Colonial American Religion and the Lesser-Known Sects

Colonial American Religion and the Lesser-Known Sects

Colonial America is well known for its religious diversity. While major groups like the Puritans and Anglicans are easily recognizable, a number of small sects – splinter groups of various sizes, also found a spiritual refuge in the colonies. Many of these Protestant off-shoots found a welcome in Pennsylvania, parts of New Jersey, Maryland, and Georgia. Many were German Pietists, opposed to war and the swearing of oaths. Splinter groups represented differing views on baptism, the Sabbath, and New Testament morality as part of the sanctified experience of a Christian.

Religious Freedom and the Quest for Perfection

According to historian Williston Walker, “…no other colony represented such a variety of religious bodies as Pennsylvania.” Settled by Quakers in 1656, Pennsylvania rapidly became a haven for other Protestant groups such as Baptists, Mennonites, Moravians, Lutherans, and the Amish. In 1708, a small group dubbed the “Dunkers” arrived.

Dunkers were members of the German Baptist Brethren, established in Schwarzenau and identified with triple “dipping” (immersion). By 1728, a smaller, splinter group had formed calling themselves the Seventh-Day Baptists. Under the leadership of George Conrad Beissel, who also believed in celibacy as a means toward spiritual perfection, they settled in Lancaster County at the Ephrata Cloister.

Maryland also had its “perfectionists.” In 1722 a Utopian community was set up by “Labadists,” followers of Jean de Labadie. Labadists stressed an extreme form of justification by faith – antinomianism, modeling their small community on the early church in the Acts of the Apostles. Many of these smaller groups were persecuted in the colonies, especially where larger groups saw themselves as state churches tied to the civil government through financial tax support as the Anglicans in Virginia or the Puritans in New England.

Religious Diversity among Small Sects Discouraged Uniformity

Some smaller groups, like “Adamites” that supposedly worshipped in the nude, were persecuted because of practices that directly contradicted accepted morality. Other groups, like the Pietist sects in Pennsylvania, refused to swear oaths, resulting in perceptions that they were loyalists when the Revolutionary War began. Additionally, many of these groups were pacifists, helping the Patriot cause with food and supplies but refusing to take arms themselves.

Religious beliefs associated with many of these sects emphasized a strong, personal relationship with Jesus as well as the apocalyptic views of the end times and Christ’s return. This focus would contribute toward the coming of the Second Great Awakening at the end of the eighteenth-century. It also contributed to the revivalism associated with American evangelicalism.

Diversity among smaller groups, however, also led to the eventual post-revolutionary formation of civil government that refused to favor one church over another. The constitutional restrictions against the establishment of religion by the government may have been influenced by the many smaller Protestant sects struggling to find their own way, unhindered by government interference.

Foundations of American Religious Freedom and Intolerance

Although many lesser-known sects in colonial American history are noted for their wide range of contributions – the Mennonites were known for early educational efforts and published the first book in America on school management, their religious views often resulted in persecution. Shakers, led by a woman, “Mother” Ann Lee, were persecuted for following strict celibacy and uplifting females in what some historians believe was an early example of feminism.

Sabbatarians believed that Saturday should be viewed as the Sabbath Day; Sabbath practices among many larger and more established churches were highly detailed and enforced by the civil government. In New England, where a form of theocracy first existed, breaking the Sabbath was a serious offense. Deviation from accepted practices was considered heresy, resulting in banishment or even death.

The Revolution and subsequent state governments, however, equalized all religious groups. Thomas Jefferson, emphasizing the principle of non-interference and toleration, represented the most notable example of what today are valued as First Amendment interpretations of the “establishment clause.” These principles are rooted, in part, in the beliefs and practices of smaller religious sects, persecuted in Europe and occasionally in the colonies, but contributing to a process of religious equalization that is still considered inviolate.


  • David B. Eller, “The Germans Have Landed,” Christian History & Biography, September 1, 2004, Issue 84
  • Ephrata Cloister website
  • Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, Third Edition (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970)