Religious Freedom 101: From Washington to WWII, the ups and downs

Written by William C. Duncan

April 1, 2020

This is the second installment in a series about the history of religious freedom in the United States. Click here to read part 1.

On August 17, 1790, President George Washington, accompanied by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and others, visited Newport, Rhode Island. At the time of the visit, Rhode Island had ratified the new U.S. Constitution a few months before, and the states were considering ratifying the proposed Bill of Rights. During their visit, local dignitaries read letters of welcome, including one by Moses Seixas, from Yeshuat Israel, a Jewish congregation in the city. Seixas’ parents had emigrated from Portugal to Barbados and then to the United States. The congregation’s synagogue included a trapdoor representing the “tradition of remembering the perils of Jews living in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition and having to flee from soldiers of the Holy Office at a moment’s notice.”

Seixas’ letter included an eloquent passage describing in a bold and confident style the aspiration of religious freedom in the new United States:

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.

In response, Washington wrote a brief letter, adopting some of Seixas’ most powerful ideas:

For happily the Government of the United States 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.

This became one of the earliest formulations of the aspiration codified in the First Amendment, ratified not long afterward – that government should not limit the ability of people of faith and churches to live according to their beliefs.

Living the aspiration, by contrast, was not nearly as simple, as the next century and a half would show. Majority religions tended to thrive under the new constitutional protections, but the aspiration of religious freedom was applied unequally to minority religions, and sometimes not at all. While Jewish Americans experienced less persecution than Jews in Europe during the same time period, they were still subject to mistreatment, including official discrimination. During the Civil War, General Ulysses Grant issued an order expelling all Jews from a district controlled by the military. President Abraham Lincoln quickly revoked the order.

Other religious hostilities did not dissipate so quickly. After a group of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settled in Missouri’s Jackson County, local residents, including militia leaders, violently drove them from their homes. They settled in newly created Caldwell County, but even that compromise failed. In 1838, Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs sent militia to drive Latter-day Saints from the state, issuing an order that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies and exterminated or driven from the state.”

Persecution of church members continued for decades, even after the Latter-day Saints had left the United States and settled in what is now the state of Utah.

Perhaps the most well-known religious persecution in the United States was directed at Catholics. Though Maryland began as a haven for Catholics, distrust and prejudice were close to the surface from the beginning of the United States. In 1834, a Massachusetts mob – suspicious of Irish-Catholic immigrants – burned a convent in Charlestown, forcing out Ursuline nuns who educated Protestant and Catholic children from Boston.

In the 1850s, an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic political party, the Know Nothing Party, became the first major third party in the U.S. Its platform included barring Catholics from public office. An online legal encyclopedia explains:

The Know-Nothings elected the governor and all but two members of the Massachusetts state legislature as well as 40 members of the New York state legislature. By 1855 Know-Nothing adherents had elected thousands of local government officials as well as eight governors. Forty-three Know-Nothing candidates were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and there were five Know-Nothing senators.

The party fell apart when it failed to take a stand on slavery, but anti-Catholic sentiment flared again in the late 19th century. Responding to de facto Protestant domination of schools, Catholic schools were formed but were denied access to public support. In fact, “in the 1880s, over 30 states adopted so-called Blaine Amendments (named after U.S. Senator James G. Blaine) barring any state funds for these separatist schools.”

In the 20th century, anti-Catholic activism was promoted by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan supported a 1922 Oregon law that made attendance at public school mandatorya clear attempt to criminalize private religious schools.

By the 1920s, though, a presidential nominee, Al Smith, was Catholic. Although prejudice likely contributed to his failure to win the election, he helped prepare the way for increasing acceptance of Catholics in public life.

Soon, new religious minorities arose to test America’s commitment to religious toleration. The Jehovah’s Witness movement, arising formally in the 1910s, aroused suspicion because of their conscientious objection to military service, refusal to salute national flags, and proselytism. In the 1930s, they were subjected to mob violence, arrests for proselyting, and widespread condemnation for their criticism of government.

In 1935, the 12- and 10-year-old children of a Jehovah’s Witness, Walter Gobitas, were expelled from their Pennsylvania school for refusing to salute the American flag. Gobitas launched a legal challenge that was eventually heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940.

Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the majority opinion, concluding the legislature could compel children to salute the flag as the symbol of the political order from which freedom sprang. In a strong dissent, Justice Harlan Stone characterized the majority opinion as “no less than the surrender of the constitutional protection of the liberty of small minorities to the popular will.”

In the aftermath of the decision, persecution and mob violence against Witnesses surged. In 1940 alone, the ACLU estimated there had been 335 attacks on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their facilities.

And yet, while the roughly 140-year period between the enactment of the First Amendment and World War II was often a dark and difficult time for the aspiration of religious freedom, all of this persecution set the stage for a crucial upsurge in legal protections of for religious belief and expression. Ultimately, amid these setbacks, the seeds of hope were planted for a critical reaffirmation of the aspiration George Washington had endorsed. This will be the subject of our next installment.

Click the following links to read the rest of the series: part 3 and part 4.

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