The history of the development of the Christian Church in America coincides with the development of the nation. There are many themes that are prevalent and have continued over the years.
- The desire for local control: As each colony developed, primarily by a religious group, a strong desire for local control developed. In Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans held sway and while some outsiders were tolerated (slightly) anyone interfering with the Puritan way of life was encouraged to move. The same can be said for the other regions; the Mid-Atlantic Presbyterians and Virginia south Church of England. Religious establishment within each region was supported, as long as it was their own religious tradition but no tradition from the outside should be given precedent to dictate religious terms. This local control developed parallel to state rights arguments, and a federal-state dynamic.
- Most of the early settlers to the colonies came from traditions that had strong Calvinist roots. Puritans, Presbyterians, Anglicans etc, all have traditions that hold a high view of sin and its power in the individual and society to corrupt without the proper checks and balances. Absolute power was something of Europe and demonstrated the error of European government and religion. The colonies sought to create systems that placed a check on sin, which includes a republican form of government that has checks and balances built into the system.
- The fear of absolute power was also seen in the development of separation between church and state, as espoused by Jefferson and Madison, that sought to place a margin of safety between the power of the pulpit and the power of the state. Since monarchs in Europe abused this power, the colonists wanted to make sure power on the secular and sacred realms could not be combined into one office.
- At the same time, the founders understood the power of faith to unite the nation and sought to develop a public faith that served to unite the people. It was an undefined faith, that more closely resembled the Unitarian tradition in that God was spoken of but not the Triune God, just God. This public faith was to act as a means to contend against extreme forms of religious practices as well as extreme secular beliefs.
- With the strong connection between the religious dreams of the colonists with their own political desires, religion and political agendas often merged. This was seen in the most devastating way in the form of Christianity that not only supported slavery pre-Civil War but also supported the Jim Crow and Segregationist movements in the United States. The same theology used to support slavery was used to further oppress African Americans following the end of enslavement.
- This tradition, in both northern and southern churches, who both view African Americans as inferior, demonstrates that the history of the United States is intertwined with White Supremacy that the church has been complicit with, from the very beginning. This is not the White Supremacy of say 1930’s Germany, but it is an understanding that American society from the beginning established the power of white Europeans over the power of black Africans, both on political and religious levels.
- During the rise of social unrest and economic uncertainty, religious and political power has been used against newly arriving immigrants, placing the blame for this unrest and uncertainty on these “outsiders.” These times have also created movements where people look for certainty or assurance which will eventually give rise to the Fundamentalist movement in American Protestantism.
- At times, these attributes of White Supremacy, fear of the outsider and lack of a central church has lead to a mixing of racist, xenophobic Christianity that is toxic and is best exemplified by the KKK and similar movements.
- The American church’s history can also be seen through a lens of churches who support the Social Gospel movement (which most present denominations do in one form or another) or the Individual Necessity of Salvation movement (demonstrated by the modern Evangelical Movement). One side sees the need for the church to reform all of society, while the other places emphasis on the need of the individual to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.