Religious Diversity: A “Holy Experiment” in Colonial America

The early colonists realized if they wanted to freely practice their beliefs, they had to allow their neighbors the same right.

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.

Lacy Cooke
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  • nwcolorist

    “The unanticipated byproduct of this search was an atmosphere of religious diversity.”

    Although there were significant problems involving the coexistence of the various Christian denominations, I believe Ms. Cooke’s comments generally capture the colonial attitudes toward religion. However, the theme of ‘diversity’ promoted in the article would be better translated as ‘tolerance’ or ‘acceptance’. The Christian purpose has always been unity, not diversity.

    One event that comes to mind illustrates this. During the Second Continental Congress, the problem arose over which denomination would deliver the invocation. Rather than canceling the prayers, the delegates compromised by having a different group speak each morning. They were able to focus, not on their differences, but on the common aspects of their religion.

    If only we could do that too.

  • HildyJJ

    I would say that the attitudes captured were those of the political and philosophical leaders, not those of the churches or their parishioners. People need to be reminded that the inspiring quote on the Jefferson Memorial – “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” – was directed specifically towards organized religion which still was campaigning for an established church.

    One of Mr. Jefferson’s three greatest accomplishments (according to his own assessment) was the writing and pushing through the legislature the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, summed up in a magnificent clause: “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities”.

    Would that more people believed that today.

    • nwcolorist

      I see no problems reconciling the two points of view. They are not mutually exclusive.