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History of Religion in the United States, Religion in a Secular State

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Millerites, Madame Blavatsky, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Elijah Muhammad

During the American Revolution, most state constitutions provided for freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state. The absence of those same rights in the Constitution of the United States, drawn up in 1787, caused many to vote against ratifying it. The first Congress of the United States, therefore, called for certain amendments to the Constitution; these amendments became the Bill of Rights. The first right granted in the Constitution guaranteed separation of church and state on the national level and the free exercise of religious beliefs. The authors of the Constitution provided for a secular state, one based not on religion but on toleration and liberty of conscience. Influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment that promoted individualism, liberty, and free inquiry, as well as by the examples set by the middle colonies, the Founding Fathers committed the nation to protecting minority viewpoints and beliefs.

The atmosphere of free inquiry in the United States allowed new religions to develop. In the wake of the Revolution, American Anglicans broke with the Church of England and founded the Episcopal Church. American Roman Catholics also broke from the control of the vicar apostolic in London, and in 1789 Baltimore became the first diocese in the United States. American Unitarians and Universalists also had their origins in the 18th century, but did not develop denominational structures until the 19th century.

A Second Great Awakening began in New York in the early 1800s and spread north, south, and west before disappearing in the 1840s. Tent meetings that were a part of this revival movement brought together spellbinding preachers and large audiences, who camped for several days to immerse themselves in the heady atmosphere of religion. The movement merged democratic idealism with evangelical Christianity, arguing that America was in need of moral regeneration by dedicated Christians. The men and the large number of women who were attracted to this movement channeled their fervor into a series of reforms designed to eliminate evils in American society, particularly in the industrializing North. These reforms included women’s rights, temperance, educational improvements, humane treatment for the mentally ill, and the abolition of slavery. The growth of an abolitionist movement in the North was one factor leading to the Civil War. Just before the Civil War, many of the denominations in the United States split over the issue of slavery, with Southern congregations supporting slavery and Northern congregations opposing it.

African Americans, finding that segregation and race hatred prevailed among Methodists, formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City early in the 19th century. Both churches established branches throughout the North. Separate African Episcopal, Lutheran, and Baptist churches soon followed.

The United States has been the birthplace of a number of new Christian sects. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, organized in 1830 by Mormon religious leader Joseph Smith, has been successful in creating a lasting denominational presence and in influencing the development of the state of Utah. Others, such as the Millerites, who predicted the end of the world in 1844, have not lasted. Some of Miller’s former followers reinterpreted his doctrines and established the Seventh-day Adventist faith in the mid-19th century. In 1879, Mary Baker Eddy founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, and soon had congregations throughout the country. In the early 20th century, the Pentecostal movement developed. It is a localized, stricter fundamentalist faith that grew out of Baptist and Methodist churches, and is often organized around a charismatic preacher. Americans seeking solutions to spiritual problems have created smaller denominations.

Not all new religions were Christian. The major branches of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox—developed in the United States in the late 19th and 20th centuries in response to the social and political conditions that Jews faced in America. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, known as Madame Blavatsky, help found a spiritualist group in the 1870s called the Theosophical Society. The Nation of Islam, a black Muslim group, was founded in the 1930s in reaction to perceived lingering prejudices of Christianity, and was led for more than 40 years by Elijah Muhammad. It became a political force in the 1960s, rejecting the passive resistance strategy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and advocating a more aggressive assertion of African American equality that did not rule out violence.

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