Religion in the Colonies

The story of religious freedom is one that continues to unfold. Bob Doares explains the genealogy of worship in America. August 31, 2009


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. I’m here with Bob Doares, who’s come to talk with us about religion. Bob, thanks for being with us today.

Bob Doares: Thanks for having me, Harmony.

Harmony: We’re talking about from the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, up to the pilgrims at Plymouth, to the separatists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, all these folks are coming out here not for freedom of religion, but for what?

Bob: Well, it’s kind of a mixed bag. Some groups are coming for freedom of religion. The pilgrims, the Puritans and the pilgrims who come to the Massachusetts Bay are coming to seek freedom to worship the way they see fit.

Other places, like Virginia, it is primarily a commercial venture. But the folks in New England who come here wishing to worship freely are not necessarily here to allow everyone to worship however else he wants. In New England it’s a pretty, some folks would say, a pretty oppressive environment, religiously. Puritans in New England hang Quakers.

Roger Williams, who founds the colony of Rhode Island, has been a resident of Massachusetts and falls out with the religious leaders of Massachusetts and he is persecuted to a degree because he disagrees with the church establishment in New England. So he gets himself a piece of land from the Narragansett Indians and establishes the colony of Rhode Island, with religious freedom in the charter.

So Rhode Island is really the most unusual place in America in the 17th century in that, from the beginning, in their charter, Roger Williams has guaranteed the residents of Rhode Island complete religious freedom. That doesn’t exist here in Virginia, in the South, where the Church of England is established, where you have to attend church, you have to pay taxes to the church.

The middle colonies are kind of a middle ground. There’s broad religious toleration of different denominations, allowing different denominations to worship freely. But that’s not complete religious freedom, even in Pennsylvania, where you have freedom to worship openly and freely as you like, because you can’t hold public office if you’re not a Christian, for example. So it’s a different landscape, depending on where you are in the early colonial period.

Harmony: Let me understand that landscape. These are English citizens who are coming to the colonies. What’s happened in England?

Bob: The Reformation has been going on, the Protestant reformation in Europe and in England. The Church of England is still dominant in the mother country, but it’s splintered into all sorts of different groups. So depending on where the settlers come from, and what denominations they belong to, these splinter groups, you’re going to have different types of religious settlements in America.

Harmony: So you mentioned up and down the Eastern Seaboard, there are several different settlements that end up having a different religious trend.

Bob: Well, in all of the Southern colonies: Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, the Church of England at some point or other is established as the official church of each of those colonies.

I know Maryland is kind of an interesting case study, because Catholics remain a tiny, basically oppressed minority for almost all of the 17th century. They have their ups and downs, but by the beginning of the 18th century, Catholicism, open worship as a Catholic in Maryland is pretty much outlawed. The Church of England is established there.

Virginia comes into the story of diversity of religion when settlers from Pennsylvania chiefly come down the West through the Shenandoah Valley. You have Quakers, Presbyterians, Germans groups like Lutherans, German reform, Dutch reform, all kinds of people that have come into Western Virginia. So you have, as Thomas Jefferson says, by 1775, by his estimation, those who are not members of the Church of England, we call them legally, “dissenters,” from the Church of England. Jefferson reckons that by the time the Revolution starts, the dissenters outnumber the people that belong to the Church of England, even in Virginia, by 2:1.

Harmony: How do all these different groups get along?

Bob: Well, there’s a Baptist minister named James Ireland, an itinerant Baptist minister, a Scotsman who comes to Virginia in the 1760s. He says in the Shenandoah Valley, where he lives, that by living side by side, Quakers, Baptists, Lutherans, Church of England people, that people become familiar with one another’s religious ways and their differences and that environment has bred a mutual respect, an atmosphere of toleration amongst the folks of the different religious persuasions. Sort of the opposite of the phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt.” For James Ireland, his observation of the west of Virginia was that familiarity with one another’s different ways bred respect and toleration.

Harmony: For people who’ve grown up taking for granted the separation of church and state, what does it mean when church and state are not separated?

Bob: Well, when church and state are not separated, then there are things that you have to do. Like I mentioned earlier, you have to attend, in the case of the Church of England or any other established church, you have to attend church. In Virginia it’s once a month.

You have to pay annual taxes to the church. In many places, if you’re not a certain denomination, you can’t vote, or you can’t hold office unless you belong to the established church. There are number of civil legal disabilities for where the church and the state are bound together in a society.

Harmony: So the church is the law in that case.

Bob: The church is part of the law, yes. In England, there are church courts. Here in Virginia we don’t have them, but in England, if you commit some sort of immoral act, or don’t attend church, you’re hauled up before a court of the church. Jefferson’s bill, which is adopted in 1786, puts all of that at an end.

When the church of England is disestablished, when religious freedom comes to Virginia in 1786, no longer do the people pay taxes, no longer do the people have to attend church, no longer do you have to even be a Christian to hold office. Jefferson’s bill makes it possible for Jews, Muslims, in theory, even atheists to hold office in Virginia

Harmony: This must have been a heck of an idea, at the time.

Bob: Just as revolutionary in a way as the political revolution that’s going on. Virginia does it first, and it’s a long time coming to other places. Massachusetts does not do away with required annual church taxes until about 1833 for example. So it’s a sort of piecemeal coming of the concept in the United States that government should be completely separate from religion.

Harmony: So we’ve got from 1607 up until the Bill of Rights, is ratified in 1791, we don’t really enshrine religious freedom as one of our core beliefs. How do we get to this point where we look at ourselves as Americans and say, “This is a place of religious freedom?” How do we start out being so exclusive and wind up in 1791 being so inclusive?

Bob: It’s bound up with and related to the same question that’s always the same question of the American Revolution. How the heck did we do that? How did we go from being a group of 13 separate countries almost, loyal to England, despite our regional differences and our religious differences and all, how did we come together, how were we able to unite enough to declare our independence, and then persist to fight the war and remain free of England at the end of it all?

They are bound up together. As communication among the 13 colonies begins to happen before the revolution, it’s happening in the realm of religion first. People among the 13 colonies start communicating with one another about religion. Just before they start communicating up and down the coast about what’s going on politically with the tax protest movements of the 1760s and all.

So it’s a long and complicated story, but as we stopped being one colony unto itself next to another colony unto itself, next to another colony unto itself, as we stop that, and by the middle of the 18th century become more aware through better communication of a lot of fronts of the differences among us, among the colonies that maybe we weren’t aware of when we weren’t communicating much.

What did the average Virginian know about a person from Massachusetts 1690? Virtually nothing. But by 1750, by 1760 when the Stamp Act, the other tax protests arise here in America, we’re learning about other people. And when you set about trying to work together with people who are very different than you – just like James Ireland said about on a smaller more focused level about the Shenandoah Valley – when you start being exposed to people who are different from you, you’re trying to work with them and live with them and then in our case start trying to create a new nation with people that are very different from you, then you have to work out the compromises.

Harmony: When you look at religion in the colonies and religion in Virginia, what do you think is the most important message for people to understand as they consider that as part of the religious history of the United States?

Bob: I think that in terms of religion, it’s very important that we realize when today we see religion as still such an important, often divisive, but vitally important matter to Americans, individually and as groups or as movements, we must remember that this is all part of a continuum, a process of living with and dealing with differences and diversity in religion since the settlers began coming to America.

Harmony: Bob, thanks for being with us today.

Bob: Thanks a lot.

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