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American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance

American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance

by Peter GottschalkPeter Gottschalk
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In the middle of the nineteenth century a group of political activists in New York City joined together to challenge a religious group they believed were hostile to the American values of liberty and freedom. Called the Know Nothings, they started riots during elections, tarred and feathered their political enemies, and barred men from employment based on their religion. The group that caused this uproar?: Irish and German Catholics—then known as the most villainous religious group in America, and widely believed to be loyal only to the Pope. It would take another hundred years before Catholics threw off these xenophobic accusations and joined the American mainstream. The idea that the United States is a stronghold of religious freedom is central to our identity as a nation—and utterly at odds with the historical record. In American Heretics, historian Peter Gottschalk traces the arc of American religious discrimination and shows that, far from the dominant protestant religions being kept in check by the separation between church and state, religious groups from Quakers to Judaism have been subjected to similar patterns of persecution. Today, many of these same religious groups that were once regarded as anti-thetical to American values are embraced as evidence of our strong religious heritage—giving hope to today's Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious groups now under fire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137278296
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/12/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Peter Gottschalk is the chair of the Religion department at Wesleyan University. He is the co-author of the scholarly text Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy, which examines the depiction of Muslims in political cartoons. It was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, and he was interviewed on CNN, NPR, Air America, and Voice of America,and was featured in USA Today, and The Washington Post's "On Faith" website. He lives in Middletown, CT.

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American Heretics

Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance

By Peter Gottschalk

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2013 Peter Gottschalk,
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-40131-1


Heretics! Blasphemers! Witches!

Quakers in Colonial America

Beneath the unfolding blooms and still-tender leaves of New England's spring of 1660, a band of men led Mary Dyer through the streets. As they walked toward Boston Common, some in the party rapped on drums in order to drown out the possibility of their captive's voice being heard. She had walked this path only the year before, then holding the hands of two fellow prisoners similarly sentenced to death by hanging. On that occasion, her husband's request for leniency had brought her a last-minute reprieve. But now she passed where their bodies lay buried beneath the Common as she mounted the gallows stairs to once again have a noose placed around her neck. As before, she neither resisted nor protested the fate decreed when the General Court condemned her to death. Quite the opposite. Describing her time under arrest as she faced the crowd gathered beneath the gallows, she declared, "Yea, I have been in paradise several days now." This time the authorities ignored her husband's pleas, and Mary Dyer dropped to her death.

What had Dyer done that deserved execution in the minds of the court? Had she murdered? Abused? Stolen? No. Instead, her crime stemmed from publicly declaring a theology different from that of the Puritan majority. Her proclamation of Quaker beliefs earned her a death sentence because they diverged from the faith that had driven her judges' Pilgrim predecessors to cross the tempestuous Atlantic in search of — ironically enough — freedom of religion.

The courage of that earlier generation and their resilience in the face of the perils — human and natural — awaiting them in North America have become a core part of an important American national myth: oppression in their homelands led religious groups, including Catholics, Jews, Shakers, Quakers, and Puritans, to become future citizens of the New World. Then, united by their common experiences of persecution and their challenging new lives, they supposedly forged a bond based on religious freedom that became the foundation of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Indeed, every year most Americans play out this ideal of religious freedom as they join their families around the table on Thanksgiving Day. Schoolchildren learn the story of these people in austere dresses and buckle-brimmed hats sharing their harvest with the Native Americans who had made survival possible. However, the image of peaceful pluralism belies the strident theology of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the reckoning brought upon those like the Quakers who had a different understanding of humanity's relationship with God.


The Puritans and the Quakers represented two dissenting movements of a larger stream of protest collectively called — — fittingly enough — — the Protestant tradition. After the Roman Catholic monk Martin Luther nailed a list of arguments countering Vatican doctrine on the door of his university's chapel in 1517, he became a symbol of the dissatisfaction European Christians felt toward the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the Middle Ages, the popes' church had dominated Europe's religious and social life, while playing no small part in political and economic matters. But Luther's rebellion helped unleash pent-up forces that had reached a breaking point, fueling events that would permanently alter the Continent's Christian landscape. While some of the emerging denominations took their names from visionaries whose ideas crystalized into movements — Luther and Lutheranism, John Calvin and Calvinism, Menno Simons and Mennonites — others had titles that reflected defining notions of their communion, such as the Anabaptists, who required all their first adherents to take a second baptism.

A myriad of beliefs were behind the Protestant Reformation, but a democratic and individualistic impulse played a particularly important role in the formation of many of the new religions. The Catholic Church relied on a strict hierarchy of authority that largely controlled both the practice of the liturgy and the reading of the Bible, each of which occurred solely in Latin, a language known almost exclusively by the (church) educated. Protestants tended to favor a "priesthood of all believers" that undermined this hierarchy by allowing laypeople to participate in church services and Bible readings conducted in vernacular languages. One of Luther's first and most revolutionary acts was to translate the Bible into his native language of German, allowing a far greater number of his countrymen to read it, especially when the recently invented Gutenberg press made books substantially less expensive. Many Protestants also began to put more emphasis on preaching and reading the Bible and less on the celebration of the Eucharist so central to the Catholic Mass.

Across the English Channel, King Henry VIII overthrew the Vatican's sway in 1533. Although interest in annulling his marriage to a wife who had not borne him a son played a role, various other concerns drove him to found the Church of England. While sidestepping the more severe theological challenges of some Reformation leaders — such as not requiring priests to be celibate and denying the transubstantiation of the Eucharist — Henry ordered an English translation of the Bible for each church and subordinated the church establishment by declaring himself its head. As on the Continent, however, even these cautious opening moves of reform could not forestall a torrent of change driven by a complex interaction of various forces that overturned the position of the Catholic Church in Britain. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Catholics in England were becoming more marginalized and their church increasingly demonized.

In this convulsive environment, various English Protestant movements emerged, each finding varying degrees of acceptance and rejection. One of these, the Puritans, initially gained a solid foothold in England and even achieved a certain amount of political power before falling out of favor. Like many other marginalized groups, this community did not choose the name by which it became most readily known. Initially, some in the Church of England used "Puritan" as a derogatory label for those who believed that the reformation of the English church had not gone far enough in purging Catholic elements. The term covered a range of Protestant dissenters within and outside the Church of England. Some, Presbyterians, sought to remove the church's hierarchy of bishops. Others, who came to be known as Congregationalists, wanted to restructure the church so that there was no overarching organization that could dictate the affairs of local churches. At the extreme end of the Puritan spectrum, others sought to exit the Church of England entirely and establish separate congregations. Spanning these divergences, the various branches of Puritanism all shared a commitment to a highly ethical life, the notion of the priesthood of all believers, and the eschewal of any practice unwarranted by a literal interpretation of the Bible (as they understood it). They did away with ornamentation, crosses, and the emphasis on Sunday services, all of which Puritans alleged smacked of Catholicism's idolatry. Finally, most Puritans viewed themselves as responsible for reforming not only the church, but the nation as well.

The early successes of the Puritans at the end of the sixteenth century brought them political and religious influence beyond their numbers, but ultimately more mainstream forces prevailed, and they slipped into a period of persecution. Looking for an escape, a group of separatists emigrated to the Netherlands before, driven to desperation by oppression there as well, they suffered the two-month-long passage across the Atlantic's cold, turbulent seas in the claustrophobic one-hundred-foot-long Mayflower. Rejected by their fellow Britons — and even their church — yet firm in their self-understanding as God's chosen people, these extreme Puritans sought to redeem the so-called New World. Confident in their witness to the true faith, they established their first settlement at Plymouth in 1620. Although the separatist Puritans represented a minority of a larger movement — most of the adherents chose to remain in Britain — significant numbers followed the Mayflower's example. Within a decade of Plymouth's terrible first winter, in which half its residents died, Puritans in the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony had built the towns of Salem, Concord, Roxbury, and Dorchester, alternately using negotiations and aggressiveness toward local Native American nations to obtain land and resources.

Ten years after the first arrival, as he and his fellow passengers prepared to make landfall after their own crossing, leader John Winthrop expressed Puritan confidence in their community, their god, and their right to their new land:

Wee must delight in eache other, make others Condicions our owne rejoyce together, mourne together, labour, and suffer together, allwayes haveing before our eyes our Commission and Community in the worke, our Community as members of the same body, soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us.

If successful, "the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us," so that — borrowing a biblical image — theirs would be like a city set upon a hill, a witness to all humanity. Winthrop pressed his companions to imagine themselves as the Hebrews just before they set foot in the Promised Land after their long, dangerous exodus. But God put a condition on this support. Failure would have dire consequences not simply for individuals, but for the community as a whole. Rephrasing Moses's warning to the Hebrews, Winthrop told the Puritans that if they did not love God, care for one another, and follow God's laws, they would perish in the "wilderness" God had given them (at divinely sanctioned cost to its original inhabitants). Winthrop appeared to have in mind the Exodus incident of the dispirited Hebrews worshipping the golden calf when he warned that without steadfast faith and commitment to one another, "our heartes shall turne away soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worshipp other Gods our pleasures, and proffitts." Part of the Puritan insistence on living together in settlements arose from the conviction that only with the strength and discipline of the community could individuals resist sinful temptations. The physical and social centrality of the religious meetinghouse in Puritan towns gave concrete expression to this view. While these early Puritans have proven key figures in nationalist narratives of American religious freedom, the same could not be said in regard to liberties of individual conscience, as many colonial Quakers would discover.


As its name expresses, the Protestant Reformation arose from protest: protest that God's instrument on Earth — the church — failed to properly teach and practice divine truth. This spirit of splitting from the church as an act of protest meant that the Reformation prompted not only breakaways from the Roman Catholic Church, but also divisions within the subsequent Protestant denominations. While some of these divisions occurred quietly — with one group peacefully drifting away from the majority — others happened loudly, as disaffected members noisily made their disagreements public. There are probably few dynamics among humans as forceful as the confluence of divine injunction and moral righteousness, and some of these splits could unleash fierce energies not only of protest but of reaction as well. Like icebergs floating into warmer waters, Christian denominations — riven with fractures — split and split again. The birth of the Quaker movement from Puritanism represented just one such fissure.

The Society of Friends, as Quakers called themselves, arose at the extreme end of the Protestant spectrum. They took the notion of a priesthood of all believers to such an extent that they eschewed all clergy. Instead of guidance from a minister who read from and preached the Bible, the religious meetings of Friends involved sitting in prayerful silence until a member — woman or man — felt compelled to speak as directed by the "inner light," guided by God. Outside of meeting their behavior could be equally nonconformist, as they refused to show any particular deference to authority, especially if it conflicted with their internal leadings.

In response to the Quaker schism, Puritans alleged blasphemy and heresy, just as the Roman Catholic Church had done for a millennium with many of its theological dissenters. However, the Puritans generally only persecuted those with differing beliefs if they remained in Puritan settlements; those who chose to migrate elsewhere were allowed to go in peace (alleged witches would be an exception, as we shall see). Like most labels used by a majority group to describe a marginalized minority, allegations of heresy reflected more about Puritan beliefs and culture than about those labeled. Puritans relied on these terms because their pursuit of religious freedom was rooted in the effort to realize rigid ideals of community identity and doctrinal cohesion that necessarily came at the cost of the freedom of others to dissent.

The allegation of heresy inherently relies on a notion of orthodoxy (literally, "correct thought"). However, not all religions at the time enforced a set of doctrines to which each community member must subscribe or face eviction. For instance, among the Native American nations of colonial New England, travelers often adopted the devotions of their hosts for the length of their stay as they moved from village to village. This flexibility allowed Native Americans to accept without qualms divergent beliefs and practices. Ironically, the early use of the term "heresy" suggests that Christians may have once held similarly flexible attitudes. In the first century, "heresy" could neutrally refer to a school or sect, thus implying that the earliest Christians were less intolerant of differences than they were later, when the term became synonymous with unorthodoxy. The experience of Martin Luther, excommunicated as a heretic in 1521 and forced to flee for his life, offers a potent demonstration of how the Catholic Church had changed its view of heresy. Not all British colonies in America held as strict a line on orthodoxy as did Massachusetts, but even those like Rhode Island that practiced a broader acceptance of dissident theologies did not practice a universally tolerant attitude.

Mary Dyer's life before she joined the Society of Friends reflected the Puritans' emphasis on the continuation of God's providence, which depended upon communal conformity over freedom of individual conscience. When she first arrived in New England in 1634 or 1635, Dyer and her husband attended the Puritan church. Over time, however, they grew close to fellow Boston resident Anne Hutchinson, her family, and Anne's unusual views. Although Hutchinson was the daughter of an Anglican minister, she later committed herself to Puritanism and — fleeing English persecution — landed in Massachusetts with her merchant husband just before the Dyers did. Hutchinson's theological knowledge and insights gained her a growing reputation in Boston until they took a turn considered dangerous by many fellow Puritans. Arguing both that moral behavior did not necessarily signal one's salvation and that each person could engage God's spirit within their soul, Hutchinson found herself at odds with the Puritan insistence on strict moral rectitude and the reliance on reading the Bible (instead of one's heart) for guidance. In other words, Hutchinson promoted a direct association with God that sidestepped prescribed Puritan practices. The colony's General Court leveled charges against her, including those for the impropriety of a woman leading the religious meetings she organized.

By challenging some of the basic tenets of Puritan society, the Hutchinson controversy became more than a theological disagreement. In Puritan America, church, faith, ritual, morality, society, and government were viewed as necessarily influencing one another as colonists sought to create a city of godly light and a bulwark against satanic darkness. The community viewed maintaining a vigilant watch against sin as paramount to its survival. During her spirited and persuasive defense, Hutchinson drew allegations of satanic delusion when she declared that God had revealed to her how she would be persecuted and the colony punished. She left the court with a sentence of banishment, walking hand in hand with a supportive Mary Dyer, whose family joined her in exile in Rhode Island in 1638.


Excerpted from American Heretics by Peter Gottschalk. Copyright © 2013 Peter Gottschalk,. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
One: Heretics! Blasphemers! Witches!:Quakers in Colonial America,
Two: Un-American and Un-Christian: Irish Catholics,
Three: Heathens: The Sioux and the Ghost Dance,
Four: A Race Apart: Jews in the Eyes of the Ku Klux Klan, Henry Ford, and the Government,
Five: Fanatics: Secular Fears and Mormon Political Candidates from Joseph Smith Jr. to Mitt Romney,
Six: It's Not a Religion, It's a Cult: The Branch Davidians,
Seven: The Sum of All Fears: Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Sentiment Today,
Conclusion: How We Can Do Better,
Select Bibliography,

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