Philadelphia’s long-standing encouragement of religious freedom is rooted in the religious commitment of William Penn, Pennsylvania’s founder. In 1681 Penn, a Quaker, founded Pennsylvania as a haven for religious diversity in the colonies. “The king of the country where I live has given unto me a great province,” he wrote to the Lenape Nation in 1681, “but I desire to enjoy it with your friends, else what would the great God say to us, who has made us not to devour and destroy one another, but live soberly and kindly together in the world?” The First and Second Continental Congresses were also held in the city between 1774 and 1789. Pennsylvania’s history of free religious practice heavily influenced the development of the United States Constitution, ratified there in 1787.
Founded in 1682, Philadelphia is the birthplace of America’s Quaker community, which has held meetings in the city since 1694. In 1792, nearly a century later, Congregation Mikveh Israel was built. Today, it remains the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the United States and has become known as “The Synagogue of the American Revolution” because its leaders signed revolutionary protests against the Stamp Act. Today, there are over eighty-four Jewish synagogues and havurot in the city, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives and the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia. The city is also home to the National Museum of American Jewish History and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, known for its unique programming that brings emerging Jewish and Muslim leaders together for dialogue.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church, America’s first Black Protestant denomination, was founded in Philadelphia in 1816. Today, 43 percent of the city’s population is African American. Notable among the city’s religious sites is Philadelphia Masjid, the city’s first African American mosque, and Le Peristyle Haitian Sanctuary, a Haitian church that has been led by civil rights leaders since the 1950s.
Since the 1980s, waves of Asian, African, and Arab immigrants have made their mark on the historically Irish, Polish, and Russian neighborhoods of Greater Philly. The 1988 construction of Vraj Hindu Temple in nearby Schuylkill Haven, PA, historically known for its coal mining, is but one example of the city’s changing religious landscape. Today, an annual Sikh Parade that highlights cooperation among the Philadelphia’s several Sikh gurdwaras is yet another example. The celebration of the Filipino festival of Sinulog is now a part of the local Catholic community’s calendar and Latino immigrants, currently the fastest growing demographic in the city, have prompted the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to establish an office specifically to serve the Hispanic Catholic community.
Interfaith initiatives in Philadelphia are as diverse as the communities who support them. In addition to social services and multifaith hospital chaplaincy, several of these initiatives take place on campuses across the city, including Lutheran Theological Seminary’s Institute for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue. Since 2004, the Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation has given Philadelphians a way to publically demonstrate their desire to promote cooperation: the grassroots initiative draws between 500 and 1,000 participants each year. The Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia offers several initiatives for youth, religious leaders, and women. Their annual “Dare to Understand Award” acknowledges the efforts of individuals who exemplify interfaith leadership.
In 2013, a former synagogue at the corner of Limekiln Pike and Washington Avenue in the Oak Lane neighborhood was purchased by a Muslim community. The center was first built in 1947 to house Temple Sinai. It was sold in the 1970s to West Oak Lane Church of God. Today, Masjidullah, Inc., the property’s new owner, hopes it will become a “city-wide masjid” that will promote “the unity of the Muslim community” in addition to interfaith partnerships, according to an interview with NBC10 Philadelphia. Leaders from Temple Sinai and West Oak Lane Church of God welcome the growing Muslim community. A member of the church’s board of trustees told the imam: “When I look across the room and see who’s buying the building, I’m glad it’s in your hands.”
For over three centuries Philadelphia—the “city of brotherly love”—has welcomed new neighbors, and today thrives in America’s new multireligious reality.