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Religion and Civility in Colonial America

An excerpt from The Grace and Power of Civility by David M. Abshire

What a sense of awe they must have felt, those early Puritan settlers, as they courageously sailed out of England on a March morning in 1630, leaving behind years of religious turmoil en route to establish their vision of God’s kingdom on earth.  They were deeply devout people, committed to reforming the Church of England from within and establishing in America a “city on the hill” which would be to the entire world a beacon of Christian righteousness.  These were not small goals, and they were not small people.  Theirs was a commitment so intense that American history would be forever shaped by their deeds.  But contrary to popular myth, it was not just commitment that drove Puritan society.  For all the caricatures painted of the Puritans—the self-righteous reformers, the nosy neighbors, the witch-burning zealots—their communal ethic is one that required no small amount of civility and, yes, tolerance.

“We must knit together in this work as one man,” wrote John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as his ship crossed the Atlantic, “that we, and our seed, may live by obeying His voice.”  The New England town would quickly become the very epitome of a tight-knit society that made civility a precondition to daily survival.  Each town agreed to establish a covenant that formally articulated consensual agreements on most matters affecting public and private life.  Disputes were handled through arbitration, first by a group of neighbors and then, if necessary, by the town, assembled weekly at the now iconic town meeting.  This was an intentionally non-litigious society where social harmony was achieved through consensus, not conflict.

To be fair, though, the Puritan “Bible commonwealths” had many shortcomings.  Not all dissent was handled quietly at town meetings or tolerated for the maintenance of unity.  Roger Williams, perhaps the best known of the rebellious Puritans, criticized the Massachusetts settlement for its lack of religious purity.  He had qualms with the mingling of church and state, by which civil officials could increasingly influence religious matters.  He preferred a complete separation from the Church of England—“perfection,” in his view, was not simply purification of the faith.  Thus when Williams established freedom of the individual conscience and religious toleration in Rhode Island, he did so to promote what he saw as an even truer Christianity than the Puritans sought in Massachusetts.

Williams sought freedom to worship, not freedom from worship, and in doing so established a model of religious society that would later inspire the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution.  Perhaps it was his commitment that assured the mercy of Governor Winthrop, who, by the standards of the time, could have punished Williams far more severely.  Instead, in an act of tolerance, Winthrop let him depart for Rhode Island.

Another colonial experiment with religious toleration took place in Maryland, led by the second Lord Baltimore, Cecilius Calvert.  After receiving a joint-stock company charter similar to Winthrop’s for Massachusetts Bay, Calvert sought to establish this colony as a Catholic refuge in the New World.  He quickly found that “Catholics could survive in the English world only as a tolerated minority; they were in no position to impose their will on others.”  To protect his religion, then, Calvert passed the Toleration Act of 1649; what scholars have called a “bold move for that era.”  The Act even anticipates our modern constitutional statement on religious freedom and deserves quoting: “No person or persons whatsoever within this Province . . . professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be in any ways troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion in the free exercise thereof within this Province.”

This “free exercise” clause is one predecessor to our First Amendment clause outlawing legislation “prohibiting the free exercise’ of religion.  Even though the Maryland act extended freedom of worship only to Christians, it was nonetheless a historic step toward the preservation of religious diversity and commitment.

Following on these early traditions of religious toleration, Thomas Jefferson, a deist, drafted in 1779 for the Virginia State Legislature the “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.”  Like Roger Williams, Jefferson declared the awareness that “Almighty God hath created the mind free” and that “all attempts to influence [the mind] by temporal punishment or burdens . . . are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion.”  Here again, religious freedom is meant to preserve the true meaning of the “Holy Author,” not to dilute or usurp it.  Jefferson, in fact, was so fond of this act that he had a reference to it engraved on his tombstone along with the better-known inscription, “Author of the Declaration of American Independence.”  He makes a similar argument for religious freedom in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” where he writes, “Had not the Roman government permitted free [religious] enquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced.  Had not free enquiry been indulged, at the era of reformation, the corruption of Christianity could not have been purged away.  If it be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected and new ones encouraged.”

Neither is this ethic of tolerance with commitment strictly for the religious.  The American religion has become as much a civil religion as a spiritual one and is as important in politics as it is in theology.

As James Morone concludes in his book Hellfire Nation, America’s colonial religious foundation created a “nation with the soul of a church,” a “brawling, raucous, religious people” whose moral fervor inspires dynamic revivals in its faiths—political, social, and religious.  Around the world, that fervor gave us a providential mission as a redeemer nation.  At home, fervor drives two great moral paradigms from opposite sides of the political spectrum: first, an individualist ethic of “strength, patriotism, and manliness” and the political of good versus evil; and second, a new social gospel of communal responsibility and corporate solutions.  Though both sides are deeply rooted in different moral convictions, Morone maintains, we “remain Puritans all.”