SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE:
A HISTORIC BOILING POT
The melting pot that America’s Christian founders guarded never boiled like this…Their historic wall between government and religion kept the peace among fractured Protestant sects, helping the United States build shared schools and a common culture early in the 1790s.*
Did religious freedom exist as Europeans settled on North American soil, in what was to become the United States of America?
In my background research for my novel Intertwined Love I’ve discovered that the melting pot on American soil has, from the time of the founding settlers, been boiling “just like this”
The Province Charter of 1691 provided that, in Massachusetts, there be “a liberty of Conscience allowed in the Worshipp of God to all Christians Except Papists.”
- Note: Papist is a (usually disparaging) term or an anti-Catholic slur, referring to the Roman Catholic Church, its teachings, practices, or adherents.)
Barely a year later the basic principle of religious establishment was laid down by statute:
- “Able, learned, orthodox” ministers “of good conversation,” approved by a majority of the church-going voters in a “town or place” were to be supported by taxes levied upon all of the inhabitants…For towns which were delinquent in providing such a minister, the Court of General Sessions for the county could “take effectual care to procure and settle a minister qualified as aforesaid, and order the charge thereof and of such minister’s maintenance to be levied on the inhabitants of such town.”
Each Massachusetts “town or place” had an established church or congregation that represented the beliefs of a majority of community residents—generally Calvinist doctrine and congregational polity—which, however variant, had enough in common to occupy the broad theological center which was Congregationalism. This church was legally entitled to receive special favors from the government, including financial and other support.
Intrinsically some religious freedom existed. Dissenters could participate in a different church. However, by doing so he paid twice.
Thereafter, Massachusetts’ laws and her spirit of religious intolerance spilled into the Province of Maine. In Maine’s oldest town, Kittery (incorporated in 1647) the Congregationalists were the legally recognized as ‘the Standing Order.’
Congregationalists viewed Baptists as religious fanatics and regarded their doctrines and influences as deleterious to the welfare of both religion and society.
When Kittery Baptists united with the Baptist church in Boston, Massachusetts, Kittery’s town minister and its magistrate ‘awakened prejudice and hatred against these conscientious disciples’ and assessed fines for participation in Baptist events. The Baptist leader was adjudged delinquent for using rash and inconsiderate words tending to blasphemy. For this he was
- fined ten pounds
- forbidden to keep any private exercise of his faith in his own home or elsewhere on the Lord’s day
- enjoined for the future to observe the public worship of God in ‘our’ public assemblies upon the Lord’s day, according to the laws established in this province, upon such penalties as the law requires upon such neglect in the premises…
The Baptists experienced violence, fines, and imprisonments, a persecution that disheartened them to such a degree that the church was dissolved and its members ‘scattered like sheep upon the mountains,’ their leader and some of his sheep relocating to South Carolina.
- With respect to religion in Charleston three terms of communion were fixed, to believe
- that there is a God
- that he is to be worshipped
- that it is lawful, and the duty of every man when called upon by those in authority, to bear witness to the truth
On 20 Feb 1762 the Massachusetts House of Representatives granted to “David Marsh, Enoch Bartlet, and three hundred and fifty-seven others their Associates … as Tenants in common, six Townships of Land, each to consist of the Quantity of six miles square, of the unappropriated Lands of this Province, between the River Penobscot and the River St, Croix;…” The stipulations included “that they build in each Township a suitable Meeting house for the public Worship of God, and Settle a Learned Protestant Minister, and make Provision for his comfortable and honourable Support” and “that in each Township there be reserved and appropriated four whole Rights or Shares in the Division of the Same … for the following Purposes, viz:
- one for the first settled or ordained Minister …
- one for the Use of the Minister
- one to and for the use of Harvard College in Cambridge
- one for the use of Schools …”
By a resolve of 1788, the Lincoln and Cumberland committee was given responsibility for sales in York County: added the requirement that 4 lots in each township surveyed be reserved for public use. One lot was to be reserved for the first settled minister, one for the use of the church, one for a public school, and the fourth was to be disposed of by the General Court at a later date.*****
New England wasn’t the only region where religious issues boiled.
Owing to the large influx of foreigners, especially German and Swiss, it was deemed advisable to compel all non-British immigrants in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to take an Oath of Allegiance beginning in 1727. The Oaths of Fidelity and Abjuration were begun in 1729. The first specifically required the oath-taker to disavow any ties to other monarchs and embrace the British ruler; and the second to abjure, or renounce, any previous connection to the Pope.***
All males over sixteen years of age were obliged to take this oath and declaration, as soon as possible after their arrival—some being marched to the Court House, although in some instances they were qualified at the official residence of the magistrate.
At the start of the Revolution the influence of the Bible was deep and profound. The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew their Bible well.
Most Bibles came from England prior to the Revolution. With the war started Americans experienced a shortage of Bibles. A committee of the newly-constituted Continental Congress reported “the use of the Bible is so universal and its importance so great that…the committee recommends that Congress will order the Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles…” from Holland, Scotland and elsewhere “into the parts of the States of the Union.” Congress gave this order on September 11, 1777. The President of the Continental Congress was Elias Boudinot, the chief founder of the American Bible Society and its first President.
After the Revolutionary War Americans were free to practice any religion. However, some tenets still survived. The Northwest Territory act provided for the surveying of the entire territory, which was to be laid out in townships. Most townships were six miles long and six miles wide. The typical township would be further divided into 36 one-square mile sections (640 acres). One section of each township was to be used for the building of a church, a school, and a town meeting hall. The other 35 sections would be opened to homesteading and become privately owned.****
And what did George Washington, the Father of our Nation, state in his retirement speech on September 19, 1796?
- ‘It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible. Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, our religion and morality are the indispensable supporters. Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that our national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.’
The United States is now the most religiously diverse nation in the world. I think we are now challenged to live up to this ideal of religious freedom in ways that we never have been in our history. The pressures of dealing with such diversity are just tremendous. —Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington. **
A History of the Baptists Volume II, CHAPTER VI-The Baptists of Maine and South Carolina
[MA State Archives 117:779, 117:781; also Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Massachusetts Bay, Vol 17 pg 171-172].
***** Eastern Lands Papers Records, 1717-1860: http://www.sec.state.ma.us/arc/arcpdf/eastland.pdf