Many of the people who came to North America in the first place came to avoid religious persecution.

This being the case; at the time the founding fathers added Freedom of Religion to the constitution; were there any religions in North America that would kill people in the name of their religion? And if so, how did the Founding Fathers weigh national security against Freedom of Religion?

  • 1
    For what it's worth, "the Founding Fathers" didn't add anything -- the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution by the US Congress and the States (just like any amendment).
    – owjburnham
    Dec 8, 2018 at 15:01
  • 2
    I think I understand your point @owjburnham, and yet I'd suggest the No Religious Test Clause was a freedom of religion provision found in the initial U.S. Constitution (Article VI Clause 3). Dec 8, 2018 at 21:33

5 Answers 5


TL;DR: NO but it's complicated

The question as stated is somewhat misleading, because "religions ... that killed in the name of religion?" is not an absolute yes/no category but is a continuum.

As examples on that continuum you have:

  • Aztecs.

    This is where the religion itself centers on murder; with human sacrifice being demanded by the gods and a major part of religious observance

  • Islam

    This is where religion itself doesn't demand murder per se, but largely blesses it in the name of converting the infidels and spreading itself. See Mohammed's conquests. What makes Islam special is that the conquests in the name of the religion are codified in the religion itself and the religious texts (e.g. the concept of Jihad).

  • Christianity

    This is a distinct case, where the religion itself as it started did NOT condone murder in its name and was largely pacifistic. BUT, in the course of history, the religion morphed into a political organization that was Church, which fused with secular rulers. As such, religion was used to justify politically desirable murders, both in the service of secular powers (blessing the Crusades, which were really underneath a way to get rid of overpopulation pressure of junior knights - which is how Constantinople got sacked; or for than matter most witch trials which was a popular way to have people to get rid of those they disliked by witch accusations); as well as the political power of Church authorities (Inquisition, witch trials again).

  • Buddhism

    With exception of one small branch, a very pacifistic religion, that was never used to justify killing (which is not to say its adherents never killed people in war).

Since there were no significant amount of Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Shinto or Muslims in USA at the time, we are left with Christians and Native American religions.

  1. Christianity

    As @user45891 noted, by the time the Founding Fathers coined the First Amendment, the whole point was that the institution of Christian Church was reforming, largely as a consequence of both Protestant Reformation AND the pain of 30-year-war. So by the time the Amendment was done, the philosophical thought within Christian Church was specifically aimed at disassociating the power of the church from the power of the state - so the religion of Christianity as practiced in 1700s in USA was a lot closer in how it viewed killing in the name of religion to the "pacifist" spectrum end than to the way the Church molded it between 500 and 1500AD.

  2. Native American religions:

    • First, plenty of them were centered around sacrifice, but most well known ones were (while in North America) outside what United States territory would be, or were more in Central America in the first place (Mixtec, Aztec, Maya).

    • Second, some Native American cultures practiced religious sacrifice:

    However it's important to note that the whole religion wasn't based on murder the way Aztecs' was; for any of these examples; and most wars were fought in the name of prosaic resource competitions or other politics and not in the name of religion, both inter-tribe and against Europeans.

  • "With exception of one small branch, a very pacifistic religion, that was never used to justify killing" IIRC in the Japanese Warring States period, there were Buddhist monks who would use Buddhism as a way of riling up massive peasant revolts against samurai who offended them.
    – nick012000
    Jun 4, 2021 at 7:08
  • @nick012000 - Would you happen to have a citation? I have a surface interest in the period but never heard of that fact - sounds interesting!
    – user4012
    Jun 4, 2021 at 13:22
  • 2
    Here's the wikipedia article about them en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C5%8Dhei
    – nick012000
    Jun 4, 2021 at 16:50
  • There are no forced-conversion/bloody repraisal for refusing to convert to Christianity at the time?
    – Faito Dayo
    Nov 16, 2023 at 21:23

The first amendment (That one related to Freedom of Religion) was added in 1791.
It's safe to say that the only notable religions in the US then were Christianity and various native nature religions.

There were several native North American 'religions' that justified killing for religious reasons - @DVK's answer has a short list.
But the Indians were seen as a political threat - the national security concerns were over all out war, not about them kidnapping law-abiding Americans for usage in religious slaughter.
(Also as the Indians weren't citizens this constitutional right didn't apply to them anyway)

But the Christians did it too.
The 30-year war ended only in 1648, during the French revolution (1789 - 1799) Catholicism was fought, the persecution of Jews, Catholics vs. Lutherans, ...
Even if not necessarily leading to be killed, not participating in the state church lead to severe disenfranchisement.

So yes there were - and that IS the reason religious freedom exists.
Each person for them self can choose what to believe in and nobody has any say into that - if not you're judging which religions are good or bad. And that always ends bad for some folks.

The Constitution was heavily influenced by Locke - who 'invented' the secular state to make sure no citizens could be infringed upon for their religious beliefs.

So no - they didn't weight it against national security because that was not related to why there exists Freedom of Religion in the US.

  • 2
    "I'm not aware of any native American 'religions' that justified killing for religious reasons." - I am not that familiar with North America, but in Central America, that was 100% false, with killing to a MUCH greater extent than any Old World religion. Look up Aztecs. Their religion was centered on human sacrifice
    – user4012
    Oct 8, 2014 at 18:55
  • Great point about Locke and 30 year war though!
    – user4012
    Oct 8, 2014 at 18:57
  • @DVK totally right, I clarified that. The only civilization I'm aware of in North America were the Mount Builders and AFAIK they didn't do human sacrifices and alike, so I felt certain enough to put it in (I know that the Apaches didn't do that from Karl May books :) ). And I'm sure someone who actually knows something about the founding fathers and the constitution will elaborate on all those points.
    – user45891
    Oct 8, 2014 at 19:01
  • 5
    I take minor exception to the assertion only Christianity and native religions were "of note". In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson explicitly notes the intent of religious freedom to protect "Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination." (spelling as written.) Dec 8, 2018 at 21:55
  • 1
    Thomas Jefferson was aware of Islam up to the point of owning a Koran (fun fact, a Muslim congressman or woman will has tradditionally sworn the oath of office on Jefferson's Koran, which now resides in the Library of Congress).+
    – hszmv
    Jul 17, 2019 at 15:42

Yes, but it was probably considered uncommon by the time of the American Revolution.

Crimes against nature

Even after the American Revolution, statutes remained on the books of numerous U.S. states that imposed the death penalty not just for murder, but for some crimes of sexual sin, paralleling those in Leviticus 20, sometimes quoting directly from religious text. Details of enforcement are scanty, because they were considered "the crime not fit to be named among Christian men." However, lack of evidence is not evidence of absence. In some sense all capitol punishment might be considered killing justified by religion in any religion based on the Old Testament, we've just found alternate words to describe it. Others of course argue it is not justified, I take no position one way or the other.


The Witchcraft Act 1735, was intended to end executions for most religious crimes under the laws of the Kingdom of Great Britain, but the practice continued to be permitted in other monarchies, typically for heresy, which we would view today as a religious crime. The primary example might be heresy against the Roman Catholic church under Spanish law.

The Spanish Inquisition had extended into New Spain (including North America) and was known as the Mexican Inquisition. That religious court was established in Mexico City and only abolished in 1820, as a result of Mexican independence.

By 1781 under Spanish law, heresy against the Roman Catholic church was still legally punishable by execution by burning, but that was generally considered unseemly, so heretics were sometimes granted the privilege of being strangled before the flames were lit.

Records of the Inquisition in Mexico are at best incomplete, however researchers have said that while the Mexican Inquisition only prosecuted a very small portion of the population, the persecution of crypto-Judaism was one of the more dramatic kinds of spectacles because they usually ended in death, especially during the early period.

In Europe, Cayetano Ripoll is thought to be the last heretic executed by the Spanish Inquisition, he was garrotted in 1826 Spain for teaching Deist principles in violation of the teachings of the church. So while it seems unclear if killings based entirely on religious beliefs were happening in the New World in the time of the founding fathers, they certainly had good reason to believe the threats remained.

Several of the US founding fathers were heavily involved with Deist principles including James Madison and Thomas Paine. The later is especially relevant as after the American Revolution, Paine moved to France, and during the revolution there was imprisoned and targeted for execution based on his own Deist writings collected as The Age of Reason. Paine was released only through the diplomatic intervention of James Monroe (another founding father and future president) in 1794.

Other founding fathers including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were at least interested in Deist principals deemed heritical by the Catholic church. So yes, it can be said that questioning the teachings of organized religion of the day could result in a death sentance, and that fact led to inclusion of religious tolerance and freedom in the US constitution.

Anticatholicism in America

The story is not as one-sided as it might seem. It should be noted however that colonies like Maryland, founded by the Catholic Lord Baltimore passed the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649. However this was done in an effort to protect English Catholic settlers as the Catholic population quickly became a minority. The Puritans took power and permanently revoked the tolerance act until the American revolutions. During that time, the Catholics of Maryland were subject to persecution based on their religion with corporal punishment, though probably not death for heresy due to the 1735 act in Britain. But prior to that, a number of people had been executed in Puritan states, including a group of women known as the Boston martyrs who were condemned to death and executed by public hanging for repeatedly entering the Massachusetts Bay Colony as Catholics about a century earlier.

Treason and the Devine Rights of Kings

The European concept of the Devine Right of Kings held that a King received his authority to rule from God. In 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy and the Treasons Act, establishing correspondingly the King's religious position in the law, and making it an act of treason, punishable by death to disavow that supremacy. Though exercised in the 1500s, this law became dormant and religious tolerance in England took hold, but remained on the books.

In 1760 Francis Bernard became Governor of Massachusetts, and in 1765, he wrote that the King-in-Parliament retained power that was absolute, uncontrollable, and accountable to none, and therefore, in a political sense, can do no wrong. He also asserted that this applied unconditionally in the American Colonies of the Kingdom, regardless of their lack of representation in Parliament.

One of the final issues leading to the American Revolution was the Administration of Justice Act 1774, which George Washington and others referred to as the Murder Act, as they thought it permitted the murder of Americans through trials in England with no recourse. At the heart of such matters of sovereignty remained the core assumption of the Devine Rights, and that capitol punishment was still officially sanctioned by the Church of England.


Your question's lead contains a few misunderstandings which, when addressed, I believe answer the question. The misunderstandings I believe are in your question are that the Founding Fathers and the Christian Puritans held similar beliefs and motivations, and that the Puritans who "came to escape religious persecution" didn't, themselves, persecute other religious groups.

The early Puritans in New England (who are often said to have come to North America to "escape religious persecution") executed and imprisoned people in the name of their particular brand of Christianity in the previous century to the revolution. There were also the infamous witch trials. The founding fathers were by and large deists*, and were motivated by the violence they saw from theists (as opposed to deists) like the Puritans to separate church and state. Thomas Jefferson was quite hostile to established Christianity, even taking a razor blade to his Bible to cut out all supernatural claims, to leave what he considered the moral teachings. The founding fathers passed the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796 unanimously and without argument, which, crucially, explicitly states that "the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion".

*Deism is basically atheism-lite: there is a god, but he just created the universe and then ceased interfering in reality at all: no miracles, no resurrection, nothing. This is the "creator" of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.

  • I want to welcome you and your participation. I would suggest however that your contribution is not an answer in the sense normally used here, for example the Treaty of Tripoli isn't really relevant to the question originally asked. Nor is the Jefferson Bible. But I do think the Deist philosophy of founding fathers is relevant for reasons explained in my answer. Dec 9, 2018 at 1:44
  • Suggested reading: How to answer. Dec 9, 2018 at 1:52
  • 1
    @Burt_Harris I'm using those to evidence their positions as deists and contrast their deism with Christianity. I don't have upvote privileges yet but I'd upvote your answer if I did. I just worry that when people hear "deist" they think "deity -ist" like "believes in god" and don't realize the full implications. I often see the mistaken claim that America is founded on "judeo-christian values" and so it is easy to make a mistake and assume that the founders and the puritans were of shared values and traditions. Dec 9, 2018 at 3:30
  • 1
    Understood, its just that you started by criticizing the question leading to misunderstanding when in fact the question had made no assumptions about Christianity vs Deism. Comments about assumptions made in answers belong in comments on those answers, not as a separate answer critiquing the question for "mistakes" that were in fact not made in it. Dec 9, 2018 at 7:22
  • @magnus.orion, incorrect argument. Truth disproves "Thomas Jefferson was quite hostile to established Christianity" Nope. YES, he made a parallel version of the four bible "gospels", containing Jesus' teachings and actions. So? If he was "quite hostile", then why did: * He preside, as president of the senate, over congress declaring the capitol as a church (Dec 4, 1800)? (Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1853) ) * 'Constantly attended church' (on horseback!), and called himself a Christian bit.ly/capitol-church-jefferson
    – MrPete
    Jan 19, 2023 at 1:11

In American history there are numerous accounts of religious people commiting murder in the name of God. Take for example the Salem Witch Trials and the Puritan's belief that natural forces were demonic.

Other incidents of such behavior:

  1. Mountain Meadows massacre
  2. Bloody Monday

...and many more but I am not allowed to post more than two links.

  • 1
    Was Bloody Mondar really about religion? (as opposed to pure politics where 2 political factions happened to align with different religions?)
    – user4012
    Oct 8, 2014 at 18:04
  • @DVK In my opinion, what you are implying is absolutely, 100% spot on correct. However, to this day, even in Northern Ireland these problems are generally considered a Catholic vs Protestant thing by the very same people who choose sides.
    – mikev
    Oct 8, 2014 at 18:35
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    Also, so far you identified 2 (Salem Witch trials which was a reasonably unique event; and anti-Mormon sentiment, which also only elicited actual killing on rare occasions). That is VERY VERY hard to call "religions that killed in the name of religion?" unless you have an agenda
    – user4012
    Oct 8, 2014 at 18:54
  • 1
    you're extrapolating VERY VERY specific and rare events on the whole of religion (yes, there was anti-mormon centiment. No, there was no major religious war where Mormons were killed in the name of religion aside from a couple of isolated incidents.
    – user4012
    Oct 8, 2014 at 19:26
  • 2
    @DA. - You haven't traveled to Middle East recently have you? (or visited the sack of Jerusalem)
    – user4012
    Oct 10, 2014 at 0:54

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