Religion and the Founding of the American Republic
G. K. Chesterton depicts the early republic as “a nation with the soul of a church” 1 meaning that America was founded on religious principles. Many of those who came to the colonies did so for religious refuge from the Church of England. Although there were many independent religious groups in the new colonies, the commonality they shared was the desire to practice their separate beliefs. This religious foundation influenced the political and social structure of the colonies as they became an independent and separate nation from Great Britain.
Colonists seeking religious efuge from England characterized the early days of the American colonies. Religious freedom was the unifying factor among colonists coming to America to escape persecution from The Church of England. The Monarchy left very little room for individuality or independence among religious groups, thus groups such as the Puritans and Roman Catholics came to America seeking refuge from persecution. They were seeking a place where they would have the opportunity to share and practice their religious beliefs.
This common ground of religious refuge was a crucial catalyst in the American Revolution. However, because there was no monarchy forcing the citizenry to conform to one religion, division was created among colonists. Puritans wishing to cleanse the Church of England from Catholic influence commonly came into conflict with Roman Catholics, many times persecuting or even banishing them from the region in some cases. In the case of Puritans in Massachusetts who were not tolerant of any other religious group, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers were banished and Catholics were not accepted.
The same happened with Virginian Anglicans saying “if not our religion, no religion. 2 This intolerance led toa separation between people, which inevitably weakened America. The founders of America realized the success of Pennsylvania with its emphasis on separation of church and state. People were given the choice of which religion to follow without the government interfering or persecuting them. Religion in the early republic was the base for politics and government. A new structure of government had to be formed in the new nation, as they were no longer governed by a monarchy.
It was agreed that the former political structure did not work and an entirely new government run y the people, for the people was necessary for the future success of America. Congress was both a supporting and an opposing force of Christianity and religion. Laws requiring the population as a whole to attend church and be catechized by ministers were enforced to keep a strong Christian influence in American society, as well as the printing of the first English language Bibles, authorized by Congress. Government was not always in favor of freedom of religion, especially on the state level.
In New Amsterdam, the Dutch governor, not in support of welcoming all religions as William Penn was, tried to make free worship difficult for Jews. In Maryland staunch Puritans deported Catholic leaders to England as prisoners after inspiration from the English Civil War and later attempted to outlaw the Catholic governments were often not as open to ideas as each region had a different religious sect that was not accepting of other groups. Pennsylvania was a prime and isolated example of a state that welcomed all religious groups without persecution.
Congress was extremely influenced by Christianity, as shown by their adoption of a covenant theology which said that there was a sort of contract between man and God whereas God would use punishment as payment for his sins and reward him with blessings for his faithfulness. The war with Britain was seen through the covenant theology as a punishment from God for America’s sins. America as a whole had to recognize God’s “overruling Providence,” the war and the evils that caused it, confess and repent of their sins, and look for deliverance from God.
Perhaps this is why Congress stressed America as a whole remaining Christian. Religion in America also supported the American Revolution for independence as stated by Charles Mayhew: “Resistance to a tyrant [is] a ‘glorious’ Christian duty’3. The yearning for religious freedom, regardless of which group of Christianity they were a part of, united colonists. Without this desire, the American Revolution would never have occurred, or at the very least would have been postponed many years.
If they had been satisfied with complying to British law and Joining the Church of England there never would have been a sense of urgency to separate for their religion. It was the need to follow their own individual set of beliefs that sparked a revolutionary attitude. Preachers of the time used religion combined with politics to incite this patriotic feeling in colonists hat caused the Revolution. To a certain extent one could say America was founded on religious freedom, however this is not entirely true.
The majority of colonists did come to America to practice their religious beliefs. The Pilgrims who were Puritans had tried to “purify’ the Church of England, but were rejected and persecuted because of it. They came to Massachusetts for refuge. There is an ironic tone in the fact that people came to escape religious persecution though because upon arriving, the Puritans persecuted groups such as the Catholics, Baptists, and Quakers. In Maryland, like stated above, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers were all banished and an attempt was made to go as far as outlawing Catholicism.
Anne Hutchinson, the first female religious leader, was banished from Boston and had to seek refuge in Rhode Island due to the fact that she did not conform to Puritan thought. Despite America being a place of refuge for martyred peoples, persecution still made its way through. There were few places in early America such as Pennsylvania that were actually accepting of all religious groups. It is obvious that early America was a place ounded on religion, however, it is less evident that it was a Christian nation.
Colonists did come because they did not want to follow any government mandated religion, they wanted to follow what they thought was the true religion, showing that Christianity was important to them. In fact they felt their belief was the right belief so strongly that they were willing to fght their mother country which was much larger, more established, and prepared than they were, to protect their right to religious freedom. A personal relationship with God was also more important to colonists. Like in the Protestant Reformation, colonists wanted not to be told what to believe, they wanted to believe what their denomination believed.
The point can be made though that many American colonists simply followed their religion because that is what example, was not colonized by religiously passionate people but mainly by businessmen chasing money and power. Religious people did not always portray Christian characteristics either, shown in the mistreatment of Native Americans and other religious groups. In the case of the Puritans who persecuted other religious roups that came to America for similar reasons, they did not show Christ-like tolerance and kindness as the Quakers did.
They were not entirely unified under Christ either as the Bible commands. Religion in the Early Republic can be classified in several ways. It was generic in that Congress supported religion and Christian principles nationwide. Unlike England’s monarchy which supported only the Church of England, Congress supported Christianity as a whole, not a specific denomination of Christianity. The concept of religious freedom unifying colonists of early America is lso relatively general. They were not unified as being all Quakers seeking religious refuge or only Catholics, they were unified by their separate identities.
Because they did not want one religion forced upon them, their individual groups bound them. However, religion was also specific in many ways. Each state or region had its own specific religious group. Massachusetts was dominated by Puritans, as were many of the northern states. Maryland was a struggle between Catholics and Puritans. Pennsylvania was a melting pot of smaller denominations that were persecuted by he Puritans. Each group had a set of distinct convictions that they were willing to fght for. Denominations such as the Puritans, Quakers, and Catholics were very orthodox.
Each group had a variation of orthodox and minimalist believers however. Puritans were very strict in their belief system and truly wanted to have a pure religion. Quakers and Catholics also uncompromisingly followed their beliefs as well though. However, Virginia which was mainly colonized by businessmen, was more minimalist in its approach, beliefs and practices, as most attended church because it as socially acceptable, not because they were pursuing knowledge of the Bible. Men such as Benjamin Franklin, who was thought to be a deist, are also minimalist.