Religion as a push-pull factor

Most immigrants to America from earliest colonial times have had specific religious affiliations, and many have sought American residence because of their beliefs and practices. Hostile attitudes and policies in native countries often alienated and pushed out religious minorities, while America’s reputation for freedom drew them to its shores. Developed or developing American faith communities continued to draw foreign coreligionists, even in the face of sporadic or endemic prejudice by some Americans.

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Colonial Patterns

From 1620 to roughly 1800, most immigrants who established and developed the thirteen English colonies–and later the United States–were from the British immigrants;religions ofBritish Isles. There Christianity was the dominant, and official, religion, but it took several forms in the wake of the Reformation. Jamestown and later Virginia colonists, drawn largely by economic motives, tended to be members of the Protestant Church of England, headed by the English monarch. Roman CatholicsBritish immigrants;Roman CatholicsRoman Catholics who resisted the royal religious reforms remained a distinct, untrusted, and sometimes persecuted minority, while other Protestants who were influenced by the more radical ideas of John Calvin, including Scottish Presbyterians, English Puritan immigrantsPuritans, Separatists, and Baptists, lived more or less comfortably with the state church.

The PilgrimsPilgrims of 1620 were Separatists who sought the freedom to worship as they pleased, first in Holland, and then in America. They were soon followed by large numbers of Puritans, who abandoned an increasingly hostile king for new shores on which they could establish a church and community that could serve as a model for purifying the English (Anglican) Church. During the Great Migration of 1630-1640, as many as 20,000 Pilgrims may have crossed the Atlantic. Massachusetts Bay ColonyMassachusetts Bay Colony grew with the flow of other disaffected Puritans in the lead-up to and during the Civil War, EnglishEnglish Civil War (1642-1651). The earliest Portuguese immigrants;Sephardic JewsJewish community in America was founded by twenty-three Sephardic refugees from Brazil who fled Portuguese Roman Catholic authorities to settle in New AmsterdamNew Amsterdam (later New York City) in 1654. Despite opposition by the colony’s director-general, Stuyvesant, PeterPeter Stuyvesant, the
Dutch West Indies CompanyDutch West Indies Company insisted on their being allowed to settle among the Dutch Reformed Christians.

Puritan iPuritan immigrants;religious intolerancentolerance that continued to characterize Massachusetts led to the founding of Rhode Island;colonization ofRhode Island Colony by the freethinking and unusually tolerant Williams, RogerRoger Williams. Royal support created havens for beleaguered English Catholics in Maryland (1630’s) and newly emerging Protestant Quakers;PennsylvaniaQuakers in Pennsylvania (1680’s). Above all colonies, Pennsylvania, with burgeoning Philadelphia, opened itself to a wide range of immigrants who had suffered as Protestant religious minorities back home. These included the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (from Deutsch, meaning “German”); German Anabaptists such as the Amish communitiesAmish and MennonitesMennonites, who had suffered prejudice and persecution since the 1520’s; and French Calvinists (Huguenots) who sought refuge after King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The failure of the Puritan Commonwealth in England and the
restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 created another wave of Puritan emigration to New England, along with that of a large number of Scottish immigrantsScottish and English Presbyterians.

Mennonite teacher in a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, school during the early 1940’s. Her students included Mennonite, Amish, and Pennsylvania Dutch children.

(Library of Congress)

Middle- and upper-class Irish Protestants, Anglicans, and especially Presbyterians (usually Scotch-Irish immigrants[Scotch Irish immigrants]Scotch-Irish) began leaving Ireland in the wake of the Irish campaigns of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689. Drawn more by freedom of opportunity than by religious motives, these pioneers placed their stamp especially on the southern colonies of the Carolinas and GeorgiaGeorgia. Irish Catholics, though impoverished and oppressed by Parliament’s Penal Laws, were generally unwelcome and too poor to emigrate. Along the fringes of British colonial territory, French Jesuits in Canada and Louisiana;French immigrantsLouisiana and Spanish Franciscans in Florida, the southwestern interior, and the California coast served as Missionaries;Roman CatholicRoman Catholic missionaries among the Native Americans, as did Russian Orthodox Christianity;RussiansOrthodox monks along the coastal northwest from Canada to California.

Nineteenth Century

American independence and constitutional guarantees established a framework for a religiously neutral nation, though many states initially retained official denominations and civil rights associated with them. In 1785, only 1 percent of the American population was Roman CatholicsRoman Catholic, a situation steadily expanded with Irish–and later Continental–immigration from the 1820’s. Although English Parliaments had lifted most of the anti-Irish Catholic Penal Laws by the 1820’s, Irish Catholic peasants still suffered the effects of economic oppression rooted in religious prejudice. Many sought out America for its economic and religious opportunities. The infamous Great Irish Famine (1845-1852), which killed and scattered millions of Irish, was exacerbated by British Protestant anti-Catholicism and resulting poverty.

Although Anti-Catholic movements[AntiCatholic movements]American anti-Catholic nativists opposed free immigration, hundreds of thousands of refugees joined family members or started new lives in cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The blight that struck Ireland also destroyed crops in central and eastern Europe. German and Polish German Catholic peasants living under officially Lutheran rule suffered social as well as economic hardship and shipped off to America in increasing numbers. As pioneer communities became established, especially in the upper Midwest, Chain migrationchain migration brought relatives and fellow villagers to the American frontier.

The same pattern affected ScandinavianScandinavian immigrants;religion of immigration from the 1820’s. The official Lutheran Church in Norway made life hard for QuakersQuakers, many of whom became Americans. Lutherans who chafed under the strictness of the official churches also gravitated to the United States. Before 1860, there were about Swedish immigrants15,000 Swedes in America, but between 1868 and 1893 the number grew to 600,000. Orthodox ChristianityOrthodox and other Christians in eastern Europe and the Ottoman EmpireOttoman Empire suffered intolerance and outright persecution, and many fled to America. Roman Catholic authorities in the eastern lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire[AustroHungarian Empire]Austro-Hungarian Empire failed to understand the nuanced identities of Uniate Christians, whom they lumped with Orthodox and treated as outsiders. Muslim Turkish immigrantsTurkey;Armenian
Turks particularly oppressed their Orthodox populations from the 1890’s, culminating in the infamous Armenian genocide and the emigration of 300,000 Greek Orthodox between 1890 and 1910, and another 300,000 from 1910 to 1920.

At the same time, large numbers of Jewish immigrantsJews living under oppressive Christian regimes in central and eastern Europe began migrating to the United States. In 1820, America was home to about 4,000 Jews, many of whom retained ties to their homelands. Over the following six decades, the number swelled to 150,000, most from central Europe. Societal Anti-Semitism[antisemitism]anti-Semitism as well as political activities (Russian pogroms, Germany’s Kulturkampf) made life miserable for entire Jewish communities, spurring many to migrate. Existing Jewish American communities along the East Coast promised and provided a new home. As ever a despised minority in Europe, Jews flocked to America, which many came to see as a new Promised Land. Between 1881 and 1900, a period of increased Russian anti-Jewish violence, two-thirds of eastern Europe’s Jewish population, an estimated 675,000 people, emigrated to America, often as full families. As Europe grew more bellicose, another 1,346,000 Jews fled its shores for the United States between 1900 and 1914.

Southern Italian Catholics experienced famine and great poverty rather than intolerance, and they came to America by the thousands. About 300,000 arrived from 1880 to 1890, and average annual numbers doubled during the 1890’s. A large percentage of these were young men seeking work, who expected to return to Italy later in life. Instead, the well-established Italian American communities, and especially the ethnic Catholic churches, helped retain many of these immigrants, who often called for their families to join them.

Twentieth Century

The twentieth century was marked by religious persecution that served the purposes of totalitarian ideologies and regimes. Many of those who suffered sought refuge in America. Anti-immigration laws passed in 1921 and 1924, however, set the tone for the next four decades by severely limiting annual numbers. Bolshevik victories in the Russian RevolutionRussian Revolution (1917) and ensuing civil war sent many Orthodox Christianity;RussiansRussian Orthodox Christians and Jews fleeing westward. Nazi Germany’s campaign to eradicate European Jews during World War II, first in Germany and then in conquered territories, ran up against America’s very restrictive Johnson Act of 1924. As well, popular, if understated, American Anti-Semitism[antisemitism]anti-Semitism blamed the Great Depression;and Jews[Jews]Great Depression on powerful Jewish economic interests, which damped American sympathy. A rather small portion of those who fled the Third Reich during the 1930’s found a welcome in the United States, and these all required American sponsors who oversaw their transition into productive Americans.
Between the onset of World War II and the establishment of the state of Jewish immigrantsIsrael in 1948, the United States did absorb some Holocaust;survivors140,000 Jews fortunate enough to flee or survive the Holocaust.

Though theoretically tolerant of Jews and sponsors of a puppet Orthodox Christianity;RussiansOrthodox Church, the Soviet regime from Vladimir Lenin to Gorbachev, MikhailMikhail Gorbachev oppressed the faithful of both religions. During the Cold War;and refugee policy[refugee policy]Cold War following World War II, many exceptions to official immigration policies were made on behalf of high-profile figures and groups. During the 1970’s and again during the 1990’s, large numbers of Jews–totaling some 300,000–fled first official anti-Semitic state activity and then popular resentment and bigotry unleashed by the fall of the communist regime. In 1968, American coreligionists and sympathizers formed the Jewish Defense League, which applied pressure on the Soviets to end mistreatment of Jews in the Soviet Union and urged the U.S. government to apply diplomatic pressure to the same end.

By its nature officially atheistic, Communism;and religion[religion]communism sparked religious as well as political refugee movements across the globe, and, after 1965, America again began drawing many of the victims. Chinese Christians and Buddhists fled before Mao Zedong’s armies during the late 1940’s; hundreds of thousands of oppressed Catholic Cubans sought American soil in several waves from 1959. After China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950, Tibetan immigrantsTibetan Buddhists followed their Dalai LamaDalai Lama into exile, many choosing the United States as a new home. After the Vietnam War, countless South Vietnamese boat peopleVietnamese “boat people,” many of whom were Catholic or Buddhist and expected antireligious persecution from the triumphant North Vietnamese communists, floated in search of transport to the United States. Early waves established religious and ethnic communities that have continued to draw emigrants pushed out by religious as well as political and economic conditions.

During the late twentieth century, wars in Somalia and other parts of Africa pitted well-supplied Muslims against minority Christians, and many of the latter fled to the United States as a result. Other African or Afro-Caribbean religious minorities in the United States faced legal restrictions on traditional practices. However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1993 decision in [c]Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of HialeahChurch of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah sanctioned animal sacrifice by practitioners of West Indian immigrants;and voodoo[voodoo]Caribbean Santeria. Such liberalization encouraged the migration of as many as 800,000 Haitians, many of whom practice Voodoovoodoo.Religion;as a push-pull factor[push pull factor]Push-pull factors[push pull factors];religion

Further Reading

  • Carroll, Brett E. The Routledge Historical Atlas of Religion in America. New York: Routledge, 2000. Record of major influxes and shifts of religious groups in America, from the precolonial era to the late 1990’s.
  • Gaustad, Edwin S., and Leigh Schmidt. The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today. Rev. ed. New York: HarperOne, 2004. Standard overview of the topic that emphasizes the relationships of multifaith immigration to major trends in American religious developments.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, Jane I. Smith, and John L. Esposito, eds. Religion and Immigration: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Experiences in the United States. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2003. Collection of articles focusing on the period after 1965, surveying religious conditions in immigrants’ native countries as well as experiences in the United States.
  • Joselit, Jenna Weissman. A Parade of Faiths: Immigration and American Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Short, illustrated overview of the interplay of immigrant religious expectations and the interplay with American social and cultural history from the Mayflower voyage of 1620 to the 1990’s.
  • Levitt, Peggy. God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape. New York: New Press, 2007. Sociological study that emphasizes the ways in which religious identities ensure strong self-identification with native countries.
  • Olupona, Jacob, and Regina Gemignani. African Immigrant Religions in America. New York: New York University Press, 2007. Studies the range of native African religious traditions transplanted to America, especially the effects on American black communities such as the interactions of African American Christians with African immigrants.
  • Tweed, Thomas A., and Stephen Prothero, eds. Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Collection of more than one hundred reflections by native American and immigrant cultural and political figures on the place of major Asian religions within the broader American Judeo-Christian religious landscape.

American Jewish Committee




Jewish immigrants


Mormon immigrants

Muslim immigrants

Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants

Religions of immigrants