Skip To Content
God in America | Article

People and Ideas: Early American Individuals

godinamerica_individuals_canonical.jpg
George Whitefield, Jarena Lee and Charles Finney.

From John Hughes to Joseph Smith, scroll to see how different people living during America's formative years influenced the current state of religion in America.

Anne Hutchinson

Smart, outspoken and opinionated, Anne Hutchinson was the daughter of an English minister, well versed in the Bible and devoted to the teaching of the popular preacher John Cotton. In 1634, Anne and her family arrived in Boston. Trained as a midwife and nurse, Hutchinson began to hold small meetings in her home to discuss John Cotton's sermons. Soon the meetings were attracting up to 60 people -- men and women. For a woman to engage theological discussions posed a subtle challenge to the patriarchy that governed the Bay Colony.  In the fall of 1636, she accused Puritan ministers of making salvation dependent on an individual's good works rather than on divine grace, which was contrary to Puritan teaching. The ministers denied this charge, arguing that good works are evidence of conversion and salvation, not the grounds of salvation. They argued that they were therefore not teaching a Covenant of Works. Hutchinson persisted, arguing that assurance of salvation came from a mystical experience of grace -- "an inward conviction of the coming of the Spirit." She believed that by teaching that good works were evidence of true conversion and salvation, ministers were still preaching a Covenant of Works rather than a Covenant of Grace.

Hutchinson went further, claiming that God had communicated to her by direct revelations and declaring that she was capable of interpreting the Scriptures on her own. Hutchinson's charges constituted a frontal attack on the spiritual authority of both the church and society. For Puritans, the ultimate source of authority was the Bible as it was interpreted by duly authorized ministers. Hutchinson's claim that she possessed the authority to interpret the Bible challenged this basic principle. Even more galling was her claim that she received immediate revelations from God. Her challenge to official doctrine threatened to tear the Massachusetts Bay Colony apart.

Hutchinson's experience speaks to a persistent question: What is the source of religious authority? Is it the individual or the community? Who decides? How much dissent can a religious community tolerate? What are the limits, if any?

Charles Finney

Lawyer, theologian and college president, Charles Grandison Finney was also the most famous revivalist of the Second Great Awakening. He did not merely lead revivals; he actively marketed, promoted and packaged them. Unlike other ministers who waited for the Spirit to deliver the right moment, Finney argued that men and women of faith had to take the initiative and act: "More than five thousand millions have gone down to hell, while the church has been dreaming, and waiting for God to save them without the use of means."

To attract more converts, Finney introduced a series of innovations, called New Measures, which included the "anxious bench," where would-be converts could contemplate their decision for Christ. More than any other historical figure, he made revivals a standard feature of the American religious landscape. Intent upon saving individual souls, Finney also sought to expand the role of women, to strengthen the churches and to bring about social reform. Finney allowed and encouraged women to speak at prayer meetings, in the presence of both men and women. Some ministers condemned this innovation, describing the meetings as "promiscuous assemblies," but by the end of the century, it had become accepted practice for many denominations.

Finney also argued that both men and women had a moral obligation to be active in social reform. Coupled with his theological knowledge and the strength of his conviction, he became a formidable persuader of souls. During his tenure as president of Oberlin College, Finney put his ideas into practice. Founded in 1833, Oberlin became the first college to admit both women and blacks; it also became an important stop on the Underground Railroad, providing moral and practical support to runaway slaves who sought freedom in Canada.

George Whitefield

George Whitefield was an Anglican priest and powerful orator with charismatic appeal. At the age of 25, he created a sensation in England by preaching outdoors and going over the heads of other priests to reach their congregations. In 1740, he brought that same defiance of authority to America, along with a savvy sense of the media. In one year, Whitefield traveled 5,000 miles through America, preaching more than 350 times as he traversed the nation North to South. In 15 months, as much as a quarter of the country had heard his message.

Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist. His central theme -- what must I do to be saved? -- was not new. His preaching style was. Ministers traditionally wrote sermons in longhand and read the text out loud in a dull monotone. Drawing on his youthful foray into drama, Whitefield memorized his sermons, spoke without notes, varied the timbre of his voice and gestured with abandon.

Whitefield ignited the Great Awakening, a major religious revival that became the first major mass movement in American history. At its core, the Awakening changed the way that people experienced God. Instead of receiving religious instruction from their ministers, ordinary men and women unleashed their emotions to make an immediate, intense and personal connection with the divine. The revival was marked by a broad populist tone.

At first, established ministers had welcomed Whitefield and his fellow revivalists. Church attendance swelled. New energy was in the air. Soon, however, the clergy realized that the revivalists were challenging their authority. Itinerant preachers like Whitefield could preach anywhere; they did not need a church. Ignoring parish boundaries, they lured crowds away from the pews and into the fields. Once the revivalist ministers stirred up the populace, they were free to move on. Their emotional style disrupted the usual social decorum. Although the energy of the First Great Awakening subsided in the late 1740s, revivals became a persistent feature of the American religious landscape.

James Finley

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Finley challenged and eventually rejected his father's faith. Finley could not accept predestination -- the belief that God had chosen some people for salvation and condemned others to damnation.

In September 1811, Finley and 19 others were ordained by Francis Asbury, one of the first American Methodist bishops. Under the guidance of Finley and the circuit riders, Methodism exploded, becoming the fastest growing denomination in the antebellum era. It was not simply a question of the number of converts. The greatest impact and more lasting result was the growth in reform movements intended to improve society. Many believed that once souls were saved, fundamental changes in society were bound to follow. As Methodism pushed through the frontier, it brought a surge of Bible societies, temperance groups and other organizations with the aim of reforming society and educating people living on the new nation's fringes. These voluntary societies, combined with the tremendous energy and "can-do" optimism of the frontier, decisively shaped the American religious landscape.

Jarena Lee

Jarena Lee was likely one of the first African American female preachers in America. After hearing a sermon by Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Church (AME), Lee underwent an intense and protracted conversion. Yet she had doubts. She later wrote:

But to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understand, which said to me, "Go preach the Gospel!" I immediately replied aloud, "No one will believe me." Again I listened and again the same voice seemed to say "Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth and will turn your enemies to become your friends."

Lee sought permission from Allen to preach. First he refused, then changed his mind, granting her permission to preach on an itinerary circuit and to hold prayer meetings in her own home. For a woman of any race to be granted such authority was highly unusual.

Accompanied by a female companion, Lee later wrote that she "traveled two thousand three hundred and twenty-five miles, and preached one hundred and seventy-eight sermons" to mixed gatherings of blacks and whites. Vulnerable and subject to danger, she seemed confident that God was with her. That confidence took her to Maryland, a slave state. Her diary records one camp meeting where slaves had walked 20 miles and more to hear her preach.

For Lee, slavery was a sin -- one that God would one day punish.

Jonathan Edwards

As the Great Awakening swept across Massachusetts in the 1740s, Jonathan Edwards, a minister and supporter of George Whitefield, delivered what would become one of the most famous sermons from the colonial era, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The sermon featured a frightening central image: the hand of all-powerful God dangling a terrified believer over a fiery pit, ready on a moment's notice to drop him into the flames of eternal damnation. Edwards hoped his sermon would wake up the faithful and remind them of the terrible fate that awaited them if they failed to confess their sins and to seek God's mercy.

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" eclipsed Edwards' more important contribution to religion in America. The son and grandson of preachers, he not only became a minister but also one of the greatest theologians in American history. His precocious intelligence and range of intellect was evident early on. He learned Latin, read Newton's Optics and wrote about rainbows and the captivating movement of spiders. Reveling in nature, he found "a divine glory, in almost everything." He described his own religious experience in almost mystical terms, as being "swallowed up by God."

By the time he died in 1758, Edwards had left behind a formidable body of work that addressed topics that have occupied Christian thinkers for nearly 2,000 years: the nature of sin, the will and virtue. 

John Hughes 

Born in Ireland, John Hughes immigrated to the United States as a young man. Harassed by Protestants in his native country, he looked to the Unites States as a bastion of religious freedom. But he discovered that freedom had its limits. By 1850 he was appointed archbishop of New York. In the mid-1800s, Catholic immigrants were swelling the population of the city, and Catholic children were offered the option to attend the public schools of New York. These schools were nominally nondenominational, but Hughes and his fellow Catholics recognized that they were, in fact, highly influenced by the prevailing Protestant ethos. Textbooks reflected a widespread prejudice against Catholics.

Hughes assumed leadership of the Catholic cause and took on the Protestant establishment. In speeches, sermons and writings, he demanded that public funds be used to support Catholic schools in addition to the Protestant public schools. The state Legislature refused. Hughes then set his sights on the creation of a separate Catholic school system where Catholic children could be educated according to the tenets of their faith. Spurned by Protestants, Catholics established a series of their own institutions -- churches, hospitals and orphanages -- that paralleled those of the Protestant establishment.

Tension between Catholics and Protestants erupted over the traditional practice of daily Bible reading. Public schools used the King James Bible; Catholics argued that this Bible was Protestant and that the daily readings undermined their beliefs. They demanded that the schools offer students the Catholic version of the Bible, the Douay-Rheims approved by the Vatican. School officials declined.

Hughes assumed leadership of the Catholic cause and took on the Protestant establishment. In speeches, sermons and writings, he demanded that public funds be used to support Catholic schools in addition to the Protestant public schools. The state Legislature refused.

Hughes then set his sights on the creation of a separate Catholic school system where Catholic children could be educated according to the tenets of their faith. Spurned by Protestants, Catholics established a series of their own institutions -- churches, hospitals and orphanages -- that paralleled those of the Protestant establishment. In 1858, in a ceremony that fulfilled his dream of announcing the arrival of Catholicism in America, Hughes laid the cornerstone of St. Patrick's Cathedral, which upon completion years later would become the crowning symbol of Catholic determination in the country. 

Known as "Dagger John," Hughes could be aggressive, demanding and insistent. He made enemies but was beloved by the Catholic immigrant community.

John Leland

Baptist minister John Leland played a key role in the struggle for religious liberty in both Virginia and Connecticut.

Raised in New England, Leland traveled to Virginia in 1775 to spread the Baptist message just as tensions between the established Anglican Church and the Baptists were mounting. Leland's experience witnessing the persecution and imprisonment of his fellow Baptist preachers -- in addition to being threatened with a gun himself -- hardened his view that church and state must be separate for individuals to be free to follow their conscience in matters of religion. Leland became a key player in the so-called Virginia experience, where he found strong allies in James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Leland was convinced that the church must be protected from interference and incursions of the state; he opposed any form of state support of religion. Jefferson believed that it was the state that needed protection from overzealous clergymen and organized religious groups.

Leland's belief in full separation of church and state would lead him to denounce the notion of the United States as a Christian nation. In A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia, Leland wrote: "The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. ... Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians."

John Winthrop

In 1588 Protestant Britain ruled the seas; Catholic Spain was reduced to a second-string European power. As a young man, Winthrop became convinced that England was in trouble: Inflation coupled with population growth had led men to pursue wealth at the cost of their souls. Efforts to reform the Church of England had faltered. Zealous bishops hounded religious dissenters who resisted obeying the rules. Puritans like Winthrop were persecuted. Winthrop became intrigued by a new venture, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a commercial enterprise that offered the chance for religious freedom in the New World.

Winthrop was chosen to serve as governor of the fledgling Puritan colony. Winthrop and his fellow Puritans sailed westward to establish a model Christian commonwealth they hoped would serve as an example that England and all of Europe would one day emulate. In Boston, Winthrop assumed leadership of the colony. His energies seemed prodigious and inexhaustible. Whatever needed doing, he tried to do it. Repeatedly elected governor, he was chiefly responsible for maintaining civic and social order. Political unity demanded religious conformity. Yet Winthrop understood that a measure of dissent and disagreement was inevitable.

Joseph Smith

In the early 19th century, competition in the American spiritual marketplace heated up. A 14-year-old farm boy named Joseph Smith, bewildered by the myriad religious choices available to him, retreated to the woods to seek divine guidance. Which religion, he asked, was true?

Smith later reported that he saw "two glorious personages" -- later identified as God the Father and Jesus Christ -- who told him that all Christian churches were teaching false doctrine. Smith believed that God was calling him to become the prophet who would restore the church to its true foundations. This epiphany marked the beginning of a faith tradition called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormonism.

Smith's revelation continued in the coming years, providing Mormonism with a set of highly distinctive and unorthodox tenets that effectively rewrote Christian history. Smith eventually published the Book of Mormon.

Driven out of a number of towns, the sect moved repeatedly and finally established a thriving community in Nauvoo, Ill. Hostility persisted, intensified by the institution of plural marriage, or polygamy, in 1842. There were also internal tensions within the church, as Smith's former associates made claims of financial and sexual impropriety. Smith was arrested and jailed. Awaiting trial in 1844, he was killed by a party of non-Mormon gunmen.

In some respects, Mormonism represented a radical departure from American religious traditions, but in other ways it shared characteristics common to 19th-century American religion, such as the desire to restore the church of the apostolic age and the conviction that God had a special purpose for America.

Lyman Beecher

A Presbyterian minister, leading revivalist and social reformer, Lyman Beecher helped build the organizations that became known as the "benevolent empire" and gave religion in America its distinctive voluntary stamp.

Moving away from strict Calvinist doctrine, Beecher acknowledged that human beings were deeply sinful, but he also taught that they also had the ability to accept God's grace, if they decided to do so.

In 1810, Beecher became the pastor of the Congregational Church of Litchfield, Conn. In 1818, with much trepidation, Connecticut decided to end ties between church and state. Beecher fought hard against this move and lamented the day that it was accomplished.

But Beecher changed his mind and made a public about-face -- from leading defender of religious establishment to champion of religious voluntarism. He came to recognize that the end of the church's dependence upon the state made it a more vital, more forceful institution. He wrote that it was:

... the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God. ... They say ministers have lost their influence; the fact is, they have gained. By voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals, they exert a deeper influence than ever they could by queues, and shoe-buckles, and cocked hats, and gold-headed canes.

Even as he called for unity, he became caught up in fractious religious controversies, including a debate about the proper role of ministers. Beecher strongly favored religious voluntarism and competition, but his defense of religious diversity had limits. To Beecher, religious disagreement and competition was desirable only if the end result was Protestant agreement and unity. 

Beecher himself was charged with heresy by his own congregation, now the Presbyterian Church, after he supported the controversial New Measures initiated by revivalist Charles Finney; the charges were dropped after protracted litigation. But these arguments and contradictions of his own principles did not stop him from becoming one of the most influential religious thinkers and social reformers of his time.

Richard Allen

Born into slavery in 1760, Richard Allen became a Methodist preacher, an outspoken advocate of racial equality and a founder of the African Methodist Church (AME), one of the largest independent African American denominations in the country. Allen's owner, a Delaware planter, converted to Methodism and allowed Allen to buy his freedom in 1783. He gave himself a last name, "Allen."

Discrimination as well as a concern for the welfare of freed blacks led Allen to consider the possibility of an all-black church to serve the city's 1,600 African Americans. As a preliminary step, he and several colleagues formed the Free African Society, an association that offered mutual aid and fellowship. With the help of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician and leading citizen of Philadelphia, they drafted a plan for church government.

In November 1787, Allen and other blacks were instructed to move into the balcony during a Sunday service at St. George's. They refused and walked out. Allen and 10 other black Methodists stayed within the Methodist Church, founding the Bethel Church in an old blacksmith's shop.

Bethel Church was enormously successful. The church had become black Philadelphia's most important institution. The success of Bethel angered and worried white Methodist preachers, who were incensed by Allen's refusal to allow them to control the church. They attempted to take over Bethel. When that failed, they went to court and in 1815 won a lawsuit that permitted them to sell the building and the land.

Good financial planning and enthusiasm for fundraising enabled Allen to buy back the very church that he had built. In 1816, Allen and representatives from other black Methodist churches formally broke from the Methodist Church and established a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen was appointed bishop. In major cities, both Northern and Southern, blacks elected to form their own, separate denominations. Black clergy began speaking out against slavery and organizing voluntary organizations aimed at social reform and self-improvement.

Roger Williams

A young English minister with a talent for languages, Williams arrived in Boston in 1631. Williams, however, developed an interpretation of Scripture totally at odds with the Puritan theology that governed the holy commonwealth.

Williams argued that the Puritans were hypocrites because they remained within the Church of England rather than making a clean break, as the Pilgrims had done. He went on to assert that it was dishonest and wrong to take land from the Indians without paying them for it. Finally, he insisted that civil magistrates did not have the right to enforce religious duties.

Williams moved between Boston, Salem and Plymouth Colony, winning followers, irritating opponents and provoking controversy. Banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, Williams headed south and established a small settlement in present-day Rhode Island. Named "Providence," the community officially guaranteed liberty of conscience. Baptists, Quakers, Jews and other religious dissidents, including Anne Hutchinson, soon found a haven there.

Williams believed passionately in "soul liberty" or liberty of conscience. For Williams, religion was an inherent God-given right. Belief must never be coerced. History clearly demonstrated that subjecting the conscience to "spiritual and soul rape" had caused endless bloodshed and cost countless lives. Rulers in all ages, Williams wrote, have practiced "violence to the Souls of Men."

William Penn

William Penn criticized the elaborate ceremonies of the Anglican Church and protested compulsory chapel attendance. Under the influence of the Quaker missionary Thomas Low, Penn underwent a mystical experience, later recalling, "The Lord visited me, and gave me divine Impressions of Himself." In 1667 he joined the Society of Friends, or the Quakers.

Founded in 1647 by George Fox, the Quakers believed that all persons were equal before God and guided by an indwelling "inner Light," the Holy Spirit. They opposed any attempt to restrict individual conscience. They refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the king, to pay tithes to the church or to bear arms. In Anglican England, Quakers were considered heretics and were subject to arrest, persecution and imprisonment. Penn himself was imprisoned six times. From his cell he wrote a passionate case for religious toleration titled No Cross, No Crown. Over time, Penn produced a series of tracts, books, treatises and pamphlets, creating a canon that articulated Quaker beliefs and principles.

But persecution of Quakers continued. Penn began to envision a solution to the "Quaker problem": a new colony in the New World where Quakers and good Christians could live together in a "Holy Experiment." In 1682, Penn sailed to America on the ship Welcome and established Philadelphia, the "city of brotherly love." Christians, especially persecuted Protestants, came in droves. Atheists were excluded; Jews and other non-Christians were barred from holding office and voting.

The experiment faltered. Religious differences spawned political factionalism. In the Legislature, the Quaker party held the upper hand and resisted sharing power. Quakers themselves split into rival factions. Penn's trusted associates mismanaged funds. Penn was thrown into debtors' prison. He suffered two strokes, lost his memory and died penniless in 1718. Before his death, he had concluded that his Holy Experiment, his life's work, had been a failure. Yet Penn's Holy Experiment lived on. By the time of the Revolution, the population of Pennsylvania became a religious melting pot where Protestants of all kinds competed freely in a vibrant, if contentious, religious marketplace.

Support Provided by: Learn More