Church, State and Religious Freedom, Roger Greeley

Let me begin by presenting and destroying a number of very pervasive and pernicious myths, long regarded by millions as guideposts in American life, as bright stars in the constellation of our highest national ideals:

  1. Most of the people who left the Old World to come to the New World did so to enjoy religious freedom;
  2. The Founding Fathers were God-fearing good Christian men;
  3. Religious freedom is that which reflects the will of the majority, democratically expressed and codified law;
  4. Religious toleration is to be cultivated and practiced by all.

The passenger list of the early boats to reach Jamestown and Plymouth were filled with dissenters, malcontents, troublemakers, criminals, social pariahs, and not a few religious fanatics. It is true that in 1689, England put into effect the Act of Religious Toleration, but this should not be confused with a charter for religious freedom. Under its provisions, Catholics and Unitarians (to name just two) were excluded and therefore unable legally to practice their respective disciplines. Well, then, didn’t these folks board ship for the New World and for religious freedom? The answer is an emphatic “No!” Most of the religious dissidents came to the New World to escape British tyranny by creating a tyranny of their own! Once settled and in a majority, they would visit upon dissenters in their midst the same punitive treatment once experienced in England. In other words, they would do unto others as had been done unto them. Yes, here and there, there were remarkable exceptions, particularly in the persons of Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson.  Williams, an individualistic Baptist preacher and thinker, established a haven for religious heretics in Providence, Rhode Island.  Most of the colonies, however, had a colonial church, generally Anglican or another Protestant denomination, but you should know that the overwhelming majority of immigrants were completely unchurched. According to the most reliable estimates, no more than 4% of the American population was churched in 1789. So much for the happy memories the once-churched heretics brought with them to the New World. The power structure has always seen the value of religion in controlling the masses.  Attempts to establish colonial churches were not always happy, easy experiences.  In Virginia, where a most oppressive and severe colonial church existed, Jefferson and Madison worked a near miracle in securing the Statute for Religious Liberty for the State of Virginia. This accomplishment, indebted as it was to Roger Williams in Rhode Island, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and to Jefferson’s lifelong crusade for a wall of separation between church and state, reflected the emerging power of the rationalists, the deists, and the Unitarians. The practices in Virginia of religious nonconformists were almost as bad as those in England prior to the Act of Religious Toleration there. The actual punishments are little short of barbaric and the practices were widespread. Eventually, cf course, the Jefferson-Madison-Virginia experience would become the national practice with the adoption of the Constitution’s First Amendment in 1791. Frequently overlooked by historians and teachers alike is Madison’s classic statement, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” and attempt To force through taxation the support of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia.  His (Madison’s) reasoning attacked the substantive evils and tyranny of taxing people to support religion.