Monday, December 4, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac, we head to the mailbag to answer a question about Christianity in the early American Colonies.

It is the 4th of December 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Happy Monday- officially in Advent! And my oldest son was confirmed yesterday- finishing his class and making a confession of faith before the church- good times.

I got a lovely email from longtime listener Kelvin in Hamilton, Ontario (that’s Canada). Hamilton, I’ve mentioned before, is where my favorite non-Clipper basketball player- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, went to High School there- but also the home to two of the great modern comedians- Martin Short and Eugene Levy.  

Kelvin also wrote:
“As with anything that is done well, your show continues to invite me to ask new questions. For example, a week ago I realized that the Massachusetts Bay Puritans and William Penn's efforts in what is now Pennsylvania are reasonably well known but I know relatively little about matters Church History related to most of the rest of the thirteen colonies.”

Ok- so let’s do this from 30,000 feet. The 13 colonies were established in the 17th century as either royal colonies (under the direct control of the English Crown) or Proprietary colonies (run by wealthy people or companies). Massachusetts, in particular, and New England, generally, get all the attention. But there are three major groups:

The New England: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

The Middle Colonies: Pennsylvania, New York (formerly New Amsterdam), New Jersey, and Delaware

The Southern Colonies: Maryland, the 2 Carolinas, and Georgia.

The colonies were settled amidst the 30 Years War and the English Civil Wars- they were intended to imitate Europe- small sovereign countries. The idea of a monolithic “America” is a late 18th-century invention fortified after the American Civil War.

But with the background of the English Civil Wars and the 30 Years War, all of the colonies were careful to balance religious conviction with freedom of religion and tolerance.

Rhode Island was settled by Roger Williams and early dissenters from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Maryland- named after King Charles I's Spanish Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria of Spain, was settled by English Catholics. Virginia became a haven for English businessmen looking to make money, primarily in tobacco, and toed the party line as an Anglican stronghold.  

The Carolinas were intended to be similar, but when some advocated for religious tolerance, those in the North, near Virginia, rebelled against the idea and formed a “North Carolina.” Georgia, named after King George II, was founded by Samuel Oglethorpe, who wanted to create a kind of utopia- religiously and economically. It attracted missionaries like the Wesleys and some from the German pietist stronghold of Halle in Germany. It would become a center for the growing Baptist Christians (and today, we see this represented throughout the greater southeastern region of America).

New York is a fascinating test case- until 1644, it was ruled by Dutch farming families- including my ancestors- the van Voorhis family, who settled in Flatbush in Brooklyn. This was not so much an experiment in religious pluralism (the Netherlands had been known as an outpost of pluralism in the Early Modern Period). Thus it was designed for primarily economic reasons- thus, the first Jewish synagogue was in New Amsterdam. When it was taken by the British and named after the Duke of York (and soon to be King Charles II) it retained its general tolerance and would become a metropolitan center for commerce.

It should also be mentioned that there was a large population of slaves- our country's “original sin,” but these men and women from the transatlantic slave trade brought with them folk religions, animism, and Islam (from, to be fair, their original slave owners- Arabs in Africa… everyone is guilty!) Many would convert to Christianity and bring distinct flavors to the faith from their past.

I mentioned on this weekend’s show that America has a “disestablished” church- I mentioned this was a good thing, but I should note that not all agree. There were (and are) those “anti-disestablishmentarians” - that was once thought to be the longest word in the dictionary but has been supplanted by (depending on your dictionary) Pneumono­ultra­micro­scopic­silico­volcano­coniosis- defined as "an artificial long word said to mean a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust”.

As we continue on the show, we will certainly be adding to these baskets with characters and events from all of the colonies- it’s good to remember the diversity baked into the original colonies as distinct colonies.

Thanks, Kelvin- for the kind words and question. You can send me your question at


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- it’s Advent- we have a word from the prophet Micah.

In the last days

the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
    as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
    and peoples will stream to it.

Many nations will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He will judge between many peoples
    and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

Everyone will sit under their own vine
    and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
    for the Lord Almighty has spoken.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 4th of December 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man with Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia- that is, a fear of long words- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who, if I were to get my own fig tree, I’d be open to trades, maybe some grapes, a few apples…  Dan van Voorhis

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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