First Freedom First: A Citizen's Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State

By C. Welton Gaddy; Barry W. Lynn | Go to book overview

The Historical Foundation
of Religious Freedom

In the autumn of 2004 I had the privilege of speaking at a celebration of the two-hundred-and-seventy-fifth anniversary of Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally, the community that became the town of Bedford stretched between the towns of Billerica and Concord. However, getting to the meetinghouses in those two locations presented quite a challenge to residents of that community, especially during snowstorms. But participation in worship was not an option. Civil law in colonial Massachusetts mandated that a meetinghouse be accessible to every community and that all residents in a town attend the weekly services of public worship held in their town’s meetinghouse. So in 1729, residents of the area between the towns of Billerica and Concord petitioned the state legislature to incorporate Bedford as a town. When that request was granted, a beautiful white frame building was constructed in the center of the town’s square as the home of First Parish, the venue of the town’s recent celebration of its incorporation.

Can you imagine governmental enforcement of required attendance in public worship? In Virginia, laws prohibited any consumption of food for a day among individuals who did not attend both morning and evening worship services on Sunday. The second time that people did not show up for worship, they were beaten. And the third time they were placed in prison for six months. Here is evidence of the disturbing truth that religious liberty has never been completely secure in this nation.

In fact, abuses of religious freedom abounded in colonial Amer

-7-

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