The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has released “A Brief History of Religion and the U.S. Census,” which reviews debates during the last century over whether questions about religion should be included in the census, or whether such questions would “infringe upon the traditional separation of church and state”:
The U.S. Census Bureau has not asked questions about religion since the 1950s, but the federal government did gather some information about religion for about a century before that. Starting in 1850, census takers began asking a few questions about religious organizations as part of the decennial census that collected demographic and social statistics from the general population as well as economic data from business establishments. Federal marshals and assistant marshals, who acted as census takers until after the Civil War, collected information from members of the clergy and other religious leaders on the number of houses of worship in the U.S. and their respective denominations, seating capacities and property values. Although the census takers did not interview individual worshipers or ask about the religious affiliations of the general population, they did ask members of the clergy to identify their denomination – such as Methodist, Roman Catholic or Old School Presbyterian. The 1850 census found that there were 18 principal denominations in the U.S.
Find the full report and additional resources on this timely topic here.