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
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
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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