Not Every Colonist Was a Puritan

Alexis de Tocqueville stated, “I think I see the destiny of America embodied in the first puritan who landed on these shores.” There is truth in this observation. It has been estimated that by the time of the Revolution, between 75-90% of Americans came from a Reformed or Calvinist background of which puritanism was the largest representative. The story of the Puritans is one of courage of convictions and one of single-mindedness that lead to a clash of “saints and strangers” and, ultimately, to a new idea of religious liberty.

Historians have called the New England colonies “Bible Commonwealths.” Scripture influenced decisions of daily life and laws. The story of religion in the American colonies, however, is more than the story of the Puritans who established Massachusetts. Established by businessmen, Virginia was a legal colony of the Church of England. William Penn created a haven for Quakers (or Religious Society of Friends) in Pennsylvania. In the 1730s, Lutherans who had been expelled from Salzburg, Austria, sailed to Georgia. In 1654, the Dutch West India Company overruled Governor Stuyvesant’s objection to 23 Jews who had fled from Portuguese Brazil, made their way to New Amsterdam and sought sanctuary. They began the first Jewish community in North America.

Although Maryland was established in 1634 by George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, as a refuge for Roman Catholics, the Maryland Charter contained no guidelines on religion. Maryland needed Protestants to help settle the land. The Church of England was legally established in the colony after 1689.

Rhode Island was the first American colony with no established church and the first colony to grant freedom of religion to people of all faiths or none. The new colony of Rhode Island ended its 1647 Code of Laws with this statement: “These are the laws that concern men … all men may walk as their consciences persuade them, everyone in the name of his God.” Jews, Quakers and others not welcome elsewhere made their homes here.

In 1681, Quaker William Penn (1644-1718) transformed a debt owed by Charles II to his father into a charter for the province of Pennsylvania. Citizens who believed in “One Almighty and eternal God” were not “compelled at any time to frequent or maintain any Religious Worship, Place or Ministry whatever,” promised Penn in his charter of religious liberty. In 1683 the first of many Germans fleeing religious persecution arrived in Pennsylvania. These emigrants were Mennonites, Dunkers, Moravians and Baptists.

At the time of the American Revolution, many colonies had established state religions. In Virginia, for example, the law from 1624 required white Virginians to worship and pay taxes to the Anglican church (Church of England).

Note that the First Amendment only addressed a national establishment of religion. It did not prohibit states from having a religious preference. Massachusetts was the last state to “de-establish” its official religion in 1833. Today, of course, the First Amendment does apply to the states through what is called incorporation. The Supreme Court extended the protections of the Bill of Rights to all levels of government through incorporation into the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process and equal protection.

Application of these rights through Supreme Court decisions and legislation is a process that takes time and remains unfinished. The Constitution banned religious tests for federal office holders. During the Revolution many colonies had religious requirements to hold public office. Into the twentieth century the state of Maryland still required a declaration of “belief in the existence of God” from public office holders. In 1961, the Supreme Court ruled this law unconstitutional. Seventeen years later, all state laws that disqualified members of the clergy from holding public office were ruled unconstitutional.

Begin further reading at: The Middle Colonies as the Birthplace of American Religious Pluralism

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic


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