Part 1: The Colonies and States Themselves (this posting)
Part 2: The First Four Presidents and Benjamin Franklin ( a separate posting)
Listen to the entire sermon here.
In public discourse and private conversations, I hear people bandy about opinions like, “we were founded as a Christian country” to justify Christmas trees in front of City Hall and prayers at the beginning of each legislative season or “a Judeo-Christian country” to warrant the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses. On the other hand, we also proclaim a heritage of “separation of church and state” and point out that our national Constitution is a wholly secular document, even more so than many state constitutions. How do we reconcile the two?
How religious were our Founding Fathers? How religious did they want our national or state institutions to be? Those are two separate questions, and I’ll take them in reverse order, first talking about the religious context of the colonies, and then give some quotes and context for each of our first four presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, along with Ben Franklin.
The first point to note is that, of course the government was founded by Christians --the immigrants came from Europe, not Timbuktu. More than Christian, though, our state and national governments were founded by Protestants. 99% of the immigrants were Protestant.
As for “Judeo-Christian founding", though, this was no homogenious "kumbaya" Protestantism. The dominant Protestant denominations of the time, Puritans in the north and Anglicans in the south, vigorously and sometimes violently restricted the rights of Catholics and Jews and Protestants they did not recognize as legitimate denominations, like the Quakers, Baptists, Universalists, as well as those who professed no religion at all. Catholics and Jews and non-theists or non-Trinitarians were refused the right to public office, to vote, and in some places, to own real estate or businesses for more than a century in 11/13 colonies and early states.
Virginia, for a while, had a law that it would execute any Jesuit!
Baptist and Universalist ministers were not granted licenses in many colonies and states which meant that the weddings they performed were not legally valid. The widows could not inherit and the children were illegitimate. Many of the early faithful who were not Anglican or Puritan were beaten, imprisoned, banished, and executed in both northern and southern colonies. Did you ever hear this in 11th grade history? Me either.
That is the sad answer to the first point.
The second point to make is that just as we say that “all politics is local”, certainly all religion was too. The immigrants arrived on little boats in groups of regional and religious affiliations. They settled together and cast glances of doubt or derision toward other settlers, elsewhere.
The southern states were settled as English trading ventures that got charters from the Crown, so Virginians, Carolinians, and Georgians were overwhelmingly Anglican.
The New England states, except for Rhode Island were settled by Puritans. Have you ever wondered what denominations descended from them? It was the Congregationalists. Today, that denomination is considered a bastion of liberal Christianity, but it certainly wasn’t then! Salem, of the infamous witch trials, was Congregationalist.
The most liberal states, religiously, were Rhode Island, PA, NY, and MD. You may remember from American history that RI was founded by a man who was banished from MA for heresy, Roger Williams. He became Baptist, a religion that grew rapidly in the US, and urged toleration for Catholics and Jews, as well as other Protestant beliefs, a radical idea. (By the way: at its founding, Rhode Island really was just one of the islands of that now larger state).
PA was established by Quakers, and since that denomination is inherently pluralistic, because it believes that one encounters God through one’s own heart, and not through external creeds or sacraments, it was in Philadelphia, the largest city on the eastern seaboard (and the second largest English speaking city in the world, after London), that you would encounter more churches for other denominations than any other place. Many people, even at the time, attributed part of the city’s commercial success to its broad religious toleration.
NY, which at the time included NJ and DE, was settled by the Dutch, not the English. You probably recall that New York was originally New Amsterdam. The "old" Amsterdam was THE international trading center of the 17th c, with broad religious toleration for its investors, merchants, and seamen. The leaders in the Netherlands imposed this same expectation on its NY civic leaders, requiring that the colony accept Catholics and Jews as residents and statesmen. This lapsed once the Netherlands relinquished this colony to the English.
Maryland was established as a haven for Catholics by Lord Baltimore. He, too, required toleration of others, like Protestants, but that good deed was the colony’s own undoing. The population swelled with Protestant heretics evicted from other places, and when their percentage exceeded that of the Catholics, they changed the laws to disenfranchise the very people who had welcomed them!
This patchwork quilt of religious regionalism meant that if you lived anywhere except Philadelphia, NYC or Newport, you probably did not know people with other religious views but you held them in great contempt anyway! Yankee churches had names like The Community Church or First Church of Boston. There was no need to differentiate it by denomination because within those towns, only one denomination was represented. What a lot of Americans forget or don’t know is that 11/13 colonies and states supported these local religious institutions with taxes. These required payments were used to build the buildings and to pay the ministers. There was no separation of church and state in the colonies.
Starting in the 1780s, legislation and law suits, including one by John Murray, called the father of American Universalism, sought to change this. The first state to end tax support for religion was VA because of Jefferson and Madison’s staunch antagonism to tax support of religion. The last was MA, in 1833, 50 years after National Constitution.
Despite having just one church or denomination per town, not everyone belonged even if they wanted to. The priorities of the Puritans, for example, were not to grow the ranks of membership but to keep it pure, hence their name. They were vigorous about purging evil doers from their midst. As a result, even in Salem MA during the time of the witch trials, scholars estimate that only 1/3 of the community belonged to a church. Various scholars estimate that throughout the colonies, only 12-17% of residents belonged to churches, less than today.
The impact of these regional religious monopolies and segregation was that when early representative leaders from each colony assembled to develop the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution, they representing a variety of Protestant denominations, none of which trusted the others and no one of which represented more than 20% of the country’s population. Nobody wanted anyone else’s denomination to become the national church, as was the norm in European countries.
Their regional loyalties contributed to several clever compromises. One was a bicameral congress, which gave small states parity with big ones in the Senate and large state populations the advantage over small states in the House of Representatives. Another is the secularity of the Constitution.
Although any of you who likes mysteries knows that it can be difficult to prove a point by absence rather than presence, the fact is that our National Constitution is wholly secular, without a single reference to God, Providence, the Almighty, Jesus, or Christianity. This aspect is VERY distinctive at a time when most other countries and the US colonies themselves included explicit religious language in their Constitutions. The absense of religious language seems to be a compromise that allows local jurisdictions to retain their religious statements, tax support, and prejudices but to exclude any similar provisions in the national Constitution. (See Part 2 sections on Madison and Washington)
This radical secularity astonished the states when they reviewed it during the ratification process, but ultimately, they approved a document that not only stood out amongst its models but stood the test of time.
What do you conclude from this brief history of colonial religiosity? How much were you taught? How much is new to you? What do you conclude about contemporary comments about the religion our country was founded upon? I encourage you to look into this subject yourselves. You will likely find scholars (and opinion spinners) with different points of view, but I bet that the process of your own inquiries will give you a greater appreciation of what religious faith meant to early Americans and what was meant by those who talked about religious freedom. Perhaps this will enable you to consider anew both your religious faith and your knowledge of pivotal shifts in American history.
(Part 2 is about the religiosity of the first four presidents and Ben Franklin)
(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)