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Religion in the Colonies, Middle Colonies

religious revivals, town voting, traditional authority, Moravians, revivalists

The first Europeans to settle in the middle colonies (Delaware, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) during the 17th century were Dutch and Swedish Lutherans. Quaker William Penn provided for full religious freedom in Pennsylvania after he was granted a colony there in 1681, although Catholics and Jews could not vote. Calvinists, Jews, Moravians, German Lutherans, and Roman Catholics quickly followed the Quakers to Pennsylvania because of its religious freedom. New York provided for locally established churches, with each town voting on which church its tax money would support. There was limited religious freedom in New Jersey.

The wider toleration in the middle colonies promoted the free expression of a variety of religious and nonreligious beliefs and practices, a social order thought to be impossible among Europeans who were used to centuries of religious warfare. This toleration encouraged both ethnic and religious diversity. These colonies provided a model for the later religious tradition of the United States—a slow realization that the freedom to express one’s own faith depended on granting that same liberty to others.

Freedom of religion helped produce religious revivals that transformed the American religious landscape. The First Great Awakening began among the Presbyterians in New Jersey and western Massachusetts, and with the newer denominations of Baptists and Methodists in the 1730s. This period of heightened concern with salvation lasted until the eve of the American Revolution in the 1760s. In individual congregations, in colleges, and in mass outdoor meetings, revivalists preached that all could be born again and saved, and that anyone could preach, not just an educated elite. The Great Awakening was instrumental in converting slaves as well as free people.

The Great Awakening set the stage for the American Revolution by undermining faith in traditional authority, particularly the authority of the Church of England and the king, who was head of the church. In the early days of the movement, working men, women, and African Americans took prominent roles as Bible teachers and prayer group leaders. Working men, in particular, acquired leadership experience that propelled them into political roles during and after the American Revolution.

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