From the outset of the Mayflower, the English ship that transported the first English Puritans in 1620, became the symbol of early European colonization for the future United States. The Pilgrims strongly believed that the Church of England, and the Catholic Church, had strayed beyond Christ's teachings. Their church was created around the model of the "ancient church" described in the New Testament, the Protestants and Separatists, and the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin.

In the storybook version most of us learned in elementary school, the Pilgrims came to America aboard the Mayflower in search of religious freedom in 1620. Ever since these religious dissidents arrived at their shining “city upon a hill,” as their governor John Winthrop called it, millions from around the world would follow, coming to an America where they found a welcome melting pot in which everyone was free to practice his or her own faith.

The problem is that this fake narrative is as much an American myth as the slogan “Columbus discovered America”. The real story of religion in America’s past is an awkward, mixed, and occasionally bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts whitewash over. From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, both religion and medicine has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreigner, the “heretic”, the “quack”, and the “unbeliever” — including the “heathen” natives already indigenous. Moreover, while it is true that the many of early-generation Americans were freedom-loving Christians, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and Catholics, presents an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America was always “free.”

The Great Awakenings are a number of recognized periods of religious revival in American Christian history. Each of these "Great Awakenings" was characterized by widespread revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers. Evangelicalism, historians have long noted, was a movement born in field, forest, and stream. From the woodland revivals that broke out in 1730 among persecuted Protestants in Salzburg, a series of persecutions ending in 1731, over 20,000 Protestants were expelled from their homeland, to the ‘great camp meetings’ of antebellum American, evangelical belief and practice were forged in close connection with the natural world.

Evangelicalism, being in agreement with the Christian gospel, can be traced to 1738 with the nature cure practitioner, John Wesley and other early Methodists at the root of sparking this new movement during the First Great Awakening. The attitude towards nature taken by antebellum evangelicals is a forgotten chapter in American history leading to the revolution. With the advent of the First Great Awakening, came the field preaching made so popular by George Whitefield and other revivalists who came to spurn formal worship in favor of nature.  The nature evangelicals gathered around “gospel trees” to hear the word preached, they baptized outdoors, the growing popularity of curative baths and mineral springs, pilgrimages to the sacred sites of their regeneration, and therapeutic techniques reputed “to engage invisible natural forces possessed by all animate beings to produce physical healing and other dramatic effects” (Edward Hitchcock).  For their part, black evangelicals also congregated in outdoor “hush harbors”, believed in sacred springs inhabited by spirits (simbis), and were generally more syncretistic in their approach. The New World evangelicals all approached nature from their medieval roots.

From 1730-1800 there was recognition for salvation and belief in equality of opportunity. From 1800 to 1920, with various theological streams contributing to its foundation, we find egalitarianism - the doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities; the temperance movement which was successful in prohibiting the sale of alcoholic drinks in 13 states, the abolitionist movement that culminated in the formation of the republican party); sweeping reform agendas aimed at eliminating all barriers to equal opportunity; antislavery; women's suffrage;  Through the worldview of nineteenth-century American evangelicalism, all of these themes were approached through an underlying vitalism, defined as “the belief in a cosmos animated by an imminent life force”.  The growing popularity of the baths, mineral springs, hydrotherapy, electrotherapy, and mesmerism, was imported from Europe, and the American evangelicals welcomed scientific inquiry into their healing properties yet were often persecuted. These they sacramentalized, remained insistent on their faith and morals, and collaborated with the Native Americans to fit with their own world view.

The nature cure movement gained great momentum during the 18th and 19th centuries with the Great Awakenings in Great Britain and the United States. But each phase of religious revival was followed by one of rising political effect and secular reforms, followed by a phase in which the new ethics and politics of the religious awakening came under increasing challenge and the political suppression. One of those declines was nature cure, mesmerism, electrotherapy, and wellness modes with the fourth phase, 1960 to date, a near complete Church abandonment of involvement with health care, surrendered to the secular sphere.

Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, evangelical Protestantism rose to a salient position, not just in American religion, but in the culture at large. Beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, religious revivals became a recurrent event in localities across the nation. The revivals yielded converts who swelled the ranks of churches and voluntary societies. Evangelical denominations such as the Methodists and Baptists benefited greatly. By about 1830, evangelicals nationwide created a new institution called the “Sunday school”. 

Evangelical Christianity was the popular religion of antebellum America. During this period, evangelical relationships to the material world, and to nature at large, were closer to Catholicism than one might expect. Evangelical enchantment can be seen in field sermons, camp meetings, water cures, outdoor baptisms, and mesmerism that swept across antebellum America from Virginia, Kentucky, and Appalachia to Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and upstate New York. Both electrotherapy and mesmerism (animal magnetism) were a popular belief.  The novelty of electricity advanced by Rev. John Wesley provoked all sorts of theological speculations in the “ethers”, defined as “cosmological fluids reputed to be subtle or imponderable (weightless)”. Surrounding the concept of resurrected bodies, the ethers themselves were utilized in an attempt to resolve scientific and theological difficulties. Again, each phase of religious revival was followed by one of rising political effect and secular reforms that suppressed both religion and natural cures.