More Church-Going Than Ever
by Richard Morin
Many Americans, particularly those who preach on television, argue that
the United States has forsaken the religious commitment of its forefathers
for the easy pleasures of sin, sloth, and televised professional sports.
Actually, many social scientists and historians argue that America has
never been more church-going than it is right now. Our history books
may be cluttered with images of pious Puritans gathering for the first
Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first potluck social, and the like.
But most Colonial Americans were more likely to be found in the local
tavern Saturday night than in church on Sunday, says Rodney Stark, professor
of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington.
In 1776, only about 17 percent of the country were church members, compared
with about 65 percent today, says Stark, who has tallied church membership
as a percentage of the over the past 250 years using church records and
census figures. [see chart below]
Even in the populated cities and towns, Colonial Americans were not particularly
religious. It's safe to say that most people walking around had some nebulous
notion of God, even though they had never been in a church and were just
vaguely Christian -- nobody had ever instructed them.
Why didn't early Americans go to church? Part of the reason is that most
of America, even in the eighteenth century, was still untamed frontier
filled with untamed frontiersmen who preferred drinking to tithing and
Women, churches, and schools came later. Even by the first U.S. census
in 1790, men still significantly outnumbered women in the United States
and its colonies, Stark reports in his book, "The Churching of America."
He wrote the book with Purdue sociologist Roger Finke.
Actually, America today is one of the most church-going countries
in the Western world. Only about 20 percent of the British are members
of the Church of England, Stark reports. In Scandinavia, church membership
is measured in single-digit percentiles.
Church Membership in America: