One side of my family is a fairly large extended connection, with plenty of people who have indulged in genealogical research over the last few generations. They have the standard reason–there’s plenty of history, and it’s pretty interesting. I found the whole thing fun for a little while, but I didn’t keep up.
I still think of the family stories, however, whenever someone decides to proclaim that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. The usual arguments against the idea are that the Founding Fathers were, personally, largely deist and Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli. What is less often discussed is how, and why, bringing the colonies together into a single nation required that that nation be specifically non-Christian.
If given the opportunity, I like to take note of the fact that I’m just the latest in a long line of heretics. The English side of my family came to the colonies around the time when one’s status as a heretic–or not–was determined by who was queen and that status was likely to change at any moment. The Scottish side is said to have relocated first to Ireland, then to the colonies, after supporting the wrong king, at a time when that meant the same as being the wrong religion. (As opposed to my husband’s family, who are said to have left the auld sod “over a dispute over the ownership of a horse.”)
And then there’s the story about the U.S. westward migration being helped out by the family becoming unwelcome in one community for being the wrong sort of Quaker. Don’t ask me how that worked. I know Quakers, and I can’t imagine how you’d get them that riled up over differences of doctrine. All I can tell you is that my family may be special that way.
My favorite dead relatives, however, are the ones who were kicked out of the Colony of Massachusetts for being the wrong kind of Puritan, which means, as long as we’re clearing up matters of religious misconception, pure in matters of doctrine, not without sin. They’d come to the colonies, as many had, because they couldn’t practice their brand of religion in a land where the state was the head of the church. What they found (or perhaps helped to found, as the records aren’t very clear) was a colony where the church was the head of the state, just as many would like the situation to be today.
What they found was the colony that would eventually produce the Salem witch trials. Of course, they left before that happened. They left following Anne Hutchinson, who had some minor disagreements on theological matters with those in charge but seems to have been banned from the colony largely for being a successfully uppity woman. She was successful enough that my relatives weren’t the only people who left with her. (Mary Dyer, another of the uppity women banished at this point, later returned to the colony as a Quaker, becoming one of the Boston martyrs.)
The group was persuaded to move to the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations by Roger Williams, one of the founders of the Baptist church in America. The other founder of the American Baptist church was John Clarke, one of those relatives (assuming attribution of parentage is correct, my many, many times great-uncle) who had just been kicked out of Massachusetts.
Yes, the history of the Baptist church in America starts with a flight from religious intolerance. The church of the majority of those who want an American theocracy would never have made it to these shores had the laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony been the law of all the land. And the other colonies of the time weren’t much different.
But…but not Baptist doesn’t mean not Christian, so the colonies were still Christian, right? Well, not exactly. Here is where the story of Rhode Island gets interesting. It was there that the “wall of separation” between state and church was born, and its father was none other than Roger Williams, co-founder of the American Baptists. He insisted on freedom of religious conscience and expression for the colony. Nor did he limit his tolerance to Christians. Rhode Island was one of the few colonies with a good track record of treating the indigenous peoples as people, rather than heathens who were clearly not part of God’s plan for this new world.
The colony was run on majority vote, but votes were only permitted on secular matters. This limitation was reaffirmed multiple times, and John Clarke had it incorporated in the colony’s charter, asking:
…it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted) to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained, and that among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments…
The request was granted by Charles II:
…because some of the people and inhabitants of the same colony cannot, in their private opinions, conform to the public exercise of religion, according to the liturgy, forms and ceremonies of the Church of England, or take or subscribe the oaths and articles made and established in that behalf; and for that the same, by reason of the remote distances of those places, will (as we hope) be no breach of the unity and uniformity established in this nation: Have therefore thought fit, and do hereby publish, grant, ordain and declare, that our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned…
No other colony matched Rhode Island’s stance on religious freedom. Pennsylvania came close, but the rights were only granted to monotheists. Maryland started as a place where Catholics could freely live and worship, but they ended up being persecuted there. Jews were allowed to settle in New York and New Jersey, but the history of their rights there is spotty. So how is it that the U.S. came to adopt Rhode Island’s incredibly liberal model of religious rights instead of some compromise?
The answer is that full religious freedom is the compromise between the competing rights of the followers of all the different sects that have fled to our land. Anything short of that is choosing sides, as the people of the time well knew, as the Baptists of the time well knew.
Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty–that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals–that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions–that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors; But, sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter together with the law made coincident therewith, were adopted as the basis of our government, at the time of our revolution; and such had been our laws and usages, and such still are; that religion is considered as the first object of legislation; and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.
The “sir” in question was President Thomas Jefferson, and the Danbury Baptists wrote to him as a religious minority concerned that their country’s new Constitution and even its Bill of Rights did nothing to protect them from the persecution as long as their state was still free to impose religion from above (the idea that the states couldn’t infringe on the rights in the Bill came later).
Jefferson’s response to the Danbury Baptists is famous for the statements that “he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions” and invocation of the “wall of separation.” However, it is his response to yet more Baptists, these in Virginia, that most clearly draws the connection to Rhode Island’s charter.
We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.
And thus it is that, while many of the original colonies were founded as Christian colonies, not all of them were. More importantly, when the time came to model our country’s religious character on all of the colonial experiments that had taken place, we chose the experiment that had worked.
We chose to not become a Christian nation.