The Constitution of the United States guaranteed the freedom of religion to all Americans. As the new nation grew, it became a home and haven for people of different faiths and creeds. In its early years, however, the majority of Americans considered themselves Christians, although they belonged to a wide range of denominations. Native Americans belonged to religions developed in their own cultures, worshipping the "Great Spirit." A small minority of Americans worshipped according to the laws and practices of Judaism. A growing number of Americans followed the rationalist sects of Unitarianism and Deism. Religious issues were debated vigorously. Although some Americans were persecuted for their beliefs, they were able to stand for their First Amendment privilege to believe what they wanted to believe. There was more religious freedom available in the United States than in most parts of the world.
Christianity and Christian Sects
A number of changes occurred in the various Protestant denominations after the Revolutionary War. The Church of England in America was renamed the Episcopal Church. In 1787, it received three accredited American bishops, thus maintaining the episcopal succession. Methodist leaders Francis Ashbury and Thomas Coke broke off from English control, much to founder John Wesley's dismay, and worked to establish a broader and more secure Methodist foothold in the U.S. Baptists also gained credibility after the war, because of their active and conspicuous patriotism. In 1779, they had began admitting black slaves to membership. Black churches, which had begun to form in the Revolutionary Period, spread after the American Revolution. Black Baptist churches, A.M.E. churches, and other religious organizations were established throughout the North, South and West. Other Protestant denominations in the US included the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, German Reformed, the Moravians and the Mennonites. The Universalist Movement also began gathering followers, including Benjamin Rush and Rev. Charles Chauncy. Universalists believed that all men and women would eventually be saved.
Although New England Calvinists retained their influence, that influence was threatened by other Protestant denominations. The Calvinist view was that salvation was only available for a select few. In contrast; the Methodists, Baptists and other reformed Protestant churches taught that salvation was available for all. The Episcopal Church were still fighting their perceived link to Britain. Nevertheless, many in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states joined the Episcopals because their doctrines and standards were less strict than those of the Calvinists.
The influences of Enlightenment Rationalism was keenly felt in a number of religious/philosophical sects which grew out of Christianity. One such sect, which gradually became popular in New England, was Unitarianism. Considerably more radical than the Universalists, the Unitarians believed in the unity of God; rejected the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; promoted freedom of religion and tolerance of different beliefs; and emphasized the role of reason in interpreting religious history, texts and experience. Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, became something of a center for Unitarians. Another popular sect, Deism, grew in popularity. Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, published in 1796, became a classic for believers in Rationalism and Deism. Deists believed in the existence of God, based solely on the evidence of reason and nature. They rejected the idea of supernatural revelation. Among the more prominent Deists was Benjamin Franklin.
Two other important sects were the Quakers and the Shakers. The Society of Friends, whose members were called Quakers by outsiders, was founded in England around 1650 by George Fox. Quakers had a significant presence in Pennsylvania. They emphasized simplicity in worship, and spent much of their worship time in quiet meditation. Opposed to oath-taking and war, they were sometimes abused for refusing to take part in military service. Many Quakers became wealthy merchants, exerting a strong influence on cities like Philadelphia. Many Quakers freed their slaves, and were among the leading abolitionists. The Shakers belonged to the Millennial Church, formally called the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. Founded by Ann Lee in England, the believers came to America in 1774 almost as an intact group. They hailed Lee as "Mother Ann," the second incarnation of God. Shakers were celibate, recognized both genders as completely equal, owned property in common and lived lives of strict simplicity. They became known as the "Shakers" because of the ecstatic nature of their worship. The sect grew tremendously in New York in the 1790s, and survive to the present day.
Although most Americans who called themselves Christians belonged to Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church had established a presence in the United States. In 1794, there were only about 35,000 Catholics in the United States. They were slowly accepted in states other than Maryland, but many, especially the Irish, about 75% of whom were Catholic and many of whom were poor, were persecuted. Some Irish Catholic immigrants were or became wealthy, especially in New York and Philadelphia. Many became only nominal Catholics, and others joined Protestant denominations, since there were few Catholic churches or priests in America, and much of the Catholic faith depends of the presence of both churches and priests.
After the turn of the century, however, more religious opportunities became available for American Catholics. Father John Carroll became the first American Roman Catholic archbishop in 1808. In 1810, Elizabeth Seton and the group which would become the Sisters of Charity, founded the first American Catholic parochial school, in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Two years later, Mother Catherine Spaulding founded the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, KY, an order of nurses and teachers.
One of the factors contributing to the growth of American churches beyond the Congregationalist and Episcopal Churches was the decline in state sponsoring. In 1776, nine out of the thirteen colonies had state-sponsored churches. The Constitution, however, mandated that there could be no establishment of a state religion. Starting with Virginia in 1786, states across the South began disestablishing the Episcopal Church. Congregationalists in New England generally maintained a favored status for that denomination. An exception to this was Connecticut, which voted in 1818 to cut off tax support from the Congregational Church.
In 1786, due to the influence of Thomas Jefferson, Virginia passed the Statute of Religious Liberty. The Statute of Religious Liberty established the separation of church and state; and assured religious tolerance. Other states began adopting such measures, as well. Thus, Jewish Americans were able to enjoy more religious freedom than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Despite the assertions of equality in the Declaration of Independence, Jews were not allowed to vote in most states. Beyond this, however, the law entitled most Jews to enjoy most benefits of citizenship. One Jewish American, Jonas Phillips, presented a proposal for religious equality to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. As a result of delegate's discussions, the Constitution protected Americans from being subjected to any religious test to qualify them for any public office or trust. In addition, the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed Americans the right to free exercise of religion.
Jewish Americans took advantage of their right to enter public service. In 1801, David Emanuel became Governor of Georgia. In 1809, Jacob Henry of North Carolina was elected to the state legislature. Although his right, as a Jew, to sit in the legislature was challenged, he prevailed.
George Washington maintained good relations to several Jewish Americans. In 1790, he sent a letter to the Jewish Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, after visiting that city. In expressing his goodwill to the congregation, he wrote: "May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants." In 1793, when Washington was fleeing the yellow fever plague in the national capital of Philadelphia; he was hosted by Isaac Frank, a Jewish American with an estate in Germantown, Pennsylvania.
Jewish Americans made significant contributions to the new nation in many different fields. One area in which many served was medicine. In 1796, Dr. Isaac Jacobi invented the laryngoscope. He was later called the "father of pediatrics" for his medical work with children. Levy Myers served as the Apothecary-General of South Carolina in 1799. One of the 1804 incorporators of the Georgia Medical Society, Moses Sheftal, was Jewish; as was one of the founders of the New York Medical Society in 1806, Dr. Joel Hart.
Jewish Americans were also involved in building the nation economically. Ephraim Hart was one of 22 organizers of the first Board of Brokers, which later became the New York Stock Exchange. Hart later became a partner of John Jacob Astor, one of the most successful American businessmen of the period. Harmon Hendricks, another Jewish American, built the first copper rolling mill in the United States; in Soho, New Jersey.
During the War of 1812, Jewish Americans served in various military capacities. Captain Mordecai Myers of New York led a charge against the British in 1812. Myers' victory took place at Chrysler's Farm, near Williamsburg, Virginia. Captain Uriah P. Levy was another Jewish American military hero of the War of 1812.