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

Eschewing Obfuscation

America as a "Religious Refuge"
written by Charles Sumner

published in the May 7th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Although the colonies were generally commercial enterprises, many immigrants were fleeing "religious uniformity" in Europe, but brought it with them. Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe. The New England colonies, Pennsylvania and Maryland were conceived and established as "plantations of religion." In New England it was Puritan, in Pennsylvania, Quaker, and in Maryland, Roman Catholic.

The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might (in the extreme) be executed as heretics.

The New England colonies were known as "Bible commonwealths," where criminal laws were based on the scriptures, especially the Old Testament. Punishments for nonconformance with religious rules (such as not attending church or uttering blasphemy) could be severe, including public humiliation, time in the stocks, or imprisonment.

One factor contributing to the growing religious tolerance in America was that official colony religions inhibited commerce. Several colonies had been set up primarily for commercial purposes, such as New York, New Jersey, and Carolinas and Georgia. As one scholar observed: "Besides the difficulty of engaging in trade with persons one seeks to destroy for differences in religious belief, commerce tended to distract the colonies from their preoccupations and their exclusiveness in the matter of religion."

Wars also tend to submerge internal differences and this was true of the Revolutionary War. Thoughtful persons could see the inconsistency between the practices of religious discrimination and the natural-rights doctrines of freedom and equality as set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

The middle of the 18th Century saw an evangelical religious revival, originating in New England, which became known as the Great Awakening. This movement constituted a break with formal church religion and developed a resistance to coercion by established churches. By the time of the Revolutionary War, a majority of the population belonged to one of the newer evangelical sects, Presbyterians in the North, Baptists and Methodists farther south. But perhaps the greatest factor leading to increased religious tolerance was the rise of Enlightenment philosophy and its offspring, Deism. It brought with it reason - to eventually become the primary source and basis for authority and government.

The Declaration of Independence was of course the declaration of the thirteen colonies that they wished to be self-governed and no longer subject to laws passed in England without representation. But it also had another significance which sometimes is glossed over because of its importance in severing our ties with the mother country. For the first time in Western history it threw off the yoke imposed by royalty, which stated that God had appointed kings and therefore men were required to obey kings as if they were gods. The Declaration stated that governments derived their power from the consent of the governed.

The "divine right of kings" began to be shaken to its foundations, and the world was turned upside down.

This historical series is a collaboration between David Miller of Seattle and Charles Sumner of Bellevue.

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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