|Title||Historical Background on Religious Denominations in Early 19th-Century New England|
|Type||Papers and Articles: Historical Notes|
A synopsis of religious denominations in New England during the early 19th century.
PROTESTANTISM. The vast movement of Christians, primarily in western and northern Europe, who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church between the 15th and the 17th centuries. They “protested” and sought to reform or destroy what they saw as the faults, sins and errors—in doctrine, worship and behavior—of the Roman Catholic Church and its leaders. They believed that they were returning to the pure church of Jesus and the Apostles; Catholic believers saw them as heretics who were rejecting the Church established by Christ and guided by God throughout its history. The Protestant Reformation was an enormous social and religious convulsion. It resulted not only in strife about beliefs and organizational power, but decades of wars, inquisitions and executions in which hundreds of thousands died.
VARIETIES OF PROTESTANTISM. This is a brief guide to those varieties of Protestant beliefs and organizations that played a crucial role in New England history. Great Britain was a Protestant kingdom at the time of New England’s settlement, and Catholics were virtually unknown in New England until the end of the 18th century.
CHURCH OF ENGLAND (also called Anglican, and in the U. S., Episcopal) evolved in the 1500s at the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as a conservative and cautious severance from the Roman Catholic Church. Anglicans retained the seven sacraments, most of the doctrines, and the clerical and administrative structure of the medieval church, but severed relations with Rome and translated the worship service and the Bible into English. Within the Anglican church, there was debate between those who wanted to go further in reform and those who preferred an English version of Roman Catholicism. Powerful in England, the Anglicans were in a small minority in New England, where Puritan “dissenters” from the established church were in control. In the mid 1830s, about thirty Episcopal churches were scattered through Massachusetts, with about forty in Connecticut.
REFORMED OR CALVINIST CHURCHES (“Puritans” in England and New England; Presbyterians in Scotland and U.S., Reformed in Switzerland and Germany.) Followers of the theological system of John Calvin (1509 – 1564) and other radical reformers, which included the doctrine of predestination, banishment of religious symbols, suppression of religious holy days, and retention of only two sacraments (baptism and communion).
THE CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH evolved out of the New England and British Puritans. So-named because each congregation governed itself, with relatively little reference to a regional organization. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was effectively the state church in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire, with its ministers supported by local taxation. In the early 19th century, the tax system gradually disappeared, ending in Connecticut in 1818 and in Massachusetts in 1833, the last of all the American states to abandon this system. Pure Calvinism as a system of belief began to diminish during the later part of the 18th century and continued to attenuate in the early 19th century. With the exception of Rhode Island, one or more Congregational Societies could be found in virtually every town in New England during the 1790 – 1840 period.
NEW ENGLAND BAPTISTS in most instances evolved out of the Congregational churches during early 18th century, particularly the “First Great Awakening” of the 1740s. They were Calvinist in doctrine, but opposed infant baptism, believing that only adult baptism by complete immersion was sanctioned by the Bible. (Most New England and American Baptists were Calvinists, but there were also Free Will Baptists, who rejected predestination.) They also had a congregational form of government, virtually identical with that of the original Puritan churches. By the mid 1800s, there were Baptist Societies organized in many towns throughout Massachusetts, and they were the largest denomination in Rhode Island.
LIBERAL CONGREGATIONALISTS evolved away from traditional “orthodox.” Puritanism during and after the First Great Awakening of the 1740s. They moved away from predestination and an insistence on a powerful, visible “conversion experience” to join the church; some also began to challenge the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. By the 1810s and 1820s, liberal Congregationalists were beginning to identify themselves as Unitarians and separate from the Orthodox or Evangelical Congregationalists.
UNITARIANS denied the divinity of Jesus (denied the legitimacy of Trinitarian doctrine). They accepted Jesus as a prophet or teacher whose example was worthy of study and emulation as mankind sought to improve himself and his world. They rejected the sudden and emotional conversion experience as a sign of church membership in favor of the individual’s gradual growth in Christian belief and morals. Strongest in Boston and other coastal cities, and also in towns in eastern Massachusetts, the Unitarians tended to be better-educated, more prosperous, and, often, more politically conservative than the Orthodox.
UNIVERSALISM was a more rural denomination, who owed their beliefs and organization to the English preacher John Murray who founded their first church in New England in 1780. Universalists believed that human beings were not irredeemably sinful and that ultimately, salvation would come to all men, through a benevolent God. They were often Unitarian in doctrine as well. They drew their members from less-educated, rural and mill town populations. About a third of the Massachusetts towns from Worcester County eastward had Universalist societies. There were far fewer in western Massachusetts, but numerous in Vermont and Maine. Later in the 19th century the Unitarians and Universalists drew together, as Unitarians came to accept universal salvation.
METHODISM evolved out of the Church of England in the 18th century, but spread through New England mostly after the Revolution. Methodists were “pietists”— that is, they sought to maintain a fervent piety in their personal lives through constant or “methodical” attention to their spiritual lives. Frequent revival meetings, sometimes outdoor “camp meetings” with large number of participants, were becoming an important means of promulgating and sustaining their denomination. Methodists were not Calvinists—they were “Arminians” who believed that human beings could assent to God’s salvation through their own free will, and that no one was predestined to damnation. Methodists in New England tended to be relatively poor—laborers, small farmers and artisans, mill workers. Though they had organized societies throughout Massachusetts by the mid 1830s, they often lacked the money to construct a meetinghouse or pay a minister. Monthly services in schoolhouses conducted by an itinerant minister were familiar features of Methodist worship.
OTHER GROUPS: By the 1830s nineteen Quaker meetings, eight Roman Catholic churches, three Shaker villages and assorted small sects existed in Massachusetts. In Newport, Rhode Island, there was a small Jewish community.
A TYPICAL RURAL MASSACHUSETTS TOWN in the 1830s had three to five religious societies organized and meeting for worship. The larger denominations had meetinghouses suited to the needs and doctrines of their denomination, and employed full-time resident ministers. The smaller ones met in private houses, schoolhouses, or borrowed spaces, and often shared an itinerant minister with several other towns. Most rural towns had at least a Congregational and a Baptist meetinghouse and a minister for each.
For more information on the role of religion in early 19th-century New England, see “Historical Background on the Role of Religion in Early 19th-Century New England” found in Teacher Resources section of Lesson 7, “Family Values, Beliefs, Stories and Traditions.”