Sermons and Narratives on Religious Life Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Religion played a key role in the settling and founding of America, and the Christian ideals that animated the first settlers—though diverse within the confines of Protestant Christianity—strongly influenced the political and social development of the new nation. For English colonists in particular, religion was at least as important a motivating factor as economic concerns in the colonization effort; they came to the New World in pursuit of the promise of religious liberty, although that meant different things to different groups of colonists.

The English Puritans who settled New England did so to escape the confines of an Anglican Church that they felt had not made a sufficiently clean break from the Catholic Church in the English Reformation of the preceding century. They sought religious liberty for themselves, so that they could create “a city on a hill,” in the words of Massachusetts Bay leader John Winthrop—a society that strictly adhered to Christian values as they understood them. And although in one sense they sought, ironically, the freedom to create a more restrictive society, that society was also organized along remarkably democratic lines, with church members electing their leaders and approving their own governing documents.

At perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum from the Puritans were the Quakers, reviled by Anglicans and Puritans alike as true radicals who threatened the very foundations of social order with their pacifism, rejection of a formal clergy, and belief in the equality of women. Severely persecuted in Massachusetts, Quakers found havens in Rhode Island and especially Pennsylvania, established by Quaker leader William Penn, who established specific guarantees of freedom of religion in the colony, articulating ideas that would be key in crafting the government of the future United States of America.

Though greatly at odds in their beliefs, both Quakers and Puritans came to America to escape persecution in England and build a new society more in line with their respective beliefs. All the people who came to America from the British Isles owed their allegiance to the English Crown, but with an ocean between them and the mother country, the colonists had great latitude to forge new directions; and, again despite their differences, all the European American colonists tended to move in the direction of a less hierarchical, more egalitarian and individualistic society. As the seventeenth century melted into the eighteenth, the religious revival of the 1730s known as the Great Awakening confirmed these trends, with its emphasis on a direct relationship between the believer and God, unmediated by a church hierarchy whose analog in the secular realm was the monarchy.

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