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History of Protestantism in North America

Protestantism in North America begins with its early European roots and a German friar and lecturer, Martin Luther. His first step of the protestant reformation started when he led a charge against indulgences that benefitted the pope. His critiques gained popularity in Germany and with passing decades the protestant ideologies found their way into the Church of England. The stark divide between Protestantism and Cathocilislm began to appear. The events that followed the reformation made dramatic changes throughout Europe. Mass rebellions took place within the Holy Roman Empire that led to an agitated peace until Roman bishops decided to create a counter-reformation. The primary differences rested in the attitudes the two ideologies had about the church and the reading of the Bible. In the protestant’ view, the Bible was the only base for their beliefs while Catholics would also abide by the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Another dissimilarity was regarding the importance of the church (Sheet 26). While the Catholics believed that their church was the only true church, protestants had no united church and regarded all of them as equals. These divisive aspects of each ideology led to the formation of the protestant communities in North America.

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The influx of immigration to North America was a pathway for English colonists of varying outlooks on Protestantism. Settlements in Virginia were content to uphold a religion that was similar to the ideals of the Church of England. Alternatively, Puritans, such as the lawyer John Winthrop, considered the religious practices in England corrupt and morally depraved (Sheet 23). Fearing the wrath of England’s currently anti-Puritan King, Winthrop led about seven hundred migrants to Massachusetts Bay. Winthrop was not alone in escaping the lack of religious tolerance of Europe at the time. Protestants and Puritans that arrived in North America were concerned with predestination and indentured servitude, whether they were in support of it or not (Sheet 27). The new freedom outside England allowed for discussion concerning such topics. As such, the religious division often reflected class segregation in conflicts such as the Salem Witch Trials, coverture laws, and Bacon’s Rebellion led by the redemptioners.

The tensions between the protestants and Catholics in North America continued to develop. With increasing numbers of protestants, the catholic population was under threat. However, the conflict was not limited to disagreements between the two branches of Christianity, but also within the protestant circles. For instance, Anne Hutchinson held beliefs that it was only God who could save the soul of an individual and not their hard work or deeds (Sheet 28). Many disagreed with her view, and she was banished by Bay Colonist ministers. This was one of the main events to cement the visible divide even within the tightly-knit Puritan communities. Nevertheless, a few years after Hutchinson’s banishment, the Maryland Assembly passed the 1649 Toleration Act (Sheet 30). This document guaranteed religious freedom to Catholics who had been under threat of the growing numbers of protestants at the time. Though the conflict was not over, progress was being made in the area of religious expression and acceptance.

The relationship between Catholicism and Protestantism in the United States has always been changeable. From being hostile at its early start to slight cooperation during times of crisis such as war, the bond is responsible for many aspects of United States history. The religions caused great divides and debates throughout their evolutions; they were also key to tolerance not only towards each other but to other religions in the United States.


Sheet, Kevin. Sources for America’s History Volume 1: To 1877. 8th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014.

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