American Religous Experience

From Many, One: The Religious Origins of American Identity(1)

Chris Beneke/Northwestern University

This essay has two objects. The first is to consider that elusive phenomenon, American national identity, in light of the nation's religious pluralism--that is, in light of both the nation's religious diversity and its commitment to religious tolerance. The second is to consider how religious identity was itself constructed in the years that Americans were first defining the nature of their republic.

On one level, the connection between American identity and religious pluralism seems obvious. Even before the Revolution, everyone agreed that this was the most religiously diverse country in the world. Moreover, the sentiment expressed by the Catholic John Carroll, that America might come to "exhibit a proof to the world" of the value of "equal toleration," was shared by his Protestant contemporaries. Revolutionary rhetoric was so laden with invocations of religious liberty that Americans could not have disassociated their incipient nation from the cause of toleration even if they had wanted to. Of course, the First Amendment's insistence that there could be no establishment did not wholly supplant the First Commandment's demand that there should be no other Gods, nor did the commitment to making America the most tolerant of nations entirely displace the commitment so many churches made to render this land as a City Upon a Hill. Nonetheless, by the last three decades of the eighteenth century, America was widely-regarded as an asylum for religious dissenters of all sorts. To the theoretical right of choosing one's affiliation, this country offered the concrete possibility of having a choice.

Amid the flush of patriotic fervor that accompanied the Revolution, American clergymen were entirely convinced of the complementary relationship between their republican governments and their own religious institutions. Americans of all persuasions embraced what Robert Bellah identified three decades ago as a "civil religion"--encompassing a commitment to autonomous private worship and to the enactment of God's will through (nonsectarian) public policies.(2) There is probably no better example of this conviction than the sermon Samuel Williams published in 1780. Religion, Williams suggested, could be considered as both "a private thing" and a "public concern." Religion was a "private thing," in the sense that the magistrate had no right whatsoever to determine its doctrines or modes of worship It was a "public concern" in the sense that the state had an interest in supporting preachers, who, at the very least, were the "keepers of the morals of the people." "[T]he religion of Jesus Christ," Williams wrote, "will be found to be well adapted to do the most essential service to Civil Society."(3)

There appears to have been as much opposition to the idea of establishing one particular church as there was agreement that religion (or Christianity, or Protestantism) should be maintained.(4) In the flurry of constitution-making that accompanied the Revolutionary War, eleven of the original thirteen states maintained restrictions on political officeholding. With the notable exceptions of Virginia and Rhode Island, all of the states limited such positions to either Christians or Protestants. Even Isaac Backus, that strident proponent of equal privileges for Baptists, was opposed to the mere possibility of Catholics holding public office.(5) But exclusive establishments of religion were indeed abolished in most of the states where they had once prevailed. All the Southern states disestablished the Anglican church. In New England, change occurred much more gradually. Connecticut's Congregationalists clung stubbornly to their establishment. The other New England states would continue to provide financial support for churches, though they did make it easier for religious minorities to make use of their own tax money.(6) To support religion in general, but not to prescribe particular religious tenets was the resolution to which many of the new states first tended.(7) Such a position permitted Americans to persist in the series of elisions to which their public culture was committed, so that Religious meant Christian, Christian meant Protestant, and Protestant (for many) meant Calvinist.

Despite the apparent growth of infidelity, America remained thankfully free of European-styled philosophes, who openly embraced Deism. But, to contemporaries, this land seemed to be plagued by an equally troubling, if less conspicuous disease: religious indifference.(8) To those who had witnessed the coercion exercised by Europe's established churches, such indifference seemed a blessing. In the famous observations of J. Hector Saint John Crèvecoeur, detailing how these provincials were being transformed into the curious people that they were, the Frenchman noted that American religion was becoming as "mixed," as wonderfully diluted, as Euro-American blood was becoming. In fact, intermarriage and the subsequent production of an amalgamated race of people, he suggested, represented the quickest means to the dissolution of the country's religious differences. "A very perceptible indifference, even in the first generation," Crèvecoeur wrote, "will become apparent; and it may happen that the daughter of the Catholic will marry the son of the seceder, and settle by themselves at a distance from the seceder." What religious conflicts the mixing of bloods did not dispel, the vast American landscape surely would. In America, Crèvecoeur suggested, religious conflict "evaporates in the great distance it has to travel … it burns away in the open air, and consumes without effect." The residue of this benign mixture of various faiths and open space would be a harmless "indifference" regarding the religious differences that seemed to matter so terribly in Europe. (9)

There was enough sentiment, contemporaries called it "liberal" sentiment, to lend credence to Crèvecoeur's claims. By the last decades of the eighteenth century, many American writers had adopted the fashionable preference for cosmopolitan open-mindedness, with its complementary hostility toward narrow-minded bigotry. The capacity to consider an issue from multiple perspectives was the ideal to which those who considered themselves "liberal" aspired. We should "turn a subject on all sides" before passing judgment on it, Harvard's President, Samuel Locke, advised.(10) An Essay on Education, published that same year (1772), recommended that the individuals whose minds were "contracted within a narrow circle" could, through a "gradual acquaintance with the things around him[,] … enlarge his views," and learn "to regard himself as a CITIZEN OF THE WORLD, assert his native liberty, and despise a SLAVE of any sect or party."(11) On this liberal view, the bigot slavishly clung to his particular interpretation of scripture and his peculiar practices without considering the validity of the alternatives. (Most real slaves, of course, would have been fortunate to have even attended a church of their choosing.)

The observations of contemporary Europeans suggest the extent to which such ecumenism had penetrated American culture. Another French transplant to the New World, Jacob Duché, said in regard to Philadelphia that "there is less religious bigotry here, than in any place I have yet visited."(12) Such habits of thought were reinforced during the war. An account cited by the historian Peter Hanson graphically illustrates the transformation (this time in the traditionally anti-Catholic bastion of Boston):

There was a Catholic parish in Boston, established in the fall of 1788. According to a Frenchman residing in Boston at the time, the unprecedented event was treated not as an outrage but as a spectacle. As he wrote to a friend in the West Indies, 'The liberal part of the inhabitants (and to their honour there are but a few who are not liberal) are highly pleased with it; and many of the Boston people attend' the Catholic services, 'some from motives of curiosity, and others to evince that liberality which shines so conspicuous in the character of the Americans.'(13)

Others, less sanguine about the prospect of such indifference, were no less convinced of its presence. In 1787, the newly combined Associate Reformed Synod (of New York and Philadelphia) came in for severe chastisement from its Scottish brethren in the Preformed Presbytery, on the grounds that it had "support[ed] the cause of promiscuous communion" in the name of Jesus Christ.(14) In its eagerness for union, in its commitment "to offend none," moreover, the Synod had combined "persons formerly holding jarring principles" and resorted to "ambiguous forms"(15)

Whatever forms indifferentism took, the Revolution sped the country's movement down its paths by compelling Americans of various denominations to cooperate extensively with one another. Excepting the hostility evinced first toward Anglicans, and then toward pacifists, the demands of war generally extended the limited inter-denominational cooperation Americans had previously experienced. The last great object of religious intolerance was Catholicism. Hostility toward "Popery" persisted even in states where Protestant pluralism was embraced. Next to the absence of religion altogether, Catholicism represented one of the few forms of belief pre-Revolutionary Americans still publicly recognized as heretical. For instance, despite professing himself "a warm friend to religious liberty in the largest sense" and although he enjoined "mutual forbearance … where the differences are merely of a religious nature," Jonathan Mayhew insisted that "roman catholicks cannot be safely tolerated in the free exercise of their religion, in a protestant government."(16) The British Parliament's passage of the Quebec Act in 1768 seemed to confirm the suspicion that there was an Anglo-Catholic conspiracy to displace both Calvinism and republicanism in the New World. And, the conviction that Catholics were obliged to a foreign power, and that Catholicism was incompatible with republican government, endured far past the eighteenth century.(17)

What diminished, however, were critiques of Catholic religion, as religion. During and after the imperial crisis, Catholicism was castigated less for its doctrines and modes of worship--though its worship of tradition and symbols, its superstitious idolatry, remained anathema to the sincere Protestant heart--than for its purported attachment to a foreign power (namely the Pope and his Franco-Spanish minions). Indeed, Catholicism benefited from the mid-eighteenth century inclination to discount theological particulars in relation to the essentials of religious faith and worship.(18) The exigencies of war reinforced this tendency, even to the extent of temporarily minimizing its perceived political dangers. Among the strange alignments formed during the Revolution, none was stranger than the military alliance formed the Continental Congress and the French government.(19) During the War, the United States desperately required the aid of Britain's major geopolitical rival. The alliance with Catholic France, together with the unsuccessful invasion of Quebec, which depended upon the support of the Catholic majority there, placed American writers in the awkward position of rehabilitating a nation and a people they had long associated with the anti-Christ. In a surprising number of cases, Charles Hanson has demonstrated, they managed to overcome their previous anti-Catholicism.(20) That such a transition could have been made at all, that the fundamentals of christianity could have been stretched so far, could only have been a source of consternation for those Americans who wanted to maintain a semblance of Calvinist uniformity in this predominantly Protestant land.

Slow in coming, Catholicism seems to have acquired at least a semblance of equal recognition by the last third of the century. While Barnabas Binney's 1774 injunction for religious liberty, even for "Papists," was a rare, pre-Revolutionary demonstration of sympathy toward Catholics, it was not the only such gesture.(21) That same year, the Maryland Anglican, Jonathan Boucher preached to his congregation on behalf of Catholic toleration. Boucher made it clear that "[t]he toleration for which I plead is not political, but religious."(22) He did, however, support Maryland's prohibitions on Catholic officeholding. Such measures were only prudent. Nonetheless, according to Boucher, Catholics and Catholicism had been appallingly misrepresented for many years:

Hardly a book on any article of religion has been written; hardly a sermon on any controverted point has been preached; hardly any public debates, or private conversations, have been held on the subject of religion or of politics, in which ... the parties have not contrived to have what he called 'a thwack at Popery.' We have exhibited them, as some of their own communion are wont to exhibit those they call heretics, in an auto da fe; in an horrid dress disfigured with monsters and devils: or as an emperor of Rome, distinguished for his cruelty, is said to have exhibited the primitive Christians, when he wrapped them in the skins of beasts, and then threw them into the area to be torn and devoured by lions.(23)

Here, and elsewhere in the sermon, Boucher's language drew on the ideal of equal recognition. However far they might be in error, Boucher granted, "I know of no right that we have to constitute ourselves their judges."(24) Why, he asked, could Protestants not treat Catholics with the "decency" that Catholics bestowed upon Protestants?(25)

Something had indeed changed in America. In the generally expressed preference for piety over theology, in the generally expressed disdain for restrictive creeds, in the easy mixing of America's sects in voluntary societies, constitutional conventions and revolutionary war regiments, there was something to Crèvecoeur's claim that America was growing "indifferent" to the particular forms that their religion took. That to be an American, was to be indifferent about other people's faith. But few people, and hardly any ministers, could blithely countenance a nation of semi-committed (or indifferent) believers.

Writing in 1783, with the once dreaded Anglican church now merely one of many churches, and with America its own republic, Ezra Stiles articulated a reservedly sanguine description of America's religious future. As long as it could sustain its commitment to the ways of God, Stiles predicted, the new nation would provide the world with a model of religious purity. But herein lay the problem. Everywhere, Stiles lamented, people were tearing down even their most "liberal and generous establishments." Civil magistrates were discouraged from having anything to do with religion, other than to keep the peace between "contending sects." "And hence," he wrote, "it begins to be a growing idea that it is might be indifferentwhether a man be of this or the other religious sect … and that truly deists, and men of indifferentism to all religion are the most suitable persons for civil office." In fact, Stiles huffed, there was a growing conviction that "to prevent partiality in governors, and emulation among the sects, it is wise to consign government over into the hands of those who … have no religion at all."(26) With disestablishment looming, Stiles feared for America the very thing that Crèvecoeur thought would make it great. He feared that the well-justified indifference of its institutions would encourage a soulless neutrality among its governors, and by extension, its citizens. The concern was no longer that people would adhere to dangerous religious beliefs, as had been the case earlier in the century, but that--as Stiles worried--they would present a danger by adhering to no religious beliefs.(27)

Despite the reactionary tone of his rhetoric, Stiles had not been metamorphosed into a religious curmudgeon since his pre-revolutionary days, when he called for a union of all (non-episcopal) Christians. Indeed, his worries over the rise of Deism and "indifferentism" were accompanied by a fresh awareness of the new nation's capacity for religious pluralism. European observers had studied America, he noted, in hopes of imitating the "friendly cohabitation of all sects" that it maintained. To the astonishment of the world, this country had demonstrated "that men may be good members of civil society, and yet differ in religion." More interesting, however, was Stiles commitment to permitting every church to "complete" itself according to its own particular specifications. "The united states will embosom all the religious sects or denominations in Christendom," Stiles predicted. "Here they may all enjoy their whole respective systems of worship and church government, complete." His next words are worth quoting because of the evident the care that was taken to properly depict each group--even the Church of England--and to implicitly endorse their respective activities:

Of these, next to the presbyterians, the church of england will hold a distinguished and principal figure. They will soon furnish themselves with a bishop in virginia and maryland, and perhaps another to the northward, to ordain their clergy, give confirmation, superintend and govern their churches; the main body of which will be in virginia and maryland, besides a diaspora or interspersion in all the other states. The unitas fratrum, for above thirty years past, have had moravian bishops in america; and I think they have three at present, though not of local or diocesan jurisdiction, their pastorate being the whole unity throughout the world. In this there ever was a distinction between the bohemian episcopacy, and that of the eastern and western churches; for in a body of 2000 antient bohemian churches, they seldom had above two or three bishops. …

The man who had once led the opposition to a colonial episcopate, now insisted that even the Anglican church in America was entitled to maintain its full complement of officers, including bishops. According to Stiles, all the churches possessed the right to enjoy their own particular institutions in all their peculiar variety. This was what Americans called "religious liberty." (28)

However, neither then nor since was there an easy equation to be made between religion and morality, between religious beliefs and political principles. If the pious citizen of the United States might describe himself in whatever religious form he pleased, if his church merely added to the general religious life of the nation, his political principles could not be so freely fashioned, nor his political instruments unobtrusively heaped onto the stockpile of existing institutions. In a 1786 pamphlet outlining a plan for the establishment of public schools in Pennsylvania, Benjamin Rush noted that "to secure to our youth the advantages of a religious education, it is necessary to impose upon them the doctrines and discipline of a particular church."(29) "That fashionable liberality," he continued, "which refuses to associate with any one sect of Christians is seldom useful to itself, or to society.… Far be it from me to recommend the doctrines or modes of worship of any one denomination of Christians. I only recommend to the persons entrusted with the education of youth, to inculcate upon them a strict conformity to that mode of worship which is most agreeable to their consciences, or the inclinations of their parents." Yet Rush went on to say that his intentions were "to convert men into republican machines."(30) And thus, while "the great machine of the state" might leave individual citizens to their own beliefs, those citizens would function best who had, at one time or another, affiliated themselves with a particular church. "[S]trict conformity" was valuable in and of itself. Thus, Rush was as amenable to the variety of religious systems that made their home in the colonies as he was convinced that republican citizens should be disciplined by one of them. He was as amenable to the subjective conditions of religious experience as he was to the objectified technique of republican citizenship. Rush embraced this notion because the habit of disciplined choice promised to translate itself into a strict conformity with republican principles. For those of his generation, there was very little tension between the heterogeneity of religious worship and the homogeneity of republican citizenship, nor between the notion that they had the freedom to choose their religion and the notion that they were obliged--by the requirements of republican citizenship--to choose.

In a recent essay on ethnic identity in America, which consciously recalled Crèvecoeur's question, by asking "What is to be an American?," Michael Walzer pointed out the "nonexclusive character" of American identity. America, he wrote, "is not a jealous nation." According to Walzer, "… the virtues of toleration in principle though by no means always in practice, have supplanted the singlemindedness of republican citizenship. We have made our peace with the 'particular characteristics' of all the immigrant groups (though not, again, of all the racial groups) and have come to regard American nationality as an addition rather than a replacement for ethnic consciousness."(31) By the end of the eighteenth century, it was religious identity that often served as an addition to American nationality.(32) Although early republicans might have "learned to distinguish the man from his religious opinions," as one contemporary put it, while they might have detached civil law from religious affiliation (and in the process, rendered the state formally indifferent to religion), while they may have emphasized the Protestant, Christian or religious principles they shared with one another, they would also demand equal recognition, as well as equal treatment, for particular churches and particular religious beliefs. Over the ensuing decades, Americans would continue to burden their religious identities, and increasingly their ethnic identities, with the cultural diversity that stood in contrast to their professed republican uniformity.


1. I would like to thank Leo Hirrel, Daniel Walker Howe, R. Laurence Moore, Karen Leroux and Karen O'Brien for their comments on earlier versions of this essay.

2. Robert Bellah, "Civil Religion in America," in Daedalus 96:1 (1967): 1-21.

3. Samuel Williams, The Influence of Christianity on Civil Society (Boston, 1780), 20-21, 12.

4. Thomas Curry makes this point persuasively throughout his exhaustive account of church-state relations in early America. See Curry, First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment (New York, 1986).

5. This point is made in Curry, First Freedoms, 170. Curry cites Backus, in William G. McLoughlin, Isaac Backus: On Church, State, and Calvinism, Pamphlets 1754-1789 (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), 422 and McLoughlin, "Isaac Backus and the Separation of Church and State," The American Historical Review 73 (1968): 1398. Indeed, Curry notes, a large number of Massachusetts towns (sixty-eight) petitioned the state legislature "to change the restriction on officeholding from Christian to Protestant." Curry, First Freedoms, 171.

6. The issue is discussed at length in Curry, First Freedoms. See chapters six and seven in particular.

7. There was, Colin Kidd, has recently argued, "a widely perceived need for some form of civil encouragement of religious institutions at the state or local level in the interests of the wider commonwealth. See Kidd, "Civil Theology and Church Establishments in Revolutionary America" The Historical Journal, 42:4 (1999): 1025.

8. In the preface to A Mirror, Representing Some Religious Characters of the Present Times (Philadelphia, 1786), the publisher suggested that the same malady--religious indifference--which had long afflicted Britain, now plagued America. A Mirror lamented that "[t]he principal religious characters of the present age seem to be, the fashionable Deist, the Temporizer, the selfish Devotee, the Waverer, and the serious but desponding Christian." A Mirror, 1.

9. J. Hector St. John De Crèvecoeur, "From Letters from an American Farmer," The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed. Nina Baym, et al, 3d ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), 565.

10. Samuel Locke, A Sermon Preached Before the Ministers of the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay (Boston, 1772), 18.

11. An Essay on Education (New Haven, 1772), 7.

12. Jacob Duché, Observations on a Variety of Subjects, Literary, Moral and Religious (Philadelphia, 1774), 62.

13. Charles Hanson, Necessary Virtue: The Pragmatic Origins of American Liberty (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999),189-190.

14. The Constitution of the Associate Reformed Synod in America, Considered, Disowned and Testified Against (Philadelphia, 1787), 16.

15. The Constitution of the Associate Reformed Synod in America, Considered, Disowned and Testified Against (Philadelphia, 1787), 5. Of course, European observers may have seen something here that was actually not. The historian Nathan Hatch has noted that a defining characteristic of early republican religion was the way "People veered from one church to another."15 See Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 64. Just prior to the turn of the century, in fact, a Scottish immigrant and president of Dickinson College, Charles Nisbet complained that "Religion" was likely to be snuffed out here "by the "Equality & Indifference of Religious Opinions that is established by our Political Constitutions." These compacts, he argued had "divided all our Citizens into two great Parties, the Anythingarians who hold all Religions equally good, & the Nothingarians who abhor all Religions equally."15 And, frighteningly enough, it appeared that the Anythingarians, bereft of "fix'd Principles" would soon succumb to the blasphemous denial of the Nothingarians.15 See Charles Nisbet to Charles Wallace, October 31, 1797, New York Public Library. Cited in From James H. Smylie, "Protestant Clergy, the First Amendment and Beginnings of a Constitutional Debate, 1781-1791" The Religion of the Republic, ed. Elwyn A. Smith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 149. In contrast to England, where--according to an American observer--writers positioned themselves as indifferent "liberal[s]" in order to gain an audience, the mutability of attachments, as well as the sheer number of possible attachments, in America may have led European observers to detect indifference where native believers saw new and better commitments.15 It was Charles Henry Wharton who wrote that in England, "a writer must affect to be liberal, if he means to be read …" See [Charles Henry Wharton] A Letter to the Roman Catholics of the City of Worcester (Philadelphia, 1784), 10. In their excellent essay on church adherence in colonial America, Patricia Bonomi and Peter Eisenstadt note that "one finds many reports of religious 'indifference,' but in the eighteenth century this usually meant religious impartiality, or a blindness to the fine points of doctrine that differentiated one denomination from another." See Patricia U. Bonomi and Peter R. Eisenstadt, "Church Adherence in the Eighteenth-Century British American Colonies," in The William and Mary Quarterly, Ser. 3, 39:2 (April 1982): 247. Richard Pointer suggests that "[c]onfronted by both increasing options and what was sometimes a bewildering mix of sectarian claims, some laypersons found themselves becoming religiously 'indifferent.'" "Few churchgoers questioned the basic importance of religion or even their own need for salvation," he continues, "[b]ut a significant minority of them were finding it increasingly difficult either to know which one of the competing sets of beliefs and practices was worthy of acceptance or how to go about deciding." See Richard W. Pointer, Protestant Pluralism and the New York Experience: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Religious Diversity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 37.

16. Jonathan Mayhew, Remarks on an Anonymous Tract (Boston, 1764), 71.

17. Remarking on the passage of the Quebec Act, James Dana argued that "Popery can prevail only under an arbitrary government, implying a general ignorance of civil rights." See Dana, A Sermon, Preached Before the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut (Hartford, 1779), 15.

18. Catholics were among those groups--including the Baptists, Quakers, Lutherans--that Ezra Stiles noted, in an apparently optimistic tone, were "considerable bodies, in all their dispersions through the states." See Stiles, The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor (New Haven, 1783), 54.

19. In his book on New England's Revolution era sentiments regarding Catholicism, Charles Hanson notes that it "might be unexpected and difficult to get used to, but France's intervention in the Revolution was clearly good news. It was hinted at and hankered after well before it became public knowledge." See Hanson, Necessary Virtue, 103.

20. See Hanson, Necessary Virtue.

21. Barnabas Binney, An Oration Delivered on the Late Public Commencement at Rhode-Island College (Boston, 1774), 24.

22. Boucher, "On the Toleration of Papists," A view of the causes and consequences of the American Revolution (New York: Russell & Russell, [1967]), 259.

23. Ibid., 262-263. "There was no need thus to misrepresent Papists," he wrote later in the same text. Ibid., p. 267. It is not clear how much Boucher's sermon was modified before finally being published in 1797. I hope that it suffices to say that these are roughly similar to the ones Boucher actually employed when the sermon was actually spoken.

24. Boucher, "On the Toleration of Papists," 255.

25. Ibid., 282.

26. Stiles, Ezra, The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor (New Haven, 1783), 70.

27. It was indeed common to suggest, as one contemporary put it, that "the [religious] principles [which] do not subvert the foundation of good government; may be safely tolerated; but the man of no religion is the most dangerous, and in fact is not a fit subject of moral government." Brief Animadversions on the Doctrine of Universal Salvation (Philadelphia, 1787), 48.

28. Ezra Stiles, The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor (New Haven, 1783), 54-55.

29. Benjamin Rush, A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and The Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1786), 17.

30. Ibid., 27.

31. Michael Walzer, "What Does It Mean to Be an 'American'?" in ed., David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper, The American Intellectual Tradition: A Sourcebook, vol. II, 3d ed., (New York: Oxford University Press,1997), 447.

32. Sacvan Bercovitch makes a similar point in his work on American Romanticism. According to Bercovitch, American identity represents an "and/or," rather than an "either/or" proposition. See Bercovitch, "The A-Politics of Ambiguity in The Scarlet Letter," in New Literary History 19 (Spring 1988): 629-654.

homeReturn to the American Religious Experience Main Page