Religion in America: Traditional Christianity vs. Its Alternatives

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

John Fitch, the republican inventor, thought that a revolution in religion was the need of the hour and thus organized the Society of Deist Natural Philosophers in 1790. With the rise of the Diests, the people of America found an alternative to traditional Christianity. Were there other alternatives or did traditional Christianity find its way back in America?

Holy Bible and the American flag.
In the wake of Enlightenment and the ideology of republicanism, some alternatives appeared to displace the traditional Christianity in the American society. (Image: W. Scott McGill/Shutterstock)

The Masons, Deists, and Unitarians saw themselves as the wave of the future in America. As he surveyed the scene in 1822, Thomas Jefferson fully expected that every young man then alive would die a Unitarian. But was it to be?

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Alternatives to Christianity

Unitarianism, unlike the Deists, rejected neither the Bible nor Christianity, but it did insist that reason required that enlightened Americans reject the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the particular Calvinistic idea of predestination. The Boston Unitarian Charles Chauncy made a strong link between Unitarianism and Enlightenment—faith in human reason. The Unitarians, however, were never a particularly popular movement, and so the Unitarians never really developed a serious following outside the environs of Boston.

Freemasonry had its origins in the particular hunger of the Enlightenment for a religious ritualism that could be squared with the glorification of reason. Although Freemasonry developed out of the fraternities and gilds and lodges of Scottish and English stonemasons in the 1600s, by 1717 it had become a secretive order for the wealthy and aristocratic English-speaking male elites. It developed rituals and a kind of quasi theology that allowed it to offer upper class Anglo-Americans a fashionable and restrictive version of republican religion.

The Making of Christian America

Instead of traditional Christian denominations fading into a Unitarian future, they embarked on a voyage of aggressive expansion and empire building.

Rosary beads and crucifix cross on Holy Bible background.
Traditional Christian denominations did not fade in America after the rise of the alternative religious philosophies. (Image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock)

The Congregationalists jumped off from the 750 congregations in New England that they had in 1780 to 2,200 by 1860. The Presbyterians, who counted about 500 congregations in 1780, counted 6,400 in 1860. The Roman Catholics, who’d organized only about 50 congregations and missions by 1780, had grown to 2,500 congregations by 1860.

Between 1780 and 1820, American religious denominations built 10,000 new churches, and by 1860 they had quadrupled that number. How did this happen? Three factors seemed to have created a Christian America.

Learn more about the American Revolution.

The Resiliency of Revival and the Spread of Christianity

The Great Awakening was mostly over by the mid 1740s, but the writings of Jonathan Edwards, especially his trines on the religious affections and his addition of the journal of the famous missionary David Brainerd taught their readers what to look for, and what to work after in order to promote still further revivals of religion like the Awakening.

Through the influence of these books, the Great Awakening became the model for creating American Christian churches and institutions, while the radical self-denying evangelical Calvinism of Edwards and Brainerd became the baseline for measuring personal Christian experience.

Therefore, when a second Great Awakening broke out between 1800 and 1825, it couldn’t be contained just to New England. Revival preachers and revival converts followed the out-migration of New Englanders to New York and the old western reserve of Ohio. There, little colonies of revivalisms sprang up accompanied and frequently marked by new evangelical colleges like Oberlin Illinois College, Union College, Knox College, Wheaton, and Canyon.

Learn more about the Republicans and Federalists.

The Absorption of Virtue and Christianity

Not every Christian and not even every Calvinist was enamored of revival. In the old Presbyterian churches of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, conservative Scots Irish Ministers looked almost as dimly at Edward’s revivalism as they looked at Jefferson’s republicanism. The Scots Irish ministers criticized the weakest link in the republican ideology– that of virtue.

Every good republican knew that republics depended for their existence solely on the virtue, the disinterested benevolence, the self sacrifice of their people; that was what held a republic together. Where was virtue to come from, then?

John Witherspoon and Samuel Stanhope Smith, the two successive Presbyterian Presidents of Princeton College before and after the American Revolution believed that “Only religion can guarantee virtue.” Therefore, the promotion of Christianity was a perquisite to keeping the American Republic virtuous and prosperous, in fact to keeping it a republic at all.

Learn more about the Great Awakening.

Millennialism: The Optimism of Christianity

Millennialism was the most inventive way in which American Christians turned republicanism to their own ends because they co-opted under the rubric of millennialism, not just the notion of virtue, but the entire optimism of the republican project.

Jefferson, Madison, and Paine, however, had reckoned without the fact that the Calvinism, that the Puritans had brought to America in the 1600s, had its own brand of optimism. The Puritans believed in the Biblical promise of a coming millennium, a thousand years of universal peace and harmony, which would begin on earth with the Day of Judgment.

What all this excitement had in common was the gradual replacement within the framework of the republic in ideology of Jefferson’s secular optimism with Jonathan Edward’s millennial optimism. Millennial optimism challenged and eventually overwhelmed the more paltry secular optimism of republicanism.

The results of the second Great Awakening and of the co-optation of virtue and optimism paved the way in 1835 for Alexis de Tocqueville to remark, “there is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”

Common Questions about Religion in America: Traditional Christianity vs. Its Alternatives

Q: What were the views of the Unitarians about Christianity?

The Unitarians did not reject the Bible or Christianity. They said that the enlightened Americans should reject the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the particular Calvinistic idea of predestination.

Q: Did the traditional Christian denominations fade in America?

Instead of traditional Christian denominations fading into a Unitarian future, they embarked on a voyage of aggressive expansion and empire building.

Q: What was the Biblical promise that the Puritans had brought to America in 1660s?

The Puritans believed in the Biblical promise of a coming millennium, a thousand years of universal peace and harmony which would begin on earth with the Day of Judgment.

Keep Reading
The Main Causes Contributing to the Spread of Christianity
The Arrival of Christianity in Ireland: The Romans and Saint Patrick
Constantine I: Contributions to Christianity and Other Accomplishments