A Look Back in History by Richard H. Shaner Freedom of religion is American way of life

A rare Biblical motif of an engaging Adam & Eve painted on (most likely) a Berks County Pennsylvania German dower chest. This chest currently resides at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
A rare Biblical motif of an engaging Adam & Eve painted on (most likely) a Berks County Pennsylvania German dower chest. This chest currently resides at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

When thousands of European immigrants arrived in the New World, they naturally believed in freedom of religion, even before the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America to escape a national church established by the British government of England. This was the ultimate alternative for people who did not want to be forced under the control of a national religion endorsed by countries in Europe which were part of the Roman Catholic Empire.

However, the people who immigrated to Pennsylvania from the Rhine Valley; be it followers of Martin Luther or Calvinists from Switzerland, like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, believed whole heartedly in the principles of the Declaration of Independence in 1776! “That all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Henceforth, each American family could worship or choose not to worship the benevolent Creator from whom they wish to seek eternal benevolence.

Thus, in Pennsylvania, Rhinelanders of different religious denominations celebrated the deity of their family’s choice, including the Roman Catholic Church of the Blessed Sacrament founded at Bally in 1743. But the folk religion you and your family practiced was your personal preference and no one else’s! Although individual religious baptism certificates may artistically be symbolic of your individual religious faith, folk artists of the PA Dutch people refrained from using religious symbols in their individual folk art drawings to distinguish one family from another who might not be of the same denomination.

Thus, rarely were Christian crosses incorporated in folk art drawings on PA Deitsch furniture which might cause a visitor to inquire about the family’s religious affiliation. So the New World folk art used by early American pioneers consisted of imaginative good luck unicorns, North American parrots, and colorful Distlefinks. But occasionally, there were Adam and Eve drawings where they stood by an apple tree guarded by a snake or serpent, with an occasional drawing of a fish, the primitive symbol of Christianity.


But, by and large, the formal Fraktur illuminations used on PA Dutch Holy Bibles were not used on the household furniture of the PA Dutch who were of a variety of religious denominations. Hence one’s personal religious faith was not offended by the colorful interpretations of the PA Dutch, be their neighbors: Hebrew, Catholic or the Ephrata Cloisters fraternity. Community-oriented pioneers in early America, frontier immigrants were more interested in the skills and talents of their neighbors than of learning about their personal religion.

Thus, a man’s private religious practice was not as important as his skills and knowledge to perform community services as a carpenter or furniture maker. Hence many peddlers who practiced the Jewish faith were more remembered for assisting frontier families with necessary implements and merchandise than the fact that they did not follow the same religion; a life or death struggle surviving in the American wilderness. An individual whose skill at assisting you in frontier farming times was more important than whether they shared the same religion, as long as they were not terrorists, whose religion did not respect the principle of “Freedom of Religion” or humanity.

Thus, a good neighbor was not always a citizen to whom you went to church with, but rather a person for whom you can count on in a personal time of humanitarian importance. Thereby, one’s religion or ethnic origin was secondary to becoming a good American, while our nation of multi-nationals became a dynamic American Civilization in early World Civilization.

Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.