Protestantism in America

Christianity was a European import to the Americas. By the end of the sixteenth century, Catholic mission stations had been established in many places colonized by France and Spain.1 One of the first Protestant colonies in America was established in April 1562 when a group of Huguenots settled at Fort Caroline on Florida's St. Johns River. This Protestant colony did not survive long: the Spanish promptly wiped out the French Protestant refugees in 1565 and founded their own outpost at St. Augustine in its place. A more permanent French presence in America would later be established along the Mississippi Valley, the St. Lawrence Valley, and the Great Lakes. Yet vast tracts of land remained unsettled by the two great Catholic maritime powers—above all, New England.

The first English-speaking Protestant colony was established in Virginia—named after the "virgin queen" (Elizabeth I)—in 1585. The fate of this "lost colony" remains unclear. When a major English plantation—named "Jamestown" after the reigning monarch, James I—was established in Virginia in 1607, no trace could be found of the earlier settlement. Jamestown was an Anglican colony whose charter stipulated that the "religion now professed and established within our realm of England" should be regularly practiced by the colonists and spread "as much as they may amongst the savage people." One early convert was Pocahontas, daughter of the great chief Powhatan, who died during a subsequent trip to England.

Yet, despite such earlier Protestant settlements in Florida and Virginia, the history of Protestantism in America is traditionally traced to the year 1620, when the Mayflower docked in New England.2 In view of the importance of this development for the shaping of Protestantism in America, we may consider it in more detail.

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