America has long been the most religious of the affluent, western nations, having the most professing and practicing population. (A couple of the nearly 100% Catholic countries are close, but only Canada otherwise.) Explaining this aspect of American exceptionalism has preoccupied many scholars of religion. Part of the answer is that since the early 1800s the United States has had no established religion and has had instead a free “marketplace” of religion. Suppliers – that is, churches and ministers – emerged to meet nearly every religious “taste” people might have.
The early days of this market had all the features of an unsettled market free-for all, exacerbated by the unsettled features of American law. Today, our religious “market” is far more orderly, but we still shop around.
The nineteenth century saw a fervor of religious inspiration, entrepreneurship, and frantic competition.* In 1800, most Americans belonged to no church or denomination; many others were only nominally committed to the stuffy and stern established churches of several states.
But now, a host of young, energetic, and plain-speaking preachers evangelized all across the country for new denominations like the Methodist Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, and dissident Baptists.
The Catholic Church, rooted in a continent where people were born into a faith and never left it, was shocked by the competition. One priest dispatched to Maryland complained in 1821, “There are Swarms of false teachers [Methodist preachers] all through the Country, in every School house, in every private house—you hear nothing but night meetings, Class meetings, love feasts &c &c.”
Historian of religion Martin Marty described “a competition in which the fittest survived,” one in which backwoods ministers found that their “first enemy was neither the devil nor the woman but the Baptist” – or any number of evangelists. (Later in the century, even atheists came together in formal association.)
Energetic ministers proselytized through missions, camp revivals, and aid to the spiritually and often materially destitute. They heaped scorn on what they considered to be overeducated, overfed, and overly boring reverends of old-line denominations. Theologically, the new faiths attacked the doctrine of predestination that favored elites and threatened eternal damnation. Most instead preached a happier theology of individual conscience and democracy, praising the Lord, as one hymn had it, because “Thy saving grace for all is free / And none are doom’d to misery.” Everyone can be reborn to salvation.
In this free-for-all climate, the competition between and within churches was often fierce. In Underhill, Vermont, the arrival of evangelical ministries between 1800 and 1840 led to repeated disputes over where the Congregational and town meetinghouse should be located, disputes that drove at least a couple of ministers out of the community. Not far away, an itinerant, anxious, and untalented Freewill Baptist minister finally succeeded in starting a church after his newly-married wife announced to the townsfolk that an angel had visited her with instructions for them. Shortly afterwards, other town women reported their own angelic visitors carrying contrary instructions. The witnesses’ fevered competition led to the reverend’s departure. In central Minnesota in the late 1800s, one observer claimed that the Lutherans “argued predestination in the saloons with their tongues . . . and settled [it] in the alley with their fists.” In rural Ohio, immigrants from different regions of Germany escalated a dispute into a church burning.
All this ferocious competition reinforced the central idea, that church allegiance was a matter not be determined by people’s birthplaces (in this or that kingdom), nor by their family histories, nor even by their own pasts, but by their individual choices re-examined and renewed each day. Consequently, a much higher percentage of Americans belonged churches at the end of the nineteenth century than had at the beginning.
The modern market
Religious competition became tamer and more institutionalized in the twentieth century. Indeed, tolerance, ecumenicism, union services, and brotherhood weeks flourished. However more genteel, competition continued – as did Americans’ increasing involvement in organized religion (here). In a recent survey, about half of respondents said they had switched faiths or denominations at least once in their adult lives. Such switching had once been associated with marrying outside the faith, but these days respondents change or leave a religion more often explain their moves as the result of disagreeing with the teachings of their original faith or finding a new religion “more fulfilling” or both; few switch because of marriage.
Even most active churchgoers agree that “one should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of a church or synagogue.” Americans increasingly believe that people should invest themselves in a church, any church, but should do so freely and only for so long as it satisfies a personal spiritual quest.
If one church does not satisfy a person’s needs or wishes, there is another church down the road. In 1998, about four in ten Americans reported that they had at least once “shopped around for a church or synagogue.” They could have shopped for a stricter or a looser theology, a more exuberant or a more reverential service, a more public or a more pastoral minister – whatever. In the U.S., there is usually a church somewhere nearby that fits.
* Most of this text is drawn from pp. 124-30; 151-54 in Made in America, where references can also be found.
Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.