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Religion in New England: What Christian College Students Need to Know

Mar 8, 2021

Every college student or parent is curious about the culture of the place where they plan to go to school. Evangelical Christian college students often wonder about one thing above all else: what it means to follow Christ there. At ENC, these questions center on religion in New England.

If you’re not from around here, you may have a lot of questions about what it’s like to live in the Boston area. 

  • What is it like to live on the East Coast? 
  • Do people there believe as I do? 
  • What ideas should I expect to come across?

Even if you are from the area, you may have grown up with a limited perspective (like most people!). Someone who grew up the next town over might have had a completely different experience than you did. College may be the place where you meet for the first time.

To get an idea of what religion in New England looks like – a diversity of ideas that tend to come together on and around college campuses – it helps to first take a step back in time. That helps us get a better perspective on the present.

Christianity Has Always Been Part of Religion in New England

You’ve probably heard about the Puritans and how they came here in the early 17th century. Upset with the Church of England for being too Catholic, they headed to the colonies to start their own church.

Their complaint was about Catholic practices they didn’t believe had a basis in the Bible. They favored what they saw as a strict interpretation of Scripture as applied to daily life.

What came later was a lot of disagreement among them about what the most correct interpretation of Scripture was. Leaders broke off from their religious communities and founded new ones.

This led to the fracturing of Puritanism. New ideas that came out of it became the basis for enduring denominations (such as the Presbyterian Church), para-religious philosophies (such as Transcendentalism) and ways of life (such as the closed communities of Shakerism).

So, while the history of religion in New England has a Christian foundation, it has also been marked by independent thought and disagreement. That has led to some ideas that aren’t considered particularly biblical at all.

But that’s only part of the story shaping religion in New England today.

Catholicism and Wesley: Two Major Influences on Christianity in New England

In the late 18th century, Christian ideas – old and new – were coming to our shores much like the Puritans did nearly 200 years earlier. Two of them would have a major influence on Christian practice here today.

Catholicism

The American Revolutionary War was over. It had been won with the help of France, a predominantly Catholic country. This went a long way toward changing the Puritan perception of Catholics and welcoming them into New England society.

In 1789, the first Catholic parish was formed. Over the next few decades, waves of Catholic immigrants came from Ireland, German and Italy. The population of Catholics here shot up around the 1840s.

Suddenly, a region founded by Puritans had been inherited by those whose version of Christianity the Puritans had come here to escape.

Wesleyan Protestantism

During the same period, the ideas of a minister in the Church of England named John Wesley were also taking hold.

The Protestant (non-Catholic) denomination he founded, which would soon break from the Church of England, was the Methodist church. Its first official congregation in the U.S. met at Barratt’s Chapel in Delaware, established in 1780. 

From there, Wesley’s ideas would soon spread north into New England states and well beyond.

Wesley became a major influence on American Christianity with lasting effects today. He established the biblical idea of “entire sanctification,” which basically means there’s no limit to what God can do in and through the lives of those who follow Christ.

He inspired the Wesleyan-Holiness Movement of the 19th century. The core of the teaching wasn’t just about getting saved. It was about continuing to grow in faith after choosing to follow Jesus, living a life of purpose and changing the lives of others.

“I love being a part of the religion department as we have some of the best professors on campus! They care about us as people, not just as students. Also, the other students in the religion department are so unique; they truly care about you and support you. The religion department has definitely helped me grow, both spiritually and emotionally.” – Julia Cuthbert, Religion Major, Class of 2022

Christian Neighbors

Wesleyan ideas transcended denomination. The Church of the Nazarene, with which we are affiliated, was founded to unite several of these groups, which still share a lot in common with Methodists and other independent Wesleyan churches as well.

Because Wesleyan thought was so inspirational and biblically sound, it became widely accepted. The movement became a major influence on religion in New England alongside Catholicism.

What Religion in New England Looks Like Today

Our historical roots are clearly seen here in Massachusetts (and throughout the New England states) today.

The Religious

According to the Pew Research Center, Massachusetts is:

  • 34 percent Catholic
  • 19 percent “evangelical” and “mainline Protestant” (a group that includes Wesley-inspired “families,” or denominations like the Church of the Nazarene.)
  • 9 percent non-Christian faiths (including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc.)

This is the product of centuries of Catholic and Protestant immigrants settling in New England, while far fewer non-Christian people groups have settled here.

The Non-Religious

But independent thought – the freedom to reject dominant religious ideas – also has roots here. Massachusetts is also:

  • 32 percent “unaffiliated,” with the following breakdown:
    • 5 percent Atheist (believing there is no God)
    • 7 percent Agnostic (unsure if there is a God)
    • 20 percent “nothing in particular”

Because these non-religious numbers are among the highest in the nation, New England is sometimes called a “post-Christian” region. Christianity in popular culture may have been taken for granted among the Puritans. That isn’t the case today.

What is true is that modern New England is a place where many believers in Christ, many non-believers and some who practice other faiths all live side by side.

How should Christian college students coming to school here respond?

Navigating Religion in New England as a Christian Student

There are two important takeaways here for students considering coming to Eastern Nazarene College, or any New England school.

1. In places where Christianity is less prominent, it helps to have more biblical support.

Our affiliation with the Church of the Nazarene means that at ENC, you’re connected with the theologically sound, inspiring Good News John Wesley was so passionate about sharing with the world. Whatever Christian community you grew up in, you’ll find a supportive one here.

2. For those called to the work of evangelism, this is a mission field that needs you.

Living here, where many have no religious affiliation, presents students with opportunities to share their faith with those who are eager to learn about it. Building those relationships is the work of the Great Commission to share Jesus with all the world – local neighbors included.

In other words, there is much more to think about here than whether the culture is familiar and comfortable. Much of what you experience on and around campus may be. But this is also a diverse, vibrant place that is rich in history and full of opportunity to learn and grow.

There is so much to ENCounter here. Learn more about what Eastern Nazarene University and the Boston area has to offer you.