On this Memorial Day we are reminded once again of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that our nation can remain free. We thank God for those fallen warriors, and for the freedoms that we enjoy today because of them. Among those freedoms is our cherished freedom of religion, which has a unique history here in America.
For most of human history, one’s religion was determined by where one lived. Each region had its associated religion. Social pressures often combined with the power of the state to influence the citizens not to stray to other faiths. This pattern of religious exclusivity ultimately extended to differences in Christian beliefs as well, giving rise to the split-off of various branches of Christianity and the resultant conflicts between them. Until relatively recent times there was no concept of “Freedom of Religion” or of the “Separation of Church and State”.
The colonists came to America for many reasons, including issues of religion. However, most colonists carried with them the old world concept that only one religion could be allowed in one place. Church and State were not separate in their minds. And “Church” meant their particular Christian denomination. Other religions, including other Christian denominations, were often not welcome.
In most of the colonies Church and State were united, and only that form of Christianity which was united with the State was permitted. For example, only Congregational churches were allowed for a long time in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Some Baptists attempted to settle in Massachusetts, but they were not permitted to settle there. Rhode Island was home to the Baptists at first, but later it became the first colony to have a complete separation of Church and State — a novel concept at that time.
The Catholics founded Maryland, and the Quakers started Pennsylvania. Other colonies were pretty much exclusive to the Presbyterians, Swedish Lutherans, or others. The southern colonies, including Virginia, started as Episcopalian. However, by the time of the Revolutionary War the Virginia Bill of Rights said that “religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other”.
Eventually the US constitution was written to include “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Thank God for our Freedom of Religion. God Bless America!