I’ve been reading Edwin Gaustad’s Faith of the Founders: Religion and the New Nation 1776-1826 (Baylor University Press, 2004). In a time when reference to our national founders is often framed in vast generalities and often ideologically driven, Gaustad’s research is refreshing and nuanced.
One of his observations opened a new level of comprehension in me, namely, that the world of church-state issues did not suddenly commence in 1776. Nearly two centuries of colonial life – and its religion – preceded the revolution. And knowing what realities were at work during the colonial period is essential to understanding what would follow.
The truths that were evident to Thomas Jefferson were certainly not for the colonists that preceded him. The Church of England would go where England went. And except for a robust presence of congregationalists – Puritans and Quakers – the Anglicans dominated the middle states. And so, the religious tensions and struggles of the England, struggles for pre-emminance, continued in the colonies. In fact, the freedom of practice and non-establishment that Jefferson would later champion was fairly non-existent. The leaders of the colonists, clerics and political officials alike, pretty well understood that it would take a united presence of state and established church to make a go of it. Which religious expression would prevail, of the few choices, would be the real question.
The dominance of the Church of England prevailed right up to the revolution. Exceptions were to be found in New England and particular colonies, such as Pennsylvania. The way that William Penn normalized broad tolerance of diverse religious expressions became exemplary. And the way Pennsylvania flourished – economically – proved that religious tolerance was not only possible, but preferable.
Resistance to imposed religious conformity came early, and people like Roger Williams continued to insist that religious persecution for non-conformity was the greatest of evils. The countless persecutions, torture, inquisitions and burnings for the sake of enforcing the one true religion were to stay behind where they belong, in the history of England and other countries. They were not to continue in the new republic. Penn wrote that all religious expressions “shall in no ways be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion or practice in matters of faith ad worship, nor shall they be compelled at any time to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place, or ministry whatever.” His words became precursor to what would become national doctrine penned by the likes of Jefferson, Madison and others.
The American Revolution changed everything, especially as regarded religious spheres. Anglicans were dis-established and as English influence waned, so did the absolutest claims of any other religious body. The first amendment, with its freedom of practice and non-establishment clauses, sealed that social compact. It was really only then that the many religious traditions began to immigrate and multiply, leading to the present religious mosaic we know today.
Those who would like to take us back to pre-revolutionary religious times in America, some kind of theocracy, would do well to revisit their history. A decision was made – a good one I think – that broad religious tolerance and the non-establishment of any religious body should be the way of things. So it has been and in my book, so it should remain.