E297A – EDGE                                                                                                                             Erik Wong

Ethics of Development in a Global Environment                                                                              Dec. 6, 2002







                Throughout its history, the United States has characteristically remained a country of two things: a country of immigrants, and a country of unmatched religious diversity.  And yet when compared with the rest of the world – where these two very factors alone have so often engendered horrible religious wars and decades of enduring conflict – the history of religious conflict in the United States seems almost nonexistent.

That is not to say the United States has been immune to its share of conflict explicitly rooted in religion.  This paper explores the various manifestations of religious conflict throughout the history of the United States, from the Revolutionary War to the attacks of September 11th and their fallout.  A distinction is drawn between religious intolerance, which is not the focus of this paper, and outright religious persecution or violence.  Similarly, the paper reflects efforts made to de-conflate religious conflict from ethnic and racial conflict, which has been much more prominent throughout the history of the United States.  In examining the history of religious violence, intolerance, discrimination, and persecution in the United States, we arrive at some possible explanations for why the United States has seen such minimal religious conflict despite being so religiously diverse.


The Revolution

It has been said that the United States is a nation founded on religious conflict.  The colonies were settled by those escaping religious persecution in Europe.  There is even some evidence that religion played a major role in the American Revolution and that revolutionaries believed it was willed by God for the Americans to wage war against the British.[1]

As the Church of England was striving to establish one, uniform religion across the kingdom, colonial America was divided, each of the colonies being dominated by their own brand of Christianity.  Due to the distance from England and the room in the colonies, many religions were able to establish themselves in America, colony by colony.  For example, Anglicans, who conformed to the Church of England, populated Virginia. Massachusetts was home to the Puritans.  Pennsylvania was full of Quakers.  Baptists ruled in Rhode Island.  And Roman Catholics found a haven in Maryland, where they could establish themselves amid the other colonists’ protestant majority.  Each of these colonies maintained a distinct religious character and favored one religious denomination’s power.

            The American colonists saw the revolution not only as a war for political independence, but to protect the religious diversity of the thirteen colonies.  Put in other terms, it was a war for religious independence and freedom.  To sever ties with Mother England would be to ensure that the various Christian denominations could co-exist on the American continent.  The conflict was, in part, a conflict that pitted the various American religious denominations against the Church of England, who wanted to impose a uniform, Anglican religion on the colonies.


Early Religious Persecution

The period after the Revolutionary War saw a lot of infighting between the various states and Christian denominations.  Virginia, which was home to the largest portion of Anglicans loyal to the Church of England, was the scene of notorious acts of religious persecution against Baptists and Presbyterians.  Anglicans physically assaulted Baptists, bearing theological and social animosity.  In 1771, a local Virginia sheriff yanked a Baptist preacher from the stage at his parish and beat him to the ground outside, where he also delivered twenty lashes with a horsewhip.  Similarly, in 1778, Baptist ministers David Barrow and Edward Mintz were conducting services at the Mill Swamp Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia.[2]  As soon as the hymn was given out, a gang of men rushed the stage and grabbed the two ministers, took them to the nearby Nansemond River swamp, and dunked and held their heads in the mud until they nearly drowned to death. 

The period during and soon after the Revolutionary War also saw abundant political manifestations of religious conflict.  At the time, some states abolished churches, while supporting others, issued preaching licenses, and collected tax money to fund and establish state churches.  Each state constitution differed in its policy on religious establishment, or state-supported religion.  It would not be until well after the adoption of the Constitution of 1789 and the First Amendment religion clauses that the disestablishment for which the United States is so recognized became the de facto practice.



The early part of the 19th Century was relatively quiet in terms of religious conflict in America.  The religious conflict that stands out in this period involves tensions between Catholics and Protestants, culminating in violence directed at Irish Catholic immigrants.  The surge in immigration from Europe during the 19th Century coincided with and influx of Catholics and the rise of activist Protestantism in the U.S.  As strong Protestant values permeated the country, immigrants who were Catholic also became viewed as outsiders and undemocratic.  These views are separate from, but on top of, the harsh anti-Irish sentiment that also spread during the period. 

In the 1830s and 1840s, anti-Catholic violence broke out in the Northeast and elsewhere.  In 1835, one incident was ignited by a speaking tour by Lyman Beecher, who published Plea for the West, a book about a Catholic plot to take over the U.S. and impose Catholic rule.  After Beecher’s speaking tour passed through Charlestown, Massachusetts, a mob set fire to the Ursuline convent and school.[3]  In Philadelphia in 1844, pitched gun battles broke out between “native” Americans and mostly Irish Catholics.  Martial law had to be declared in order to end the violence.[4]


The Mormon War, the Utah War

Around the same time as anti-Catholic violence broke out in the Northeast, another religious group was being chased out of the same area.  The Mormons, who emerged after the 1830 discovery of The Book of Mormon, were a religious community chased out of New York, out of Ohio, out of Missouri, and out of Illinois, to Utah, where they finally settled.

In Illinois in 1839, the Mormons settled Nauvoo and built a thriving Mormon town there, complete with a large Mormon temple.  In the short period of three years, the Mormons prospered, announced the doctrine of polygamy, and founder Joseph Smith announced his candidacy for president of the United States.  Locals were intimidated and envious.  Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested on morals charges and held in jail.  On June 27, 1844, an anti-Mormon mob attacked Nauvoo and burned it to the ground.[5]  They also invaded the jail cells where Smith and his brother were being held, and executed them.

Shortly after the sacking of Nauvoo, Brigham Young announced his leadership of the Mormons and led them to Utah, where they flourished.  In 1857, fears of a religious state of Mormons grew and the president ordered federal troops to enforce the installation of federal judges and a new non-Mormon governor.  At some point in the interim, this is still a subject of debate, the infamous Mountain Meadow Massacre happened – in which local Mormons slaughtered a group of 120 California-bound pioneers who were openly hostile toward their religion and making threats to return from California to attack them.[6]

The massacre only fueled anti-Mormon sentiment.  Tensions escalated. The Mormon army, also known as the Nauvoo Legion, was called out to respond to the imminent arrival of 2,000 U.S. Army troops.  Salt Lake City was evacuated on standing orders to burn the city should an invasion occur.  No violence was to break out, as attention was diverted to the Civil War.

As the federal government focused its energies on fighting the Civil War, legal sanctions and political oppression of the Mormons continued that virtually dissolved the church by 1887.  It wasn’t until the 1890s, when the Mormons ended the practice of polygamy, that Utah finally achieved statehood in 1896.[7]

The Jewish Experience


At the end of the 1890s, the U.S. began seeing the first wave of anti-Semitism, just as the federal government began restricting immigration from Europe.  While concentrations of Jews have lived in America since colonial times, they were largely tolerated and discriminated against in localized incidents.  By the 1920s, immigration quotas had taken effect and limits on the basis of national origin.  These quotas were not repealed during the Holocaust, even as Jewish refugees were fleeing Hitler’s Europe.

Between 1933 and 1939, the period of the Great Depression, anti-Semitic fervor reached heights never before seen or later seen in entire the history of the Jewish experience in America.  In urban areas such as New York and Boston, Jews were violently attacked.[8]  Most anti-Jewish sentiment was manifested in social and political discrimination.  Assaults, propaganda and intimidation were mostly carried out by special societies, such as the Silver Shirts or the Ku Klux Klan.

Overall, the experience of Jews in America has been encouragingly free from the violent persecution seen elsewhere in the world.  Indeed, racial and social intolerance persisted since the colonial days until the 1950s, as Jews were not allowed membership in country clubs, excluded from colleges, banned from practicing medicine, and from holding political office in many states.  However, religious conflict rooted in anti-Semitism has been largely non-violent.

Hate Crimes as Religious Conflict


The incidents of violence against individual Jews that characterized the anti-Semitism of the Great Depression would have fallen under the category of religious hate crimes if the FBI, then known as the Bureau of Investigation, were collecting those statistics at the time.  Despite the diversity of the United States, in all aspects such as race, national origin, religion and sexual orientation, the federal government (by way of the FBI) did not start keeping tabs on hate crimes until 1992.  Religiously speaking, anti-Semitic hate crimes have always dominated the national hate crime statistics gathered by the FBI for the past ten years.  However, the current numbers paint a changing landscape.

According to the ACLU, the U.S. is home to more than 1,500 religions and 360,000 religious centers.[9]  Christianity has long dominated the country’s religious make-up, followed by Judaism.  According to the latest statistics released by the Harvard University Religious Pluralism Project, Islam has surpassed Judaism and is the country’s Number Two religion.[10]

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the FBI found that anti-Muslim sentiments spiked and verifiable, religiously motivated hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. increased 1,600 percent in 2001 from the prior year.[11]

In fact, the FBI, which has tracked hate crimes since 1992, reports that Anti-Muslim hate crimes had previously been the second-least reported.  But in 2001, they became the second-highest reported, second only to anti-Jewish hate crimes.  It should be noted that these statistics are separate from crimes motivated against race, national origin or ethnicity – these are crimes against person and property in which religion was a motivating negative factor.



The U.S. has been fortunate in that it has not witnessed religious war and conflict of the scale seen in the Middle East and Europe.  Although the number of different religions in the U.S. has steadily grown over the decades, this diversity has not let to conflict.  Some propositions for why this may be:

The United States as a country of immigrants

This factor defuses historical and religious claims to territory, which are not as strong as they are in places such as the West Bank and Ireland.  It also may explain a greater likelihood for a system of conflict to eventually resolve itself in favor of tolerance rather than further conflict, as each new group of immigrants to America has generally shared a story of persecution.


Constitutional protections and religious disestablishment

The American tradition of the separation of church and state cannot be overlooked in mediating and possibly preventing religious conflict to erupt.  In many other parts of the world, religion is still highly influential and, in some cases, sponsored by the state.  However, in a country with such religious diversity, religious disestablishment has proved necessary so that the government could not take sides in a religious conflict.


Diversity creates tolerance

The argument also exists that the immense diversity in and of itself has promoted tolerance among religions.  Religious pluralism inspires attitudes that homogeneity is a natural part of the religious environment and that there is room for each religion to exist in America.


As the United States enters the 21st Century, these important factors will prove to be influential in the face of catastrophic events, and economic, social and political changes that challenge the level of religious tolerance the nation has maintained for over two centuries.

[1] Religion and the American Revolution. “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.” Ed. James H. Huston.  1998.  http://lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel03.html


[2] Ibid.


[3] Encyclopedia of American Religious History, Revised Edition, Vol. II.  “Religious violence.” Edward L. Queen II. Page 601. 2001.


[4] Ibid.


[5] Queen, 602.


[6] Emily Eakin. “Reopening a Mormon Murder Mystery.” The New York Times, section B, page 9, Oct. 12, 2002.


[7] Queen, 605.


[8] “Antisemitism in the Depression Era (1933-1939),” Leonard Dinnerstein. Religion in American History, A reader.  Page 413. 1998.


[9] “Religious Liberty.” American Civil Liberties Union.  http://www.aclu.org/ReligiousLiberty/ReligiousLibertyMain.cfm


[10] “Geographic Distribution of Religious Centers in the U.S” Committee on the Study of Religion. Harvard University, Jan. 2002. http://www.plurarlism.org/resources/statistics/distribution.php


[11] “Foreword.” Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/01hate.pdf