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From Puritan Aspiration To The Virginia Bill Of Rights

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By JUDE P. DOUGHERTY

Throughout the nineteenth and most the twentieth century, schoolbooks depicted the early European settlers of the North American Continent as noble-minded immigrants, in the Old World persecuted for their religious faith, and in the New World bent on the creation of a more congenial society.
In spite of attempts to totally secularize public school curricula, that story may yet prevail, if only to support the liberal immigration policy advanced by the progressive left. The truth is far more interesting, and perhaps more relevant.
From the ranks of the Pilgrims who settled in the New World between 1620 and 1630 emerged a theocracy which was to prevail in New England through the latter part of the seventeenth century and most of the eighteenth. It was a theocracy that came to be replaced by a democracy in accord with its own conception of God’s plan for mankind.
The Puritans were a reform-minded group in the Anglican Church whose objective was the practice of Christianity in its pristine purity. Opposed to what they described as “fleshly and worldly compromise,” opposed to sacramental ritual and all rite, the Puritans insisted in doctrinal matters on the “right of private judgment” and in worship on the “priesthood of all believers.” They were united in their conviction that the Church of England had not gone far enough in disassociating itself from the Church of Rome.
The most renowned congregation of Puritans is the one that fled Holland in 1607, sailing from Scrooby, Holland, on the Mayflower to the shores of Cape Cod where the Plymouth Colony was established in 1620. That colony became the model for many others in North America. Taking their cue from Thomas Cartwright, the Puritan Bay Colony fashioned a framework for the church. Only the elect would vote and rule in the commonwealth. The Church was not to govern, but it was to supply the instruments of rule, namely, the rationale for law and the principles which determine election procedures. Biblical law was to be the primary law for ordering both church and state. The Bay Colony prospered and it was taken as evidence of the favor of God.
True, it had its heretics: Roger Williams, Anne Hutchison, and Mary Dyer, for example, and the Colony did not hesitate to banish them. Some among the banished Quaker group founded by Dyer returned to be punished and finally hanged.
No colony escaped Puritan influence. Not even the colony named after William Penn. It has been estimated that eighty-five percent of the churches in the original thirteen colonies were Puritan in spirit. Calvin eventually became their most important theologian.
Purifying worship became a major objective. Ritual and symbol were replaced by preaching, prayer, and the singing of Psalms. Sermons based on biblical texts could last from one to two hours, not only on Sundays but on market days as well. Congregations were divided on whether to legislate for the community as a whole; nevertheless, the famous New England “blue laws” came into being. They were the result of the Puritan effort to enforce community-wide observance of the Ten Commandments.
Because the preaching of the word of God was of paramount importance, ministers required superior education. Their training grounds were the New England grammar schools and seminaries, modeled on the English, and they became the foundation for some of the country’s most distinguished schools. Institutions that we know today as the Boston Latin School and Harvard College were established within ten years of the landing of the Bay Colony.
The North American shores attracted not only the Puritans but a multiplicity of other dissident religious groups. By the time of the American Revolution and the framing of the United States Constitution, it was clear that no one religious group was dominant. The compromise worked out by the Constitutional Convention repudiated a national church but allowed each state among the original thirteen to determine its official church. It was not until the early decades of the nineteenth century that it became clear that there could not be even at the state level an official church. Although Virginia disestablished the Church of England in 1786, Connecticut did not disestablish the Congregational Church until 1818.
With independence, the spokesmen for the colonists still took for granted the good effects of religion as they drafted the federal and state constitutions. The problem at hand was the adjudication of the conflict among a multiplicity of sects. George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights provided that men should enjoy “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.”
His colleague, James Madison thought that stronger language was needed since toleration could be taken to mean only a limited form of religious liberty, i.e., toleration of dissenters in a state where there was an established church. Madison drafted a substitute, declaring that “all men are equally entitled to a full exercise of religion,” and, therefore “no man or class of men, on account of religion, be invested with any peculiar emolument or privileges.”
Madison was writing in a state that did in fact have an established church, and it was not his intent to disestablish the Anglican Church in Virginia. Out of the Virginia debate came the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution with its declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or preventing the free exercise thereof.”
The neutrality doctrine which governed legislation in the early days of the Republic eventually came to be construed by the United States Supreme Court as neutrality between religion and irreligion. Such a turn may have surprised Thomas Jefferson who, while he spoke of a “wall of separation,” never wanted to divorce religion from public life.
The founders of modern political theory like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke believed in the social utility of religion. John Stuart Mill repudiated Christianity, but not the “religion of humanity.” Auguste Comte, in spite of his denial of all metaphysical validity of religious belief, was willing to accept as a civic good the moral and ritual traditions of at least Catholic Christianity. Emile Durkheim was not so positive. For him the major task of the state is to free individuals from partial societies such as families, religious collectives, and labor and professional groups.
In the twentieth century, John Dewey was to adopt the views of Mill and Durkheim. Whereas Dewey began his career speaking of “our obligation to know God,” the mature Dewey had no use for religious institutions, whatever roles they may have played in the past. Religion, he held, is an unreliable source of knowledge and, in spite of contentions to the contrary, even of motivation. The thrust of Dewey’s critique of religion is not merely to eliminate churches from political life but to reduce their effectiveness as agencies in private life.
Dewey’s philosophy became, de facto, that of the American public school with consequences for morality and culture that we are now encountering.
As Europe cedes the Continent to Islam, we may be aware of but reluctant to accept the pessimism of prominent political theorists who try to envision what life might be like under an Islamic theocracy at odds with Christianity.
We in the United States are beginning to face a similar fate as our institutions come under the influence of an intellectual cadre at war with Christianity. Absent a respect for the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, absent the recognition of a natural moral law, all decisions become political. Unless the Constitution holds, those who control the media are apt to determine the future of the country.

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