Protestantism in America
- John FeaJohn FeaDepartment of History, Messiah College
It is virtually impossible to understand the history of the American experience without Protestantism. The theological and religious descendants of the Protestant Reformation arrived in the United States in the early 17th century, shaped American culture in the 18th century, grew dramatically in the 19th century, and continued to be the guardians of American religious life in the 20th century. Protestantism, of course, is not monolithic. In fact, the very idea at the heart of Protestantism—the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages so it can be read and interpreted by all men and women—has resulted in thousands of different denominations, all claiming to be true to the teachings of scripture.
Protestantism, with its emphasis on the belief that human beings can access God as individuals, flourished in a nation that celebrated democracy and freedom. During the period of British colonization, especially following the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, Protestantism went hand in hand with British concepts of political liberty. As the British people celebrated their rights-oriented philosophy of government and compared their freedoms with the tyranny of France and other absolute monarchies in Europe, they also extolled the religious freedom that they had to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Following the American Revolution, this historic connection between political liberty and Protestant liberty proved to be compatible with the kind of democratic individualism that emerged in the decades preceding the Civil War and, in many respects, continues to define American political culture.
Protestantism, of course, is first and foremost a religious movement. The proliferation of Protestant denominations provides the best support for G. K. Chesterton’s quip that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” Spiritual individualism, a commitment to the authority of an inspired Bible, and the idea that faith in the Christian gospel is all that is needed to be saved from eternal punishment, has transformed the lives of millions and millions of ordinary Americans over the course of the last four hundred years.