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In response to his own question, “What is America?”, G.K. Chesterton replied, “a nation with the soul of a church.” Throughout the nation’s history millions of believers of various faiths have shaped that soul. But which religious figures have had the most influence?

I’ve selected fifty native-born Americans who, for better or worse, have had a significant influence on our nation’s religious conscience. Such a list could never be definitive, of course, but this one is likely to be particularly flawed. Any appearance of bias is unintentional and based on the limits of my knowledge. My list is dominated by Protestants both because they have had a significant impact and because that tradition is the one I know best. Suggestions for who should have been included are welcome.

The 50 most influential religious figures in American history are:

1. Ann Lee - founder of the Shakers (Update: Lee was actually born in Manchester, England.)

2. Anne Hutchinson - leader of Puritan women

3. Avery Dulles - Jesuit priest and theologian

4. Benjamin Warfield - defender of Biblical inerrancy

5. Bob Smith – co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous

6. Billy Graham – evangelist and chaplain to late-twentieth century presidents

7. Billy Sunday - one of the most influential evangelist of the early twentieth century

8. Blandina Segale - Catholic nun and charitable activist

9. Brigham Young - Mormon leader

10. CI Scofield - creator of the best-selling annotated Bible that popularized dispensationalism

11. Carl FH Henry - theologian and leader of neo-evangelicalism; founder of Christianity Today

12. Carrie Nation - leader of the temperance movement

13. Charles Finney - revivalist preacher during the Second Great Awakening

14. Charles Fox Parham - preacher who was instrumental in the formation of Pentecostalism

15. Charles H Mason - first Chief Apostle and first Senior Bishop of the Church of God in Christ

16. Charles Hodge - chief defender of historical Calvinism in America during the nineteenth century

17. Charles Taze Russell - founded the group which became the Jehovah’s Witnesses

18. Cotton Mather - New England Puritan minister and godfather of American evangelicalism

19. Dorothy Day - social activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement

20. Dwight L Moody - nineteenth century evangelist

21. Elijah Muhammad - leader in the Nation of Islam

22. Elizabeth Ann Seton -first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church

23. Frances Willard - educator, temperance reformer, and women’s suffragist

24. Francis Schaeffer - Christian apologist and intellectual leader of evangelical pro-life and political movements

25. Fulton J Sheen - Catholic Archbishop and pioneer of radio and television ministry

26. Gordon B Hinckley - influential president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

27. H Richard Niebuhr - Christian theological-ethicist and primary source of postliberal theology

28. James Gibbons - Catholic Archbishop

29. James Hal Cone - advocate of Black liberation theology

30. Jerry Falwell - founder of the Moral Majority and early leader of the “Religious Right”

31. John Carroll - first Roman Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States

32. John Courtney Murray - Jesuit priest and theologian

33. John Cardinal O’Connor - eleventh archbishop of New York

34. John Howard Yoder - promoter of radical Christian pacifism

35. Jonathan Edwards – evangelical theologian and philosopher

36. Joseph Smith - founder of Mormonism

37. L Ron Hubbard - founder of Scientology

38. Madalyn Murray O’Hair - founder of American Atheists

39. Martin Luther King, Jr - pastor and civil rights activist

40. Mary Baker Eddy - founder of Christian Science

41. Norman Vincent Peale - Protestant preacher and progenitor of the theory of “positive thinking”

42. Reinhold Niebuhr - theologian and public intellectual

43. Richard Allen - founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church

44. Richard John Neuhaus – founder of First Things , the most important journal of religion and public life in America

45. Roger Williams - first American proponent of religious freedom and the separation of church and state

46. Wallace Fard Muhammad - minister and founder of the Nation of Islam

47. Walter Rauschenbusch - key figure in the Social Gospel movement

48. William Miller - founding leader of the Adventism movement

49. William J Seymour – African-American minister and an initiator of the Pentecostal religious movement

50. William Cameron Townsend - Wycliffe Bible Translators

Update: Because there are so many foreign-born religious leaders that could have been included, I’m going to compile them all for next week’s list. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments section below.

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