Religious Liberty and the Constitution

American Minute with Bill Federer

An early Baptist dissenter who died in London’s Newgate Prison was Thomas Helwys, who wrote in 1612:

“The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them.”

Thomas Helwys founded the Baptist faith in England with John Smyth and John Murton.

Thomas Helwys wrote in A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity:

“If the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane laws made by the King, our lord the King can require no more: for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man.”

Baptist dissenter John Murton was thrown in the Newgate Prison where his opinions were censored for being against the government agenda.

Baptist founder of Rhode Island Roger Williams referred to John Murton in “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution For Conscience Sake,” 1644:

“The author of these arguments against persecution … being committed (a) prisoner to Newgate for the witness of some truths of Jesus …

and having not use of pen and ink, wrote these arguments in milk, in sheets of paper brought to him by the woman, his keeper, from a friend in London as the stopples (corks) of his milk bottle …

In such paper, written with milk, nothing will appear; but the way of reading by fire being known to this friend who received the papers, he transcribed and kept together the papers, although the author himself could not correct nor view what himself had written …

It was in milk, tending to soul nourishment, even for babes and sucklings in Christ … the word of truth … testify against … slaughtering each other for their several respective religions and consciences.”

Roger Williams himself was found guilty of preaching religious liberty in England.

When the government sought to arrest him, he fled to Boston on FEBRUARY 5, 1631.

Puritans in Massachusetts had begun enforcing religious uniformity, similar to what they had fled from in England. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in Engel v. Vitale, 1962:

“When some of the very groups which had most strenuously opposed the established Church of England found themselves sufficiently in control of colonial governments in this country to write their own prayers into law, they passed laws making their own religion the official religion of their respective colonies.”

Roger Williams pastored briefly before “notorious disagreements” with Puritan clergyman John Cotton caused the Massachusetts General Court to censor his religious speech.

Upon hearing the sheriff was on his way to arrest him in January of 1636, Williams fled for weeks in the freezing winter.

He was befriended by the Indians of Narragansett where he founded Providence Plantation, Rhode Island — the first place where church government was not controlled by state government.

A historical plaque reads:

“To the memory of Roger Williams, the Apostle of Soul Liberty, Founder of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation.”

The reverse of the plaque reads:

“Below this spot then at the water’s edge stood the rock on which according to tradition Roger Williams, an exile for the devotion to the freedom of conscience, landed. 1636.”

Roger Williams wrote in 1661:

“I having made covenant of peaceable neighborhood with all the Sachems and natives round about us, and having in a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress called the place Providence … a shelter for persons distressed of conscience.”

In 1637, dissident Minister Rev. John Wheelwright, the brother-in-law of Anne Hutchinson, fled Massachusetts and founded Exeter, New Hampshire.

In 1638, Roger Williams, with Dr. John Clarke, organized the first Baptist Church in America.

A plaque reads:

“The First Baptist Church, Founded by Roger Williams, AD 1638, The Oldest Baptist Church in America, The Oldest Church in this State.”

Soon other dissenters arrived in the colony, such as Anne Hutchinson, William Coddington, and Philip Sherman.

Sir Henry Vane was the Governor of Massachusetts 1636-1637, where he helped found Harvard and supported Roger Williams.

In 1639, Sir Henry Vane returned to England where he backed the Puritan Revolution, led by Oliver Cromwell, though he did not support the Rump Parliament which beheaded Charles I.

During the brief English Commonwealth, Vane helped draft the 1643 Patent for Providence Plantation, which was unique in guaranteeing freedom of religion, and later defended it on behalf of Williams against a competing charter in 1652.

Roger William wrote of him in April of 1664:

“Under God, the great anchor of our ship is Sir Henry … an instrument in the hand of God for procuring this island.”

A statue of Sir Henry Vane is in the Boston Public Library with a plaque that reads:

“Sir Henry Vane … An ardent defender of civil liberty and advocate of free thought in religion. He maintained that God, Law, and Parliament were superior to the King.”

The Plantation Agreement at Providence, September 6, 1640, stated:

“We agree, as formerly hath been the liberties of the town, so still, to hold forth liberty of Conscience.”

The Government of Rhode Island, March 19, 1641, stated:

“The Government … in this Island … is a Democracy, or Popular Government; that is to say, It is in the Power of the Body of Freemen orderly assembled.”

In 1644, Roger Williams decided to respond to John Cotton’s accusations by publishing “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Conscience Sake and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered.”

In it, Roger Williams first mentioned his now famous phrase, “WALL OF SEPARATION”:

“Mr. Cotton … hath not duly considered these following particulars.

First, the faithful labors of many witnesses of Jesus Christ, existing in the world, abundantly proving,

that the Church of the Jews under the Old Testament in the type and the Church of the Christians under the New Testament in the anti-type, were both SEPARATE from the world;

and that when they have opened a gap in the HEDGE, or WALL OF SEPARATION, between the garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broken down the WALL itself, removed the candlestick, &c. and made his garden a wilderness, as at this day.

And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be WALLED in peculiarly unto Himself from the world,

and that all that shall be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the world and added unto His Church or garden … a SEPARATION of Holy from unHoly, penitent from impenitent, Godly from unGodly.”

Rev. Roger Williams was alluding to Isaiah 5:1-7, that when God’s people sin, He judges them by allowing his vineyard to be trampled by an ungodly government:

“My well-beloved hath a vineyard … And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine … and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem … judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard … When I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? …

I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I WILL TAKE AWAY THE HEDGE thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and BREAK DOWN THE WALL thereof, and it shall be trodden down …

For the vineyard … is house of Israel … and he looked for judgment, but found oppression.”

Roger Williams’ understanding was that if God’s people sin, God will let the government trample their religious rights, in the same way that when Israel sinned, God let the surrounding nations invade and trample them.

This is seen in the Book of Revelations’ warning to the Church at Ephesus, “Repent and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”

But Roger Williams stated that if God’s people do repent, “He will restore His garden” protecting it as “walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world.”

This became a foundational Baptist tenet that government should be kept out of the church.

Baptist churches began in other colonies.

James Madison wrote to Robert Walsh, March 2, 1819:

“The English church was originally the established religion …

Of other sects there were but few adherents, except the Presbyterians who predominated on the west side of the Blue Mountains.

A little time previous to the Revolutionary struggle, the Baptists sprang up, and made very rapid progress …

At present the population is divided … among the Protestant Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Baptists and the Methodists.”

Baptist minister John Leland, who helped start Baptist Churches in Connecticut, was instrumental in getting Baptists to support the election of James Madison to the first session of Congress.

Rev. Leland delivered an enormous block of cheese to President Jefferson from the citizens of Cheshire, Massachusetts, in 1802, after which he was invited to address Congress on the topic of liberty of conscience and the government being separated from interfering with the church.

John Leland wrote in Rights of Conscience Inalienable, 1791:

“Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience.

If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”

The theological understanding was that the more you love someone, the more you want that someone to love you back.

God is love and He loves us infinitely, and He has an infinite desire for us to love Him back. Deuteronomy 6:5 “Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”

God does NOT need our love, as He is not incomplete in any way, but He wants it. (Exodus 34:14 “the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”)

In the same way parents do not need to have children, but they want to, and when they do, they do not expect their children to pay them back, but they do desire time with them, appreciation, affection, and fellowship.

Throughout scripture, Israel and the church are referred to as the Lord’s “bride.”

Hosea 2:19-20 “And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea … I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the LORD.”

II Corinthians 11:2 “For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”

The dilemma is this, that love, by its very nature, must be voluntary. The moment it is forced, it evaporates.

God uses positive and negative motivations, blessings and withholding blessings, but He will not force a person’s will.

He put the tree in the garden and told Adam and Eve not to eat from it, but He gave them the choice. He gave the Children of Israel the Law, explaining the blessings and the curses, and told them to “choose life,” but He gave them the choice.

All of creation obeys God, but only man can choose to love God.

To illustrate this, if a man twists his wife’s arm and says, “tell me you love me,” no matter what she says, she does not love him.

But if he courts and woos her with flowers, chocolate, dinner, and with self-sacrifice provides for, defends and rescues her, then if out of the abundance of her heart she says “I love you,” it means something.

God is not interested in submit or I will chop your head off, instead His desire is for us, by His grace, to voluntarily choose to surrender our will.

This was the understanding James Madison expressed in his National Proclamation of Public Humiliation and Prayer, July 23, 1813:

“If the public homage of a people can ever be worthy of the favorable regard of the Holy and Omniscient Being to whom it is addressed,

it must be … guided only by their free choice, by the impulse of their hearts and the dictates of their consciences …

proving that religion, that gift of Heaven for the good of man, is freed from all coercive edicts.”

Prior to the 1947 Everson case, religion was under each individual States’ jurisdiction. The first ten amendments were handcuffs on the Federal Government.

John Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1889), stated in its definition of Religion:

“The Constitution of the United States provides that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ This provision and that relating to religious
tests are limitations upon the power of the Congress only …

The Christian religion is, of course, recognized by the government, yet … the preservation of religious liberty is left to the States.”

In his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 1833, Justice Joseph Story stated:

“In some of the States, Episcopalians constituted the predominant sect; in other, Presbyterians; in others, Congregationalists; in others, Quakers …

The whole power over the subject of religion is left exclusively to the State governments.”

During North Carolina’s Convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution, Governor Samuel Johnston stated, July 30, 1788:

“I know but two or three States where there is the least chance of establishing any particular religion.

The people of Massachusetts and Connecticut are mostly Presbyterians. In every other State, the people are divided into a great number of sects.

In Rhode Island, the tenets of the Baptists, I believe, prevail.

In New York, they are divided very much; the most numerous are the Episcopalians and the Baptists.

In New Jersey, they are as much divided as we are.

In Pennsylvania, if any sect prevails more than others, it is that of the Quakers.

In Maryland, the Episcopalians are most numerous, though there are other sects.

In Virginia, there are many sects; you all know what their religious sentiments are.

So in all the Southern States they differ; as also New Hampshire.

I hope, therefore, that gentlemen will see there is no cause of fear that any one religion shall be exclusively established.”

Though the Federal Government was prohibited by the First Amendment from establishing a religion, the States were not.

Connecticut had established the Congregational Christian denomination from its founding in 1636 by Rev. Thomas Hooker till its first state constitution in 1818.

When Baptists moved into Connecticut, the Danbury Baptist Association complained to President Jefferson, October 7, 1801, of their second-class status:

“Sir … Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty

-That religion is at all times and places a matter between God and Individuals

-That no man ought to suffer in name, person or effects on account of his religious opinions

-That the legitimate power of civil Government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor:

But Sir … our ancient charter (in Connecticut), together with the Laws made coincident therewith … are; that … what religious privileges we enjoy (as Baptists) … we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights …”

The Danbury Baptists continued:

“Sir, we are sensible that the President of the united States is not the national Legislator & also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State;

but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial Effect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth.

Sir … we have reason to believe that America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of State … May God strengthen you for the arduous task which Providence & the voice of the people have called you …

And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.”

On January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote back agreeing with the Baptists:

“Gentlemen … Believing with you

-that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God,

-that he owes account to none other for faith or his worship,

-that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions,

I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all his natural rights …

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man.”

In his 2nd Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson stated:

“In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government.

I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercise suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state and church authorities by the several religious societies.”

Jefferson wrote to Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808:

“I consider the government of the United States as interdicted (prohibited) by the Constitution from inter-meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.

This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States …”

Jefferson continued:

“Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the General government. It must then rest with the States as far as it can be in any human authority …

I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines …

Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets.”

bill-federer-2Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.