Early Americans: Religious by Choice

“The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.” Alexis de Tocqueville

In an earlier column, I wrote about the tendency of textbook authors to deny or denigrate the role of religion in their depictions of the founding of the United States. Historians like Professor Eric Foner teach their students that the Founding Fathers were able to embrace progressive ideas like freedom and equality because they viewed Christianity and the Bible as “outdated superstitions that should be abandoned in the modern age.”1

The truth is very different.

College history professors, like other left wing extremists, are loath to acknowledge that religion has played a positive role in the development of this nation; yet any honest portrayal of American history would have to acknowledge it. The rights and freedoms enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were, the Founders thought, quite literally sacred; having been bestowed on the human race by God Himself.

The American people of the late eighteenth century were more generally devout in their Christianity than the citizens of any other nation, and there is a reason for that. In America religion was not imposed on the people by government, it was freely chosen.

Early Americans: Religious by Choice

When French bureaucrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831 and ’32, one of the first things he noticed about the American people was that they were far more religiously devout than Europeans. In writing about the experience in his famous and influential book Democracy in America, he noted that “there is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”2

Tocqueville made it clear that while religion was an important part of the American character, religious conformity was not. The Americans he met approached God as individuals. Unlike Europe, where citizens passively accepted whatever religious denomination their rulers might mandate, the Americans chose their own churches. “The sects which exist in the United States are innumerable.” said Tocqueville, “They all differ in respect to the worship which is due from man to his Creator, but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man.”3

The religious devotion and religious diversity that Tocqueville observed in the American people should not be seen as contradictory. They both came from the same source. One of the primary factors that motivated seventeenth and eighteenth century Europeans to come to the New World was the unwillingness of many of them to accept a government-mandated religion.

The people who emigrated from England and the other European countries to the North American colonies were, for the most part, rugged individualists, who were willing to leave whatever security they had in the Old World to take their chances in the New. Some came seeking economic opportunity. Others, including the founders of most of the Northern colonies, came in search of religious freedom.

The great majority of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europeans were content to practice whatever religion thier governments might impose. Those who felt that way tended to stay in Europe. Those who felt otherwise tended to flee to the New World.

Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut

The most famous group of religious pilgrims to come to North America were the ones who came over on the Mayflower in 1620. They were Puritan “separatists” who refused to accept the authority of the Church of England. Half of them died within the first year, but none of them ever attempted to return to Europe. Eight years later another group of Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, near modern day Boston. Eventually these two colonies merged, to form what would become the State of Massachusetts.

In 1636, a religious dissident named Roger Williams began preaching a version of Christianity that the leaders of Massachusetts Bay Colony could not tolerate. Williams then had to lead a religious pilgrimage from Massachusetts, just sixteen years after the first religious pilgrimage to Massachusetts. Williams and his followers founded the colony that became the state of Rhode Island.

Also in 1636, a Puritan professor of theology named Thomas Hooker led a group of religious dissenters from Massachusetts to found the first significant colony in what would become Connecticut. Hooker disagreed with the Massachusetts Colony’s emphasis on religious conformity, and wanted to establish a place where freedom of conscience would be respected for all.

Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland

In 1682 William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania as a haven for persecuted religious minorities.

Penn, like many of the early colonists, was a man who put his religious convictions ahead of his own comfort or safety. Raised in a wealthy Anglican family, he converted to the Quaker faith in 1666, despite the persecution that Quakers were already suffering at the hands of the English government. His father’s initial reaction to his conversion was to expel him from the family home and disinherit him, so the younger Penn learned to live with poverty.

In 1688 William Penn was sent to prison for his faith for the first time. He was put in solitary confinement and threatened with a life sentence, but he resolutely refused to conform. “My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot,” he said, “for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.”  

Penn’s father eventually reconciled with him, and used his influence and his money to get his son out of jail. When a propitious moment came along, William was able to persuade the King to establish a royal charter for a Quaker colony in the new world.  

Penn, unlike the Mayflower pilgrims, did not flee Anglican theocracy just to make his own religious beliefs mandatory within the community he founded. Heavily influenced by John Locke (as Thomas Jefferson would be a century later), He wrote for Pennsylvania a “Framework of Government” that guarantied freedom of religion for all. Pennsylvania, and the Quaker colonies Penn helped found in New Jersey, quickly became a haven for Jews and Catholics, and for Protestants of every denomination.                                                      

Pennsylvania was not the only American option available to English Catholics. Maryland was established by Lord Baltimore as a refuge for English Catholics who were persecuted by the Anglican government.


Religious convictions are stronger when they are chosen by the individual, rather than imposed by some outside force. That being the case, sincere religious faith animated the founders and masses of this nation in ways that most Europeans of that day could not understand.

The effete leftists who populate college history faculties might be uncomfortable with the Biblical basis of America’s principles of freedom and equality, and might even work to keep the information from their students, but the facts remain what they are. Religious convictions provided the ideological underpinnings of the founding principles of this nation.

Al Fuller

1Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 2005 edition, p. 145
2Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Bantam Classic 2000 Edition, p. 350

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