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1883 & 1968 Rosalea's Patterson House Hotel

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C. E. “Bud” Brann

Few if any issues in America today arouse more passion than the issue of the separation of church and state. I attended a meeting today in which someone stated that nothing in the constitution or any founding documents mentions the separation of church and state, which is true. The speaker went on to say, also correctly, the term; “A wall of separation between church and state” was a phrase first used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist church. While both sides sometimes use this statement to justify their personal belief, seldom do either mention what led Jefferson to write such a letter.

To understand we need to go all the way back to the pilgrims and other early colonists. Most people are aware that these colonists came to the new world to be able to practice their religions freely. Governments in their former home were church related and in conjunction with the churches persecuted people who did not practice the government accepted religion.

It would be nice to say that their experience with persecution by such government religion led them to adopt a strong policy of separation between church and state, not wanting to have happen in the new world what happened to them in the old world. Alas, such was not the case. Rather they determined to be the persecutors instead of the persecuted. The original 13 colonies were organized loosely into three groups by location. The New England colonists were mostly Puritans, very strict and very willing to persecute non-believers. The Middle colonists were a mixture of religions, including Quakers, Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, and others. The Southern colonists had a mixture of religions as well, and included Baptists and Anglicans.

The strictest, as one might expect, were the Puritans and they set about with fervor to persecute all those who did not believe as they did.

Examples are found in the web at:

I list a few below:

In November 1637, Anne Hutchinson held religious meetings in her home in Boston, Massachusetts, in which she showed by Scripture that Christian experience is based on faith and not merely mechanical works. As a result of these meetings, although a mother of fourteen children and expecting another, she was tried for heresy by the court of Boston in November of that year and evicted from the colony.

The 1644 act of the General Court, ordered banishment for those opposed to infant baptism. Because of this, Baptists, who believe in immersion at the age of accountability, had to flee. A Mr. Painter was publicly whipped for refusing to let the authorities sprinkle his child into the established faith of the majority. Obadiah Holmes, a minister, after baptizing a man was beaten so unmercifully that many feared for his welfare.

Another individual, found guilty of having religious views differing from the majority was sentenced to death. Many of the people had reservations about hanging him as they heard his final dramatic plea for mercy from the scaffold. But Cotton Mather, a well-known religious leader, of the day, assured them that “justice” was being served. The noose took the life of George Burroughs on August 19, 1692. (Author’s note: Do you see any difference between that and what has happened in Afghanistan recently?)

Then there was William Penn. He decided to flee the tyranny of religious laws in England by heading to the New World with a group of fellow Christians. In 1682 Cotton Mather learned that his ship was coming. In a letter to John Higginson, Mather said that this ship carrying “100 or more of the heretics and malignants called Quakers, with W. Penn, who is the chief scamp at the head of them” was headed in the direction of the colonies. Mather then confided in him a cunning plot decided on by the General Court. The brig Porpoise was to way-lay Penn’s ship, the Welcome, near Cape Cod and sell the “whole lot to Barbados, where slaves fetch good prices in rum and sugar, and we shall not only do the Lord great good by punishing the wicked, but we shall make great good for His minister and people.” (Shades of Fred Phelps.)

Apparently William Penn managed to elude the Porpoise, but other Quakers, such as Mary Dyer, met death in Boston by hanging because their religious beliefs were different. More than an idle threat, this penalty was codified by a statute which explained that the “cursed sect of the Quakers” were to be “sentenced to banishment upon pain of death.”

Clearly the early colonists did not believe in the separation of church and state. Equally clearly the return to the very actions the colonists first came to these shores to avoid became a concern to thinking men and women including our founding fathers less than a century later.

This matter was such a concern to them, so important to them, that the very first amendment to the Constitution prohibited a government establishment of religion and prevented the government from interfering in a person’s right to the free exercise of religion. Fundamentalists who deny a wall, either ignore history or don’t care as they strive to turn America back to 17th century persecution. Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist church was in response to a complaint from members of that church about persecution from the predominant religion.

Fundamentalists are correct about one thing; there is little written in early law regarding religions and government. Anyone who has studied history, not distorted it, knows this is because the founding fathers clearly thought the First Amendment to the constitution settled the matter. In fact, the only legal document known to discuss government and religion is the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary. Article 11 of that treaty states:

“As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,...”.For the complete treaty look up “The Treaty of Tripoli” in the library or a web site.

Fundamentalists also insist that our founding fathers showed a great faith in God, and they would have us believe that this God was the God of the Judeo/Christian belief. The strange thing here is that the very argument they use to promote their view in fact works against them. They point to the Declaration of Independence and its use of words such as “Creator”, “Supreme Judge” and “Nature’s God”. They don’t seem to notice to what lengths the founders went to avoid the word “God”. The only use of the word “God” is in conjunction with “Nature”. In fact, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, were all deists. “Natures God” was a Deist phrase. Deist belief, in a nutshell, was that there must have been a God who created the universe, (this does put them a bit on the side of today’s creationists), but as they saw no sign of God’s actions in the world since the creation, they believed God was no longer involved. In short, they did not believe in the Judeo/Christian concept of God. Almost all the best known founding fathers admitted to being Deists. George Washington never commented on the matter, but the Minister of the church Washington occasionally attended with his wife, Dr. Abercrombie, when queried about Washington’s religion some time after Washington’s death replied, “Sir, Washington was a Deist!”

Now, over two hundred years later, we are witness to the sad, sordid spectacle of today’s fundamentalist religionists trying to undo the good works of our founding fathers and set us back hundreds of years to the days of religious persecution and force. What’s next, public hanging of witches, burning at the stake, banishment?

Over two hundred years of experience and scientific advances, yet these people are far more ignorant than our founding fathers. I’ll stick with Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, not Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Fred Phelps. Worship as you want and allow others to do the same.

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