First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty

Edd Doerr May/June 2013

On December 18, 2012, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) presented a 90-minute documentary titled First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty . An excellent introduction to this all-important subject, it traced the development of religious freedom in America from early colonial times to shortly after 1800, coming down firmly on the side of church-state separation. It used a great many period visuals and featured short interviews with many religious liberty scholars. George Washington, John and Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and others come off well, though John Winthrop and the Puritans come off as, well, narrow and unfriendly to religious freedom and diversity. A DVD of the program is available.

First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty, by eminent historian Randall Balmer, is the companion book to the television program. A handsome, lavishly illustrated 9” x 12” coffee-table volume, it is suitable for either the general reader or as a supplemental reading for high school or college history classes. It is comfortably priced at $26.99. An Episcopal priest, author Randall Balmer has had a distinguished career as a professor of religious history at Columbia and Dartmouth, and has also been a visiting professor at Princeton, Yale, Northwestern, and Emory universities. He is the author of more than a dozen books, includingGod in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. His second book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America, was made into a three-part award-winning PBS documentary.

Balmer touches all the bases—the Puritans of New England, the Anglican south, the more diverse middle colonies/states; the development of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights; Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and Mary Dyer; the Virginia struggles that led to adoption of the church-state separation principle; Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, Washington’s 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island (actor Ed Asner and I were featured speakers at the 1990 bicentennial celebration at the Touro Synagogue there), and Jefferson’s famous 1802 “wall of separation” letter to the Danbury Baptists, the influence of religious dissenters, and the deism of founders such as Jefferson and Franklin.

Although the book is wonderfully comprehensive, there are items that I wish had been included. He could have included mention of the 1797 treaty with Tripoli, negotiated under Washington, ratified by the Senate, and signed ostentatiously by John Adams, which stated that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Sadly missed, too, is Benjamin Franklin’s earlier dictum: “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors [adherents] are obliged to call for the help of the civil power [government], ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

In the book’s prologue Balmer shows that the men who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to draft the Constitution were well aware of the history of church-state relations, or entanglements, from the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and wars of religion in Europe, to the settlement of our New World after 1607 by Puritans in the north, Anglicans in the south, and a mixing bowl in the colonies in between.

Puritan New England was as close to a theocracy as you could get. Church and state were united. Almost as a direct result of this, Anne Hutchinson and her family were forced out of Massachusetts for her heterodoxy. Quakers were executed on Boston Common. Roger Williams was so uncomfortable with Puritan theocracy that he founded Rhode Island as a haven for dissenters and became the first great champion of religious liberty, ultimately inspiring Thomas Jefferson. (I was thrilled when I was the speaker years ago at the Roger Williams Baptist Church in Providence, and I wish First Freedom had included photos of the statues of Anne Hutchinson and Quaker martyr Mary Dyer—very visible on the lawn of the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston.)

As our country moved in the direction of independence during the eighteenth century, religious diversity grew by leaps and bounds. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Unitarians, Moravians, Schwenkfelders, Catholics, Jews, and unorganized deists competed with the established Congregationalists in the north and Anglicans in the south. “Dissenting” Baptist preacher Isaac Backus in Massachusetts preached a sermon in 1773 titled “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, Against the Oppressions of the Present Day” calling for separation of church and state, while in Virginia Baptist preachers were thrown into jail.

A year after the American Revolution began in the spring of 1775, a committee of five, including Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, got together to draft the Declaration of Independence. Aware of our religious diversity, they attributed our inalienable rights to a generic “Creator”—nicely counterpoising the “divine” rights of the people against the European tradition of “divine right of kings.” With the war for independence over and our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, proving unworkable, the representatives of the people met in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft what was to be the Constitution of the United States of America.

The original constitution was virtually silent on the matter of religion, no mention of a Creator but only a brief prohibition in Article VI of religious tests for public office and a statement that all federal and state legislative, executive, and judicial officers “shall be bound by oath or affirmation.”

Early in the war, in 1776, Virginia adopted a Declaration of Rights that asserted that “religion . . . can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” Freedom, Madison declared at the time, is superior to toleration. But there remained a way to go. Still to be dealt with was the question of government compelling citizens to contribute to the support of an established church or even to support all churches. Jefferson put it this way: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical,” and, “even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern.”

During the war, popular Virginia politician Patrick Henry favored establishing the Anglican (Episcopal) Church, something Jefferson, Madison, and the dissenting churches opposed. As matters came to a head in 1785, Madison wrote his brilliant Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments to counter Henry. It worked, and in 1786 Virginia adopted Jefferson’s landmark Statute for Religious Freedom, one of his three accomplishments that he wanted to be remembered for.

The new Constitution still had to be ratified by the states. Jefferson, our envoy to France, and Madison were disappointed that the document lacked a bill of rights. Ratification then was contingent on the promise that a bill of rights would be added as soon as possible. After several revisions Congress arrived at what is now the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Despite the wishes of Madison and others, the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government. Making it applicable to state and local government had to wait until passage of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War and then for decades more, until the Supreme Court got around to confirming the fact. The several states included similar provisions in their constitutions.

Beyond the scope of First Freedom and the PBS documentary are the current and ongoing often bitter battles over religious freedom, tax support for religious institutions, and freedom of conscience in Congress, in state legislatures, in the media, in academia, and elsewhere. But the American experience with religious liberty stands as a beacon to the whole world. And Randall Balmer’s great book and the PBS documentary are outstanding contributions in the never-ending struggle for freedom.

Article Author: Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty. Doerr, a former history teacher, is the compiler, with Albert J. Menendez, of the 2002 book Great Quotations on Religious Freedom.