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date: 25 March 2017

Protestantism in America

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

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 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 has flourished in America because it teaches that human beings can access God as individuals, rather than as members of a particular church or religious body. 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 extolled their religious freedom 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 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 of ordinary Americans over the course of the past four hundred years.