Laws, Rights, and Liberties Related to Religion in Early America

Laws, Rights, and Liberties Related to Religion in Early America

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When they settled in North America, English colonists brought their religious beliefs with them. In most instances, this was accomplished not only as a matter of social or cultural transmission, but by acts of legislative authority. Only Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island and (possibly) New Jersey failed to establish a particular denomination at some point during the colonial period: in the other colonies, religious establishments were the norm, and generally seen as for the benefit of both church and state as institutions, as well as in accordance with the public good. The excerpts from the laws presented here have been selected for their ability to illustrate colonial attitudes about the relationship between religion and political life: note that all of them—even those which are more “tolerant” of religious variety—presume that religion is a necessary component of civil order.

Articles, Laws, and Orders, Divine, Politic, and Martial for the Colony in Virginia (c. 1610)

  1. First, since we owe our highest and supreme duty—our greatest, and all our allegiance—to Him, from whom all power and authority is derived, and flows as from the first, and only fountain; and [since], being especial soldiers impressed in this sacred cause, we must alone expect our success from Him—who is only the blesser of all good attempts, the King of Kings, the Commander of Commanders, and Lord of Hosts—I do strictly command and charge all Captains and Officers…to have a care that the Almighty God bee duly and daily served, and that they call upon their people to hear Sermons, as that also they diligently frequent Morning and Evening prayer themselves by their own exemplar and daily life, and duties herein, encouraging others thereunto, and that such, who shall often and willfully absent themselves, be duly punished according to the martial law in that case provided.
  2. That no man speak impiously or maliciously, against the holy and blessed Trinity, or any of the three persons, that is to say, against God the Father, God the Son, and God the holy Ghost, or against the known Articles of the Christian faith, upon pain of death.…
  3. No man shall speak any word, or do any act, which may tend to the derision, or despising of God’s holy word upon pain of death: Nor shall any man unworthily demean himself unto any Preacher, or Minister of the same, but generally hold them in all reverent regard, and dutiful entreaty, otherwise he the offender shall openly be whipt three times, and ask public forgiveness in the assembly of the congregation three several Sabbath Days.
  4. Every man and woman duly twice a day upon the first tolling of the Bell shall (upon the working days) repair unto the Church, to hear divine Service upon pain of losing his or her day’s allowance[1] for the first omission; for the second to be whipt; and for the third to be condemned to the Galleys[2] for six Months. Likewise no man or woman shall dare to violate or break the Sabbath by any gaming, public or private abroad, or at home, but duly sanctify and observe the same, both himself and his family, by preparing themselves at home with private prayer, that they may be the better fitted for the public, according to the commandments of God, and the orders of our Church, as also every man and woman shall repair in the morning to the divine service, and Sermons preached upon the Sabbath day, and in the afternoon to divine service, and Catechizing, upon pain for the first fault to lose their provision, and allowance for the whole week following, for the second to lose the said allowance, and also to be whipt, and for the third to suffer death.
  5. All Preachers or Ministers within this our Colony, or Colonies, shall in the Forts, where they are resident, after divine Service, duly preach every Sabbath day in the forenoon, and Catechize in the afternoon, and weekly say the divine service, twice every day, and preach every Wednesday; likewise every Minister where he is resident, within the same Fort, or Fortress, Townes or Towne, shall choose unto him, four of the most religious and better disposed as well to inform of the abuses and neglects of the people in their duties, and service to God, as also to the due reparation, and keeping of the Church handsome, and fitted with all reverent observances thereunto belonging: likewise every Minister shall keep a faithful and true Record, or Church Book of all Christenings, Marriages, and deaths of such our people, as shall happen within their Fort, or Fortresses, Townes or Towne at any time, upon the burthen of a neglectful conscience, and upon pain of losing their entertainment.3
  1. 1. In the early years, Jamestown was governed as a collective society in which individuals received their food and other provisions from a common store.
  2. 2. That is, to be imprisoned.
  3. 3. That is, their salary and living expenses.
  4. 4. So named after Robert Browne (1550-1633), an English clergyman who separated from the Church of England to found a Protestant sect organized on congregational principles.
  5. 5. A pejorative term applied to those whose theology puts such emphasis on justification by faith as to suggest that Christians are under no obligation to obey moral laws.
  6. 6. So named after Henry Barrowe (c. 1550–1593), a follower of Browne who maintained his separatist position even after Browne recanted. Barrowe was executed for his Separatist beliefs.
  7. 7. So named because of the simple, close-cropped hair style preferred by the Puritans, “Roundheads” were adherents of the Parliamentary party during and after the English Civil War (1641-51).
  8. 8. Separatists advocated separating from the Church of England rather than attempting to reform it.
  9. 9. The Apostle Paul, who wrote the letter to the Romans.
  10. 10. The Puritans wanted to “purify” the practice of the Church of England of all remnants of Catholicism; the only ceremonies they found acceptable were those specifically mentioned in the New Testament descriptions of the early church.
  11. 11. Minister John Cotton (1585-1652) was the principal author of this document, a version of which was later published in London and incorrectly assumed to have been adopted by the colony as a set of laws, when, as the preface makes clear, it was only intended to serve as a reference for the colony’s magistrates as they undertook the codification of their own legal system.
  12. 12. A reference to the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641) prepared by minister and layer Nathaniel Ward (1578-1652). This was essentially a list of legal rights and privileges belonging to the citizens of the colony, some of which had been enacted into positive law, and others of which were drawn from the English common law tradition.
  13. 13. A reference to fundamental law, or laws that cannot be abrogated. The authors of the preface are therefore tacitly asserting their ability to amend or alter the rights enumerated in the Body of Liberties.
  14. 14. “Nothing is invented and perfected at the same moment.” The phrase comes from the English jurist Edward Coke: see First Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England (London: Companie of Stationers, 1628), p. 230a.
  15. 15. The story of Korah is told in Numbers 16. Korah led a brief revolt against the authority of Moses and Aaron during the period when the Israelites, having escaped from Egypt, lived in the wilderness. Korah and his followers filled leading roles among the Israelites, making sacrifices in the tabernacle, but did not have authority to teach and lead the whole people, as Moses and Aaron did. After they asked for this authority, Moses publicly reproved them, and God punished them, miraculously opening a rift in the ground that swallowed them up.
  16. 16. Paul
  17. 17. 1 Timothy 1:9-10.
  18. 18. Romans 13:1-5.
  19. 19. A reference to Christ, 1 Corinthians 15:45.
  20. 20. The words “want” and “suffer” here carry the older meanings of “lack” and “allow,” respectively.
  21. 21. An allusion to a saying of Jesus quoted in all the synoptic gospels: Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, and Luke 20:25. In each version of the story, Jesus resolves a dilemma posed by the Roman requirement that the Jews pay taxes to Caesar.