Religious Toleration in the American Colonies

October 10, 2008
By Deanna Kovach, Charlotte, NC

There are many facts that explain the reasons for and circumstances regarding an increase in religious toleration in the American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At that time, the American colonists had more religious freedom than any other group in the world because of their democratic practices and desire for freedom. A common language and similar goals helped all the colonists to feel like one nation and created a mutual sentiment of acceptance.

Many people coming to the colonies were trying to escape religious persecution, so naturally they did not want to persecute others. Some examples include the German Lutherans who moved to Pennsylvania, a colony known for its religious freedom, and the Scots-Irish Presbyterians who fled persecution from the Anglican Church in England and the Catholics of Ireland. A considerable number of colonists did not belong to a denomination or church; since they did not pay any attention to religion, they were not quick to persecute others. Colonies like Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania were so ethnically and religiously diverse that they did not have official denominations.

Another obvious reason for an increase in religious toleration is the fact that England tried to use religion to gain better control of the colonies. The English tried to make the Anglican Church the official denomination in most (if not all) the colonies and used taxes to support the Church. In the end, the Anglican beliefs and practices were not “satisfying” enough for the colonists. Like the Anglican Church, Congregationalism was supported by taxes in some colonies, but people who were members of another denomination did not have to pay the tax; exceptions like these made toleration come more “naturally”. Several denominations (like Presbyterianism and Congregationalism) openly supported the colonists’ revolt against England. Since many denominations (especially the well-established ones) supported the same things, they seemed to have fewer differences and more similarities, which led the colonists to be more tolerant.

Because of the extreme religious emphasis in North American colleges, many young adults went to college in Europe. The declining number of students in the North American colleges caused an increased focus on “newer” subjects and a decreased emphasis on religion. The colleges began to accept more people in order to form a larger student body. Overall, religious emphasis in North american schools declined over time.

After holding organized town meetings, councils, social gatherings, and fighting side by side for the same cause in the French and Indian War, the American colonists realized that they had many things in common. Sharing (for the most part) the same language, English, and the same goals, freedom and independence, resulted in increased toleration (even for Catholics). Because the Catholic population in the colonies was small, they were not persecuted as much as they were in England. The small number of Catholics meant more lenient anti-Catholic laws; these laws were not implemented very often (if they were implemented at all).

The Half-Way Covenant, which allowed some “unconverted” people to become church members, resulted from the decreasing number of Puritan “conversions” in New England. The “unconverted” members included the children of “converted” members as well as some adults. The Half-Way Covenant was adopted because preachers were worried about the Puritan community’s diminishing devotion. Therefore, the congregation was very diverse. Religious toleration and the number of church members was valued over purity.

The Great Awakening, which occurred in the 1730s and 1740s, greatly increased religious toleration in the American colonies. This large movement began in Massachusetts when Jonathan Edwards preached the fact that a person cannot go to Heaven based on their good works. Another preacher, George Whitefield, who was a gifted speaker, led thousands of colonists to become “converted”. Because of the Great Awakening, thousands of people became enthusiastic about religion and joined new denominations. Many new churches were built and some American colonists were inspired to become missionaries. Prestigious universities (like Princeton in New Jersey) were established throughout the colonies. The Great Awakening, which was the first of many “mass movements” in America, fostered a feeling of unity among the colonists by narrowing the gap between different colonies as well as different denominations. The increased similarities between the different denominations led to increased religious toleration between the colonists.

Religious toleration played a significant role in the French and Indian War. In order for there to be an alliance between the British and the Native Americans, there had to be religious toleration; the colonists had to accept the Indians’ indigenous beliefs and practices. The British alliance with the powerful Iroquois Confederacy during the French and Indian War led the way to the British domination of North America. The removal of the Spanish from Florida and the end of New France (in Canada) significantly reduced the presence of Catholicism, one of the most persecuted religions, in the New World.

Religious toleration in the American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was influenced by many elements. Diverse settlements, rebellious feelings toward England, education, colonial unification, the Great Awakening, and the British conquest of North America all paved the way to a shared feeling of approval. The existence of religious tolerance in the early American colonies helped to lay the foundation of a great nation.

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