Religions in Colonial America

Colonial America was primarily settled by immigrants from England with differing motives of religious freedom, economic opportunity, and political liberty. Spanish and French immigration was primarily directed to South and Central Americas and Canada, respectively.  It is hard to imagine conditions that would drive people to risk life and limb to travel to a new country and its unknown perils.

Yet, thousands of English people – men and their families – volunteered to spend six to ten weeks cramped in steerage below the main deck with virtually no privacy, sleeping on bare floors, eating salted meat and hardtack biscuits, drinking bad water, and suffering from sea sickness, dysentery, and typhus.  One hundred and two passengers on the Mayflower shared 1,600 square feet of floor space with a five-foot ceiling in the ever-present stench of unwashed bodies, vomit, and bilge water.

Religious Persecution in England of Non-Anglicans

The 1662 Act of Uniformity introduced a Book of Common Prayer and required that all clergy declare their ‘unfeigned assent and consent’ to the use of the book’s contents in their worship, or face ejection from the church.  The Restoration political settlement was founded on an exclusive episcopalian Church of England. The Act of Uniformity required all those in holy orders, every minister, teacher, lecturer or university fellow, to choose between submission to Anglican authority or the loss of their livelihoods. Before St Bartholomew’s Day (24 August) 1662, they had to declare their ‘unfeigned assent and consent’ to everything in the newly revised Book of Common Prayer, including ceremonies such as kneeling to receive communion and the use of the sign of the cross for baptisms. Clergy were required to have been ordained by a bishop. As a consequence, nearly a thousand clergy – as much as one-sixth of the total – gave up their livings. Over two thousand clergymen and teachers were displaced or silenced in England and Wales between 1660 and 1662, The displaced clergy had considerable lay support. Most were moderate Puritans or Presbyterians. Baptists, Quakers, and the other separatists were already worshipping outside the national church.

Religious Diversity of American Colonists

English colonists began arriving in the early 1600s. The Jamestown settlement in Virginia in 1607 is often considered the first successful English colony.: The Church of England (Anglicanism) was the predominant religion (plurality, not majority) among English colonists, but there were also other English groups – Puritans, Quakers, and Baptists -seeking religious freedom. As a consequence, there was considerable diversity in religion, despite their common English heritage.

Dutch settlers arrived in North America in the early 17th century, establishing New Netherland (New York) and trading posts along the Hudson River. They were predominately Dutch Reformed Protestantism, generally followed the anti-Catholic teaching of John Calvin with beliefs in predestination, divine providence, sola scriptura, and a congregational-based organization structure. Today’s Presbyterian Church evolved from this group. Following the second Dutch-English War (1664), England claimed the New York territory.

Swedish colonization, particularly in the Delaware Valley (New Sweden), began in the early 1600s, typically Lutherans or Quakers.  However, the population was religiously diverse, adding Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Methodists, among others, over time. The 1701 Charter of Delaware, though explicitly acknowledging God’s authority, made no mention of a specific established church. The 1776 Delaware Constitution stipulated that all persons acknowledging one God, a future state of rewards and punishments, and public worship could enjoy religious liberty.

Economic Diversity of Colonists

The economic and social backgrounds of English immigrants to America during the colonial period were diverse and evolved over time. Many came for religious freedom, having separated from the Church of England and facing discrimination and persecution. Groups like the Puritans were typically middle-class, educated families.  Some sought economic opportunity, including landless laborers (generally from urban communities) and small farmers. Finally, wealthier and upper-class families emigrated to escape political retribution, caught on the wrong side of England’s chaotic governments, such as Royalists fleeing after Cromwell’s Puritan victory.

Early colonies like Virginia attracted many indentured servants, who agreed to work for a period to pay for their passage. These individuals represented the poorer segment of society. Later colonies, like Pennsylvania, saw a larger influx of middle-class families seeking religious freedom and economic opportunities. These immigrants often possessed skills and education

While a significant portion of English immigrants were from the poorer segments of society, the picture wasn’t solely one of poverty and illiteracy. There were also middle-class families, skilled artisans, educated individuals, and even some wealthier merchants and landowners. The mix became more diverse over time, with later colonies attracting more skilled and educated individuals.