Americas Decentralized Religious History

American religious history reflects an equally decentralized, "frontier" orientation. The nation initially was settled largely by religious dissidents, who came here at least partly for their own religious freedom—though once here, they generally discriminated against people who practiced other faiths! The first East Coast settlers were mostly Protestant and generally came from Congregational traditions in which most decisions were made at the level of the individual church rather than imposed hierarchically from church bureaucracies. The nature of the frontier reinforced this tendency: pioneers establishing new settlements had to establish not only police and educational systems but also churches, if they wanted them: certainly the government was not going to do so. As a result, churches took on a regional flavor, often diverging theologically from other churches that were nominally the same.

The United States also has been the nursery for a wide variety of spontaneously generated, independent sects, often inspired by charismatic leaders. It was in the United States that the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and now-extinct sects such as Shakers and Millerites were founded, reflecting our decentralized, nonhierar-chical religious past. But perhaps the most important reason that modern antievolu-tionism developed here rather than in, say, Europe, was the founding in 1910-1915 of fundamentalism, a Protestant view that stresses the inerrancy of the Bible. Fundamentalism was not successfully exported to Europe or Great Britain, but it formed the basis in the United States for the antievolutionism of the 1920s Scopes era as well as the present day.

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