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Religious Diversity in America

Randall Balmer
Professor of American Religious History
Barnard College, Columbia University
©National Humanities Center

Ever since the first days of European settlement—and even before that with the wide variety of Native cultures—diversity has been one of the distinguishing features of religious life in North America. Sometimes the juxtaposition of religious groups created conflict, as when Spanish settlers sought to impose Roman Catholicism on the Pueblos in the Southwest, leading to the Pueblo uprising of 1680, seventy years after the founding of Santa Fe as the first European capital city in North America. At other times, religious groups have accommodated to one another, as in the Middle Colonies, where rampant ethnic and religious diversity forced various groups to find some way to coexist.

New Netherland provides a particularly graphic example. In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian navigator in the service of France, discovered the inlet to what is now New York harbor through the Narrows that now bears his name. Nearly a century later, Henry Hudson, an Englishman under contract to the Dutch West India Company, nosed the Half Moon through the same Narrows and up the River later named in his honor. Hudson failed in his search for a northwest passage to Asia, but he opened the way for immigration. The first group of settlers to disembark at Manhattan were Walloons, French-speaking Belgians, followed soon thereafter by a modest influx of Dutch, Germans, and French. Early reports filtering back to Amsterdam from New Netherland told of Huguenots, Mennonites, Brownists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, even, according to a contemporary, “many atheists and various other servants of Baal.”1 English Puritans settled toward the eastern end of Long Island. Jews, seeking asylum, arrived in New Amsterdam from Recifé (on the Northeast coast of Brazil) in 1654, following the Portuguese takeover of the Dutch colony there. The English Conquest of New Netherland a decade later further added to the diversity of the colony renamed in honor of the Duke of York, and English attempts to tame some of the religious and ethnic diversity of their new colony met with considerable resistance.

In contrast with most of New England, where the Puritans sought to impose religious uniformity, other colonies in the Middle Atlantic were also characterized by pluralism. Quakers and Scots-Irish Presbyterians, among many others, inhabited what is now New Jersey. Further south, the Swedes, flush from their crucial engagement in the Thirty Years War, sought to establish a beachhead in the New World with settlements along the Delaware River, settlements that yielded to Dutch rule in 1665 and then to the English nine years later. Maryland, named for the wife of England’s Charles I (not for the Blessed Virgin, as many believe), was founded by Lord Calvert as a refuge for English Catholics, but he recognized even from the beginning that Catholic settlers would have to accommodate believers from other traditions in order to ensure toleration for themselves. William Penn, an English Quaker, founded his “Holy Experiment” in 1680, a place of religious toleration that attracted Lutherans and Quakers, along with smaller groups such as Moravians, Mennonites, Amish, and Schwenckfelders.

Religious Diversity and the New Nation

The religious and ethnic pluralism in the Middle Atlantic persisted throughout the colonial period, and when it came time for the framers of the Constitution to configure the relationship between church and state for the new nation, they looked both to Roger Williams’s notion of a “wall of separation” as well as to the religious diversity in New York and elsewhere. Williams, a Puritan minister who arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1631, quickly ran afoul of the Puritan ministers because he recognized the dangers to the faith of too close an association between religion and the state. He wanted to protect the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world” by means of a “wall of separation.” The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay had no patience with such ideas; they expelled Williams from the colony, whereupon he migrated south to organize what became Rhode Island as a haven for liberty of conscience and toleration of religious diversity. The notion of disestablishment, the absence of a state religion, was utterly unprecedented in England and Europe, but New York had been functioning for decades with de facto disestablishment, proving that religious pluralism posed no threat to the secular order and that government could function without the backing of a particular religion.

The First Amendment’s guarantee of “free exercise” of religion together with its proscription against a state church set up a kind of free market of religious life in the United States. The absence of an established religion means that all religious groups are free to compete in this marketplace, and (to extend the economic metaphor) American history is littered with examples of religious entrepreneurs who have competed for a market share. This system (in theory, at least) disadvantages no one, so all religious groups, regardless of their historical or ethnic origins or their theological inclinations, are free to compete in that marketplace.

The Crucible of Pluralism

Americans, however, have not always welcomed religious newcomers with open arms. The immigration of the Irish, following the Potato Famines in the Old World, met with resistance from American Protestants, who wanted to retain their hegemony. Germans and Italians also faced hostilities in the nineteenth century, in part because of the newcomers’ faith but also because Catholic immigrants did not share Protestant scruples about temperance. Opposition to “Rum and Romanism” became commonplace.

Religious diversity not only had an ethnic valence, it was racial as well. Many Africans, who were brought forcibly to the New World as slaves, adopted the Christianity (so-called) of their captors. But others sought, against formidable odds, to retain vestiges of their ancestral religions; more often than not, those expressions manifested themselves in enthusiastic worship. African-Americans also sought independence from white churches, finding at least a measure or institutional autonomy in such organizations as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Episcopal Methodist Zion Church, and, later, in the Moorish Science Temple of America and the Nation of Islam. (See also: African American Religion, Pt. I: To the Civil War)

Asians began to arrive late in the nineteenth century, many to the West Coast to help with the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The numbers of immigrants prompted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and other Asians also met with resistance. The notorious case of Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh whose application for citizenship in 1923 was denied because he was not considered “white,” eventually created pressure to redress that injustice; President Harry Truman signed the Luce-Cellar Act in 1946, which essentially reversed the Thind decision, although it retained quotas on immigrations from India.

Living Up to American Ideals

The movement for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s paved the way for a greater acceptance of religious diversity, not only for African-Americans but for other Americans as well. Jews, who had their own struggles for acceptance following their immigration to the United States in the nineteenth century (see also: The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation), joined the civil rights movement, and Native Americans also began to assert their religious and ancestral identities, as with the occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and Wounded Knee, South Dakota, site of one most brutal massacres of Sioux Indians at the hands of the United States Cavalry in 1890.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act in July 1965, immigration quotas finally were removed. This opened the way for a new wave of immigrants, many from South Asia and Southeast Asia. Once again, Americans were confronted with religious diversity, as Islamic mosques, Shintō temples, Sikh Gurdwārās, Buddhist stupas, and Hindu temples literally transformed the religious landscape of the United States. As before, the newcomers met resistance. But Americans tend, sooner or later, to rise to their better selves and make good the promises in our charter documents that everyone is created equal and enjoys “free exercise” of religion—or, if they prefer, no religion at all.

Guiding Student Discussion

American history generally—and American religious history in particular—tends to be presented through the lens of New England, especially in the colonial era. The story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving is imprinted on our consciousness, and that generally gives way to the Puritans—John Winthrop, the “city upon a hill,” Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and the Salem witch trials.

When talking about religious diversity, however, it’s much more useful to divert our attention to the Middle Colonies, present-day New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Here you find a rich pastiche of religious groups, everything from Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Quakers to Dutch Reformed, Swedish Lutherans, Baptists, Huguenots, and various German groups. The story of how these groups learned to live together provides a rich contrast to New England, where the Puritans sought—unsuccessfully—to impose religious uniformity.

This translates, in turn, to the formation of the new nation. The founders adapted the ideas of Roger Williams, a Puritan dissident and founder of the Baptist tradition in America, along with the experience of religious diversity in the Middle Colonies to provide for freedom of religious expression and no state church, as encoded in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment itself, much debated throughout American history and especially in recent years, is worthy of examination and discussion, emphasizing that this notion of a government that was not buttressed by a state religion was utterly unprecedented in the eighteenth century. The First Amendment provided, in effect, a free marketplace of religion unimpeded by the state, thereby allowing a rich variety of religious groups to flourish.

One suggestion would be to study both New England and the Middle Colonies and then ask students which region more nearly anticipated the contours of American society. Another exercise would be to read the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, when the citizens of Flushing, New Netherland (now New York), protested against the attempts of Pieter Stuyvesant, director-general of the West India Company and governor of the colony, to prohibit Quaker worship. The Flushing Remonstrance is often cited as the first expression of religious freedom in America, and it is notable that none of the thirty-one signatories was himself a Quaker.

The story of religious diversity in the nineteenth century is tied inextricably to immigration. The arrival of non-Protestant immigrants, especially Roman Catholics and Jews, threatened Protestant hegemony; many Protestants resisted. A good topic for discussion here might be what role the cities played in bringing about religious accommodation. With the massive urbanization of American society late in the nineteenth century, various religious and ethnic groups—Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe, Roman Catholics from Ireland and Italy—were thrown together into the cauldron of urban life. Despite inevitable differences and conflict, these groups eventually learned to coexist in the cities.

The twentieth century saw the spectrum of religious diversity expand even further, from Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to a wide range of Asian religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintō, Sikhism, Jainism, and many others. At the same time, various indigenous religious gained in popularity: Mormonism, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Nation of Islam, to name only a few. The Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965, coming—significantly—on the heels of the civil rights movement, opened the doors of the United States to new waves of settlement and thereby eliminated the quotas of the Johnson Act of 1924. Both pieces of legislation merit study. And it is worth speculating about whether President Johnson or any of those associated with the passage of the 1965 bill anticipated how thoroughly that legislation would change the religious complexion (quite literally!) of the United States.

Finally, what about those who choose not to embrace religion in any form? The First Amendment provides for the “free exercise” of religion, but does it also protect “no exercise” of religion? Clearly, it does, but how did we as a nation come to this conclusion? How have religious atheists and agnostics been treated throughout American history? What does it mean that many of the founders, including Thomas Jefferson, were Deists? What do we make of the fact that Jefferson once opined that Unitarianism would eventually become the dominant religion of an enlightened nation? Does the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” emblazoned on our currency—both added in the 1950s, during the Cold War—violate the rights of those who choose not to believe in God or a Supreme Being?

Scholars Debate

From Perry Miller’s “rediscovery” of the Puritans in the 1920s until the 1980s, Puritanism dominated the historiography of colonial America. By the early 1980s, however, about the time that Edmund S. Morgan declared that “we now know more about the Puritans than any sane person should care to know,” historians began to look at religious life in other colonies. Several examples in this genre include Jon Butler, The Huguenots in America: A Refugee People in New World Society; Catharine Randall, From a Far Country: Huguenots and Camisards in the New World; Ned C. Landsman, Scotland and Its First American Colony, 1683-1675; A. G. Roeber, Palatines, Liberty, and Property: German Lutherans in Colonial British America; and Randall Balmer, A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies. All of these books address the challenges of religious pluralism, the conflicts associated with such diversity, and, generally, the resolution of those conflicts.

Several books have been written about Roger Williams: Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition; Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State; and Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America. Gaustad has also written a useful book about Thomas Jefferson, who contributed greatly to the configuration of church and state that allowed religious diversity to flourish: Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson.

Religious diversity in the nineteenth century took many forms, and it met with spirited opposition from Nativists, those who opposed new immigrants. Ray Allen Billington examines this opposition in Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism. A number of case studies demonstrate how religious diversity played out, especially in American cities. See Jay S. Dolan, The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 as well as his In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension. Robert Anthony Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem deftly traces the congeries of religious and ethnic diversity both within and beyond a single parish in New York City. John T. McGreevy examines intra-Catholic tensions in Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North.

No scholar has more thoroughly examined the history of Jews in America than Jonathan Sarna. See, in particular, American Judaism: A History and The American Jewish Experience. In addition to tracing the persistent dilemma of Jewish assimilation or particularity, Sarna demonstrates as well the internal diversity within Judaism.

Internal diversity also marks other religious movements too often seen, by outsiders, as homogeneous. One example is evangelicalism, America’s “folk religion.” My own book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, seeks to portray American evangelicalism as anything but monolithic, with its rich diversity of fundamentalism, pentecostalism, the holiness and charismatic movements, the sanctified tradition, and many others.

African-Americans have faced their own peculiar struggles in expressing their religious life. The best account of the days of slavery is Albert J. Raboteau’s Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. The quest for black religious autonomy is recounted in Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Rise of Independent Black Churches, 1760-1840, by Carol V. R. George. Following the Great Migration to northern cities at the turn the twentieth century, African-Americans began increasingly to develop their own institutional religious life, especially in the cities. Several colorful figures appeared including Daddy Grace, the Noble Drew Ali, Marcus Garvey, Father Divine, and Elijah Muhammad—all of whom sought space for religious expression. Several biographies are useful: Colin Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey; Jill Watts, God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story; Marie Dallem, Daddy Grace: A Celebrity Preacher and His House of Prayer. Though considerably dated, Arthur Huff Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North, an early sociological study of new black religions, provides a snapshot of extraordinary religious diversity within the African-American urban context.

The Nation of Islam remains one of most striking examples of religious diversity. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is indispensible, but other studies of the movement and its context are also useful: Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience and Edward E. Curtis IV, Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975.

As in the nineteenth century, religious diversity in the twentieth century was inextricably tied to immigration. In Protestant Missionaries, Asian Immigrants, and Ideologies of Race in America, 1850-1924, Jennifer Snow finds that missionaries often protested against the various attempts to exclude Asians from coming to the United States. In 1965, a decade after Will Herberg had articulated three ways to be American in Protestant-Catholic-Jew, changes to the immigration laws finally ended decades of exclusion and opened doors to new forms of religious diversity. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University provides a range of resources for understanding this new diversity, including a sophisticated website. The director of the project, Diana L. Eck, has also written A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation.

Finally, several scholars have sought to understand all of American religious history through the lens of pluralism. See, for example, Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions and Religion and another survey of religion in America, Religion in American Life: A Short History, by Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer. This topic also forms the basis of William R. Hutchison’s Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal.



1 J. Franklin Jameson, ed., Narratives of New Netherland, 1609-1664 (New York, 1909), 123-125.


Randall Balmer is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University and a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School. He has taught at Columbia since earning the Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1985 and has been a visiting professor at Princeton, Rutgers, Yale, Drew, and Northwestern universities and at Union Theological Seminary, where he is also an adjunct professor of church history. He has published a dozen books, including A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies, which won several awards, and Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, now in its fourth edition, which was made into a three-part documentary for PBS. His most recent books are Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America and God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.

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