Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Puritan contradiction
Vail, CO Colorado
Puritans from the Massachusetts Bay Colony contradicted their ideals about liberty. Escaping Europe, where kings and queens outlawed personal liberty, Puritans denied freedom they found here to others.
Hefty President William Howard Taft leveled a heavy blow against the Puritans’ reputation as people who cherished freedom. In a 1909 address celebrating the 250th anniversary of Norwich, Conn., Taft condemned the Puritans for persecuting believers they judged heretical.
“We speak with great satisfaction of the fact that our ancestors- and I claim New England ancestry – came to this country in order to establish freedom of religion,” declared Taft. “Well, if you are going to be exact, they came to this country to establish freedom of their religion, and not the freedom of anybody else’s religion.”
Puritans demonized their enemies. They echoed a Psalmist who declared, “I do not sit with false men, nor do I consort with dissemblers. I hate the company of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked” (Psalm 26:4-5). Puritans equated “evildoers and wicked” with those who deviated from their dogma.
Punishing Quakers made sense to Puritans because they waited for an inner light to guide them. Quakers must reject such mystical nonsense, claimed Puritans. Didn’t God speak directly to believers through the Bible? Why forsake Scripture’s way for hazy inner direction the Quakers espoused?
Between 1659 and 1661 in Boston, Puritans hung four Quakers and banished others to the wilderness. Vestiges of this Puritan mentality to protect liberty by denying it to people of differing faiths still lurk in our culture. We pledge in principle belief in the separation of church and state, but with the bottom of our hearts some Americans reject it in practice. When Muslims planned to build an Islamic Center near the 9/11 national shrine in Manhattan, some Americans protested against it.
We don’t hang heretics anymore, but some reflecting a Puritan mentality want to deny others the right to worship where they desire.
Rankling those with Puritan suspicions of religious outsiders, Thomas Jefferson lauded tolerance in his book, “Notes on Virginia.” This virtue protects those who seem weird or threatening or different, allowing them to worship as they please. “It does me no injury,” wrote Jefferson, “for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Consequently, in the presidential election of 1800, Puritan-sounding critics ridiculed Jefferson for supporting religious freedom.
Correcting contemporary Puritans who battled plans to build an Islamic center a few blocks from Ground Zero, President Barack Obama this past August reminded our nation why we aren’t like 17th-century Boston Puritans. “This is America,” he reminded us in re-affirming the First Amendment. “And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.”
Thomas S. Kidd, in “God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution,” points to two unlikely comrades who formed a strong alliance to separate the things of God from the things of Washington, D.C. John Leland, a Baptist itinerant preacher saved souls; Jefferson rejected such aggressive Christianity. Leland preached Christ as his savior; Jefferson identified Jesus as a moral reformer. Leland believed in Christ’s miracles; Jefferson dismissed them as superstition.
Yet, Reveran Leland, an ardent Baptist, and President Jefferson formed a union to protect liberty in the U.S. These theological rivals warned that when church and state become cozy, both are corrupted. “They shared the view,” writes Kidd, “that the state should assure religious liberty for all its citizens. … Jefferson the skeptical deist and Leland the fervent evangelical both believed that government should afford liberty of conscience to its citizens and should not privilege one Christian denomination over another.”
Show gratitude this Thanksgiving Day that Puritans didn’t ultimately win against Quakers. Religion still occupies a power place in public discourse, not to deny freedom, but to enhance it among people whose religious convictions differ. Such tolerance expands rather than crimps liberty in a land of the free who practice and protect it.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, (www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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