As is well known, Christmas Day (today) commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ and is a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. This religious celebration prompted me to begin posts, which today and in the future will be chapters from a book I have written about the Separation of American government and religion. Historians, religious scholars, and others will be familiar with much of this information. Nevertheless, many “everyday folks” seldom study the historical and religious issues surrounding the separation of church and state. So I’m beginning with a portion of Chapter 1 (to be continued) with other chapters of my book to follow.
Chapter 1: What Is Religious Liberty?
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 (75 percent) identify as Christians of various denominations such as Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, according to Gallup polls. Whatever the religious group, its participants are free to adhere to and practice their beliefs, unless they endanger the public welfare. For example, congregants of a church in Kentucky believed in “taking up serpents,” claiming they were following biblical instructions that said “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them.” But authorities 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, which was adopted in 1791. It says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people to peacefully assemble and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.” This means that unlike some other countries that support a state or national religion, the U.S. government cannot sanction or favor one religion over another. The amendment protects not only religious liberty but also people’s right to express themselves without being intimidated by the government.
Yet that was not the case before the founding of the nation and its Constitution. 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 the state church of England. The King of England appointed church officials and Parliament (the legislature) set laws mandating religious doctrine and how people should worship. Called the Anglican Church, it 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 teaching. If some colonists disagreed or wanted 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. While in their homeland, some groups had completely separated themselves from the Church of England and became known as separatists. Most separatists believed that they should live by biblical laws, not those decreed by a king and a state church. When England’s King James I threatened to force the separatists from the land unless they accepted the Church of England, dissenters tried to establish colonies in the Netherlands and then in the “New World.” These Pilgrims—literally travelers—sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 from England to found the Plymouth Colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
At first the Pilgrims allowed a fair amount of religious liberty in their colony. But the colony struggled to survive and eventually merged with and was influenced by its larger neighbor The Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was founded by Puritans, another English group of religious dissenters.
Puritans had efficiently set about to create a shining “city upon a hill,” that is, a nation governed by biblical codes. Rules covered not only church attendance but also clothing, the conduct of businesses, the education of children, and permissible types of recreation. Only members of the established religion—the Congregational Church—were allowed to vote in elections and membership in the church was limited to those whose beliefs and life styles conformed to church doctrines. In short, the Puritans believed that there should be close ties between religious and social practices and that the government should accommodate itself to the church, or the will of God.
The leaders of the Massachusetts Bay 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 (1576-1647) were not welcome.
(To be continued)