How has Christianity in America fared since the colonial period? (Answer according to your first impression.)

America has steadily become more Christian
0% (0 votes)
America has steadily become less Christian
82% (14 votes)
American Christianity has remained proportionately stable
0% (0 votes)
American Christianity is an erratic graph with no discernible trend
12% (2 votes)
Other
6% (1 vote)
Total votes: 17
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There are 14 Comments

Charlie's picture

I'd appreciate if respondents would delay written comments for a few days, so that people won't be influenced by them.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Charlie's picture

Just curious why this isn't showing up in the foundry as the latest poll. Does it only update once a day or something like that?

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Charlie's picture

Thanks for waiting, but now I'm quite interested to know why you picked your answer. Share if you would like.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I went with "steadily less Christian" because it was closest to how I see it at present.
Seems to me it has not quite been steady but the pattern has been decreasing Christianess. If I could graph it, I'd have a few places where the trend reversed briefly, and starting in the 50's or 60's I'd show the tend accelerating rapidly.

wkessel1's picture

I picked the steady decline because of the way our society is today compared with Colonial days. It seems that in the past even if someone wasn't a Christian there was at least an appearance of respect for God and Christianity. Almost anyone you talked to knew at least who Jesus Christ was and the stories of the Bible. However, today there are more and more people who have no concept of Christianity or who God is or even Jesus Christ for that matter. I think Christianity had more of an influence on the public sector (for example the public schools) in the past; where today the goal is to remove it from any public influence.

Charlie's picture

I asked this question after perusing the quantitative data in Finke's and Stark's The Churching of America. They show that the percent of Americans who actually participate in Christian worship has steadily increased since the founding of America. I don't have the book right in front of me now (out of state), but I remember it goes something like this:

In the colonial period, only about 17-22% of Americans were members of a Christian church. By the Civil War, that number had risen to around 37%. It dipped a bit in the War, but recovered quickly, breaking the 50% mark in the twentieth century. There was a small but steady rise throughout the 20th century, hitting 60% in 1980 and remaining pretty consistent since then.

Part of the reason for this is the frontier nature of America. Frontiers always have a higher proportion of irreligious persons and unattached singles. Also, churches, especially established denominations, take time to penetrate new areas. This drags down the percentage. I was surprised, though, by their research into Congregational New England. They assert that although the culture was controlled by a highly religious minority, the majority of citizens were not attached to a Christian church and did not attend worship. Of course, in the colonial era, New England was frontier-like, so the prior sociological analysis accounts for some of that.

Of course, there is more than one way to interpret "How has Christianity fared," but the quantitative data suggests that, at the very least, much more of the population is "churched" now than used to be.

Knowing this data (and assuming its accuracy), would anyone change his vote?

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I find the data hard to believe. Considering where everyone in colonies came from, especially. So nations where church attendance was extremely high sent colonists who suddenly quit going to church when they arrived?
I'd need to read all the details of how the data was gathered to form an opinion on that, but I'm skeptical.

GregH's picture

That is my understanding as well Charlie. When people talk about America being a Christian nation, I wonder where they are coming from. Some Christian values were more prevalent back then and have diminished. Some values have thankfully improved over time (such as views on slavery and women). Regarding the number of actual Christians, I can't say, but church involvment almost certainly has to be higher today if for no other reason than the reasons you mentioned. In general, people were working harder for survival and church attendence might have been a luxury or not even a possibility in some regions.

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

I also find the data hard to believe.
-- Many colonies required church membership for voting privileges.
-- Most taxed to pay for their state approved church.
-- Dissenters were usually banned from the community.
-- Much of the colonial development was done specifically for religious reasons.
I find it impossible to believe that only 20% (or less) of the population was churched unless someone is playing with statistics to make a point.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Charlie's picture

Most of the early immigrants did not come for religious reasons. Only the famous ones. In fact, one of America's major imports during its first hundred years was banished prisoners from Britain. Lots of criminals. Beyond that, most immigrants were unattached, single men seeking their fortune or running away from marriages. Lots of people who aren't very "churchy."

I've seen the methodology behind their statistics, and it seems sound. Of course, I'm not a statistician, so, that may not be worth much. After an admittedly brief search, I'm not aware that their statistics are being contested. For the most part, they relied on the public records of the church rolls matched against town records. Certain historians will give you much higher numbers, but they're basically counting the whole town population and subtracting a supposedly reasonable number of dissenters, very much like Catholics counting Latin Americans. BTW, as far as I am aware, most social historians believe that church attendance is much higher now than it was 200 years ago.

One of their points is that the colonial New England that we imagine - pilgrims and puritans - is the New England of a quantitatively small but culturally dominant group. They were the writers, educators, and culture-producers, so they have are enormously over-represented (quantitatively). We forget how worldly many people were, because most of those people did not perpetuate culture. Ben Franklin, however, bragged about his adventures with prostitutes and mistresses.

Here is a link to Finke's and Stark's paper detailing their methodology for constructing 19th century church attendance statistics. From what I remember, a similar method was used for their work on the colonial period: http://www.scribd.com/doc/20401270/Stark-and-Finke-Turning-Pews-Into-Peo...

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Pastor Harold's picture

I can not say if they believed the Bible or not, but they read it. In school and at home, it was the most prominent book in that era, and every man had access to.
I don't think we can say that about "church members" and their Bibles today.

Charlie's picture

Did they really read them (I think so), and if so, for religious purposes (not sure here)?

Since ancient times, historians have focused overwhelmingly on exceptional individuals and the ruling class. That was deliberate; they didn't find ordinary life noteworthy. In the last few decades, though, historians have made concerted efforts to uncover what life was like for regular people.

Religion is one area in which you cannot project the beliefs and practices of the rulers and culture-producers onto the majority population. For example, in, say, 11th century Europe, everyone was Catholic, right? Sort of. There were plenty of "heretics." There were far more people who probably were Catholic but their vision of Christianity was strongly influenced by local pagan superstitions and rituals. There were a lot of people who were "Catholic" but never went to church or partook of the sacraments. In fact, religious adherence among many was so nominal that the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) mandated that all Catholics must go to confession and take communion at least once per year. Now, that's commitment.

In essence, this is what Finke and Stark are saying. You can't uncritically project the beliefs of the pastors onto the townspeople. There are at least 2 well-known occurrences in American history that lend credence to this idea. First, remember the halfway covenant. There were enough lapsed Christians that wanted their children baptized that many churches felt pressured into accommodating them. Enough indeed that Jonathan Edwards, a celebrity in his own day, got booted out for reasserting the traditional paedobaptist doctrine.

Second, there is the explosive growth of Methodists and Baptists after the Revolution. Where did all these people come from? Well, some left the Congregational and Anglican churches, but most were unreached converts. There must have been a lot of unreached people to account for that growth.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I didn't mean to suggest the old "they came for religious reasons" idea. Rather, they came from places where everybody was religious in some Christianish way.
If were going to debunk the stats, where I'd look is for % of religious population in the origin countries. It would be a big indicator of some kind of miscalculation if you suddenly have a much smaller % in the colonies than you did in the source countries. Did gobs of them lose their faith on the ship en route? (That actually might not be so hard to believe... but it seems more likely that they'd get more religious just trying to survive the trip!)

Charlie's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
I didn't mean to suggest the old "they came for religious reasons" idea. Rather, they came from places where everybody was religious in some Christianish way.
If were going to debunk the stats, where I'd look is for % of religious population in the origin countries. It would be a big indicator of some kind of miscalculation if you suddenly have a much smaller % in the colonies than you did in the source countries. Did gobs of them lose their faith on the ship en route? (That actually might not be so hard to believe... but it seems more likely that they'd get more religious just trying to survive the trip!)

I do think that comparing the statistics would be useful, but I'd also expect them to be noticeably lower. That's one of the major contributions of their work. They show consistently over 2 centuries how frontier regions have significantly lower levels of religious participation. New England was mostly frontier, then over time the rates go up. You get new frontiers, though, which keep dragging down the national rate. We forget how frontier/rural America was. On the eve of the Civil War, America was still at the agricultural level that England was in 1688, two centuries earlier.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin