In 1729, following a two-year stay in London, Voltaire reported that: in England there are sixty different religions, but only one sauce. Find one account of religion in the early United States here, digest of a source here. Below we feature the words of three Americans in 1856, an obscure young Presbyterian woman, and two famous old ministers, one a Congregationalist and the other a Methodist. In addition, we cite the 1856 writing of a foreigner who was frequently mentioned (notably by one political party) in the US Presidential campaign of 1856, the Roman Catholic patriarch.
At the start of the American War of Independence in 1776, churches were established in most of the colonies. Congregationalism, the child of the Puritans (and today the United Church of Christ) was the established church in New England (save Rhode Island); not until 1833 did Massachusetts stop collecting a tax to support it. Anglicanism was established in New York and south of the Mason-Dixon line, save for Delaware; renamed Episcopalianism, it was rapidly disestablished after the War as many of its loyalist followers emigrated from the new nation.
By 1850, there had been a religious revolution. First, the fraction of religious adherents had doubled from 17% to 34%. Second, the two once-established churches had shrunk to negligible shares of adherents, while the Methodists had made a meteoric rise to reach their historical high-tide. Third, non-trivial numbers of Catholics, mostly immigrants, now joined the still-overwhelming Protestant majority.
Source for this section: The Churching of America, 1776-1990 (Rutgers University Press, 1997)
Village Life in America - 1856 entries from the diary of Caroline Richards, a 14-year-old New York girl raised in Puritan traditions.
The Oberlin Evangelist (1856 Sermons and Lectures by Charles G. Finney, president of Oberlin College)
Oberlin attained prominence because of the influence of its second president, the evangelist Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), a key figure of the Second Great Awakening.
Opposition by Lyman Beecher and other pillars of the Congregationalist establishment to...
Finney's immensely successful revival campaigns along the frontier [echoed with success
by an exploding denomination like the Methodists] displayed their strong preferences
for intellectualized... religion...
[Earlier,] George Whitfield charged... the primary impact of [the Harvard and
Yale divinity schools] may have been to replace faith with theology and belief with
unbelief. Indeed, it was in the religion departments and divinity schools, not in
the science departments, that unbelief was formulated and promulgated in American
Ironically, Beecher... proposed Congregationalist revivals as the best
defense against... the new competitive threat posed by the Baptists and
Methodists... But these revivals must not use vulgar methods, must not
cause "muscular" reactions, must not infringe on local cartel
arrangements, and must not give the lower classes the idea that all are
equal in the eyes of God...
Autobiography of Peter Cartwright (Nelson and Phillips, New York, 1856)
Perhaps the most famous Methodist circuit rider,
(1785-1872), was another key figure of the
Second Great Awakening.
Looking back on his church after the better part of a century of ministry,
SINGULARI QUIDEM, encyclical on the Church in Austria promulgated on 17 March 1856 by Pope Pius IX.
A candidate of church liberals whose rule would gravely disappoint them, Pius IX (1792-1878) had a long reign (1846-1878) which saw the virtual extinction of his church's temporal power, and imminently presaged the new doctrine of theological infallibility, arguably as a reaction.
Today only twice as many Americans spring from Protestant backgrounds as Catholic ones. Moreover, contemporary audits here and here claim that among the religious, Catholics and Protestants have roughly comparable numbers. But in 1856 the religious population of the United States was overwhelmingly Protestant, with adhering Catholics making up only 5% of the nation. Being "Romish" was odd, and engendered anxiety in some quarters.