The Christian Colonies

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.

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13 Responses to “The Christian Colonies”

  1. June 6th, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    John McKay says:

    An inconvenient fact ignored by those who point to the theocratic origin of many of the colonies as an argument for considering the US a Christian nation is that it doesn’t matter what the colonies might or might not have been. The colonies were royal governments. The American revolutionary generation, the founding fathers, overthrew every one of those governments. The colonial charters have no value in the debate. No document from before 1787 has any standing for deciding constitutional issues. The constitution of Imperial Prussia has no relevance for constitutional law in the Federal Republic of Germany and the Plymouth Compact has no relevance for constitutional law in the United States of America.

  2. June 6th, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    John, that’s true, but some of the better read proponents of the “Christian nation” view will point out that some of the states kept their charters as their state constitutions. Rhode Island did for more than 50 years after the U.S. Constitution was in place. That matters less now, since we recognize the Bill of Rights as binding on the states as well, but the charters did continue to have an effect for quite some time after independence.

  3. June 8th, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Elipson says:

    Thank you for the history lesson! :)

  4. June 8th, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    John McKay says:

    At best, that evidence would only prove that those original states were founded as Christian territories. The charter of Rhode Island has no authority in Texas, Minnesota, Washington or any other state except Rhode Island. Not that I expect such an argument to hold water with the dominionist crowd.

    Last year, I read all of the state constitutions to see what they said about religion. For anyone who’s curious, I blogged the results here: http://johnmckay.blogspot.com/2009/06/religion-in-states.html

  5. June 8th, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    sbh says:

    The next point, the entire separation of Church and State, was equally or even more the product of necessity and not of wisdom, though the consequences are so beneficent, that they may in after times be attributed to inspiration. In all former ages and nations, the contrary had been practised so invariably, that it was considered indispensable. Idolaters, Theocratists, Pagans, Christians and Mahometans all linked Church and State in the closest connexion. Men have ever believed that religion is the basis of morality and order, without which government cannot exist; and out of the United States there are few men who dare think, that religion can exist unless entwined with political administration. The Bramin, the Rabbi, the Mufti, the Catholic and the Protestant, all believe that their religion and the State would be both overthrown, if they were not closely combined. This habitual belief is so universal and so strong, that even now, the most liberal men in other countries who are the advocates of toleration, start at the idea of that absolute equality, which is occasioned by the government obstructing itself from all further patronage of religion, than what exists in this republic, namely, the guarantee of the laws for all personal and corporate rights. [William Tudor, Gebel Teir (1829), pp.43-4]

    This extraordinary and unprecedented principle of excluding the government from all meddling with religious affairs has been adopted in all the state constitutions, though there were formerly some of these states which had a strong bias to one sect or another. The consequences have been equally favorable to the government and to religion, and especially to the latter. In no country is religion more venerated and more practised than in that, where it neither controls, nor is controlled by the government. So salutary, so obvious are its effects, that the time will come when not only all honest politicians, but all honest priests, will be in favor of the system of entire separation of ecclesiastical and political concerns; and it will only be in countries where they have a mutual interest in sustaining abuses, that the clergy will wish to be dependent on the throne. The example which this republic has given to the world on this subject, is one of the greatest improvements in the science of government. [pp. 45-46]

  6. June 8th, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    Heather says:

    Just from a practical standpoint – if you consider religion practical – the separation of church and state has allowed this country to be one of, if not THE MOST religious country in the western world. Our earliest ancestors to establish here fled England which imposed a state religion (and then fought wars over which religion, new or old, to enforce and which king therefore to crown). These days religious practice is pretty casual there compared to here. So all proponents of having a religious state because religion is a wonderful thing might think about whether it’s actually counterproductive.

    It seems if each is free to chose whether and how to worship, the majority choice will be, whatever else, whatever the trappings, TO worship. The fact that some chose atheism makes hardly a dent in the numbers, whether your opinion holds that a good or bad thing. Here, they can at least do it openly.

  7. June 8th, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    Raven says:

    Be it noted that the *American* Baptists are still very strong believers in the freedom of religion.

    The *Southern* Baptists (who split from them over the question of slavery) should not be taken as representative of their attitudes in other topics, either.

  8. June 8th, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Raven says:

    (Though the Southern Baptists did, much much later, repent on the matter of slavery.)

  9. June 9th, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Greg Laden says:

    The fact that some chose atheism makes hardly a dent in the numbers, whether your opinion holds that a good or bad thing. Here, they can at least do it openly.

    That is a fairly misleading statement. There are more atheists/agnostics/nones than there are homosexuals, Jews, Muslims, and a whole bunch of other groups that have a greater-than-dent sized voice. The voice of atheists is attenuated for a number of reasons (many probably self inflicted) but mainly because it is non-religious. Religious voices get privilege in our society, which is of course wrong.

  10. June 9th, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Raven, saying that a large number of the people who think the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and should be recognized as one have this history of which they should be aware isn’t the same thing as saying everyone with this history thinks that. No more than noting that the Catholics who feel this way have lessons to learn from Maryland or the Lutherans from Pennsylvania or the Pentecostals from looking at which land their movement arose in.

  11. June 10th, 2010 at 6:51 am

    Lynn Wilhelm says:

    I’d add to Greg’s statement @9 that atheists are not seen as and are not really a “group”. We don’t generally have places we visit to commune weekly as religious folk do.
    I’d actually say that until I found more atheists online I felt quite isolated. Perhaps the internet has helped us find our voice. I think we keep getting louder.

  12. July 19th, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Randy Murray says:

    Excellent article.

    My wife and I recently discovered that we both descend from the same Mayflower ancestor, Stephen Hopkins. I was extremely pleased to learn that he was on of the “Others” and most definitely NOT a Pilgrim.

  13. October 14th, 2010 at 7:06 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    For additional context on the state-sponsored religious persecution that made the separation of church necessary, I recommend this article at the Smithsonian:

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Americas-True-History-of-Religious-Tolerance.html

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