This project commemorates colonial clergy for their roles as founders and leaders of the first American communities. The first clergy in America led bands of followers across the Atlantic and acted as leaders in every area of life — as educators, judges and heads of government — during America’s formative years.
Bring your "Reverend" ancestors on over! To be eligible, participating subjects must have been born prior to 1776, the year Britain's American colonies declared their independence, and the subject's profile must be set to public.
Virginia and the Carolinas
In a stark new world, Virginia's English colonists were supported by an ancient and familiar tradition – the established church. The law mandated that white Virginians worship in the Anglican church (Church of England) and support its upkeep with their taxes. Religion was an integral part of everyday life in Virginia, blurring the lines between religious and civil authority. Virginia gentlemen, who supported establishment but disliked centralized church authority, gained control of parish vestries and county courts to secure their power over religious matters. (3)
In New England (except Rhode Island), the Puritan or Congregational Church was practically the State Church. In no other part of America had religion taken such a powerful hold on the people as here. The minister was held in the highest esteem and reverence by the people, who considered it a privilege to sit on the hard seats and listen to a three-hour sermon on the special providences of God, metaphysical abstractions, or the tortures of the lost soul. New England ministers were men of profound learning; many of them could read Hebrew, Greek, and classical Latin. We may grow weary of the pedantry, the metaphysics, and the narrowness of the Puritan ministers, but it cannot be denied that they were sincere, honest men. (2)
Rhode Island was the home of the first Baptist church, the first Jewish synagogue, and one of the first Quaker meetinghouses.
"And here, in this community, was presented the first example the world ever saw of perfect religious toleration—everyone was permitted to hold such religious opinions, and to worship God after that manner they pleased, without fear and molestation. The honor of this arrangement belongs to Mr. Williams." (6)
The Middle colonists were a mixture of religions, including Quakers (led by William Penn), Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, and others.
The Middle Atlantic colonies of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, were conceived and established "as plantations of religion." Some settlers who arrived in these areas came for secular motives—"to catch fish" as one New Englander put it—but the great majority left Europe to worship in the way they believed to be correct. They supported the efforts of their leaders to create "a City upon a Hill" or a "holy experiment," whose success would prove that God's plan for churches could be successfully realized in the American wilderness.
The First Great Awakening (1730-1760)
In the middle of the 18th century a series of evangelical religious revival movements swept across colonial America. Known as the First Great Awakening, the movements were characterized by emotional religious conversions from a state of sin to a "new birth" and by dramatic and powerful preaching by itinerant preachers in front of crowds of thousands. It also marked a new effort by European colonialists to reach out to Native Americans and African-Americans. Although not widely spoken of in modern times, the Great Awakening was a movement rooted in spiritual growth which brought a national identity to Colonial America. (4)
Despite the evangelical, emotional challenge to reason underlying the “Great Awakening,” by the end of the colonial period, Protestant rationalism remained the dominant religious force among the leaders of most of the colonies.
At the core of this rational belief was the idea that God had endowed humans with reason so that they could tell the difference between right and wrong. Knowing the difference also meant that humans made free choices to sin or behave morally. The radicalization of this position led many rational dissenters to argue that intervention in human decisions by civil authorities undermined the special covenant between God and humankind. Many therefore advocated the separation of church and state.
Taken further, the logic of these arguments led them to dismiss the divine authority claimed by the English kings, as well as the blind obedience compelled by such authority. Thus, by the 1760s, they mounted a two-pronged attack on England: first, for its desire to intervene in the colonies’ religious life and, second, for its claim that the king ruled over the colonies by divine inspiration. Once the link to divine authority was broken, revolutionaries turned to Locke, Milton, and others, concluding that a government that abused its power and hurt the interests of its subjects was tyrannical and as such deserved to be replaced. (5)
Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas (1746-1816) was the first native-born rabbi in the United States. He was one of seven children of Rachel and Isaac Seixas. He was born in New York City on January 15, 1746. His father had emigrated from Lisbon, Portugal, to New York in 1730, where he went into the mercantile business. He was appointed to be the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, a Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York City, in 1768. Seixas was the father of fifteen children from his first wife, Elkay Cohen, who died in 1785, and eleven by his second wife Hannah Manuel, whom he married on November 1, 1789. Gershom Seixas died on July 2, 1816. He is buried in New York City's New Bowery Cemetery of the Shearith Israel Congregation.
- John Cotton (1585–1652), a clergyman in England and the American colonies, and by most accounts the preeminent Puritan minister and theologian of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
- John Davenport (clergyman) (1597–1670)
- Roger Williams (1604–1683), a clergyman, founded the colony of Rhode Island (Providence Plantations) at Providence in 1636. With a small band of followers, Roger Williams had fled religious repression in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
- John Harvard (clergyman) (1607–1638), benefactor of New College in Massachusetts which later changed its name in his honor
- Joseph Alleine (c. 1634–1668)
- Matthew Henry (1662–1714)
- Cotton Mather (1663–1728)
- Jonathan Edwards (theology) (1703–1758). One of the greatest of the New England ministers was Jonathan Edwards, whose work on the "Freedom of the Will" is one of the very few colonial productions that still live in American literature.
- Olmstead, Clifton E. History of Religion in the United States. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1960. Page 215.
- Religion, Education and Medicine in Colonial America
- Colonial Williamsburg - Religion in Early Virginia
- Wikipedia: History of religion in the United States
- Religion in Colonial America: Trends, Regulations, and Beliefs
- Colony Of Rhode Island: A Brief History
- FINDING CLERGY IN YOUR FAMILY TREE
- The Society of Descendants of the Colonial Clergy
- Colonial Clergy. Comment: Because of the extensive research by and publications of Frederick Lewis Weiss for the Society of the Descendants of the Colonial Clergy, brief biographical information about clergy ordained in the original 13 colonies prior to July 4, 1776, is easily available.
- The Colonial Clergy and the Colonial Churches of New England (ancestry.com search)
- Hall of Church History - The Puritans
- Wikipedia - List of Puritans
- Faith of the Pilgrims
- Pilgrims and Puritans in 17th Century New England
- Rhode Island colonial history
- The Colonial Clergy of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina (Google eBook)
- The Colonial Clergy of the Middle Colonies: New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, 1628-1776 (Google eBook)
- The colonial clergy of Maryland, Delaware, and Georgia
- Biographical Index of Missionaries — Native Americans
- Colonial Clerics, African American Slaves, and the concept of spiritual equality, 1696-1757
- Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening in Colonial America
- The Great Awakening
- Scots-Irish Project: Religion and the Frontier Experience
- How the West was Won - Methodists and Baptists on the American Frontier
- List of clergy in the American Revolution