The Protestant Ascendancy

Most of the early colonists in what became the original thirteen American states were professors of faith in Jesus as Calvinists. Many Lutherans, Quakers, and Anabaptists from Germany, Holland, and England also were among the colonies' earliest immigrants, especially to Pennsylvania. Even in the latest national census, persons of German descent were found to still be the most populous ethnic group in Pennsylvania, with Scots-Irish (mostly Protestant) a close second.

The original immigrants to New England — Pilgrims and Puritans — were fleeing England for greater religious freedom in the New World, as were the Quakers and Anabaptists who colonized Pennsylvania. The Dutch Reformed who first settled New York and overflowed in large numbers into New Jersey were primarily entrepreneurs rather than religious refugees. The Presbyterians who dominated New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware were mainly northern Irish seeking better opportunities for advancement in life, as Presbyterianism was the religion favored by their British rulers in Ireland at the time.

Members of the Church of England dominated the southern colonies such as Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, with noticeable numbers of Huguenot refugees from France in South Carolina, and Moravian refugees (descended from the ministry of reformer Jan Hus in Moravia, in what is now the Czech Republic) in Salem (now Winston-Salem) in North Carolina. An earlier sizable colony of Moravians had also been established earlier in Bethlehem and Nazareth, Pennsylvania.


All of the American colonies except Maryland — which was founded through a land grant to an Irish Catholic aristocrat, Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore — had established churches. But as the colonies grew and began competing for new settlers, they downplayed their religious preferences, and by the time of the American Revolution, the established church was no longer a significant issue.

Most of the early settlers of America, refugees from countries where the Catholic Church dominated, strongly feared Catholic immigration or, at the least, Catholic domination of their towns. Many towns and localities barred Catholic churches by either tacit or explicit measures through the nineteenth century, and some such towns were still known as Protestant towns well into the twentieth century.

Anti-Catholic Sentiments

There are reports of a Catholic church being burned down by disgruntled Protestants in New York in 1831, and of Protestant-Catholic riots in Philadelphia claiming thirteen lives in 1844. A political party campaigning as the American Party in 1854, which elected governors in Massachusetts and Delaware, and got Millard Fillmore on the presidential ticket, asked prospective party members to pledge to “elect to all offices of Honor, Profit, or Trust, no one but native born citizens of America, of this Country to the exclusion of all Foreigners, and to all Roman Catholics, whether they be of native or Foreign Birth, regardless of all party predilections whatever.”

Another gauge of anti-Catholic sentiments is the historical record of the American Protective Association, sometimes wrongly called the American Protestant Association (APA). Founded in 1887 in Clinton, Iowa, the APA is said to have drawn membership largely from the Masons, who at that time did not admit Catholics (though it's debated whether the Vatican permitted Catholics to join quasi-religious Masonic organizations).

An APA Oath

An oath required of APA candidates for membership said, in part: “I do most solemnly promise and swear that I will always, to the utmost of my ability, labor, plead and wage a continuous warfare against ignorance and fanaticism; that I will use my utmost power to strike the shackles and chains of blind obedience to the Roman Catholic church from the hampered and bound consciences of a priest-ridden and church-oppressed people; that I will never allow any one, a member of the Roman Catholic church, to become a member of this order … to promote the interest of all Protestants everywhere in the world that I may be; that I will not employ a Roman Catholic in any capacity if I can procure the services of a Protestant.” Though most American Protestants may have been ignorant of the APA and its oath, such attitudes were still widely found during the campaign for the presidency of John F. Kennedy in 1960. That campaign, in fact, may have been a turning point in the decline of such attitudes. As the first nation on earth to have a pluralistic but Protestant-dominated population enjoying freedom of religion, it's understandable that despite the changes of the modern age, American Protestants would only reluctantly welcome change.

Protestant Power

At the time of the American Revolution, the population was 98 percent Protestant. And in 1900, Protestants of English, Scots, Irish, German, and Dutch background comprised 55 percent of the population, with national immigration laws favoring immigration from similar ethnic backgrounds well into the twentieth century.


To the current era, the United States is considered a country controlled by Protestants, with that religious group dominant in every branch of federal government and most state governments as well. Even in 2005, the media considered it newsworthy that the U.S. Supreme Count had its first Catholic and non-Protestant majority among the nine justices.

Under the gentle husbandry of the American Protestant mainstream, Protestantism has also grown exponentially in the Third World in the past generation. According to recent statistics, there are 1.1 billion Roman Catholics and over 800 million Protestants, Independents, and Anglicans worldwide, which is approximately four times the 218 million Eastern Orthodox worldwide. Considering that up to now, in this consideration of Jesus' world impact, the Orthodox have received second-place attention after Catholics, this signals a significant turning point in the history of the Jesus movement.

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