Emerging US Religious Groups, Early 19th Century (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 ($).

Emerging Religious Groups, Early 19th Century

The first half of the 19th century in the United States was a time of considerable religious ferment. The combination of uncharted social context and vigorous religious climate encouraged experimentation. The belief in a right for freedom extended itself into religious expression, giving rise to cults, sects, and religious movements.

One noteworthy feature of the early 19th century in America was the rise and decline of several communal societies. Not all were religious in origin and orientation, but many were.

The Shakers

The followers of Ann Lee were the Shakers. They organized in 1787 after Lee’s death and then experienced a surge of growth with the onset of the Second Awakening. Originally in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, they went west into Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana as well as into the rest of New England. They grew to about 6,000 members, but by 1850, a steady decline in numbers began. They attracted fewer new members, and with their practice of celibacy, they added no new members within their own ranks.

The Oneida Community

In the early 1840s, John Humphrey Noyes gathered a small group in Putney, Vermont and instituted a communism of property. The community was reestablished in 1846 at Oneida, New York. By 1880 communal ownership of property was abandoned and shares of a joint-stock company were distributed among the former communitarians.

The Millerites/Adventists

The Panic of 1837, a severe fiscal crisis, brought with it for many Americans renewed hopes for a millennium. The key figure in the Adventist excitement of the late 1830s and early 1840s was William Miller, a farmer at Low Hampton, New York. He announced that the end of the world would occur with Christ’s coming in about 1843. Subsequently, he proclaimed a new date, October 22, 1844, to be the day of Christ’s triumphant return. Except for a steadfast few, his followers were disappointed and disillusioned. Some became Shakers.

But those who remained met in Albany in 1845 to form a conference; it would later splinter into three groups, the largest of which was the Advent Christian Church.

Ellen Gould White proclaimed that Christ’s failure to appear was due to neglect of proper observance of the Sabbath; her followers formed the nucleus of what was to become the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The Mormons and The Community of Christ (formerly RLDS)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized on April 6, 1830 in Fayette, New York with Joseph Smith, Jr.as prophet and president. Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon was published in Palmyra, New York in 1830.  It is currently published in many languages throughout the world as a second witness to Jesus Christ. 

Geographically, the Mormons left New York for Kirtland, Ohio, then on to Missouri, and next to Nauvoo, Illinois, gaining converts along the way. Smith was murdered by an angry mob in Illinois in 1844 while imprisoned in a jail in Carthage.  It was the death of Joseph Smith Jr. that created the doctrinal dispute that caused the RLDS (Now the Community of Christ) to break from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The death of the prophet precipitated the heroic trek of the majority of the Mormons to the basin of the Great Salt Lake, under the leadership of Brigham Young. By 1870 the Mormons in that region exceeded 140,000, many of whom were individuals and families who had converted to the church abroad.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)

Community of Christ

Post Civil War Population and Intellectual Climate

Population Shifts

After 1840, the percentage of foreign-born Americans increased dramatically. From 1850 to 1860, those of foreign birth increased 84.4 percent. In the next ten years, despite the Civil War conflict, there was a further increase of 34.5 percent. The first 19th century immigrants came mostly from Ireland and Germany. By 1900, a third of the population of 75 million was either of foreign birth or children of foreign-born parents. Still another population event was the shift from an agrarian society to an urban one due to industrial growth.

Sectional Interests

Sectional interests precluded the reunification of northern and southern church members among the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians for many decades.

Black Churches

Black churches grew steadily in the latter half of the 19th century. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1816 and numbered 20,000 persons in 1864, jumping to 400,000 members in 1884. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church formed in 1821 and grew from 6,000 to 300,000 members. The Colored (Christian) Methodist Episcopal Church emerged out of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in the 1860s, with about 50,000 members. By the late 1860s, every southern state had its own black Baptist convention; in 1886 a majority of the members of these conventions joined together as the National Baptist Convention. In 1891, Charles Randolph Uncles became the first black Roman Catholic priest ordained in the United States.

Missionary Efforts

There was a resurgence of church missionary efforts in the new Far West. Methodists led the westward march, followed close behind by the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists. The Disciples expanded into the new territory; the Episcopalians organized the area into missionary dioceses but were hampered by insufficient numbers of clergy; Lutherans exhibited their strength among German and Scandinavian immigrants; Roman Catholic ranks were swelled by the acquisition of territories in the Southwest. Colonies of Roman Catholics from Ireland were established in the northern tier of states.

Protestant Evangelism

Urban revivalism and the Sunday School Movement characterized evangelism in Protestant churches after the Civil War, with Dwight L. Moody being the chief instigator of both.


Within a decade after the Civil War ended, practically every important American scientist supported Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. In the new intellectual climate, Herbert Spencer’s “social Darwinism” was influential also. Evangelical liberalism became the dominant liberal current in American Protestantism, with a challenging response coming from Protestant conservatism.

Christian Science

Interest in “mental healing” began prior to the Civil War. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby of Portland, Maine was one of many of the proponents. Among his patients was Mary Baker Eddy who founded Christian Science.


Another expression of the “mind cure” idea was the Unity School of Practical Christianity founded at Kansas City, Missouri, by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore. Subsequently the name was changed to the Society of Silent Unity. They denied that they were starting a new sect, stating that they were only teaching a practical philosophy to supplement the teachings of existing churches. They chose the term school over church in 1914 when they combined their various programs into a single corporation known as “The Unity School of Practical Christianity.”

Additional Information

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 wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.