Since the founding of America centuries ago, Americans have been a pervasively religious people. What is the theological and ethnic diversity and enduring strength of American religion in general, and Christianity and evangelical faith in particular? How have faith commitments and actions shaped the nation?
What is “lived religion” and how does it contribute to the fabric of society?
Thomas S. Kidd: “Lived religion” refers to the daily habits and practices of faith. Lived religion – going to worship services, reading your Bible, and praying – is often the most significant aspect of faith to believers, but it’s often the aspect that gets the least news coverage or attention from historians. I think of this type of religious observance as the “peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” to which 1 Timothy 2:2 refers. News media and scholars tend to focus on religion only to the extent that it’s involved with political conflict or scandal, but for the everyday believer, those sensational issues have little to do with the way you live out your faith.
Why do you mainly focus on Protestantism in the book?
Thomas S. Kidd: I give some attention to most major religions, as well as the role of unbelief in America, but Protestant Christianity has undoubtedly been the greatest shaping influence in the broad story of American religious history. The American colonies, except for Catholic Maryland, were often officially Protestant. But a great campaign for religious liberty in the era of the American Revolution turned America into a much more pluralistic nation of competing denominations.
Until the 1840s, most of the competition was between the major Protestant denominations, evangelists, and missionary societies. By the time that mass Catholic immigration began from Ireland and other European nations in the mid-1800s, Protestantism was entrenched as the dominant faith in America’s centers of political power and educational influence. Protestantism also became the dominant religion among free and enslaved African Americans, whose ancestors had typically come to America with little Christian background at all.
How did the Bible factor into the colonization and development of America?
Thomas S. Kidd: Most of the early colonists expressed at least a nominal desire to evangelize Native Americans, although besetting conflict with Native Americans often got in the way of following through in bringing the Bible to the Indians.
Nevertheless, there were landmark moments in the history of the Bible in the colonial and early national periods, such as Puritan missionary John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language in the mid-1600s. That was the first American Bible translation ever printed.
Similarly, in the 1820s the Cherokee Christian convert Galagina translated the New Testament by using the new alphabet developed by Sequoya, his fellow Cherokee.
Explain what the First and Second Great Awakenings were and how they influenced American culture.
Thomas S. Kidd: The First and Second Great Awakenings were a series of revivals that helped make evangelical Christianity – especially among the Methodists and Baptists – the leading form of Christianity in America by the eve of the Civil War. Other Christians had preached on the need to be “born again” (John 3:3) prior to the Great Awakenings, of course, but the evangelical preachers of these awakenings put a laser focus on the need for every person to experience the “new birth” of salvation in Christ.
Between about 1760 and 1860, the Methodists and the Baptists went from being small, sometimes persecuted sects, to the largest Protestant denominations in America.
How did both sides in the Civil War view the Bible?
Thomas S. Kidd: Americans have commonly looked to the Bible in times of war for assurance and comfort, and the Civil War was no different. As Abraham Lincoln noted in his Second Inaugural Address, “Both [sides] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.” Yet, Lincoln added, “each invokes [God’s] aid against the other.” Their common Christian culture, and Americans’ deep familiarity with the Bible, failed to avert the Civil War. Tragically, Americans could not agree with one another about whether the Bible condemned or sanctioned slavery.
Learn more about scholars and visionaries who shaped the Christian church through our devotional, 'Faithful Through the Ages.'
What is your outlook on Christianity in America in the 21st century and beyond?
Thomas S. Kidd: Reports of Christianity’s imminent demise in America still seem premature to me. There’s no doubt that cultural Christianity has lost the influence it once held in America, and that biblical literacy in America today is quite low, even among many churchgoers. But Christianity in America is growing or at least is holding steady among some key populations.
This is especially the case among immigrant-focused churches. Churches that cater to Latinos or to recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, or East Asia are typically among the fastest-growing congregations in the country, but they’re usually not the focus of news coverage.
Religious historians have spoken of a “quiet revival” that’s happening in cities such as Boston, which to many white Christians seems like an unpromising place for church growth. Yet, the number of churches in Boston doubled from the 1960s to the 2000s, a pattern that has continued through present day. Most of the church growth in Boston has been among immigrant communities, including Haitians, Koreans, and Nigerians.
The image of a great multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9) increasingly characterizes American churches. Christianity in America will definitely become more ethnically diverse in the coming years, while nominal Christian affiliation may become rarer. But I’m still optimistic about the future for a multiethnic, vibrant version of Christianity in America.
America’s Religious History is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Thomas S. Kidd is the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University. His latest book is America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation (Zondervan).
Study the Bible with a fresh perspective by becoming a member of Bible Gateway Plus. Try it right now!