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.
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.
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
As time went on, the New England
•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.
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 Maryland
“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
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
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 Catholic
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
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
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.
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.
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
Methodism drew in many immigrants, from nineteenth century Swedes to late twentieth century Koreans. It also spun off many “daughter” churches, from
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.
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.
Although the United States always had a majority-Christian population, believers in other faiths have immigrated to America since early colonial times. The
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,
After 1880, a flood of
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.
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.
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
Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants
Religion as a push-pull factor