How Christianity started in America
Christianity was introduced to the Americas as it was first colonized by Europeans beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries. Immigration further increased Christian numbers.
Today most Christian churches in the United States are Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, or Roman Catholic.
Christianity is the most adhered to religion in the United States, with 70% of polled American adults identifying themselves as Christian in 2014.
This is down from 86% in 1990, lower than 81.6% in 2001, and slightly lower than 78% in 2012. About 62% of those polled claim to be members of a church congregation. The United States has the largest Christian population in the world, with nearly 280 million Christians, although other countries have higher percentages of Christians among their populations.
All Protestant denominations accounted for 51.3%, while Roman Catholicism by itself, at 23.9%, was the largest individual denomination. A 2008 Pew study categorizes white evangelicals, 26.3% of the population, as the country’s largest religious cohort; another study in 2004 estimates evangelicals of all races at 30–35%. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) is the fourth largest church in the United States, and the largest church originating in the U.S.
Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement. In typical usage, the term mainline is contrasted with evangelical. Theologically conservative critics accuse the mainline churches of “the substitution of leftist social action for Christian evangelizing, and the disappearance of biblical theology,” and maintain that “All the Mainline churches have become essentially the same church: their histories, their theologies, and even much of their practice lost to a uniform vision of social progress.” Most adherents consider the key characteristics of evangelicalism to be: a belief in the need for personal conversion (or being “born again”); some expression of the gospel in effort; a high regard for Biblical authority; and an emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus. David Bebbington has termed these four distinctive aspects conversion-ism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism, saying, “Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.”
The term “Evangelical” does not equal Fundamentalist Christianity, although the latter is sometimes regarded simply as the most theologically conservative subset of the former.
The major differences largely hinge upon views of how to regard and approach scripture (“Theology of Scripture”), as well as construing its broader world-view implications. While most conservative Evangelicals believe the label has broadened too much beyond its more limiting traditional distinctives, this trend is nonetheless strong enough to create significant ambiguity in the term. As a result, the dichotomy between “evangelical” vs. “mainline” denominations is increasingly complex (particularly with such innovations as the “Emergent Church” movement).
The contemporary North American usage of the term is influenced by the evangelical/fundamentalist controversy of the early 20th century. Evangelicalism may sometimes be perceived as the middle ground between the theological liberalism of the Mainline (Protestant) denominations and the cultural separatism of Fundamentalist Christianity. Evangelicalism has therefore been described as “the third of the leading strands in American Protestantism, straddl[ing] the divide between fundamentalists and liberals.” While the North American perception is important to understand the usage of the term, it by no means dominates a wider global view, where the fundamentalist debate was not so influential.
Evangelicals held the view that the modernist and liberal parties in the Protestant churches had surrendered their heritage as Evangelicals by accommodating the views and values of the world.
At the same time, they criticized their fellow Fundamentalists for their separatism and their rejection of the Social Gospel as it had been developed by Protestant activists of the previous century. They charged the modernists with having lost their identity as Evangelicals and the Fundamentalists with having lost the Christ-like heart of Evangelicalism. They argued that the Gospel needed to be reasserted to distinguish it from the innovations of the liberals and the fundamentalists.
The mainline Protestant Christian denominations are those Protestant denominations that were brought to the United States by its historic immigrant groups; for this reason they are sometimes referred to as heritage churches. The largest are the Episcopal (English), Presbyterian (Scottish), Methodist (English and Welsh), and Lutheran (German and Scandinavian) churches.
Mainline Protestantism as the Episcopalians (76%), the Presbyterian (64%) and the United Church of Christ has the highest number of graduate and post-graduate degrees per capita of any other Christian denomination in the United States, as well as the most high-income earners.
Episcopalians and Presbyterian tend to be considerably wealthier and better educated than most other religious groups in Americans, and are disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of American business, law and politics, especially the Republican Party. Numbers of the most wealthy and affluent American families as the Vanderbilts and Astors, Rockefeller, Du Pont, Roosevelt, Forbes, Whitneys, Morgans and Harrimans are Mainline Protestantism families.
According to Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States by Harriet Zuckerman, a review of American Nobel prizes winners awarded between 1901 and 1972, 72% of American Nobel Prize Laureates, have identified from Protestant background. Overall, 84.2% of all the Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans in Chemistry, 60% in Medicine, and 58.6% in Physics between 1901 and 1972 were won by Protestants.
Some of the first colleges and universities in America, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Amherst, all were founded by the Mainline Protestantism, as were later Carleton, Duke, Oberlin, Beloit, Pomona, Rollins and Colorado College.
Many mainline denominations teach that the Bible is God’s word in function, but tend to be open to new ideas and societal changes. They have been increasingly open to the ordination of women.
Mainline churches tend to belong to organizations such as the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.
The seven largest U.S. mainline denominations were called by William Hutchison the “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism” in reference to the major liberal groups during the period between 1900 and 1960.
***Catholic Church in the United States
Roman Catholicism arrived in what is now the United States during the earliest days of the European colonization of the Americas. At the time the country was founded (meaning the Thirteen Colonies in 1776), only a small fraction of the population there were Catholics (mostly in Maryland); however, as a result of expansion and immigration over the country’s history, the number of adherents has grown dramatically and it is the largest profession of faith in the United States today. With over 67 million registered residents professing the faith in 2008, the United States has the fourth largest Catholic population in the world after Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines, respectively.
The Church’s leadership body in the United States is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, made up of the hierarchy of bishops and archbishops of the United States and the U.S. Virgin Islands, although each bishop is independent in his own diocese, answerable only to the Pope.
No primate for Catholics exists in the United States. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has Prerogative of Place, which confers to its archbishop a subset of the leadership responsibilities granted to primates in other countries.
The number of Catholics grew from the early 19th century through immigration and the acquisition of the predominantly Catholic former possessions of France, Spain, and Mexico, followed in the mid-19th century by a rapid influx of Irish, German, Italian and Polish immigrants from Europe, making Catholicism the largest Christian denomination in the United States.
This increase was met by widespread prejudice and hostility, often resulting in riots and the burning of churches, convents, and seminaries. The integration of Catholics into American society was marked by the election of John F. Kennedy as President in 1960. Since then, the percentage of Americans who are Catholic has remained at around 25%.
According to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in 2011, there are approximately 230 Roman Catholic universities and colleges in the United States with nearly 1 million students and some 65,000 professors. Catholic schools educate 2.7 million students in the United States, employing 150,000 teachers.
In 2002, Catholic health care systems, overseeing 625 hospitals with a combined revenue of 30 billion dollars, comprised the nation’s largest group of nonprofit systems.
St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C., is the primary cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America.
Groups of immigrants from several different regions – Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, Africa and India – brought Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy to the United States. These branches of Christianity have since spread beyond the boundaries of ethnic immigrant communities and now include multi-ethnic membership and parishes.
The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) as of 2000 reported just below 1 million Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox adherents in the US, or 0.4% of the total population.
Statistically, Eastern Orthodox Christians are among the wealthiest Christians denomination in the United States, and they also tend to be better educated than most other religious groups in America, in the sense that they have a high number of graduate (68%) and post-graduate degrees (28%) per capita.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints membership statistics (United States)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) is a nontrinitarian restorationist denomination.
The church is headquartered in Salt Lake City, and is the largest originating from the Latter Day Saint movement which was founded by Joseph Smith in Upstate New York in 1830.
It forms the majority in Utah, the plurality in Idaho, and high percentages in Nevada, Arizona and Wyoming; in addition to sizable numbers in Colorado, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii and California. Current U.S. membership is 6.4 million.
In 2010, around 13–14 percent of Mormons lived in Utah, the center of cultural influence for Mormonism. Utah Mormons (as well as Mormons living in the Intermountain West) are on average more culturally and politically conservative and Libertarian than those living in some cosmopolitan centers elsewhere in the U.S. Utahns self-identifying as Mormon also attend church somewhat more on average than Mormons living in other states.
(Nonetheless, whether they live in Utah or elsewhere in the U.S., Mormons tend to be more culturally and politically conservative than members of other U.S. religious groups.) Utah Mormons often place a greater emphasis on pioneer heritage than international Mormons who generally are not descendants of the Mormon pioneers.
Baptists and Methodists became the largest American Protestant denominations by the first decades of the 19th century. By the 1770s, the Baptists were growing rapidly both in the north (where they founded Brown University), and in the South. Opponents of the Awakening or those split by it Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists were left behind.
- First Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota
In October 1801, members of the Danbury Baptists Associations wrote a letter to the new president-elect Thomas Jefferson. Baptists, being a minority in Connecticut, were still required to pay fees to support the Congregationalist majority. The Baptists found this intolerable.
The Baptists, well aware of Jefferson’s own unorthodox beliefs, sought him as an ally in making all religious expression a fundamental human right and not a matter of government largesse.
In his January 1, 1802 reply to the Danbury Baptist Association Jefferson summed up the First Amendment’s original intent, and used for the first time anywhere a now-familiar phrase in today’s political and judicial circles: the amendment established a “wall of separation between church and state.” Largely unknown in its day, this phrase has since become a major Constitutional issue. The first time the U.S. Supreme Court cited that phrase from Jefferson was in 1878, 76 years later.
- Second Great Awakening
The Second Great Awakening was a Protestant movement that began around 1790, gained momentum by 1800, and after 1820 membership rose rapidly among Baptist and Methodist congregations whose preachers led the movement. It was past its peak by the 1840s.
It was a reaction against skepticism, deism, and rational Christianity, and was especially attractive to young women. Millions of new members enrolled in existing evangelical denominations and led to the formation of new denominations.
Many converts believed that the Awakening heralded a new millennial age. The Second Great Awakening stimulated the establishment of many reform movements designed to remedy the evils of society before the anticipated Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
During the Second Great Awakening new Protestant denominations emerged such as Adventism, the Restoration Movement, and groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism. While the First Great Awakening was centered on reviving the spirituality of established congregations, the Second focused on the unchurched and sought to instill in them a deep sense of personal salvation as experienced in revival meetings.
The principal innovation produced by the revivals was the camp meeting. When assembled in a field or at the edge of a forest for a prolonged religious meeting, the participants transformed the site into a camp meeting. Singing and preaching was the main activity for several days.
The revivals were often intense and created intense emotions. Some fell away but many if not most became permanent church members. The Methodists and Baptists made them one of the evangelical signatures of the denomination.
- African American churches
The Christianity of the black population was grounded in evangelicalism. The Second Great Awakening has been called the “central and defining event in the development of Afro-Christianity.” During these revivals Baptists and Methodists converted large numbers of blacks. However, many were disappointed at the treatment they received from their fellow believers and at the backsliding in the commitment to abolish slavery that many white Baptists and Methodists had advocated immediately after the American Revolution.
When their discontent could not be contained, forceful black leaders followed what was becoming an American habit—they formed new denominations. In 1787, Richard Allen and his colleagues in Philadelphia broke away from the Methodist Church and in 1815 founded the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
After the Civil War, Black Baptists desiring to practice Christianity away from racial discrimination, rapidly set up several separate state Baptist conventions. In 1866, black Baptists of the South and West combined to form the Consolidated American Baptist Convention. This convention eventually collapsed but three national conventions formed in response. In 1895 the three conventions merged to create the National Baptist Convention. It is now the largest African-American religious organization in the United States.
Another noteworthy development in 20th-century Christianity was the rise of the modern Pentecostal movement. Pentecostalism, which had its roots in the Pietism and the Holiness movement, arose out of the meetings in 1906 at an urban mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles.
From there it spread by those who experienced what they believed to be miraculous moves of God there.
Pentecostalism would later birth the Charismatic movement within already established denominations, and it continues to be an important force in western Christianity.
19 percent of American Christians are described by the researchers as Active Christians.
They believe salvation comes through Jesus Christ, attend church regularly, are Bible readers, invest in personal faith development through their church, accept leadership positions in their church, and believe they are obligated to “share [their] faith”, that is, to evangelize others.
20 percent are referred to as Professing Christians. They also are committed to “accepting Christ as Savior and Lord” as the key to being a Christian, but focus more on personal relationships with God and Jesus than on church, Bible reading or evangelizing.
16 percent fall into a category named Liturgical Christians. They are predominantly Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, or Orthodox.
They are regular churchgoers, have a high level of spiritual activity and recognize the authority of the church.
24 percent are considered Private Christians.
They own a Bible but don’t tend to read it. Only about one-third attend church at all. They believe in God and in doing good things, but not necessarily within a church context. This was the largest and youngest segment. Almost none are church leaders.
21 percent in the research are called Cultural Christians.
These do not view Jesus as essential to salvation. They exhibit little outward religious behavior or attitudes. They favor a universality theology that sees many ways to God. Yet, they clearly consider themselves to be Christians.
Gallup International indicates that 41%[ of American citizens report they regularly attend religious services, compared to 15% of French citizens, 10% of UK citizens and 7.5% of Australian citizens.
Church / synagogue attendance by state
In a 2014 Gallup survey, less than half of Americans said that they attended church or synagogue weekly. The figures ranged from 51% in Utah to 17% in Vermont. Church attendance varies significantly by state and region.
Weekly church attendance by state
Rank State Percent
South Carolina 42%
North Carolina 40%
New Mexico 36%
West Virginia 34%
North Dakota 32%
South Dakota 31%
New Jersey 30%
Rhode Island 28%
New York 27%
District of Columbia 23%
New Hampshire 20%
A 2015 global census estimated some 450,000 believers in Christ from a Muslim background in the USA, most of whom are evangelicals and Pentecostals.