The Pilgrims stepped ashore at Plymouth, first onto a firm rock, then sandy soil. This is symbolic of a young America: at first stonily exclusive in its religious tolerance and governance, then becoming more giving with the spiritual divergence of the population. The democratic urge which came with the struggle for revolution culminated in the adoption of a Constitution, and its Bill of Rights, which formally separated church and state.
The Mayflower, with 102 passengers, most simple farmers and artisans, sailed for the New World in 1620 in search of religious freedom. They disagreed with the ritual and doctrine of the Anglican faith in England, and felt a loss of cultural identity in Holland, where they had taken refuge. Arriving north of the bounds of the Virginia Colony, from which they had secured a grant, the travelers forged a Mayflower Compact before setting ashore at Plymouth. The agreement to form a government was a compromise, as only a third of the voyagers were religious separatists; it referred to God, but allowed liberty of worship.
However, a Bible commonwealth — if not strictly speaking a theocracy — emerged in practice, with the coming within a decade of another group of restless English. The Puritans crossed the sea, not to escape their mother country's state religion, but to establish it in what they felt would be a purer form. They wanted less "popish" ceremony. There was strict observance of the Sabbath. Frivolity was prohibited; Christmas ignored. Nonconformists and reformers, they were to be intolerant of any but their own church. Settling in Salem, the Massachusetts Bay Company held a broad charter to rule itself, admit members, bear arms, and defend itself.
Clergymen didn't hold public office, but they advised magistrates on major matters. Elections were held each year by public assembly. But the privilege to vote or hold office was restricted to those who belonged to the established church.
"They were advocates of a definite religious system, which they came to the new world to put into practice," asserted historian Herbert L. Osgood. "So important did this system seem to them that they made all interests, social and political, contribute to its maintenance and advancement."
There soon arose challenges to the Puritan system. Roger Williams refused to take the pulpit in Boston because the congregation would not publicly renounce ties with the Church of England. He further challenged powers of magistrates and questioned the right to take land from Native Americans.
Williams spoke loudly, and in 1635 he was tried and banished. He removed to the wilderness at Providence, and soon established a government which was the first in America to be democratic and with church and state functions separate. Wil-liams remained rigid in his own church, but the Rhode Island colony was openly tolerant of all sects. It became a haven for Baptists, Quakers, Jews and others.
On Williams' heels, Anne Hutchinson in 1637 took exception to the Massachusetts establishment on religious as well as political grounds. She said that grace, not works, was the key to an individual's entrance to heaven. At gatherings with colonial women, she satirized sermons and criticized leadership. She said she heard directly from God — grounds, the Puritans felt, to try her for heresy and excommunicate her.
America's population grew, and it became more socially and religiously diverse. During the Great Awakening in the 1640s, Presbyterians and others asserted their need to worship in their own way. In 1849, Maryland passed the Toleration Act guaranteeing freedom of religion and protecting its Catholic population.
Religiously zealous Quakers, believing in inner lights from the Holy Ghost, came to this country in the 1650s with missionary purposes. They were particularly vilified by the Puritans. Punishment for a first conviction of Quakerism was one ear cut off; for a second offense, the second ear, and for third, the tongue bored with a hot iron. Mary Dyer, a persistent Quaker, ignored her banishment once too often and was hanged in Boston in 1660.
Cracks in the Puritan bulwark appeared from within as well. The second generation began to draw away from the rigid church. This prompted a lowering of membership requirements in 1662.
There was a general rationalist movement of thought in Western culture. The British Crown, reacting to an age of enlightenment in Europe, signed a Declaration of Indulgence in 1687 giving toleration to Quakers, Baptists, and Episcopalians. The Crown revoked Massachusetts' charter in 1684, partly because of discrimination issues, and in rewriting Massachusetts' charter in 1691 removed a religious test for voting.
A last gasp of the Puritan iron hand came with the Salem trials in the 1690s, when Cotton Mather and others stirred fear of rampant witchcraft. Twenty died before public sense intervened and the debacle ended.
Theocentricity was severely diluted in the colonies by the time of the American Revolution. The issue was slightly different in Virginia. A colony staunchly Church of England from the start, it allowed other faiths, but reserved tax income to itself. The Revolution tainted the Anglican church because of its association with the Crown. A fervid democratic spirit emerged from the war.
Thomas Jefferson, convinced that government had no business in the affairs of man and religion, with the support of James Madison and others, prevailed with the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom which was enacted in 1786. It established tolerance and disallowed the use of general tax funds to support a single church.
The framers of the Constitution largely ignored religion in drafting their document. The only reference is to there being no religious test to vote or hold public office. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights asserts that there be no abridgment of the right to worship, and that government remain neutral in matters of religion.
In debating the Constitution at the Virginia convention in 1787, delegate Zachariah Johnston asserted that by not sanctioning a single religion, "You will find that the exclusion of tests will strongly tend to establish religious freedom."
French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in 1835, thought this was a paradox, but upon investigation concluded, "I know that, apart from influence proper to itself, religions can at times rely on the artificial strength of laws and the support of the material powers that direct society. There have been religions intimately linked to earthly governments, dominating men's souls both by terror and by faith, but when a religion makes such an alliance, I am not afraid to say that it makes the same mistake as any man might; it sacrifices the future for the present, and by gaining a power to which it has no claim, it risks its legitimate authority."
Bernard Drew is a freelance writer and historian who lives in Massachusetts.