On August 17, 1790, the Hebrew Congregation External of Newport, Rhode Island, presented a congratulatory address to President George Washington on the occasion of his visit to their city. Both the address, written by Moses Seixas, and Washington’s response appeared together in several newspapers. They encapsulate Washington’s clearest articulation of his belief in religious freedom and the first presidential affirmation of the free and equal status of Jewish-American citizens.
All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
George Washington, letter to Moses Seixas, August 17, 1790
In 1654, the first group of Jews to arrive in the future U.S. settled in what is now New York. And as early as 1658, Jewish immigrants arrived in Newport seeking religious liberty. Throughout the colonial period, Jews continued to come to North America, settling mainly in seaport towns. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, these immigrants had established several thriving synagogues.
Many British North American colonists were Europeans who left their homes rather than compromise their religious convictions. Yet commitment to the survival of one’s own faith by no means automatically entailed a commitment to the right of others to believe differently. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people of diverse faiths sought to establish their own religious strongholds in America while variously persecuting or supporting the religious rights of those who believed differently. Their struggles prompted the Founding Fathers to reflect on the overarching need for religious tolerance and freedom.
Thomas Jefferson’s hotly debated Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom External, finally approved by the Virginia legislature in 1786, recognized absolute freedom of belief and set a precedent for separation of church and state that other states later replicated. Its adoption is best understood in the context of intense debate about the place of religion in a free society.
Freedom of religion is upheld by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Drafted by James Madison and adopted in 1791 with the nine other amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment asserts, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, the Continental Congress had formally endorsed the principle even earlier. In 1776, it resolved to honor the
…wise policy of these states to extend the protection of their laws to all those who should settle among them of whatever nation or religion they might be, and to admit them to a participation of the benefits of civil and religious freedom.
Journals of Congress: Wednesday, August 14, 1776. [Philadelphia: Printed by John Dunlap?, 1776]. Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Although the First Amendment established religious freedom in the United States at the national level, vestiges of the older interdependent relationship between church and state lingered. Many states maintained state-sponsored churches well into the nineteenth century, and the state of Utah was founded by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) as their refuge from persecution.
- The Library of Congress online exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic traces the struggles over religion in the colonies and the Early Republic. Part Two of the section America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century contains information on the founding of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.
- Explore the collection Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789 to access documents highlighting the early relationship between church and state. On May 9, 1778, for example, the United States Congress urged ministers of all denominations to read a morale-boosting congressional address. Search the collection on religion to locate similar documents.
- The collections of the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison document the involvement of these Founders in establishing religious freedom as a core principle of American government. Search the full texts of these collections on such terms as God, Providence, divine, religion, bigotry, and toleration to find materials that illuminate the Founders’ thinking on religious freedom.
- Delve into the Library of Virginia’s collection of Early Virginia Religious Petitions External to find out how ordinary Americans sought to shape the relationship between church and state.
- Explore the Library of Congress online exhibition From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America to discover how Jews fleeing persecution in Europe found refuge in America and went on to build a unique American religious and cultural tradition.
- Explore the collection The Church in the Southern Black CommunityExternal to learn about the importance of religious faith and religious institutions as a refuge and bulwark for African Americans throughout centuries of slavery and oppression.
- The collection Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846–1869 External offers intimate glimpses of some of Utah’s founding Mormon pioneers. Follow the links in the essay “‘Where the Prophets of God Live’: A Brief Overview of the Mormon Trail Experience” External for an introduction to the experience of this influential group of religious refugees.
- Search the Historic American Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscape Survey collections on the terms church, meeting house, synagogue, or mosque to find photographs, drawings, and detailed information about centers of worship across the nation and from all periods of its history.
- Search Today in History features on such religious figures William Penn, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and John Carroll.