Religious Freedom in the Original Colonies

We all hear about American founding principles, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to self-defense, and many others. Yet we less often hear about the fact that these founding principles were, in many ways, a crossover between competing sets of values. We even less often think about the fact that these sets of values remain in contest with one another to this day. The history of religious freedom in three of the most important colonies (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) says quite a bit about the contrasting sets of principles that compete for American values. I am uncertain about the degree to which the knowledge that I will present in this article is common among Americans. But I only found out about most of it last month, and I found it incredibly interesting.

The story of Massachusetts is by far the most well-known. Anti-American leftist history textbooks are very fond of this example because it helps their cause. Most early settlers of Massachusetts were Puritans who escaped religious persecution, only to forget that religious persecution is an evil thing. There were four hangings of Quakers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; all other executions of Quakers worldwide were limited to a single killing ordered by the Vatican. Quakers were further imprisoned and banished under extreme conditions, such that they were put under an immediate threat of death by freezing or starvation. Even the English King Charles II, from whom the Puritans escaped, urged the colony to ease their treatment of Quakers. Baptists, Anglicans, and Catholics were also unwelcome, and suffrage was only extended to non-Puritans in 1691, when Massachusetts merged with Nantucket, Plymouth, and Maine. There was even a whole new colony (Rhode Island) that was formed by those banished from Massachusetts for professing non-conforming beliefs. The Salem witch trials of the 1690s lead to the execution of twenty people, leaving an uncomfortable stain on early American history.

With all these facts out of the way, it is proper to give credit to the Massachusetts where it is due. The lifestyle that the Puritans promoted was a good one, even if its fostering required unnecessary force. They had a strong sense of virtue in regard to both purity and the work ethic. Their attitude towards improving others lead to a strong representation of abolitionism in their colony. Massachusetts was the first colony to completely enforce local abolition of slavery, and their efforts were instrumental to ending slavery in the South. Massachusetts today is the education capital of the world, containing institutions such as Harvard and MIT, and having the best-ranking secondary education system of all fifty states. The Puritans’ devotion to making the world a perfect place has very likely contributed to this state of the state.

Yet this same devotion has also given America tendencies that clash with its other values. Dedication to changing other people, even if it conflicts with liberty, has motivated the prevalence of the far left’s social justice ideology. Witch hunts in universities for professors who fail to conform to the given narrative may also be a product of this colonial microculture. America’s more modern need to police the world may as well be motivated by these elements of its origin. Puritan attitudes have also led to an inferior drinking culture to Europe. It is common in our country to either strictly abstain from drinking or to become intoxicated regularly. In many cases, sex must either be a taboo topic or a casual and degenerate display. These poisons in American culture are at least in part a product of the influence from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (It is relevant to make the distinction between Puritans and Pilgrims; none of these criticisms apply to the latter.)

The Puritans were not the only ones of the many protestant denominations that formed in England during these times. The Society of Friends (who are now known as Quakers) began to form during the English Civil War in the 1640s. Like Puritans, they were persecuted by the English state, but unlike Puritans, they were not safe from persecution in New England either. After the English annexed the New Netherland colony, Quakers purchased land in what is now New Jersey, but they believed this land was insufficient. The King owed money to the deceased father of one of the Quakers, William Penn. He agreed to grant Penn an incredibly large amount of land in the Colonies as a payment for this debt. Penn was one of the more idealistic Quakers, and he immediately set sail across the Atlantic to begin a new colony where he founded the city of Philadelphia. Of this new land he wrote: “It is a clear and just thing, and my God who has given it me through many difficulties, will, I believe, bless and make it the seed of a Nation.”

Pennsylvania was intended to have complete religious freedom for all adherents of monotheistic religions: Christians, Jews, and Muslims. All Christians were allowed to run for office. This new religious freedom attracted religious minorities who were persecuted in their homeland, including Catholics and Jews as well as countless protestant denominations, such as the Mennonites and Amish. The abundance of Amish in Pennsylvania is directly related to the religious freedom that the colony offered to persecuted groups. Towns in Lehigh Valley with names like Bethlehem, Emmaus, and Nazareth exist because of adherents to the Moravian Church who chose to name their settlements after New Testament cities. Pennsylvania was one of the safest colonies for Catholics, who were perhaps the most hated Christian group in the colonies at the time. Even some Pennsylvanians doubted whether the religious freedom in their colony extends to Catholics. Yet during the Seven Years War, when a mob attacked the Catholics of Philadelphia (suspecting them of siding with the French) the law protected these Catholics against the mob. Like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania abolished slavery early, before New York and New Jersey. The colony also pioneered in many of the freedoms ascribed to American values. Even the art of amending a constitution was originally invented by William Penn. Benjamin Franklin, who fled from Boston to Philadelphia when he was seventeen, served as the President of Pennsylvania (yes, you read that correctly) during the 1780s, and he laid out the relationship between virtue and freedom that America relied upon throughout its history.

Long before I knew about many of the above facts, I was struck by the state of Pennsylvania as a kind of mosaic of Christian denominations. In particular, the abundance of Orthodox churches (especially near Pittsburgh and Scranton) is a phenomenon that attracted my attention. It turns out that a large part of the Orthodox community in these areas are descendant from converts to Orthodoxy from Eastern Catholicism who were unhappy with the Catholic authorities forcing them to westernize. Their Eastern Catholic ancestors were attracted to these parts of the state because of the booming anthracite coal industry that gave them jobs. The town of Shenandoah, PA, one of the earlier points of this coal industry, contained the first Eastern Catholic church in the country. The town still includes the country’s oldest Lithuanian Catholic church and one of the nation’s oldest Polish Catholic churches. Mass immigration to the state from these parts of Europe occurred much later than the events previously described. But whether or not the presence of these churches is related to Pennsylvania’s history of religious freedom, it is at least an interesting coincidence. To add to the mix, Jehovah’s Witnesses were derived from an 1870s Bible study in Pittsburgh.

The Founding Fathers had a strong sentiment in favor of religious freedom, but it was not entirely derived from Pennsylvania. Most of the well-known Founding Fathers, including Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, were from Virginia. Yet this state was initially intended to promote royal English values, including the Anglican tradition. There was no intent to make Virginia, upon its founding, a haven for oppressed religious groups. The Anglican church in early colonial Virginia had strong ties with the colony’s government. By the 1740s, both the elites and the immigrant farmers in Virginia were generally apathetic to their religion. Sleeping and staring at nice women were documented common practices in Virginia’s Anglican churches of the time. Then came the First Great Awakening, a shift in Christian thinking and religious zeal across the colonies, especially New England. Baptist missionaries came from the north to Virginia, enlightening many poor white farmers, and even some slaves, into a much more emotional and zealous version of Christianity. They promoted obedience to conservative sexual norms and other high moral standards, which was refreshing for much of Virginia’s farmer population. The gentry considered these new Baptist converts to be radicals, responding with an increase of the Anglican church’s authority. Baptists protested these changes, and on their side were a few Anglicans, including Jefferson and Madison. It was in this way that the topic of religious freedom became so relevant to many of the Founding Fathers.

Thus American values may have multiple origins, and it is our choice which set we adhere to. It is up to the current generation to decide whether these foundations are compatible and in which direction to move with respect to the clashes between them.

About The Author

Vlad Smetanko is a patriotic American who is an Orthodox Christian from Infancy.

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