Church in the Colonies

The big news in American religion is still the “rise of the nones,” and it’s got some people in a huff. A few people are bemoaning the decline in Christian America. However, over at Ponderings on a Faith Journey there’s a piece by Martin Marty on the history of church affiliation in the US dating back to the colonies. Here’s the core of it:

So how were things in the good old days? A consensus questioned by a few serious scholars—Patricia Bonomi among them—is that fewer than 20 percent of the colonial citizens were active in churches. Change came after 1776, so that, in one common estimate, church participation jumped from 17 percent to 34 percent between 1776 and 1850. A better past, more illuminating for comparison in present concerns, is between the early 1960s, when participation crested, and today.

Basically, before the Second Great Awakening, the majority of Americans were unchurched. At worst, maybe the current trend just means that we’re headed back to the status quo of the 18th century.

Of course, it should probably be said that “unchurched” is not the same thing as “nonreligious.” Most of the unchurched of the 18th and 19th century probably identified themselves as Christian. There were not enough churches in America, particularly outside of urban areas, to support the population. And while many colonists likely never saw the point in going to church, which was where the rich folk went to show off their good clothes, that didn’t mean that they didn’t believe in the saving power of Jesus.

Probably the biggest difference between then and now is that we are now living in a much more religiously diverse society. While the colonists lived in a world where some form of Christianity was the only live option, we’re now surrounded by thousands of different religious traditions. Christians have been “cafeteria Christians” since the beginning, but now there are a lot more options on the foodline.

People who find church uncompelling now have a lot more options to construct a faith that works for them. There are far more places to go to learn about religion than the Sunday sermon. So the unchurched are no longer de facto Christians who sleep in on Sunday, they’re potentially atheists, agnostics, pagans, “seekers,” “spiritual but not religious,” or a hundred other things.

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