The Framers’ Debates on Religion

The First Amendment and the Utah Constitution

Lesson I. Historical Background

Step 4. Early Religious Diversity

Puritan Establishments

Puritan Establishments

New Hampshire

Church of England Establishments

Anglican Establishments

North Carolina
South Carolina

Free Colonies

No Established Church

Rhode Island

Changing Establishments

Changing Establishments

New York (Reformed Church to Congregationalism)
Maryland (English Catholic to Church of England, Anglican)
New Jersey (Quaker, Dutch Reform, Scottish Presbyterian)
Georgia (No Establishment to Church of England, Anglican)

Slavery and Racial & Religious Diversity

Signers of the Declaration: Over 73 percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves (41 of the 56 signers). Slavery in colonial America and in the United States lasted 246 years, beginning in 1619 and ending in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Early American Muslims: There has never been an America without Muslims. The Smithsonian reports that “Today, the U.S. population is about 1% Muslim, but in the late 1700s that number was likely closer to 5%.” There were three reasons for there being five times more Muslims at the founding of the United States than there are today. First, academics and tradesmen were in a relationship with key colonial leaders. Second, diplomats from Islamic governments worked with colonial leaders. Third, the primary reason was due to the slave trade of African Muslims, who were enslaved to Christian masters and forced to convert to Christianity.

Indigenous Religion

Over 10 million indigenous people lived on the continent when Christopher Columbus reached the Americas in 1492. By 1900, there were less than 300,000 native people. 

There are three factors that contributed to the genocide of Native Americas. First, Europeans brought diseases that killed indigenous peoples. Second, colonization and western expansion of United States resulted in war, extermination, and removal, and forced assimilation of native people. Third, from 1790 to 1952, the United States legally defined native people as “aliens” and required all new citizens to be white. 

In 1790, Congress passed, and George Washington signed the first immigration law that defined a citizen as a “free white person.” After the Civil War, naturalization was extended to “persons of African descent,” but new citizens were required to be white.

In 1922 and 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld these racial requirements, laying the legal framework for Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 did not include the term “white person” but reinforced an immigration system based on “national origin quotas” that privileged white Europeans.

In 1965, President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act that officially ended racial and national origin requirements, thereby correcting, as he said, “a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American Nation.” 

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In 1830, President Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act. In a letter to Major General Thomas Pinckney, President Jackson said, “I must destroy [sic] those deluded victims doomed to destruction [sic] by their own restless and savage account.”

This American experiment was based on the God-ordained belief, a manifest destiny, that Europeans had the “right of discovery.” The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this “right of discovery in Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 US 543 (1823), stating, “In this first effort made by the English government to acquire territory on this continent, we perceive a complete recognition of the principle which has been mentioned. The right of discovery given by this commission, is confined to countries then unknown to all Christian people; and of these countries Cabot was empowered to take possession in the name of the king of England. Thus asserting a right to take possession, notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and, at the same time, admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery” (at 577). According to the U.S. Supreme Court, this meant that Indians had the subordinate “right of occupancy” but not the right of land ownership

With the rule of law on his side, President Jackson displaced an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 Native Americans in a seven-year period, “opening 25 million acres of new land to white settlement, cotton production, and more slavery.” 

Martin Van Buren, who served as Jackson’s Vice President, was elected President in 1837. The following year, he ordered armed forces to remove the remaining 16,000 Cherokee people in the Southeast. This “Trail of Tears” left dead 20–25 percent of the entire tribe. Thirty years later, when speaking of the Cheyenne tribe, U.S. Army General Philip Sheridan bluntly stated, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”

When President Ulysses Grant took office in 1869, he replaced the national removal strategy with an assimilation plan. His “Quaker Policy,” inspired by Friends’ assimilation of Indians in Pennsylvania, used public funds to hire Christian missionaries whose church boards would govern the federal education of Indians. In his second inaugural address, Grant described his intent: “by a humane course, to bring the aborigines of the country under the benign influences of education and civilization. It is either this or war of extermination.… Cannot the Indian be made a useful and productive member of society by proper teaching and treatment?” (Ulysses S. Grant, Second Inaugural Address, 4 March 1873). A year later, Grant installed the Federal Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions whose sisters converted Indians to Christianity while serving as teachers in federal schools. In this same vein, the federal government established Indian prison schools designed “to teach the Indian prisoners European dress, the English language, and Christianity.” The goal was to “kill the Indian but save the man.”

By 1876, the federal government had enacted a national boarding and day schools plan that, through the turn of the century, would effectively “civilize” tens of thousands of Indians. In his book Education for Extinction, Professor David Wallace Adams illustrates the growth of Indian school attendance. In 1877, nearly 3,600 Indian children were enrolled in federally run boarding and day schools. By 1900, the number had grown to nearly 22,000.


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