Religious Freedom and the Dominating Religions of Pennsylvania

The very establishment of Pennsylvania was founded on the religious ideology of William Penn who believed that every person had an absolute right to worship God as they saw fit. The Pennsylvania colony was originally meant to be a “Holy Experiment” inspired to be a utopian set on the lifestyle and ideals of pacifism. What began as a project of sorts turned into one of the most religiously tolerant colonies where peoples of different religious backgrounds flocked to hoping to escape persecution from Europe or discrimination from other colonies. Pennsylvania became a host for people to worship freely from Quakers who once governed the colony, Jews who’s largest population resided in Philadelphia and even Catholics whom for the most part were banned from many other colonies. While there were many sects, denominations and religions in Pennsylvania only the dominate religions of the colony will be discussed noting that by the 1780’s all of the said religions had previously rooted themselves to the land.


Some of the largest influx of European immigrants to Pennsylvania were from Germany and with them came the religiously persecuted including the Anabaptists. They preserved the radical ideas and traditions of the Reformation of the 16th century while enduring persecution as best they could and unlike the Catholics in Europe only baptized adults. From the Anabaptists stem two direct descendents that also formed large and important religious groups in Pennsylvania…


Created by a Dutch Anabaptist named Menno Simons, the Mennonites were people seeking to be faithful to Christ’s commands in a more literal nature. They practiced pacifism (opposition to war and violence) and lived simple lives. They refuse in activities of the state as well as…

  • Refuse to take oaths
  • Refuse to hold public office
  • Refuse to bear arms
  • Forbid marriage outside of their religious ranks

The first wave arrived and settled just north of Philadelphia into Germantown and the second wave of Mennonite immigration were mainly Swiss farmers who relocated the majority of the group into Lancaster county. The third and fourth waves would again consist of a large amount of Germans.


The second set of descendents of the Anabaptists and even more directly descended from the Mennonites were the Amish who also set roots down in Lancaster county and also believe in practicing pacifism and living a simple lifestyle. Some of their distinct characteristics include…

  • Living in rural areas rather than cities
  • Use horse and buggies
  • Do not believe in wearing loud or bright colors, only simple clothing
  • Do not use buttons
  • Meet to worship in homes instead of church institutions
  • Do not vote, pay taxes, or enlist in the military

The Amish did not emerge until the end of the 17th century when a Swiss Mennonite named Jakob Ammann began to publicly criticize the Mennonite church for compromising their vows to withdraw from the world in a purer Protestant community. He became a leader among many Mennonites who agreed with him and took his followers to live a primitive lifestyle.



Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers was founded by George Fox in England.  Persecuted in England as well as American colonies who believed they practiced witchcraft, in 1681, the Quaker William Penn wanted a place of refuge for all religions but mainly for the English Quakers. They held social views that were considered radical and in a time where slavery was part of everyday life, the Quakers began to grow in opposition to it. They also believed that God was no respecter of people and that he could use anyone regardless of sex for his divine purposes. Because of this belief women were considered equals and played a major role in the denomination.


Derived from the teachings of Martin Luther, Lutherans began to arrive in Pennsylvania in large numbers. They shared a lot of the same language and German culture of other Pennsylvania settlers and would often joint their churches with other German Reformed groups in the area. However with so much combining of churches and religious groups the Lutheran Church in Europe dispatched Henry Muhlenberg, now considered the patriarch of American Lutheranism, from Germany to the America in order to reunite German Lutherans. One of the most effective things he did was create the Pennsylvania Ministerium which became the Lutherans first governing body.


Considered one of the most influential pietistic denominations in America, the Moravians, who emerged from the Hussite movement in Moravia, first came to North America in the 1730s. After a failed attempt to set up a community in Georgia, the Moravians headed north and settled in Philadelphia. Soon after they settled planned towns such as Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Moravians believed in uniting all Christian sects and lacked interest in creeds and doctrines. They also held the largest group of Protestant missionaries in the 18th century. While smaller than the other religious groups mentioned, their religious ideals would influence religions and ministers to come such as the Methodist evangelist John Wesley.

While Pennsylvania was in no way perfect in its religious standards and with so many different sects merging and separating many problems arose. However that does not stop this state from being one of the most tolerant (even from its beginning as a colony) and probably the closest to religious freedom in the 1780s.

Source info:

Corbett, Julia Mitchell. Religion in America. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1997.

Handy, Robert T. A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Prothero, Stephen, Queen, Edward, and Shattuck, Gardner. The Encyclopedia of American Religious History: Volume I. New York, NY: Facts on File Inc., 1996.
The Encyclopedia of American Religious History: Volume II




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