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Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Nashville Chapter
PO Box 210005 . Nashville TN 37221


Eschewing Obfuscation

Religious Liberty in Colonial America
written by Charles Sumner

published in the March 12th edition of the Nashville Free Press


What is the origin of the idea of separation of church and state. What does it mean in practice? What is its relationship to religious liberty? What have been its impacts upon America?

Roger Williams may be one of freedom's forgotten heroes. In fact that is the title of a 45-minute video which is available locally for public showings. His views on religious toleration and the separation of church and state played an important role in the development of our First Amendment.

Williams arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631, the year after the colony was established. He was 28, a Cambridge graduate and a minister in the Puritan church. He had worked for one of England's leading jurists. He was a deeply spiritual man who was described as "God-intoxicated." Puritans required conformity, and Roger Williams challenged some of the practices of the colony.

To understand Roger Williams and the Puritans it is helpful to know more about what was happening in the world at that time. By the end of the 16th century European nations had concluded that religious uniformity was a national necessity. Catholic monarchs expected the populace to be faithful Catholics, and Protestant monarchs expected them to follow that faith. In England the switch was made frequently, resulting in persecution and loss of heads. By 1630 the Anglicans were firmly established, and Puritans and Catholics were second-class citizens.

So when Puritans settled in Massachusetts they got to say what the rules would be. Did they decide that everyone may worship in his own way? Of course not. They said that to be in the government you had to be a Puritan in good standing. No matter what your beliefs might be, you would pay taxes for the support of the Puritan church. If Baptists were discovered practicing or promoting their religion, they were subject to jail, fines or whippings. Quakers could not live in the colony. Four Quakers (including a woman) were hanged in 1660 for returning to the colony after having been banished.

Here is an actual incident from 1651 in Lynn, Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Clark, Obediah Holmes, and Reverend Crandall visited William Whittier, one of the Baptist dissenters today. While they were conducting a service of worship on the Lord's Day, a constable stormed into the house with a warrant. The men were given the choice of paying heavy fines or being whipped. Holmes and Clark chose the whipping. Someone paid Clark's fine, but Holmes refused help, saying to accept it would admit a wrongdoing. Thirty strokes with heavy leather lashes left his back and shoulders a bloody mass of quivering flesh. When the whipping stopped, two women rushed to his side and said, "God bless you." For this they were hustled off to jail.

During the witch-hunts, Giles Corey would not plead guilty. He was pressed to death. Stones were piled upon his body until the weight of them crushed him. What was his civil crime? None. It was a religious crime with the punishment carried out by the state. Quakers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were sometimes whipped, branded and had their ears cut off. Is this the Christian America which the religious right would like us to go back to?

This historical series will continue in the next issue. It is a collaboration between David Miller, a doctoral candidate in Seattle who has taught political science and Charles Sumner, a local resident, who has been involved in church-state relations for years. You may wish to listen to Church & State Today Wednesdays from 3 to 4 on WRFN 98.9.



Why Do We Need a Progressive Newspaper?
published in the September 3rd edition of the Nashville Free Press

Jefferson's "Wall of Separation"
published in the August 6th edition of the Nashville Free Press

The Sage of Monticello
published in the June 18th edition of the Nashville Free Press

The Enlightenment and Deism
published in the June 4th edition of the Nashville Free Press

America as a "Religious Refuge"
published in the May 7th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Conflicts over Religion and Government
published in the April 23rd edition of the Nashville Free Press

Roger Williams - Freedom's Forgotten Hero
published in the April 9th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Religious Liberty in Colonial America
published in the March 12th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Religious Liberty Requires Government Neutrality
published in the February 26th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday
published in the February 12th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Is Posting the Ten Commandments Moral or Immoral?
published in the January 29th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Three-Minute Introduction to Separation of Church and State
published in the January 15th edition of the Nashville Free Press