February 1, 2017
Freedom of Religion is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. One might argue that the First Amendment might be the most important amendment for in addition to freedom of religion it also guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of petition and the freedom of assembly.
Americans can feel proud of the guarantee of religious freedom. the roots of this freedom can be seen to derive from our colonial origins. The settlers of the Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania all came to America from a background of religious persecution. Freedom of religion was one of the primary motives for colonial settlement.
An important factor that should be added to the desire for freedom is the factor of distance. America like Brazil, Canada and Russia has a frontier. The frontier had a great effect on American national character and behavior. You don't like it here? Quite literally go west! In addition to decency and fairness and the desire for toleration the therapy of distance has been a component of religious freedom.
Roger Williams to taxes on all being used to support the ministry and he was also opposed to laws that mandated compulsory church attendance in Massachusetts Bay. It should also be noted that Williams thought that the Puritans had cheated the Indians in land deals and that they really had only two remedies: give the land back to the Indians or pay them a whole lot more! The solution to the problem of Williams was for him to settle in Rhode Island. When Anne Hutchinson told the Puritans that God spoke to her and that comment on the views of the learned Puritan clergy by a layperson like her was appropriate the solution to this uppity woman was for her to go Rhode Island. Quakers were able to settle in William Penn's Pennsylvania and Catholics given the tumult and violence of Catholic-Protestant relations in Britain would settle in Maryland. Religious toleration in Maryland had its conditions. Denial of the divinity of Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity was considered blasphemy punishable by death and/or the confiscation of land.
Another example of the therapy of distance is the Mormons. Founded by Joseph Smith in New York State, they moved to Ohio. Trouble with their neighbors caused them to leave Ohio and moved to Illinois. Troubles continued. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by an angry-mob. Finally, under Brigham Young the Mormons moved t the Utah Territory, "the domain of the serpent, the scorpion and drought."
The Methodist denomination grew in the United States because the Methodist circuit riders were willing to meet the religious needs of people in frontier areas. If you can't get to church, then the church will come to you.
We are a tolerant people. We value religious freedom. In years past people came to this country to exercise that freedom. But one must remember another factor in our toleration is distance. People could move away from people with whom they had religious differences. One did not have to listen to them or even look at them. Moreover, it was difficult to get one's hands on people to make them do and believe the right thing. Don't like it here? Go west.
Dr. Amos St. Germaine is a participant in the Journey Group that meets at the Orchards clubhouse each Wednesday at 1:30 pm.
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