Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal

Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal

by William R. Hutchison

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Religious toleration is enshrined as an ideal in our Constitution, but religious diversity has had a complicated history in the United States. Although Americans have taken justifiable pride in the rich array of religious faiths that help define our nation, for two centuries we have been grappling with the question of how we can coexist.

In this ambitious reappraisal of American religious history, William Hutchison chronicles the country’s struggle to fulfill the promise of its founding ideals. In 1800 the United States was an overwhelmingly Protestant nation. Over the next two centuries, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others would emerge to challenge the Protestant mainstream. Although their demands were often met with resistance, Hutchison demonstrates that as a result of these conflicts we have expanded our understanding of what it means to be a religiously diverse country. No longer satisfied with mere legal toleration, we now expect that all religious groups will share in creating our national agenda.

This book offers a groundbreaking and timely history of our efforts to become one nation under multiple gods.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300129571
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

William R. Hutchison is Charles Warren Research Professor of the History of Religion in America at the Divinity School, Harvard University.

Read an Excerpt

Religious Pluralism in America

The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 William R. Hutchison
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09813-8

Chapter One

"Here Are No Disputes": Reputation and Realities in the New Republic

In the course of their nearly two centuries of existence, Great Britain's colonies in North America gained wide, increasing, and mostly admiring notice for both diversity and pluralism. This reputation rested largely upon much-advertised demographic and cultural diversities in parts of Pennsylvania and other mid-Atlantic regions, but in the late colonial and early national eras it was common to extend the observation to "the Americans" generally. When an immigrant agronomist and writer named Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, in the 1780s, used broad strokes of that kind in characterizing the new society and (along with much else) its religious life, few of his critics accused him of exaggeration or of rhetorical flourish.


This learned, temperamental son of a French country gentleman had arrived in North America in the 1750s. He had served as a soldier in Canada, then had roamed the Middle Colonies as a surveyor and merchant before settling in New York colony in 1770. In 1782 he published the enormously popular Letters from an American Farmer, in which the most famous passage, to this day excerpted in most historical and literary anthologies, rhapsodizes about the diversity of the American colonial population. In answer to his own rhetorical question, "What then is the American, this new man?" he asserted that the American was an amalgam: "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men." Crevecoeur claimed to know a man "whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons now have wives of different nations." His use of the generic "the American" conveyed, in this celebrated passage and elsewhere, that such living embodiments of diversity were common throughout the colonies.

Several pages later, the author expressed astonishment about the way Americans embraced radical diversity as well as frequently exemplifying it. After asking his mostly European readers to accompany him, in their minds, down a country road somewhere (unspecified) in the colonies, he pointed first to the prosperous farm of a Catholic, "who prays to God as he has been taught, and believes in transubstantiation." This hard worker and family man, Crevecoeur avowed, was entirely accepted. "His belief, his prayers offend nobody." And many of his neighbors were beneficiaries of the same tolerant attitude - the "good honest plodding German Lutheran," the fiery "seceder" (from the Church of England) with his well-painted house, and the "Low Dutchman" who adhered to a rigid Calvinism but seemed more preoccupied with his "waggon and fat horses." Everyone tolerated and respected everyone else. In fact, Crevecoeur asserted, these radically differing believers, if their own houses of worship were too far away, might well run into each other at the Quaker meeting-house!

How could such things be true? The colonies had regularly experienced religious strife, and a Roman Catholic observer (even if Crevecoeur in these years was a less-than-observant Catholic) had to be aware that his coreligionists in nearly all the colonies had been subjected to civil disabilities. His answer, it seems, was that in that real world where farmers or others live their daily lives, such problems had no reality. For them, at least, "persecution, religious pride, the love of contradiction," and other forms of intolerance that "the world commonly calls religion" had been left behind in Europe. If these various householders "are peaceable subjects, and are industrious, what is it to their neighbors how and in what manner they think fit to address their prayers to the Supreme Being?"

Although these claims about diversity and its routine acceptance appeared in an extraordinary piece of reportage, they were otherwise far from unusual. A great many European commentators on the American experiment, because they were engaged in battles back home over church establishments and religious freedom, were preoccupied with those American conditions that most contrasted with those in Great Britain or on the Continent, and were more than ready to cite the American situation as Great Living Ideal or as Horrible Example.

Often that sort of comparative motivation was merely a subtext or hidden agenda; but in some cases it was very much on the surface. William Cobbett was a prominent, very feisty, English reform publicist whose favorite target of contempt was the Church of England and its "greedy, chattering, lying, backbiting, mischief-making clergy." But in his Year's Residence in the United States of America, published in 1819, Cobbett extolled the American religious style. Although he was writing this memoir during the very nastiest moments of New England's Unitarian controversy, he insisted that in America "all is harmony and good neighborhood.... Here are no disputes about religion; or, if they be, they make no noise."

Others who invoked and lauded the American example did so with less fire but almost as much exaggeration. The Swedish writer Fredrika Bremer testified, after a two-year American tour in the 1850s, that "nowhere on the face of the earth has the Christian consciousness of true human freedom attained to so full a recognisation as in the United States." And Lord Carlisle, a prominent British statesman who visited in the early 1840s, later informed an audience in Leeds about the "nearly complete absence of polemical strife and bitterness" in the religious life of the young nation.

Not all the Europeans who remarked on American religious pluralism were equally enthusiastic. The Swiss churchman and historian Philip Schaff, even after he had migrated to the United States and become a major spokesman for American ways, acknowledged dangers in what Carlisle had called "unbounded freedom of conscience." And a good many others were not sympathetic at all. The English novelist Frances Trollope, who spent three years in the United States in the late 1820s, considered America's pluralistic religious life a sheer disaster. She deplored "the almost endless variety of religious factions" and the fact that, as she saw it, every religious congregation "invests itself with some queer variety of external observance that has the melancholy effect of exposing all religious ceremonies to contempt." It was impossible, Trollope thought, "in witnessing all these unseemly vagaries, not to recognize the advantages of an established church."

Plainly she got that wrong. Many who criticized the disorderly features of American religion thought an establishment of the usual sort would be far worse. Almost no one, however - whether booster, belittler, or something in between - doubted what we might call the Crevecoeur Proposition: that the American religious scene was extraordinarily diverse, and that the Americans not only tolerated this diversity but welcomed and took immense pride in it.

Some promoters of these pluralist claims extended them beyond the Protestant Christian sector of American society. Crevecoeur, for one, featured a Catholic believer on his ecumenical country road. Hannah Adams, a New Englander who in the 1780s compiled a remarkable "dictionary" of the world's religions, boasted that Jews in America "have never been persecuted, but have been indulged in all the rights of citizens." And Robert Baird, an American Presbyterian leader who in the 1840s surveyed his country's religious ways and sought to explain them to Europeans, depicted the blessings of freedom and respect as being showered upon virtually all opinions, including non-Christian and antireligious ones:

The Christian - be he Protestant or Catholic - the infidel, the Mohammedan, the Jew, the Deist, has not only all his rights as a citizen, but may have his own form of worship, without the possibility of any interference from any policeman or magistrate, provided he do not interrupt, in so doing, the peace and tranquility of the surrounding neighbourhood.

A few enthusiasts seemed to go even farther - for example, by implying a prevailing acceptance of the Indians and their various cultures. Among many artistic expressions of the myth of pluralist success, the best known and loved was Edward Hicks's depiction of what he saw as the world's first great embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom foretold in Old Testament prophecy. In that painting, which Hicks reproduced in some one hundred versions, Indians as well as lions, lambs, and white settlers are seen to be dwelling together in harmony.

This painting, with its references to William Penn and late-seventeenth-century history, might seem also to be suggesting that pluralist triumphs were achieved immediately in the New World environment; but Hicks was a Quaker who knew enough of his sect's history to recognize that things had not been that easy. Most of those who promulgated the myth of pluralist success not only recognized early difficulties; they emphasized them. Theirs was a story not so much of instant successes as of steady progress.

Baird, accordingly, acknowledged that intolerance and persecution in the earliest years had affected many besides "the descendants of Abraham." After chastising the founders of New England and Virginia, who had been "unwilling to accord to others [the religious freedom] they so highly prized for themselves," he recounted a slow, painful, progress that had occurred at different rates in different places. Only with great difficulty had the colonists been freed from the necessity of attending an established church, and then from having to pay taxes to support it. Dissenters had been obliged to battle for the right to hold public meetings.

By the time when Baird wrote, however, the states had, one after another, followed the example of the federal Constitution and ended governmental support of religious establishments; and all but two of them (Baird mistakenly cited only one exception) had discontinued what he called the "barbarism" of imposing a religious test for office-holding. Given that impressive, or perhaps astounding, half-century of growth in legal toleration, it is no surprise to find that Baird was genuinely optimistic; and in this he spoke for most of his contemporaries. "In no part of the world," he wrote, "can we find any progress ... which can be compared with what has taken place in the United States."

Not only are we likely to read this kind of effusion as unduly optimistic; as in the case of Crevecoeur we may want to ask how people of Baird's generation could have missed what now seems like abundant evidence that legal toleration was incomplete, and in any case had not produced social tolerance. Although legal disabilities affecting inhabitants of European origin were nearly gone, those imposed upon native and African populations obviously were not. As for non-European religions, the very idea that blacks or Indians had religions of their own seemed absurd to most members of the dominant culture. Baird cited, as one of the unfortunate obstacles to progress and fair treatment for the Indians, the fact that "not a single noble aspiration seems ever to enter their souls."

Within the European population, anti-Catholic and antiforeign "nativism" had been virulent in the 1830s, and was gaining political strength during the years when Baird was writing his book. In 1844, at about the time when his first American edition appeared, the founder of Mormonism was murdered in the jail at Carthage, Illinois. In July of that year, Philadelphia was convulsed with anti-Catholic rioting that, as one historian has put it, "turned the City of Brotherly Love into a chaos of hatred and persecution." Two churches were burned to the ground, and twelve people were killed. In the calmer city of Baltimore, John Quincy Adams, the congressman and former president, took charge of a National Lord's Day convention whose purpose was to promote observance of a Sabbath that was not the Sabbath of the Jews or of the Seventh Day Baptists.

The failure of people like Baird to discern that toleration had not stamped out intolerance, and that persecutions would continue, should not be attributed solely to wishful thinking or American boosterism. As I have suggested, the reality of rapidly achieved toleration in the young country, and its novelty in the Western world, could easily convince Americans and their overseas admirers that a peaceable kingdom had indeed been established - or was just over the horizon. What they could not grasp, with anything like the clarity available to privileged hindsight, were the effects of another kind of reality. This was the reality of a sudden, rapid diversification - ethnic, cultural, religious - that was at least as unusual in its time as were the new nation's constitutional and other commitments to religious freedom.

It was ironic, almost suspicious: during the very years in which constitutional and legal toleration was advancing - step by step and state by state - bigotry and social intolerance plainly were spreading as well, or at least were becoming increasingly visible. One can perhaps see this situation as an indirect effect of the very toleration that beckoned so many "strangers" to the young country. Alexis de Tocqueville, the most astute of the nineteenth-century European observers, speculated that the fluidity built into their institutional and social structures was making Americans nervous, disoriented, and inclined to seek supposed alternative ways of restoring social cohesion. That argument is relevant here. An equally plausible explanation, however, is that a pluralist reputation achieved in one kind of world was being asked to maintain itself within a world that was changing rapidly and in fundamental ways. Advances achieved within the earlier mostly Protestant culture were not readily transferable, intact, into the new demographic situation.


Traditionally, historians have flagged a somewhat later period - that of the "new immigration" from southern, central, and eastern Europe - as the time of greatest and most disruptive social change in American history. Or, in recent years, we have supposed that our own era can claim that distinction as a result of an influx of new Americans, from all parts of the world, that has owed a great deal to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 - a piece of legislation that ended most of the immigration restrictions imposed forty years earlier.


Excerpted from Religious Pluralism in America by WILLIAM R. HUTCHISON Copyright © 2003 by William R. Hutchison. Excerpted by permission.
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