Separation of church and state in colonial New England

Posted on August 26, 2020. Filed under: 17th century America, Civil Rights, Politics, religion | Tags: , , , , , , |

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.

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A Holiday Gift: Religious Tolerance

Posted on December 22, 2015. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Here’s a sharp video from Dr. Larry Schweikart, University of Dayton, on the PragerU site that explains the origins of religious tolerance in the English colonies of North America, and the astounding breakthrough that was the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He even gets the Puritans right! Since WordPress won’t let us import the video, we just have to give you the link:

Religious Tolerance: Made in America

Enjoy, and enjoy watching a short video rather than reading reams of text from the HP crew. That’s our gift to you!

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The Puritans and Freedom of Religion

Posted on October 27, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , |

There’s a kind of sucker punch in many presentations of American history, wherein we are told that the Puritans left England for America because they had suffered religious persecution—and then the Puritans persecuted other religions here! The hypocrisy is apparently meant to shame Americans about their founding.

Let’s explore this situation. Yes, the Puritans did leave England because they had been persecuted for their religion.  For the whole story go to parts 1 and 2 of the Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant Work Ethic. Here, the story in a nutshell is that the Puritans were members of the official state church of England, the Anglican Church, but they felt it needed to be reformed and restructured (purified) to be more Protestant. For their loud and continual protests and complaints against the Anglican Church, the church hierarchy, and even the English monarch and Parliament, the Puritans were disliked and marginalized throughout the late 1500s and early 1600s. When Charles I took the throne and in 1630 made William Laud, a pro-Catholic, anti-Puritan church leader the Archbishop of Canterbury (and thus basically in charge of the Anglican Church), the bulk of England’s Puritan population fled England. Laud harried them out, putting a price on the heads of more outspoken and powerful Puritan ministers, making it a criminal offense to attend Puritan worship services, and generally doing his best to squash all opposition to the Anglican Church.

So in 1630 the Puritans headed to what is now New England. There was already a small outpost of Puritan settlers in Salem (now part of Massachusetts) to welcome the group headed by John Winthrop. But Winthrop’s group soon headed to what is now Boston, and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

So why were the Puritans in New England? Because they had been forced out of England. They were forced out because they wanted to reform human civilization through religion, to wipe out poverty, and to make a heaven on Earth in which everyone was free to discover God’s will for themselves. But these were not generalized goals; that is, the Puritans did not believe that any or every religion, diligently applied, could result in such a paradise. They believed that only their reformed version of Anglican Christianity could put such goals within reach.

They were not completely crazy for thinking so. In the world they knew, the world of European and especially English Christianity, the Puritans were the only group calling for an end to poverty, the only group demanding that all people, even women, be taught how to read (so they could read the Bible, God’s word), and the only group that required its members to work hard to improve the world on a person-by-person basis. Puritans were supposed to live exemplary lives in every respect so that anyone they dealt with—their customers, friends, even strangers they met—would see God through them, and be inspired to seek God themselves.

Thus the Puritans might be excused for thinking their religion was the only one that could save the world. In their limited experience of the world, theirs was the most actively reformist faith. They left England to preserve that faith, so that Puritanism would not be diluted or destroyed. They left England to create a place where Puritanism could thrive, and eventually grow so strong that when England was destroyed by God for its apostasy, the fugitive Puritans would be left to re-establish Christian civilization.

Now we see why the Puritans did not encourage religious diversity or practice religious tolerance in New England. It was not because they were terrible, hateful people. It was because they were on a mission, and they feared God’s wrath upon themselves if they failed in that mission to create a holy nation on Earth. They left England to establish a Puritan state where Puritan Anglicanism—Congregationalism—could be practiced. They did not leave England to establish a state where people were free to practice whatever religion they wanted. It is incorrect to say the Puritans wanted freedom of religion; they did not. They wanted to be able to practice their own religion freely. Those are two very different things, and we should not misrepresent the Puritans by claiming they believed in freedom of religion.

The Puritans in New England broadcast their intentions, making it as clear as they possibly could that people of other faiths were not welcome there. They made no secret of their hostility to outside religious presence. When people of other faiths insisted on entering New England, the Puritans boiled over with anger.

The question we ask ourselves at this point is, why did people of other faiths go to New England when they knew the situation there? Because they were just as zealous and single-minded about their own faiths as the Puritans. We tend to think of the Quakers who were persecuted in New England as gentle innocents who did no wrong. But Quakers in the 17th century were the most radical Protestant sect in England, maybe even in Europe. They entered Puritan towns banging pots and pans, screaming and singing, entering meeting-houses during Puritan worship and yelling to the congregation to hear their words. Sometimes Quakers stripped themselves naked in the center of town to call attention to the need to strip oneself of earthly attachments. They got the derisive nickname “Quakers” because they would go into convulsive fits during their worship services.

The Quakers, then, were a radical and alarming people who went into New England with the express mission to destroy the Puritan way and introduce their own religious beliefs. They were just as feverishly devoted to Quakerism as the Puritans were fanatically devoted to Puritanism. What we have are two radical groups with zero tolerance for other beliefs who were, once the Quakers entered New England, trapped in the same space. Persecution of the Quakers  followed, in Boston as it did in London.

It is only if we think that the 18th-century beliefs about religious tolerance enshrined in our Constitution came directly from the 17th century, then, that we can be dismayed to find no freedom of religion in Puritan New England. Almost no one in 17th-century Europe believed in freedom of religion or freedom of conscience. The Quakers did not, the Puritans did not. Almost all sects believed they alone had the truth of God and that they alone should exist. It took 150 years of religious co-existence in America to get to the point where freedom of religion could be put forward as a basic human right.

Instead of shaking our heads over the religious intolerance of the Puritans, we are better served by understanding the passions, fears, hopes and dreams that competed for the soul of Europe from the grey shores of the New World.

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Thomas Hobbes in America

Posted on August 27, 2008. Filed under: The Founders | Tags: , , , , |

I was rereading Christopher Hill’s often-intriguing book Puritanism and Revolution and came to his chapter on Hobbes. It seems relevant to the discussion of religion in the American Founding.
 
Hobbes and Locke were contemporaries in adulthood, though Hobbes’ writings predate Locke’s. Locke certainly was influenced by Hobbes’ work. Both men address the question of how to reconcile natural rights, government authority, and religion.
 
For Hobbes, there was no such thing as natural rights. The idea of a “state of nature” is, as Hill puts it, “a logical abstraction rather than a piece of historical description.” For Hobbes, humans without government were humans in chaos; the “natural state” was one of want, war,  and ignorance.
 
Therefore, when nonconformists in Hobbes’ day said that a government that did not respect natural law or natural rights could be legitimately overthrown, or at least not obeyed, he responded that this was nonsense. It is society, organized into government, it is government itself that creates all rights and laws, and so there is no way to use some imaginary pre-civilized era as a control over or yardstick for the legitimacy of a human government.
 
When it is the state itself that creates all rights, then the only way to decide what is just is to have the state decide. This seems like a harsh “might makes right” philosophy, but if you follow it through, it leads to both separation of church and state and religious tolerance. Because politics/government are purely and completely human-made, then religious belief or doctrine has no place in it. We created it, we run it, we make its rules, and we are the final authority over it.  Because God is not at all human-made, politics has no place in religion. Humans cannot have authority over God, and therefore humans cannot say which religion is the true religion, and have no authority to persecute anyone for their religious beliefs.
 
In a democracy, then, the people make their own government and give it the right to decide what is just, and pursue religion privately with no government interference.
 
Locke, of course, did not agree with Hobbes that there was no natural law, and no natural rights. And it was Locke who appealed to the American Founders, for his philosophy grants our government a sort of spiritual authority, wrapping our human laws and decisions in the mantle of obeying a kind of cosmic justice. This is what makes it easy for people to rename natural law as God’s law, specifially Christianity. We say, our laws are rational products of the Enlightenment, but they are also tapping into God’s law, the world God made for humans before we started making governments. We’re living how God meant us to live.
 
I think the Founders generally took the view that in creating our democracy they were fulfilling not only their human potential, but restoring cosmic justice.
 
But they remained a little Hobbesian, too. I think the Founders understood government to be a human creation which is best understood in human terms. And they knew that the authority to decide what was democratic, what provided liberty and justice for all, came from themselves and the citizens of the United States. If it did not, what would be the point? How would the U.S. government be new if it claimed strictly godly justification, just as every government in history had done beforehand?
 
No, the Founders did not threaten dissenters with God’s fury. They took a Hobbesian view that the government they and the people were creating would live or die on human merits, and in doing so raised the bar for what human law, what government, should accomplish.
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