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 welcome melting pot in which everyone was free to practice his or her faith.
Unfortunately, this isn’t true. The arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early 1600s was indeed a response to persecution that these religious dissenters had experienced in England. But the Puritan fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not tolerate opposing religious views. Their colony was a dictatorship that allowed no dissent, religious or political.
We remember from school that the Pilgrims came here to escape persecution and practice their beliefs freely. But just because they came here to practice their beliefs, doesn’t mean that they believed others had the same right.
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.
It was the desire for liberty of conscience that inspired the Pilgrims to brave the perils of the long journey across the sea, to endure the hardships and dangers of the wilderness, and with God's blessing to lay, on the shores of America, the foundation of a mighty nation.
Honest and God-fearing as they were, the Pilgrims did not comprehend the great 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. After graduating from Cambridge, Williams became the chaplain to a wealthy Puritan family. 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 beliefs that people should be free to follow their 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. When the sheriff came to pick him up, he discovered that Williams had slipped away three days before during a blizzard. He walked through the deep snow of a hard winter the 105 miles from Salem to the head of Narragansett Bay where the local Indians offered him shelter and took him to the winter camp of their chief sachem, Massasoit, where he resided for 3 and a half months.
In the spring of 1636, Williams and some 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," and it soon attracted quite a collection of dissenters and otherwise-minded individuals.
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." He would write that he saw no warrant in the New Testament to use the sword to promote religious belief. He believed that the moral principles in the Scriptures ought to inform the civil magistrates, but he observed that well-ordered, just, and civil governments existed where Christianity was not present. All governments had to maintain civil order and justice, but none had a warrant to promote any religion.
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 our feelings on Religious Liberty like those of Roger Williams, or are they more like the Puritans?
Liberty of conscience is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ. God is love. John writes in 1 John 4:8-11, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. Here is how God showed his love among us. He sent his one and only Son into the world. He sent him so we could receive life through him. Here is what love is. It is not that we loved God. It is that he loved us and sent his Son to give his life to pay for our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us this much, we should also love one another.
The Bible teaches that we are called to liberty. Along with this call for liberty, the Bible stresses loving others. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God loved us while we were still sinners, and he asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He doesn’t ask us what our neighbors believe.
In Luke 6:27 Jesus takes it even further. “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
We are to love one another. We are to love our neighbors. We are to love our enemies. Who else is left? If God loved us so much that he gave us liberty, we should love others – even our enemies – enough to give them liberty.
I think that it is important to realize that allowing someone the liberty to think and live as they want is not the same as condoning their actions. Whether or not I agree with their point of view has nothing to do with my willingness to grant them the right to have that point of view.
I want to revisit the question; Are our feelings on religious liberty like those of Roger Williams, or are they more like the Puritans? The Puritans 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 I believe in religious liberty for people even if I disagree with them? 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 I believe in Religious Liberty for them?
If we believe in religious liberty for all, we 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.”