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Religious Empires


The Colonial Period

European Colonists who came to America were not intent upon building a "New", or different kind, of "World". They came to bring to life in a new setting those things they believed in and wanted for themselves most deeply from the "Old World."

The Colonists did not arrive in America innocent of the sins of the "Old World." They were products of religious, social, economic, and historical systems and institutions of Europe that had oppressed and exploited them and their kind for centuries. Their intent was to establish religious, social, and economic systems and institutions in a new setting with themselves in control.

They were marginally successful. The Crown and Parliament in England continued to maintain substantial controls in all the colonies. But the colonists were able to create religious institutions based largely on their own ideas and beliefs, although their religious institutions did not differ substantially in basic organizational form from what they left. The principal difference was that the leaders among the colonists controlled the power structure within each colony, at least until the Crown began appointing governors and other colonial officials in some of the colonies. All of them, except Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, began with formal church organizations, including a union of some kind with the civil government, and legal instruments designed to insure uniformity in faith and practice among members. Citizens were repeatedly punished by civil authorities for violations of religious laws; not much different from the way things were back in the old country.

The colonists began with the basic assumption of formal, legally established, church organizations. Their basic understanding of practicing christianity required membership in and submission to the institutional church. These views were fundamental in almost, but not quite, all the colonies. The intolerance of the Massachusetts Bay government in all matters of belief and conduct provoked opposition. Deportations for religious offenses were numerous, and harsh punishments were laid upon those who failed by even the slightest margin to conform to the strict Puritan standards. Roger Williams and Ann Hutchinson were among those driven out because of their religious views. Roger Williams was a godly man but an independent thinker. Soon after his arrival from England in 1631 he startled Massachusetts authorities by declaring that the state had no right to punish an individual for his personal habits and opinions. He said that the state should punish any man who wronged his fellowman; but if a man merely held uncommon religious views and departed from the "established" religious practices, his behavior was of no concern to the state. Revolutionary thinking for the time. Application of his views would have destroyed the Puritan experiment.

Williams, Hutchinson, and many others were forced out of their communities because they believed that people, all people, are responsible to God alone for the conduct of their religious lives, not to any institution devised by men, whether civil or religious.

Those circumstances seem to have striking similarities to our current situation. Those few who recognized that institutional religious authority was not from God were branded trouble-makers and heretics. The very idea of men serving God acceptably without any formal, authority-invested, organization controlling the religious lives of the members of the religious community was unthinkable. That concept is still unthinkable to a huge majority of religious people today. Membership in, and submission to, the institutional church today is believed to be essential to salvation. But the idea of institutionless christian lives is not new, not by any means.

Roger Williams escaped from Massachusetts and with the help of a few followers began the settlement of Narragansett Bay that eventually became Providence, Rhode Island. Three other groups of dissenters from Massachusetts settled in what became Rhode Island also. Individual religious freedom characterized Rhode Island, so no "established church" ever took hold in the colony.

William Penn was by birth and training associated with nobles and members of the Royal family who were often involved in financing colonial projects. His father, Sir William, was a high ranking officer in the British Navy. The young Penn became a member of the Society of Friends, as the Quakers called themselves, while a student at Oxford. The Quakers rejected all the sacraments, refused to pay tithes toward the support of the established church, denounced war, refused to do military service, and in other ways put themselves outside the realm of seventeenth-century respectability. Persecution was inevitable. Distressed as he was with his son's religious convictions the elder Penn bequeathed to his son an estate which included a debt owed by the King. The young Penn wanted to found a Quaker commonwealth in America as a retreat for the oppressed members of his faith. The King agreed to grant full proprietary rights to the land which became Pennsylvania in exchange for cancellation of the debt. The colony was governed by a legislature and executive officers elected by the free men of the colony. Although Penn was a devout Quaker he did not intend to limit the privileges of colonists who were not Quakers. Full freedom of worship was guaranteed for such law-abiding citizens as "acknowledged one Almighty and Eternal God to be the Creator, Upholder, and Ruler of the World." The freedom to worship as they choose, or not worship at all, was not found in practice. Neither Jews nor Catholics were accorded to full freedom to worship in their own way as were Protestants. Public office was denied to Catholics, Jews, and "unbelievers." But, with all of this, the Quaker colony was looked upon by many oppressed sects in Europe as an ideal retreat.

Other colonies said that full religious freedom was guaranteed but such freedom was not found in practice. With the exception of Rhode Island, the idea does not seem to have occurred to them that organizing, institutionalizing, incorporating religious faith and practice could have been the root of the religious problems that they thought they were escaping when they up-rooted their lives and came to America. They did not escape. They brought with them the root of the problem and planted it in the "New World." The difference was that those who had been persecuted, who had been in conflict with the established religious institutions, were in substantial control of the newly established institutions. The same forms of religious institutions that had driven so many to abandon their homes for a life of danger and hardship in a wilderness eventually came to dominate the lives of religious people in America. The Corporate, Institutional Church dominates the religious lives of Americans in 1989. It has been that way from the beginning.

I John 1:7 says, "if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin!".

Such a simple verse, so it seems. If I walk in the light; if I live my life, day by day, according to the light of His word, I have, not may have, can have, will at some future time have, but have, now! fellowship with him and with all others who live their lives governed by the same principles. I have fellowship with him and with all others who walk in that light, not all others who happen to agree with my views; not all others who call themselves by the name chosen by men to identify the members of some corporate religious institution. If I walk in the light, I have fellowship with him and with all others who walk in the light. Fortunately, John did not include a requirement for me to identify the "others." His requirement begins and ends with my walking in the light. All else will follow. My fellowship with all others who walk in the light does not result from negotiating any kind of agreement with others to share religious convictions. If I walk in the light, my fellowship with all others who walk in the light will not depend on my depositing a membership commitment in a "local church" whose members may share substantially the faith that I hold. My walking in the light of his word comes first. If I am able to manage that, I will have found fellowship with him. If I am able to manage that, then I have fellowship with all others who have managed to find fellowship with him through their walking in the light. We have fellowship, spiritual fellowship, with each other, not because we "fellowship" each other in the sense of conferring approval, recognition, or joint membership upon each other in some institutional church, but because, as we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus washes away our sins.

It is not now, and never has been, our prerogative, much less our responsibility, to make pronouncements as to who is and who is not in a state of fellowship with our Lord Jesus. "Who art thou that judgeth the servant of another? To his own lord he standeth or falleth," wrote Paul. I am no man's spiritual master and no man is answerable to me. I may take it upon myself to make such judgements and announce my conclusions to the "brotherhood," but such actions are nothing more than self-appointed "Lords over God's heritage" issuing arrogant and empty delusions. But this has never stopped men from usurping positions of authority not conferred by God upon any of us, no matter what titles or offices men may confer upon each other.

Many, if not most, of the colonists believed that they stood for religious freedom. Their problem, and ours, is in understanding what "freedom" means. John Cotton, answering Roger Williams, wrote:

"It is not right to persecute any for conscience' sake rightly informed; for in persecuting such Christ Himself is persecuted in them...For an erroneous and blind conscience it is not lawful to persecute any, till after admonition once or twice...The word of God in such things is so clear, that he cannot but be convinced in conscience of the dangerous error of his way, after once or twice admonition wisely and faithfully dispensed...If such a man, after such admonition, shall still persist in the error of his way and be punished, he is not persecuted for cause of conscience, but for sinning against his own conscience."

That argument has the clear ring of current "orthodox" Church of Christ Church thought. Brethren who are in step with current "party line" thought are in good standing. Brethren who are found to be out of step with current "rightly informed" positions are admonished to "clarify" their positions. Those who are "true seekers of truth" cannot but be convinced of the danger of their error since the word of God is so clear on the position. Those who fail to respond positively, who persist in holding "unorthodox" positions are consigned to "brethren-in-error" status by the inquisitors of orthodoxy. In some ways we have not made much progress.

Three Systems

Massachusetts began as a theocratic state. Its chief interest was in the Church; the Puritans intended that their civil, social, economic, and religious lives should be regulated around purely religious motives.

Virginia insisted on religious conformity, not because the Church dominated all aspects of their lives, but because the Church was a subject member of the civil state and submitting to the leadership of the Church in religious matters was a mark of good citizenship. Rhode Island denied the purposes and premises of both and placed a gulf between the State and the Church. Individual conscience and voluntary association was the basis of any citizen concern or action regarding the Church or any religious matters.

All the New England colonies fall into the pattern established by Massachusetts. Virginia and the two Carolinas, in which the Church of England was established at their foundation, continued the Church State until the Revolution. Each at times witnessed strong and bitter opposition to all forms of dissent. New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Georgia experienced changes in official attitude toward the Church during the colonial period. Maryland began with religious freedom under Roman Catholic civil administration, but was soon afterward dragooned into establishing the Church of England. In New York and New Jersey English officials tried by force to impose the Church of England upon Dutch Reformed colonists, unsuccessfully. Georgia began with freedom of worship, but when the King cancelled Georgia's charter the Church of England was established by royal edict. A fourth group, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Delaware never had a true union of Church and State. Delaware was for so long a part of Pennsylvania that its religious history can hardly be separated.

As the decades passed, the population in all the colonies expanded, colonists began the great westward movement, political and economic developments strained relations between the colonies and England, state control of the people's religious lives weakened as the colonies drew closer together in growing common interests. No clear movement developed for a separation of church and state but the general conditions within all the colonies of multi-religious views, practical difficulties in administering state controlled churches among far-flung communities, gradually brought change. As confrontation with England worked toward open revolt, all the colonies were substantially ready for the adoption of measures that would sever the Church from the State completely. Even in Massachusetts where the beautiful dream of a state which should be as a City of God on earth, an ideal so much loved and held so tenaciously by the early Puritans, had vanished out of mind more than a hundred years before the war for independence. The idea of the true nature of God's Church on earth, the impossibility of carnal nations ruling over the spiritual kingdom of God, was powerfully advanced.

Jonathan Edwards

Edwards lifted the view of the Church, the eternal City of God, divinely founded and nourished by divine grace; a spiritual kingdom over which no human authority could be imposed. The Church is in an entirely different sphere. It is not of this world and cannot be subject to the kingdoms of this world. It is the holy household of the saints, where faith, love, and a spiritual mind drawing its reason for being and reason for living from the word of God is nurtured by the Holy Spirit and is characteristic of all its members. A spiritual community such as this under the control of a civil state becomes an absurdity.

Edwards did not attack state or church. His influence was from the kind of man he was and the gospel he preached. Church historians say that other men, such as Luther, Knox, Calvin, and others who triggered great change in human affairs, had a clear view of what they wanted to accomplish. But "Edwards, far beyond all men of his time, smote the staggering blow which made ecclesiastical establishments impossible in America" writes Allen in Life of Edwards. But there is no evidence at all that this is what Edwards intended. But his life and his work moved religious freedom in America a giant step forward.

The Time And Place

It is more than just likely that the "Restoration Movement" could have occurred only in America and for the most part during the first half of the nineteenth century. At no other time in history have the forces, circumstances, and kind of people, combined to produce a setting so fertile for the kind of religious renewal as this one. Pioneers are a breed apart. The term "rugged individualist" is most appropriate. It is notable that the "movement" was almost always confined to the western edge of the country, where survival depended on a constant struggle against a hostile environment. Life was never easy, comfortable, or entirely secure. The "movement'' was not notable along the eastern seaboard where social, cultural, political, and religious institutions were well established. The western frontier provided circumstances requiring, demanding, self-reliance and independent judgement. These people could not rely on their civil government to maintain civil peace and order as could citizens in Philadelphia or Boston. They could not rely on an established, orderly economic system. They had to provide for themselves or perish. But these people chose to be where they were. They knew the risks, and they took them, knowing what they were doing. These kinds of people are not known for their willing conformity to patterns of thought and behavior characteristic of people living in old, established, and secure surroundings. That's what makes them pioneers. As we review the "Restoration Movement" it will become clear that there were several beginnings of "Reform" before any general union came about. The "Reform" movement, as all of the participants called it for many years, that gradually developed into the "Restoration Movement" did not begin at one time or one place, or for that matter, in America. But that will be our next article. (Editor's Note: Protrepo may be addressed in care of The Examiner.