Religion in the Early Republic
|Digital History ID 2990|
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, American religion underwent a dramatic transformation. Enlightenment attacks on institutional religion were overwhelmed by a conviction that religion was an indispensable vehicle of moral progress.
At the end of the 18th century, church membership was low and falling. In 1775, there were probably only 1,800 ministers in a population of 2.5 million. According to one estimate, just one American in 20 was a church member. One observer thought that "infidelity is very general among the higher classes."
Few of the nation's founders were particularly religious. They were men of the Enlightenment, who valued rational inquiry and rejected religious enthusiasm. Many leaders of the revolutionary generation distrusted the clergy, doubted the divine origins of the Bible, and questioned the Biblical accounts of miracles.
George Washington's views were not unusual among the founders. He believed that a benevolent divine force governed the universe, but was skeptical of many specific church doctrines. Thomas Jefferson considered himself a Christian and in a work prepared in 1798-99 revered the teachings of Jesus Christ as "the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man." At the same time, he apparently did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ or in the authenticity of Biblical miracles.
But during the 1790s, a wave of religious revivals began that would continue until the Civil War.