Religions of immigrants

Religion has historically played important roles in the lives of immigrants to the United States. The many different faiths have served as links with familiar traditions, community focuses, and sources of moral support for families adrift amid an alien culture. Some immigrants came to America primarily in order to practice their faiths without government interference or persecution. The diversity of religions in the United States has operated as a laboratory in supporting democracy along with respect for minority rights.

As a nation of immigrants, the United States is also a place in which diverse cultures collide with one another. The results of these collisions have been forms of alchemy that have rearranged some elements and transformed others. These processes have repeatedly happened with the religions brought by immigrants to America. Although the faiths brought by immigrants have had many important differences, the basic religious attitudes of immigrants have shared a number of common traits. For example, early immigrants prized individual conscience–an attitude that allowed new denominations to spring up, and a diversity of special groups to form even within faiths that had lacked them before.ReligionReligion[cat]RELIGION;Religions of immigrants[cat]CULTURE;Religions of immigrants

Also, the need for ongoing moral and practical support among new immigrants ensured that their places of worship would become de facto community centers for their parishioners. This tendency almost necessitated professional clergy, even within religious traditions that previously did not have them. In the absence of an established church in the United States, all religions shared a level ground and a modicum of respect in the marketplace of religious ideas. Finally, while these developments were first evident among Christians, as immigration from non-European countries increased, they came to apply to the non-Christian faiths of new immigrants as well.

Calvinist Tradition

In many ways, Protestant Calvinism is the “default standard” for American religions. It set a pattern for future American expectations of what religion is and does. Because the British North American colonies were established shortly after a great split in European Christianity, the various different colonies tended to be settled by adherents of different theological foundations. Every American schoolchild learns that New England was first settled by English Puritan immigrantsPuritans, seeking a place to worship in their own way. The Puritans believed in Calvinism, one of the two original Protestant forms taken by the Reformation in reaction against the practices and doctrine of the medieval Roman Catholics;and Reformation[Reformation]Roman Catholic Church. Its most influential advocate, John Calvin of Geneva, Switzerland, held that salvation was accessible to all believers, without the need for a church or saints to act as intermediaries. Calvinists generally discounted the importance of ritual and church tradition and stressed the importance of faith and grace in the individual’s life.

The MayflowerMayflower Puritans were separatists, English Christians whose quest for righteousness had led them to break entirely with the Church of England. The nearby Massachusetts Bay ColonyMassachusetts Bay Colony was settled by dissenters, Puritans who had not entirely lost their ties with the established church but whose outlook and worship practices were primarily Calvinistic. Both groups believed in the autonomy of individual church congregations, the primacy of an individual’s faith, the importance of Scripture, and certain strict behavior standards. They also believed civil authority should reflect the same standards. This is what permitted the witchcraft trials to take place and unorthodox preachers such as Williams, RogerRoger Williams to be expelled from the colony. There was a huge potential contradiction between the two ideals: the value of the individual Christian’s own connection with God, and church-imposed interpretations and rules of behavior. This conflict was to lead to a whole “marketplace” of churches in the New World, each expressing a slightly different understanding of Christianity.

As time went on, the New England Puritan immigrantsPuritans–and other settlers of directly Calvinistic faiths, such as the Dutch immigrants;religion ofDutch Reformed settlers of New York–were numerically outpaced by other colonists. So strong was the influence of Calvinism in western Europe, however, that most of these colonists–Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and others–held basically the same views on the relationship of the individual to the divine. Many people were needed for the work of “taming the wilderness” and building a new nation, and there were enough similarities of belief to allow the differences to be ignored. Respect for the demands of individual conscience spread. A sort of pan-Protestantism developed, in which anyone who professed to be Christian was recognized as such. By the time of the late eighteenth century American Revolution, most Americans agreed with the following assumptions, drawn from a Calvinistic base:

•Conscience and spiritual truths are integral to an individual’s soul.

•Religious liberty is essential in a democracy.

•Congregations are the primary units of a religion’s presence.

These attitudes were uniquely helpful for building religious comity within a nation of immigrants.

Roman Catholics<index-term><primary>Roman Catholics</primary></index-term>

The experience of Catholic immigrants in America raised many issues that also faced other immigrants of minority faiths. Roman Catholics were among the early settlers of British North America, but few of the original colonies welcomed them. Both the New England colonies that had been established by dissenters to build a “godly” society and the southern colonies based on Anglican traditions saw only trouble coming from the presence of “papists.” A few colonies, however, were more hospitable. The second Lord Baltimore, himself a well-connected and wealthy Roman Catholic peer, founded MarylandMaryland;Roman Catholics in 1634 as a refuge colony for his coreligionists. Rhode Island;Roman CatholicsRhode Island and Pennsylvania;Roman CatholicsPennsylvania both had policies of toleration that benefited Catholics. However, Catholics never became a majority even in those colonies. Like Catholics who settled in other colonies, they were circumspect and “blended in” for their own safety.

“Blending in” was actually not difficult for Roman Catholics in the English colonies. Most Catholic immigrants in the colonies were English and thus able to navigate the colonies’ social worlds readily. Catholic priests were scarce in the colonies and had to travel widely to conduct masses for Catholics in scattered settlements. By the time of the Revolution, about 30,000 Roman Catholics were living in the original thirteen colonies. Almost all were of English, French, or Scotch-Irish immigrants[Scotch Irish immigrants];Roman CatholicsScotch-Irish descent. Many were landed gentry. Charles Carroll of Maryland, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, led his coreligionists in support of the colonists’ cause during the war. Soon after independence John Carroll, his cousin, was named “superior of the mission,” in charge of the Catholic church in the United States. Six years later he became its first Roman Catholicsbishop.

After the United States achieved its independence, Roman Catholics seemed poised for uneventful coexistence with other citizens of the new nation. However, that did not happen, During the early nineteenth century, a large stream of Irish immigrantsIrish immigrants began arriving in America. These Irish were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and somewhat bewildered by their new surroundings. Early on, a number of cultural gaps drove wedges between already established Catholic priests and their new Irish parishioners. The existing clergy were mostly French immigrants;Roman CatholicsFrench, many in flight from the late eighteenth century French RevolutionFrench Revolution and its aftermath, and were culturally much more sophisticated than the Irish farm folk. The latter badly needed help in the transition to American life, but language differences and other barriers meant that their French priests were often ill equipped to provide it. Eventually, the Irish developed their own subculture and communities within the larger cities, centered around the church and school, and during their next generation produced their own priests.

New immigrants desperately sought to live and worship in a setting that reflected their own traditions. Despite the many gaps and misfires, the Roman Catholic Church did eventually provide this. Church and parish came to serve as a bridge and buffer between the immigrant home cultures and the new nation’s confusing ways. To immigrant workers in the factories and mills, or in service occupations in the city, the Catholic Church was a haven. It supplied the comforts of familiar ritual and belief, and often offered material and spiritual aid as well. Priests could mediate with outside entities when immigrants did not know how to navigate American institutions. Such help was needed all the more as distrust of the growing Catholic population rose in primarily Protestant America.

These processes repeated themselves as the mix of national origins changed during the late nineteenth century and later. By the late nineteenth century, it Irish priests were often trying to connect with new Catholic immigrants from Italy, Poland, and the Balkan countries.

One lasting result of the CatholicRoman Catholics;schools influx was the parochial school system. Parents–and even more, the church’s hierarchy–objected to their children being exposed to generic Protestant prayers and values in the era’s public schools and built their own alternative system. Many Catholic elementary schools were run by parish priests and maintained the ethnic identities and even the languages of the families whom they served. Other schools were operated by Catholic religious orders or local dioceses. Status differentials among schools existed as well. Parochial schools educated many generations of immigrant children and are one of the major reasons that the descendants of Roman Catholic immigrants have tended to stay loyal to their religious heritage.

During much of the twentieth century, immigration from Roman Catholic countries slowed to a trickle. Meanwhile, the children of the previous era’s Catholic immigrants scaled the socioeconomic ladder, assimilating to American norms even as most kept their ancestors’ faith. However, many of these Catholics claimed a very Calvinistic right to follow their own consciences on many matters, living as what became known as “cafeteria Catholics,” which the church’s hierarchy has deplored. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine some of the changes made by the Vatican II Council without the democratizing influence of American Catholics on the church.

Reforms in U.S. immigration enacted in 1965 brought large numbers of new immigrants into the United States from parts of the world that had not previously provided many immigrants. Many of these newcomers were Roman Catholics from Latin American countries and the Philippines. Like previous Catholic immigrants, these people have tried to maintained their cultural traditions and festivals, even as they have become Roman CatholicsAmericans.


The Lutheran Church was one of the major divisions of Protestant Christianity to arise out of the Reformation. Indeed, its founder, Martin Luther, is regarded as the leader of the Protestant movement. However, Lutheran ties predominated only in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. The tradition was brought to the United States mostly by German immigrants;LutheransGerman immigrants. In colonial times, they settled in Pennsylvania and adjacent areas. A large German influx during the nineteenth century cut a wide swath west through the rich farming states. Scandinavian immigrants;LutheransScandinavian immigrants–Swedes, Norwegian, Danes–came soon after and settled in the northern Midwest region.

Members of a Los Angeles Korean Methodist church on Easter Sunday in 1950. Christian churches play an important role in promoting fellowship among Korean immigrants and their families.

(University of Southern California, East Asian Library)

Lutherans were a small minority among preindependence Americans, but so many immigrated during the following century that they were the third-largest Protestant denomination by 1910, when they were outnumbered only by Baptists and Methodists. Their influence in the United States was less than their numbers would suggest, however, for several reasons. Lutheran immigrants tended to live mostly in rural areas and small cities. Many congregations clung to the German language, and Lutherans were preoccupied with their own internal differences.

In contrast to Europe, where united national churches existed, American Lutherans splintered into at least twenty separate groups. Some splits derived from national origins and cultures, but many revolved around doctrinal differences. Strict or conservative Lutherans generally adhered to the Augsburg Confession and believed in the “Real Presence” in the Eucharist, which struck more liberal Lutherans as too close to Roman Catholic beliefs. Overall, Lutheranism remained a liturgical church, but the more theologically strict groups retained more ritual, and the more open churches put more emphasis on preaching. Many of the same strategies used by Roman Catholics to maintain an immigrant faith community were also followed by Lutherans where they had the resources. However, members living in the countryside were harder to reach this way, and a pastor shortage also existed during the mid-nineteenth century.

Unlike Protestant denominations that brought in many adult converts, the rolls of Lutheran churches were built largely on immigrants and their descendants. The result was loyal and religiously educated members who knew their church’s theology thoroughly. After World War I, the German language was no longer used in worship, and Lutheran churches began to resemble mainstream Protestant denominations more closely. Later during the twentieth century, the denomination consolidated into two major groups: the Missouri Synod, which remains doctrinally and socially conservative, and the Lutheran Church in America, which became involved in ecumenical efforts.Lutheranism

Anglican and Orthodox Traditions

Although AnglicanismOrthodox ChristianityAnglicanism and Orthodox Christianity differ widely on many matters, they also share some similarities. Both reflect a historic break from the Roman Catholic Church and its claims to universal Christian authority. Both traditions became the established churches in the countries in which they arose and remained closely tied to those countries’ political power structures. These facts meant that the adherents and clergy of these religions had to undergo a considerable readjustment when they immigrated to America.

Virginia Virginia;religion inand the Carolinas from their beginnings were officially Anglican colonies because of their status as colonies under Royal authority. However, in those colonies, as in others, Anglicans were outnumbered by settlers with other religious allegiances, as well as those with none. During the Revolutionary WarRevolutionary War, Anglicans were suspect because of their church’s ties to the British Crown and the fact that political maneuvering on both sides of the Atlantic had kept an American bishop from ever being named. However, several major revolutionary leaders were Anglicans. Washington, GeorgeGeorge Washington himself was a vestryman of his local church. Control of Anglican church affairs remained in the hands of local clergy and parishioners. While the U.S. Constitution was being framed in 1787, Anglican delegates met after convention sessions to work out a structure for their new church. This resulted in a more democratic structure than the American Anglican church had had before. Although the reformed church remained a strongly hierarchal organization, every level of the church, from local governing boards to bishops, was chosen by

In postrevolutionary America, the new Episcopal Church, as it became known, had to struggle for survival. It had lost its royal privileges and much of its support. The church was also challenged by the Methodist movement that had been started by Church of England clergyman Wesley, JohnJohn Wesley. Wesley first advocated a methodical approach to the spiritual life (therefore the name), but his later experience of “a heart strangely warmed” became a benchmark for authentic spiritual transformation. John Wesley’s lone visit to America during the 1730’s had been a disaster, but his colleague Whitfield, GeorgeGeorge Whitfield sparked a great Missionaries;Methodistsmissionary effort, with more than eighty traveling preachers covering the backwoods settlements. The Methodist movement soon became independent of its Anglican origins.

Methodism drew in many immigrants, from nineteenth century Swedes to late twentieth century Koreans. It also spun off many “daughter” churches, from African Americans;religions ofAfrican American denominations to the Disciples of Christ/Christian Church movement that aimed at simplicity. The Episcopal church eventually regrouped and regained its share of members. Its direct outreach to immigrants was less than that of the Methodists, but both offered a “middle way” between highly ceremonial worship and the spontaneity of “gospel”-oriented churches.

Bishops of the Syrian and Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska during the early twentieth century. First colonized by Russia during the late eighteenth century, Alaska still has remnants of Russian culture.

(Library of Congress)

The first Orthodox ChristianityAmerican Eastern Orthodox diocese was established in Alaska;Russian immigrantsAlaska in 1867, but Missionaries;Orthodox Christianmissionary monks from Russian immigrants;religion ofRussia came even earlier to work with the native inhabitants. Orthodoxy, however, did not reach America as a significant religious group until the early twentieth century, when Greek immigrants;religion ofGreek and Slavic immigrants;religion ofSlavic immigrants flocked to work in mining and factories in Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes states.

In Europe and the Middle East, Orthodoxy existed as independent national churches, but the first U.S. immigrants all were overseen by the already functioning Russian church. After World War I this unity fragmented, with each church tending to emphasize its own national origins. As with other immigrant groups, these churches found themselves adding new functions: church suppers, special-purpose societies, ethnic festivals, and the like. Orthodox communicants have always been a minority in America, but they have brought to their new home pride in their heritages and a reminder of another Christian tradition, outside the Protestant-Roman Catholic dichotomy, with historical and theological depth.

Non-Christian Faiths

Although the United States always had a majority-Christian population, believers in other faiths have immigrated to America since early colonial times. The Jewish immigrantsfirst Jewish immigrants were twenty-three Sephardic refugees who came to New Amsterdam in 1654 from Recife in Brazil. Others arrived directly from Europe. After American independence, some were drawn by the new nation’s principle of religious liberty. Jewish immigrants made homes in the eastern seaboard cities. The first synagogue was established in Providence, Rhode Island;Jewish sRhode Island, a state with a long heritage of religious openness, due to its founder Williams, RogerRoger Williams’s tolerant philosophy.

The nineteenth century saw massive immigration waves from Germany and central Europe that brought many Jewish families. Along with the general chaos in their homeland, the Jews had the added burden of persecution, and the New World promised a hopeful new start. These immigrants spread out to frontier areas where opportunity beckoned. The Judaic rule that twelve adult men can constitute a congregation made founding new Jewish groups relatively easy. However, American models of religious life percolated to newcomers, so that many Jewish groups sought trained rabbis to lead them and made other innovations. Reform Judaism was introduced in Charleston, South Carolina;Jewish immigrantsSouth Carolina, by a group of young Jews hoping to revitalize their faith by emphasizing its philosophical and ethical components over its many ritual requirements. This movement later became the dominant branch of Judaism in America.

After 1880, a flood of Russian immigrants;JewsRussian and eastern European Jews emigrated to America, fleeing from Russian-instituted pogroms. These immigrants were used to living in enclaves and spoke mostly YiddishYiddish. Already established Jewish Americans felt themselves outnumbered but nevertheless tried to help assimilate the newcomers and provide them with moral support. A third wave of Jewish migration developed during World War II. Because of Americans’ reaction to the horrors of the Nazi regime, and because these newcomers tended to be highly educated, they had an easier time of fitting into American life.

After 1965, legislation opened up the United States to immigration from all over the world. The nation’s life was enriched by the presence and growth of even more religious traditions. Muslim immigrantsMuslims came from the Middle East and Pakistani immigrantsPakistan, Buddhists from the Far East, Hindus from India, and even faiths such as Baha’i (of Iranian origin) and West Indian Santeria became visible.

The American constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion has worked to ensure that the United States welcomes religious diversity that may eventually reflect the whole spectrum of world religions. If this trend has shocked some old-line Christian Americans, it has also surprised newcomers who have found themselves becoming more religiously observant than they were at home, if only to keep in touch with their home cultures. American traditions are changing too, as public life opens up to input from the new immigrants’ religions.“Interfaith” efforts have had to expand enormously, and American culture is the richer for it.Religion

Further Reading

  • Alba, Richard, et al., eds. Immigration and Religion in America: Comparative and Historical Perspectives. New York: New York University Press, 2008. Collection of thoughtful articles by notable scholars on how past and present immigrants have adapted to American life through experiences in their faith groups.
  • Foley, Michael W., and Dean Hoge. Religion and the New Immigrants. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Study of twenty worship communities in the Washington, D.C., area. Shows varied connections between religious identities and civic involvement.
  • Joselit, Jenna Weissman. A Parade of Faiths: Immigration and American Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Short historical survey of religion in the United States with representative case studies of immigrants.
  • Orsi, Robert A. The Madonna of 115th Street. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Multidimensional study of “lived religion” as exemplified by a festival unique to Italian Harlem.
  • Williams, Peter W. American Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-first Century. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Massive compendium of churches and religious developments in each era of American history.


Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Immigration waves

Jewish immigrants

Military conscription


Muslim immigrants

Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants

Religion as a push-pull factor