religion During the Revolutionary War

By Awet Amedechiel

Religious toleration existed in some forms in some parts of the thirteen British colonies during some parts of the late eighteenth century. Not many people were members of churches, but the church buildings played important civic and political roles as meeting houses and community/cultural gathering places, so the influence of churches went far beyond the membership. Protestantism, with its various denominations, dominated the colonies as a whole. The Anglican Church (Church of England), later called Episcopalian, was the largest established church in the colonies, particularly strong in the southern and Mid-Atlantic colonies. The next largest church, most heavily concentrated in New England, was the Congregational Church, derived from the Puritan/Calvinist tradition.
Members of a number of Protestant denominations and Christian sects also settled in the thirteen colonies. The Quakers, led by William Penn, presented a significant presence in Pennsylvania, although some were physically abused in areas where they were a minority. Ann Lee brought the "Shaking Quakers," or Shakers, almost as an intact group from England to parts of New York. Lutherans, German Reformed, and Moravians, as well as Presbyterians, brought their religious traditions from Europe to America. Groups like the Baptists and the Methodists, some of whose members were attacked by angry members of other Protestant groups, gained many converts after the Great Awakening. Both before and after the Great Awakening, a massive Christian revival movement that swept the colonies in the 1740's, the numbers of these Protestant dissenters were small, but their influence on the American religious tapestry was profound. Although they were sometimes distrusted and mistreated, most members of Protestant denominations outside the dominant Episcopal and Congregational churches did not face legal discrimination, although many had to pay taxes to a colonial government which supported other churches.
Roman Catholics and Jews, on the other hand, were often subjected to both personal and legal discrimination. Roman Catholics were particularly targeted, even in a colony like Maryland, which had been founded as a haven for Catholics. Called "Papists," they were mistreated largely because of the strong anti-Catholic sentiment in England. This sentiment may have derived from the popularity of King Henry VIII's break with the church in Rome and the remembered terror of the reign of Catholic Queen Mary. Many of the Catholics in the British colonies settled in Maryland, established by the Roman Catholic Lord Baltimore, but the colony's ruling Baltimore family eventually converted to Anglicanism, By the time of the Revolutionary War, the Church of England had been established in the colony, the capital had been moved from Catholic St. Mary to Protestant Annapolis, and Catholics had been deprived of political rights and prevented from holding religious services anywhere but in their own homes.


By 1794, there were only about 35,000 Catholics in the United States. They were slowly accepted in states other than Maryland, but many, especially the Irish, about 75% of whom were Catholic and many of whom were poor, were persecuted. Some Irish Catholic immigrants were or became wealthy, especially in New York and Philadelphia. Many became only nominal Catholics, and others joined Protestant denominations, since there were few Catholic churches or priests in America, and much of the Catholic faith depends of the presence of both churches and priests.
The first Jewish people to come to North America arrived in 1585, but the first Jewish community wasn't established until 1654, in New Amsterdam. By 1775, there were about 2,500 Jews in the colonies, and six Jewish communities in North America: Montreal, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Charles Town (South Carolina), and Savannah.

In the eighteenth century, many British colonies in North America declared Jewish people freemen or allowed them to vote. But, no Jewish person was allowed to hold office in any of the colonies, although, unlike Quakers and Baptists, Jews were generally not beaten or jailed. Most were shopkeepers or artisans, and some were businessmen and merchant-shippers in the larger towns and cities.

Although Christians were generally prejudiced against Jewish people, Jewish-Christian relations were, at least on the surface, relatively good. Various regions and colonies presented different conditions to Jewish settlers. In New England, life was far from easy for Jews. They were denied permission to live in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. After the 1688 "Glorious Revolution" in Britain, however, a more tolerant royal administration took over New England governorships, and the restrictions on Jews in Massachusetts relaxed. Jews were finally allowed to purchase and bequeath homes, serve as witnesses in Boston courts, and act as constables.

Quaker Pennsylvania and Anglican New Jersey allowed Jews residence in the 1600's, and, by the 1700's, they suffered relatively minor restrictions on voting and office-holding. In seventeenth-century Maryland, reactionary anti-Catholic sentiments led to the disenfranchisement of all non-Protestants, including Jews. A blasphemy law and injunctions against Jewish public worship and political rights served to work against freedom for Jews. In Anglican Virginia, Catholics, Dissenters and Jews were equally oppressed. In South Carolina, however, the constitution was framed by John Locke, English liberal political philosopher, who guaranteed Jews freedom of conscience, although Catholics were still excluded from the protection of rights. Thus, the first Jews to immigrate to Charles Town, South Carolina, were already free to worship and own property. In Georgia, Jews were protected by the colonial charter which promised the toleration of all immigrants except Catholics. James Oglethorpe, Governor of the colony, allowed Jews to settle in the fringes of his land, rented the Jewish community a house in which to hold services, and designated a plot of land for a cemetery. Although only Protestants were technically allowed to vote or hold office, Jews were voting by the mid-1700's and, in 1765, two Jewish people were elected port officials of Savannah.

Despite the presence of this range of religious affiliations in the eighteenth century, all the southern colonies, as well as four southern counties of New York, required residents to financially support the Episcopal Church, regardless of the resident's own religion. By 1776, nine of the thirteen colonies still provided public funding for one or more designated Protestant denominations. At the dawn of the Revolutionary War, non-Protestants were still generally considered second-class citizens by the Protestant majority. Religious acceptance and tolerance was far from an absolute reality in the United States, but many immigrants found in the new nation a degree of freedom unavailable in Europe.