Religion in Colonial America
by Jon Butler
Religion in American Life
edited by Jon Butler and Harry S. Stout
Oxford University Press, 2000
157 pgs
ISBN 0-19-511998-3



There is a tendency in secondary American history textbooks to paint religion in colonial America as a type of grey, monolithic, uniformity. As Jon Butler so clearly and succinctly in his "Religion in Colonial America" informs us, nothing could be further from the truth. Colonial religion was colorful and diverse in different religious traditions, in the various denominations within traditions, in how these religious impulses were enacted, and in the interactions of these various cultures and denominations among themselves and with others. Diverse too was the level of commitment to religion itself. Catholics and Protestants were deeply divided and national rivalries between French and Spanish Catholics and English and Dutch Protestants kept these groups separate from each other. The cultural and linguistic differences among the forcibly enslaved African groups, as well as the dehumanizing conditions of slavery, kept the slaves from forming cultural ties to each other. The rich diversity of Native American tribes was another piece in the colorful fabric of colonial religiosity. Institutional religious ritual was matched with magical practice. "These general differences and similarities - the individual, national, linguistic, and theological - became the foundation of the diverse, historically evolving experiences of religion that characterized the entire American experience, both before and after the American revolution. (pg 16)" The conditions of being in a new land, whether voluntarily or forcibly, or the introduction of whole new cultures and worldviews to the people already here changed everyone. Something new was being created. "Throughout the era of European colonization, religious practices and beliefs in America were modified in response to changing circumstances. In turn, changing religious traditions altered the way Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans experienced life. These powerful interactions made religion a major force everywhere in colonial American life. (pg 29)"

Following a general chronological outline, Butler then surveys for readers the development of religion in America from the first European settlers to the end of the Revolutionary War. In the chapter entitled "Religion in the First Colonies" we learn about the Puritans in New England and John Winthrop's "city on a hill." Virginia, a legal colony and therefore directly connected to the Church of England is matched by English Catholic Lord Baltimore who provided a haven for Catholics in Maryland, and William Penn's haven for Quakers in Pennsylvania. Butler so clearly lets us know that these were not stagnant religious communities, but changing, shifting, ones. For example, he says that by 1650 the Puritans had lost their original intensity and clarity of purpose. The result was that they became more intolerant, eventually resulting in the trial and execution of Anne Hutchinson and the infamous Salem witch trials. The region of the Chesapeake lapsed into a type of spiritual lethargy that lasted well into the 1680's (pg 35).

The chapter, "Flowering of Diversity," outlines the period from 1690 - 1770 which brought many new religious groups to America. The 1680s and 90s saw the arrival of Jewish immigrants who settled in the developing urban centers of New York, Savannah, and Charleston. Anabaptists and French Huguenots fleeing the revoking of the Edict of Nantes began to arrive in large numbers. German immigrants of all sorts, Lutherans, German Reformed, Mennonites, Moravians, Baptists and Catholics, as well as British Methodists came to America in this period. Quakers who were streaming to Pennsylvania by the 1680's, were with the new flux of other immigrant groups, a minority there by 1750. Added to this mix were English and Welsh Baptists and Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Along with their different conceptions of Christian practice these groups brought new sources of magical and occult belief.

The following chapter focuses specifically on African and American Indian religion. Butler frames the understanding of Native American religion in this period as "simultaneously a tale of disappearance, change and resilience"(pg 77). Disappearance of Native American religion took place through disease and armed conflict as well as the early missionary efforts of the Puritans and the Jesuits. In the 18th century more Christian denominations became involved with missionary work to the Indians. One form of change in Native American religion took place ecologically. As certain populations of animals were greatly reduced or wiped out, their totemic significance was eliminated. Resilience took the form of Native American conversion to Christianity with elements of native religion retained, or by refusal to convert all together.

Slavery wrought the greatest destruction of African traditional religion. In burials and possibly in marriages, and in the developing pool of folk traditions, Africans were able to minimally maintain ritual practices and ideals. We learn that previous to the Revolutionary War there was little effort put towards converting African slaves to Christianity. Owners were concerned that Christianity would undermine the very concept of slavery. After 1760, Baptist and Methodist missionaries began efforts to convert slaves that eventually resulted in the flourishing of African-American Christianity in the 19th century.

The next chapter turns its attention to the revival of religion in Colonial America. This is the period of the Great Awakening. Deftly moving through this material, Butler helps us see this religious phenomenon in broad perspective. The Great Awakening was "short lived, tied to local circumstances, and modest in their social and political circumstances" (pg 110). It was also theologically diverse, a fact usually not covered in simplistic treatments the Great Awakening receives in most secondary American history textbooks. This chapter looks also at the role of women in colonial American religion. Although denied access to the pulpit in the 17th and 18th centuries, women managed to exert significant religious influence in a number of other ways. They overwhelmingly made up the largest percentage of congregations, and through the rituals of baptism, marriage, funerals, and religious education exercised enormous religious influence.

The final chapter deals with the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Although not fueled by religious impulses the war had enormous religious implications. The end of the war resulted in an enormous religious resurgence. One result of this new political freedom and the resurgence of religious fervor was the question of the role of religion and the new state. Eventually these questions would result in the ratification of the First Amendment which prohibited "an establishment of religion." The historical uniqueness and centrality of the First Amendment for future developments in American religious history cannot be stressed enough. "The First Amendment caught the essence of colonial America's religious development. It recognized the extraordinary, almost unimaginable diversity of religion that emerged in colonial America, a spiritual pluralism unlike that found in any society on either side of the Atlantic or Pacific. It guaranteed that the government would not itself seek to change this diversity by intervening in religion or by supporting one or more religious groups. And it guaranteed that the federal government would uphold free exercise' of religion for all groups, not just one"( pg 141).

As current American society becomes more religiously diverse, Jon Butler's "Religion in Colonial America" is an important reminder that as a people, we have always been religiously diverse. Religious pluralism is a central part of what defines us as Americans.

review© Tom Collins and RSiSS 2000
Tom Collins
Seabury Hall
Makawao, Hawaii


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