The Promised Land: The Role of Religion in the Creation and Evolution of North America


Colonial Puritans

Historically religion has been one of the defining characteristics of human society, one which influences the structure and development of said societies, often by providing the necessary catalyst for change, but also the moral justifications for the maintenance of the status quo. North American societies are characterized by their longstanding association with organized religion, a relationship due in part to the ecclesiastical overtures of the first explorers and colonists who ventured to the New World. This legacy of religiosity brought to North America by the European colonists and immigrants during the 16th to 18th centuries, in turn helped shape the structure and history of Canada and America.

The trappings of human civilization invariably accompany any migration or exodus, with the colonization of North America being no exception. The transplantation of religious policies and authority from Europe to the New World helped lay the groundwork for the development of distinct North American societies. In the case of France and Spain religious authorities were part of the established order and in turn attempted to recreate a new society in the image of their respective home nations. In contrast the British colonies in what would become the United States where founded by religious groups with novel or radical ideas and who attempted new experiments in living, which in turn established religion as an agent for self-determination and individual liberty.

French Catholic missionaries in Canada were sponsored by the state with strong religious connections, and therefore as political power was exerted over the newly colonized lands, religious power and authority invariably followed. Both nations undertook efforts to convert the native populations, in order to instil a highly effective means of social control and to ensure an ecclesiastical monopoly in the New World. During the first half of the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries in Canada were highly motivated due to the very high levels of religiosity in France due to the Counter-Reformation.

British colonies in North America on the other hand, were heavily influenced by Protestantism, particularly Puritanism. The Puritans opposed the Church of England, accusing it of retaining too many vestiges of Catholicism, and subsequently wanted to establish a new and pure form of Christianity. Faced with isolation and religious persecution at home, Puritans immigrated to the New World in 1620 and 1630, establishing settlements such as the famous colony at Plymouth. Religious groups in the United States also played a key role in the success of the American Revolution, and rather paradoxically the adoption of a secular government and the separation of church and state.

American Protestant groups were highly active during the 1760s and 1770s, and played a key role in galvanising public support in favour of separation from Britain. Religious backing of the American Revolution and the Enlightenment principles which were enshrined in it, seems at first paradoxical, for secularism is a key theme in US legislative documents such as the Bill of Rights. The influence of secularism on the Founding Fathers is evident in the wording of the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797, penned by George Washington  and signed under John Adams, which states that “…the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” The opposition in Revolutionary America concerning the religious establishment was not as some might infer opposition to the notion of religion per se, but rather the opposition directed at the Anglican Church during this period was because the Church was a facet of British control in the colonies – an institution which had the king as its head. In contrast to the republican revolutions in countries like France which attempted to remove religion as a part of the old regime, the leading advocates for a strong disestablishment of religion in the United States were religious groups.

This ecclesiastical support was based on the hopes that the separation of church and state would prevent government intervention in religious matters, with evangelical groups viewing it as “not a secularization of the public sphere but independence and autonomy of the religious sphere.” This support can be witnessed by the fact that the driving force behind the adoption of the First Amendment was Baptist support for James Madison, who had publically supported a religious freedom amendment, thereby garnering him Baptist support and facilitating his election to Congress. Madison subsequently spent the majority of his first term in Congress drafting the Bill of Rights.

Common Sense: Thomas Paine

Religion also played an important role in the works of Thomas Paine, who despite being a deist and stating that all religions were “set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit,” used religious arguments in defending the Revolutionary cause. In his work ‘Common Sense’, published in 1776, Paine uses the account of the Hebraic Republic in the Bible to argue that monarchy was “a form of government that the word of God bears witness against.” in an effort to consol a nation troubled by the notion of a kingless government. Paine was instrumental in eliminating any lingering remnants of monarchism amongst the patriot leadership.

Religion continued to play a major role in the development of US society following the War of Independence, with many social movements using religion to generate public support. Almost all social movements in the United States have had religious underpinnings, for example the abolitionist movement whose origin coincided roughly with the Second Great Awakening in the United States from 1790-1840. Religion was also used by supporters of the Temperance Movement, who opposed the sinful activities of drinking and gambling as well as preached total abstinence, and campaigned for a less corrupt America during most of 19th century.

Religion also heavily influenced the foreign policy of the United States, with strong ecclesiastical opposition being one of the main causes for the rejection of the League of Nations and internationalism in general during the 1920s. Woodrow Wilson faced stiff religious opposition with Evangelicals stating that the work of Christ as the only way for global salvation, Lutherans claiming that no political system could replace the power of faith, and Dispensationalists claiming that international organizations foreshadowed the coming of the Anti-Christ. Religion continued to play a leading role in American social movements during the 20th century, namely prohibition, the civil rights movement, anti-war and anti-abortion movements, and currently features heavily in the rhetoric of opposition leaders in the gay marriage and stem cell research debates.

Religious influences also affected the process of Canadian Confederation, with the support and lobbying of Catholics helping to facilitate the creation of Canada in 1867.  Following the defeat of the French on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, French Catholics in the new British colony were plagued with a sense of humiliation and worried about the future of their distinct culture, for they now found themselves in an empire which was dominated by Anglo-Saxon English speakers. Guarantees concerning the independence and continued survival of French-Canadian culture and Catholicism were formalised in the Quebec Act of 1774, which guaranteed religious freedom for Catholics, something which was not fully realised in Britain until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.

By the 1860s the immediate effects of the British conquest were beginning to wane, due in part to the benefits reaped by French-Canadians from the liberalism which characterised the Second British Empire. This liberalism in turn led to favourable policies, resulting in a reduction in radical and republican thinking as the Church slowly replaced the bourgeoisie as the helmsman of Quebecois moral and political leadership. This change led to the rise of George-Etienne Cartier, D’Arcy McGee and Archbishop Thomas Louis Connolly, who led Roman Catholics from both lay and clerical spheres in acceptance of Confederation.  They viewed Confederation as both a political solution and a sound protection for the rights and future of the Catholic Church, campaigning strongly in order to achieve their goals, with historian Mason Wade stating that “Confederation owed more to him [G.E. Cartier] than any other single man.”

Following Confederation religion continued to play a critical role in defining Canadian identity. Edmund Oliver’s seminal work ‘Winning the Frontier’, explored the religious undertones which were inherent in the self-image of Canadians during the late 19th and early 20th century. The ‘frontier’ is a common theme in Canadian history, with many parallels to the American notion of Manifest Destiny, yet has also played an important role in shaping the Protestant Canadian churches. The social development of Canada is characterised by successive frontier religious movements which challenge the major denominations, and Canada has therefore retained Churchism, namely strict adherence to the forms / principles of a religious organisation. In order to preserve itself Canada preserved Churchism for “whenever military, economic, political or cultural absorption by the United States threatened as in 1776, 1812, 1837, 1911 or even 1957, Canada has turned to its counter-revolutionary tradition for inspiration – and ecclesiasticism is a traditional part of that tradition.”

Canadian Christianity contrasts sharply with American Christianity (characterized by denominationalism), for Canada has witnessed a long line of church unions, culminating in the creation of the United Church of Canada in 1925. Canada and America do share the effects of the so called Protestant work ethic, which encourages investment in business and is seen as instrumental in the emergence of capitalism. The effects of Calvinism are tempered somewhat by the influence of the Catholic Church in Canada which places financial activities low in its hierarchy of actions, although the Catholic Church did help French-Canadians by the creating ‘caisses populaires’, collective capital pools to foster local business. Additionally the development of Canadian socialism and public health care is in part due to the influence of Canadian Methodists, whose heritage of a social gospel tradition offered a second counterbalance to the Protestant work ethic in Canadian culture.

The role of religion in determining the fate of North America has been a pervasive one, for religion helped bring about the creation of the modern nation-states that currently occupy the continent. Religion has also been a guiding force in the development of each nation, offering moral support and justification to many different causes. Religion has long been an integral facet of North American society, and has greatly influenced how the economies, government and culture of Canada and America have developed through the ages.

J.D. Luedi is a listener from Switzerland and contributing writer for Stimulatedboredom.com

  • http://www.stimulatedboredom.com Dana: Stimulated Boredom

    Exceptional article, J.D. I appreciate the objective / historical take on the role that religion played in the creation of North America…regardless of where you come down on the subject of organized religion.

    As it relates to the First Amendment – a topic of which I have a special affinity for due to the nature of my show – is that our Founding Fathers, in ensuring (and guaranteeing) Freedom of Religion and that you are free to worship as you please, came up with the ingenious and oft-forgotten solution that there is and can be NO national religion. Not to open Pandora’s Box, but I am always perturbed by those who proclaim Christianity as a founding principle of our creation as a nation.

    “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” – John Adams, 1797

    “I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.” – Thomas Jefferson

    “Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies.” – Thomas Jefferson

    “Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites.” – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia

    What historically naïve people conveniently seem to forget is that many of the early settlers in this country, did so to escape the religious persecution of the Church of England. They came to the New World to practice religion freely and as they saw fit. Some came here to follow stricter religious dogma, others to escape it’s influence altogether. What followed over time was a sea of immigration to America in which, regardless of where you came from and what your beliefs were, you would find the freedom to practice it here.

    No doubt that religion has influenced our growth and evolution as a nation, however one person’s faith (and particular religious tenants) do not take priority over those of another.

    Thoroughly enjoyable and well thought out article, thanks J.D!