In light of the recent controversy surrounding an Islamic center planned for a site near New York City’s Ground Zero memorial this past August, President Obama declared: “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.” 
Of course, Obama was paying homage to the idea that America historically has been a place of religious tolerance, that all are welcomed and free to practice his or her own faith.
This is the storybook version that we learned in school, but is it so?
No. The real story of religion in America’s past is an often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts either gloss over or throw to the side.
From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here.
Christianity, as we know, arrived in the New World with Christopher Columbus, who crucified natives who failed to produce enough gold in rows of thirteen — one for Jesus and each of the disciples. The Spanish conquistadors also introduced the “Requerimiento,” which demanded conversion to Christianity and threatened slavery and death to those who did not. (The Indian converts were enslaved and killed anyway.)
Here are a few more of the highlights of the path blazed by Christians that take a bit of the luster off the myth of America as a “Christian and tolerant nation.”
Fort Caroline Massacre (1565): The first real contact between Europeans in what would become America took place in Florida, near modern Jacksonville, where hundreds of French Huguenots (French Protestant), the real first “Pilgrims” (landed in 1564), were massacred by the Spanish who founded St. Augustine for this purpose. The Spanish Admiral who led this search and destroy mission hung some of the survivors with a sign above them reading, “I do this not as to Frenchmen but as to Lutherans,” by which he meant “Protestants” or actually “heretics.” The Spanish commander, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, would later write to the Spanish King Philip II that he had “hanged all those we had found in [Fort Caroline] because…they were scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces.”
In other words, the first encounter between European Christians in America ended in a blood bath.
The Mystic Massacre: During the Pequot War of 1637, hundreds of women, children, and mostly old men were killed or burned to death in a Puritan attack on a Pequot Indian village. Governor William Bradford would later write that “horrible was the stincke and [scent] thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them….”
The Boston Martyrs: On October 27, 1659, two Quakers, Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson, were executed in Boston, the Puritans’ “shining city upon a hill,” under a 1658 law banning the Society of Friends as a “cursed sect.” In June 1660, Mary Dyer was executed and a fourth “Friend” was hung in 1661.
The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished following disagreements over theology and policy. From Puritan Boston’s earliest days, Catholics (“Papists”) were anathema and were banned from the colonies, along with other non-Puritans. For many years November 5 (Guy Fawke’s Day in England) was celebrated as “Pope Day” on which rowdy, brawling, and usually drunken mobs wheeled an effigy of the Pope around Boston and ended the day by setting the carts and effigies on fire.
Baptists arrested in Virginia: Between 1768 and 1778, Baptists were persecuted and arrested in Virginia, where the Anglican Church was the official church supported by public funds. (In New England, the Congregational Church enjoyed that support.)
In newly independent America, there was a crazy quilt of state laws regarding religion. In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and would do so until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches
In 1779, as Virginia’s governor, Thomas Jefferson had drafted a bill that guaranteed legal equality for citizens of all religions—including those of no religion—in the state. It was around then that Jefferson famously wrote: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But Jefferson’s plan did not advance—until after Patrick (“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”) Henry introduced a bill in 1784 calling for state support for “teachers of the Christian religion.”
After long debate, Patrick Henry’s bill was defeated, with the opposition outnumbering supporters 12 to 1. Instead, the Virginia legislature took up Jefferson’s plan for the separation of church and state. In 1786, the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, modified somewhat from Jefferson’s original draft, became law. The act is one of three accomplishments Jefferson included on his tombstone, along with writing the Declaration and founding the University of Virginia. (He omitted his presidency of the United States….go figure?)
The anti-Catholicism of America’s Calvinist past found new voice in the 19th century.
Burning of the Ursuline Convent (1833): A combination of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment led a mob of self-described “Sons of the Tea Party” to torch a convent school in Charlestown, Massachusetts, not far from the recently dedicated Bunker Hill Monument.
Philadelphia‘s Bible Riots: Over the course of a few weeks in May and July of 1844, dozens of people were killed, hundreds of houses burned, and churches destroyed in the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic “Bible Riots.”
Of course, this is a mere handful of the landmarks in this so-called “Christian and tolerant Nation.” We haven’t even gotten to the Mormons and the violence that confronted them in the early 19th century.
Joseph Smith founded a new American religion—and soon met with the wrath of the mainstream Protestant majority. In 1832, a mob tarred and feathered him, marking the beginning of a long battle between Christian America and Smith’s Mormonism. In October 1838, after a series of conflicts over land and religious tension, Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered that all Mormons be expelled from his state. Three days later, rogue militiamen massacred 17 church members, including children, at the Mormon settlement of Haun’s Mill. In 1844, a mob murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum while they were jailed in Carthage, Illinois. No one was ever convicted of the crime.
Did I mention slavery?
Church and Slave State: Abolitionism had its roots in Christianity. But so did American slavery, which cited biblical justifications for the peculiar institution. In the 19th century, this divide led to splits within three Protestant denominations that divided North and South: the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians. (In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for its racist past and support of slavery, 140 years after the split.)
Religious discord has always been part of America’s social DNA. The idea that the United States has always been a bastion of religious freedom may be reassuring, but it’s utterly at odds with the historical record.
American history deserves the truth.
Thanks for reading,
Much of the information on this article was gathered from Kenneth C. Davis. He is the author of Don’t Know Much About History and A Nation Rising, among other books.
- Remarks by the President at Iftar Dinner: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/08/13/remarks-president-iftar-dinner
- America’s True History of Religious Tolerance: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Americas-True-History-of-Religious-Tolerance.html#ixzz16oKEjKXX