Friday, September 10, 2010

Religious Intolerance

I just finished reading A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New-England, for the Worshipping of God written in 1661 by Edward Burrough. The introduction by Paul Royster gives an overview of the events in Colonial Massachusetts:

"From 1656 through 1661, the Massachusetts Bay Colony experienced an “invasion” of Quaker missionaries, who were not deterred by the increasingly severe punishments enacted and inflicted by the colonial authorities. In October 1659, two (William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson) were hanged at Boston; in June 1660, Mary Dyar (or Dyer) became the third; in March 1661, William Leddra became the fourth (and last) to suffer capital punishment or “martyrdom” for their Quaker beliefs."

How 'Christian' was it for the authorities in both Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony to whip, jail, fine, and kill innocent men and women because their beliefs were not the same as the state approved religion? After reading about the religious intolerance of colonial government I had to find out if the United States of America was truly established as a 'Christian' nation.

A great set of articles over on Helium tackles the question of the Founding Fathers' original intent. One in particular by Michael Ellement is well worth the read... Non-Religious Founding of the US: Exposing America's Christian Foundation Myth. While it is true that the colonies were set up, in varying degrees, as religious settlements and that most of the colonial settlers were Christians, Michael brings out one important distinction, that the founding of the Colonies was not the founding our our Nation.

It is an undeniable truth that religion and faith played an important role in seventeenth and eighteenth century America, but by the time our nation's founding documents were being drafted a growing understanding of the importance of religious tolerance was emerging. In the Declaration of Independence, July 1776, God is only mentioned three times:

"...the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God..."


"...that they are endowed by their Creator..."


"...with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence..."

The Articles of Confederation, the first document forming the government of the United States of America on November 15, 1777, only mentions God twice:

"And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said articles of confederation and perpetual union."


" the Year of our Lord..."

Thomas Jefferson drafted The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1779, just three years after he wrote the Declaration of Independence and eight years before the convening of the Constitutional Convention. Although this document was drafted for the state of Virginia, it gives us insight to the Founder's intent and the framework for our religious freedom later enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

"...That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

It soon became clear that the Articles of Confederation was not a strong enough document for the new nation, so the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. The Convention gave us our nation's Constitution on September 17, 1787. God is not mentioned in the Constitution except for the common practice of expressing the date as " the Year of our Lord...", which was used in both religious and secular contexts.

The only religious provision in the Constitution is the prohibition of the use of any religious tests for holding office in the United States:

" religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

The first ten amendments, commonly known as the Bill of Rights, were all ratified at once on December 15, 1791. The First Amendment to the Constitution includes the "Establishment Clause" preventing the government from any involvement in religion and the "Free Exercise Clause" providing our cherished freedom of religion:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

We are a nation that is neither uniformly, nor exclusively, "Christian". What we do have is a nation where the freedom to believe and worship how one chooses is guaranteed without the involvement of the government, and I for one would not want it any other way!

"I do only what the Lord God requires of me. Do not mourn my passing, for I am filled with happiness. I am already in Heaven." ~Mary Dyer, Martyred for her faith June 1660

Peace, Love, and Light!
Kevin (Cloud)

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