One of my daily pleasures is listening to Issues, etc, with Rev. Todd Wilken (Talk Radio for the Thinking Christian. Recently they did a show on the new Pew Survey of American Religion, and the results of this survey are making the rounds on many Internet sites. Rev. Wilken and many other intelligent analysts are somewhat shocked by the mutability of Americans religious preferences. I am not too shocked, coming from a long line of Church hoppers.
One of the benefits of having a family stay in one community for 210 years is a lot of family history is pretty much lying around. Here is the extent of the story I know. I do not know to what extent it reflects the typical American experience, as Pennsylvania has always been haven to a wide variety of religious groups.
In 1797, the first ancestor of my name came here. He had been a Lutheran in eastern Pa, but there was no church of any sort for another year. When a church was built, it was Presbyterian. He never joined. His kids either married Presbyterians, or caught Methodist fever in the 1830's. Another ancestor, contemporary to him, founded one of the local Presbyterian churches. According to one published story, he was expelled for drinking and founded a second Church, where I was baptized 164 years later. Another published story was that he left Presbyterian Church "A" and founded Church "B" because he was incensed with the introduction of hymns, and had been a strict advocate of only psalmody. I do not know whether he was a fanatic or a drunk.
The first ancestor of mine who owned our farm, left Ballycreely, County Down in northern Ireland a Presbyterian. His son became a Baptist, that whole branch of the family is buried in a Baptist cemetery at the other end of the Township. I have no idea why.
90 years ago my grandparents were married in the Episcopal Church of the town Grandma grew up in (About 18 miles away). Her Father had been a Lutheran who married into the Episcopal Church. When Grandma moved out here to the farm, she joined the closest Church-the Presbyterian one founded by my fanatic or hard drinking greatX6 Grandpa.
Exercising religious preference has not really been a choice for many rural Americans through much of our history. It is luxury that comes with mobility. My ancestors have faced 210 years of either lonely denominational integrity, Do it yourself religion (founding churches) or switching churches for geography (or even perhaps plain cussedness). It is a story much older than the Pew survey last week.