Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America

Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America

by Michael I. Meyerson
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Yale University Press


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Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America

The debate over the framers’ concept of freedom of religion has become heated and divisive. This scrupulously researched book sets aside the half-truths, omissions, and partisan arguments, and instead focuses on the actual writings and actions of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and others. Legal scholar Michael I. Meyerson investigates how the framers of the Constitution envisioned religious freedom and how they intended it to operate in the new republic.

Endowed by Our Creator shows that the framers understood that the American government should not acknowledge religion in a way that favors any particular creed or denomination. Nevertheless, the framers believed that religion could instill virtue and help to unify a diverse nation. They created a spiritual public vocabulary, one that could communicate to all—including agnostics and atheists—that they were valued members of the political community. Through their writings and their decisions, the framers affirmed that respect for religious differences is a fundamental American value. Now it is for us, Meyerson concludes, to determine whether religion will be used to alienate and divide or to inspire and unify our religiously diverse nation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300166323
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 06/05/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Michael I. Meyerson is Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law and Piper & Marbury Faculty Fellow, University of Baltimore School of Law. He is the author of Liberty's Blueprint, a history of the writing of the Federalist Papers. He lives in Ellicott City, MD.

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Endowed by Our Creator

The Birth of Religious Freedom in America
By Michael I. Meyerson


Copyright © 2012 Michael I. Meyerson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18349-8

Chapter One

Before the Beginning

* * *

The creation of an American understanding of religious freedom began with the widely varied experiences of the thirteen colonies. The colonies were devoutly religious, but they were each, in varying degrees, narrowly sectarian and excluded from full legal, political, and social equality any denomination that did not meet their particular definition of a "true religion." At no time during America's founding was there a "Christian" colony, state, or nation, if the word "Christian" is understood to include Catholics and numerous other disfavored denominations.

In his 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling, the British author Henry Fielding illustrates both the narrow-mindedness of the time and the danger for modern readers who mechanically apply modern meanings to historic texts. Fielding's character, Parson Thwackum, declares: "When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion, and not only the Christian religion but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England." This conflating of the specific with the general enabled the dominant religious group in each colony to cloak its restricted perspective in the guise of universalism.

For example, the first charter for the colony of Virginia, in 1606, described one goal of the settlement as the "propagating of Christian Religion" to the "Infidels and Savages, living in those Parts." This was not understood as an open invitation to diverse interpretations of the "Christian Religion." In an ordinance passed a few months after the charter was written, James I instructed the settlers to train all Virginia residents "in true religion and virtue." To ensure that there was no confusion as to what "true religion" meant, the instructions added that settlers were "to employ their utmost care to advance all things appertaining to the Order and Administration of Divine Service according to the form and discipline of the Church of England."

The Second Charter of Virginia, signed May 23, 1609, made clear that the phrase "true religion" excluded Catholics. The charter declared that since a primary goal for the colony was to convert people "unto the true Worship of God and Christian Religion, ... [it] would be loath that any Person should be permitted to pass that Wee suspected to affect the Superstition of the Chh of Rome."

In 1610, a harsh set of laws known today as "Dale's Code" went into effect. The penalty for blasphemy included inserting a "bodkin," that is, an awl, through the tongue of the offender. Subsequent Virginia laws mandated that ministers "conforme themselves in all thinges according to the cannons of the church of England." Dissenting clerics were exiled: "All nonconformists upon notice of them shall be compelled to depart the collony with all conveniencie." Catholic priests were given even less time to leave the colony, with the law declaring it illegal for "any popish priest ... to remain above five days after warning given."

In the north, those who settled in Plymouth and Massachusetts had fled England because they believed that the Church of England itself was too similar to the Catholic Church. The Puritans "wanted to get rid of everything they deemed papist and make the Church of England biblical to its core." They were termed "Puritans" because they wanted to "purify" the Church of England of all vestiges of its Catholic heritage. They were preceded in the New World by a group of 102 Puritans who had given up hope of reforming the Church of England and wanted to separate from it entirely. These separatists, also known as "pilgrims," were the ones who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

For a variety of economic and social reasons, the Plymouth Plantation did not exert a strong influence beyond its borders. But the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which subsumed Plymouth in 1690, became a dominant force in the nation's religious and governmental policy from its founding through the American Revolution and beyond.

Massachusetts was founded by its 1620 charter in order "to advance the enlargement of Christian religion." As in the Virginia charter, "Christian" excluded those suspected of believing in the "Superstition of the Chh of Rome." The Massachusetts Puritans, however, took their religious mandate far more strictly than the Virginians did.

The Massachusetts colony was seen by its founders as a holy mission. When John Winthrop, in transit to the new colony aboard the Arbella in 1630, declared that they would be "as a city upon a hill," he meant that the rest of the world would watch to see whether they could achieve their goal: "to improve our lives to doe more service to the Lord; the comforte and encrease of the body of Christe, whereof we are members; ... to serve the Lord and worke out our Salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances."

Unlike Virginia, this "city upon a hill" would not be governed by the rules of the Church of England. The Puritans hoped to create a community that had purified its religion of the trappings to which they had long objected. John Cotton, a Puritan minister, explained in 1634 that one of the prime reasons they had crossed the Atlantic was the opportunity to worship according to their precise understanding of the Bible: "It hath been no small inducement to us, to choose rather to remove hither, than to stay there, that we might enjoye the liberty, not of some ordinances of God, but of all and all in purity."

Connecticut was founded on the same strict principles. In 1639, the congregations of the towns of Dorchester, Watertown, and Wethersfield agreed to combine, signing the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. Believing that "the word of God requires that to mayntayne the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent Government established according to God," they agreed to confederate "to mayntayne and presearve the liberty and purity of the gospell of our Lord Jesus which we now professe, as also the disciplyne of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospell is now practised amongst us."

Purity of religion required that those who differed in their views of the word of God be removed from the body politic. In 1637, Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan preacher, was accused of heresy for criticizing local ministers and ordered exiled from Massachusetts. A group that particularly threatened the established religion was the Baptists, who disagreed most notably with the majority's practice of infant baptism, reserving that rite for believing adults only. In 1644, the colony enacted a law requiring that any person who "shall either openly condemn or oppose the baptizing of Infants [be] sentenced to Banishment."

Baptists who refused to leave Massachusetts were treated with particular harshness. In one celebrated case, three Baptists, John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, and John Crandall, were arrested on July 20, 1651, for holding religious services in a private home. They were forced to attend Congregational services, where they further infuriated local officials by refusing to remove their hats. For "despising the ordinances of God among us," they were sentenced to be "well whipt." Each prisoner received thirty strokes with a "three-cord whip" until his blood flowed "in little streams down to the waist to soak into the clothing."

The Quakers, founded in 1647 by George Fox, were as despised as the Baptists. The Quakers' behavior was sometimes deliberately provocative, such as "interrupting church services to testify against false worship or going naked to symbolize the condition of their opponents' spiritual state." The Massachusetts General Court, on October 14, 1656, enacted a law to deal with the "cursed sect of haereticks lately risen up in the world, which are commonly called Quakers." Any person found "to have the haeretical opinions of the said Quakers" was to be fined forty shillings for a first offense, for the second offence four pounds, and "for still offending to be imprisoned till banished." Banished Quakers who returned faced still worse treatment. On September 16, 1658, three Quakers, Christopher Holder, John Copeland, and John Rouse, who had ignored the banishment order, each had an ear cut off by Boston's hangman.

The next month, the Massachusetts General Court expressed its frustration that the "pernicious Sect commonly called Quakers" had "not been deterr'd from their impetuous Attempts to undermine our Peace, and hazard our Ruin." The court decreed that anyone convicted of being "of the sect of the Quakers shall be sentenced to be banished upon pain of death." Shortly thereafter, four Quakers, William Robinson, Marmaduke Stephen, Mary Dyer, and William Leddra, were hanged for "rebelliously returning into this jurisdiction"

After a stern rebuke from England, Massachusetts stopped executing Quakers. Still, the religious leaders felt compelled to defend themselves against charges that they were violating liberty of conscience. John Cotton, the leading Puritan minister of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, drew a distinction between persecution "for conscience rightly informed ... [or] for erroneous and blind conscience." It would certainly be unlawful, he wrote, to persecute those with a "rightly informed" conscience, since that would be as if "Christ himselfe is persecuted." But for those with "erroneous" religious viewpoints, persecution was the only appropriate response, since

the Word of God in such things is so cleare, that hee cannot but bee convinced in Conscience of the dangerous Errour of his way, after once or twice Admonition, wisely and faithfully dispensed. And then if any one persist, it is not out of Conscience, but against his Conscience, ... So that if such a Man after such Admonition shall still, persift in the Errour of his way, and be therefore punished; He is not persecuted for Cause of Conscience, but for sinning against his Owne Conscience.

Nathaniel Ward, a Congregationalist minister in Ipswich, Massachusetts, stated that there was no place in Massachusetts for those whose religious views were sinful and erroneous. Indeed, Ward declared that "he had rather the earth should swallow him up quick [i.e., alive] than he should give a toleration to any opinion against any truth of God." Ward attacked not only those who believe in "false religions" but also those who tolerate them: "He that is willing to tolerate any religion, or discrepant way of religion, besides his own, unless it be in matters merely indifferent, either doubts of his own or is not sincere in it."

Ironically, Massachusetts's intolerance led to the creation of one of the most tolerant colonies, Rhode Island. The leader of this new colony, Roger Williams, was banished from Massachusetts on November 3, 1635. Among his many offenses against the established religion was his advocacy of the view that the Ten Commandments should be seen as consisting of two tables, the first governing people's relationship with God, such as the bans on idolatry and blasphemy, the second involving social interactions, such as the bans on murder and adultery. Williams believed that the government had no rightful authority to exercise control over the purely religious part, preaching that "the magistrate might not punish a breach of the sabbath nor any other offence as it was a breach of the first table."

Williams was one of the first residents of the New World to expound a philosophy of both religious equality and a limited role for government in religious matters. In fact, he articulated the concept of a "wall of separation" more than 150 years before Thomas Jefferson. In 1640, he wrote that initially both Jews and Christians had Edenic churches, separate from the world, but both permitted "a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world," and in response, "God hath ever broke down the wall itself" and "made his garden a wilderness."

Williams's respect for liberty of conscience extended far beyond Protestants; he desired that "no persons, papists, Jews, Turks, or Indians, be disturbed at their worship." His philosophy reflects what I term the religious basis for freedom of religion. Williams strongly disagreed with those with "Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian consciences," yet he stressed that "they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the Word of God." Governmental enforcement of uniformity of religion, he declared, "confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh."

On March 14, 1644, Williams obtained a patent from Charles I permitting him to establish a government in the Providence Plantations (which eventually grew into the colony of Rhode Island). In 1647, the General Assembly enacted its first code of laws. After listing numerous offenses, the code reiterated Williams's view on the separation of government from religion:

These are the laws that concern all men and these are the penalties for the transgression thereof which by common consent are ratified and established throughout the whole colony And otherwise than thus what is herein forbidden, all men may walk as their consciences persuade them every one in the name of his God. And let the saints of the Most High walk in this colony without molestation in the name of Jehovah their God for ever and ever.

In 1663, Williams obtained a second charter, reaffirming Rhode Island's commitment "to hold forth a livlie experiment" that a civil state could flourish with "a full libertie in religious concernements." Accordingly, the charter decreed 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, [who does] not actually disturb the civill peace of our sayd colony."

Despite the sophistication and modernity of Williams's analysis, his writings appear to have faded from public view upon his death in 1683 and to have played no direct role in the formulation of America's concept of religious freedom in the eighteenth century. As the historian Thomas Curry noted, "No library catalogue published in the American colonies listed any of his works." In 1773, Williams's writings were rediscovered by the Massachusetts Baptist preacher Isaac Backus, but still, "principal theorists concerning religious liberty such as Locke, Madison and Jefferson proceeded without apparent influence from Williams's ideas."

Rhode Island eventually pulled back from Williams's ideals. A law that was printed in 1716 barred both Catholics and Jews from voting in the colony. It stated that "all men professing Christianity ... who acknowledge and are obedient to the civil magistrates, though of different judgments in religious affairs, Roman Catholics only excepted, shall be admitted freemen" with the right to participate in elections.

Another colony founded on principles of religious tolerance would have a much greater influence on American history, though it too would eventually retreat from its founder's vision. William Penn was a Quaker who obtained a charter for what became the Pennsylvania colony in 1681. Penn was a strong believer in religious liberty, declaring that whoever persecuted in the name of religion was "a declared Enemy to God, religion, and the good of human society." Like Roger Williams, Penn believed that governmental intrusions into religious matters "directly invade the Divine Prerogative." He defined liberty of conscience as "the free and uninterrupted exercise of our consciences, in that way of worship, we are most clearly persuaded God requires us to serve him in ... which being matter of Faith, we sin if we omit." To Penn, liberty of conscience included more than mere belief. It also encompassed the "exercise of ourselves in a visible way of worship, upon our believing it to be indispensibly required at our hands, that if we neglect it for fear or favour of any mortal man, we sin, and incur divine wrath."

In 1682, Penn prepared a "Frame of Government" for Pennsylvania, establishing what some have called "the broadest religious liberty in colonial America." Though excluding atheists from its coverage, the law of Pennsylvania protected the rights of followers of all religions, stating that everyone who would "acknowledge the one Almighty and Eternal God ... shall in no ways be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion or practice in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled at any time to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever." This was not total religious equality: all governmental officials and representatives were required to "profess faith in Jesus Christ." The laws also contained prohibitions against "offences against God," including swearing, drunkenness, sodomy, whoredom, stage plays, cards, and dice.

In 1705, Pennsylvania retreated from Penn's idealism and passed a law that barred Catholics as well as Jews from serving in the government. This new law required members of the state assembly to declare that "the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other saint, and the sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous." Despite this discrimination, Pennsylvania stayed true to some of Penn's values. The colony never required oaths and never used public revenue to fund churches and clergy.

The Carolinas also trace their beginning to an influential advocate of religious freedom. Their 1669 Fundamental Constitution was drafted primarily by the English philosopher John Locke. Locke had a tremendous influence on many of the leading thinkers of the American revolutionary period. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, was a student of Locke, using Locke's ideas "freely in formulating his own philosophy of the nature of moral man in society, as reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom."


Excerpted from Endowed by Our Creator by Michael I. Meyerson Copyright © 2012 by Michael I. Meyerson. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Great Seal 1

Chapter l Before the Beginning 14

Chapter 2 A Tolerant, Protestant Nation 43

Chapter 3 The Second American Revolution 94

Chapter 4 "We Have Become a Nation": Drafting the Constitution 128

Chapter 5 Adding the First Amendment 151

Chapter 6 Freedom of Religion in the New Nation 180

Chapter 7 Original Wisdom 236

List of Abbreviations 277

Notes 281

Bibliography 335

Index 359

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