One Nation under Whose God?
(A Bit of Early History)
Amish, Buddhists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Hindus, Latter Day Saints, Lutherans, Methodists, Muslims, Presbyterians, Quakers, Sikhs, Universalists…you could fill a page with all the diverse religious and spiritual groups in the United States. Most Americans identify as Christians of various denominations such as Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians.
Whatever the religious group, its participants are free to adhere to and practice their doctrines unless they endanger the public welfare such as people who believe in “taking up serpents.” Such believers follow what they say are biblical instructions that “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them.” But authorities have outlawed the use of rattlesnakes and copperheads in religious services because, obviously, the reptiles are poisonous and a danger to the health and safety of citizens.
This extreme example aside, religious liberty is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as is well known. Yet that was not the case before the founding of the nation. Early American colonists and settlers of the 1600s had different ideas about religious liberty. When Europeans first settled in North America (what was then called the New World), they sought religious freedom, but they did not allow that freedom for all.
In the first English colony of Virginia, founders set up an official church patterned after England’s Anglican Church that later became known as the Protestant Episcopal, or simply Episcopal Church. Colonial laws in Virginia required that people attend church, and pay taxes to support it. There were harsh penalties for those who did not abide by church teachings. If some colonists disagreed or wanted to live by their chosen beliefs, they were banned from the colony or forced out.
Not all people who emigrated from England wanted to maintain such close ties with the Anglican Church. Dissenters tried to establish colonies in the Netherlands and then in North America. These Puritans founded a colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts. At first they allowed a fair amount of religious liberty, but the colony struggled to survive and eventually merged with and was influenced by its larger neighbor the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their residents were establishing what they called the shining “city upon a hill,” that is, a nation governed by biblical codes. The leaders of the Massachusetts Colony strictly enforced church rules and harassed and drove out Catholics and members of such Protestant groups as Baptists and Quakers. Certainly non-conformists like Thomas Morton were not welcome.
Thomas Morton was a bit of a scoundrel and free-wheeling character who came to America from England in 1624. He was well educated and a free-thinker. He sailed with his buddy Captain Richard Wollaston and thirty indentured servants. Morton and the others settled in the Massachusetts colony and then Morton began the business of trading with Native Americans. But Morton and Wollaston had little in common with the Puritans, so they established a neighboring colony at a site that is now Quincy, Massachusetts. As he observed his new home, Morton wrote that he “found two sorts of people in New England: the Christians and the Infidels [Indians]. The Infidels he found ‘most full of humanity, and more friendly than the other.’”
In 1626, Morton and Wollaston parted company (to put it politely). Wollaston was selling indentured servants to Virginian plantation slave owners. The rest of the indentured servants rebelled and Morton threatened to have Wollaston arrested. With Morton overseeing, the settlers once again set up another colony called Marymount.
Morton continued his fur-trading with Native Americans, offering liquor and guns for furs. Morton and his trading partners also celebrated ancient British games that included rowdy dances around a Maypole. On May 1, 1627, a traditional day for English celebrations, Morton planned “a pagan MayDay party to help woo Indian wives for his young bachelors.” He wrote that there would be “Revels and merriment after the old English custome” and the colonists “prepared to sett up a Maypole upon the festivall day . . . and therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beare . . . to be spent, with other good cheare, for all commers of that day,”
Needless to say with all the “good cheare,” the partying colonists and Indians became boisterous. They drank and danced around the Maypole for days. All of the raucousness infuriated the Puritans, who quickly took action. They sent in troops to “capture” Morton and his friends, who did not resist. He was jailed, tried, and exiled, making his way back to England with the help of his Indian friends. In England, he wrote and published numerous satirical materials disparaging the dour lives of Puritans.
Except for Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, all of the original thirteen colonies set up state churches. But as an increasing number of settlers with diverse religious backgrounds arrived in North America, conditions slowly changed. Although religious leaders in the thirteen colonies attempted to maintain communities allowing religious liberty, they also argued that the colonies should be able to make their own laws and run their own government, free of English rule. Without civil liberties, religious freedom was not possible, they contended. Their advocacy for independence foreshadowed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Amen to that.
(To be continued.)