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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Unpious Colonial America

In my previous post I made a passing reference to the fact that Colonial America was anything but pious. In fact, it is far more religious now than it was then. In fact, the celebration of Christmas in early America devolved to such an extent that the Puritans were appalled and made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. Cotton Mather, for instance, an prominent Puritan minister who later became involved in the Salem witch trials, remarked
"The Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty... by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by Rude Reveling..." (quoted by Steven Nissenbaum in The Battle for Christmas, p. 7)
And one Anglican clergyman to remark that we do more to dishonor the name of Christ during the 12 days of Christmas "than in all the twelve months besides" (quoted by Nissenbaum in The Battle for Christmas, p. 7).

But how could this be? Most of us were taught as children that the people fled to the future United States in order to worship God freely. Implied in this story was the notion that most of the early colonists were church-goers, so it seems inconceivable that such behavior could occur.

The problem with the story is that it is only partially true. People did flee to the US to worship freely (or at least differently from how they worshipped in Europe), and most of those that did were regular church-goers who found the ribald behavior of their fellow colonists appalling. However, they were not the only ones who came to America. Some were fleeing from the law (e.g., a few European countries shipped prisoners to America); others came seeking fortune (e.g., Jamestown was founded as an economic outpost not a religious one); others were social misfits who had no ties keeping them from leaving (i.e., they were social isolates). In short, while some colonists were religious, many were not, which is why early American piety was not widespread.

This fact has been empirically demonstrated by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in their book, "The Churching of America," which was originally released in 1993 and then updated in 2007. What they uncovered from a variety of sources was that the church adherence rate was only around 17% in 1776 and then grew at a steady rate until 1980 when it peaked at 60%, the level at which it remains today. Why it has increased over time is a story for another day; for now, it is sufficient to note that Finke and Stark's empirical research confirms the historical (but largely anecdotal) research of Nissenbaum.

Note: the church adherence rate shouldn't be confused with church attendance. The church adherence rate refers to the number of people who are either "church" members or children of members -- that is because in some denominations (e.g., Baptist) children cannot become members until they are older, while in other denominations (e.g., Episcopal) children can become members.

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