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Rebbe Menachem M. SchneersonFreedom to Worship

15th-century painting of Zurich, Switzerland

Anabaptist Hometown
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

Watch the VideoThe 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 concern—and 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 they would."

The founding of European colonies in North America coincided with the Protestant Reformation—one 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 interference—like 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 different—most 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 conscience—something 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 "dissenters."

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 Americans—then and now—profess 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 Christian religion."

This guarantee inspired countless immigrants to make their way to the United States, often at great risk and hardship—from 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

Sources: Christopher Columbus-The Granger Collection, Book & Series: Destination America

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