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Religions of Immigrants to the US, Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Religious Records - Part 2  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Immigrants in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries[edit | edit source]

From 1865 to 1900 the number of foreigners entering the United States numbered 13.5 million. From 1900 through 1910, nearly 9 million more arrived. The impact must be considered in light of the fact that at the close of the Civil War, the nation’s population was just over 30 million. Irish and German immigration had begun prior to the Civil War. German immigration exceeded the Irish by the 1870s at about the same time as a wave from Scandinavia began. Then from southern and eastern Europe came waves of Italians, Poles, Croats, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Greeks, Russians, and Romanians. With the exception of the Germans and Scandinavians who settled on farmlands northwest of Chicago, most of the nationality groups clustered in the cities. Roman Catholics accounted for the largest number of the religiously affiliated among the new Americans. The greatly increased numbers of Catholics through immigration resulted in tension between Protestants and Catholics.

Reformed Church Growth[edit | edit source]

The Reformed Churches in America, ethnic in origins, gained new members from the arrival of European immigrants. Mennonites also multiplied, as a result of immigrants of that faith coming from Switzerland, Prussia, and Russia, but they were divided into smaller groups. Membership in 1910 of 54,000 was distributed among 11 groups.

Jewish Immigrants[edit | edit source]

Jewish immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe—especially Poland, Russia, and Romania, added considerably to the Jewish population which during colonial days had composed less than one tenth of one percent of the population. Prior to the Civil War, there had been migration into the United States from Germany, now joined by the Eastern European Jews who came out of different cultures. The estimated Jewish community of 250,000 in 1880 grew by more than a half-million Jews by 1900.

By 1920, 80 percent or more of the Jewish population in the United States was of east European descent. Adherents of Reform Judaism were far outnumbered by members of Orthodox synagogues. Those unaffiliated with any synagogue far exceeded the combined totals of all religious Jews however. The Reconstructionist movement led by Mordecai M. Kaplan was a creative response to this situation. Initiated in 1918, he aimed at a new type of Jewish community with its focus not religion but rather “Jewishness.” He approached religion from a sociological stance, seeking to strengthen Judaism by relating it to all aspects of Jewish life. To a great extent the Conservative synagogues adopted Kaplan’s policy of a broad, inclusive Jewishness, but they rejected the more radical features of his philosophy.

For additional information, see Judaism in the United States (National Institute).

Eastern Orthodox Christians[edit | edit source]

Immigration from Eastern Europe, which peaked around the turn of the century, also brought Eastern Orthodox Christians. In the United States by 1916, the Russian Orthodox and the Greek Orthodox churches each had about 100,000 people. The Bulgarian, Romanian, Serbian, Syrian, and Ukrainian Orthodox churches had their beginnings in the United States prior to World War I, but they were initially subordinated to the jurisdiction of the Russian Church.

For additional information, see Orthodox Christian Churches in the United States (National Institute).

Eastern-Rite Catholics[edit | edit source]

Catholics coming from the same regions as the Orthodox were not under Orthodox jurisdiction and were truly Catholic in doctrine and practice. But it wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council in 1964 that their place within the Roman Catholic Church was clearly affirmed. They are in communion with Rome but retain their distinctive rites and practices.

For additional information, see Eastern-Rite Catholics in the United States (National Institute).

Buddhism[edit | edit source]

During this period, Buddhism made its first appearance in America among Chinese and Japanese immigrants on the West Coast. The annexation of Hawaii gave added strength to the Buddhist community.

For additional information, see Buddhism in the United States (National Institute).

Latecomers to the Religious Scene in America[edit | edit source]

The Holiness Revival[edit | edit source]

Earlier 19th century groups had sought holiness by revivals. The strong Wesleyan emphasis upon the doctrine of Christian perfection was influential. Among the non-Methodists who responded, Charles G. Finney and his colleagues at Oberlin were the most prominent. The Free Methodist Church formed at Pekin, New York in 1860. Then in 1880, still more independent Holiness groups formed throughout much of rural America and in some cities.

These groups came out of various denominations, but most were formed by dissident Methodists. William Booth and his wife Catherine founded the Salvation Army in England, and in 1880 sent an official group to pioneer the work in America. By the 1890s, some independent dissenter congregations began to combine into larger groupings. One of these was the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), founded in 1881. The Christian and Missionary Alliance was founded by a Presbyterian minister, A. B. Simpson, in New York City in 1887. The most successful was the Church of the Nazarene, established in 1895 by a Methodist district superintendent at Los Angeles in 1895, which by 1988 numbered 874,000 members. Total membership of Holiness groups by that date numbered more than 2.5 million.

The Pentecostal Churches[edit | edit source]

Pentecostalism grew out of the Holiness movement. Their distinguishing features are faith healing and an emphasis on baptism in the Holy Spirit, manifested by speaking in unknown tongues. The Latter Rain Movement which originated in 1901 among students of the Topeka Bible College gained momentum from a 1906 Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles. The largest black Pentecostal group is the Church of God in Christ. The largest of the Church of God organizations is known as the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). A wing of Pentecostal bodies more Reformed than Wesleyan in background is the Pentecostal Holiness Church, organized in 1911. The largest group of the Reformed tradition is the Assemblies of God founded in 1914 at Hot Springs, Arkansas. Its proponents regard sanctification as a gradual process rather than an instantaneous work of grace. A more streamlined Pentecostalism was the Foursquare Gospel of Aimee Semple McPherson. She gathered a large following in Los Angeles where in 1923 she erected the Angelus Temple.

Millennialism; Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses[edit | edit source]

After maintaining a modest witness for more than half a century, the Seventh-day Adventists experienced a surge of new life in the 20th century. Of all the Adventist or millennial groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been the most vigorous and conspicuous. With the end of World War II, Kingdom Halls began to multiply.

Black Churches in the 20th Century[edit | edit source]

The National Baptist Convention was organized in 1880, now known as the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. In 1917 the National Baptist Convention split into two rival organizations—the National Baptist Convention, Inc. and the National Baptist Convention of America. A later breach resulted in the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Black Methodists splintered into at least eight denominational bodies, the largest being the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion; and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. In addition to the Baptist and Methodist congregations, a whole cluster of new black denominations have emerged, most being quite small. The largest of these groups is the already-mentioned Church of God in Christ founded in 1897 with a stress on sanctification and on the gift of tongues. Increasingly, there are integrated churches, but black members in predominantly white congregations account for only a small fraction of black church membership.

Fundamentalism[edit | edit source]

Conflict broke out in 1920 within Protestantism between the “Liberals” or “Modernists” who tried to adjust the inherited faith to the new intellectual climate, and the “Fundamentalists,” who insisted that old ways of stating the faith must be preserved unimpaired. The Fundamentalist cause was championed by William Jennings Bryan.

The Charismatic Movement[edit | edit source]

For years, the charismatic gifts of healing, miracles, prophecy, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues had been the domain of small Pentecostal denominations. But late in the 1950s, informal lay groups began to penetrate major Protestant churches with the “Pentecostal experience,” without defecting from their denominations. One group, the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship, was founded with the intent to provide an opportunity for persons in the older Pentecostal denominations to promote renewal without the supervision of denominational officers. In 1948, Oral Roberts, ordained by the Pentecostal Holiness Church, began a faith-healing ministry. Then in order to spread the Pentecostal message more effectively, he became a United Methodist in 1968 and founded Oral Roberts University as the world’s first charismatic university. Within Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism erupted in 1967 with a lay faculty prayer group at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Hinduism[edit | edit source]

Beginning in the 1880s, curious intellectual Americans hosted Indian religious leaders for lectures and organized Hindu religious societies. The first Hindu guru to visit the United States came in 1883 and returned ten years later to attend the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Also attending the Chicago conference was Swami Vivekananda who a year later established a Vedanta Society in New York. Swami Yogananda founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1925. But it was with the repeal in 1965 of the 1917 Asian Exclusion Act, that the immigrant Indian community expanded.

Drawn from a broad background of geography and language, there are many differences in Hindu groups in America. They do retain Indian traditions and embrace a religion that involves communal worship in temples, attention to diet, observance of a religious calendar, devotion to gods and goddesses, and participation in important life-cycle rituals.

For additional information, see Hinduism in the United States (National Institute).

Additional Information[edit | edit source]

For more information about religions in the United States from the early 1800s to early 1900s, see:


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses US: Religious Records - Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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