Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe. The New England colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established “as plantations of religion.” Some settlers who arrived in these areas came for secular motives–”to catch fish” as one New Englander put it–but the great majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed to be correct. They enthusiastically supported the efforts of their leaders to create “a city on a hill” or a “holy experiment,” whose success would prove that God’s plan for his churches could be successfully realized in the American wilderness. Even colonies like Virginia, which were planned as commercial ventures, were led by entrepreneurs who considered themselves “militant Protestants” and who worked diligently to promote the prosperity of the church.
The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept, denounced by Roger Williams as “inforced uniformity of religion,” meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.
Execution of Mennonites
This engraving depicts the execution of David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselins, described variously as Dutch Anabaptists or Mennonites, by Catholic authorities in Ghent in 1554. Strangled and burned, van der Leyen was finally dispatched with an iron fork. Bracht’s Martyr’s Mirror is considered by modern Mennonites as second only in importance to the Bible in perpetuating their faith.
Murder of David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselins, Ghent, 1554
Engraving by J. Luyken, from T. J. V. Bracht (or Thieleman van Braght), Het Bloedig Tooneel De Martelaers Spiegel. . . .
Amsterdam: J. van der Deyster, et al., 1685
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (1)
A Jesuit Disemboweled
Jesuits like John Ogilvie (Ogilby) (1580-1615) were under constant surveillance and threat from the Protestant governments of England and Scotland. Ogilvie was sentenced to death by a Glasgow court and hanged and mutilated on March 10, 1615.
John Ogilvie (Ogilby), Societas Jesu, 1615
Engraving from Mathias Tanner, Societas Jesu usque ad sanguinis et vitae profusionem Militans. . . .
Prague: Typis Universitatis Carolo-Ferdinandeae, 1675
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (4)
The Expulsion of the Salzburgers
On October 31, 1731, the Catholic ruler of Salzburg, Austria, Archbishop Leopold von Firmian, issued an edict expelling as many as 20,000 Lutherans from his principality. Many propertyless Lutherans, given only eight days to leave their homes, froze to death as they drifted through the winter seeking sanctuary. The wealthier ones who were allowed three months to dispose of their property fared better. Some of these Salzburgers reached London, from whence they sailed to Georgia. Others found new homes in the Netherlands and East Prussia.
Lutherans leaving Salzburg, 1731
Engraving by David Böecklin from Die Freundliche Bewillkommung Leipzig: 1732
Rare Books Division. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations (7)
A Pair of Salzburgers, Fleeing Their Homes
These religious refugees flee Salzburg carrying with them religious volumes. The man has under one arm a copy of the Augsburg Confession; under the other is a theological work by Johann Arndt (1555-1621). The woman is carrying the Bible. The legend between them says: “We are driven into exile for the Gospel’s sake; we leave our homeland and are now in God’s hands.” At the top is a scriptural verse, Matthew 24:20. “but pray that your flight does not occur in the winter or on the Sabbath.”
Salzburgische Emigranten [left page] [right page]
Engraving from [Christopher Sancke?], Ausführliche Historie derer Emigranten
oder Vertriebenen Lutheraner aus dem Erz-Bistum Salzburg, Leipzig: 1732
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (8)