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Early Religions in America

Genealogical clues may well be found by tracing religious denomination of Early America.


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Although I am breaking a rather smart suggestion to never discuss either politics or religion, nevertheless, religion and American history, as well as family histories are often so intertwined that some understanding of religious beliefs and their history is necessary in order to understand our ancestors. Ideas held in earnest by individuals are, by design, nebulous and sweep about in society, sometimes skipping over entire generations only to crop up again some other place like a sneaky microbe.

Ideas in and of themselves hold no force, no resolve, but the enablers of ideas do. In religion they call the individuals who hold stead fast to the tenets and beliefs of a church as someone being devout. If that person then decides to apply too much force behind that same idea, he or she is judged a fanatic. Some who hold strongly to a belief or idea can view others who do not hold such tenets with a degree of contempt and brand them as being misguided or being an heretic or infidel.

On the other hand, ideas are the empowering concepts that built a nation, drove our ancestors across deadly oceans to survive harsh conditions. Freedom has always been a powerful idea which no amount of counter-force can entirely vanquish. It may be buried in despair or forgotten by fear, but like any idea, it will resurface. Whether our forefathers traveled to America for the freedom of worship or the freedom from governments and tyrants, freedom rang strong and true for our ancestors.

As my family carried the torch, generation after generation across America, religion and the practice of a doctrine began to wane until noone in my immediate family really associated with a church or congregation. In contrast, my fifth-great-grandfather Adam Smith Sr. was a German Baptist and most likely would not have been caught dead with out a black hat and jacket. A few generations later, my grandfather called the religion his father participated in as either dippers or dunkers. The urge to attend church fizzled. The height of my direct line to immerse into religion was my fourth-great-grandfather, Adam Smith Jr. who started a German Baptist church in Licking County, Ohio. He and his son Isaac became deacons of the church, which they built originally of logs in the early 1800's.

Rifts in congregations, rifts in a family over ideas, over transgressions written in scripture, can be sudden and divide like a fork in a river or as gradual as the erosion of a river bank. Dissent can be over philosophical points, the conduct of ceremonies, or disagreements on interpretation of a particular passage. Or like my second-great-uncle's son, which family lore said, "He did something against the church," and thus that entire branch of the family moved from Indiana to Michigan, in disgrace. What ever the rift, whether the church left the family or the family left the church, the consequences are like ripples in a pond, the effects sweep out and changes destiny in its wake.

The Lutheran Church in America

In my research I ran into the Lutheran church as it appeared in the late 1700s-early 1800s in the northern section of the Shenandoah Valley. Dr. Martin Luther posted his challenge to the established church in 1517 and by 1580 the statements of belief became known as the Lutheran confessions.

The "Father" of American Lutheranism was Pastor Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, who arrived from Germany to Pennsylvania in 1742 and started the first church in Trappe, Pennsylvania. There was a family with the same name of Adam Smith that lived in the same Shenandoah Valley. I was able to separate the two families apart by discovering which religion belonged to which family. This is another reason why churches and the geographical areas they set up in are important to genealogical research.


Early school books seem to group all separations from the Western Roman Catholic church as the Protestant Reformation. I can remember the root word "protest" as commonly bantered about. However, as written below under the German Baptists section, the 16th century had its fair share of many different groups finding fault with the Catholic Churches handling of affairs. Some of the objections were not just concerning religious practices, but also at the corruption and the selling off of offices in the church. Protestants generally trace their separation from the Catholic Church during this same era.

The history of this period is at best a record of chaos and turmoil. Obviously, there was dissatisfaction concerning the Roman Catholic's handling of the Christian religion. To be sure, the four major Inquisitions which covered a period from 1184 to 1860, did not help, as many brutal actions to handle heresy would also target groups which separated from the church. For example, the Huguenot wars in 1562 might explain why my fifth-great-grandfather Adam Smith (a German) ended up with a wife named Hannah Jackman (a French woman). It would explain how French and Germans merged in the Rhine River area as a result of populations fleeing from death by the sword due to their religious views, and thus began the friction of an area later known as Alsace Lorraine. This area would be an area of contest and start another series of wars later in history.

German Baptists

By an outsider, the story of the German Baptist takes some study to understand. Baptism is defined in the dictionary as an initiation or symbol of admission into Christianity or a Christian church. It is an event or ordeal designed to purify or cleanse the subject. Anabaptists was a 16th century sect which started a movement known as the Reformation. The group. originating in Switzerland, denied the validity of infant baptism as it was previously held in the Roman Catholic Church. The Anabaptist practiced adult baptisms and advocated other religious and social reforms. Such groups as the Amish and the Mennonites were also descendants of the Anabaptists.

Historians contend that the Old German Baptist Brethren descended from a period of time in 1708 when Alexander Mack founded a fellowship with seven other believers in Schwarzenau, Germany. These individuals were to start what was later known as the pietist movement, which advocated a revival of devotional ideas and practices. Several Brethren groups, Brethren referring to a brotherhood in a religious order, trace themselves back to Mack's first group. These resulting splinter groups are distinguished as German Baptists and not to be confused with English Baptist.

German Baptists were given various other names such as, "Dunker, Dunkards, Tunkers, and Taufer which all relate to their practice of baptism by immersion. I have also come across the names of dunkers, dippers, and tankers in my own family research.

Like most seeking freedom for religious worship and from persecution, many Brethren groups immigrated to America: the largest influx was between 1719 and 1729. In 1719 the first congregation was founded near German Town, Pennsylvania. The groups of worshipers tended to congregate in a rather small geographic area, connected to one another by faith and by the German language. They were first known as the NeuTaufer (new Baptists) and later adopted "German Baptist," "German Baptist Brethren," and by 1871 was the "Old German Baptist Brethren." The later group represented a group which did not tolerate certain modern innovations of the 19th century. As with most early immigrants, the language of the homeland slowly relinquished to English.

,In 1881 to 1883 German Baptist continued to fracture off into different churches over issues of Sunday school, type of dress, automobiles and telephones, and other disciplines. The German Baptist Brethren change their name to the Church of the Brethren in 1908.

The advance of modern technology continued to be a catalyst for the continuing splitting and re-identifying certain church groups until you get today a plethora of names and denominations across the United States. In addition, there are many other names which popped up like the Southern and Calvary Baptist, which reflect more geographical reasons. Calvary being the name of the hill where Jesus Christ was crucified. This is why I had always been confused as to who was who. Many outsiders still use "German Baptists" and "Quakers" as an all inclusive term for the groups which adhere to a specific dress code for every day while others have relaxed such restrictions to when they are attending church. And then there are many Baptist churches, which could be descendants as well from English Baptist roots, which seem to have dropped out all of the dress codes and restrictions in using modern devices. Is it any wonder a genealogist becomes confused when trying to track down the church in which their ancestors participated?

The Amish & Mennonites

My father was born in the 1920s in an area called, Pucker Huddle near Elkhart, Indiana. Today a majority, if not all of the farms, are owned and operated by the closed society of the Amish. As mentioned above, Amish and Mennonites were also part of the Anabaptists as described above in the German Baptist section. It is said they also challenged the reforms of Martin Luther and other Protestant Reformations, and like the Baptist, rejected infant baptisms. They were once known as Mennonites in Switzerland but in the late 1600s, led by Jakob Ammann, left over a disagreement, primarily over the shunning of ex-communicated members. The distinction between the Amish and the Mennonites is largely one of dress and manor of worship.

The first sizable group of Amish arrived in America around 1730 and settled near Lancaster County, Pennsylvania as a result of William Penn's ‘Holy Experiment'. Since then the Amish have spread to twenty four states and Canada. Today Amish settlements are divided into five orders, the "Old Order Amish" is the largest group and the "Swartzentruber Amish" are considered the most conservative.


Quaker is a word that means "to tremble in the way of the lord." It is also an informal label referring to members of the ‘Religious Society of Friends' which was a movement which began in England in the 17th century. The movement continued to expand into many parts of the world, especially the Americas and Africa. William Penn's effort was to establish a safe place for the Quakers to live and practice their faith. As with other religious groups, they suffered separations in the 1800's forming different branches.

For me, the term Quaker has always been a term used quite loosely by others. Too many have seen fit to assign anyone in the traditional dress as Quakers. The previous outline of other denominations begins to bring into focus what has been too over-lapping of a subject. It was said that William Penn began to lose control of his settlements, as different groups had strong ideas on how they wanted to live as apposed to Mr. Penn's vision. After seeing all the various origins that these groups came from, it is easy to see why.

Catholic Churches in America

With more than 68 million members worldwide, the Catholic Church was spread widely by missionaries. In America, the first to arrive after Christopher Columbus were the Spanish missionaries, establishing missions in what is today, Florida, Georgia, Texas, New Mexico, and California. French missionaries also contributed in the states of Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, and Michigan. In contrast, in 1789 there were only a small fraction of Catholics in the original thirteen colonies. Immigration in the 19th century from various nationalities expanded the numbers. This was obviously due to the influence of the Church of England which had also separated from the Catholic church.

Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church has a very colorful history, especially for America. Its roots travel back to the Church of England, which began with a founding church in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The Church of England continued to grow with churches in Virginia, New York, Maryland, and the Carolinas. However, it was disestablished by the Revolutionary War. In the 1780s it was reestablished as the Episcopal Church, as an independent church and was the church of choice for many high-status Americans and English immigrants. It boasts of having a quarter of the presidents of the United States as being Episcopalians.

Islam in America

Though I have never run across this group in my research, I thought it only fair to briefly cover Islam's growth in America. Historically, Estevanico of Azamor, a Moorish Muslim, landed in Florida in 1527. The first group of Muslims landed and settled in coastal towns of South Carolina and Eastern Tennessee in around 1587. It has been estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the slaves to America were Muslims.

A small scale migration to the United States by Muslims started in about 1840. Most of the immigrants had the purpose of making money and returning to their homeland, but ended up staying. The largest groups ended up in Michigan, M'

In Summary

In my research I also followed a branch of a church from the Shenandoah Valley region in Virginia to central Ohio. It was interesting to note that I found a portion of a group split away from the Virginia church, and a number of these families had surnames which were connected with my family line. This, too, is an important reason for genealogists to include in his or her studies, the family's religious beliefs. When faced with the disappearance of a family from an area, maybe they followed their favorite pastor or elders. Religion, the pastors, and the congregation as a whole, can have a huge impact on a family's history. Histories of marriages, baptisms, and other ceremonies can some times be found in better condition in the hands of the church than with governments. Church functions and socials are often where many young couples meet each other and later marry. Churches are where people turned to for help, as the early colonial government could not provide much for families needing relief. The roster of a church at a particular time can be quite revealing. This is why I made a stab at trying to sort out some of the prominent religions which came to America. I do not for a minute believe I scratched the surface of all denominations, but then, I'll leave it up to the researcher of his or her particular family's belief to find out more.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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