When I was in school I learned that the Pilgrims came to America aboard the Mayflower in search of religious freedom in 1620. The Puritans soon followed, for the same reason. Ever since the Pilgrims arrived millions from around the world have done the same, coming to an America where they found a place where everyone was free to practice his or her own faith.
Unfortunately this isn't true. The arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early 1600's was a response to persecution they had experienced in England; But the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not tolerate opposing religious views. Their colony was a dictatorship that allowed no dissent, religious or political.
Ministers like John Cotton preached that it was wrong to practice any religion other than Puritanism. Those who did would be helping the devil. They believed they followed the only true religion so everyone should be forced to worship as they did.
The Puritans did not understand the principle of religious liberty. The freedom which they sacrificed so much to secure for themselves, they were not equally ready to grant to others.
True religious freedom in America started with the vision of one man, Roger Williams. He was a trained minister in England and took holy orders in the Church of England. Because of his Puritan sympathies he had no chance of a job in the Anglican Church. In 1631 he traveled to the New World to be with other Puritans. In Massachusetts he was at odds with the authorities because of his belief that people should be free to follow their own convictions in religious matters.
In October 1635 he was tried by the General Court and convicted of sedition and heresy. He was then ordered to be banished. In the spring of 1636 Williams and a number of his followers from Salem began a settlement. He called it "Providence" because he felt that God's Providence had brought him there. He said that his settlement was to be a haven for those "distressed of conscience”.
Roger Williams believed that any effort by the state to dictate religion or promote any particular religious idea or practice was forced worship. He colorfully declared that, "Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God”.
Most of Williams's contemporaries and critics regarded his ideas as a prescription for chaos and anarchy. The vast majority believed that each nation must have its national church, and that dissenters must be made to conform. Rhode Island was so threatening to its neighbors that they tried for the next hundred years to extinguish the "lively experiment" in religious freedom that began in 1636.
Are your feelings on religious liberty like those of Roger Williams, or are they more like the Puritans? The Puritans definitely believed in religious liberty. They just didn't believe in it for others. If you haven’t thought much about religious liberty – and we seldom do if our liberties aren't being taken from us – spend some time today thinking about it.
Do you really believe in religious liberty for those whom you disagree with? What about other Christian denominations with different practices? What about the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Hindu or the Wiccan. What about the agnostic or the atheist. Do you believe in religious liberty for them?
If you do believe in religious liberty for all, you will not make disparaging or hateful remarks about anyone. John Wesley said, “Condemn no man for not thinking as you think. Let everyone enjoy the full and free liberty of thinking for himself. Let every man use his own judgment, since every man must give an account of himself to God”.
It is a good thing to do what we can to stand up to those governments that are trampling on the liberties of Christians around the world, but will we be as vocal when the liberties of others religions are taken from them. If we truly believe in religious liberty we must be advocates for anyone whose liberties are threatened.
In the end it is all about the God we serve. The God I serve never forces the will or conscience. He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 2 Peter 3:9 says , “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is long-suffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance”.
God wants all to come to repentance, but he only wants the willing. He will not force us to come to him. Free will to obey or disobey, love or hate, submit or rebel, is not only biblical but essential to man's relationship to God. He wants us to love, obey, serve, and worship Him and to do so by choice: "Choose you this day whom ye will serve”, Joshua 24:15. God isn't glorified in any obedience, worship, or love that doesn't come willingly from the heart.
If God so freely gives liberty – even to do what is wrong – we should be willing to give religious liberty to all.