Leland Thoburn: The first freedom

Across the world we’re hearing calls for a marriage between government and religion.

In many countries, this is neither new nor surprising. To hear these calls in the United States is another matter.

We pioneered the separation of church and state as a means of ensuring religious freedom. This was a new concept in 1776, but thanks to our example, religious freedom is now the norm among democratic nations.

Why is religious freedom so important? When James Madison sat down to pen the Bill of Rights, why did his first words address freedom of religion?

We sometimes forget what our forefathers had not.

Medieval Europe had been a cauldron of superstition, terror and death. In the mid-1300s, the plague took 200 million lives. The Hundred Years’ War, actually a series of religious wars waged from 1337 to 1453, claimed an additional 3.5 million souls. Simultaneously, a “little ice age” brought chill winters and starvation to all of Europe.

Facing such cataclysms, people clamored for a scapegoat. The monarchs and high priests obliged, and the inquisition was born.

At first, witches were targeted as the source of the catastrophes. The diagnosis? Hereticism, or deviance from true Catholic belief.

Soon, Jews, Protestants and Muslims were found to be infected. Under the guise of enlightenment, inquisitions in France, Spain, Portugal and the New World killed, tortured and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of targeted people over the next centuries.

The year 1492 was notable. Christopher Columbus discovered America and the Spanish Inquisition expelled all Jews from Spain.

Cleansed of its Jews, Spain quickly exported the inquisition to the territories Columbus had discovered. Native South- and Central-Americans bore the brunt of the enlightenment, although the year 1528 saw two Jews burned at a Mexican stake.

Back in England, in 1534, King Henry VIII broke away from Rome and founded the Church of England, so that he could legally divorce and remarry.

He must have found the results gratifying. Soon afterward, he issued the “Act of Uniformity,” which demanded strict adherence to liturgical details when worshiping and imposed penalties ranging up to death for not worshiping.

Church and state thus became one. Adherents of alternate religions were caught between the hammer of the Catholic Church’s inquisitions and the anvil of the Church of England, causing some to rebel.

In 1579, Robert Browne, a lecturer at Cambridge University, was one of the first to secede from King Henry’s Church. Over the next six years, he established a new Christian congregation based on his separatist principles —less formal hierarchy and more control at the congregational level.

He was jailed 32 times before giving up and returning to the Church of England. His rebellion, however, lit a spark.

In 1586, John Greenwood assumed leadership of the “Separatists,” as they were called. Following in his predecessor’s footsteps, he soon found himself in jail.

And it was not just any jail, but one of England’s most notorious — “The Clink,” named for the sound its door made when closing. Blankets, clothing, even food, could only be obtained through bribery of corrupt guards or begging from passers-by through the jail fence.

Leg irons were ever-present. The floor of the prison crunched underfoot, a reminder, if one was needed, of the hordes of fleas and lice thriving there.

In late 1586, Greenwood was visited in his cell by Henry Barrow, a man of stature, a member of the Queen’s court and a recent convert to Separatism. As a result, Barrow was himself arrested and removed to a cell.

As had been the case with Greenwood, due process was ignored. The arrests were made solely at the command of religious authorities.

Barrow’s eventual “day in court” was nothing of the sort. He was called before the Archbishop of Canterbury, a man who championed religious uniformity throughout England.

The interrogation featured questions such as, “When were you at church?” and “Will you hereafter come to church?” Barrow was offered release if he promised to attend the Church of England, but he refused.

Returned to prison, he and Greenwood spent the next eight months mostly in solitary confinement. Finally released on bail, they resumed their Separatist worship and were almost immediately re-arrested.

Over the next five years, the men would share time between trials, interrogations, leg-irons and lice.

Finally, in the early morning of April 6, 1593, the men were taken from their cells. Jailers dressed them in foolish costumes, adding ridicule to the horrors of their pending death.

They were paraded in a horse-drawn cart through the streets of London to the public gallows, where both were hanged.

But their deaths inspired the Separatists. Where two had fallen, now stood hundreds.

In 1603, King James ascended to the English throne. Soon, 300 Puritans were purged from the ranks of the Church of England.

Next, he targeted the Separatists. “I shall make them conform themselves or I shall harry them out of the land,” he vowed.

Religious nonconformity laws were passed. By 1607, Separatists who had not yet been jailed fled to Holland.

Holland was a beacon for seekers of religious freedom. A 1579 Dutch law proclaimed that “no man be molested or questioned on the subject of divine worship.”

But the Holland of the early 1600s was not the Holland of 1579. The influx of foreigners provided ready scapegoats for every calamity.

In 1618, the Thirty Years’ War, pitting Catholics against Protestants, began to consume Europe. It would eventually claim more than 8 million lives.

The Separatists feared that a Catholic victory would add their names to the roll. In desperation, they looked to America for refuge.

What they saw was the promise of famine, deprivation, disease and death. They were taught that the indigenous people would “torment men in the most bloody manner that may be; flaying some alive with the shells of fishes, cutting off the members and joints of others by piecemeal and broiling on the coals, eat … their flesh in their sight whilst they live, with other cruelties horrible to be related.”

Nonetheless, in 1618, the first boatload left for Virginia. Blown off course, beset by disease, 130 of the original 180 passengers were buried at sea, never to see America.

In 1620, a second attempt was made. This voyage was to be attempted by the Mayflower and the Speedwell, sailing together. The Speedwell, however, proved unfit for the open ocean, twice forcing both ships to return to England.

Finally, on the third attempt, the Mayflower, sailing solo, left England. Its 100-foot length held 102 passengers and crew, providing each voyager only a few feet of personal space.

People slept where they could — on the deck, in the hull, in the longboat. A single bucket provided the only toilet service.

The time lost in England would prove costly. They were making the voyage now in the face of fall storms, and seasickness was rampant.

In one particularly violent storm, the main deck beam cracked. The crew miraculously repaired it at sea, obviating a third return to England.

Finally, 66 days after leaving England, the pilgrims arrived in America.

The season was late, too late to plant. As a result, half the pilgrims would perish during that first barren winter.

And nature was not the only enemy, as they had not been the first to arrive.

The lure of the New World had also attracted Africans, Jews, Puritans, Catholics, Quakers, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and nearly every variation of Christianity the mind of man has ever devised.

They had all learned to suffer, but not to co-exist. America was only as safe as one could make it, so it became common for the faithful to seek protection in the embrace of government.

In 1624, the Virginia Colony passed a law establishing the Church of England as its sole permitted religion, to be supported by tax dollars siphoned from its colonists.

By 1632, church attendance was deemed compulsory. It was now illegal to refuse baptism, for a ship to bring a Quaker into the colony, or for Quakers or Catholics to openly practice their religion.

Up north, it was the same song, different band.

By the mid-1600s, Quaker missionaries had begun to descend on Massachusetts.

At first, the Puritans resorted to simple banishment. When that failed to deter them, public flogging and imprisonment were enforced. When that also failed to deter, Puritans began cutting off ears and boring holes in tongues with hot pokers.

When that, too, failed to deter, the ultimate penalty was enforced. Between 1659 and 1661, four Quaker missionaries were hanged.

The Quakers were not the sole targets of the Puritans’ wrath either.

In 1648, the Puritans hanged their first witch, a midwife named Margaret Jones. The practice escalated until the now famous Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693, in which over 200 people were accused, and 19 executed.

Although Jews in the New World did not proselytize, they found historical prejudices waiting for them when they landed. Various attempts were made to expel them, notably in New York, Maryland and the French colonies.

In 1669, a New England minister named Cotton Mather published and distributed a book in which he charged Jews with blaspheming and murdering Jesus, of once each year stealing and crucifying Christian children, and of poisoning the water supplies of entire nations. His writings incited many attacks against innocent Jews.

The violence spread to Maryland in 1664.

A marauding English captain named Richard Ingle attacked the Catholic colonies there. He and his crew chased most of the Catholics out of Maryland, including the then-acting governor, Leonard Calvert.

Ingle and his crew captured clergy, plundered and destroyed property and attacked Catholic targets throughout the colony. They were stopped only upon the return of the governor, who captured and executed them.

Nonetheless, by the end of the century, Maryland had changed colors, establishing the Church of England as the official state church and forbidding Catholics from voting, holding office or worshiping publicly.

In 1700, New York also passed laws prohibiting Catholicism. As soon as the law passed, locals celebrated by hanging a Catholic priest named John Ury.

Nor were the English alone.

In 1685, French authorities enacted the Black Code, their policy regarding, among other things, religion in their territories. The Code Noir, as it was called, banned all religious practices except Catholicism, and ordered the expulsion of all Jews from French colonies.

It took Georgia until 1732 to enact a charter which forbade the practice of Catholicism. Catholics were forbidden public office, denied the right to vote, and prohibited from worshiping publicly.

And as late as 1776, the North Carolina constitution, like its counterparts in South Carolina and New Jersey, made Protestantism a requirement for holding public office.

This was the history that burned hot in the memories of the founding fathers when James Madison sat down in 1789 to compose the Bill of Rights. After much deliberation, he picked up his pen and wrote, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

It was a bold and enlightened statement, mightier than any oppressor’s sword, for it has changed the world. It has made America a beacon for religious liberty and a model for other nations.

There has always been a clamor to use the lash of government to herd other-believers. Today, that din is getting louder.

But don’t make the mistake of assuming the whip is sacred just because you’re holding the handle. Don’t forget the horrors that attend when government and religion mix.

Our forefathers didn’t, and the protections we all enjoy are a testament to their wisdom.

Guest Writer Leland Thoburn is a retired business consultant who has been making his home in McMinnville’s West Hills neighborhood for 11 years. He has been a writer all his life, but didn’t start writing professionally until 2007. He has had more than 100 articles and short stories published since that time, the articles focusing mostly on civil liberties. 


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