The Jamestown Colony was founded for commercial reasons, not religious. Its first spiritual leader was Robert Hunt, a vicar in the Church of England who had been forced to leave his former parish at Old Heathfield due to an adulterous affair with a servant and for “absenteeism and neglect of his congregation”. He was recruited as chaplain for the Jamestown expedition by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and died during the first winter in the new colony.
It was not an easy job to recruit Church of England clergy to shepherd a new flock in America. They were comfortable and well cared for in their parishes in England and saw little opportunity to improve their lot in life by migrating to America. There were no Anglican Bishops in America during the entire colonial period. Churches were governed by the vestrymen of the parish.
From 1624, Virginia law required that all white men worship in the Anglican Church and support its upkeep with their taxes. The gentry in Virginia supported establishment, but did not care for a centralized church authority. Over time, the gentry gained control of parish vestries and county courts blurring the lines between religious and civil authority. Without the presence of Anglican Bishops, the vestrymen became the dominant influence in religious life. They built and repaired the churches, paid the clergy and provided for the needy. Sitting on the courts, they decided cases relating to church attendance and moral issues.
Late in the seventeenth century Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, German Lutherans, Welsh Baptists, and English Quakers began to arrive and settle in the Valley of Virginia. While Virginia had laws against dissenters, they were not widely enforced. Virginians were not irreligious, at the same time they did not have the level of zeal seen in many of the later colonies. For the most part, they tolerated or simply ignored dissenters. Thomas Jefferson describes the disconnect between religious law and reality in his “Notes on the State of Virginia”.
“The first settlers in this country were emigrants from England, of the English church, just at a point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religious of all other persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they shewed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government.” “The poor Quakers were flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning sect. Several acts of the Virginia assembly of 1659, 1662, and 1693, had made it penal in parents to refuse to have their children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful assembling of Quakers; had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring a Quaker into the state; had ordered those already here, and such as should come thereafter, to be imprisoned till they should abjure the country; provided a milder punishment for their first and second return, but death for their third; had inhibited all persons from suffering their meetings in or near their houses, entertaining them individually, or disposing of books which supported their tenets.” If no capital execution took place here, as did in New-England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or spirit of the legislature, as may be inferred from the law itself; but to historical circumstances which have not been handed down to us. The Anglicans retained full possession of the country about a century. Other opinions began then to creep in, and the great care of the government to support their own church, having begotten an equal degree of indolence in its clergy, two-thirds of the people had become dissenters at the commencement of the present revolution. The laws indeed were still oppressive on them, but the spirit of the one party had subsided into moderation, and of the other had risen to a degree of determination which commanded respect. (Emphasis added)
The colony most often cited as the birthplace of religious liberty in America is Rhode Island, founded in 1636 by Roger Williams. Williams was a brilliant but unstable personality. While still in his teens, he mastered the Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Dutch and French languages. While studying at Cambridge, Williams became a Puritan although he took the Holy Orders in the Church of England. After graduating from Cambridge, he became Chaplain to a Puritan Lord. Williams knew of the Puritan plan to migrate to America, but did not take part in the first migration of 1630. Before the end of the year, however, he had changed his mind, deciding that he could not remain in England under the authority of Archbishop William Laud. Before leaving for America in December 1630, he had embraced the separatist position.
On arriving in Boston, Williams was offered the position of assistant minister in the Boston Church (Puritan) which he refused, claiming that it was “an unseparated church”. He also denied the authority of civil magistrates to punish religious offenses such as Sabbath-breaking, idolatry, false worship and blasphemy. By the fall of 1631, Williams had moved to the Plymouth Colony where he became a regular lay preacher and was well received by Governor Bradford and the Pilgrims. However, Williams soon became disenchanted with the Plymouth Church also.
According to Gov. Bradford, Williams fell "into some strange opinions which caused some controversy between the church and him”. In the fall of 1633 Williams turns up as an unofficial assistant to the Rev. Samuel Skelton at the Puritan Church at Salem. He continued to argue for complete separation from the Church of England until, finally in 1635 he was tried by the General Court and convicted of sedition and heresy. An order of banishment was delayed on the condition that Williams would cease his agitation. He continued to stir up trouble however, but when the sheriff came to arrest him, he discovered that Williams had already left the area.
A few months later, Williams and twelve of his friends started a settlement in Narragansett territory calling it “Providence”. He described his new settlement as a haven for those “distressed of conscience”. The settlement was governed by the heads of household, but “only in civil things”. A clear distinction was established between civil authority and church authority. The fundamental tenet of the Providence settlement was “liberty of conscience”. Williams continued to hold church services in his home until 1638. During this time, he came to accept the ideas of the English antipedobaptists and believer’s baptism.
In late 1638, Williams had himself baptized by Ezekiel Holliman. He then baptized Holliman and ten of his friends. This newly baptized group formed what most historians today refer to as the first Baptist Church in America, although there is no evidence Williams had ever been associated with any Baptist Church other than the one he started and named himself. Since neither the baptisms nor the organizing of the Providence Church was authorized by an existing Baptist Church, “Successionist Baptists” reject it as a legitimate Baptist Church. They point instead to the Baptist Church established by John Clark at Portsmouth, Rhode Island in 1638, (later moved to Newport R. I.) as the first Baptist Church of record in America. Baptist historians, prior to the mid-twentieth century, such as Charles Spurgeon, J.R. Graves and Jesse Mercer generally held this view.
Baptists are the only main-stream Christian Churches whose origin cannot be traced back to a particular date in history or attributed to a particular preacher by a consensus of historians. Due to universal persecution and martyrdom of Baptists, by both Catholics and post-reformation Protestants, their history has been lost in antiquity. Historians generally intermingle Baptist history with that of a multitude of Anabaptist groups during the “dark ages” and early reformation period.
Other colonies practiced religious toleration to varying degrees, however Rhode Island was the first and only one to practice genuine religious freedom. John Clark obtained a new charter for Rhode Island from King Charles II on July 8, 1663. Clark himself drafted the charter explicitly guaranteeing religious freedom, "...to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained…, with a full liberty in religious concernments."
As indicated by Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia, religious tolerance in the other colonies was a practical matter, not a legal one. The numbers of different Christian sects were so numerous that enforcement of the laws against dissenters simply could not be carried out without major social upheavals. A visitor to New York, for example, would be shocked to find so many different religious beliefs within such a small place. By the late sixteen hundreds New York was home to Anglicans, Catholics, “singing Quakers”, “ranting Quakers”, pro- and anti-Sabbatarian Baptists, Moravians, French Huguenots, Congregationalists, Jews, German Lutherans and several other miscellaneous groups.
As time proceeded, population density increased, and the numbers of different types of Christian churches multiplied, the attitudes of the people toward those of a different faith mellowed. This change of attitude is best described by J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur in his Letters from an American Farmer written in 1782.
“…If they are peaceable subjects, and are industrious, what is it to their neighbours how and in what manner they think fit to address their prayers to the Supreme Being? ….Let us suppose you and I to be travelling; we observe that in this house, to the right, lives a Catholic, who prays to God as he has been taught, and believes in transubstantion; he works and raises wheat, he has a large family of children, all hale and robust; his belief, his prayers offend nobody. About one mile farther on the same road, his next neighbor may be a good honest plodding German Lutheran, who addresses himself to the same God, the God of all, agreeably to the modes he has been educated in, and believes in consubstantiation; by so doing he scandalizes nobody; he also works in his fields, embellishes the earth, clears swamps, &c. What has the world to do with his Lutheran principles? He persecutes nobody, and nobody persecutes him, he visits his neighbours, and his neighbours visit him. Next to him lives a seceder, the most enthusiastic of all sectaries; his zeal is hot and fiery, but separated as he is from others of the same complexion, he has no congregation of his own to resort to, where he might cabal and mingle religious pride with worldly obstinacy. He likewise raises good crops, his house is handsomely painted, and his orchard is one of the fairest in the neighbourhood. How does it concern the welfare of the country, or of the province at large, what this man's religious sentiments are, or really whether he has any at all? He is a good farmer, he is a sober, peaceable, good citizen: William Penn himself would not wish for more. This is the visible character, the invisible one is only guessed at, and is nobody's business. Next again lives a Low Dutchman, who implicitly believes the rules laid down by the synod of Dort. He conceives no other idea of a clergyman than that of an hired man; if he does his work well he will pay him the stipulated sum; if not he will dismiss him, and do without his sermons, and let his church be shut up for years. But notwithstanding this coarse idea, you will find his house and farm to be the neatest in all the country; and you will judge by his waggon and fat horses, that he thinks more of the affairs of this world than of those of the next. He is sober and laborious, therefore he is all he ought to be as to the affairs of this life; as for those of the next, he must trust to the great Creator….”
Philosophy of Evil Socialism In America By Jerry McDaniel Chapter 6 Religion In the Colonies
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Philosophy of Evil Socialism in America
"The struggle of History is not between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; it is between government and the governed."