Faith in America: Not What it Used to Be?

March 12, 2009

plantation-church

I appreciate the perspective of this editorial from the March 12, 2009 Kingsport Times-News. The editor integrates both history and contemporary polling data.  It eschews any alarmist inclinations and refutes any distorted notions that America was a distinctively Christian country upon it’s founding. 

I think this perspective is helpful.  I am especially hopeful that it will help in preventing Christians from mistaking either patriotism or isolationism as being synonomous with being a Christian in America. 

Whatever the current data indicates – and I suspect it changes day-to-day – our focus is not changed.  Fundamentally we are called to personally grow in grace and live out the gospel in the communities where God has placed us; to plant churches in areas underserved by faithful congregations; and to partner to see churches planted among Unreached People Groups around the world.

***

KINGSPORT – This week, the results of a new poll were eagerly distributed by national news media as evidence that faith is on the skids in America and that more and more U.S. citizens have no religion at all.

According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey, 15 percent of respondents say they have no religion, compared to 8.2 percent in 1990. The survey also recorded a decline in those identifying themselves as a member of an institutional Christian church. In 1990, 86 percent made that claim; it’s now down to 76 percent.

This isn’t necessarily evidence of anything terribly new or irreversible in the religious life of the nation. Nor do these percentages represent anything even approaching the low point in the history of American church participation. To do that, you have to go back a long, long time.

On the eve of the Revolutionary War, records show fewer than 20 percent of American adults adhered to a church in any significant way — a far cry from today when church membership stands at 146 million or roughly half of the population.

In colonial America, New England was the most churched. Between 1630 and 1660, adult church membership in most New England towns approached 70 or 80 percent. Membership was never universal, however, as these percentages demonstrate. Moreover, the cities of Boston and Salem quickly lost membership. By 1650, for example, fewer than 50 percent of Boston’s adults were church members.

By the 1680s, many New England towns reported church membership rates of no more than 10 to 25 percent. In 1690, on the eve of the Salem witch trials, that town’s churches could claim only 15 percent of its adults as members, including only half of the town’s well-to-do selectmen; yet today, Salem is a byword for religious fanaticism.

Church membership rates in the South were even worse.

In Virginia’s Charles Parish, for example, 85 percent of newborn Caucasian children went unbaptized between 1650 and 1680 — even though the parish supported a clergyman and sustained regular worship throughout the period. South Carolina had the highest church membership of any Southern state during the colonial period, at 16 percent. North Carolina had the lowest, at a mere 4 percent.

In 1780, the great church leader Samuel Mather guessed that scarcely a sixth of Boston’s adults attended church. Historians estimate that in New York City and Philadelphia, church membership probably did not approach 10 percent at that time.

Records also show that most church members during the colonial period were women. Indeed, from the 1680s — and continuing for several decades afterward, well into the 18th century — women constituted about 60 percent of church members in most congregations.

True, revivals temporarily brought more men into congregations, especially in the 1740s, but the women’s numerical majority surfaced again when the revivals faded.

Taken as a whole, at the time of the American Revolution, between 70 and 90 percent of all European colonists in America remained unattached to any church.

Such history demonstrates our ancestors were not the Christian giants they are often made out to be. On the other hand, this week’s Religious Identification Survey merely records that more Americans are opting out of organized religion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve abandoned faith.

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