Yesterday’s post addressed the First Amendment in the Constitution of the United States.

The post showed that, in terms of religion, the Founding Fathers envisaged it much differently than we do today. The numerous court cases from the Warren Court in the 1960s to the present have gradually redefined the relationship between church and state.

The First Amendment developed after a prolonged period of colonial and state churches — mandated denominations — which led to religious persecution and discrimination.

Furthermore, the Founding Fathers gave the United States Article VI of the Constitution which forbids a religious test for holding public office:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Ultimately, these provisions and others protect the Church from undue federal influence.

Religion in the colonies

FacingHistory.org has an excellent, detailed article on religious practice in American colonies.

Excerpts and a summary follow, emphases mine.

Not surprisingly, given that the 17th century was a time when Christianity was taken seriously, eight of the 13 colonial governments mandated religious practice, sometimes within a designated Protestant denomination. Taxes collected went to the colonial church for upkeep and clergymen’s salaries.

Refusal to participate was problematic:

in those colonies dissenters who sought to practice or proselytize a different version of Christianity or a non-Christian faith were sometimes persecuted.

Even though the colonies were overwhelmingly Protestant, there was sometimes a lack of Christian unity. Naturally, colonists favoured their own denominations, just as Christians do today. Baptists resented having to attend and pay for the Congregational Church. Even Anglicans were split between mainstream members and the Puritans, a theological conflict which began in England and was transplanted to the colonies.

Between 1680 and 1760, the two main colonial denominations were Anglicanism and Congregationalism. The latter was a Puritan offshoot, which, until recently, held to Calvinistic doctrines.

However, after this period, more colonists arriving aligned themselves with other denominations:

such as the Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians and many more, sometimes referred to as “Dissenters.”  In communities where one existing faith was dominant, new congregations were often seen as unfaithful troublemakers who were upsetting the social order.

ProCon.org has an excellent list of the colonial denominations and the adherence expected by colonists.

Virginia was Anglican and affiliated with the Church of England. In 1677, Governor Argall decreed:

Every Person should go to church, Sundays and Holidays, or lye Neck and Heels that Night, and be a Slave to the Colony the following Week; for the second Offence, he should be a Slave for a Month; and for the third, a Year and a Day.

Rhode Island was the opposite, supporting freedom of worship. The 1663 Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations stated:

That our royall will and pleasure is, that noe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion, and doe not actually disturb the civill peace of our sayd colony; but that all and everye person and persons may, from tyme to tyme, and at all tymes hereafter, freelye and fullye have and enjoye his and theire owne judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments…

It is interesting that the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams (c.1603-1683), was a Puritan minister who was banished from Massachusetts for supporting freedom of religion.

Even where colonial decrees allowed freedom of religion, their taxes often went to support the colony’s designated denomination. This is why the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut, Congregationalist, wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1801.

Colonial penalties and controversies

The religious atmosphere, even among like-minded souls, was somewhat heated in colonial America.

Massachusetts

Returning to FacingHistory.org, in Massachusetts, a Congregationalist colony, a man complained in 1632 that:

fellows which keepe hogges all weeke preach on the Sabboth.

Massachusetts was the location of the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and 1693. Although clergy frowned on deviating from Holy Scripture:

alchemy and other magical practices were not altogether divorced from Christianity in the minds of many “natural philosophers” (the precursors of scientists), who sometimes thought of them as experiments that could unlock the secrets of Scripture.

The Witch Trials were short-lived, however, religious conformity was expected in the years that followed. As late as 1768, a Boston resident wrote that:

the selectmen of Boston at last were able to “parade the street and oblige everyone to go to Church . . . on pain of being put in Stokes or otherwise confined”

Laws were instituted that forbade certain activities on a Sunday:

travel, drinking, gambling, or blood sports …

There were no church courts for punishing religious misdeeds. The civil courts handled that, sometimes harshly. In Massachusetts:

the civil government dealt harshly with religious dissenters, exiling the likes of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams for their outspoken criticism of Puritanism, and whipping Baptists or cropping the ears of Quakers for their determined efforts to proselytize. Official persecution reached its peak between 1659 and 1661, when Massachusetts Bay’s Puritan magistrates h[anged] four Quaker missionaries.

Virginia

Virginia, as stated above, expected everyone to attend an Anglican service on Sunday.

In the mid-18th century, more Baptists moved there and were violently suppressed:

the colonial Anglican elite responded to their presence with force. Baptist preachers were frequently arrested. Mobs physically attacked members of the sect, breaking up prayer meetings and sometimes beating participants. As a result, the 1760s and 1770s witnessed a rise in discontent and discord within the colony (some argue that Virginian dissenters suffered some of the worst persecutions in antebellum America).9

England ends corporal punishment of dissenters

In 1682, England put an end to corporal punishment of dissenters in New England.

The English Parliament’s Toleration Act of 1689 granted religious freedom. It:

gave Quakers and several other denominations the right to build churches and to conduct public worship in the colonies. While dissenters continued to endure discrimination and financial penalties well into the eighteenth century, those who did not challenge the authority of the Puritans directly were left unmolested and were not legally punished for their “heretical” beliefs.

Elsewhere

Some colonies, like Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Delaware, were either founded on the basis of religious tolerance (the first two) or had no dominant denomination from the outset:

In the Carolinas, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, Anglicans never made up a majority, in contrast to Virginia.  With few limits on the influx of new colonists, Anglican citizens in those colonies needed to accept, however grudgingly, ethnically diverse groups of Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and a variety of German Pietists.

Catholics, of course, were universally looked down upon. Cecilius Calvert founded Maryland in 1634 as a safe haven for them. However, in 1649, Puritans took over the colony’s assembly. Fortunately, wise heads prevailed and mandatory taxes went to both Catholic and Puritan churches.

Something similar happened in New York, which began as a Dutch colony in 1614. The prevailing denomination was the Dutch Reformed Church. The English took over in 1664, and granted religious tolerance. However, they allowed the Dutch Reformed Church to retain their properties. The New York Charter of Liberties and Privileges of 1683 granted official acceptance of all Christians. In 1697, the English founded Trinity Church (Wall Street) by Royal Charter. The funds Trinity received from the Crown helped them to become a wealthy church.

Later developments

As time passed and more colonists arrived from different denominations, Anglican and Congregationalist colonies had to relax their religious laws.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the Founding Fathers wanted to ensure religious freedom in the newly-independent United States. For this, they relied on contemporary philosophers such as John Locke for input.

The Procon.org page shows that, by the time the colonies became states in the mid- to late-18th century, their new state constitutions granted freedom of worship.

However, where mandated colonial churches had existed, taxation continued to go to their support until the early 19th century. Even where there was no designated denomination — and even with the United States Constitution in force — there were still statutes for a religious test.

Connecticut stopped its support of the Congregational Church in 1818, 17 years after the Danbury Baptists complained to Thomas Jefferson.

Virginia repealed their religious test, along with the taxation requirement, in 1830.

Massachusetts ceased supporting the Congregational Church in 1833.

However, North Carolina did not eliminate religious references and requirements until 1875.  New Hampshire deleted its requirement that senators be Protestant as late as 1877.

Today, we wonder why this took so long and whether these states were in violation of the US Constitution. Conservapedia explains that the First Amendment was for federal not state use:

The first clause of the first amendments states “Congress shall make no law..”; demonstrating that it is a restriction on laws that the Congress of the United States can pass. Nowhere does the constitution restrict State and Local Legislatures from passing any laws respecting an establishment of religion.

However, when the colonies became states, they granted freedom of worship, although, as we see, they lagged behind when it came to repealing mandatory religious tax and removing religious restrictions on legislators.

In 1940, the Supreme Court made the First Amendment applicable to the states. Current judicial interpretation:

holds that the Fourteenth Amendment extended its scope from Congress to the state legislatures, since freedom of religion can be classified as one of the “privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States” mentioned therein.

Conclusion

From the founding of the 13 colonies to the present, America has had close links to Christianity.

It is only in recent years — starting in the 1960s — that secularists have been denying the nation’s history in this regard.

Since then, Supreme Court decisions have confused the situation. Although most have ruled against Christianity — most famously in school prayers — sometimes they rule in favour. Prayers in state legislature led by a publicly funded chaplain are constitutional and Christian groups may use state school property and town halls for religious purposes after hours.

However, the cases will continue to proliferate as the number of secularists continues to grow.

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