History of Religious Freedom in the United States

The history of religious freedom lies at the intersection of many key themes in U.S history, therefore, it can be difficult to determine what to include or exclude. When discerning the scope of the timeline, please consider the following three criteria: relevance, impact, and inclusivity. In order to be open to new insights and developments, we are open to making changes to this rubric and timeline over time. ;xNLx;Relevance- A moment in American history is relevant for this project if it advances the Religious Freedom Center’s mission: “to educate the public about the history, meaning, and significance of religious freedom and to promote dialogue and understanding among people of all religions and none.” Specifically, this timeline presents the history of religious freedom in the United States.;xNLx;Impact- Even if the general public does not immediately associate an item on the timeline with religious freedom, certain events and people exerted such a strong impact that they transformed religious freedom. These include the Declaration of Independence, or McCarthyism, which altered the religious and social fabric of the United States. ;xNLx;Inclusivity- Traditional history and archival structures emphasize Christian and western history. Therefore, when deciding between a Christian and a non-Christian event or an eastern and western event, it is an opportunity to make history more inclusive of eastern and non-Christian milestones. This is likewise an opportunity to advance the Religious Freedom Center’s objective: “to promote dialogue and understanding among people of all religions and none,” particularly the “all religions and none.” ;xNLx;

1215-01-01 00:00:00

Magna Carta

In 1215, the rebel barons compelled King John to authorize in the Magna Carta: “The English church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.” (Magna Carta)

1440-01-01 00:00:00

Printing Press

In 1440, the printing press made the Bible widely available to the masses. However, the printing press was also a major factor in spurring religious wars.

1492-01-01 00:00:00

Luis de Torres

In 1492, Luis de Torres became the first Jew to reach the Americas when he arrived with Christopher Columbus. Torres had worked as an interpreter in Spain because he was fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Portuguese. Spain forced him to convert to Catholicism prior to the voyage. Torres joined a small regiment to remain on the island of Hispaniola, which are now the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Haiti. Native Americans conquered the regiment in retaliation for abducting native women. Christopher Columbus later heard that one of his men had disparaged Catholicism, likely Torres because his conversion was not voluntary.

1492-01-01 00:00:00

Spanish Inquisition of Jews

In 1492, Queen Isabella’s Catholic Spain expelled, murdered, and tortured Jews. Spain forced Jews who remained to convert to Catholicism. If people practiced Judaism, then the Spanish state burned them alive. Spain’s Inquisition against Jews ended 300 years later in 1844.

1502-01-01 00:00:00

Spanish Inquisition of Muslims and Catholics

In 1502, the Spanish Inquisition began to persecute Muslims. Catholics who attempted to dissent would also suffer persecution.

1502-08-05 00:00:00

Bartolome de las Casas

On August 15, 1514, Bartolome de Las Casas advocated for his slaves’ human rights in his sermon. He believed it was wrong for the government to force people to concede their religious beliefs and practices. Las Casas convinced King Charles I to let him found “towns of free Indians” where Spaniards and Native Americans would work collaboratively to form an American civilization.

1515-08-05 00:00:00

European Witch Hunts

Switzerland burned 500 supposed witches at the stake, along with France and Germany.

1517-10-31 12:10:34

95 Theses

61 years after the invention of the printing press, Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses in protest, hence “Protestant,” of the Catholic Church’s doctrine of indulgences.

1520-12-01 00:00:00

Failed Peace

Las Casas founded a new colony in Venezuela for people of diverse backgrounds and races to cohabitate peacefully. Unfortunately, neighboring Native Americans saw Spaniards enslaving other natives, so they attacked the new colony, terminating Las Casas’s experiment with diversity.

1521-12-01 00:00:00

Cathedral of San Juan Batista

In 1521, the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico became the first church building in what is now the United States and the second in the Americas.

1531-12-01 00:00:00

Catholic Converts

Between 1531 and 1541, Catholics from Spain successfully converted 10 million Native AMericans to Catholicism. According to legend, when roses fell from the Our Lady of Guadalupe icon, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared imprinted on the cactus cloth.

1532-12-01 00:00:00


In 1532, Francisco Pizarro captured Peru. Spaniards destroyed native religious symbols because their religion in Spain dictated that these were false. These Spaniards believed that they were doing the right thing because they thought that their religion was the only correct one.

1533-01-01 00:00:00

King Henry VIII

In 1533, Arch Bishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon's marriage to be null and void, in defiance of the Catholic Church's opposition to divorce.

1534-01-01 00:00:00

Church of England

In 1534, Henry VIII issued the Act of Supremacy to become the head of the new Church of England (Anglican), as separate from the Roman Catholic Church. His daughter Mary, "Bloody Mary," remained Catholic and later killed Protestants.

1553-01-01 00:00:00

Michael Servetus

In 1553, Catholics burned Michael Servetus, the founder of Unitarianism, at the stake.

1558-01-01 00:00:00

Bloody Mary's Death

In 1558, bonfires across London celebrated the death of the queen, "Bloody Mary." Mary was Catholic, and the new queen, Queen Elizabeth I, was Protestant. Bloody Mary persecuted Protestants, and Queen Elizabeth I persecuted Catholics.

1560-01-01 00:00:00

Goa Inquisition

Between 1560 and 1812, Catholics persecuted approximately 16,200 Hindus and Jews in India in the Goa Inquisition. They targeted Hindus and Jews who either refused to convert, or clandestinely practiced their original religions after conversion. They sentenced some to death, executed some in prison, and burned about 64.

1562-01-01 00:00:00

French Wars of Religion

Between 1562 and 1598, there were eight civil wars between French Catholics and Protestants in France. In 1598, the Edict of Nantes proclaimed key freedoms and rights for the Protestants.

1592-01-01 12:10:34

Mercurius Gallobelgicus

In 1592, Mercurius Gallobelgicus became one of the first European periodicals. It began in Germany and covered the "Christian World." In 1595, a report of a strange apparition featured one of the first known illustrations in a periodical: an engraving of two hands, one with a face.

1605-01-01 12:10:34

Guy Fawkes

In 1605, Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic extremists plotted to blow up the English Parliament and King James I. Their plans failed. A 1606 illustrated news broadside from the engraving shop of Franz and Abraham Hogenberg depicted the conspirators' executions.

1606-01-01 00:00:00

Virginia Charter

In 1606, King James I chartered Virginia, which proclaimed that "so noble a worke may by the Providence of Almighty God hereafter tend to the glorie of his Divine Majesty in the propagating of the Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness."

1606-04-10 10:38:57

Founding Virginia

On April 10, 1606, King James I issued the Royal Charter of Virginia: “[B]y the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of his Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion [Anglican Church] to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government.”

1607-01-01 10:38:57

First Church in Original Thirteen Colonies

By 1607, Anglicans established the first Church in Fort James, Virginia, which was the first church in the thirteen original colonies. Reverend Robert Hunt nailed a board to two trees to serve as a reading desk, where he preached twice every Sunday. Between 1640 and 1660, Anglicans founded nearly sixty parishes in Virginia. These increased to approximately 100 by the mid-1700s. There were more Anglicans in Virginia than in any other colony.

1619-01-01 00:00:00


1619 in the colony of Virginia was especially significant for the first boatload of Africans, first boatload of women, first labor strike, first ownership of own land, and first elected law makers.

1619-01-01 00:00:00

Slaves in Virginia

The year 1619 marked the arrival of the first African slaves in the colony of Virginia. Slave holders introduced some church teachings to their slaves.

1623-01-01 00:00:00

Virginia Temperance Law

In 1623, Virginia became the first American colony to pass a temperance law.

1628-01-01 00:00:00

First School in America

In 1628, Dutch settlers in New York created the first school in America. Today the School of the Collegiate Reformed Church, which the Dutch founded in New York, is the oldest learning institution in the country.

1630-01-01 00:00:00

City Upon A Hill

In 1630, John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, famously declared: "For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. Soe that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world." Among others, John F. Kennedy, Walter Mondale, and Ronald Reagan would quote Winthrop's "City upon a hill."

1635-10-09 00:00:00

Banishment of Roger Williams

On October 9, 1635, Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Roger Williams for arguing against civil punishments for religious crimes.

1636-01-01 00:00:00

Founding Harvard

In 1636, Massachusetts Puritans founded Harvard College, later University, as the first institution of higher learning in North America. They created the college to train ministers, though the first teacher beat his students and escaped with the college's funds.

1636-01-01 10:38:57

Founding Rhode Island

In 1636, Roger Williams purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and established Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations. Williams founded it on two of the most threatening ideas of his day: democracy and liberty of conscience. The 1637 town agreement limited the colony’s powers to civil matters. New settlers achieved citizenship through majority vote, whereas neighboring colonies enforced religious tests for citizenship. Rhode Island’s laws attracted Quakers, Jews, and even atheists. British Parliament recognized Rhode Island’s charter in 1644, further validating religious freedom in Rhode Island.

1638-01-01 00:00:00

Anne Hutchinson

In 1638, Boston banished Anne Hutchinson to Rhode Island. Hutchinson had been born in England, and she was the daughter of a dissident minister. Despite no formal education, Hutchinson became an avid reader and thinker. After moving to Boston, Hutchinson worked as a midwife and befriended many women. She held meeting for these women to critique church doctrine. Meeting as a group to critique doctrine defied women's gender roles in that time. When Hutchinson went on trial for heresy, gender roles were the real issue. She next moved to Rhode Island in 1638, and then she moved to Long Island following her husband's death. Hutchinson died in a Native American raid.

1638-01-01 00:00:00

Dutch Articles of Colonization

The 1638 Articles of Colonization established that Dutch companies would promote only Dutch Reformed Religion. This was a loose establishment that generally respected dissenters. In 1734, the Dutch companies made concessions to Quakers regarding oath-taking. Still, instructions from the crown denied toleration benefits to Catholics.

1644-01-01 10:38:57

Bloudy Tenent of Persecution

In 1644, Roger Williams published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, decrying any persecution on account of creed.

1646-01-01 00:00:00

Act Against Heresy

In 1646, Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the Act Against Heresy, assigning punishments for blasphemy. Blasphemy included denial of immortality of the soul, denial of resurrection of the body, rejection of sin and atonement through the death of Christ, and denying the baptism of infants, among other denials.

1647-01-01 00:00:00

Old Deluder Satan Law

In 1647, Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted a compulsory literacy law, which required parents to teach their children to read. Puritans aimed for every child to be able to read the Bible, some Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. The compulsory literacy law states: "It being one chief project of that older deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures... It is therefore ordered, that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord has increased its number to 50 householders, shall then forth-with appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read."

1649-01-01 00:00:00

English Civil War

Puritans won the 1649 English Civil War, and the Puritans beheaded King Charles I. Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell seized the government, and Puritans destroyed many Anglican churches. Puritans killed Anglicans and Catholics, and they closed all London theaters, even Shakespeare.

1649-01-01 00:00:00

Maryland Toleration Act

In 1649, Maryland passed the Maryland Toleration Act, also known as the Act Concerning Religion. George Calvert had founded Maryland with a vision of a good, prosperous life of religious freedom. The Toleration Act guaranteed freedom of worship for all Trinitarian Christians in Maryland, but sentenced to death anyone who denied the divinity of Jesus or the trinity. Puritans would repeal this legislation, but then Cecil Calvert would restore it. Cecil's son, George Calvert, would have legal controversies with Jesuits over refusing to exempt laymen on church property from civil law and its courts. The Maryland Toleration Act signified the first ever legal limitations on hate speech.

1656-07-01 22:14:28

Austin and Fisher

On July 1, 1656, Boston arrested Ann Austin and Mary Fisher, who were the first Quakers to arrive in Boston. They were deported, and the next group of Quakers to arrive in Boston were imprisoned because the general public viewed Quakers as politically and religiously subversive.

1657-01-01 22:14:28

Rhode Island Refuge

In 1657, Rhode Island granted refuge to Quakers, following their banishment from other colonies. Every colony passed anti-Quaker laws except for Rhode Island.

1659-01-01 00:00:00

Illegal Christmas

Between 1659 and 1681, Christmas was illegal in Massachusetts. The theocratic General Court of Massachusetts viewed the celebration of Christmas as the embodiment of gluttony and leisure. According to the Court: "Anybody who is found observing by abstinence of labor, feasting, or any other way, any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings."

1660-06-01 22:14:28

Mary Dyer

On June 1, 1660, Mary Dyer died by hanging in Boston. In 1635, Dyer had emigrated from England with her husband and settled in Boston. She escaped with Anne Hutchinson to Rhode Island, where she became a Quaker. Quakers treated women as equals, and Dyer never stayed in one place for too long. Boston, Massachusetts exiled her in 1657, and New Haven, Connecticut exiled her in 1658. Boston hanged her two friends, but her son arranged for Dyer to receive a repriev e. Dyer's family attempted to dissuade Dyer from returning to Boston and becoming a martyr. Still, she went to the gallows in summer 1660. Her death reportedly contributed to curtailing the church's absolute control. Mary Dyer stood out in the seventeenth century as a tireless advocate for religious freedom and women's equality. Her last words were: "Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desiring you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord. Nay, man, I am not now to repent."

1675-01-01 22:14:28

Locked in Church

In 1675, Massachusetts enacted a law to lock church doors during services, in order to prevent people from leaving during lengthy sermons.

1675-01-01 22:14:28

Conversion of Indigenous People

By 1675, approximately 2,500 indigenous people had converted to Christianity, which constituted 20 percent of the native population in New England.

1679-01-01 22:14:28

Founding New Hampshire

In 1679, John Wheelwright established the colony of New Hampshire following his banishment from Massachusetts. New Hampshire would have no religious requirements for citizenship, holding office, or voting.

1681-03-04 22:14:28

Founding Pennsylvania

On March 4, 1681, King Charles II granted a royal charter to William Penn for the colony of Pennsylvania. Although Pennsylvania's charter did not establish a state religion, Quaker values shaped the colony. William Penn wrote to the indigenous peoples: "May [we] always live together as neighbors and freinds, else what would the great God say to us, who hath made us not to devour and destroy one another, but live soberly and kindly together in the world." Pennsylvania did not have a militia, many taxes, or any public debt until the French and Indian War. Pennsylvania also became home to the Amish and the Mennonites.

1689-01-01 22:14:28

British Declaration of Rights

In 1689, the British Declaration of Rights extended freedom to all Christians except for Catholics. As a result of the Declaration, government aid for Congregationalism became politically contentious in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Meanwhile, in Virginia, acceptance of non-Anglicans created widespread political unrest. Local officials' de facto intolerance ultimately created a rallying point for anti-establishment sentiment during the American Revolution.

1692-02-01 00:00:00

Salem Witch Trials

From February 1692 through May 1693, in Salem Village, Massachusetts, leaders in Salem and surrounding villages formally accused and tried 150 people of being witches in a bout of mass hysteria. The hysteria had begun when Reverend Samuel Parris caught his nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Parris, and niece, eleven-year-old Abigail Williams, fortune-telling with a crystal ball. The girls blamed their behavior on witches. They then exhibited violent fits and continued to accuse their neighbors of witchcraft, leading others to do the same. The Court sentenced 14 women and five men to death by hanging, as well as one man to death by stoning, for challenging the Court’s integrity. Reverend Parris exploited the trials as an opportunity to cement the Church’s authority. The witch trials depended on spectral evidence, signifying that the community’s beliefs and superstitions constituted evidence. Twenty years later, the town of Salem paid reparations to survivors of the witch trials.

1696-01-01 22:14:28

Disenfranchisement in Carolinas

During a brief period of Quaker influence in the Carolinas in 1696, the governor excluded Catholics from full citizenship and religious freedom protections.

1701-10-28 22:14:28

Pennsylvania Charter of Liberties and Privileges

On October 28, 1701, WIlliam Penn authored the Pennsylvania Charter of Liberties and Privileges, which ensured freedom of worship for all theists and guaranteed the right to hold office to all Christians.

History of Religious Freedom in the United States

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