On the first day of the course I teach on "Religion in Colonial America" at the University of Chicago Divinity School, I often ask students to tell me what they already know about early American religious history. Since many of them are new to the field, they know relatively little about religious leaders or worship practices, but almost all of them have strong assumptions about the past.
Influenced by the rhetoric of conservative religious activists and politicians, some describe America as a "Christian nation" where everyone shared a common set of values. Others claim that the colonies were a haven for religious liberty. Pointing to the stories of the Pilgrims and Puritans who fled to New England to escape religious persecution, they imagine a world where people of all faiths were allowed to worship freely.
Yet as students begin reading documents (whether church records, legal statutes, or personal religious narratives), they are surprised to discover that these two images of early America reflect popular national myth, not historical reality. These images say far more about our modern concerns than they do about the real people who lived and worshipped in the past.
First, although it is certainly true that most early Americans were Christian (with the notable exception of large numbers of Indians and African-born slaves), they disagreed about what constituted "true" Christianity. In the South, for example, Anglicans and Baptists clashed over infant baptism, and in New England, Puritans accused Quakers of being heretics because of their belief in immediate inspiration. (While the Puritans insisted that the Bible was God's final revelation, the Quakers claimed that God continued to speak to humans through the "inner light.") In Maryland, originally founded by Roman Catholics, Protestants eventually seized power and forbade Catholics to vote, hold public office, or worship outside of private homes. Rather than describing themselves as part of a unified, Christian culture, early Americans emphasized the theological divisions that splintered them into competing denominations.
Second, despite the popular image of America's deep commitment to religious liberty, few of the original thirteen colonies allowed people to worship freely. With the exception of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Rhode Island, every colony had an "established" church that was closely linked to the government. For example, everyone who lived in seventeenth-century Virginia, no matter what their personal beliefs, were legally required to attend the Anglican Church and pay assessments for ministers' salaries. If people refused to pay their taxes, they were publicly whipped or imprisoned. As the colonies became more religiously plural in the eighteenth century, these harsh laws began to disappear, but it was not until 1791, with the passage of the Bill of Rights, that all Americans were guaranteed the right to worship (or not to worship) as they wished.
If my conversations with students are an accurate index of what the public knows about the past, then most people have forgotten the religious battles in early America. Yet at a time when politicians and activists search for a "usable past" that will justify their vision for the present and future, we must move beyond the myths that have framed so many of our national conversations about religion in public life. On one hand, conservatives who want America to return to its identity as a "Christian country" rarely acknowledge that religious diversity has been an enduring feature of American life. On the other hand, liberals who want politicians and activists to keep their religious beliefs "private" rarely mention the Baptists, Quakers, and other religious dissenters who once fought for the right to express their beliefs in public.
To be sure, history doesn't offer any easy answers to our national debates about religion. But unless we wrestle with the legacy of our past, it will be harder to chart a path toward the future.
Catherine A. Brekus is assistant professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is the author of *Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).