Religion in America

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the origins and key features of the Second Great Awakening
  • Describe the major religious denominations in America during the 19th century
A timeline shows important events of the era. In 1827, the American Temperance Society is formed. In 1830, Joseph Smith founds the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In 1831, Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion; an illustration depicting scenes from the rebellion is shown. In 1833, William Lloyd Garrison founds the American Anti-Slavery society; a photograph of Garrison is shown. In 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes “Self-Reliance”; a photograph of Emerson is shown. In 1848, supporters of women’s rights gather at Seneca Falls; the official announcement for the convention is shown. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden; Or, Life in the Woods. In 1855, most northeastern states “go dry” by prohibiting alcohol.

Figure 1. Major events of this era related to religion and reform.

Protestantism shaped the views of the vast majority of Americans in the antebellum years. The influence of religion only intensified during the decades before the Civil War, as religious camp meetings spread the word that people could bring about their own salvation. This wave of religious fervor became known as the Second Great Awakening. (The First Great Awakening of evangelical Protestantism had taken place in the 1730s and 1740s, mostly in Britain, but also in its American colonies).


Before diving into the details of the Second Great Awakening, it will first be helpful to review the history of religions in America. Click through these slides to review the details of the Protestant Reformation and to better understand the development of the many religions that gained popularity in America. Test yourself on the final slide to see if you can differentiate between 12 major religious denominations.

The Origins of the Second Great Awakening

An engraving depicts a Methodist camp meeting. Listeners sit, stand, and recline in a large outdoor area; trees and tents are visible in the background. On a central stage, a preacher enthusiastically addresses the crowd, with an arm raised.

Figure 2. This 1819 engraving by Jacques Gerard shows a Methodist camp meeting. Revivalist camp meetings held by itinerant Protestant ministers became a feature of nineteenth-century American life.

The Second Great Awakening emphasized an emotional religious style in which sinners grappled with their unworthy nature before concluding that they were “born again,” that is, turning away from their sinful past and devoting themselves to living a righteous, Christ-centered life. This emphasis on personal salvation, with its rejection of predestination (the Calvinist concept that God selected only a chosen few for salvation), was the religious embodiment of the Jacksonian-era celebration of the individual. Itinerant ministers preached the message of the awakening to hundreds of listeners at outdoor revival meetings. They hoped to win converts, who in turn hoped to achieve their own salvation by living a life of Christian morality and fervent faith.

Change in America

The burst of religious enthusiasm that began in Kentucky and Tennessee in the 1790s and early 1800s among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians owed much to the uniqueness of the early decades of the new United States. These years saw swift population growth, broad western expansion, and the rise of participatory democracy. The Second Great Awakening took place strictly in the U.S. and did not spread back to Europe, partially due to the unique changes that had taken place in America since the Revolutionary War. These political and social changes made many people anxious, and the egalitarian, individualistic religious practices of the Second Great Awakening provided relief and comfort for Americans. The awakening soon spread to the East Coast, where it had a profound impact on Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Thousands of people swept up in the movement believed in the possibility of creating a much better world than the one they had grown up in, particularly now that America had extricated itself from European political, cultural, and religious values almost entirely.

The Second Great Awakening was seen as a sort of American Reformation, where American morality and values were infused into the dominant religious culture of Christianity, creating a new type of doctrine and practice which emphasized morality, individualism, and evangelicalism. Many churches adopted millennialism, the fervent belief that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth and that God would reign on earth for a thousand years, characterized by harmony and Christian morality. Those drawn to the message of the Second Great Awakening yearned for stability, decency, and goodness in the new and turbulent American republic.

Try It

Enslaved Christians

Missionaries and circuit riders brought the message of the awakening across the United States, including into the lives of enslaved people. By this time, slaveholders had also come to believe that if enslaved people learned the “right” (that is, White) form of Christianity, then they would be more obedient and hardworking. They even established a Biblical precedent for slavery, arguing that a curse which Noah placed on his son Ham in Genesis 9:20-27 called for all of Ham’s descendants to be the servants of Noah’s other descendants by his other two sons. Using other Bible verses that refer to Egypt as the “land of Ham,”[1] enslavers purported that Africans were descendants of Ham who had been cursed with black skin for their sins and that Noah’s curse allowed them to be justifiably enslaved by Christians. Allowing the enslaved access to Christianity also served to ease the consciences of Christian enslavers, who felt that they were saving the souls of enslaved people by exposing them to the Christian message. 


Step through the following exercise to learn more about the spread of Christianity among the enslaved and then the development of the largest major African-American Methodist denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).

Many of the enslaved people being brought from Africa had already been exposed to Christianity through the Jesuit missionaries who had been operating there since the 16th century (see the African Christianity box below), although few tribes or kingdoms in West Africa had adopted it. By the time the slave trade in the British colonies had started booming in the mid-18th century, European Christianity had been in Africa for around 200 years and Orthodox Christianity since the 4th century. However, the exposure of enslaved people to the particular brand of American, evangelical Christianity resulted in the creation of African-American churches such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

African Christianity

Christianity first came to Egypt and North Africa during the 1st century AD and spread quickly in the areas along the Mediterranean Sea. As early as 324 AD, small kingdoms in Eastern Africa became some of the first to adopt Christianity as their official state religion, even before the Roman Empire did, and the New Testament Book of Acts records the first baptism of an Ethiopian man (Acts 8:26-27). The Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Churches are two sub-Saharan African churches that split from the Roman Catholic Church in 451 AD over theological differences and have developed separately ever since. Collectively with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (in Egypt) and several other churches, they are known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches and are still extremely active today. Between the 7th-8th centuries AD, Christianity was mostly pushed out of North Africa by the spread of Islam, though it remained strong in East Africa, but did not move much farther south or west. 

Not until the middle of the 16th century did European missionaries bring Christianity to areas like modern-day Zimbabwe, Angola, Congo, and Mozambique. The first Protestant missionaries did not reach Africa in force until the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the Baptist Missionary Society (originally and tellingly named the “Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen”) was established. The earliest recorded Protestants in Africa settled on the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, but they were there to facilitate trade between the Dutch East Indies and Europe, not as missionaries. Nevertheless, Protestantism took over much of West, South, and Central Africa, and many churches were established by Africans, which combined aspects of African indigenous religion and mythology with Christianity. Today, around 49% of people in Africa are Christian, with Africa being home to more Christians than any other continent.[2]

Religion in America

Christian religions were not the only denominations in America, however. Let’s take a moment to consider the some of the other faith traditions in U.S. history.

Christianity, Colonialism, and Indigenous Faiths

Before the arrival of European colonists, North American indigenous faiths varied widely from tribe to tribe. Each group had its own mythology, deities, spirits, and practices. Some overarching themes of indigenous North American religions were a spiritual relationship with nature and natural phenomenon, ancestor worship, and the anthropomorphization of animals and other natural features.

The first Christians to arrive in North America were Catholics who came to Florida around 1513 and began to build missions in modern-day Texas in the early-mid 1500s. By 1700, there were around 3,000 Catholics living in present-day Maryland, but their presence remained mostly confined to the Spanish and French colonies due to persecution in Protestant New England. The Catholic relationship with Native Americans was, on the surface, better than the Protestant one. The Plymouth Colony seemed initially friendly with the local tribes, forming the famous treaty with Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621.

However, the relationships between colonists and the Native Americans would not remain peaceful for long. Aside from the conflicts between different groups of colonists which involved their tribal allies, there were struggles between the Native Americans and the colonists who hoped to spread the gospel to them. In 1646, Massachusetts passed a bill called the Act for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Indians, which allowed for funds to build schools for Native American children where they would be taught English and Christianity. One Puritan missionary, the Reverend John Eliot, made an effort to learn the language of the Massachusett tribe so that he could preach to them and many Native Americans converted willingly. The colonists built “Praying Towns” to house these so-called “Praying Indians,” where they attempted to assimilate the tribespeople into White, colonist society.

Relations between colonists and the Native Americans soured in 1675 because of the Puritans’ religious conversion activities, eventually leading to King Philip’s War, after which, many Praying Towns were disbanded or placed under the control of the colonial governments. It is thought that around 80% of the Native American population of southern New England was either killed, enslaved, or driven out by King Philip’s War.[3]

Non-Christians in North America

Jews in America

In colonial America, there were very few Jewish people during the early period of immigration, which allows us to actually know many of their names and stories. The first Jewish person to arrive in the British colonies was Elias Legarde, a French Sephardi Jew who came to Virginia in 1621 as an indentured servant. In 1654, a group of 23 Sephardi Jews came to New Amsterdam (modern-day New York) from Brazil. They were originally from Portugal but had fled to the Netherlands to escape the Portuguese Inquisition, then traveled to the Dutch colonies in Brazil. However, the Portuguese-Dutch War resulted in the Portuguese conquest of Brazil, and the Jewish families were forced to flee again. They established the Congregation Shearith Israel, which still functions today as the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. The anniversary of their arrival is still celebrated by the Jewish residents of New York and was the impetus for the establishment of Jewish American Heritage Month in 2006.

Other groups of Jews settled in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, due to their policy of religious toleration. Many of them came from Germany and Poland, fleeing persecution by the encroaching Russian Empire, while Jewish immigrants to the southern colonies came primarily from Spain and Portugal, where they had been subject to persecution by Catholics for centuries. Several Jews have been named as being involved in the American Revolution, such as Haym Solomon, who provided most of the financial backing for the Continental Army, Francis Salvador, who was the first Jewish person to die defending American independence, and David Franks, who was a loyal Continental soldier but was unfortunately assigned as the aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold. Despite his innocence, Franks’ affiliation with Arnold, who betrayed the colonies during the war, tarnished his reputation.

American Jews spread out across the nation as it expanded, with a large influx of immigrants coming from Russia in the 19th century. Jewish groups from Germany (Ashkenazi Jews) also established a large presence in the U.S. and split into two of the major branches of Judaism: Reform and Conservative (with the third main branch being Orthodox).

Muslims in America

Portrait of Yarrow Mamout.

Figure 3. 1819 portrait of Yarrow Mamout by Wilson Peale.

Almost all of the earliest Muslims in the North American British colonies were enslaved Africans. The 1682 Virginia Slave Act specifically mentions “moores” (the Moorish people of Spain were usually African Muslims) and “others borne of mohametan [Mohammed] parentage.”[4] One estimate puts the number of enslaved African Muslims brought to America at around 10-20% of the total number of enslaved Africans, while others place it as high as 30%. The best surviving record we have of these Muslims is the autobiography of Omar ibn Said, a Senegalese scholar who was enslaved and taken to the U.S. around 1807. Said wrote several works on history and theology while he was enslaved, and also wrote down his own life story in Arabic, which is the only known slave narrative written in Arabic by a Muslim. It is available through the Library of Congress along with several of his other manuscripts.

A man named Yarrow Mamout (or Mohammed Yaro) was an African Muslim man who was forcibly brought to the U.S. around 1752. In 1796, when he was sixty years old, Mamout was freed and given a small sum of money by his former captor’s wife. He purchased the freedom of his young son and bought land in Washington D.C. where he worked as a brickmaker, bought stocks in a bank, and befriended many of the local White businessmen. Two artists heard about Mamout and were told that he was 140 years old, so they both decided to paint his portrait. Mamout became one of only three people who came to the U.S. on a slave ship to have his portrait painted.

There is also evidence of Muslim immigration from places like Turkey, Syria, and Morocco. Many of the Founding Fathers had favorable views toward Muslim countries and immigrants, particularly since the first nation to recognize the U.S. as an independent nation was the Islamic Sultanate of Morocco.

Buddhist Immigration

When Chinese immigrants began coming to the U.S. in large numbers around 1849, many of them brought Buddhist practices and beliefs with them. The first American Buddhist Temple was built in San Franciso around 1853, and by 1900 there were over 400 Chinese temples on the West Coast alone. In 1882, Chinese immigration was nearly halted by the Chinese Exclusion Act, but Japanese and Korean Buddhists became moving to Hawaii between 1882-1903. In 1896, Japanese Buddhists built the first temple in Hawaii, and by 1899 Japanese Buddhism had made it to the mainland U.S., along with the first two Buddhist missionaries, Shuye Sonoda and Kakuryo Nishimjima.


Calvinism: a Protestant religious theology named after John Calvin that empahsizes justification by faith alone and predestination. The Puritans and Congregationalists practice Calvinism.

circuit riders: traveling preachers who would set up outdoor revivals and worship services, preaching to large crowds using passionate and fiery rhetoric with the goal of baptizing as many new converts as possible before moving on to the next location

Evangelicalism: movement within Protestant Christianity that focuses on the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through Jesus’s atonement, being “born again”, the validity of the Bible, and missionary work.

Methodism: Protestant religion gaining popularity during the Second Great Awakening, based on beliefs from the life and teachings of John Wesley; focus on santification and that salvation is available to all

millennialism: the belief that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth and that God would reign on earth for a thousand years characterized by harmony and Christian morality

predestination: Calvinist view that God selected only a chosen few for salvation

  1. Specifically Psalm 78:51; 105:23,27; 106:22 and 1 Chronicles 4:40.
  2. Johnson, Todd M., Gina A. Zurlo, Albert W. Hickman, and Peter F. Crossing. “Christianity 2018: More African Christians and Counting Martyrs.” International Bulletin of Mission Research 42, no. 1 (January 2018): 20–28.
  3. Philbrick, Nathaniel (2006). Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War ( New York: Penguin Group), 332.
  4. “An act to repeale a former law makeing Indians and others ffree,” Virginia General Assembly, 1682,