United States Religious Groups History (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Religious Records - Part 2  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Realignment of Colonial Religious Groups

New Nation

The American Revolution and the birth of the new nation had considerable impact on religious groups. No denomination escaped the disruption and dislocation of the war years. Perhaps the Congregationalists and Presbyterians were least affected. Baptists and Methodists prospered, multiplying in numbers and would consider to do so as the nation expanded. As the church of the royal officials, Anglicans (Church of England) were a casualty of the American Revolution, losing their privileges, prestige, and support; but in time and with new leadership, as the Protestant Episcopal Church, it made a fairly significant recovery. Mennonites, Moravians, and Dunkers became more isolated as small units within the larger society. Quakers exercised more influence than the numbers would seem to warrant, but internal divisions caused them to enter a period of decline. Roman Catholics were a small minority concentrated almost exclusively in Maryland and Pennsylvania, but steady growth began after the Revolution, and huge gains would result in the upcoming periods of immigration.

Protestant Denominations

It took most Protestant denominations until about 1800 to regroup and reorder their forces. And there were challenges to face as the population began moving westward. Seeking to respond to a need for action, Protestants began to emphasize revivalist preaching. This wave of revivals came to be known as the “Second Great Awakening,” sweeping across the country for nearly two generations. This new revivalism differed from the first “Awakening” under Jonathan Edwards in which the people seemed to wait for the outpouring of God’s spirit. This time, the revival became a technique calculated to cause hearers to make a decision and act upon it. On the frontier, a distinctive feature was the “camp meeting,” developed by Presbyterian minister James McGready just at the very end of the 18th century. One effect of the camp meetings was swelling membership of the surrounding churches, particularly among the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church, an outgrowth of the great revival of 1800, dates its origin from 1810, in Dickson County, Tennessee. On the urban front, Charles Finney’s controversial revivals made an impact.

Protestant expansion via missionary activities was employed as the frontier moved westward. Missionary societies were organized in the East. Touring missionaries functioned in much the same way as the Methodist circuit riders. The effective process employed by the Methodists was to recruit a traveling elder and lay out a circuit that would take him to the newest settlements.
Overseas missions were another outgrowth of the religious enthusiasm of the Great Awakening. Reports of these enterprises by the religious press excited church people in America who contributed to the support of missionary efforts.

Volunteer Societies

Volunteer societies set about with purposes of local reform and service. The early 19th century saw the formation of the American Bible Society, the American Education Society, the American Colonization Society, the American Sunday School Union, the American Tract Society, the American Temperance Society, the American Peace Society, and the American Antislavery Society.

Education and the Church

Churches established academies and colleges in huge numbers. Most of the 516 colleges and universities founded before the Civil War had a religious affiliation. Another Protestant educational activity was to found theological seminaries for the training of the clergy.

Slavery Issues and the Church

Long before the eruption of the Civil War, the disruptive effect of the slavery issue upon churches appeared. It was a contributing factor the Presbyterian Old School—New School division in 1837. As early as 1835, the Central Evangelical Association proposed that it be considered as the nucleus of a network of churches which among other practices would take a stand against slavery. In 1843, the Wesleyan Methodist Church was formed, including abolitionism as one of its tests for membership. A Baptist Free Mission was formed in 1843. A group of Lutherans formed the Franckean Synod in 1837, denying membership to those who sanctioned slavery. Among the Lutherans, the General Synod was able to steer a neutral course. The southern portion of the Methodist General Conference departed in 1844 to form the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845. Congregationalists moved into the abolitionist camp. The Roman Catholics and the Episcopalians tended to remain aloof from the controversy, although proponents of a slave-based social order spoke out while opponents remained silent.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses US: Religious Records - Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.