This is a 15th-century painting of Zurich, Switzerland, by Hans Leu. The first Anabaptist meeting took place in the village of Zollikon just outside the city in January 1525.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." U.S. Constitution
The Earth is the Lord's
Following the desire for a better material life for themselves
and their children, the desire for religious freedom probably motivated
more immigrants to come to America than any other concernand the two
desires have often been inextricably linked. In the words of historian Will
Durant, "For men came across the sea not merely to find new soil for their
plows but to win freedom for their souls, to think and speak and worship as
The founding of European colonies in North America coincided
with the Protestant Reformationone of the watershed events of human
history. The Reformation not only split Europe along Catholic and
Protestant lines, it also spawned a variety of religious groups whose
members often suffered persecution from civil and religious authorities
alike. This persecution varied widely from country to country, both in form
and in the degree of severity. In some places, members of minority faiths
resented paying taxes to support the established church and being forced to
attend worship services; in other places, refusing to conform to the local
religion meant death.
To those suffering from harassment or maltreatment in the Old World, the
New World offered space to create new societies in which they could worship
without interferencelike the Pilgrims and Puritans who founded New England.
At the time, however, the idea that freedom of worship was a fundamental
human right was in its infancy. Many of those who came to the colonies
seeking the freedom to practice their particular faith were quick to deny
that freedom to those whose beliefs were differentmost notably the New
England Puritans, who banished, punished, and sometimes executed Quakers
and other non-Puritans.
One of those banished from Puritan Massachusetts was Roger Williams, one of
the first great figures in the history of religious freedom in what would
become the United States. Williams believed that because no one can truly
know which religion is "acceptable" to God, everyone should be free to
worship according to his or her own consciencesomething he called "soul
liberty." Williams, who founded Rhode Island in 1636, put the idea into
practice; the colony quickly became a haven for Quakers, Jews, and other
Later in the 1600s, Quaker leader William Penn established Pennsylvania,
which welcomed immigrants of many faiths, while in the New Netherlands
(soon to be New York), the Dutch government adopted a policy of religious
tolerance-not so much out of philosophical principle, but because it was
good for business.
Congress shall make no law...
In Europe, the Reformation led to a series of deadly and devastating wars
of religion that brought even more refugees, like the Huguenots, to the
colonies. The suffering caused by these European conflicts, as well as the
intellectual advances of the 18th-century Enlightenment, led the founders
of the United States to make freedom to worship the law of the land in the
First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" [in
other words, there would be no state-supported church, as in Britain],
while the document's Article VI barred "religious tests" for public office.
And although the majority of Americansthen and nowprofess Christianity,
the new nation confirmed separation of church and state in a 1797 treaty
with the Muslim state of Tripoli in North Africa, which stated, "The
government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the
This guarantee inspired countless immigrants to make their way to the
United States, often at great risk and hardshipfrom Jews escaping
anti-Semitic pogroms in the 19th-century Russian Empire to Tibetans fleeing
the Communist Chinese occupation of their homeland in the 1990s. As a
result, the United States became the most religiously diverse nation on
earth, with some 2,000 distinct religious groups by the early 21st century.
Its example fostered the growth of religious freedom in other nations, and
continues to provide hope to those suffering persecution for their beliefs
around the world.
Source: Destination America by Charles A. Wills, Bibliography