The letter exchange between George Washington and the Hebrew congregation of Newport was not the only landmark event in the early history of America that dealt with issues of religious freedom and identity. Seixas’ letter and Washington’s subsequent response exist within a timeline of many other events during which the newly formed country faced those issues. Continue reading below for information about some of those events.
1607 - 1700
Colonists from Great Britain settle along the Eastern seaboard of America in areas now known as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Virginia.
The majority of the English colonies establish official churches backed by local government. In New England, the church supported by the tax-paying public is Congregationalism (or Puritanism). In New York and the southern colonies, the Anglican Church enjoys this privileged status (with the exception of Pennsylvania). Citizens must pay tithe (a tax) to support the colony’s church, and in some cases church attendance is mandatory. Rhode Island is an exception, becoming an early outpost of religious freedom.
The settlers from Europe also enter a landscape of diverse Indigenous religions which, much like Christianity, present their own cosmologies of the world and the hereafter. Among the cultures settlers encounter are the Pequot of southeast Connecticut and Rhode Island, the Powhatan of Virginia, the Narragansett and Mohegan of Rhode Island, and the Wampanoag of Massachusetts. Many colonists consider themselves Providence’s missionaries in the New World, and attempt to Christianize and civilize both the Native Americans and slaves who arrive from Africa (of which a large number are Muslim). In some cases, Native Americans’ beliefs are ignored; in others, settlers seek to find a means of coexistence.
The first Protestant Episcopal parish is established in America’s first successful colony, Jamestown, Virginia. Adhering for the most part to the Church of England, it becomes the official religion of the colony and draws its members from its economic and cultural elite.
Facing controversy and religious persecution in England, the Puritans (dissenters inside the Church of England who wish to “purify” it but are frustrated by lack of change) seek new places for worship. That year, a group of them board the Mayflower in Plymouth, England, and arrive in America after a grueling two-month voyage. Landing in Massachusetts, they establish the second successful colony in America, also called Plymouth, and become known as the Pilgrims.
The Puritans, who are mostly Calvinists, reject some of the rituals, liturgy, and hierarchy of the Anglican Church, whose roots are in Roman Catholicism. In contrast with the Anglican Church, they move away from the tradition of bishops and central church authority, and encourage a higher degree of autonomy for each congregation (Congregationalism).
Although often depicted as fleeing England in search of religious freedom, they in fact use their newly-found religious autonomy to impose their strict form of Protestantism on Puritans and non-Puritans alike. Church leaders, who are closely connected with the colonial civil government, want the government to help enforce religious conformity and moral behavior in the community.
Additional Puritan colonists land in America, settle in Salem, and start the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Arrival in Boston of Roger Williams, a London minister who will become an influential leader in religious liberty in the colonies.
Throughout the colonial period, Catholic missionaries from Spain and France operate in areas such as the Canadian border, the Great Lakes, along the Mississippi, Florida, and the Southwest, paralleling the efforts of English Protestants in their efforts to convert Native Americans to their faith.
Although French (and earlier, Spanish) Catholics have settled in areas that are now part of the US, only a handful of them live in the thirteen English speaking colonies. The first English Catholics make their entry into the colonies when a group of 128 English Catholics arrive in Maryland.
Anne Hutchinson arrives in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and engages women in biblical studies at home. The practice draws in many who question the assumptions of Puritanism, including its emphasis on clerical authority in civil and personal matters, and it disregard for the rights of women and Native Americans. Much like other radical Protestants, Hutchinson believes that faith alone can guarantee one’s salvation (“justification by faith” or sola fide). Furthermore, she discards the belief that following the Biblical law and clerical direction could ensure one’s salvation (antinomianism), a position that earns her the ire of the colonial authorities who seek to expel her.
Roger Williams, who arrived in America several years earlier, is banished from Massachusetts for his heretical views about church and civil powers. Williams, in effect, makes the first argument in the colonies for a separation of religion and government: he demands that civil governments not be permitted to make any determination about the religious beliefs of their subjects.
He is the first use the phrase a “wall of separation” between government and religion, words later made famous by Thomas Jefferson in 1802. Known for his concern for, and good relations with, the Native Americans in the region, Williams travels with their help to Rhode Island, where he starts a colony he calls Providence Plantations. He invites all religious denominations and dissenters to join the new colony. Three years later he founds the first Baptist church in the colonies.
1634 - 38
The Pequot War: an armed conflict between English settlers and their Native allies and the Pequot breaks out in 1634 and lasts to 1638. The war leaves the Pequot people devastated. Puritans make an effort to convert the remaining members of the tribe to Christianity.
Religious dissident Anne Hutchinson is tried and expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony as punishment for heresy. On an invitation from Roger Williams, she, her family, and her supporters move to Rhode Island where they settle.
Maryland, founded in 1632 by Cecilius Calvert to provide a safe haven for English Roman Catholics persecuted at home, is now dominated by a majority population of Anglicans and Puritans. To accommodate Catholics, Maryland adopts the Toleration Act, providing freedom of worship and protection to all who believed in the divinity of Jesus (often called Trinitarians, which includes both Anglicans and Catholics—in contrast, for example, with Unitarians who accepted only the divinity of God). The act is reversed within a decade when Anglicans take over the Maryland Assembly.
The colony of Maine passes legislation creating religious freedom for all citizens, but only on the condition that those of “contrary” religious beliefs behave “acceptably.”
A group of twenty-three Jews, whose families had left Portugal and Spain for Holland in the 1490s to escape persecution and who had eventually moved to the Dutch colony of Brazil, are forced to flee the Catholic Inquisition again when Portugal captures Brazil from the Dutch in 1653. The Jews sail up the Eastern seaboard on a Dutch ship and land in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now New York. The colony is managed by a for-profit company, the Dutch West India Company. The corporation’s governor-general, Peter Stuyvesant, does not wish to permit the Jews to settle there, because he does not believe that the Jews can be absorbed without undermining the Dutch Calvinist religious coherence of the colony. Despite his objections, the Company orders Stuyvesant to allow the Jews to stay, so long as they do not become a burden on the public purse, and do not worship publicly.
Meeting in private homes, Congregation Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam becomes the first Jewish congregations on mainland North America (several synagogues had already been built in the Dutch Caribbean colonies). The freedom to worship in public and other civil rights are withheld from the community for several decades to come, even after the British defeat the Dutch and rename the colony New York.
Mary Fisher and Ann Austin, the first Quakers to arrive in Boston, are arrested by the colony’s authorities. Five weeks later they are deported back to England. Another group of eight Quakers arrives in Boston and are also immediately imprisoned by Puritan authorities who regard them as politically and religiously subversive.
When the Dutch governor of the colony of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, pursues a policy of imprisoning and persecuting Quakers in his city, he is met with some resistance by non-Quaker residents. A group of English citizens in Flushing, Queens, present a public petition known as the “Flushing Remonstrance,” which calls for peaceful co-existence for all faiths and constitutes an early act of popular resistance to civic intolerance.
A group of fifteen Jewish families, hearing about Roger William's experiment in religious freedom in Rhode Island, sails into Newport harbor. These Jews, whose families escaped persecution in Catholic Europe, found the second Jewish settlement in the colonies and Congregation Jeshuat Israel (Salvation of Israel). In 1677, they purchase and consecrate a Jewish cemetery.
Mary Dyer, a Puritan-turned-Quaker, is executed on Boston Common after repeatedly defying orders banning her and other Quakers from living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Puritans translate the Bible into Native American languages to help Christianize the Native peoples living in communities around Massachusetts Bay. Puritan missionary John Eliot translates the Bible into an Algonquian dialect. The “Eliot Bible,” as it comes to be known, is the first complete Bible printed in America. The Puritans also publish a book of hymns titled The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated Into English Metre.
British monarch Charles II grants the Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, providing latitude for freedom of conscience, stating "our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be anyway molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and does not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony." This explicit pledge of government non-interference in matters of belief was unique: both England itself, and most other colonies, still had in place many legal limits on religious practice.
The Quakers, a Protestant denomination that emphasizes social justice and equality as part of their religious beliefs, lodge early objection to the practice of slavery in the colonies on religious grounds. In 1673, they publish An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning Buying or Selling of Negroes, one of the earliest anti-slavery publications circulated in the American Colonies.
1675 - 76
“King Philip’s War” breaks out between the settlers in New England and a coalition of Native American groups headed by the Wampanoag leader Metacom (known to the colonists as “King Philip”). Triggered by colonists expansion inland and growing commercial and cultural tensions, this bitter war lasts over a year. It ends with a colonial victory and the enslavement and killing of thousands of Indians. While the colonists suffer many losses, the New England Native American tribes and their cultures are so devastated that they never recover.
1682 - 83
William Penn, an English entrepreneur, sails to America to claim land given to him by the Duke of York, which includes parts of what is now Pennsylvania and Delaware. Penn, a Quaker, founds the new colony of that bears his name, where his pledge of religious freedom attracts a Quaker community and other persecuted religious minorities, including Huguenots, Mennonites, Amish, Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews. Penn will later advocate the abolition of slavery.
The Salem Witch Trials in the Massachusetts colony are officially launched with the conviction of Tituba, a West Indian slave woman. In an episode of mass hysteria, Salem is swept with a panic that results in citizens trying 150 of their neighbors for witchcraft, ending in twenty executions. The event would become a touchstone in future debates about tolerance of religious and cultural differences, and the dangers of mass hysteria.
New York’s first synagogue, built by Congregation Shearith Israel, is dedicated in that city.
Following the tour of the English evangelical and revivalist George Whitefield in America, Jonathan Edwards delivers his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” stirring up a wave of religious revival and the beginning of the Great Awakening in New England. In massive open air sermons, the movement challenges the clerical elite and its establishment by focusing on the complete sinfulness of every individual, and on salvation through personal, emotional conversion—what we call today being “born again.” By discounting worldly success as a sign of God’s favor, and by focusing on emotional transformation (“enthusiasm”) rather than reason, the movement appeals to the poor and less educated, including slaves and Native Americans.
Over the course of a decade, the Jewish population of Newport flourishes. In 1758, a Dutch Jew named Isaac Touro becomes the congregation's first spiritual leader. A year later the congregation purchases land and hires Peter Harrison, the preeminent architect of the colonial era, to design what would become known as Touro Synagogue. The synagogue is completed and dedicated in 1763.
Thomas Jefferson drafts the Virginia Bill Establishing Religious Freedom. Jefferson advocates the separation of religion and government, arguing that people must be left to find their way to God and truth on their own, and that their civic rights should not depend on their religious beliefs. Jefferson and James Madison advocate the bill throughout the Revolutionary war, but it becomes a law only in 1786. It lays the foundation for future documents about the separation of church and state, including the First Amendment to the Constitution.
In October of 1781, the war between Great Britain and its American colonies ends with the thirteen colonies successfully establishing their political independence. Religion plays a role in revolutionary thinking, as rebels justify their actions by invoking resistance to religious control by the Church of England, and their belief that they have a divine mission to colonize the New World.
The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, first crafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, separates church and state in the Commonwealth of Virginia, ending state government’s role in subsidizing an official church, collecting church tithes, and restricting freedom of individual religious practice.
April 12, 1787
Richard Allen and Absolom Jones, both religious men who were born into slavery, form the Free African Society. The FAS is a religious organization that is set up like a church and provided religious and financial aid to newly freed African Americans who willingly joined the society.
September 17, 1787
A new Constitution is created and approved by representatives of the colonies, gathered in a Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia.
March 4, 1789
The Constitution goes into effect.
George Washington inaugurated as the first President of the United States.
September 25, 1789
Congress passes a Bill of Rights, ten amendments to the Constitution that expand the rights of individual citizens, and they are sent to the states for ratification. The first amendment is intended to promote freedom of religion.
The slaves Peter Durrett and his wife founded the First African Church, now known as First African Baptist Church, in Lexington, Kentucky.
Rhode Island becomes the last state to ratify the Constitution. On June 7, 1790, Rhode Island also becomes the 9th state to ratify the Bill of Rights.
George Washington arrives in Newport, Rhode Island, and is greeted with welcoming addresses by citizen groups, including members of the Touro synagogue. Touro Synagogue takes on a special significance in 1790 when President George Washington, in his letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” declares that the new nation would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” These few words affirm the Founding Fathers’ commitment to the principals of religious freedom as a cornerstone of democracy in America.
Virginia is 11th state to ratify the Bill of Rights, and the first ten amendments go into effect.
A decade earlier, Richard Allen, who was born into slavery, was able to buy his freedom after he and his owner were converted by a Methodist minister who preached against slavery. In the colonial period, black slaves find in Christianity a source of solace and inspiration. They develop their own interpretation of the Scriptures. They typically convert to “low church” denominations (e.g., Baptists, Quakers, and Methodists) because of these churches appeal to the poor. The Anglican and Episcopalian churches, in contrast, give slaves little voice and influence and emphasize material success as a sign of one’s favor with God.
Allen forms the African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) church in response to racial hatred in the Methodist church. Allen goes to Pennsylvania court in 1807 and 1815 to sue for the right of the AME to remain a separate congregation from the Methodist church.
“Awakenings” in southern states involve the conversion of slaves to Baptist and Methodist beliefs. These religions preach that all are equal in the eyes of God, but slaves are made to attend white-controlled churches out of fear that, if allowed to gather separately, the slaves would plot escape.
It will take the Civil War, the end of slavery, the passage of new Amendments in the 1860s, and decades of later social change, before the protections of religious liberty and other key freedoms in the Constitution and Bill of Rights are extended to all Americans.