Freedom of Religion: America's Greatest Invention: While Much of the World Still Faces Restrictions on Religion, America's Unique Approach Brought about Both Religious Freedom and Spiritual Vibrancy

By Waldman, Steven | American Heritage, Winter 2020 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Religion: America's Greatest Invention: While Much of the World Still Faces Restrictions on Religion, America's Unique Approach Brought about Both Religious Freedom and Spiritual Vibrancy


Waldman, Steven, American Heritage


Steven Waldman is one of our most articulate thinkers on the subject of religion. He was National Editor of US News & World Report and founded the multifaith religion website Beliefnet.com. He has also published several books including Sacred Liberty: America's Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom and Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty. Waldman currently runs Report for America, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening our democracy through local journalism. --The Editors

The Reverend John Waller was preaching in Caroline County, Virginia, in 1771 when an Anglican minister strode up to the pulpit and jammed the butt end of a horse whip into his mouth. Waller was dragged outside, where a local sheriff beat him bloody. He spent 113 days in jail--for the crime of being a Baptist preacher. When the Reverend James Ireland was jailed in nearby Culpeper County, he continued to preach through his cell's barred windows. To stop him, Anglican church leaders galloped horses through the crowd, and hecklers urinated in his face. The Reverend David Thomas's services were disrupted by protesters who hurled live snakes and a hornet's nest into the room.

These were among 150 major attacks against Baptists in Virginia between 1760 and 1778, many of them carried out by leaders of local Anglican churches--and, significantly, many of them within a horse ride of a young James Madison.

"This vexes me the most of any thing," Madison, then twenty-three, complained to his friend William Bradford in 1774. He told Bradford that five or six "well-meaning" Baptist ministers were at that moment imprisoned in neighboring Culpeper County for what he considered an absurd charge--preaching the gospel and "publishing their religious Sentiments." In the two years since Madison returned home from college in New Jersey, he had "squabbled and scolded" about the abuse of the Baptists but to little avail: "That diabolical, Hell-conceived principle of persecution rages."

As alien as these kinds of attacks seem today--Anglican ministers brutalizing Baptist ministers on the eve of the American Revolution?--they were much more common in our history than we like to admit. Those who demand religious rights have too often been mocked and murdered, tarred and feathered.

The same nation that boasts of its commitment to religious liberty also allowed for the following injustices

* In the seventeenth century, Massachusetts hanged people for being Quakers.

* When the Declaration of Independence was signed, nine of the thirteen colonies barred Catholics and Jews from holding office.

* In 1838, the governor of Missouri issued Executive Order 44, calling for the "extermination" of the Mormons.

* Protestant mobs burned convents, sacked churches, and collected the teeth of deceased nuns as souvenirs during anti-Catholic riots in the 1830s--just one of the many spasms of "anti-papism" that roiled America from the colonial era until well into the twentieth century.

* Hundreds of thousands of Africans were stripped of not only their liberty but also their religions when they were brought to America, in what one historian called "a spiritual holocaust."

* After the Civil War, the United States government banned many Native American spiritual practices while coercing indigenous children to convert to Christianity.

* Before and during World War II, Jehovah's Witnesses were imprisoned, beaten, and even castrated for refusing, as a matter of conscience, to salute the American flag.

Yet today we enjoy such robust religious freedom that this litany of persecutions is horrifying. Proof of how far we have come was on display in 2016 when the United States Supreme Court began its session by seating six Catholics and three Jews as justices. Men and women who would not have been allowed to hold office in early America would pass judgment on paramount questions of state, including religious liberty. …

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