Understanding Religion in America: Beginning Influences on the Colonies

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Land of Religious Freedom

The land that became America brought many of its first colonists hope for the freedom to practice their own religious beliefs. In this article we are going to take a look at the early development of American religious culture to establish how Christianity permeates today’s society. The goal, through a series of articles on American religious background, is to help ESL students to gain greater understanding of our country’s religious history.

In 1607, when Jamestown Island was first reached by the colonists their main objective was to colonize Virginia for England and establish the following:

“… propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government”–from The First Charter of Virginia April 10, 1606 from King James I.

This prevalence of Christianity was due to the role that religion played in the governing of England, Scotland, France and Ireland over which King James I was then sovereign. You can read the full text of the charter through the University of Virginia’s online Library. The American colonies were to be an extension of England under the faith established by the Church of England, which was based on the Protestant form of Christianity and not based from Catholicism.

After the Jamestown settlement went through its trials of survival there were further groups of colonists, not all sponsored by the King of England. There was a group of English religious separatists who came to the New World because they found it difficult to practice their faith in England. They had moved first to Amsterdam looking for religious freedom, but the separatists' move to Amsterdam was not what they had been hoping for. Through some help from various English investors they were sent to America to establish the Plymouth Colony. We know these religious separatists today as the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims established the Plymouth Colony in 1620, and in their case religion held more sway in the governing of the people than any monarch would have. The Christian ideals that came from the Pilgrims were Puritan views. After the English religious oppression of the people by using the Church of England as an extension of the government, the Puritans wanted to practice their faith in a way they believed was more in line with the Bible than that was preached by the Church of England.

The French had also begun to build colonies in the New World, and their sanctioned government religion at that time was Catholicism, the most widely practiced branch of Christianity. In the French colonies their people were governed by the combined rules of King Charles IX, Catholicism and the Protestant viewpoint of the colonists that were sent to America to practice their faith in peace.

What developed was an established branch of Protestant beliefs that later became intermingled with the Puritan branch of Christianity from the English colonies. The French colonies brought in a combination of Catholicism and their own version of Protestant thought. Each individual settlement was able to establish its own version of religious governmental rule under the King’s governance, with the exception of the Puritans who did not respect the English King once they became established.

The events of early America and the roles that religion played in governing the people would change with the dawn of the 1770s. The variants of Christian beliefs, molded along with governmental ideas in their various forms, would actually lesson the religious freedom instead of the hopeful practice of personal faiths promised to the colonists as they arrived on the shores of the New World.

Continuing the exploration of the Christian basis of faith in American culture, our next article will cover the colonies' fight to break from England and the Church of England’s religious influence. This would help to influence the Founding Fathers to ensure a legal religious separation from the government in the forming of what is now America.

The second article in this series can be found here.