Religious Persecution in America

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
Throughout American history, members of different faiths and churches have faced religious discrimination and persecution. This lesson will explore the problem of religious persecution and examine examples and patterns of religious intolerance.

Religious Freedom and Persecution in America

Religious strife and persecution have been as much a part of the American experience as the quest for religious tolerance and freedom. Catholic and Protestant sects have frequently clashed with one another throughout the course of American history. New religions like Mormonism or Wicca have frequently been the target of religious persecution. Jews, atheists and Muslims have all been subjected to religious intolerance and bigotry over the course of American history. Perhaps most significantly, Native Americans were persecuted, kidnapped and murdered for their religious beliefs and forcibly converted to Christianity and Western culture. Although religious freedom and freedom of conscience are enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, the reality of religious freedom in America has often been a far messier, less tolerant proposition.

Faith in Early America

Little is known about the history of religious conflict among Native Americans prior to European contact. It appears that the notion of a universal religious truth that must be evangelized and adopted by everyone, which is common in many monotheistic traditions, was not known to Native American groups. Although ethnic strife existed among Native Americans, such conflicts were not based on religious intolerance.

The colonization of the Americas was very much a response to, and a part of, the ongoing wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe. Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and other colonial players saw the settlement of the New World as part of the larger struggles taking place in Europe and a chance to win glory for their respective sects.

Almost from the very beginning, European explorers and colonists defined difference between themselves and Native Americans in religious terms. Native Americans were seen as ''savages'' primarily because they did not share the European understanding of Christianity. For early European colonists, ideas such as civilization, culture, and humanity itself were synonymous with Western European Christianity. This religious/cultural perspective allowed them to dehumanize Native Americans and justify their destruction.

The East Coast of North America was settled primarily by Protestants from England; mainly Anglicans in the areas around Virginia and Puritans in New England. The Puritans had suffered religious persecution in England, but saw themselves as chosen by God to build a New Jerusalem in America. In Virginia, tobacco cultivation quickly led to the importation of slaves from Africa to work the plantations. As with the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans was justified in religious terms.

Religious Principles during the Revolutionary Period

By the 18th century, numerous Protestant denominations existed throughout the American colonies in relative peace. Catholics, however, were viewed with much suspicion by Protestants.

The rise of Enlightenment thinking in the American colonies would prove to be highly significant for religious freedom. The Enlightenment stressed the importance of logic, reason and tolerance. Writers and philosophers argued the presence of God in the minds of human beings gave them the power to perceive truth through reason and rational discourse. Deism, Freemasonry, and Enlightenment principles would serve as the backbone of the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution.

The First Amendment of the Constitution states that, ''Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.'' The first clause is widely interpreted to create a separation between church and state. The second clause is generally understood to protect religious freedom. However, exactly what constitutes the establishment of religion, and what limits their might be on free exercise, are hotly debated issues to this day.

Religious Conflicts in the 19th Century

The 19th century was an era of immense social, cultural and religious change. In the newly established, independent United States of America, liberal enlightenment thinking existed side-by-side with a wide variety of Protestant sects and denominations. Universalists argued against slavery and warfare, while Transcendentalists attempted to find spiritual truth in the natural world.

New religions, occultism and spiritualism emerged throughout the 19th century. The most successful of these, although also one of the most persecuted, was Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormonism claimed a new revelation for Christianity and a new holy book, the Book of Mormon that was to be added to the Old and New Testaments. Mormons practiced a communal lifestyle and polygamy and for these reasons, as well as for their unconventional theology, they were severely persecuted. Mormon communities were forced to flee further and further west, eventually settling in Utah.

Illustration of a Catholic Church being burned during a Natavist riot in 1844.
1844

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