The American colonies had houses of worship, but what the people learned in those church services depended on where they lived.
Most New Englanders went for church services to the meetinghouse, where they often for other things as well. The meetinghouse was a large building in the center of a town area and was used for town meetings as well as religious services.
Inside the meetinghouse were hard wooden benches. People sat on these benches for most of the day because that's how long the church services usually lasted.
People who lived in the Middle and Southern colonies went to more familiar-looking churches. They, too, would sit in church for most of the day. Back then, going to church was a very important affair, and people believed that it should be an all-day event.
What people believed depended on where they lived:
The New England colonists were largely Puritans, who led very strict lives.
The Middle colonists were a mixture of religions, including Quakers (led by William Penn), Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, and others.
The Southern colonists had a mixture of religions as well, including Baptists and Anglicans.
In the 18th Century, the Great Awakening swept the colonies. This was a movement to refocus people's thoughts and minds on the church and religion. Famous preachers like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards brought many people into church.
By 1732, original thirteen colonies had formed in North America: Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Georgia.
The Puritans’ Congregational Church was the established state church in New England. The Anglican Church was the established state church in the southern colonies. The tolerant middle colonies had a Christian pluralism, though often unharmonious, of various Christian denominations.
Acceptance of religious tolerance and freedom of belief grew and spread in the colonies in the 1700s due in part to the Bible-based arguments of early tolerance supporters including Roger Williams, William Penn, and John Locke and to the formation of the more tolerant colonies of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware. The Great Awakening of the 1740s soon after also greatly encouraged individual freedom of belief (and will be discussed in the next blog series). Though most colonists in the early 1700s—about 85% of 500,000 inhabitants in North America—lived in colonies with an official state church (the Congregational or Anglican Church), state churches gradually granted more tolerance for other denominations.
Many colonists including future Founders Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams began to view freedom of belief as more important than religious conformity. They also began to see politics differently. As religious tolerance became more widespread, observes author and journalist Jon Meacham in American Gospel, so did the support and acceptance of more democratic ideas. “For people who chose their own spiritual path,” Meacham writes, “wondered why they could not choose their own political path as well.”
Indeed, the American colonies became increasingly tolerant and democratic. Rooted in Bible-based, Judeo-Christian thought by its earliest supporters in America, the principles of freedom of belief, religious tolerance, and separation of church and civil government would later become more widely accepted and practiced principles in American thought and law. Religious freedom for all and separation of church and state would eventually be successfully implemented, secured, and fully realized by the American Founders who wrote the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.