As we celebrate the 238th birthday of America this July 4, we look back on the religious movements that began right here in the U.S. of A.
Here's a timeline of some of the most well-known spiritual traditions:
Native Traditions: 9,000 BCE Or Earlier
America's very first inhabitants have a rich religious history that goes all the way back to prehistoric times, with traditions specific to each tribe. These religious beliefs include diverse origin myths, burial rituals, the existence of a Creator, and an afterlife, and are still held by many Native Americans today.
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing were known as Shakers, due to their trembling style of dance which was intended to "shake" off sins during their vigorous worship. The Shaker movement was founded by Mother Ann Lee, who traveled from England to America in 1774 to find a place for the sect to grow. The community believed in celibacy, communal life, and confession of sin as their basic tenets, while also holding fast to the ideals of pacifism, equality of races and genders, and isolation from the world. A small but active Shaker community lives today at the Sabbathday Lake in Maine.
Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints: 1830
Joseph Smith Jr. founded the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, after receiving several heavenly manifestations, according to church theology. These led him to discover gold plates buried near his New York home which contained a uniquely American religious story, and later became known as the Book of Mormon. The Church now has over 15,000,000 members worldwide, thanks in part to extensive missionary efforts. Their 13 Articles of Faith include the belief in salvation through Jesus, the Bible and Book of Mormon as the word of God, and that Zion will be built upon the American continent.
Seventh-Day Adventist Church: 1863
The Seventh-Day Adventist Church grew out of the Millerite movement in 1840s New York, which prophesied the imminent Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It was formally established about twenty years later in Michigan. The movement emphasizes the importance of keeping the Sabbath day holy as a day of rest, and has expanded beyond America with significant missionary strategies to attract new converts. Through prophecy and Biblical study, they set a specific date for Christ's literal return in 1844.
Jehovah's Witnesses: 1870
Jehovah's Witnesses are a Christian denomination which is perhaps best-known for its door-to-door evangelization efforts. They began as a Biblical study group partly organized by Charles Taze Russell, who disputed many beliefs of mainstream Christianity such as the Trinity and the immortality of the soul. He began publishing the Watch Tower magazine in 1879, which led to the growth of the movement and the beginning of the distribution of religious material in earnest. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Armageddon is imminent, and that God's kingdom will be established on earth. Other beliefs include an objection to military service and blood transfusions.
The Church of Christ, Scientist: 1879
The Christian Science faith was founded by Mary Baker Eddy, the author of Science and Health with Key to the Scripture, which emphasizes the power of the Bible as a source of physical and mental healing. Her text, along with the Bible, are the primary sources of teachings for the Church of Christ, Scientist, which originally believed that members should not seek out modern medical care, though that practice is changing. The church is known for its Christian Science Reading Rooms, public bookstores focusing on spirituality, prayer, and healing, as well as the internationally regarded news organization, The Christian Science Monitor, which was founded by Baker Eddy herself.
The Pentecostal Movement is one of the largest and most significant religious movements of the twentieth century. It traces its origins back to 1901, when students at a Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, concluded that speaking in tongues was a definitive sign of baptism by the Holy Spirit. The official beginning of the movement is usually considered to be the Azusa Street Revival, a historic and ecstatic meeting led by William J. Seymour. Participants experienced dramatic worship services, miracles, and speaking in tongues. Pentecostalism emphasizes the joy of worship, and has grown drastically from its relatively recent beginnings. A 2011 Pew survey showed that Pentecostal and other charismatic Christians make up over a quarter of all Christians.
Reconstructionist Judaism: 1920s-1940s
Reconstructionist Judaism grew out of the ideas of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and his son-in-law, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, who believed that historical progress meant that modern Jews did not necessarily have to hold on to many traditional tenets of Judaism. Reconstructionist Jews believe that Judaism can evolve. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was established in 1968, which was an important stride for the movement.
The Nation of Islam: 1930
The Nation of Islam was founded by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad, who preached of the oneness of God and the importance of African-Americans embracing Islam as the religion of their African ancestors. The Nation of Islam believes in the Five Pillars of Islam, though it is not widely accepted as part of the Islamic faith. Elijah Muhammad succeeded Wallace D. Fard Muhammad as the head of the movement, which subsequently ran into legal issues due to the attempt at founding separate schools for members and advocating against serving in the military during WWII. The Nation of Islam remains an important movement in the religious landscape of African-Americans.
Christian Universalism/Unitarianism: 1961
The Universalist Church of America was founded by John Murray in 1793, followed by the American Unitarian Association in 1825. While neither denomination was new when it arrived in the U.S., in 1961, they merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961, which is a non-creedal movement with a liberal Christian background. However, modern Unitarian Universalists would not necessarily call themselves Christians, preferring to define themselves by their shared regard for intellectual freedom and spiritual seeking. Their seven "Principles and Purposes" explain their affirmation of human dignity, commitment to justice, equality, and compassion, acceptance of all people, the search for truth, the use of the democratic process, the goal of world peace, and respect for life.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly characterized the LDS Church's conception of God as "Trinitarian." Language has also been amended to clarify that the Unitarian/Universalist merger, and not the individual churches, was an American development.