By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
The English colonists had no religious motive when they settled in British North America. The Church of England also did not force the people of the colonies to follow a uniform religious culture during the 1600s and the early decades of the 1700s. Was the absence of a uniform religious culture the reason why some people thought that America was an “un-Christian republic”?
The Absence of Christianity in America
Political leader John Randolph of Roanoke didn’t believe that America was a Christian republic. Six months after the close of the War of 1812, a war which he and the old guard Republicans had violently opposed, Randolph wrote to Henry Middleton Rutledge that Virginia was the “most ungodly country on the face of the earth where the Gospel has ever been preached,” and it was, as far as Randolph could see, just as much the case elsewhere in the U.S.
For Randolph, the reason for this godlessness was the influence of the European Enlightenment, and its thinkers, on American minds. “The last,” said Randolph, “was a generation of free thinkers, disciples of Hume and Voltaire and Bolingbrook, and there were very few persons, my dear Rutledge, of our years, who have not received their first impressions from the same die.” Was Enlightenment the only reason for this godlessness or was there any other reason?
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Christianity and the Ideology of Republicanism
The ideology of republicanism itself, which, as the offspring of the Enlightenment, had little room for public Christianity as a device for sanctioning or confirming its ideas. The Republicans were promoting a political system that, for the first time in Western political thinking, based itself entirely upon human longings, human morals, and human nature—not divine ones.
Thomas Jefferson publicly criticized Christianity as an “engine for enslaving mankind, a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power.” Even though Jefferson himself contrived to appeal to nature and nature’s God in the Declaration of Independence, he was much more interested in nature, and more significantly, the federal Constitution made no reference to a God or a creator at all.
However, republican politics and the influence of the Enlightenment were not the only elements, or not even, perhaps, the most important elements in the making of John Randall’s “un-Christian republic” because Christianity had, in fact, only rarely enjoyed a stable footing in American life before the revolution. It shouldn’t really come as a terrible surprise that its hold on American life after the revolution was even more fragile, although many of the British North American colonies were settled by religious communities.
Learn more about the American Revolution.
The Presence of the Church of England in America
Despite the fact that the Quakers and the Puritans came to North America and started colonies like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, they tended to belong to the radical fringes of English Christianity. They were the radicals who were against the hierarchy of the English state church, the Church of England. These religious colony planters, therefore, arrived on the American shores with hostility to any assertions of religious authority.
Not that the Church of England had any appreciation or gratitude for this development. The Church of England, like the crown government itself, had two basic options to exercise with respect to the churches in the colonies. It could ignore them or it could regulate them.
Since regulation was an expensive proposition, the Church of England allowed the 1600s and the early decades of the 1700s to drift by without imposing a uniform religious culture on the English colonies.
That meant that in the places in North America where religious type of settlements were reasonably thick on the ground, the Church of England allowed these radical organizations and groups to grow up unmolested. Only in the South did the Church of England really succeed in organizing a functioning series of churches.
Christianity and the Great Awakening
The Great Awakening in the 1740s aimed at restoring many of the most radical individualistic and anti-authoritarian aspects of the earlier forms of radical religion that the colonies had started with.
The Awakening provoked savage quarrels and debates within the New England churches. It pushed the Presbyterians in Pennsylvania into scission. It created violent encounters in Virginia between preachers of the Awakening, and Church of England planters and the gentry.
Thus, American religion up to this point was really a less stable and less controlling influence in early American culture than appearances might suggest.
Learn more about the Republicans and Federalists.
Common Questions about the influence of the European Enlightenment on America
The ideology of republicanism itself, which, as the offspring of the Enlightenment, had little room for public Christianity as a device for sanctioning or confirming its ideas.
Thomas Jefferson publicly criticized Christianity as an “engine for enslaving mankind, a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power.”
No, the Church of England did not impose Christianity on people in the English colonies during 1600s and the early decades of the 1700s.
The Quakers and the Puritans, who came to North America and started colonies like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, tended to belong to the radical fringes of English Christianity.