General Essay on the Religions of North America

It is customary to view the religious history of North America as originating with the first European settlers and the transplantation of Christianity into the New World. This perspective ignores the vast time span during which the continent was inhabited only by the indigenous traditions. Between thirty-five and fifteen thousand years ago the ancestors of today's native Americans began to cross from Asia into America by way of the Bering land bridge. In the following millenia they migrated throughout the continent and into MesoAmerica and South America, establishing their own distinctive societies and cultures. At the time of Columbus' arrival in 1492 some 550 different languages were spoken in the North American continent alone.

The arrival of Columbus heralded the transmission of Spanish culture and therefore of Roman Catholicism into American soil. Within thirty years the Spanish had gained control of central Mexico, and by 1551 had founded a university in Mexico City. In 1565 the first permanent colony was established in North America, and by the end of the sixteenth century Christian communities had been founded in the region that is today New Mexico and Texas. From here Roman Catholicism spread slowly into California.

The success of the Spanish conquests encouraged other European nations to colonise America. In 1607 105 British settlers arrived at the mouth of the James river to form the colony of Virginia. With the establishment of this colony the Anglican church was transplanted into American soil.

After Virginia, the next settlements were in New England. The pilgrim fathers arrived in 1620, followed in 1639 by the first Baptists, and 1656 by the first Quakers. During the eighteenth century a wave of Lutheran immigrants arrived from Sweden and Germany, as well as Presbyterians from Northern Ireland and Scotland.

In the same century Eastern Orthodoxy came to America as a result of the Russian acquisition of Alaska in 1741. In 1784 the first permanent Russian settlement was established in Alaska, and a decade later ten monks set up a mission there. About a century later followers of the Oriental Orthodox tradition arrived in order to escape the persecution that had been perpetrated against Christians in the Middle East.

European settlement had a devastating impact on the native peoples. Many were killed through disease, war or enforced resettlement. The suppression of native religious belief and the attempt to convert the Indians to Christianity led to the formation of syncretic forms of belief based on a mix of Christianity and native ritual. The best known such religions are the Handsome Lake religion, the Ghost Dance and the Native American Church.

Other distinctively American movements emerged out of Christianity itself. Among the better known are Mormonism, a millenarian movement that claimed that Christ would establish a New Jerusalem in America, and Christian Science, a so-called harmonial religion which taught that mind is the only reality and consequently sickness and sin are illusory.

The more recently transplanted religions have had less time to move away from their pre-American roots. Although the first Jews arrived in America in 1655 it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that Jews settled in America in large numbers.

Similarly, although it is likely that Muslims were among the slaves imported into America in the eighteenth century it is only possible to talk of a permanent Islamic settlement in America from the final quarter of the nineteenth century when Muslims emigrated there from the Middle East.

Eastern religions began to filter into America as a result of immigration during the middle of the nineteenth century. However, it was only through the world parliament of religions, which was held in San Francisco in 1893, that traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and the Baha'i faith acquired an intellectual foothold in America.


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