Separation of church and state in colonial New England

Re-running our longstanding post on Roger Williams’ experiment in Rhode Island in 1663, to help us keep our bearings as the eternal minority of Americans demand more of a role for religion in our government.


The first-ever separation of church and state!

…well, at least in the western world. It happened in Rhode Island, in 1663.

This was the year that the colony received its royal patent. In 1643, Roger Williams had received a charter from Parliament, during the interregnum. When Charles II came to the throne, Rhode Island received a new patent from the king. It is a remarkable document. There’s no room to get into all the details here, but pick up Early New England, A Covenanted Society by David Weir for a terrific in-depth discussion.

In the 1663 patent, for the first time the English king/government acknowledged not only that there were religious conflicts in New England, but that differences in religious opinion were unavoidable–and even valid. Here is how the charter describes the people who left Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Connecticut colonies for Rhode Island:

…some of those our subjects not being able to bear, in these remote parties, their different apprehensions in religious concernments, and inn pursuance of the aforesaid ends, did once again leave their desirable stations and habitations, and with excessive labour and travel, hazard and charge, did transplant themselves into the midst of the Indian natives…

Here, for the first time, the crown acknowledges that the religious beliefs of a remnant of its people are truly heartfelt, and real. These are not seditious traitorous rabble-rousers, but people who left their desirable stations in life and their homes for the excessive labor and hazards of the wilderness. The king will justify and honor those beliefs and actions with this patent.

With religious diversity up-front as the founding cause of the Rhode Islanders, the charter goes on to allow the people of Rhode Island to travel safely into other colonies where their views are unwelcome, and, most importantly, the freedom to set up a society that rejects the state religion of England itself:

[A] most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments; and true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles will give the best and greatest security to sovereignty, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyalty.

This is truly remarkable. It is indeed the first time we can think of in the west that a government “[legally] separated the civil magistracy from civil religion and an established state church. We should note that civil religion is not the same thing as the established state church. The state church is an institution with records, buildings, financial dealings, and personnel; civil religion is something more amorphous, and can be described as a cluster of ideas that can be sustained by the state church (or by the state itself) and that form the often submerged foundations of societal life.” [Weir 53]

In granting the charter, the crown recognized that in Rhode Island, civil religion was the antithesis of the English state religion, and was not even uniform itself–many religions were tolerated in Rhode Island, and each contributed to the cluster of ideas that created the civil religion there. The crown also saw that maybe people who are allowed to live according to their deepest religious beliefs would be the most loyal citizens, as they would be grateful to the king for granting them that freedom.

The big news here is that it is no longer treason to challenge the Anglican church. Religious freedom is not heresy (so long, of course, as one’s religion is still Christian), or political treason, or anything but a private, personal matter.

What’s unusual is that this great religious freedom was granted in the Americas at the same time the crown was clamping down hard on religious freedom in England itself. The laws of the Clarendon Code maintained uniformity and orthodoxy. The Corporation Act of 1661 required all town officials to be Anglicans. The 1662 Act of Uniformity required the clergy in England to use only the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Conventicle Act of 1664 forbid groups of five or more people holding dissenting religious views to gather together. And the Five Mile Act of 1665 made it illegal for a dissenting minister to live within five miles of a town unless he had taken the Oath of Allegiance, which was unlikely. These measures sent more English Puritans to America.

So why did the crown decide to grant religious freedoms in the Americas that it was actively stamping out in England? Perhaps the answer lies in the distance between them. We know that Charles II, leaning more and more towards Catholicism, and later converting on his deathbed, hoped to create more religious tolerance in England. But Parliament, wary of another religious convulsion, took away the king’s power to make religious law altogether, and embarked on its coercion of uniformity. Events in the small and still financially unimportant colonies in New England were not as pressing to Parliament, trying to keep things under control at home after the Restoration.

But a precedent was set in New England by the Rhode Island royal charter. Massachusetts Bay colonists would never accept people of different religious beliefs to live amongst them, but they did trade with Rhode Islanders, hold markets together, and allow them to travel through and stay overnight in MBC. Gradually MBC, with its natural, un-coerced uniformity, came to be seen as the anomaly–even by its own people! And generations of Americans grew up not only expecting religious diversity to be tolerated, but, crucially, expecting civil religion, not state religion, to be the order of the day.

Therefore it was no stretch 100 years later to set up a government in which religion was important but not codified in law. Americans were used to this kind of separation of church and state, and comfortable with the primacy of civil religion over state religion. Belatedly, in the late 20th century, attempts were made to open up the public to the idea of state religion, but it will likely be an uphill battle to convince Americans to accept this 17th-century idea.

Why the Puritans persecuted Quakers

It seems simple enough: the Puritans believed Quakers were heretics. In fact, anyone who was not an Anglican was a heretic, including Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Antinomians, Quakers, Ranters… in short, anyone who was not Anglican.

Heretics were seen as blasphemers who put barriers in the way of salvation; they were also considered traitors to their country because they did not belong to the official state religion. This was true throughout Europe in the century following the Protestant Reformation: whatever religion the king chose became the official state religion of his country, and all other religions or sects were made illegal. In fact, the Puritans had left England because they had been considered heretics there, and had been persecuted by the government. Technically, they were not heretics because they did not leave the official Church of England (the Anglican Church), but their demands for big changes to that church made them outsiders. It was enough to get the anti-Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, to launch a campaign of persecution against them.

So when Quakers showed up in Boston in the 1650s, it’s no surprise they were persecuted. Puritan Congregationalism was the official—and only—religion of New England. Like every other state they knew of in Europe, the Puritans enforced a state religion that it was treason to oppose. But it wasn’t just about their religion. The persecution of Quakers was also part of the Puritans’ determination to rule themselves, independent of England.

The Puritans who had remained in England during the Great Migration to America of the 1630s drifted apart from their New England brethren. They were more inclined to allow toleration of other professions of Christian faith. The impossibility of reforming, or purifying, the Anglican Church in England was slowly rejected in favor of the much more doable task of simply confirming England as a Protestant nation by allowing any and all Protestants to worship relatively freely. The English Puritans also supported presbyterianism, a system in which the state governs the church and appoints a hierarchy to oversee all churches.

To the New England Puritans, both toleration and presbyterianism were unacceptable. They had spent painstaking years establishing a system of church government called the New England Way that was based on the independence and power of the individual congregation. The state in Massachusetts did not appoint clergy, nor was there one over-arching body that regulated churches. Each church was a sovereign unit. And only one church was tolerated in Massachusetts: the Puritan, or Congregational church (which was, to them, the purified Anglican church in America).

Worried that the English government would try to force its new rules of toleration and presbyterianism on them, the Puritans of Massachusetts made preparations to fight for their independence. They elected their own governor and General Court (a combined legislature and judiciary). They built many forts to protect their harbor and drilled their militia men regularly. And they continued to persecute Quakers, who, determined to bring their version of the Gospel to New England, continued to trespass into Boston despite the harsh and often cruel punishments they knew they would receive.

Those Quakers were not meek and mild innocents who just wanted to talk. They were as righteous a group of zealots as most Puritans, and when they entered a Massachusetts town they tried to wreak maximum havoc: bursting into church services, yelling in the streets, banging pots and pans together, and even stripping off their clothes (to show their lack of attachment to worldly things). The Puritans reacted with vehement rejection, and submitted Quakers who would not heed the warnings to leave and never return to terrible punishments. Boring holes through their tongues was just one of these.

The Quakers had no one to turn to for help until 1660, when the monarchy in England was restored, and Charles II came to the throne. One of his first acts as king was to send a letter to the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (the most powerful New England colony) ordering the persecutions of Quakers to stop. According to the “King’s Missive,” any Quaker accused of breaking the law in Massachusetts should be sent unharmed to England for trial.

Charles II issued his order for two reasons. First, he was a Catholic sympathizer, and Quakers and Catholics were about the only groups who found absolutely no acceptance in England. If Charles could win tolerance for Quakers, perhaps he could win eventual tolerance for Catholics. Second, he cast a dark eye on Massachusetts’ independence. Disgruntled ex-colonists who left New England to return home told Charles the Puritans were rebels. It didn’t help that two of the judges who had condemned his father, Charles I, to death had fled to New Haven and received a hero’s welcome there.

The new king put Massachusetts in a bind: if they stopped persecuting Quakers, and sent them to England for trial, that lessened the authority of their locally elected General Court. If they gave up the authority to prosecute Quakers, what other bit of their independence would they have to give up next? It was a slippery slope leading to direct English rule. But on the other hand, if they did not stop persecuting Quakers, they would be in violation of the King’s law, traitors, and would be immediately occupied by English soldiers and forced to accept a royal governor (rather than their own elected governor). Massachusetts made its choice: they would stave off English rule as long as possible rather than call down instant English rule on themselves. Slowly the persecution of Quakers came to an end.

They would win many small battles with the king and maintain their independence until 1691, when Massachusetts’ charter was revoked and the powerful colony came at last under direct rule from England. By that time, toleration was the rule even in New England, and Quakers were no longer a dangerous and radical sect but commonplace members of society. But resentment of English rule did not die out amongst New Englanders; less than 100 years later, the descendants of the Puritans would buck off English rule in America for good.

(For more on the Puritans and Quakers, their differences, and their battles, see Puritans v. Quakers in the battle for our sympathies.)