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