American colonists sought religious freedom in their new home. The unanticipated byproduct of this search was an atmosphere of religious diversity. According to Patricia Bonomi, professor emeritus at New York University, many early colonists realized that if they wanted to freely practice their beliefs, they needed to allow their neighbors that same freedom.
Degrees of religious tolerance varied by region, however. The Massachusetts Bay Colony tried to enforce Puritanism on all its settlers, and the American South predominantly adhered to the Church of England, although there were enclaves of minorities present even in those two locations. One notable example was Roger Williams’ community of religious tolerance in Rhode Island. The Middle Colonies, which were New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, largely encouraged pluralism.
A 1771 woodblock of the New York skyline reveals an interesting phenomenon: there was no dominant majority denomination. Out of 18 churches present, there were three Dutch Reformed churches, three Anglican, three Presbyterian, two Lutheran, one French Huguenot, one Congregational, one Methodist, one Baptist, one Quaker, one Moravian, and one Jewish.
In 1657, a New York governor attempted to prohibit the Quaker religion and was delivered the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, a document often considered to be the forerunner to the First Amendment. Thirty-one men, none of whom were Quakers, protested the governor’s measures.
Along with numerous denominations, fringe communes were also present in colonial America. One such group was the Woman in the Wilderness commune, located outside Philadelphia. They combined pagan, Christian, and Jewish traditions in their own nature religion.
Not only were the colonists religiously diverse, but Native American and African faiths added another layer of complexity. Native Americans generally honored and respected the religious differences amongst tribes, and many of their religions contained common elements. African slaves often blended traditional spirituality with Christian elements. In fact, Pennsylvania’s Germantown Quaker Meeting group issued America’s first antislavery proclamation in 1688.
Near the end of the eighteenth century, the Founding Fathers formally recognized religious diversity in the First Amendment. This article created an environment in which each religion had a voice and the ability to practice freely.
William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” is one of the most intriguing examples of religious plurality in colonial history. Penn was an English Quaker who sought to create a haven of religious tolerance, and attracted other Quakers, Lutherans, Moravians, Mennonites, and Amish, among others. His community wasn’t perfect; it excluded atheists, and Jews and non-Christians could not vote. However, the community promoted fair treatment for Native Americans and did not maintain a military. Penn wrote a charter that included education for boys and girls, an enlightened penal code, work for everyone, and freedom of religion.
Even in a nation that is 78 percent Christian, there’s plenty of diversity present, and ample opportunity to create modern holy experiments in our own communities. Accepting our religious differences is simply a starting point. When we realize that we have something to learn from those of different faith backgrounds, true growth can thrive.
Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia.