Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



Historians’ traditional narrative regarding religious freedom in the colonial period and early republic focuses on Protestants and sometimes Catholics to the exclusion of other religious groups; the literature also emphasizes the legal dimensions of freedom at the expense of its cultural manifestations. This study, conversely, demonstrates that Jews, the only white non-Christian minority group in early Pennsylvania, experienced freedom far differently than its legality can adequately explain. Jews, moreover, reshaped religious freedom to include religious groups beyond Protestant Christians alone. But such grassroots transformations were neither quick nor easy. Like most of the Anglo-American world, William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” excluded Jewish émigrés and other non-Protestants from citizenship and full participation in civil society. Jews, though, played active, not passive, roles in redrawing the boundaries around freedom. Jews participated in the secular marketplace, enlightenment culture, and newspaper politics, which normalized Jews and Judaism in public life and forged important relationships between Jews and economic and political patrons of cultural and political authority. Although Jews contended with prejudices, their activities in the public square and relationships with patrons granted them enough influence among enlightened elites to demand wider parameters for their public religious expressions and political participation. After about 1800, Jews enjoyed full religious freedom, cultural integration, and citizenship, but waves of nineteenth-century Jewish migrations revived dormant anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic sentiments. Despite pervasive prejudice that sometimes negated their statuses in civil society, Jews utilized cultural institutions to refashion their reputations, honor, and respectability in the eyes of their Protestant neighbors. As activists, not victims, Jews sat in the vanguard of the cultural transformations that made a meaningful religious pluralism in antebellum culture a reality.



Committee Chair

Foster, Gaines