The history of Protestantism in America is deeply intertwined with the histories of race and religious pluralism. Protestantism grew out of Martin Luther’s remonstrations against the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, and swiftly divided into a multiplicity of denominations and sects that spread across Europe, the Americas, and eventually the rest of the world. Luther believed that individuals gained salvation through God’s grace rather than through good works and that saved individuals belonged to the “priesthood of believers” and thus enjoyed direct access to God through their faith in Jesus Christ. Despite the significant differences that existed between Protestant denominations and sects, they shared these basic beliefs that salvation came through faith in Jesus Christ, that believers had an individual relationship with God, and that the Bible rather than a priest was the highest earthly authority. The Protestants who made their way from Europe to the Americas during the early 17th century derived from different denominational branches, including Puritans, Anglicans, Huguenots, Quakers, Lutherans, Anabaptists, and others, and came for diverse reasons, with some seeking an escape from religious persecution and others eager to reap a profit in the New World. They arrived to a vast continent that already boasted a multiplicity of peoples and religions, including indigenous Americans, French and Spanish Catholics, Jews, and Africans. Through their interactions with non-Protestant and non-European peoples, Protestants drew on their religious beliefs to make sense of the differences they perceived between themselves and those they encountered, defining and redefining the relatively new concept of “race” in the process. As Protestants established their faith as the dominant cultural, religious, and ideological force in North America, they used their religiously inflected definitions of race to create racial and religious hierarchies, enshrining white Protestantism at the apogee of these invented categories. These hierarchies influenced American law, politics, and culture from the colonial era onward. They delineated which peoples counted as “American” and who could and should possess the full rights granted to U.S. citizens in the decades and centuries after the American Revolution. These hierarchies, coupled with religious ideas such as the Protestant commitment to spreading the gospel, also shaped the transcontinental and international expansion of the nation, providing the impetus and justification for exerting hegemonic control over indigenous populations within and outside of the United States. At the same time, Protestant beliefs about freedom and the inherent dignity of the individual provided an ideological basis for African Americans, Latinx Americans, indigenous Americans, and a range of immigrant populations to resist subjugation. Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and the separation of church and state created the opening for true religious pluralism. The diversity and evolution of American Protestantism and Protestant thought, as well as the role that Protestantism played in shaping and contesting American ideas about race and religion, influenced the development of American society and politics profoundly.
Lauren Frances Turek
Raymond Williams once noted that “nature” remains one of the most complex words in the English language. While “nature” may commonly refer to nonhuman places, or spaces largely outside of human control, it is also frequently a culturally defined and value-laden term. The meaning, status, and significance of “natural” space has been a highly contested and fluid topic throughout North American history, and religions have been deeply engaged in that process. Religious perceptions of natural space have shifted over time, and as these perceptions have shifted, so too have environmental practices, attitudes, and senses of American identity. The availability of seemingly unaltered, human-free, natural space distant from seats of political control in Europe drew many of the earliest European migrants to the continent in the 16th and 17th centuries. Similar motivations pushed early pioneers westward into the vast spaces beyond the Appalachian Mountains in later decades. For some early Protestant immigrants to the colonies, the taming of wilderness and transformation of natural space into human-managed space situated within political and cultural boundaries presented a clear religious mission. For the original inhabitants of the continent, however, such visions of the redemption of society through the subjugation of nature were largely unfamiliar. These indigenous peoples often viewed themselves as integrated into a relational network of places, other beings, spirits, and histories, managing their use of resources with respect for reciprocal obligations. Different attitudes toward and definitions of natural space contributed to many of the ongoing tensions between these original inhabitants and newer European colonists. While pioneers of the early centuries of European colonialism in North America sought to conquer and subdue nature, their descendants, noting an increased scarcity of open and undeveloped land, began revering nature and the wild for its spiritual, aesthetic, and moral significance. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, influential figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir presented alternative religious visions of American natural space as morally purifying, worthy of protection, and even sacred. These attitudes influenced the growing popularity of outdoor adventure sports and environmental advocacy. Rather than a space defined as oppositional to civilized society in need of subjugation by human hands, by the early 20th-century natural space had taken new religious significance as a forge for American identity and a necessary cure for the spiritual and moral ills of society. By the early 21st century, however, this celebration of nature, and particularly wilderness, in the American experience was increasingly critiqued by scholars and members of marginalized communities that had been excluded from earlier studies of American history. The meaning and religious significance of natural space was undergoing another major revision. Natural space has remained an important but ambivalent fixture in U.S. history, reminding Americans of their hopes and potential, while also reflecting traumatic histories of violence and oppression. Through its shifting meanings and significance, natural space has played a central and ongoing role in shaping American religious identities.