Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

By James H. Hutson | Go to book overview

ONE
AMERICA AS A RELIGIOUS REFUGE: THE FOUNDING OF THE BRITISH NORTH AMERICAN COLONIES IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY

Many of the people who settled British North America in the seventeenth century came for religious reasons, for the opportunity to worship God in ways that were unacceptable in Europe. Their passion for their faith was transmitted to their descendants who created the American nation in 1776. This legacy of faith, periodically refashioned and refreshed, gave to the new country the strong religious flavor that, in the nineteenth century, impressed foreign and domestic observers and, in 1922, prompted G. K. Chesterton ( 1874- 1936), with ample justification, to call the United States "a nation with the soul of a church."1

For the men and women of faith who crossed the Atlantic in the seventeenth century, America was, in John Winthrop's words, a religious "refuge." Seventeenth-centuryEurope was full of religious fervor and hatred because it had not yet come to terms with the Protestant Reformation of the preceding century. Both Catholics and Protestants believed that there was a true religion, that they had it, and that others, in their own interest, should be compelled to conform to it, lest, deluded by false doctrine, they lose their souls. To impose religious uniformity, seventeenth-century Europeans tortured, maimed, and murdered individuals, fought wars, and displaced populations.

England did not escape these plagues. After Elizabeth I ( 1533- 1603) imposed a religious settlement in 1559, Catholics were considered potential traitors. Protestants, on whose behalf the Queen acted, began quarreling with each other. Those who wanted to continue cleansing the Church of England of residues of Roman Catholicism were called Puritans. There was no consensus among the Puritans about how far reforms should go. A small minority believed that the Anglican Church was so corrupt that they must withdraw immediately to seek the Lord while He might still be found. Taking as their motto a pamphlet, Reformation without Tarrying for any, they hastened to Holland. From there they sailed to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620.2 These were, of course, the Pilgrims whose courage, suffering, and piety were celebrated by later generations of American historians far out of proportion to their mini

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