What about Religious Liberty?

Religious Liberty

Rev. Pat James

While celebrating Independence Day I began thinking about the First Amendment to the Constitution that guarantees Religious Liberty in this great country. That Amendment reads in part;  Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”

In modern times, that Amendment is being used as the basis for all sorts of rulings and laws and many of those rulings are completely contrary to the intentions of our Founding Fathers who wrote the Amendment. For example, the First Amendment has been used to silence prayer in public schools and at school functions.It is being used as the basis for insisting that all symbols of Christianity be removed from any publicly owned building. It is being used in an attempt to prevent Christian groups from meeting on publicly owned property.

The First Amendment has been called “The wall of separation between church and state”, but the intent of that law was to prevent the government from ever establishing a State Sanctioned Church. It was to prohibit the government from passing laws that would favor and support one denomination or religious belief over all others. It was also intended to prevent the government from interfering in the expression of a persons faith regardless of what that faith is.

Most everyone has heard that in the beginning, one of the main reasons why people came to settle in this country was to escape religious persecution. What many folks don’t realize is that for the most part, that “persecution” was from the official government established churches of the various countries. For example in England, the established church was the Church of England.  Therefore no other church or denomination was recognized as legitimate. Those who held beliefs that differed from theirs were persecuted in various ways because they were considered to be “heretics.” In Scotland the Presbyterian Church was the State Church and they too persecuted anyone who didn’t agree with their doctrinal beliefs.

In Germany the State Church was the Lutheran Church. In Spain, Italy, and France, the State Church was Catholic.  Most every country had a State sanctioned church and in every case those who didn’t belong to the State Church were persecuted in one way or another.

Of course there were people who lived in those various countries who’s beliefs differed from the State Church. For example, even though the Church of England was the official church in England, there were still Lutherans and Presbyterians and Catholics who lived there.

In most countries there were also those who’s beliefs differed from those of the popular denominations. These people were called by many different names but the oldest and most common name was “Ana-Baptist”.

They were originally called that because most of them didn’t accept the doctrine of infant baptism, so if someone wanted to join their church they had to be baptized even if they had already been baptized as a baby.  That was called “Another Baptism” and that’s what “Ana-Baptist” means … “another baptism.”

Over time however, nearly any church or group that didn’t align with one of the State sanctioned denominations were usually called “Ana-Baptist” regardless of their beliefs about baptism.

In the early days of immigration to this country, the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and the Church of England groups established separate colonies. There they immediately passed laws establishing their particular church as the only legal church in their colony, to the absolute exclusion of all others.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had the Congregational Church as their State Church passed a law that read; “It is ordered and agreed that if any person within this jurisdiction, shall condemn or oppose the baptizing of infants or go about secretly to seduce others from the use thereof or purposely depart the congregation at the ministration of the ordinance, such person shall be sentenced to banishment.”

Banishmentwas serious business in those days, it usually meant that a person would have to go and live with the Indians in order to survive. Of course there were many other kinds of persecution which included confiscation of property, public whippings, imprisonment, etc.

In 1638 a group of people who had been banished from other colonies, and were led by Roger Williams, and an Ana-Baptist Preacher named John Clark, decided that even though they didn’t have legal authority from England, they would organize a colony of their own. They found a little section of land that had not yet been claimed and settled there forming what came to be known as the Rhode Island Colony.

In 1663, after finally receiving permission from England, the Rhode Island Colony wrote a legal charter that attracted world wide attention because it was the very first legal declaration of Religious Liberty in the whole world!

When Congress began discussing the question of whether the United States should have an established church, there were three primary contenders; the Church of England, the Congregationalist Church and the Presbyterian Church. However, the so-called Ana-Baptists who were supported by James Madison, and many others, argued for complete and total religious liberty.

Patrick Henry proposed a bill that would establish four churches (or denominations) as the official churches of this country and his bill would allow the tax payers to indicate which church received their tax money.

It’s interesting that one of the major obstacles to religious liberty in America (and probably all over the world at that time), was the idea that the church could not possibly exist without governmental support. The idea that a church could survive just on the voluntary offerings of their congregations was considered an impossibility!

And the churches that were already established as State Churches used that as the basis for their arguments against religious liberty. Their conviction was that if the government didn’t support the church then this country would soon become a nation of “non-religious heathen” and our society would crumble.

But thanks to the Providence of God it was finally decided that; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”

For centuries, that law is what has set this nation apart from all others. That law, (when observed in the way it was intended), is what prevents the government from establishing a State Church, and from interfering with the church through taxation or zoning laws or anything else.

I thank God for that law and I hope you do too.

Rev. Pat James, Pastor Emeritus, True Hope Christian Fellowship

2506 18th. Ave.

Forest Grove, OR  97116


email: pastorpatj@gmail.com

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