catholic faith.”
To counteract the mistreatment of natives by Spanish explorers,
soldiers, and settlers in America, Pope Paul III proclaimed in a
1537 bull, Sublimis Deus (“Most High God”), that all of the New
World’s peoples were fully human; Christians were obligated to
attempt to convert natives to Christianity as well as treat them
as humans who, like themselves, had been created by God.
Catholic authorities quickly established an institutional
structure in America to advance the Church and support missionary efforts with Indians. Pope Julius II established the archdiocese of Yaguata, headquartered near Santo Domingo in the
island of Hispaniola in 1504. Among the earliest priests present
in the Caribbean were those from “mendicant orders,” priestly
communities supported by contributions and even begging,
especially Franciscans from the religious order named after
St. Francis of Assisi and Dominicans, members of the order of
St. Dominic, which stressed public preaching and university
teaching. They were followed by Jesuit priests, members of the
rapidly growing Society of Jesus founded by the Spanish nobleman Ignatius Loyola in 1540. Between 1500 and 1800, as many
as 15,000 European priests arrived in the Americas controlled by Spain and Portugal, some “diocesan” clerics under the
control of bishops and archbishops (called “diocesan” priests
because they ministered under the authority of local diocesan
officials), and many from the Franciscan, Dominican, and Jesuit
orders. More than 8,000 Franciscans alone arrived in America
before the colonial period ended who spread throughout the
Caribbean, Mexico, and finally Peru to teach Christianity to
the Indians.
The earliest efforts to Christianize Indians in New Spain
proved disastrous. If Columbus was indeed serious about converting Indians, and he was, this scarcely precluded tensions
among European Christians themselves or guaranteed common
sense or decency in treating Indians. Columbus argued with
priests who accompanied his second voyage to America, in 1493,
over everything from authority on the ship to the behavior of
Columbus and his crew. Columbus’s rough treatment of native
inhabitants left many Caribbean Indians dead. Columbus and
his brother, Bartolomo, burned Indians at the stake when they
rejected and destroyed statues of Christian saints the explorers
brought to America. The combination of open slaughter and
European diseases, especially smallpox and venereal diseases,
left only a few thousand Indians still living in the Caribbean by
1600. Necessity, not choice dictated many Indian conversions
to Christianity.
Deaths from attack and disease, the collapse of the Aztec
empire in Mexico and the Inca empire in Peru, and the continuing arrival of priests and constructions of missions in the Caribbean, Florida, and Mexico transformed New Spain’s religious
landscape between 1492 and 1800. In areas under Spanish control, Indians found it difficult to practice their diverse traditional
religions openly or vigorously. Spanish authorities destroyed
traditional religious objects and sites when they could. The great
pyramid at Tenochtitlán near modern Mexico City proved indestructible, although the Spanish destroyed the great Aztec city
that supported it. Catholic authorities built churches on traditional Aztec sites and prohibited traditional Indian rituals.
Yet despite these efforts to stamp out native religious practice and formal Catholic teaching that stressed Christianity as
the only legitimate route to salvation, significant evidence suggests more tolerant views among both immigrant Spaniards as
well as native populations. Testimony gathered at Inquisition
proceedings conducted to suppress heresy often revealed widespread popular convictions about multiple routes to heaven, not
one. Local authorities in Mexico and Peru quietly tolerated
mixing folk religious customs with Christianity without the
articulated justifications that informed similar Jesuit practice in
New France. As a result, much religious practice in New Spain,
especially south of California’s Franciscan missions, took on a
mottled appearance, Catholic and yet native as well.
Amidst these challenges, the Spanish created religious,
educational, and medical institutions that would last into the
modern era. The conqueror Hernando Cortés founded the
Hospital de Jesús in Mexico City (he is buried there), and by
the end of the late 1500s, most major towns in central Mexico
had a hospital staffed by priests. Dominican, Franciscan, and
Jesuit missionaries developed exceptional language skills to
assist in proselytizing among Indians. But Spanish landowners, fearful of rebellion from Indians who might hold the
belief that conversion to Christianity might give them rights
against Europeans, opposed teaching Indians how to read and
write, whether in Spanish, Latin, or in native languages, much
as slaveholders in Great Britain’s colonies later rejected teaching Africans how to read and write in the century before the
American Revolution.
Two important figures demanded that Indians receive
humane treatment at the hands of European conquerors and
established the outlines of the debate that would swirl around
the question of conquest and Christian conversion. In 1511, a
Dominican priest, Antonio de Montesinos, challenged the Spanish laity to whom he spoke: “Tell me, by what right or justice do
you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? . . .
Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not
bound to love them as you love yourselves?”
Then, in 1514, another Dominican, Bartolomé de las
Casas, reversed his own course—Las Casas had managed a
plantation using Indian labor for almost a decade—to take up
the cause of the Indians. Working first with Montesinos, Las
Casas sought to develop a program of both colonization and
Christianization that ended the exploitation of Indians. When
politics in both Spain and in the Americas frustrated his plan,
Las Casas turned to words and history. He wrote a massive History of the Indies, another work called the Apologetic History, and
a treatise on converting unbelievers to Christianity. Las Casas
catalogued the virulent abuses of Indians by their European
conquerors; his accounts, buttressed by many documents he
collected, often constitute the earliest written descriptions of
Indian life at European conquest. Las Casas demanded respect
for the Indians’ intellect and capacity to learn Christian doctrine, and argued that Christianity itself demanded respect for
traditional Indian culture. As a result of Las Casas’s efforts,
the Spanish Crown proclaimed the New Laws in 1542, which
forbade Indian enslavement and tributary labor and demanded
humanitarian treatment of Indians.
Yet Las Casas won only momentary backing for his ideas.
Spanish landholders exploited Indian labor through meager
wages and miserable working conditions, and missionary priests
often exploited force in converting Indians. Then in 1585, the
bishops of New Spain forbade the ordination of Indians to the
priesthood. This decision not only created a centuries-long gulf
between the Christian church with its wholly European clergy
and the natives it sought to Christianize, but it made the creation of schools, even for an elite who might become priests,
unnecessary and undesirable. As a result, the new university,
founded in Mexico City in 1541, served only Europeans, just as
the Jesuits’ many colleges and seminaries created in the colonial
era likewise served Europeans, not natives.
The shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe just outside Mexico
City, now visited by more than six million Roman Catholics
from around the world each year, suggests how the Old and
New Worlds interacted even in a difficult setting. A small shrine
and devotion, or religious prayers dedicated to the Virgin Mary,
apparently was built at this site, though whether by priests or
Indians is not known. An Indian claimed to have been cured at
the site in a Christian miracle. But some Spanish priests worried
that Indians actually used the shrine as a cover to worship
traditional Aztec goddesses even as the Spanish watched.
In the 1600s, a new local tradition at Guadalupe emerged
that traced the shrine back to visions of an Indian, Juan Diego,
in 1531. Although no mention of either Diego or the visions
exists in any documents of the sixteenth century, an account in
the Nahuatl language of Aztec descendants first published in
1649, Nican Mopohua, traced the Guadalupe shrine to visions
of the Virgin Mary by Juan Diego at Guadalupe in 1531; this
account became the basis for the modern religious devotion at
Guadalupe. In 1754, Pope Benedict XIV officially recognized
the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, December
12, as the devotion assumed growing importance among Indian
worshipers in Mexico. In 1810, the priest Miguel Hidalgo
invoked the tradition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in support
of Mexican independence from Spain, and the Mexican land
reformer and revolutionary Emiliano Zapata did the same in
supporting peasant uprisings during the Mexican Revolution
of 1910. Pope Pius XII named Our Lady of Guadalupe patroness
of the Americas in 1945, and Pope John Paul II canonized Juan
Diego during his 2002 visit to Mexico.
Spanish missions in Florida and Mexico, which then
extended as far north into California as modern San Francisco, revealed extraordinary instances of missionary failure
and success between 1500 and 1800 as well as remarkably
resilient Indian efforts to preserve traditional worship, despite
inordinate religious and secular pressures toward Christian
Substantial Spanish missions emerged in Florida only after
the peninsula absorbed a permanent Spanish settlement at what
now is Saint Augustine in 1563, and the earliest missions proved
futile. The nomadic character of Indian settlement in Florida,
Indian ferocity in opposing the Spanish, and the sparseness of
the missionary ranks cost many missionaries their lives, mostly
Jesuits. Franciscans replaced Jesuit missionaries in 1573 but
were nearly extinguished by a 1597 revolt of Guale Indians in
Georgia who protested Christian opposition to monogamous
marriage and killed many Franciscan priests.
Franciscan missionaries experienced greater outward success in Florida in the seventeenth century. Larger Spanish garrisons in Florida enabled priests to call upon better defenses when
Indians revolted, as happened in 1647 and 1656. Several priests
lost their lives in these revolts, but Spanish authorities crushed
the Indian dissidents with considerable ruthlessness. The Franciscans taught Christianity to Indians who came to the mission
compounds for both religious instruction and trade, but who
largely continued to live in nearby villages, in contrast to the
practice of French Jesuits in Canada who generally lived with
Indians in their villages. Between 1580 and 1690, the Franciscans established more than thirty missions in Florida, where they
claimed to be teaching Christianity to as many as 25,000 Indians.
The lack of substantial Spanish immigration to Florida meant
that the Franciscans actually occupied often isolated and vulnerable garrisons dependent for protection on Spanish troops,
while the Indians controlled the nearby countryside.
The Franciscan efforts in Florida succumbed to both
Indian opposition and increasing British attacks on the Spanish enclaves in Florida. Guale Indians increasingly spurned
Florida’s Franciscan missions after 1680 as British settlers
moved into South Carolina and then into Georgia; resistant
Indians ridiculed baptism with such expressions as “Go away
water! I am no Christian!” British attacks all but destroyed
Florida’s Franciscan mission network by 1720, and when Florida became a British province in 1763 by terms of the Treaty
of Paris, the demise of the remaining Franciscan missions
had little effect on native religion among Florida’s Indians
because their commitment to Catholicism had been fragile at
best. Even though the Franciscan missions in Florida had been
numerous and deeply staffed between 1580 and 1680, their
swift demise bespoke the exceptional difficulties of the entire
mission enterprise.
It is hard to imagine more romantic images than those of the
Franciscan friars constructing beautiful adobe chapels nestled
along California’s undulating coast or in the Sonoran desert.
Helen Hunt Jackson memorialized the California missions in
her romantic 1884 novel Ramona, with its sentimentalized friars
and gently paternalistic Spanish landholders, and photographs
of the Sonoran missions have graced American photo albums
for more than a century.
The mission experience in what Spanish authorities soon
called Nuevo Mexico proved more stark, as though exploration and conquest never stopped. The expeditions of Hernando
de Soto from Florida into the area of modern Kansas from
1539 to 1542, and those of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado
into the area of modern New Mexico from 1540 to 1542, did
not find the golden cities from which the Aztecs were reputed
to have come, and they won few Christian converts. Instead,
the more serious and dubiously successful mission efforts
came with the arrival of Franciscan missionaries in the 1590s
and early 1600s. They established Santa Fe as their base and
worked to Christianize Indians living in the pueblos or interconnected communal dwellings typical of the nearby Acoma,
Hopi, and Zuni Indians.
The earliest stages of Franciscan activity in Nuevo Mexico
proved exceptionally violent. In 1598 the military commander
Don Juan de Oñate led soldiers and priests into northern Mexico
to demand obedience and conversion from pueblo leaders. If
Indians accepted baptism and Christianity, Oñate promised that
the Indians “would go to heaven to enjoy an eternal life of great
bliss in the presence of God.” If they rejected Christianity, “they
would go to hell to suffer cruel and everlasting torment.” When
Indians at the Acoma pueblo revolted after Spanish soldiers
raped young Acoma girls, Oñate attacked the pueblo, killed
more than 800 Acoma Indians, amputated one foot from each
man more than twenty-five years old, and gave Indian children
under twelve to the Franciscan friars to use as servants.
Throughout the seventeenth century, Franciscans supported by Spanish troops battled with pueblo leaders for the Indians’
spiritual loyalties. They attempted to reduce the number of pueblos and concentrate Indians into fewer and larger settlements,
an acknowledgment of the friars’ feats that Christian conversion would succeed only by controlling Indian settlements.
They rejected Indian practice of premarital and extramarital
sex, and they objected to the Indians’ sharp division between
men and women that gave Indian women—“corn mothers”—
an exceptional authority in pueblo households far beyond any
authority Christian women enjoyed in Spanish households.
The friars became well known for their dogged persistence
in converting Indians. They successfully converted many children by removing them from their pueblo homes and teaching them in Franciscan schools. By introducing Indians to
trade with the Spanish, they drew them inside a larger world
of imperial commerce. As a result, the Franciscans experienced
substantial success in pueblos along the Rio Grande River and
in the smaller settlements around Santa Fe. Perhaps as many as
20,000 Indians in these pueblos formally converted to Christianity, altering their societies and lives in subtle and profound
ways. As one Indian lamented the result, “when Padre Jesús
came, the Corn Mothers went away.”
However, in larger pueblos inhabited by the Acoma,
Hopi, and Zuni, resistance to Christianity erupted into armed
conflict. Small revolts occurred in the 1630s, 1640s, and 1650s
and resulted in the murder of several Franciscan priests. Franciscans reported that within the pueblo, Indians practiced traditional religion and even adapted Christian crucifixes and medals
for their own purposes, despite their outward adherence to
In 1680 a massive Indian revolt against the Franciscans
occurred in the northernmost pueblos following economic
problems caused by drought and increasing anti-Christian
resistance. It was led by an Indian named Popé with support
from major pueblo leaders and nearby Navajos and Apaches.
Indians killed more than thirty priests outright as well as almost
500 of their Indian and mestizo or mixed Indian-European supporters. Indians forced one priest to ride naked on a pig before
beating him to death. They burned chapels, destroyed bells
and icons, and, as one priest wrote, dove “into the rivers and
wash[ed] themselves with . . . a root native to the country” to
remove the stain of baptism.
The Spanish reconquest of the pueblos in the 1690s and
early 1700s caused substantial changes in the religion of New
Mexico and Arizona. The Spanish population itself increased
dramatically from fewer than 2,000 in 1700 to more than 10,000
in the 1770s, and many Franciscan priests turned their attention
toward Spanish settlers and away from Indians, whose population also continued to decline as a result of European diseases
and malnutrition. In the meantime, Hopi Indians continued to
reject Christianity and did so well into the twentieth century,
particularly Hopis who continued to live in the large pueblos.
But Indians in smaller pueblos, as well as many remaining
Franciscan priests, increasingly tolerated a mix of Christianity
and traditional Indian religion. After the Spanish reconquest
of the 1690s, New Mexico political authorities warned about
“idolatrous Indians and witch doctors,” and Franciscans
bemoaned pueblo Indians who received baptism and took communion yet seemed to retain many traditional non-Christian
religious practices, ranging from ceremonial dancing to burial
rituals. Yet even the Franciscans themselves tacitly permitted Indian dancing and allowed natives to use Indian rather
than Christian names, although the priests complained about
the practice. One Franciscan dismissed them as “neophyte”
Christians who often “have preserved some very indecent, and
perhaps superstitious, customs.”
The result was a kind of standoff in the large pueblos. As
both New Mexico civil authorities and Franciscan priests turned
more attention to Spanish settlers, who were far wealthier than
the Indians, a kind of peculiar latitude emerged in these northern reaches of Mexico. Some Indians, especially the Hopi,
resisted Christianity wholesale, and from the eighteenth to the
late twentieth century, Catholicism won little following in the
Hopi pueblos. Yet other Indians mixed elements of traditional
worship and Christianity in ways that increasingly seemed
palatable on both sides; priests accommodated a Christianity
that seemed more Indian than Spanish, and Indians practiced
a Christianity that still preserved some Indian customs. Meanwhile, Indians throughout New Mexico increasingly found
themselves outnumbered by Europeans and pressed by new
territory as they fled United States settlers moving west from
Texas and south from the middle plains.
The history of California’s Spanish missions repeated many
elements found in New Mexico save one—successful, widespread Indian resistance. California’s Indians indeed resisted
Christianity, sometimes as violently as in New Mexico. But
their resistance occurred amidst a devastating Indian population decline that far outstripped Indian population decline in
New Mexico. Between 1600 and 1850, more than 100 different
Indian peoples and cultures simply became extinct in California, the very years in which Indian-European contact increased
and Franciscans established their missions along the California
coast. Thus, as Spanish, and then Mexican, power advanced
in California down to the 1830s, Indian resistance generally
failed as many Californian Indian groups became extinct and
others were almost wholly absorbed inside California’s Spanish
mission complexes.
The Franciscan missions in modern-day California, called
Alta California—literally upper or northern California—in the
late Spanish colonial period, did not appear until the 1760s and
1770s. They were established because of increasing Spanish
concern over British, French, and even Russian expansionism
in North America and imperialistic concerns to increase Spanish power in western North America. But as in New Mexico,
the desire to bring Indians to Christianity and the Franciscans’
strong influence with Spanish authorities in Mexico promoted
the development of missions along the California coast supported by garrisons of Spanish troops.
Father Junípero Serra, a Franciscan priest, founded the first
nine Franciscan missions in California between 1769 and his
death in 1784. By the 1820s, the Franciscan mission system in
California included twenty-one missions stretching from Serra’s
first mission, at San Diego de Alcala, to the northern missions
at San Rafael and San Francisco Solano established by Serra’s
successors in the 1810s and 1820s. Slowly, the missions became
linked by trails later romantically called El Camino Real, or
the King’s Highway. These were mainly horse paths providing
the only routes from mission to mission, each about a day’s ride
from the next and the principal means of land communication
among Spanish authorities in Alta California.
Serra proved as controversial in his own time as he has proved
to be in modern times. An intense, devout man, Serra dedicated
his life to the conversion of California Indians. He directed the
establishment of missions with a single-minded purpose and
promoted them before secular authorities with exceptional skill.
Although not always well during his years in California (he was
already in his late fifties when he founded San Diego de Alcala
in 1769), he demonstrated his own unworthiness before his
Indian subjects through vigorous self-flagellation, beatings with
a small rope or chain. During a sermon, one listener reported
how Serra “drew out a chain, and . . . let his habit fall below his
shoulders.” After exhorting his audience to the penance, Serra
“began to beat himself so cruelly that all the spectators were
moved to tears” at the punishment Serra inflicted on his own
body. Serra and his Franciscan successors also recorded punishments inflicted on Indians who rejected Christianity. One
priest informed Serra that Indians, who rejected his sermons,
had died in an epidemic but that the priest’s Indian listeners
were spared, a lesson Serra believed demonstrated the validity
of Christianity.
The California missions quickly became major economic
enterprises. They followed out the aims of the encomienda, a
system in which the Spanish conquerors demanded tributary
labor from Indians but also instructed them in Christianity
and protected them. The encomienda, originally used in conquered Moorish territories in Castile, did not work well in the
Caribbean, in part because enslaved African labor so quickly
replaced the all-but-extinguished native population. But it
became an effective model for the Franciscan missions in California, because surviving Indians became dependent on the missions as their own societies withered. The Franciscan missions
developed extensive agriculture using Indian labor. They introduced cattle farming on a scale far beyond anything previously
present in California. They developed citrus farming and grapes
for both wine and juice that foreshadowed California’s modern
agricultural patterns.
The missions’ growing need for labor, combined with the
Franciscans’ hierarchical understandings of society and their
convictions about converting Indians, coincided with and reinforced, but did not cause, the precipitous population decline that
devastated so many California Indian societies in the eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries. Especially after 1800, Spanish
and Mexican authorities used troops to secure mission laborers. Troops scoured the countryside for Indians to work at the
missions, sometimes for food, sometimes under conditions that
verged on enslavement. Franciscans beat the worshipful as well
as recalcitrant Indians, sometimes ritually, sometimes forcibly.
The ritual flagellation followed centuries of European Roman
Catholic penitential tradition and only appeared cruel to Indians.
Indians from the many California native societies, threatened
by smallpox, dysentery, venereal disease, and malnutrition, yet
fearful of Spanish military power, clustered around the missions; some converted to Christianity while others vacillated.
Serra and his Franciscan priests withstood open Indian
resistance that sometimes escalated into violence. Serra barely
escaped an armed rebellion by Indians at San Diego de Alcala
in 1769, the year the mission opened. Just as Serra was about to
perform his first infant baptism at the mission, Indians grabbed
the child from Serra and ran back to the Indian town, ridiculing both Serra and Christianity. Five years later, in 1774, after
Spanish troops raped several Indian girls, 800 Indians attacked
San Diego de Alcala, burning the mission buildings, destroying
statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, and murdering one
priest and several Indian workers. Serra rebuilt the mission but
uncovered a design for another attack in 1778 that he thwarted
by arresting and executing four Indian chiefs involved in the
By 1800, perhaps 20,000 Indians lived in and around the
nearly twenty Franciscan missions in Alta California. Many
were survivors of California Indian groups decimated by
European diseases. Some had been forced by Spanish troops
into the missions to work. Increasingly, others were secondand then third-generation Indian converts, loyal to Serra, the
Franciscans, and Christianity.
The divide over the Franciscan missions and the fate of
California’s Indians continued not merely into the nineteenth
century but as late as the 1990s. A movement in the 1980s to
beatify Junípero Serra, the first step in the path toward Roman
Catholic sainthood, drew both strong support and intense criticism. Detractors, including Catholic and non-Catholic Indian
activists, charged Serra and the Franciscans with participating
in and even leading the destruction of California’s Indians in
the 1700s and 1800s through their forced labor, violent punishment, and intolerance. Supporters saw in Serra a flawed but
beneficent protector of Indians who acted within eighteenthcentury Catholic tradition and Spanish hierarchical values, however paternalistic and lacking in modern sensibilities. Pope John
Paul II postponed a beatification ceremony for Serra originally
scheduled for a 1987 visit to the United States, but a year later
beatified Serra at the Vatican.
Religion in France’s New World possessions echoed themes
common to New Spain but developed two new ones as well.
Interaction between Roman Catholic missionary priests and
Indians proved quite different and generally more successful
than in New Spain, but it was scarcely peaceful. And the church
paid greater attention to the substantially larger numbers of
French immigrants who arrived in Canada and Louisiana after
1700 and who far outnumbered Spanish immigrants to Florida
or northern Mexico and California.
France’s New World settlements were found in three markedly different areas of North America—the Caribbean, Canada,
and Louisiana. The quickly changing character of France’s small
Caribbean settlements directly shaped the efforts of the Roman
Catholic efforts there. The perceived attraction of the West
Indies, buttressed by a strong desire to compete with both Spain
and Britain, encouraged French incursions into the Caribbean
in the 1630s. By the 1680s, the French had established a presence on as many as ten islands in the Caribbean. The French
established small settlements on St. Christopher, Martinique,
and Guadeloupe, but became best known for the colony of
Saint Domingue on the island of Hispaniola, which the French
divided with the Spanish, a division now represented by modern
Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
In fact, France’s Caribbean colonies quickly became the
home for thousands of African slaves rather than model communities of Christianized Indians. The few Indians still living
in France’s Caribbean territories even by 1650 met the same
fate experienced by native populations on the Caribbean islands
controlled by the Spanish, British, and Danish: almost wholesale
extinction. The French then turned to imported slaves from
Africa to work large sugar plantations just as the Spanish and
British did or would do, and African slaves not only displaced
any remaining Indians but quickly outnumbered the small population of French immigrants on the islands.
Roman Catholic efforts to Christianize Africans in the
French Caribbean remained largely the work of mendicant
orders, such as Capuchins, Carmelites, Dominicans, and Jesuits,
all of whom established missions in the French Caribbean. None
were known for their successes with either enslaved Africans
or with local French residents. One French Jesuit, Antoine La
Vallette, simply pursued business, just like the laymen in his
congregation. But he scandalized the Jesuit order when the
British seized two French trading vessels in 1755 and gleefully
exposed La Vallette’s heavy involvement in merchant trades,
embarrassing his Jesuit superiors in France and forcing them to
close the Jesuit missions in the Caribbean in 1762.
New France—the name customarily applied to France’s
sprawling colony in Canada—demonstrated how differently
French Jesuits proselytized among Indians than did Spain’s
Franciscans in Mexico. The history of New France also revealed
how the rising importance of European settlement in Canada
after 1700 shifted Roman Catholic activity in the colony in
markedly different directions.
Although France claimed the area of modern Canada
from the late 1520s, a substantial French presence there did
not begin until the 1620s, and the territory did not become a
royal province until 1663. New France prospered primarily
on the fur trade well into the 1730s and encouraged very little
settlement by French immigrants. This pattern resembled the
pattern of Spanish occupation of the Caribbean, Florida, and
Mexico before 1800, but it stood in sharp contrast to Britain’s
development of its mainland colonies from Maine to Georgia
that so strongly encouraged British immigration to all its mainland North American colonies.
Not surprisingly, French missions to Indians proved the
principal activity of Roman Catholic enterprise in Canada from
the 1620s into the 1730s and 1740s. French dependence on the
fur trade, which prospered on extensive knowledge of native
cultures, provided an opportunity for Jesuit missionaries, and
the Jesuits in Canada approached their task much differently
than had the Franciscans and other mendicant orders in
Spanish America.
France’s Jesuits generally proselytized from within traditional Indian cultures and societies in Canada, whereas Spain’s
Franciscans lived in their own settlements and brought Indians
into them. The Jesuits adapted the approach taken in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I became all things to all men, that I might save
all,” and adapted themselves to many aspects of Indian culture
in Canada. They learned Indian languages (Franciscans often
demanded that Indians learn Spanish). The Jesuits moved
directly into Indian villages, especially among the Hurons along
Lake Erie, rather than living apart. They allowed Christianized
Indians to retain traditional dress, and they learned and appropriated Indian rhetorical traditions and even religion. They
sometimes described Jesus as a superior version of the trickster
so common in Indian mythology or cast the Christian God as a
superior version of the Indians’ own divine figures. The priests
also challenged Indian shamans or healers with humor, ridicule,
and anger and not only stressed Christianity’s superiority in
theology but in curing illness and attaining miracles.
The earliest Jesuit missionaries in Canada achieved substantial success among Canada’s Huron Indians as early as the
1630s. Led by Fathers Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant,
Jesuits moved in among the Hurons, ministered daily, and won
numerous converts to Christianity, despite the Hurons’ anger
about rising death tolls from European sicknesses, increasing
Indian use of alcohol, and tension over the lure and consequences of the rapacious fur trade that drained the forests of
precious animals that were as valuable and important to Indians spiritually as they were economically. Brébeuf, Lalemant,
and the Jesuits encouraged Hurons to settle in a ring of villages
in eastern Ontario, ultimately called Huronia, including one
named Ste. Marje. Brébeuf’s instructions to the missionaries
stressed the importance of accommodating Indian mores: “You
must never keep the Indians waiting at the time of embarking.”
“Eat the little food they offer you, and eat all you can.” “Do not
ask many questions; silence is golden.” “Do not be ceremonious with the Indians.” “Always carry something during the portages.” The Jesuits’ detailed reports of their work in Huronia,
called the Jesuit Relations, have been among the most important
sources of information on native culture in early Canada since
their original publication in the 1630s and 1640s.
The near undoing of the Jesuits’ mission among the Hurons
occurred in 1649 and stemmed not so much from missionary
failure as from intertribal tensions, including tensions over religion and Christianization. In March 1649, Iroquois Indians
burned the settlements in Huronia, killed hundreds of Hurons
to avenge Huron incursions into Iroquois territory and the
Hurons’ increasing adoption of Christianity, and captured several of Huronia’s Jesuit missionaries, including Jean de Brébeuf
and Gabriel Lalemant.
Angry at Brébeuf and Lalemant for their proselytizing
and France’s incursions into Indian territory, the Iroquois
subjected the priests to particularly gruesome tortures. Christianized Hurons later reported that the Iroquois “baptized” the
priests with boiling water. They placed red-hot hatchets under
the priests’ armpits and hot metal collars around their necks.
They stripped flesh from the missionaries’ legs and skulls, which
the Iroquois cooked and ate as Brébeuf and Lalemant watched.
Then, “seeing that the good Father [Brébeuf] would soon die,
[they] made an opening in the upper part of his chest, and tore
out his heart [when Brébeuf was still living], which [they] roasted
and ate.” Other Jesuit missionaries later rescued Brébeuf’s and
Lalemant’s remains, and in 1930 Brébeuf, Lalemant, and six
other Jesuits who had been killed by Indians in the seventeenth
century were canonized by Pope Pius XI.
Despite the 1649 Iroquois attack on Huronia, Jesuits
resumed their Huron missions and even added missions to the
Iroquois, who were themselves weakened by new intertribal
tensions. But from the 1680s to the British takeover of Canada
in 1763, Jesuits exchanged breadth for depth in their Canadian
missions. Jesuits established outposts at St. Ignace, where Lake
Huron meets Lake Michigan, and at Green Bay in Wisconsin,
and Jesuit missionaries traveled as far south as southern Illinois
and west to the Mississippi River. But after 1700, the numbers of
Jesuit missionaries in Canada declined and their older missions
to the Hurons and Iroquois thinned, patterns that paralleled
France’s weakened position in the fur trade, increased British
competition on Canada’s frontiers, and increasing neglect by
French authorities, secular and religious alike.
The eighteenth-century Jesuit missions in Canada were not
without their successes. In 1676, Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk
orphan in northern New York, accepted baptism at age twenty
from Jesuit missionaries despite strong family opposition, then
moved to the Jesuit mission at St. Francis Xavier du Sault in
Quebec for protection. There she developed a scrupulous devotional life and began a small convent for women in 1679. When
she died the next year, Tekakwitha became the focus of a Roman
Catholic devotion that expanded steadily among both Canadian
and United States Native American Catholics throughout the
nineteenth century, and Pope John Paul II beatified Kateri
Tekakwitha in 1980.
Roman Catholic practice among the relatively small French
immigrant population in Canada experienced the difficulties
often common to underdeveloped colonial societies. In 1674,
the pope appointed a bishop to administer Roman Catholic
affairs in Quebec, rather than have them administered by a
bishop in France. But the paucity of French immigrants—
fewer than 20,000 in 1710 and only 42,000 in 1740 (compared
with 250,000 English settlers in New England alone)—and
French Canada’s relative impoverishment gave the Church few
resources with which to work. Worse, Roman Catholic bishops and priests struggled with each other over church authority
and finances as they worked to bring a vigorous spiritual life to
Canada’s French immigrant population.
Still, when the British acquired Canada by terms of the
Treaty of Paris in 1763, Roman Catholic religious life among
Canada’s immigrant French residents bore two notable traits.
First, Canada’s small and often isolated French populace
increasingly sustained a dependable parish life despite ecclesiastical struggles and financial problems. The small seminary
established at Quebec in 1663 trained priests both for immigrant French parishes and as missionaries to the Indians. By
1740, more than eighty parishes serving French immigrants
had been established along the Saint Lawrence River served by
priests from the Quebec seminary as well as members of several religious orders, not only Jesuits, who had domineered the
early Indian missions. These other orders included Sulpicians, a
French order of priests founded to support seminary directors;
Recollects, a branch of the Franciscan order; and Ursulines, a
religious order dedicated to educating young girls. The Ursuline
order maintained an extensive system of schools for girls, and in
1737 Montreal women led by a widow, Marguerite d’Youville,
established the Sisters of Charity, later called the “Grey Nuns,”
notable for their work among the sick and the poor.
Thus, the British encountered a relatively healthy
Catholicism among the French settlers of Canada when they
assumed control of Canada in 1763. Anti-Catholic Protestants in the lower British mainland colonies protested Britain’s pledge to allow Canada’s Catholics to exercise their
religion without harassment or limitation, but the British
really had no choice; the British could defeat the French
military, but they could not remove the French settlers.
Some of these objections exaggerated the strength of Roman
Catholic institutions in Canada in the 1760s. But they unwittingly tapped into another important theme: for French settlers chafing under British rule in occupied Canada in future
decades, Catholicism would become a principal vehicle for
asserting French identity and ethnic solidarity after their
British conquest. And when the British divided Canada in
1791 into two provinces—Lower Canada (largely Frenchspeaking with guarantees for Catholic religious practice in
what is now modern Quebec) and Upper Canada (increasingly settled by British Protestants in the eastern territory
of modern Ontario)—Britain’s formally Protestant government effectively guaranteed the preservation and extension
of Roman Catholicism in French-speaking Canada from the
nineteenth century to the present.
Far to the south, French Catholicism also emerged with
an increasingly visible presence in the French territory of
Louisiana, which the French controlled until 1763, and which
the Spanish controlled between 1763 and the purchase of the
Louisiana territory by the United States in 1803.
The earliest entrance of Catholicism into the lower
Mississippi River valley came from the extension of French
exploration and early missionary ventures in the upper
Mississippi in the 1680s and 1690s. Systematic French settlement along the Gulf Coast from modern New Orleans east to
modern Biloxi, Mississippi, did not begin until after 1700. Nor
did this settlement have a successful, or often peaceful, political or religious history. As late as 1760, only a few thousand
Europeans lived in the Louisiana territory. Settlement was hampered by intrigues among the officials and merchants who were
fearful of British incursions from the north and east and Spanish
incursions from the south and west. Missionary work among
natives depended on a succession of generally unsuccessful Jesuits, Quebec seminary priests, Carmelites, and finally Capuchins,
whose work with Indians in the lower Mississippi never really
Still, the small French settlements in Louisiana, especially at New Orleans, slowly developed a basic parish life after
1720, including, as in Canada, intriguing developments among
women. Ursulines arrived in New Orleans in 1727 to teach and
staff a hospital for soldiers. Three years later, a small group of
French laywomen formed a confraternity, the Children of
Mary, a society of laywomen who would honor the Virgin Mary
by relieving the sick and teaching the poor, including enslaved
Africans increasingly arriving in Louisiana. Working with the
Ursuline nuns, the women of the confraternity helped prepare
Africans for baptism by instructing them in Christianity. By the
mid-1740s, the Catholic laywomen in the Children of Mary
and the city’s Ursuline nuns had helped prepare almost 100
of the 300 Africans baptized in previous years. Yet, as in the
Caribbean and other French and Spanish settlements throughout the Americas, most Africans remained unchristianized, and
unlike the Ursulines and Children of Mary in New Orleans,
most Europeans remained unconcerned about the Africans’
spiritual fate.
By about 1800, then, many elements of the European experience in America had already been laid down in the colonies
established by Spain and France since Columbus’s fateful discovery of America—bitter, often violent secular and religious
struggles with Indians, the reestablishment of traditional patterns of worship among Spanish and French immigrants, and
a highly varied record of proselytizing among increasing numbers of Africans in the Spanish and French colonies in America.
However different the Roman Catholicism of the French and
Spanish and the Protestantism of most English settlers in Britain’s mainland colonies, the French and Spanish experiences
often anticipated the English religious experience in America
more than the frequently dramatic differences might suggest
was possible.
Religion in England’s
First Colonies
he English settlers of New England intended to make
religion the focus of their settlement. These first
immigrants were alienated English Puritans called separatists,
who had already fled England for the Netherlands because of
their inability to achieve further reformation in the Church of
England at home. They originally received a charter for land
in Virginia but landed instead near Plymouth, Massachusetts,
in December 1620. They renegotiated their charter with
London authorities and celebrated the famous first Thanksgiving with nearby Indians in October 1621.
A far larger body of settlers arrived in 1630 to establish a
separate outpost, the Massachusetts Bay colony, north of the
Plymouth colony. Facing continued persecution in England
and led by the Cambridge-educated Puritan lawyer John Winthrop, these Puritans began to leave England in large numbers
in 1630. By the end of 1630, eleven ships with more than 1,000
Puritan immigrants had landed in Salem, the first town established in the new colony. They then proceeded to establish
a second town, Boston, named for Boston in England, a major
Puritan center. By 1635, more than 5,000 additional Puritans
had arrived in Massachusetts Bay.
John Winthrop, who soon became the governor of the
Massachusetts Bay Company, described a powerful religiously
centered vision for the new colony. Speaking aboard the Arbella,
the flagship of the small Puritan fleet, as it rested in Salem harbor before the settlers disembarked, Winthrop gave what would
become one of the most renowned sermons in American history, a lay homily that he entitled “A Model of Christian Charity.” These were not just alienated Puritans fleeing England,
perhaps hoping to return, but men and women with a vision for
the future in America. In his sermon Winthrop set down what
he believed his followers should intend for this New World now
that they had left England, that “sinful land.”
Winthrop believed the Puritans should settle together in
a city or town where large and small farmers and merchants
alike would form a community housing their church, their government, and their defenses against enemies, whether Indian or
European. He believed it would be a “city of God” and a “city
upon a hill.” The Puritans would worship as the Bible intended.
Men and women would aid each other and, as a consequence,
serve God. They would not satisfy individual desires at the
expense of the community. “We must be knit together in this
work as one man,” Winthrop wrote. “We must entertain each
other in brotherly affection. [ W ]e must delight in each other,
make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn
together, labor and suffer together, always having before our
eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”
The importance of religion in New England was not unique
among England’s American colonies. In 1619, the initial meeting
of the first colonial legislative assembly, the Virginia House
of Burgesses, took up religion as a major task. The Burgesses
opened its first meeting with a prayer by the Rev. Richard Buck.
“Men’s affairs do little prosper where God’s service is neglected,”
the Burgesses wrote. They then passed laws to uphold “God’s
service” in the New World wilderness. Ministers would preach
every Sunday and all colonists would be required to attend. The
laws banned idleness, drunkenness, gambling, and fancy dress.
Reports of “all ungodly disorders,” such as “dishonest company
keeping with women and such like,” would be presented by ministers and church wardens to the colony’s churches, which would
excommunicate offenders and confiscate their property.
An emphasis on religion and moral order had been present
in Virginia since its first settlement in 1607. The original charter of the Virginia Company declared that the company existed
to propagate the “Christian religion to such people [Indians], as
yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.” A 1610 tract advertising the colony
insisted that it had Indian missions as its “principal and main
ends . . . to recover out of the arms of the Devil, a number of
poor and miserable souls, wrapped up unto death, in almost
invincible ignorance.”
It was not surprising, then, that the company sent twentytwo ministers to America before the colony went bankrupt in
1624. In 1616, the colony had no fewer than four ministers for
only 350 settlers, a far higher ratio of clergymen to laity than
could be found anywhere in England. The Virginia Company
constructed a church in Jamestown with a cedar chancel and a
black-walnut communion table. After Virginia became a royal
colony in 1624 it legally established the Church of England and
levied taxes to pay for churches and ministers “as near as may be
to the Canons of England both in substance and circumstance.”
Maryland, first settled in 1634, likewise exhibited religious
intentions but of a different persuasion. The colony was granted
to the English Catholic convert George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, by King Charles I in 1632 and was understood to be a
haven for persecuted English Catholics. Catholi…
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