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The Confederate Lawyer
February 2, 2011

The Roots of American Religious Liberty
Part I:  The Early Period

by Charles G. Mills
fitzgerald griffin foundation

GLEN COVE, NY — The United States Constitution enshrines the principle that there will be no national religion and no religious test for federal office, and the First Amendment prevents federal limitations on religious freedom.

This commitment to religious tolerance is the result of a struggle from the earliest days of English colonization between the followers of a broad-minded ideal of English America and a narrow-minded view. Although few will be surprised that the roots of American religious liberty go back this far, many may be surprised to learn that four kings of England — two Protestant and two Catholic — rather than the people or Parliament were the champions of religious tolerance during this struggle.

English colonization of the Americas started during the reign of James I (1603-1625), the first Stuart king. The first colony was Jamestown in Virginia, which he authorized in 1607. Jamestown was followed by unauthorized settlements at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth Rock were Puritans, followers of an extreme form of Protestantism that disapproved of all religious art, vestments, traditional religious ceremonies, and bishops. The Pilgrims believed in hanging witches and Catholic priests. They denied the possibility that men could cooperate in their own salvation and considered the Pope to be the Whore of Babylon. Plymouth remained a separate colony until 1686 and was briefly again separate from 1688 to 1691. Various settlements north of Plymouth eventually became New Hampshire; the first was in 1623.

The Pilgrims apparently intended to reach present-day Virginia or Maryland. It is fortunate for the cause of American liberty that they landed on the other side of the Dutch colonies from the Virginians. Unlike the Puritans, who were strong opponents of royal power, the Virginians were believers in the power of the king to protect the people from the excesses of Parliament. They also were more broad-minded on matters of religion than the Puritans and the majority of the members of Parliament.

James I was succeeded by Charles I (1625-1649), who was detested by the Puritans, in great part because he made treaties with Catholic kings and believed in traditional Christian ceremonies. Charles I, a champion of religious liberty, chartered Maryland as a Catholic colony in 1629. He intended that Maryland would be a place where Catholics could escape the persecution so prevalent in England and its colonies.

He also established a Puritan colony at Massachusetts Bay in 1630. Puritans had opposed the Church of England for many years. Groups of Puritans in Massachusetts moved south and formed colonies at Connecticut (1630), Saybrook (1635), Rhode Island (1636), and New Haven (1637). The Saybrook colony was almost immediately absorbed into Connecticut, leaving five Puritan English colonies north of the Dutch colonies and one Catholic colony and one Anglican colony south of them. The Puritan colonies were isolated in New England. The Catholic and Anglican colonies were geographically large and able to expand toward the West. Whether or not Charles I did this because the Puritans were his enemies and the Catholics and Anglicans were not, his action was fortunate for the future of religious liberty.

In 1649, the Puritans murdered Charles I after a show trial, destroyed the religious artistic patrimony of England, and imposed an extreme theocracy. This event loosed the New England colonies to practice unrelenting intolerance — but this situation would change, as we will see in Part II.

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The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2011 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.

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