“Congress shall make no law respecting the 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 to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? I think the fact that this is the First Amendment to the US Constitution that our country laid down in the beginning is significant, and it says a lot about what our Founding Fathers were really going through as they struggled to give birth to this republic where “We the People” were intended to rule.
There are so many parts of the First Amendment, which I tend to wrap around myself like a comforting blanket that I could elaborate on right now and granted, would be timely to tackle. But this has been a tough month of political craziness and I decided that I needed to preach something a little off the beaten path this week and delve into history instead of getting belligerent about current events; and the history, religious and otherwise, of our country and our church fascinates me for its richness. We are so lucky to have this long memory as a congregation, and we go back to when our country was struggling with issues of personal freedom and liberty and trying to write it all down into some cohesive compromise.
For nearly two and a half centuries, America has been weaving together and pulling apart matters of “rellijon and pollyticks.” The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or preventing the free exercise thereof…” If measurable religious freedom had been the intent of the Founding Fathers, from our current standpoint, that end might be viewed as accomplished. America today is home to more Hindus than Unitarians, more Muslims than Congregationalists, and more Buddhists than Jews. (I happen to think that’s great, as much as I want our denomination to grow).
But the original intent of religious freedom in America was much narrower than most people understand and it was due to religious dissent that we are able to enjoy religious freedom as we know it. The road to this level religious freedom has been tortuous. To speak of the “Founding Fathers” as if they were a singular, cohesive machine is misleading. They made a revolutionary compromise that took great leaps in the direction of separating religion and government on a national level, but the myriad men who had a hand in shaping the Constitution and Bill of Rights had profound disagreements with one another on many core principles as well as outright arguments on an abundance of particulars.
There is a general impression in America that the original British Colonies were a bastion of religious freedom. That notion is far from correct. Though the Pilgrims were separatists who were escaping persecution in England, most of the settlers were Puritans who came here to establish a particular denomination, almost all of which, in the beginning, were Protestant. They sought to purify the Church of England and modify it, and they especially wanted to combat the spread of the perceived “evil” Catholicism of the French and Spanish at the time.
The First Parish Church in Plymouth was established in 1620, the congregation having been formed in Scrooby, England in 1609. It is currently the oldest church congregation in continuous operation in the U.S. and they had already separated from the Church of England when they arrived in Plymouth.
Further north, in Boston and Salem, under the direction of the Massachusetts Bay Company in the 1620’s and 30’s, large numbers of English sons and daughters arrived seeking not religious liberty for all but “a liberty that would permit them to build up a true church of God, a true church of the New Testament, a true Church of England.” (Gaustad 1962, p. 13)
That church was shortly thereafter called “Congregational” to set its government apart specifically from the Episcopal Church of England: they wished to be ruled by a body of believers, not by bishops.
By 1640 there were 29 Congregationalist churches in Massachusetts Bay Colony. These Puritans were, of course, concerned with converting the heathen Indians in the area and the list of churches as Congregationalism grows reads like a map of where the tribes resided, as they still do in many locations: Martha’s Vineyard-1642, Sandwich-1658, Natick-1660, Middleboro-1665, Mashpee-1670. The first Bible printed in America (the only one in the 17th century) was John Eliot’s translation of the scripture into a phonetic approximation of the Algonquin language. (E. S. Gaustad 1962) Cotton Mather, a prominent Protestant minister, said, “The Indians on the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket might justly bear the denomination of Christians” (E. a. Gaustad 2002) and placed the number of converts there at 3,000. (Chaney 1976)
Early in the Massachusetts experiment, dissenters arose to challenge the Puritan vision of a holy society. One of the first dissenters, Roger Williams (1603-1683), was himself a Puritan minister but with a very different plan for society. He argued that God had not divinely sanctioned the colony and the civil authorities of Massachusetts had no authority to involve themselves in matters of faith. According to Williams, the church was a voluntary association of God’s elect and any state involvement in the worship of God was contrary to the divine will and led to the defilement of the church. Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts in 1635 and founded Rhode Island, the first colony with no established church and the first society in America to grant liberty of conscience to all of its inhabitants.
But Williams was just the first in a long line of increasing persecutions to follow and few had such a happy ending as his did. In 1651 a party of Anabaptists reached Massachusetts. The doctrines they advocated raised a storm of opposition in the colony; they were arrested, tried, fined, and one of them severely flogged, and a law was passed banishing from the colony anyone who should oppose the dogma of infant baptism.
The Puritan goal of creating a kingdom of God on earth by purging the church of heretics did not succeed. In the 1630’s, 70 to 80 percent of taxpayers belonged to a church. By the 1670’s half that many did. In Salem, only about 30 percent belonged to a congregation in 1690. (Metzger 1774) Congregational leadership faltered as European immigration brought to the region Baptists, Presbyterians, French Protestants, Scots-Irish and Welsh. In 1684 King Charles II decided that he no longer wanted the commonwealth to exclude Anglicans or Catholics and rescinded the charter, decreeing that Anglicans should be allowed to worship in Massachusetts colony. (E. a. Gaustad 2002)
North of Boston, in what is now Danvers, a more serious level of persecution was happening, motivated by fear and hysteria. The Salem Witch Trials did not last long, but the level of righteousness and religious fervor that drove the leaders of Salem Village to execute some of its townspeople remains frightening. It reminds us how thin the line can be between state-funded religion and religious tyranny.
The Puritans were anything but supporters of religious freedom, rather they believed that their very souls were at stake in the fight against invasive evils. They came to this land carrying deep-rooted superstitions and fears and though they may have claimed to be against the Church of England for its prohibition of their right to practice according to their own conscience, they were enthusiastic about ensuring that others were denied the same right. Even as this eventually began to change and tolerance for other denominations started to take hold, there was one detail the Congregationalists in Massachusetts would not let go of: the small matter of taxes. I will return to the bane of taxes shortly. First I want to jump ahead a few persecution-filled decades and land at The Great Awakening, which historian William McLoughlin called, “America’s first identity crisis.”
There were several waves that made up the whole of the Great Awakening and the first happened from about 1735 to 1765. This was characterized by large revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers. These revivals became a mass movement in the fall of 1739 when George Whitefield arrived from England, where he had developed a following after writing about his conversion experiences and his journey from “depravity to salvation.” Whitefield was a powerful and hypnotic speaker. He also utilized all the latest media innovations, tapping into the burgeoning network of newspapers that had sprung up, particularly The Pennsylvania Gazette, owned by Ben Franklin. Franklin, always ready to help rock the boat, gave Whitefield saturation coverage as the “Itinerant Minister” made his way through the colonies, sometimes drawing tens of thousands of people.
Pilgrimage to these revivals created what Catherine Albanese called “sacred communities,” which were outside and beyond the local church, “through the act of leaving one’s home and engaging in a complex series of rituals designed to empower the individual through direct contact with God.” (Albanese 2001, p.32) The Great Awakening divided many churches into “New Lights” who embraced the evangelical spirit, and “Old Lights” who were more traditional. These revivals softened the boundaries between denominations. By sharing this communal spiritual experience and finding that their differences were not as many as their connections, the road to conversion was fairly easy. Whitefield was Evangelical Protestant and conversions were made through revivals for Protestants, but Baptists and Presbyterians also used similarly styled revivals to spread their particular word and practices.
Part of the hatred of the Church of England stemmed from the belief that it too closely resembled Catholicism. When Parliament passed the Quebec Act in 1774, it took the enlightened position that the Catholic Church could remain the official church of Quebec. This terrified the colonists, who saw it as a British attempt to subjugate them religiously by allowing the Catholics to expand into the colonies. Here, many historians claim, the flame of rebellion was lit, fueled by piles and piles of American newspapers. But the accelerant that turned the fire into a real blaze returns us to Massachusetts and the topic of those pesky taxes.
So, even as “New Light” denominations like the Quakers and Baptists spread in Massachusetts and became semi-tolerated, they were nonetheless forced to pay taxes for the support of the “Old Light” Congregationalist ministers. But there were others who were in the middle of those two labels, literally and spiritually: religious liberals. In 1761, a Harvard educated, 31-year-old Rev. Dr. Samuel West would be settled as the fourth minister “of that part of Dartmouth which now makes the city of New Bedford and town of Fair Haven.” (Morison 1849)
A formidable preacher, West made no formal preparation before speaking. He rejected the emotional appeals of the New Lights, preferring to make his points simply and rationally. He was invited to give the prestigious Election Day sermon in Boston in 1776. In that sermon he proclaimed that the colonies were already independent and constituted a new nation. He offered an extensive and detailed Biblical theological justification for the rebellion, and a learned and vigorous argument for democracy and independence. “Any people, when cruelly oppressed,” West proclaimed, “has the right to throw the yoke, and be free.”
Our church documents are housed at the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s research library. Little survives from West’s ministry, aside from his official call to ministry at Dartmouth and one letter. But there was a short biography of West, written in 1870 by Rev. William James Potter. After further research I also discovered that much of what Potter was recounting goes back to West’s first biographer, the Rev. John H. Morison, who wrote a biographical letter in 1849.
Despite the fact that taxes were required to be paid for his support, it seems that Samuel West was fairly destitute for much of his ministerial life. Potter notes that his salary “of sixty-six pounds, thirteen shillings, and sixpence” (Potter 1870) mostly went unpaid. In 1779 his circumstances were “so deplorable as to demand immediate relief,” (Potter 1870) and a committee was appointed by the precinct to procure firewood and corn for his family. In 1788 he accounts the society as owing him seven hundred and sixty-nine pounds, twelve shillings, and eleven pence, and “urges the payment of it”. (Potter 1870)
These accounts provoke the question: if everyone was required to pay taxes and people were even being arrested for not paying their church taxes, why did “Pater West,” as he was often referred to, remain unpaid for so long? When he refers to the “congregation” being unable to raise the money, does that mean the church members or the “official” congregation, which means everyone in the town? I asked Fred Gifun about that. His answer was: “That’s a complicated question with a complicated answer. The coffee-hour version is…everyone was supposed to pay the tax and if you were actually a member of the Congregational Church you really, really should pay the tax…but the fact was that many people had severely limited resources and simply couldn’t pay the taxes.”
In 1787 the second precinct of Dartmouth became the Precinct of New Bedford, which was incorporated as a separate town. Not long thereafter, the New Bedford congregation was also drawn into two precincts, “with a line running East and West about half way between the village of Fair Haven and the meeting house at the head of the river,” (Potter 1870) both of which West was responsible for. Despite these difficulties, he continued to do his job, though Potter says, “there were events at this time which far more deeply enjoyed his thoughts. He was earnestly engaged in all the great questions that came up between the colonies and the mother country. He did not wait to see which way popular opinion might turn.” (Potter 1870)
The events West was dwelling so deeply on are those preceding the American Revolution. In 1774, the town of Dartmouth voted to support the colonies in the fight for independence from British rule. After the battle of Bunker Hill, West volunteered as a chaplain. “During his several months service he helped decipher a treasonous letter from a military physician, Dr. Benjamin Church, to a British admiral in Newport. This letter revealed American casualties, troop strength, and shipments of gun powder. Legend has it that when the British Army invaded Dartmouth, they burned down West’s parsonage in retaliation.”
Samuel West was an ardent patriot. He had no tolerance for those who were hesitant or on the fence about freedom. His passion for both religious and political self-determination was evident, and he surely shaped the congregation we have become.
Ask a high school U.S. History student what the American Revolution was about and most would give you this one catch-phrase answer: “no taxation without representation”. However, John Adams, friend and former classmate of West’s, believed that religion was one of the major causes of the Revolution. “Not only did it help trigger the Revolution, it did so in ways with profound implications for the later fights over separation of church and state. The colonists became convinced that political liberty and religious liberty were intertwined. To earn one, they would need to win the other.” (Waldman 2008) And so it would be
In 1774, eighteen Baptists were jailed in Massachusetts for refusing to pay taxes to support the Congregational church. A year before that, the Boston Tea Party took place. It would become increasingly difficult for patriots to attack the evils of the Anglican establishment, then turn around and defend the maintenance of an official state church over the loud objections of religious minorities like the Baptists. One local Baptist from Middleborough Massachusetts, Isaac Backus, became a hero of American religious liberty in the Commonwealth and in the nation. In a letter to the Baptist churches in MA, Backus wrote: “Liberty of conscience, the great and most important article of liberty, is evidently not allowed as it ought to be in this country, not even by the very men who are now making loud complaints of the encroachments upon their own liberties (by Parliament).” (McLoughlin 1968)
Now, I could go on for a long time about James Madison here, because he was the one who pushed hardest for our first amendment rights as we know them, but suffice it to say that freedom of religion, speech and the press were of paramount importance to him. He would accept the Senate’s language on sixteen different amendments in order to ensure the passage of the first. Thus, on September 24, 1789, the First Amendment was born. The Bill of Rights would take another two years to be ratified, but it was worth the wait. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the foundation of what it means to be American and have shaped our society beyond measure.
What we must not forget is that divining the “intent” of the Founders regarding the First Amendment is impossible; there were too many opposing viewpoints. It was a classic political compromise that was designed to have different meanings to different people and though Madison had strong views about separating church and state on the local level, the First Amendment did not. The Bill of Rights was intended to restrict government power, not expand it.
The Founders were men of multitudinous opinion and when given the chance to sort it all out, they essentially disagreed on nearly every point. But that is exactly how democracy happens, isn’t it? We are free to wrestle with these questions, to have an opinion…that’s the whole point.
“Madison had it right. Were he alive today, he would conclude, with awesome pride, that we are the most religiously vibrant nation on earth not despite separation of church and state-and religious freedom-but because of it.” I think it’s important to remember that now.
We, the People, are better for the dissent and disagreement. Asking questions and wrestling with answers is more progressive, for our Selves and our country and our world, than blind faith. Having the freedom to practice whatever spirituality or religion moves you is precious – many fought for this right and fight for it still. It should not be taken for granted.
- 11/27/16- Facing Our Fears, Finding Our Power
- Christmas Eve 2016