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The Confederate Lawyer
February 3, 2011

The Roots of American Religious Liberty
Part II:  The Restoration and Succeeding Decades

by Charles G. Mills
fitzgerald griffin foundation

GLEN COVE, NY — The triumph of the Puritans described in Part I did not last. In 1660, the English overthrew the Puritan dictatorship and put Charles II on the throne. Although he was a deathbed convert to Catholicism, his conversion process had been going on for some time.

In 1663, Charles II established a colony of his supporters in Carolina that later became North and South Carolina. The following year, he conquered the Dutch colonies, adding what is today New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware to the English North American presence. This geographic expansion affected the demographic composition of the colonies as well, adding members of the Dutch Reformed Church, Quakers, and a few Catholics to the Anglicans, Scots Presbyterians, and Puritans.

The result was a community of multiple religions living in relative harmony in the central colonies. In 1683, Charles II appointed a Catholic as royal governor of New York and New Jersey, and a Catholic church was built in New York City. He soon abolished the New Haven colony, which harbored three of the murderers of his father as well as many of their accessories. The New England colonies were intolerant of Catholics, Quakers, Anglicans, and “Arminians” (a form of Protestantism that denied Calvinist predestination.)

Charles II established Pennsylvania in 1681 as a Quaker colony in part of the former Dutch colonies. The Quakers were tolerant of all religions. From Maryland in the South to New York in the North, English America became an example of religious coexistence rare in its age. The differences between the New England and the Middle Atlantic colonies were profound.

When Charles II died in 1685, his brother James II assumed the throne. James II, the last Catholic king of England, was a dedicated champion of religious liberty. To address the problems posed by the remaining five New England colonies — hotbeds of Puritan intolerance — he combined these four colonies with New York and New Jersey. The result was to effectively repeal the anti-Catholic, anti-Quaker, and other religiously intolerant laws of New England. For the moment, priests would not be hanged and Quakers would not have their ears cut off.

The Puritans overthrew the Catholic king in 1688 and passed a law requiring the king of England to be a Protestant. They established a legal persecution of Catholics (most severe from 1688 to 1696, but lasting in part long after that) and they re-established four of the New England colonies as intolerant Puritan colonies. Although the roots of religious liberty were too deep in America for the persecution to be completely effective, it did close almost all Catholic churches and keep Catholics almost entirely out of politics.

The government of Pennsylvania refused to enforce anti-Catholic laws, and the Catholic church in Philadelphia was never closed. In Maryland, anti-Catholic laws were officially enforced until Independence, but some western parts of the colony frequently ignored them. In the rest of the Middle Atlantic states, Catholics survived by keeping a very low profile and celebrating Mass and educating their children in the faith in private. Anti-Catholic laws were not always enforced west of the Allegheny Mountains in places like the Virginia territory of Kentucky.

Colonial New England never embraced religious liberty. In 1692, some of the most distinguished lawyers and clergymen of Massachusetts caused 19 alleged witches to be hanged. Massachusetts law required the hanging of Catholic priests and cutting the ears of Quakers. When Great Britain stopped persecuting Catholics in Canada and the area that is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan in 1774, the Massachusetts Puritans and their allies (with no sense of irony) denounced this small act of toleration as “intolerable.” The established Puritan Church in Massachusetts lasted until the 1830s, when it split into two factions, one Unitarian and one Christian.

When the Connecticut legislature discovered that Episcopalians were teaching at Yale in 1722, it promptly fired four professors and forced the rector to resign. It also passed a law that lasted until 1823 requiring all college faculty members in the colony (and after Independence the state) to swear to the Saybrook Confession, which denied that bishops could ordain ministers or that man could cooperate in his own salvation. It also defined the Pope as the Whore of Babylon. The New Haven Register criticized the building of a Catholic church in New Haven in 1832, but by that time official persecution of Catholics, Episcopalians, and Quakers had largely died out in most of New England.

New Hampshire was the exception. Its law prohibited Catholics from holding public office until the 1840s. Georgia, which was not founded until 1732, was established as a colony for Protestants and Jews only. By 1830, however, Catholics had become a permanent force in the state’s politics.

When our Constitution was written, some states had complete religious freedom and others gave equal rights to all or many Christian churches. Only New England retained the Puritan intolerance.

Fortunately, the Framers of our Constitution embraced the tolerance of most of the states, rather than the intolerance of New England. They prohibited any religious test for federal office and any Congressional act concerning a religious establishment or limiting or abolishing the free exercise of religion. This happy result would not have been possible if Catholics, Quakers, and Protestants had not learned to live together -- thanks in large part to the Stuart kings.

New Englanders wrote many of our schools’ history books, in which they depicted the Stuart kings as tyrants. The truth is that, especially in religious matters, Parliament was narrow minded, tyrannical, and power hungry. The Stuart kings worked to foster religious liberty, especially in their American colonies.

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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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