Practically everyone is familiar with Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Brigham Young. While those three did amazing things through their faith in the United States, there are many others who shaped the nation through their own influence. Let’s take a look at some of the most influential religious leaders in the history of the United States.
Sunday was an American athlete who became one of the most celebrated evangelists of the early 20th century. Although he was born into poverty and never received a high school diploma, he was still highly educated and skilled as an orator. He played a significant role in the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment. People listened to him. He had great charisma. Sunday was ordained by the Presbyterian Church, but never attended seminary. Still, his knowledge of the Bible was thorough, proving that a college education did not make a man.
James Hal Cone
Cone is known for black liberation theology. He earned his PhD from Northwestern University and received eight honorary degrees and a list of awards for his work in theology. He was influenced by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. He passed away in April, at the age of 81. Read “My Soul Looks Back” for insight into his thought process and theology and how he worked to break the shackles of racial oppression through faith.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair
O’Hair was the founder and president of American Atheists. She’s best known for ending state-sponsored Bible readings in public school, but she filed numerous lawsuits that challenged the church-state separation. Last year, Netflix produced a loose dramatization of her life titled, “The Most Hated Woman in America.” It might seem strange to put her on this list, but she changed the education environment with her lawsuits.
Hutchinson challenged the Puritan ministers in her time, accusing them of preaching that the way to get to God was through works, not grace. She was a thorn in the side of the ministers who eventually got her banished from the colony. Later, she would be put out of her congregation, too. She was a proponent of women’s rights in the church and the colony, which made her a symbol of Christian feminism. Although she is a contentious figure in the history of Massachusetts and the church, she helped women of the time have a voice and gain religious understanding.
Lee was born in Manchester, England, but moved to America in 1774. During the Revolutionary War, she proclaimed that she was a pacifist and did not support either the Americans or the British. Lee is known for founding the Shaker faith, a unique religion that preached celibacy, equality and community. Her followers believed that she embodied God and was Christ’s female counterpart. Most of the Shaker settlements are now museums, because the Shaker community dwindled due to its celibacy philosophy. Lee led a church during the time when women could not own property or vote. She was an amazing person in her time.
Willard was highly influential during Prohibition. She was the national president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, but her social activism went much deeper than alcohol use. Her mother was a schoolteacher. Education was important to the family. Willard was named the first Dean of Women at Northwestern University, even though it was a short-lived position. Following her tenure as dean, she focused on the temperance movement. It was her work that raised the age of consent in a lot of states. Willard also worked for labor reforms, prison reform and women’s rights.
This list of six people doesn’t do justice to the men and women who influenced American religion and faith. We will continue to highlight these Americans over the next few weeks.