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Religion in American History

Persecution in America


Although they were victims of religious persecution in Europe, the Puritans supported the Old World theory that sanctioned it, the need for uniformity of religion in the state.

Once in control in New England, they sought to break "the very neck of Schism and vile opinions."

The "business" of the first settlers, a Puritan minister recalled in 1681, "was not Toleration, but [they] were professed enemies of it." Puritans expelled dissenters from their colonies, a fate that in 1636 befell Roger Williams and in 1638 Anne Hutchinson, America's first major female religious leader.

Those who defied the Puritans by persistently returning to their jurisdictions risked capital punishment, a penalty imposed on four Quakers between 1659 and 1661.

Reflecting on the seventeenth century's intolerance, Thomas Jefferson was unwilling to concede to Virginians any moral superiority to the Puritans.

Beginning in 1659 Virginia enacted anti-Quaker laws, including the death penalty for refractory Quakers. Jefferson surmised that "if no capital execution took place here, as did in New England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or the spirit of the legislature."

Expelled from Massachusetts in the dead of winter in 1636, former Puritan leader Roger Williams (1603-1683) issued an impassioned plea for freedom of conscience.

He wrote, "God requireth not an uniformity of Religion to be inacted and inforced in any civill state; which inforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civill Warre, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls."

Williams later founded Rhode Island on the principle of religious freedom.

He welcomed people of every shade of religious belief, even some regarded as dangerously misguided, for nothing could change his view that "forced worship stinks in God's nostrils."

For some decades Jews had flourished in Dutch-held areas of Brazil, but a Portuguese conquest of the area in 1654 confronted them with the prospect of the introduction of the Inquisition, which had already burned a Brazilian Jew at the stake in 1647.

A shipload of twenty-three Jewish refugees from Dutch Brazil arrived in New Amsterdam (soon to become New York) in 1654.

By the next year, this small community had established religious services in the city.

By 1658 Jews had arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, also seeking religious liberty.

Small numbers of Jews continued to come to the British North American colonies, settling mainly in the seaport towns. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, Jewish settlers had established several thriving synagogues.