Dynamic and creative exchanges among different religions, including indigenous traditions, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, and Islam, all with developing theologies and institutions, fostered substantial collective religious and cultural identities within African American communities in the United States. The New World enslavement of diverse African peoples and the cultural encounter with Europeans and Native Americans produced distinctive religious perspectives that aided individuals and communities in persevering under the dehumanization of slavery and oppression. As African Americans embraced Christianity beginning in the 18th century, especially after 1770, they gathered in independent church communities and created larger denominational structures such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the National Baptist Convention. These churches and denominations became significant arenas for spiritual support, educational opportunity, economic development, and political activism. Black religious institutions served as contexts in which African Americans made meaning of the experience of enslavement, interpreted their relationship to Africa, and charted a vision for a collective future. The early 20th century saw the emergence of new religious opportunities as increasing numbers of African Americans turned to Holiness and Pentecostal churches, drawn by the focus on baptism in the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic worship that sometimes involved speaking in tongues. The Great Migration of southern blacks to southern and northern cities fostered the development of a variety of religious options outside of Christianity. Groups such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, whose leaders taught that Islam was the true religion of people of African descent, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews promoting Judaism as the heritage of black people, were founded in this period. Early-20th-century African American religion was also marked by significant cultural developments as ministers, musicians, actors, and other performers turned to new media, such as radio, records, and film, to contribute to religious life. In the post–World War II era, religious contexts supported the emergence of the modern Civil Rights movement. Black religious leaders emerged as prominent spokespeople for the cause and others as vocal critics of the goal of racial integration, as in the case of the Nation of Islam and religious advocates of Black Power. The second half of the 20th century and the early 21st-first century saw new religious diversity as a result of immigration and cultural transformations within African American Christianity with the rise of megachurches and televangelism.
Emily Suzanne Clark
Religion and race provide rich categories of analysis for American history. Neither category is stable. They change, shift, and develop in light of historical and cultural contexts. Religion has played a vital role in the construction, deconstruction, and transgression of racial identities and boundaries.
Race is a social concept and a means of classifying people. The “natural” and “inherent” differences between races are human constructs, social taxonomies created by cultures. In American history, the construction of racial identities and racial differences begins with the initial encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Access to and use of religious and political power has shaped how race has been conceived in American history. Racial categories and religious affiliations influenced how groups regarded each other throughout American history, with developments in the colonial period offering prime examples. Enslavement of Africans and their descendants, as well as conquered Native Americans, displayed the power of white Protestants. Even 19th-century American anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism intersected racial identifications. At the same time, just as religion has supported racial domination in American history, it also has inspired calls for self-determination among racial minorities, most notably in the 20th century.
With the long shadow of slavery, the power of white supremacy, the emphasis on Native sovereignty, and the civil rights movement, much of the story of religion and race in American history focuses on Americans white, black, and red. However, this is not the whole story. Mexican-Americans and Latinx immigrants bring Catholic and transnational connections, but their presence has prompted xenophobia. Additionally, white Americans sought to restrict the arrival of Asian immigrants both legally and culturally. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the United States increased further. This religious and racial pluralism in many ways reflects the diversity of America, as does the conflict that comes with it.
Kyle B. Roberts
From Cahokia to Newport, from Santa Fe to Chicago, cities have long exerted an important influence over the development of American religion; in turn, religion has shaped the life of America’s cities. Early visions of a New Jerusalem quickly gave way to a crowded spiritual marketplace full of faiths competing for the attention of a heterogeneous mass of urban consumers, although the dream of an idealized spiritual city never completely disappeared. Pluralism fostered toleration and freedom of religious choice, but also catalyzed competition and antagonism, sometimes resulting in violence. Struggles over political authority between established and dissenting churches gave way after the American Revolution to a contest over the right to exert moral authority through reform. Secularization, the companion of modernization and urbanization, did not toll the death knell for urban religion, but instead, provided the materials with which the religious engaged the city. Negative discursive constructions of the city proffered by a handful of religious reformers have long cast a shadow over the actual urban experience of most men and women. Historians continue to uncover the rich and innovative ways in which urban religion enabled individuals to understand, navigate, and contribute to the city around them.
Christopher D. Cantwell
Home to more than half the U.S. population by 1920, cities played an important role in the development of American religion throughout the 20th century. At the same time, the beliefs and practices of religious communities also shaped the contours of America’s urban landscape. Much as in the preceding three centuries, the economic development of America’s cities and the social diversity of urban populations animated this interplay. But the explosive, unregulated expansion that defined urban growth after the Civil War was met with an equally dramatic disinvestment from urban spaces throughout the second half of the 20th century. The domestic and European migrations that previously fueled urban growth also changed throughout the century, shifting from Europe and the rural Midwest to the deep South, Africa, Asia, and Latin America after World War II. These newcomers not only brought new faiths to America’s cities but also contributed to the innovation of several new, distinctly urban religious movements. Urban development and diversity on one level promoted toleration and cooperation as religious leaders forged numerous ecumenical and, eventually, interfaith bonds to combat urban problems. But it also led to tension and conflict as religious communities busied themselves with carving out spaces of their own through tight-knit urban enclaves or new suburban locales. Contemporary American cities are some of the most religiously diverse communities in the world. Historians continue to uncover how religious communities not only have lived in but also have shaped the modern city.
Cara L. Burnidge
Since 2001, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of scholarly monographs dedicated to religion and foreign relations. More scholars and policymakers agree that religion is an important feature of foreign affairs, regardless of whether one thinks it ought to be. While policymakers and scholars often discuss “religion” as a single “lens” for understanding the world, religious traditions do not exist in isolation from the political, economic, or social and cultural aspects of life. Tracing religious influences on U.S. foreign policy, then, can lead scholars in a variety of directions. Scholars researching religious influences in foreign policy could consider theologies and creeds of religious organizations and figures, the rhetoric and rituals of national norms and civic values, the intersection of “sacred” and “secular” ideas and institutions, the service of individual policymakers and diplomats, international legal or military defenses for or against specific religious groups, or public discourse about religion, to name but a few options.
Advances in the study of religion and foreign policy will require collaboration and dialogue across traditional boundaries for disciplines, fields, and subfields. For many scholars, this means broadening research approaches and methods. Instead of prioritizing “first-” and “second-” order causes, for instance, historians and social scientists could move beyond cause-effect relationships alone, complicating U.S. foreign relations by considering intersectional experiences and interstitial explanations. Rather than looking for “the” univocal religious influence, scholars might pay greater attention to the multiplicity of “religious” influences on a given topic. This will likely occur by reading and researching beyond one specific area of expertise. It will also require attention to differentiating between institutional and “popular” or “lived” religion; recognizing the disparities between the official dogma of a religious affiliation and ethnographic and empirical data on religious practice; and giving attention to the underlying assumptions that occur when international organizations, national governments, and scholars choose to pay attention to certain forms of “religious” thought, behavior, and organizations and not others.
Emerson W. Baker
The Salem Witch Trials are one of the best known, most studied, and most important events in early American history. The afflictions started in Salem Village (present-day Danvers), Massachusetts, in January 1692, and by the end of the year the outbreak had spread throughout Essex County, and threatened to bring down the newly formed Massachusetts Bay government of Sir William Phips. It may have even helped trigger a witchcraft crisis in Connecticut that same year. The trials are known for their heavy reliance on spectral evidence, and numerous confessions, which helped the accusations grow. A total of 172 people are known to have been formally charged or informally cried out upon for witchcraft in 1692. Usually poor and marginalized members of society were the victims of witchcraft accusations, but in 1692 many of the leading members of the colony were accused. George Burroughs, a former minister of Salem Village, was one of the nineteen people convicted and executed. In addition to these victims, one man, Giles Cory, was pressed to death, and five died in prison. The last executions took place in September 1692, but it was not until May 1693 that the last trial was held and the last of the accused was freed from prison.
The trials would have lasting repercussions in Massachusetts and signaled the beginning of the end of the Puritan City upon a Hill, an image of American exceptionalism still regularly invoked. The publications ban issued by Governor Phips to prevent criticism of the government would last three years, but ultimately this effort only ensured that the failure of the government to protect innocent lives would never be forgotten. Pardons and reparations for some of the victims and their families were granted by the government in the early 18th century, and the legislature would regularly take up petitions, and discuss further reparations until 1749, more than fifty years after the trials. The last victims were formally pardoned by the governor and legislature of Massachusetts in 2001.
Adam R. Shaprio
The 1925 Scopes trial was a widely followed court case in Dayton, Tennessee, that attracted the attention of the nation. A prosecution against a schoolteacher charged with violating Tennessee’s new law prohibiting the teaching of human evolution, the trial became a great public spectacle that saw debates over the meaning and truth of the Bible, and the relationship between science and religion. The trial is most famous for the involvement of the lawyers William Jennings Bryan (for the prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (for the defense).
Despite being a legally insignificant case, the trial has remained important in American history because it is seen as symbolizing some of the country’s great social issues in the early 20th century: fundamentalist responses to modernity, the autonomy and clout of the “New South,” and the eternal clash between religion and science.
Both sexuality and religion are terms as vexatious to define as they can be alluring to pursue. In the contemporary period, figuring out one’s sexual feelings, identity, and preferences has become a signal aspect of self-formation. Understanding one’s religious feelings, identity, and preferences may seem less imminent, but is certainly no less complicated. Both terms cause no small amount of confusion. Clearing up some of this confusion requires speaking frankly about delicate matters, and also speaking flatly about enormously complex experiences. Popular media coverage of ecclesiastical sex scandals in America suggests that people enjoy hearing about the profanation of religious duty. Despite the observed, inferred, and accused sexuality in American religious history, or maybe because of it, eroticism suffuses narrative accounts of American religious history and descriptions of religious actors. In U.S. history, sexuality has often been a key lens through which we have understood the nature of religion, the leaders of religions, and the reason for religious commitment.
Over the first half of the 20th century, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1874–1949) devoted himself to solving the most controversial social and political problems of his day: corruption in municipal politics, abuse of industrial workers, women’s second-class citizenship, nativism and racism, and global war. He considered his activities an effort to define “Americanism” and apply its principles toward humanity’s improvement. On the one hand, Wise joined a long tradition of American Christian liberals committed to seeing their fellow citizens as their equals and to grounding this egalitarianism in their religious beliefs. On the other hand, he was in the vanguard of the Jewish Reform, or what he referred to as the Liberal Judaism movement, with its commitment to apply Jewish moral teachings to improve the world. His life’s work demonstrated that the two—liberal democracy and Liberal Judaism—went hand in hand. And while concerned with equality and justice, Wise’s Americanism had a democratic elitist character. His advocacy to engage the public on the meaning of citizenship and the role of the state relied on his own Jewish, male, and economically privileged perspective as well as those of an elite circle of political and business leaders, intellectual trendsetters, social scientists, philanthropists, labor leaders, and university faculty. In doing so, Wise drew upon on Jewish liberal teachings, transformed America’s liberal tradition, and helped to remake American’s national understanding of itself.
David M. Robinson
New England transcendentalism is the first significant literary movement in American history, notable principally for the influential works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. The movement emerged in the 1830s as a religious challenge to New England Unitarianism. Building on the writings of the Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing, Emerson and others such as Frederic Henry Hedge, George Ripley, James Freeman Clarke, and Theodore Parker developed a theology based on interior, intuitive experience rather than the historical truth of the Bible. By 1836 transcendentalist books from several important religious thinkers began to appear, including Emerson’s Nature, which employed idealist philosophy and Romantic symbolism to examine human interaction with the natural world. Emerson’s Harvard addresses, “The American Scholar” (1837) and the controversial “Divinity School Address” (1838), gave transcendental ideas a wider prominence, and also generated strong resistance that added an element of experiment and danger to the movement’s reputation. In 1840 the transcendentalists founded a journal for their work, and Fuller became the Dial’s first editor, a position that gave her an important role in the movement and a crucial outlet for her own work in literary criticism and women’s rights.
Though it had begun as a religious movement, by the middle 1840s transcendentalism could be better described as a literary movement with growing political engagements on several fronts. Emerson proclaimed it as an era of reform and aligned the transcendentalists with those who resisted the social and political status quo. In her feminist manifesto Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), Fuller called for the removal of both legal and social barriers to women’s full potential. In 1845 Henry David Thoreau went to live in the woods by Walden Pond; his memoir of his experience, Walden (1854), became a founding text of modern environmental thinking. Antislavery also became a key concern for many of the transcendentalists, who condemned the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and actively resisted the execution of the law after its passage. The transcendentalists, a nineteenth-century cultural avant-garde, continue to exert cultural influence through the durability of their writings, works that shaped many aspects of American national development.